One night the guy who paced around his hospital bed talking to himself all the time threw something like a conniption fit and when the Corporal went to grab him from behind to hold and restrain him the guy snapped his head back and smashed the Corporal in the nose. Didn’t break nothin’, but it bled like crazy and looked awful. Somebody finally got the Doc out of his bunk to come over and sedate the guy. They put him in one of the locked, isolated quarters for the severe cases; Doc promised the guy would sleep through the night and into most of the next day after the sedative he’d pumped into him. The Corporal finally got to go to the washroom and clean up. His T-shirt and dungarees were pretty much shot, but at least he got the blood off his face. Doc came in to see if he was ok, real look of concern behind his wire rim glasses. Doc was a congenial, laid-back sort of guy, slightly built, soft spoken and non-confrontational, with little to no prospect of ending up closer to the fighting, and he knew it. A tick too old and they didn’t put psychiatrists on the front line.
They’d both been there on Banika about six months. Pavuvu, where most of the Marines were shoved into makeshift quarters, was right next door. The Marines hated Pavuvu with a passion – hated the rats and the crabs and the mosquitos that inundated every inch of the place, not to mention the excruciating boredom. Some of them went out of their way to get a few weeks in hospital on Banika, where the structures were slightly more solid and the place considerably cleaner and where there were actual, honest to god female nurses. But most of the healthy Marines were gone now, off to storm a place called Peleliu, the securing of which was supposed to take three days.
It would actually take closer to six weeks of the most horrific fighting of the war, massive casualty counts that would flood back to Banika, and afterwards it would be mostly forgotten as it turned the battle had been largely unnecessary.
But nobody knew that yet as the Corporal walked the compound in the early morning light after his conversation with the Doc, still in his bloody clothes and still nursing his sore nose. He saw some of those nurses and, as always, saw some of the patients gaping at them from their wheelchairs or their crutches, heavy white dressings where legs or arms used to be, heads wrapped in white bandages like mummies, gaping sometimes with just one eye showing, the nurses clad in white, everything everywhere covered or painted white, the color of snow, cool and sterile over the hot Pacific patch of hell. He tried not to see them and focus on the sunrise; thought about his last shift and his conversation with the Doc.
The Corporal had assured the Doc he was indeed okay, then said to him, “You know, for me, little battles this is as bad as the war gets”.
That statement rattling around his head as the golden glow of the morning engulfed the world, he had an inkling that it might not actually turn out to be true. Indeed, like the Doc, he’d probably never see combat; one of those guys relegated to cleaning up afterwards. He wouldn’t go home with nightmarish visions of bodies disintegrating in combat. Instead he would go home with memories of human beings having been torn apart by bombs and bullets. Of the vacant looks of young men still trying to believe that pieces of them were gone. He would remember, he knew, the amputated souls, the men staring wide-eyed at the ceiling all night because their brains had been exploded, the men pacing around their beds talking to themselves. Worst of all, he would go home still whole. How could he ever relate to people who had not experienced this? How could he ever love a woman? How could he ever be a father to a naïve and trusting child? How long could he go without blotting it out with alcohol or something worse? Without hating, literally hating, anything and anyone untouched by it, or, even crueler, oblivious to it.
And that, he thought as the warm sunrise transitioned into an incinerating glare, would be the worst of it.
His best friend Emmet was the first person he knew killed by World War Two. He thought about Emmet as they went down the line, checking each other’s gear, so they could jump out of the airplane and get killed themselves, and the memories were vivid and sharp and hung before his eyes like a veil as he shuffled towards the doorway and the violent prop blast, and the thousand-foot drop to oblivion that waited for him.
He thought first how, what was about to happen to him, Emmet had been his motivation for joining up all along. He’d told his parents over the scratchy-sounding phone in the dim and strange smelling dormitory hallway that he was dropping out of Illinois State Normal to enlist. His mother bursting into tears was the first memory that came to mind, followed by his father promising that if he left college before graduating “I’ll kill you myself”, which was his strongest memory of that conversation. While he doubted - mostly doubted - his father would actually follow through, he did indeed wait until he was handed his diploma the next May. He’d broken up with his girlfriend Rebecca by then. She couldn’t condone his enlistment either, and he couldn’t countenance that.
“He did not die in the war,” she barked at him.
“He did die in the war,” he argued, “He died of a head wound.”
“He died of being an idiot!”
And then, “You’re upset because you just got back from his funeral.”
Which, indeed, he had. He and two buddies who also knew Emmet had driven three hours over the Illinois prairie to the small-town Emmet had grown up in. The grey sky and fields flat to the horizon were brown and hard with December cold and devoid of life or hope. They shivered from the cold wind whistling through the side windows that they’d cracked open to keep the windshield from fogging up. The prairie air had a particular smell that came back to him as he shuffled another step towards the airplane door. Then, loudly next to his left ear, the man behind him screamed, “Six okay!” And he knew his parachute was properly hooked up and tight. He checked the guy in front of him, a guy from Cleveland he remembered throwing up with after a particular training run. “Five ok!” he screamed in his left ear, as that guy was checking the guy in front of him before shouting, “Four okay!” Emmet’s funeral in the Methodist church had been very short. Nobody seemed to know what to say. Graveside service was even shorter because it was so cold. He remember thinking how Emmet had come from such a dreary, hopeless place, and was on the cusp of breaking free to an unlimited future before he was cut down. Then they were back in the car and driving back across the same prairie, back the way they came. That was where he resolved: I will enlist, and I will give Emmet’s death meaning.
Then he remembered his mother bursting into tears when he told her a few weeks later that he’d broken off he and Rebecca’s engaged-to-be-engaged arrangement. He didn’t tell her it was because Rebecca had been nagging him not to enlist, to take a job in a war factory her father was arranging, nor did he know, not yet, that the reason Rebecca was nagging him was because his mother had implored her to do so.
A millisecond after the light above the airplane door illuminated shockingly green, and another millisecond before the line of soldiers shifted from a shuffle to a race out the door, in his mind he saw Emmet die.
“This is great!” Emmet had beamed upon learning that a couple-plus thousand Americans had been burned, suffocated, drowned, or blown up as a process of being killed at Pearl Harbor. “We’re going to WAR!”
He’d asked Emmet, “How is this great?”
“We can get out of here!” Emmet fairly leaped. “We can leave this dump; we can stop these silly studies that only assure we will become just ordinary, and we can go off and do something with our lives! We can change the world, and we can fight like men! This is the moment our lives change!”
He sort of understood what Emmet meant, although later he would merely rationalize that he had.
“I’m going to take a quick bath,” Emmet was saying, pacing back and forth across their dorm room so fast he seemed to skid each time he turned back the other direction. “Get myself nice and clean, then go straight out to the enlistment office. I’m not even going to hesitate a second,” he said, and indeed fairly sprinted into the dormitory bathroom they shared.
He tried to focus on his algebra textbook, tests coming up soon, but couldn’t concentrate; Emmet’s enthusiasm, his certainty that the war would open a new, glorious path, affecting him.
The water running into the tub stopped; first Emmet cranking off the cold water, then the hot. There was a loud thump. He assumed Emmet had dropped something. Then there was silence. Ten minutes later, there was still silence. Something occurred to him. He went to the bathroom door and opened it.
Emmet had been so excited about going to war, he had hurried in the tub and slipped, and cracked his head against the faucet, fracturing his skull.
“Because of HIM,” Rebecca had screeched. “Sacrificing so idiocy has meaning!”
His glare back at her, unforgiving and unretractable, was his final memory before jumping through the door into a bottomless world of noise, explosions, fire, and bullets whizzing through the air.
The November storm caught the stout research vessel while still in the Bearing Sea and made it pay for the weeks of fair weather it had lucked into. It sent wind driven sheets of icy rain rifling into its every surface and record-breaking waves that slammed into the side and buried the bow each time it plowed into a new one. The crew huddled inside close to the survival gear which would likely do little good. Twice the captain ordered a pair of them to don safety lines and venture out to remove the ice from vital communications and radar equipment. The scientists stayed in their cabins holding on for dear life and, for the most part, throwing up, Dramamine or no Dramamine. All naiveté of the guest photographer from the National Geographic was exposed when he tried to continue photographing the event by hanging out a door. The storm first threw him into a bulkhead, then tried to sweep him overboard and would have succeeded but for the safety line one of the crew had made him attach at the last second. That same crew member saved his ass by pulling him back in even as he sacrificed both cameras around his neck, smashed as he floundered. He was soaked to the gills and shivering under three blankets back in his bunk and trying to hold on as the storm violently rolled bodies in all directions. He leaned over best he could and finally threw up onto the deck himself.
The slackening that began when the vessel rounded Unimak Island and entered the more sheltered Gulf of Alaska came on incrementally. The vessel steered towards its ultimate conclusion in Resurrection Bay as the storm began to rage past. The photographer still held tightly onto the sides of his bunk, head buried in his pillow and eyes squeezed tight. It took time before he realized the waves were no longer trying to swallow them. Even then he continued to lay there until his shivering subsided. He could hear people moving around the corridors by then; one of the crew even knocked on his door to see if he was okay. “Just waiting for my head to stop spinning,” he’d said. The ship’s doctor entered and diagnosed him with a mild concussion from his collision with the bulkhead, made him sit up and ordered him not to fall asleep. Two crewmen cleaned up the mess he’d regurgitated.
Hours, and the storm now clearly moving away as the vessel steamed to the northeast, hugging the coast where the waters were calmer. He retrieved his two smashed cameras – they would never capture another image, but it looked like their memory cards were OK. He had one camera left, albeit his least favorite. He tried to stand up; not bad, not bad. He managed a trip to the head; began to feel steadier. He attached his big telephoto to that last camera and moved slowly towards the deck.
“You dared stare into the abyss,” the captain said to him in something of a parental tone. “And God will not be photographed.” He couldn’t say anything to that. He thought about it now and understood not only how foolish he’d been but how he’d potentially endangered others, all for the pursuit of a photograph. The sea had become amazing calm, so he found a place to sit larboard and watch the Aleutian coast slide past.
The bear was fat from its summer-long salmon feast and prowled the shore for more to consume. It was just weeks now from its hibernation, though the photographer knew grizzlies on the coast might hibernate for as few as just two or three months each winter. He framed it with his telephoto as it watched them, as terrible and magnificent as the storm that had released them hours before. It seemed to pose against the wild landscape. The sun had peaked out as it fell in the westward sky and the snowcapped mountains in the distance shimmered. He captured image after image as the bear moved and the ship shifted position as it progressed northeast. New movement caught his eye, and his telephoto began following bald eagles as they stalked the coast, sometimes gliding just a few feet above the water before their big wings took them higher and they circled back, turning towards the ship, seeming to stare into his lens. As the sun slipped further into the open it bathed the world in a golden glow, a light from heaven itself. He’d clicked off dozens of shots and realized they were the best captures of the entire voyage, and all he’d had to do was sit there with his least capable camera.
The captain emerged from the bridge, examined the crew’s work recombobulating what the storm had wroth. Seemed pleased; also relived, like he had begun taking his first deep breaths in several hours. He moved next to the photographer, looking closely as if to reconfirm that he’d not actually been swept overboard. Remembering their earlier encounter the photographer said to him, “Wanna bet?”
He had opened a canvas in his mind many miles back, sheer luck he’d been pushed against the side of the railcar where the gaps between its wooden planks gave him a narrow view outside, albeit a freezing one. How many hours now? Six? Eight? Maybe not that long? Maybe even longer? Men packed standing up like frozen fish in a box, shoved in tight until only half of them could inhale at any one time, then the door slammed closed. And locked.
No escape but to ride the train along the Volga to wherever it was going.
He was just a timid 15-year-old taken from his father’s farm near Ural’sk, given a uniform (but no rifle) (or heavy coat) and drilled with thousands of other young men to run at something; essentially, to charge. Their training lasted no more than a week before the train came for them. He was not athletic. He was not strong. He enjoyed drawing, was often in trouble with his father for doing just that instead of his farm chores. His father chided his mother for “coddling” him. The train would go for a time, then stop for a bit. Then go a while more, then stop for a bit. He knew other young men were being loaded into other railcars. His own car stank from sweat and flatulence and piss and he could guess what else.
He drew, in his mind, as the train jerked along, profiles of the men around him. When that got boring he drew landscapes or the occasional dilapidated buildings he could see between the planks. He was glad for the fresh air, but shivered from the cold, cold bite of it. One side of him was frozen as the other sweated against the men next to him. He would close his eyes and let his mental palette create his newest art. When it was finished, he’d file it and peer again between the planks for his next subject. Over and over and over.
And he saw her when the train stopped again. No older than he, the loveliest bronze hair leaking out from under her scarf. Huge blue eyes and red lips. She was there with an older woman and a younger boy; who knew why. She looked hungry, and yet peaceful, contented even. Like an angel. She looked over his railcar and he wondered if she could see him gaping at her. It lasted no more than thirty, maybe forty-five seconds before the train shook forward again, gradually gaining speed.
He closed his eyes and this time, this time he created a different art. This time, he created a life. He saw himself emerge from the railcar and walk towards her. She smiled, so glad to see him. They took each other’s hands and gazed so warmly at each other. Page after page rolled off in his mind. He saw them walk together towards a neat and tidy cottage surrounded by wildflowers on a summer day. He worked land and tended goats and she mended his clothes and caressed him each night. They never argued. They had no worries. They grew more deeply enamored with each other with every passing moment, and more affectionate. He could feel her warm face on his and felt them surround each other like blankets tangled together. They lived, oh goodness they lived in a most glorious world with the sun always shining warmly and bountiful harvests and no winter and undying love for each other. Page after page after page of the most wonderful colors drew themselves in his mind. An entire portfolio of life.
Then he heard thunder, not far in the distance, and the train lurched several times before stopping, and the door of the railcar was thrown open, and the freezing air was like ice water dousing his creation. And he emerged in Stalingrad.
We’re walking in a group, about 25 of us, in orderly columns. We’re supposed to be marching, but none of us have the strength for that anymore, and as far as that goes our columns are none too neat as we shuffle along in our cardboard shoes or bare feet. It seems they’re anxiously organizing more of these little “marches” of late, as though they’re hurrying to finish something and can’t possibly get it done. As though there’s someplace else they’d like to be getting too. As though none of us want to be here, are just forced to be.
What others are able watch our progress are slumped against the sides of the huts or sitting on the ground, offering what sincerities they can. There; I see my friend, sallow-eyed and somber, but with such a look of love in his eyes it seems to embrace me. He is holding the gift I have given him, scrawled onto what used the be a piece of the cardboard sole of my right shoe (I’m still wearing the left one) no more than an irregular 20 square centimeters. He had been in such despair over his wife, pulled from his grasp and supposedly sent on to the next camp so many months ago. I asked him to describe her to me in detail; not just her appearance but her spirit. So many conversations over the months until I could close my eyes and see her clearly in my mind. She became a living being, as familiar to me as the back of my hand. And then I took what was left of my shoe and used it as a canvas. I’d sharpened a small piece of char I’d found into something like a point. As I scrunched close to the cardboard it was like I was back in my studio, standing in front of the big bay window bathed in northern light, creating a new portrait, self-absorbed, the rest of the world blocked from existence. Slowly, because my hands tremble so now, I created life on my tiny canvas. I brought my friend’s wife from a place of dark dread to a brilliant vision he could hold in his hands. His eyes lit up and he sunk back as he beheld the image, overcome by the emotion flooding over him. “It is her”, he gasps in a whisper, “Her very essence!” and just as I had felt the last of my strength flowing into the portrait I can see it returning to my friend like a wave of sunlight. “How did you know?” he gapped wide eyed, unable to look away from the image. “I knew”, I told him. “I am an artist.”
We move past, we weather-beaten pajama-wearing scarecrows, and I am so happy as I think of my friend. So thrilled! I lift my head higher and I do lapse into something resembling a march. I know, no matter what happens, my friend will persevere. My friend will have the power to side-step these little walks and carry on because I have shown him ‘possibility’; I have reignited ‘hope’. Decades from now he will still carry the vision with him. And in an instant I realize, I have won! I have beaten them all, despite everything! I have emerged on the highest plane of humanity! And I am beaming like a madman as they use the muzzles of their rifles to direct us into the showers.
Small Literature is also sometimes called micro-stories or short-short-stories. Nothing seems to appeal to my writing instincts as well as this format, and I've written everything from journalism to full novels. I set a goal of 1,000 words, in the space of which I will create character, setting, plot, and resolution; don't always make it, sometimes it takes a few hundred more words, but most of the time I get there.