The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a time, no-one spoke. We had witnessed something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a name for it.
No-one cares how wars start. Once it gets going – men and ships and chariots and flashingcrashing bronze swords – no-one gives a damn. They say I caused this one, me and my insatiable beauty, my smile that has men flinging themselves at my feet ready to die for me, but that’s not how it was. When will they ever listen?
This one started with a pair of dark eyes, solemn and sweet, looking into mine as my husband belched away in the corner. It started when we met under the stars and he touched my cheek and didn’t say a thing about my perfect hair and my perfect skin and my perfect face. It started when he walked away, because what else could I do but follow?
Because she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story, it was a love story.
I N T E R L U D E
They have seen them coming, somehow. The signs are all there, all right, lining up like the mountains to the north, pointed, ugly heads rearing towards the sky.
All it takes is whispers. But he can’t. He can’t do what they want. But this is the only way.
Áedh stands at the top of the ridge, throwing stones into the sea. It’s as smooth and calm as a copper mirror, as the land before a battle, soft grass and trees and thorns that will bend under the weight of the war. The druids say it won’t be long now, that the white Roman sails will be appearing from distant Gaul within the week like the wings of seabirds spread out to catch the wind. The others are huddled around, waiting and hoping and praying that it won’t come true, cowards, all of them. A week is far too long. He wants to watch his sword sink into Roman flesh and watch their blood spurt into the grass and stab their heads outside his fort high up in the hills of the southwest for the carrion eaters.
It’ll teach the scum what will happen if they come a-conquering Britannia again.
I N T E R L U D E.
“You cannot be serious.” His face is heavy with disbelief.
The old druid sighs and raises his hands, palms to the sky. “Andraste demands it, if you wish for victory against the Romans.”
“How…what do I do?”
A sly look sneaks through the druid’s eyes and he presses his lips together. “Tell your wife that you have found a suitable match for the girl. She’s fifteen summers. It’s high time she was married.”
“And who would you suggest, old man?”
“Áedh, sire. He’s strong, famous.”
“And would die before being involved in such a thing.”
“Well, you tell him too, that he must marry her. She is a princess, after all.”
“He is royal already, you know that. Half-immortal, if the rumours are to be believed. He’ll break off with us.”
“No, he won’t. The Romans are too strong to face on his own.”
“I suppose. I still don’t like this. She’s my own flesh and blood.”
“Death to the whole of your tribe, to the whole of Britannia, even, or your daughter?” The druid pats his hand and sighs again, breathing out the bitter truth from his nostrils. “Your choice, sire.”
She is lovely and fragile and small, and he doesn’t quite know what to say to her as she walks through the crowd of men. Wife. Wife. Marriage. He’s still forming the possibilities over and over in his head when she trips on the edge of her long blue robe. And then he sees the hands, on her waist, dragging her backwards. The flash of the knife. He starts forwards, shock like ash in his mouth, but it’s too late.
In his dreams, he always sees this; her mouth open in surprise. The high king looking away. And her eyes fixed on him accusingly as her blood splatters the slate like rain.
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
I’m the one who finds her, cowering behind a pillar and shivering. Her black hair falls over her face and when I reach out to take her wrist, she lashes out with nails as sharp as swords and screams, a thin, high-pitched thing that scrapes at my ears. It’s not much of a fight. I’m bigger than her, and soon, she’s hanging limply and half unconscious in my arms. I carry her away and let the other men carry on their bloody work.
I N T E R L U D E
I was a child when my father dedicated me to Vishnu and sent me to the beautiful temple high on the mountain. I still feel like that little girl, sometimes, with her eyes full of stars and her mouth full of dreams. We were safe there, tucked away in the jungle, worshipping the gods peacefully.
Of course, peace always has to come to an end.
“Why are you at war with us?” she asks, as though she’s not sitting bound to my tent-pole with bruises clustering underneath her skin and a cut along the edge of her pretty face. “What have we ever done to you?”
I shrug, even though her piercing gaze makes me feel like squirming. “I’m not involved in the whys and wherefores, girl.”
“Then why are you here, if it doesn’t mean anything to you?”
I try to glare her into submission, but all she does is close her eyes and tip her head back. I follow the line of her slender, golden throat and feel the want burn in the pit of my stomach. “Glory,” I say, straining to mask the tension in my voice. “What else does a man need?”
Her eyes snap back to find mine. She’s glaring, but her voice is soft. Sad. “What glory is there in killing priests and little children?”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so ashamed in my entire life. I turn and leave the tent.
It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
“I don’t believe you.” His voice sends hot shivers through my body. I stare at him across the fire, raising my eyebrow. He grins at the challenge, shifting his position.
“And why should I?”
I narrow my eyes at him, feeling the irritation thicken in my chest. The stupid English and their stupid ways of not believing anything that isn’t laid out in that horrid, stuffy old book they use. What happened to worshipping the gods outdoors, in the land they created, rather than in that horrible little building Adam and all of his men traipse to every seventh day without fail? It’s the one thing about the English I can’t understand.
“Because I’m right,” I tell him. The other men around the fire chuckle. Adam pulls a face, and I know I’ll be getting it later. For any other girl, the thought would strike fear into their hearts, but I know better, now. I know what it feels like, to love a man to distraction, to feel his hands on your skin and his scent in your lungs and the way the fire in his eyes burns you into ashes.
“Tell us another one, then, Bega,” Patrick says eagerly. I smile and reach out to trace patterns in the loose earth.
“Once there was a woman, named Gnowee, who lived on earth when it was always cradled in the night. She left her son sleeping in a hollow whilst she went to search for yams with her great bark torch, but she went so far that she reached the end of the earth, passed under it and came out on the other side. Because she was so lost and it was so dark, she couldn’t find her beloved little boy, and so she climbed into the sky amongst the stars and to this day, she wanders with her great bark torch aloft searching for her son.”
“And that is supposed to be….” Adam draws out the words on the smoky night air.
“The creation of the sun.”
They stare at each other again for a long moment, and he breaks the silence first, throwing back his head and laughing. “Sure beats And God said ‘there will be light’ and so it came to be,” he tells no-one in particular.
That night he calls me Gnowee when he kisses me, and I feel as though the sun is spilling out of my skin.
In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unravelling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe, ‘Oh.’
Years ago, in my platoon in Vietnam, there were two guys. Neither of them survived the war, but they’re the ones that wake me up. My wife’s sick of hearing me talk about them, but their young faces are just imprinted on the backs of my eyes – I don’t think I’ll ever forget the two of them, the way they were and the way they went out, both of them bloody and violent and sort of fucking poignant. It’s the poignant bit that seeps through my dreams, the aching sadness, the feeling of the fact that both boys deserved more, even though back then, everyone on the fucking ground in Vietnam deserved something more than what they got. No-one ever got it though. No-one ever got what they deserved. You came out having survived. That was it. Nothing else. For a very long time after, I wasn’t alive again, as such. It was only a matter of breathing and occasionally eating and pissing and sitting with a glass of beer and staring into space, trying to forget the screams and the sound of a firefight for hours on end before ending up crawling back to a flat somewhere with the reminder that you’re just as fucked up and guilt-ridden as you were when you came out.
So back to the two kids. They were twenty-one and nineteen, so at my great age of sixty-five years now, I think I can look back and be justified in not calling them men. The elder one was the kid that everyone wants to be at school – relaxed, charming, fun, and the most brilliant soldier you could ever dream to meet. The guy lived for war. Give him a gun and bunch of gooks, and they’d all be dead in twenty seconds flat. The best way to describe the other is to think of third cousin four times removed, add gangling limbs, an awkward smile, a hatred of anything to do with the war whatsoever and you had him down to a T. Once, I asked him whether it was because of the conscription that he ended up here – that’s why most young guys did, that or the patriotism – and he gave me this long, sad look that felt like looking back two thousand years to a time where kings fought on long narrow beaches and there were people who loved each other more than anyone ever could in that fucking hellhole. And he said, “I go where he goes.”
This was the thing. No-one knew exactly what the hell was going on between the two of them, but everyone had a lot of theories that they’d talk about late at night deep in their foxholes with their guns between their knees and mouths full of gum and restlessness. Some bright spark even nicknamed the two of them ‘Achilles’ and ‘Patroclus’ after the lovers slash cousins from that old war ages ago that was over a woman of all things. I wish sometimes that we were fighting over something as clear-cut as a woman, rather than the oblique mysteries of this paddy and that paddy, this village and that mountain and a small section of a river that had to be in this exact grid reference or command would go apeshit on us.
She must have been some woman. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face pretty enough to launch a thousand ships, though Elizabeth Taylor would have been in the running easily enough. In any case, though, they were as close as anything, always in the same foxhole, always humping their loads up hills together, always the first to make sure that each other was okay after the end of a particularly vicious firefight. Some of the guys always made kissy faces at them behind their backs, and even now I’m questioning whether or not they were physical lovers even with all the risks attached of being homosexual in a time where it wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today.
But that’s all beside the point. Those things I’ve been wondering about for years; those are the things I’ll never get to ask them, because try as you might, you don’t get answers from corpses in the ground or ghosts running wild in the back of your head. I’m not sure if I even want to know if they were lovers in the physical sense because especially after all that happened out there, it would take a complete dumbfuck to not see the love those two boys had for each other, platonic or erotic.
This is how it happened. We were humping, as we usually were, through some paddy towards the jungle. ‘Achilles’ was sulking at the back because of something one of the other guys had said about a mutual best friend of the both of them – a Bree someone or other whose picture ‘Achilles’ carried around in his pack – something stupid and teenager-y and achingly innocent about how hot she was and how he’d fuck her into next week. Of course, ‘Achilles’ took that comment the wrong way and wasn’t talking to the guy, wasn’t talking to anyone, in fact, apart from ‘Patroclus’ who’d offered to take the front rather unwillingly in his friend’s place. He was the self-appointed medic in our platoon, so none of us were very happy about this, seeing as he and his knowledge were rather indispensable, but none of the others were being mature about wanting to take the front seeing as it was technically ‘Achilles’’ turn. So we walked, and the rice rustled high around our heads, and just as we were nearing this village, we see this man with a grim face standing near one of the outmost huts. Probably VC, but before we could do anything about it, he disappeared. The gooks had this irritating habit of doing that, vanishing into thin air like cowardly fairies whilst we could only trudge along with mud-laden boots and pounds of equipment, taking pot-shots that usually missed.
We didn’t think anything about it. But then we kept seeing him, time and time again, but he’d be gone before anyone could take aim. And finally, towards the end of the day, when we were all getting ready to dig our foxholes and set up camp with ‘Achilles’ still mutinously silent in the back of the group, there was this almighty explosion, the kind that rocks the earth and sends soil flying up and makes the fading light curl around the unlucky sod caught in it as he falls almost gracefully to the ground. Most of us were far enough away. But not the one that mattered.
There was this blood-curdling scream, and then ‘Achilles’ was running forward, just quick enough to catch his third-cousin-four-times-removed and best friend and possible lover as he collapsed into himself like paper crumpled into a fist. His face was as white as candy canes, and there was dark blood like oil filling up the khaki of his jacket. I didn’t catch much of what was said, but it was something to do with i love you don’t leave me don’t leave me fuck you you fucking promised this wouldn’t happen and i can’t live without you DON’T LEAVE ME. There wasn’t any point in calling up the helicopter except to get rid of the body because the boy’s breathing was getting shallower, and his eyes were glassing over.
‘Achilles’ didn’t cry. He just sat there, and held the body close, and rocked back and forth, in numb haze. No-one made any sound. The guy had just lost his, well as I said, no-one actually knew who the fuck the two of them were to each other, but it’s fair to say now that they were each other’s entire worlds. You didn’t get one without the other lurking a few feet away, watching his back or smiling into his eyes. In any case, the story wasn’t about that, even though the gruesome bits get into my head sometimes for days at a stretch and all I can see is the blood and the guts and the screams thickening the air. The story hadn’t even ended.
I N T E R L U D E.
It was a funny thing, the way we were back home in America. Everyone seemed to have a different word for it. For my mother, it was ‘illegal’, for my father, it was you-stupid-fucking-queer, but for us it was just ‘this is how we are’ and good heaping of love alongside that. We obviously couldn’t go out holding hands or anything, the way other guys at high school did with their sweethearts, but when no-one was looking, up in his room with his wonderful, accepting foster-father turning a blind eye, it was all hands on skin and kisses and curses muffled in pillows over how good it felt.
The way he looked at me – across a room or buried deep inside me in bed – sent an electric current shivering through my veins, and the way he held me made me feel like I was dissolving. It wasn’t sensible, but I dare you to tell me when love is.
But then the war came.
Have you heard of My Lai? Probably, if you’re from around the right time or if you’ve ever studied the Vietnam War. Probably not if you haven’t. But that’s where we ended up after meeting up with the rest of C Company. There’s nothing else I need to say apart from the fact it was a massacre. We were told to shoot on sight, ask questions later. And that’s what happened.
‘Achilles’ was the worst one of the lot. It was as though he was brain-dead from the neck up – the only thing he’d do was watch as people ran and then shoot them in the back. Women, children, animals, the whole lot. It was a sorry fucking mess, and to this day, I feel guilt for even being there, but the one thing I don’t feel guilt for is what he did. He’d just lost ‘Patroclus.’ Every single person was to blame, even if they were five years old and screaming for their mother. Vietnam was to blame, America was to blame, the world was to blame. It was a bad way to see him go, and after, when we’d gone off, he sat and just stared into the flames with tears running down his cheeks, glinting like little shards of mirror.
I know there was one death he didn’t feel bad for. After it was almost all over, we’d found him in one of the sub-hamlets of that fucking place, facing off with ‘the disappearing fucker’ as we’d dubbed him. ‘Achilles’ was without his helmet, without his gun, screaming something about lions and men, completely batshit crazy at the sight of the man who’d most likely laid the trap that had killed Patroclus. Before the other guy could raise his own weapon, ‘Achilles’ had swung round, elbowed him in the face, grabbed the firearm and emptied an entire round into his chest. The guy fell back, deader than dead. ‘Achilles’ kept firing. A couple of the guys came forward and took his arms, forcing him to drop the gun. He swayed against them, exhausted and grieving and so young, and I took his hands and said quietly, “He’s dead now. It’s alright. He’s dead.”
I N T E R L U D E
When I get home from the market, I find our village in ruins. Smoke stains the sky grey, and already, scavengers are sneaking out of the paddies to tear greedily at the bodies. My heart has plummeted into my stomach and it’s all I can do not to scream. I don’t know where my husband is. Fear beats a staccato rhythm against my ribcage, and I press my little boy’s head against my shoulder. He does not need to see this.
Hùng is not here. He’s not anywhere. I hope to the gods that he got away before this massacre happened, but my hopes are dashed when I see the body, in the centre of the next hamlet. I run to it, and fall to my knees. His eyes are open, staring blankly at me and his chest is shredded like rice leaves. We knew this could happen. Ever since he rose in the National Liberation Front, we both knew this could be a likely possibility, but that never prepared me for the pain that rips through me with sharp claws as I wail over his body. My husband. My beloved. Gone gone gone, all because of those bloody Americans who couldn’t stay over on their side of the ocean.
My baby starts to cry and I hug him tighter. There are hands on my shoulders, and I look up to see other women from our village who were at the market with me this morning, shock painted on their faces and grief in every line of their bodies.
“Come, An,” one of them says. “There’s nothing left here for us.”
I restrain my sobs and lean forward to press a kiss to his cheek. Then I close his eyes and turn away. There’s nothing more I can do.
We humped again, all the way up a fucking mountain because command probably just wanted us all out of the way again, and that was when one of the guys saw the wire, badly concealed on the dirt path. It wasn’t like the last time. He shouted a warning. ‘Achilles’ gave us a haggard, exhausted look. He’d been limping ever since he took a bit of shrapnel to the ankle a couple of days before – nothing bad enough for case-evac but still a pain in the bloody arse – and in all honesty it could have been accident. I don’t think and will never think that it was.
He takes a step backwards, and the bang sends birds screeching up into the clouds from the trees around us. We’re finding all the parts of him for hours.
I tell this one, sometimes, to people, who listen and smile sadly and nod their heads and invariably miss the point. But no-one has ever sat me down and asked me what that particular story is to me. Why I’ve never forgotten it, like I’ve tried to about so much of the war. So I’m going to tell you now.
For me, the story was about the dead red light just before sunset that supported ‘Patroclus’’ body as he fell, and the way we all sat around after the massacre pretty quietly and talked about how trite and Hollywood it would have been if ‘Achilles’ had taken that landmine to save us, his worthy comrades. That’s about as far from the truth as it gets, though it made us laugh, thinking about how it could’ve been on film with Elizabeth Taylor as a beautiful girl waiting back home and lots of fake blood and guts and glory. The truth is that there was no Elizabeth Taylor, the blood and guts were anything but fake and he stepped on that fucking landmine because he was so shattered inside that being blown into pieces was better than trying to piece himself back together without his better half. That’s the truth of it; it’s nasty and immoral and hurts like fuck, but I’d prefer to remember it all that way than in some fucking clichéd oh, he died for honour and for love of a best friend. Neither of them deserved to die. But then again, when did anyone?
“Hear that quiet, man?” he said. “That quiet – just listen. That’s your moral.”
When the walls fell, it wasn’t really about the war anymore. It was about people being separated from families and friends for twenty-eight years, it was about the people who had died trying to get to the freedom waiting metres from their grasping fingertips. When the oppressors crumbled and the bricks came down, it was all about coming home.
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross that river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.
When I first arrived in Carthage, afterwards, dusty and thirsty and silent and broken, the city opened its arms and I ducked in gratefully, willing to melt into the background and stay there for the rest of my life. The news of the end had just reached them. The death of Hector, the death of Achilles. The horse. The fall of Troy. The people talked loudly about it in the marketplace and over dinner for weeks, embellishing it more and more with each retelling until I was ready to scream, THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT WAS.
But I couldn’t. I was tongue-tied and sick and sad. I carried them quietly in my heart. No-one knew I was from Troy, no-one knew I had lived through the war to end all wars, no-one knew I was the person that brought the beginning of the end. I don’t care about that. History won’t remember me. But history will remember them, and I know without a doubt that it will remember them wrong.
One day, I dream of holding my head high and telling them This Is How It Happened. This is how the war and the heroes and the thousands of white sails before Troy have been haunting my dreams for years and years and endless years. I’d tell them about Achilles and Hector and Odysseus, the genius behind the wooden downfall of my city, but not the things they all think they know. I’d tell them how the sunlight spilled over Achilles’ shoulders as he stood in the temple, towering over me and how the way he looked at me reached right between my ribs and plucked my heart from its cage and how he’d always loved Patroclus more than me. I’d tell them how he played the lyre and tilted his head to one side when he listened to my stories that wove themselves from the night and the murmur of the stars and the crackle of the fire; how his arm fit perfectly around the curve of Patroclus’ shoulders.
I’d tell them how Odysseus carried a carving of his wife in his belt and would often walk alone, watching the moon trace a silvery path across the sea, how Agamemnon’s thoughts were plagued by the delicate-boned, soft-eyed daughter he’d sent to her death, how Menelaus called every slave girl ‘Helen’, how Ajax would get drunk and belt around the camp stark naked with his sword, bellowing like a savage.
I’d tell them how Hector was afraid to die.
These are the true war stories. These are the people who lived and breathed and fought and loved and died on the dusty plains under a burning blue sky. When I die, they will die a second death and only the cold, bloodstained bronze of battles won and lost will be passed on up the ages. Even though I dream of everyone knowing the way I know, I know it will never happen. They don’t need to know.
All that matters is that I’m never going to let them go.
Then they salute the fucker and walk away, because certain stories you don’t ever tell.
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