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Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Publish a New Book of Short Stories about the Long War

"There were a bunch of guys like me at Walter Reed—severe burn cases, the faceless. You would think we would have hung out together, but we avoided it as much as possible" -- from a powerful fictional short story.

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I waded into the shallows at the head of the pool and cast my fly as near to the oak as I could without risking the line. Then, slowly, I retrieved it. I could not see my lure in the water but imagined how my movements would translate. When I jerked the line, the wooly bugger shot upward, top-lit at the surface, presented to any waiting predator—hopefully a trout, though I had inadvertently caught turtles in this creek. I paused, letting the fly fall through the water toward the bottom.

On my third try, the rod came alive in my hand. For the first time in a long time I felt a welcome burst of adrenaline, a better my breath quickened. As it fought against a shadow much larger than itself, the fish’s every burst of life was transmitted to me through the fly line via the tippet, a thread of nylon, microns thick, the whole process a kind of naturalistic Morse code. For such a small creature it was surprisingly strong, bending the rod in half.

I took my time and let the fish run, careful not to give it too much line for fear it would entangle itself on the submerged tree. When the fish tired, I headed to the bank and reeled it in, lifting it from the water. It flopped wildly and fell off the hook onto the mud, where it continued to thrash, opening and closing its gills, gasping. I pounced on it, picked up a rock the size of my fist, and thumped its head until it went rigid.

It was a big one—not the biggest I’d ever caught—maybe fifteen inches long, a couple pounds of lean muscle. It was a rainbow, a species once foreign to this water, introduced in the 1940s when the government stocked the river to satisfy the increasing demand of sportsmen. The native brook trout, more sensitive to environment than their larger, hardier cousins, had lost out.

It had been years since I had eaten trout of any kind, but suddenly found I really wanted to. I couldn’t bring my catch back on the bus—the park service’s rules and all—but I had my lighter and pocketknife. I decided the thing to do was to clean the fish, build a small fire, and cook it on the spot.

First, to cut off its head. I walked up the bank and flattened a patch of ferns to form a work area. I experimented with holding the knife in my good hand, but the fish was too slimy and kept sliding out from under the other. So I switched hands, now holding the trout in place with my right, pinching the knife in what remained of my left. I plunged in the blade just anterior to the pectoral fin near the gill cover. Clear fluid tinged with blood ran into the ferns.

Between my three fingers to keep the knife from slipping as I tried to sever bone and the sinewy spine. It probably would have been wiser just to gut the thing and leave the head on, but my father had taught me how to cut fillets, and I had done it that way countless times before. Force of habit dies hard.

I gripped the knife in the palm of my bad hand and nicked the tip of the blade into the spine, balancing the knife perpendicular to the ground. I rammed downward with the heel of my palm. The knife shot sideways and sliced through the index finger of my good hand. I cursed and tried to bend it; it would go only halfway, exposing white bone as flaps of skin separated to reveal layers of red and yellow tissue. Then the bleeding started. Great. Now I only had five good fingers.

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