Books

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.

The following is an excerpt from Brian Van Reet's fictional short story "Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek," which appeared in the book, which appeared in an anthology written by veterans, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, Da Capo Press, 2013). Van Reet is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction. In 2004 and 2005 he served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad and was awarded a Bronze Star with "V" Device. His writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus. We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors”—the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda. I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.

It was a beautiful May day, and we were taking the bus to Maryland to do some trout fishing. I had convinced Sleed to come along after seeing a sign-up sheet in the hallway outside my group’s meeting room. I normally wouldn’t participate in extracurriculars, but had fished the stream we’d be going to, years before. I grew up nearby in the city of Frederick and guess I took the trip because I wanted to revisit old stomping grounds—that, and I was going stir crazy in the barracks.

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. We all looked the same; being around one another was like looking in a mirror. None of us wanted that. We wanted to forget.

Sleed was not faceless. His was okay—a few scars—but mostly intact. Back at Camp War Eagle, he had been standing beside me in the awards ceremony, both of us receiving commendation medals from the Division Commander, when the suicide bomber ran up and exploded himself. Sleed lost his cock and balls and one of his legs above the knee. My privates survived the blast—my right leg shielded them—but I was never going to need them again, not with how I looked. I don’t know how it was Sleed took most of the shrapnel while I got the brunt of the fireball. There’s no explaining these things.

Sleed was served divorce papers shortly after returning to the States from the army hospital in Germany. His wife came bearing them on her one trip to DC from Toad Lick, Georgia, to visit her wounded husband. Turned out she had been cheating on him for most of the time he had been overseas and cited the loss of his reproductive organs, among other reasons, as grounds for divorce. She wanted more kids.

The whole situation was nightmarishly helpless, but there it was, our bodies transformed in a flash I could not remember. The only thing to do now was deal with it. Time was reckoned in two halves, before and after. I took a window seat on the bus. Sleed sat beside me. He was tall and ropey muscled, with freckled skin that tanned deeply in summer and paled to magnolia white in winter.

The air brakes released with a hiss, and we pulled out of the parking lot and onto Georgia Avenue. I thought it must be a painful reminder for Sleed to have to live on a street named after his home state, where his wife was probably hard at work trying to have more babies with her new boyfriend, a divorced first sergeant with two kids of his own. Sleed had sworn to fight his wife—“The Bitch,” as he unfailingly called her—for custody of their three-year-old daughter, but the judge in the case had ruled the proceedings delayed until Sleed’s medical retirement could be processed. In the meantime, Sleed had employed a private detective to gather dirt on his wife.

He had been raised in a foster home, surrounded by people he called his brothers and sisters, some black, some white. The way he talked about it, it had been rough, and he still hadn’t rid himself of the bad habit that had resurfaced way back in the first week of our deployment: the liberal use of the n-word. The drill sergeants had broken him of this unfortunate tic in basic, but it had reared its ugly head again in Iraq and never gone away.

Sometimes, if we were in a public place, I would have to elbow him to silence his incessant rants about “that nigga that stole that fucking bitch and my kid.” The thing was, his wife’s new boyfriend wasn’t black. Sleed wasn’t a racist. He used the slur at random, sometimes affectionately, sometimes reproachfully, but never in reference to skin tone. Trouble was other people didn’t know that.

He was one of those larger-than-life personalities, able to pull you out of your troubles and into his. Christmas morning, 2004, the bombed-out UN compound in Baghdad. In the muddy field on the other side of the wall, an Iraqi boy called up to my tower: “Mistah, Mistah, Merry Christmas! Chocalaté?”

Eight hours of soft and steady rain falling from a grey sky, soaking our body armor and black fleece, sucking the heat from our core. Along with myself, Sleed and the other members of 3rd Platoon pulled guard in the towers and bunkers encircling the UN. We were cold and wet on Christmas; engaged in the pointless activity of guarding an abandoned complex of buildings. Morale was especially low.

We carried walkabout radios, and Sleed came over the net thirty minutes into the miserable shift. He proceeded to tell jokes about our mothers for the better part of an hour, one after the other, a ceaseless string of insult: “Hey, Tower Seven, yo’ momma so fat, she have to put on lipstick with a paint roller”; “Front Gate, yo’ momma so stupid, when yo’ daddy said it was chilly outside, she ran out with a spoon”; “ . . . so poor, she hangs the toilet paper up to dry”; “ . . . so greasy, she sweats Crisco”; “ . . . head so small, she got her ear pierced and died”; “ . . . so nasty, she have to creep up on bathwater.” And once he had insulted all our mothers and exhausted his extensive repertoire, someone else came over the net and took up the banner. Trifling, moronic, and juvenile, yes, but in this way 3rd Platoon passed Christmas 2004.

Never at a loss for words, he was now unusually quiet as we traveled due north for a few miles before merging onto the Beltway. We passed out of DC proper and into Maryland,taking I-270. The scenery changed from urban to suburban. Million-dollar McMansions, quarter-million-dollar condos, strip malls, golf courses, and commercial parks lined the highway. Traffic lightened up—the cars all headed the other way, into Washington. Compared to Baghdad, everything looked so green. The vividness of it was like being on a mild dose of psychedelics, all the time.

Readjusting my sensibilities was a slow process, and I was also just getting used to not having my weapon with me. Call it “phantom gun syndrome.” Like an amputee who still feels his limb tickle, I would find myself reaching down my right side, searching for the M4 carbine that should have been slung on my shoulder. I missed its reassuring heft, the way the charging handle dug into my hipbone.

We traveled for an hour. When we hit the clustered spires of Frederick, my old hometown, we switched onto US-15. Francis Scott Key’s Frederick. John Whittier’s. Lee’s, Grant’s.Located on the cusp of a pass through the Appalachians, the town had changed hands several times during the Civil War. Each time, the citizenry had filled the streets to cheer whichever conquering army happened to be marching through. This fact had always struck me as telling. Even during our most brutal, existential war, most Americans didn’t care enough to stick their necks out for the cause.

We drove through the north side of town. I watched familiar scenes through the glare of my window seat: the ice rink where I had taken my first date and played countless games of hockey in high school, my favorite used bookshop, the liquor store owned by the Pakistanis who never carded. I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a passing SUV. From a distance, I didn’t look half-bad. The only thing off was the size of my head: swollen, as if it had been stung by a thousand bees.

On the horizon was a familiar set of industrial-looking buildings. I got Sleed’s attention and pointed them out. “Fort Detrick,” I said. “They do testing on monkeys there.”

“What kinda testing?” he asked.

“Chemical and biological weapons. They have a big incinerator where they burn the dead monkeys.”

“How you know that?” “My dad works there.”

“You never told me he was Army.”

“He’s not, anymore. Civilian contractor.”

The first time my parents had come to visit after I’d arrived at Walter Reed, my father had given me a check for twenty thousand dollars. “Starting out money,” he’d called it.

I lay on a hospital bed in a paper gown, recovering from the latest skin graft. Before entering my room, my parents had to scrub down like surgeons, donning hospital coveralls, masks, hair caps. My father placed the check on the nightstand beside the bed. He said it was the least they could do. He could hardly bear to look at me. My mom wept quietly. Nobody talked much. They visited often in the beginning, dutifully, every weekend. My mom went so far as to stay the first two weeks in a nearby hotel.

Five months later, the grafts had hardened nicely. I was a fast healer, and the risk for infection had returned to near baseline. Physiologically, I was out of the woods, off morphine and onto muscle relaxers for the pain. I had completed the initial course of therapy, and the Army had started the paperwork for a medical retirement. My parents were in town on yet another visit.

“So what are your plans?” my father asked.

“Live off the government,” I said. “Get wasted.” I was a little high on pills, or I wouldn’t have been so bold. In Valium veritas. “You don’t mean that,” he said, looking agitated. “You’re just upset because of what happened.”

“No shit I’m upset,” I said. “Look, maybe you two should just leave. To tell the truth, I want you to stop coming here. This place depresses me enough without having to deal with this.”

A month had passed since then, and they hadn’t been back. Now, to the west of the interstate, the bus ferrying me and Sleed along at a steady seventy miles per hour, I sighted the building where, for the good of the nation, my father infected rhesus macaques with smallpox, his lab only miles from the antiseptic home where my mother spent her days watching cable news and talking to the cat. I tried to imagine how it must feel to be a parent to a son in pain who doesn’t want your help. I felt awful for them, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt better apart. They were not rotten people—don’t get me wrong—statistically speaking, they had been the best I could have hoped for: upper middle class, free thinking, well educated. I had been taken to art museums as a child, read to, enrolled in the finest preschool, kindergarten, et cetera. I hadnot entirely failed as a son, either. About the worst trouble I had ever gotten into was partying too hard and flunking out of school, and I remedied that dishonor by joining the Army a month after September 11. None of us had been bad people; we had simply made the wrong choices. How could they have known their values would lead me to this? That all that safety would push me into the fire?

I asked myself these and other unanswerable questions as we passed the borders of my old home, into acres of corn broken by the occasional exurban neighborhood, the new houses, trimmed in plastic, out of place in cul-de-sacs carved from cow pastures.

We turned off US-15 near the little town of Thurmont, onto a state road climbing into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winding, two-lane road tunneled through a forest of oak, poplar, and hickory. The trees grew from a mat of ferns and decaying leaves atop a thin but rich soil broken by crags of limestone. A sign said we had entered Catoctin Mountain National Park. We drove a ways farther and then pulled into a gravel lot, where we filed off the bus. Sleed struggled down the narrow steps with his cane and prosthesis, which he was still getting used to. This had been a sticking point in his coming.

“How the hell am I going to fish?” he had asked. “I can’t even hold a damn rod and stand at the same time. Let alone wade.”

“You don’t have to fish,” I said. “You’ll like it up there. Just sit down and relax by the river. It’s beautiful country.”

In the end, I had convinced him to come with the promise I would owe him, and as Sleed stepped off the bus and into Mother Nature, he said, “Well, Rooster, you weren’t kidding. This is nice.”

A short ways down the hillside, a creek gurgled through a rock-strewn channel. The rounded stones of the riverbed gave the water an amber tint. Manicured bluegrass ran down to moss-covered outcroppings lining the bank. My mammalian brain translated the white noise of running water into feelings of rejuvenation, nourishment, safety—a comfortable place to stay. I could feel it working on me. My shoulders sagged as a knot of tension buried in my upper back began to unravel. High overhead, songbirds built nests and called vigorously to rivals. Beams of sunlight streamed through leaves rustling in a gentle wind. The left side of my face was numb, but I felt the draft on the hairs of my forearms, the back of my neck. On the ground below, the breeze was no more than a stranger’s breath. Any stronger and the air would have been too cool—but it was a perfect day. The fishing guidechartered by the Army had brought along the equipment we would need, and under his direction we unloaded the luggage bins beneath the bus. Once that was done, the guide gathered us around.

“Name’s Grossnickle,” he said. “This here’s Big Hunting Creek. Y’all ready to do some fishing?”

A few of us answered with half-hearted yeahs, about as much affect as we could muster. Some joker said Big Hunting Creek didn’t look so big. Unfazed, Grossnickle told us the stream became deeper and wider the closer it got to the Chesapeake Bay. Up here we were near the source. The Parks Service had designated this stretch as fly-fishing only, catch-and-release. Strictly for the purists.

He showed us how to set up a rod and gave us a quick clinic in fly-casting. I already knew how to do it and didn’t pay close attention, absorbed instead by all the greenery, and the way the sunbeams reflected off bits of road dust floating in the air. After the lesson had finished and we were turned loose, I took my rod and hobbled off on my own, but not before asking Grossnickle to tie a fly onto my tippet. I was getting better at using my bad hand, but I’d never again have the dexterity to manipulate fishing line.

It took me awhile, but eventually I could flick the wooly bugger into the creek with some degree of accuracy. I cast, then gathered in the line with my claw-like left hand, jerking it erratically to simulate the movement of a wounded minnow. I wasn’t even trying to hook a fish—just liked the look of the fly moving freely in the whiskey-colored water, its black feathers undulating like real fins. Cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve. There was something comforting in the rhythm of it.

After practicing for a while, I reeled in the fly, set down the rod, pried off my shoes, peeled off my socks, rolled up my jeans, took the rod, and waded into the creek to fish for real. The shallow water was ice cold. It rushed up my shins and around my calves with surprising force. My balls tightened and my toes numbed, but I kept my resolve and headed upstream in search of a pool suitable for big fish. Every so often I stood on a rock until my feet warmed and the feeling returned with pins and needles.

I had been wading about a half hour, casting into a few deep pools where falling water had eroded the earth between boulders, but still no luck. The farther upstream I went, thetrees grew closer together and the canopy tightened, admitting less and less light.

I passed through a deep cut with steep and muddy banks. On the other side, the terrain flattened out, and the creek took a sharp bend, becoming much wider. A massive white oak had fallen and created a natural dam. Radiating from the main trunks like the brittle fingers of dead men, a tangle of limbs dipped under the foamy water, snagging floating branches, leaves, and plastic bags.

The bank around the oak was covered with a heavy growth of ferns and giant cattails. The downed tree had caused a web of rivulets to overflow the main stream and flood the low-lying surroundings. My feet sank to the ankles in cold muck as I hacked my way through the tangle of fronds. When I had bypassed the oak, which must have been nearly a hundred feet tall, I cut back toward the water. I emerged from the undergrowth to find a deep pool on the upstream side of the dam. The leaves lining the bottom of the pool leached tannins. The bed of decay colored the sluggish water dark, almost black.

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.

I let out a primal yell, grabbed the fish, brought it to my mouth, and wrenched its head the rest of the way off with one powerful chomp. As I pulled its tail away, stomach, liver, swim bladder, and intestines were stripped from its carcass and fell, a chain of organs, onto my chin. I spit them and the attached head into the water. Black wisps of blood eddied and curled in the shallows of the dark pool. Another trout shot to the surface to strike at the remains.

My anger was gone as soon as it had arrived. I laughed, tasting bleeding gums pricked by scale and bone, and threw the carcass as far as I could into the woods.

“Rooster! You okay? Where are you?” Sleed’s voice called to me from somewhere within the ferns on the north bank. I answered and listened to his noisy approach, picturing him whacking away at the fronds with his cane. He punched through the bank too near the oak, nearly plunging through a marshy false-ground before catching his step. Seeing me, he skirted the pool and came around to the shallows.

“What the hell?” I asked. “You following me?”

“There’s a trail and a bench over there. I was taking a break and heard you.”

“I cut my hand trying to clean a fish.” I wiped blood, guts, and fish shit off my face.

“Damn, nigga, that’s bleeding bad. Here, take this.” He stripped off his T-shirt, literally offering me the shirt off his back. What a great guy—I wish I could peel his face off and take it for my own.

“Keep it,” I said. “I’ll use mine.”

I got him to tear a strip off my shirt and wrap it around my finger. I applied pressure and elevated my hand above my heart. I sat down. Sleed lit a cigarette.

“You know you not supposed to keep ’em, right?” “I know,” I said. “But I wanted to eat it.”

“How were you gonna do that?”

I bared my bloody teeth and felt a few rainbow scales still clinging to my gums. They must have glistened like mother-of-pearl in the half-light. Fish and human blood commingled, tasting salty on my tongue. Sleed whistled and said, “Rooster, you one crazy son of a bitch.”

Published with permission from Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Da Capo Press -- All Rights Reserved -- 2013

 

Brian Van Reet is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction. In 2004 and 2005 he served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad and was awarded a Bronze Star with "V" Device. His writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere.