COLIN MAYSON - WAR IN THE DARK
Colin has been published in Cooper Street Journal, and Lehigh Valley Vanguard. He writes both poetry and prose. He is a teacher, coach, and husband. He lives with his wife Kaitlin, in PA. He also has a wonderfully sweet pitbull named Madson.
War in the Dark
“Making Heaven on Earth,” Sergeant Foley spit out a beam of mucus-yellow phlegm, “one dead pigeon at a time.” The room erupted in thunderous applause, as Sergeant Foley stood stoically and looked out over the crowd of recruits. The speakers, to the left and right of the stage, began playing our infantry marching tune. Each cadet clapped along with unanimous rhythm as the trumpets cackled out over the oversized black speakers.
I trained for six months, been beaten with a club nine times, broke four ribs, fractured my wrist--and now with that same splinted wrist--I clapped along with my fellow soldiers.
“Hewitt,” Private Tucker, my bunkmate, was running up behind me, “that speech, huh? Tomorrow’s the day, man. Gonna pop me some pigeons, pow, pow,” he gestured as if he had a rifle in his hands,”right outta the damn sky.”
I nodded in agreement with his fervor. The only thing I had told my recruiter on the day I signed up was, “I don’t care what the Resist and Fight (what we call the Wage for Future Peace Infantry) is all about, I just wanna kill some goddamn pigeons. “
“Are you on the first truck out to the mountains, tomorrow?” We walked through the rosey garden where the steel colored clouds canvassed the sky.
“I just got my letter from the General Draper’s office,” pulling it from his pocket, “I haven’t opened it yet.” The fingers on his hands shook with excitement, and the sideways grin on his face grew as he pulled the seal from the envelope.
Stopping short, just as we were walking past the artillery cannon garden ornaments, he read the note slowly, and calmly aloud, with precise annunciation. It read:
“ATTENTION, PRIVATE TUCKER,
IN ACCORDANCE OF W.F.P.I (Wage for Peace Infantry) RULES AND ORDINANCES, YOU ARE HEREBY NOMINATED FOR FIRST CLASS SHOOTER. YOUR EXAM WAS PASSED AT THE 98TH PERCENTILE, AND YOUR INTERVIEW WENT THROUGH THE BOARD WITHOUT QUALM OR QUERY. CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR PROMOTION.
P.S FIRST TRUCK LEAVES SUNRISE TOMORROW. UNDER YOUR COMMAND AS OF THIS MOMENT
SIGNED, GENERAL THOMAS DRAPER”
The look on his face resembled that of a small boy, not sure how to react after given a surprise puppy. Speechless, he looked from the letter, to me, then back to the letter again, shaking from the steel tip of his black combat boots to the button that adorned the top of his camouflaged hat.
All I could say was,”Tuck, congratulation,” I smiled for him, “you deser-”
“Sir,” still smiling, he looked at me, “call me sir.”
That night all the recruits headed to the shooting range for a morale booster. Sergeant Foley came to address us before our guns were loaded. Striding back and forth, like a caged bear, he spoke with no microphone, but could be heard through the entire encampment, “Pigeons men, pigeons.” There were a few scattered bits of applause to which Foley beamed, and stuck out his chest.“In the morning you will come face to face with the beasts. The enemy will surround you, and take it from me gentlemen, you may want to void your bowels where you stand.” Bursts of laughter mixed with naysayers dismissing the idea were heard far and wide in the shooting range. “But you won’t, will you?” Shouts of never! And cries of we’ll wring their fuckin’ necks! were being blasted from mouths, drunk off the emotive high of foreseeable violence. Foyle raised his hand to the crowd. They quieted.
“This is a full blown assault against us men. If they had the power, technology, or brains, God knows they do NOT... they’d do the same to all of us! Bad blood men, must be eradicated. Bad blood must be wiped clean from our earth. Tomorrow, you’ll be the broom, the mop, the brawny rags of sudden action! Sudden change!” All was quiet, the men around the range were struck with awe, as though they had been bludgeoned over the head by a hammer. Red faced and sweaty, Foley closed his speech with these four words, “NO PIGEON LEFT ALIVE!”
The big players now had gone, and the place was quiet--except for the hundreds of gunshots ringing out at the targets. The targets were what a pigeon would look like, or what we could expect to see when we confronted them. They were blocky shaped, and not more than five feet tall. Their noses were hooked like a falcon’s claw, and they had boyles and black pock marks scattered all over their green fleshy faces. I loaded, and blew a hole through the right eye of my target. After cleaning my gun, back at my bunk, I slept like a child after a summer night.
Loading up my pack the next morning, before sunrise, I could not help but stop and marvel myself in the mirror. Wrapped around my shoulders were twenty bands of machine-gun ammo. The silver and gold plates on the bullets shimmered like sun off of the water, as the light came from my bunk lamp. My helmet had a blade stitched into each side for easy access, just in case a pigeon came too near. They looked like bullhorns. They looked perfect.
Some other soldiers were making their way to the shooting range for an hours worth of practice before the trucks would go. I followed the crowd.
I picked a good target (one that was not too full of bullet holes) and I came to one knee to load my gun. Tucker was walking the rounds of the range, not speaking. The bunk was quiet without him last night. I hoped he would see me this morning, and he would wish me luck, or give me a salute. I finished loading my gun and set my sights.
One shot, boom, right eye gone. Two shots, boom, boom, one through the abdomen, the other through the heart. I cocked, pulled, for the third time as Tucker was walking by. With a boom, the bullet flew from the barrel, and struck the metal ceiling of the range. It echoed like a steel beam dropped from a skyscraper.
“Hewitt!” Clomping, metallic sounding footsteps came from behind me.
I stood erect, “Yes, Sir?”
Tucker came nose to nose with me, “You call that shootin’ soldier?”
“I assume so, Sir.”
“He assumes!” Tucker put his hands on his hips, and looked around the range, laughing as he did so.
“Something wrong, Sir?”
“You, Hewitt. You’re what’s wrong! Up to our tits in pigeons is what we’re about to be! Shoot straight, or go home, Hewitt!” The veins were popping from his temple, pulsing a plum red.
I stood under his anger, and felt unable to rise, as though I was in a well looking up at Tucker in the sun. “Yes, Sir,” is all I mustered.
Men were making their way for the trucks. Tucker turned from me and was calling for his battalion. “Tucker Battalion, Truck 1A,” he shouted, “1A!” He never looked back.
The ride out of camp was very uncomfortable. Fifty or more of us soldiers were placed in the back of a truck meant for no more than twenty-five fairly thin soldiers. Our bulk of backpacks, turret guns, and grenade launchers made it a makeshift pile of green, black, and brown abstract bodies.
The road was no less easy to handle. Our paved walkways, and cemented streets of camp were in stark contrast to the muddy, crater filled road to the mountains. Some men grew ill, and the green, black, brown bodies gained a hint of whitish pink from vomit.
Nine trucks rode out today. All had at least fifty men aboard. Our briefing the day before told us to be prepared for a colony of pigeons. That could be anywhere from ten to fifty pigeons. We would out-number them for sure, but one could never be too cautious around these creatures.
One of the other cadets, to my right, I was not sure of his name, was speaking with another cadet sitting across from me curled up between an ammunition box, and a bazooka. “Last time they was out here it was fer about a hundred of em.”
The other cadet, I believe his name was Byron, squirmed between the two objects, “Oh yeah? Where’d you hear that?”
“Foley. Said when they got there, the pigeons was eatin’ three men from the next village-human men. Said they been stealin’ the villages food, now they just killin’ and eatin’ the men there.”
Byron tried to anchor himself against the wall of the truck to give his back a rest, “I guess you’ll see for yourself.”
The cadet to my right pulled out a plastic bag filled with a huge ball of pink chewing gum. It had teeth marks in it, and it was marred with black-greenish splotches that looked like moldy flakes of grass. “Gum?” he gestured the bag towards me.
I shook my head. He stuck his meaty hand into the bag and the gum came out with a schlurp sound as he peeled it from the plastic. He looked me up and down, “We don’t share the same bunk territory, do we?”
Trying not to look at the gum he was massaging in his hand I said, “No, I roomed with Tucker, over at lot 48. He’s got his own battalion now.”
Byron was staring at me now, and looked like he had something to say. He looked like he had an itch in his brain. “Tucker?” he said, “I know him. You’re Hewitt, right?” I confirmed as much. “He gave you a verbal beatin back at the range didn’t he?” He continued to look at me sideways.
“Bad shot,” I said.
The other cadet tossed the baseball sized piece of gum in his mouth and started gnawing on it. “Still,” he said between chomps and slurps, “not right to yell at ya like that.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
Byron started to speak then was interrupted by a call from the front of the truck, “One hundred yards to drop off and closing!” The men of the truck said prayers, some shook hands, while others kissed the butt of their guns. All had the look of killing on their faces--except for Byron.
The speed of the truck began to slow, and so did the bumps. The trucks were in a perfect line as they came to a stop. Outside all that could be seen was the walls of brown mountains, with snowy white caps. Tucker jumped out of the truck, stopped behind our own. I waited for the call.
“All men, load and go, load and go,” Tucker rallied around the trucks, sprinting.
Cadets poured out around me, carrying case after case of guns and ammo. I felt a hand reach out and wrap around my right arm--it was Byron. Men climbed out all over, and around the two of us.
Leaning in close to my face he said, “Do you think you’re ready, Hewitt?”
I looked into his eyes, they were a frozen, granite gray. “Yes,” I murmured.
“Not my first time, Hewitt,” he looked around to scan the area which they stood, “Not Tucker’s either.” Men were still pouring out around them, some cheering death to pigeons!, some shouting, one dead pigeon at a time boys! All were radiant, and feverish with anticipation.
Byron continued to hold my arm. He looked into my eyes with an icy death gaze and said, “Tucker already knows, and so do I, so I guess I’m just as bad as him. But when you go in there with the pigeons...well Tucker was mad at you because you shot high. Go in shootin’ high.”
I felt like I had just been doused with ice water, “What do you mean not Tucker’s first time. How is it not your first ti-”
A trunk of grenades, held by two excitable cadets, smacked Byron in the back and knocked him into my face, he paused a moment, “The thing is, Hewitt,” he said, “the W.F.P.I needs cheerleaders; trainers for the weak if you wanna call us.”
Troops were approaching the target area, and I was left behind with Byron. “So...you’ve done this before? You’re not a cadet?”
“Just shoot high Hewitt. Follow the ranks, but shoot high.”
With that he released me and was running out with the others. I stayed frozen, confused like a frostbitten sloth for a moment, then I picked up my rifle and followed.
Tucker’s battalion was the first to circle where the pigeons had a holding. The men were silent, and now followed the hand signal orders of their battalion leaders. My leader was a young soldier who had the face of a vaselined baby’s bottom. He waved us into formation, and we followed Tucker’s group.
I looked for Byron as I fell to the right of the line, but he came to a spot near the far left. His eyes never left that forward gaze.
Next to me, however, was the gum chewing cadet. He was trying not to choke up a wad of backed up bubble gum spit. I looked towards Tucker, he was surveying the crowd. His eyes caught mine, and I felt the cold harshness in them and they struck me like a fallen icicle. Looking away, he rallied in front of his men. They walked forward towards the cave’s opening.
My lanky battalion leader had his helmet cock-eyed on the top of his shaved head. The skinny dome of his skull let the helmet teter, and jostle about on top. He motioned us forward.
Tucker’s men were in the cave now, and the darkness of it was closing in around us as we progressed. Complete pure darkness was the cave.
Bang! Came an echoing sound of gunpowder from the heart of the cave.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Sounds of howls, and victory calls could be heard from Tucker’s men.
Like a random flush of knee-high waves, our battalion was being breached and broken through.
“What the hell? Shoot em, it’s pigeons! Game’s on, boys!” hollered the gum-chewer.
In the dark, roll of tunnel came the loud popping of gunfire, and with it the flashes of radiant white-yellow bullet glow. I felt a small pigeon come through my legs, panting and sighing as it ran. I readied and cocked my gun. I could hear the pigeon running, I gave chase. It tripped and fell over blackened rocks, and invisible pot holes. The smell of black powder ignition was everywhere around me. Little fireworks of man-made ballistics lit up the back of the pigeon as it ran. I held my gun out in front of me, the butt against my shoulder, the barrel in my hand.
The pigeon made it’s way back to the opening, where the light showered bright against the ring of blackness at the entrance. I shot, but the light of the gun barrels shooting behind me grew dim, and I shot into the invisible rocks. The bullet ricochet went bouncing from the walls. My brow now bent, and my cheeks hot with pinpoint rage. Twenty yards towards the light, fifteen, ten, finally out into the field and valley of the mountains.
It stood at the threshold and came face to face with seven more battalions ready for any attempts at escape. The pigeon turned back towards me. My gun sight to my eye, with a loaded hammer. The screech from it’s voice filled my head with the sound of buzzing. It was like the sound of a playground, real and alive.
Finger on the trigger, it’s face in my sights. I locked onto it’s nose. It’s nose. A soft nose, glistening with sweat in the daylight. There was no curve, only two small huffing nostrils and a grape sized circular tip. The skin of the pigeon--pink, and white, and, red and, smooth, and soft-- tears running down the canals of its cheeks; over it’s beautiful rose colored lips. Strands of auburn-sunset hair across its face and stuck to the dewey tear soaked cheeks.
The pigeon, only a child. A little girl no more than seven years old. My gun, now to my waist, and throwing my hands up to the other troops not to fire. My gun fell to my feet and I started running towards the little girl. My helmet bounced from my head to the ground. With arms wide to embrace her, falling to my knees.
Sweeping my arms around her, there was nothing but air. She collapsed there in front of me to the ground. A bullet hole through her right eye. She dropped like a side of beef, with a thud to the ground.
“No! It was a little girl! You killed her!” Screaming , and turning around to face Tucker.
“A little pigeon tried to flee the coop, Hewitt. We put her down together, thanks for chasing her out,” Tucker tucked a handgun back into the waist of his pants.
More battalions were ran past into the cave. No eyes watched., Tucker, me, and the dead girl on the ground. Gun shots were still ringing out a terrible call. Another “pigeon,” this time a boy no older than five ran crying--shot down by the gum chewer. He shrieked with delight.
Tucker knelt beside me. “Hewitt, do you know why I had to yell at you back there at the range?” He said looking out over the hills, picking at his fingernails. “Byron told you to shoot high?” He asked, but was not looking for a response. “These...things, they’re a cancer Hewitt. Children of immigrants, children of murderers. Some of these kids even were orphaned by drug addicts. We don’t need more of those people, do we?”
My lips felt stapled shut. More than twenty children lay around me, dead and bleeding out in the dusty field. Battalions let out screams of joy, and others patted each other on their backs. The sun sat high over a glossy green field turning the brown mountains a shimmery gold. The running wind swept across my face, and dried my sweat and cooled my skin.
Tucker reached out, touched my arm, and gave me an all tooth smile.
Smiling back, the gun barrel on my chin, the hammer on my finger. My teeth flew into the breeze, and hung for a just a moment.