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Death and the Veteran
I stumbled around in the chill darkness, automatically. My large pot was full of water. It had frozen in the pot. I switched on the burner under it, and then crouched trembling in front of the heater to dress. I did not turn on my electric lamp. If there is too much draw upon the power, it goes off quicker. The orange coils of the humming heater gave me enough light to get into my clothes.
The skeleton dances nightly in my dreams. It comes for me dancing, reaching out fleshless fingers to take my one hand and draw me into the dance. Gaunt white bones jangle absurdly. The face is all jaw and teeth, grinning in death's rictus. I've seen this skeleton in my dreams for years. I've seen this skeleton in the pages of books, in old woodcuts.
In Death and The Maiden, a girl looks up surprised from her garden. In Death and The Huswife, a woman is taken abruptly from her bake oven. In Death and The Miser, an old man is snatched from his counting house. The humans in the pictures are interrupted by the spectre and turn in astonishment as they are led away.
But I am not surprised. The stark face has eyes that are dark pits. I've dreamed of that face so often. I've been waiting for Death a long time. It has had a long journey. Each year and each night it is closer.
Last night I dreamed that the skeleton was just outside my door. My calendar on the wall was page-less. There are no more pages to turn. Today is the day that the skeleton will come for me.
It was also the morning of Christmas Eve, about six in the morning. Today, I thought, I am going to die. So I'm not going to see Christmas day. When I closed my eyes, I could see the image again, the paper white, gangling human form reaching out the skinny bone fingers, impossibly long. I dressed clumsily and hurriedly. I was afraid. It would be interesting to be dead. I had a question that I wanted answered and the only way to find out the answer to my question would be to be dead.
I am of no use to anyone. It would be no tragedy for the skeleton to come and take me. A one-armed man is ugly and unfit for any really productive work. I have a job, of all things, as a typist. I type out municipal records, slowly, one-handed.
The room warmed up a little. The heater laboured mightily. I took my great coat off of the bed and slid into it. My empty sleeve hung heavily, for I keep it pinned up as a pocket. With the coat, a couple of frayed sweaters and the shirts that I had slept in, I was much warmer. I forayed again from the heater and went to my window.
The frost on the inside of the panes was thick. I scratched it with my fingernails until I could see outside. White snowy shavings fell inside. I held my breath so that it would not fog the glass.
Outside, the city lay dim and jagged under the deep blue dawning sky. My room is in a five-story building on the top floor. I could see no lights in the buildings below. Electricity is precious, saved for heating and for cooking. The dim glimmers of candles behind the shrouded windows did not touch the dark. It was as if black-out conditions still existed. The war-battered buildings had crumbled corners. They stood among the mounds of un-cleared rubble. Someday, now that the ceasefire had finally jelled and appeared permanent, the rubble would be bulldozed. If my dreams were premonitory, then I would never see the rubble cleared. I was still glad that I had seen the end of the war, even if I would not see the city come back to life again.
In the dark rooms and apartments around the city, people would be bending over their electric burners, lighting the guttering stubs of candles, preparing for the day to begin.
The electricity stayed on that morning for forty-five minutes, enough time to melt the ice in my pot and heat it to steaming, but not enough time to boil it. Usually we get electricity for more than an hour, but the coil in my heater dulled, and the lovely heat faded.
I sat at the table in my dim room. I stirred the hot water into the oatmeal that I had for breakfast, a quarter cup of the frozen oatmeal from the sack in the corner farthest from the heater. It made gruel, thin but nourishing, my usual breakfast. I stirred it around and around.
Once I was in love with a boy named Noel. He was eighteen and I was twenty-four and it was a lifetime ago. I remembered breakfast in bed with Noel, the blanket a heaving mound of warm quilts. Our knees tangled, kisses were flavoured with bacon. It was a late breakfast, midmorning, a sun-dazzled room. We woke early, stayed in bed, bodies locked rocking and fused by the moistness of sweat. Saturdays completely wasted: Noel's tongue playing tickling in my chest and armpit hair, his flushed face coming up smiling from under the quilts. I had fed him by forkfuls from the fragrant mounds of food on the plate. Bacon, eggs, coffee with cream, sweet rolls, yellow butter, segments of oranges so juicy and sweet that they had burst in his mouth, and orange juice had trickled down the fingers of the hand that I no longer have. And like my fingers, Noel was gone also, like all the young men.
I could have eaten the gruel the way that it was. It would have been palatable, although it was raw. But the water had not boiled and all summer long there had been cholera in the city. There was always a chance that this water too, bought from off of the public water truck, was tainted. To get cholera was to die a slow death over days of diarrhoea.
I sat without eating in the dim cold room, stirring the porridge, until there came a knock on my door.
That roused me and surprised me. Who would knock, so lightly and so early? It was one of my neighbours, Mrs. Keitch, an old middle-aged woman who lived on the first floor. She stood in a black coat, holding a white candle, her crooked nervous smile yellow from the light of the flame.
"What's the matter?" I said. "Is there something you need?"
I'd never spoken to her before. I never spoke to any of my neighbours. They avoided me, perhaps having learned to fear all men of an age to be soldiers, during one of the two hideous times that the city had been sacked. Because of my dream I was expecting some trouble today and I did not expect anything but a very sudden trouble would bring her to my door.
But Mrs. Keitch said, "I'm selling candles. Mr. Anthoni, isn't it? Would you like to buy some candles?"
The tall slim candle in her hand was for an advertisement as well as for light in the dark hall.
"I've been saving them." She smiled almost apologetically; perhaps afraid I would accuse her of hoarding. "But I've just heard that they are selling chickens in the market this morning. I want to buy a chicken. Would you buy a candle or two?"
I gave her six dollars and took two candles. They were tall hard white candles, brittle in the cold. She was knocking on the door of my neighbour across the hall, to see if she could sell more of her candles to the old couple who live there when I shut my door.
I put the candles aside. It would be good to have them. Perhaps tonight, if I was still here, and if I was not too tired to stay awake, I could burn one of them and stay up reading old letters.
Noel wrote me hundreds of letters. His unit went East and he fought in the mud-caked fields and barren wastelands that had once been productive farms. I got, I think, about a third of the letters that he wrote. Most were lost before they reached me. He wrote to me on any paper he could find, on pieces of newspaper and on requisition forms, over the printing when he couldn't find any blank sections to write on.
"I love you, love you, love you," he wrote. "You are NOT to find yourself a new boyfriend. When I come back I am going to dive into your pants, and if you have been fucking around with any of those fags from Tenshing, I will know it! I will be able to see the marks of their lips on your prick. You have been warned!!!!" I have dozens of his letters, which I had saved carefully. They stopped coming to me five years ago. Noel died.
It was time to leave, not to go to work yet, but to go to the market. The earlier I was there, the shorter the time that I would have to stand in line, perhaps. I would not have much money after buying the candles, but I could get a potato or two and those would make a good supper.
So I went out. The streets were still half dark and the paths in the snow were narrow, but well trodden. The market was filling early. That was the first thing I saw. There were more people than usual out, queued up in front of the boarded shop windows. I hurried.
"Mommy, look!" The sudden squeaking voice of a child startled everyone in the market street and made us turn. "Mommy! Look at that!" It was a small child, thin-faced, pulled close by his mother's hand. His narrow arm was stretched out, and bright spots of excitement flushed his cheeks under his hood.
There was spruce tree set up, standing in a snow bank outside of the licensed rural produce dealer. On its dark green boughs a dozen yellow lights sparkled. An electric flex ran out of the dealer's store. The power had come back on again and made the tiny lights gleam in the tree's branches.
The power is back on, I thought and I felt my face widen in amazement, not that the erratic power was back on, but because of the tree.
"Mommy, what is it? Why are there lights in the tree?"
The mother, an exhausted-looking woman with bare hands, red from the cold, bent close to her child. She was smiling. "It's a Christmas tree. Remember what I described to you? That tree is just to look pretty, because it's Christmas."
The child was entranced, round-mouthed. Like the child, we adults stared. The gold lights gleamed like tiny stars and made the green of the tree more vivid. How long had it been since I had seen a Christmas tree? A few years, most likely. Now here was the proud, pretty symbol of celebration.
"The war's over." An old woman murmured.
No one muttered that the produce dealer was wasting precious power. We stood in a ring about the tree and gazed. Every person who came into the street halted. The little tree shone and the child laughed. A Christmas tree. Well, why not? It had been long enough. It would be a good thing to go back to celebrating Christmases.
The store was crowded and foggy with the shoppers' breath when I got in. There was a whole row of chickens, plucked and lying frozen, waiting to be sold. I didn't have enough money for a chicken, but I bought potatoes and milk. That would make a good supper. Potatoes were not as dear as they had been a year ago. I bought three potatoes.
Chickens in the market, I thought, and Christmas trees! Like past holidays. One year Noel had wrapped my prick with red and green ribbons, spiralling them upward. There only had been one year with Noel, one Christmas. "This is what I want for Christmas!" he said and he had seized my beribboned organ. "It's already wrapped . . ." he had said coaxingly. How silly he had been, like a kid ten years younger. And how trusting. He had fallen backwards into my arms, always confident that I would catch him, and I always had and bent down to cover his upturned face with laughing kisses.
"Mine! Mine! Mine!" he had written in his letters. "You are mine! Tell your Colonel to send you to some nice safe place behind the lines so that you will be there waiting for me after this is all over. You must be waiting for me. I need you. I belong to you. I want you. Jesus, how I want you! Every time I think of you I get a hard-on or I come close to crying or both."
When the skeleton comes I will be ready for him. I have answers to Noel's letters and no other way to bring them to him. I have dreamed about the skeleton so many times that I'm not afraid of it. I'm only afraid of the pain that comes with dying. But the skeleton itself is not too terrible. Animated bones. They are as much absurd as horrible. My dreams don't feel terrible while I am dreaming them. I was never afraid of the skeleton and never afraid when I dreamed about my glove.
Why am I so sure that I am dreaming about my death? For years and years I had the same dreams. Sometimes I dreamed that one day a skeleton would come for me, and sometimes I dreamed that I was going to lose my glove. I had the dream about the glove until the winter before I lost my arm. And the night before I lost my arm, I dreamed that I would finally lose my glove that day.
There are two children that live in my building. I think that they are around nine and eleven, but it is hard to tell and I am not even sure if they are boy or girl, because the mismatched layers of clothes that they wear sometimes includes skirts and shawls and sometimes doesn't.
These two children have always been afraid of me. They go out and gather dung and wood and chips of coal, anything that burns. When they see me if we are going in and out of the building at the same time, they always run up the stairs with their buckets, and look back down at me with alarmed and wary faces.
They were standing outside of the building when I came back, steaming like small dragons, too absorbed in their conversation to notice me at first. They had arms full of pine boughs.
"If we just stick them up in the snow, they'll only look like we brought them home for the needles," the older one said.
"Well, we can't make them into a Christmas tree. And the tree in the market was stuck in the snow." The smaller one was clutching so many boughs that she appeared to be trying to look like a tree herself.
"They won't look like decorations. I want them to look like decorations."
Then they saw me behind them and stood looking at me.
"If you have string," I said, "you could tie them in an arch over the door. People decorate like that."
"How could we do that?" the older asked boldly.
I gestured at the doorframe. "Tie it there and there and to each other. Bring them together in the middle." They were so interested in the problem that they had forgotten to be afraid of me. They stared up at the door.
"Then you decorate the boughs," I said. "You don't have lights? You make little decorations. I have some red cloth. Do you want me to show you?"
They nodded vigorously. I went upstairs. This would have amused Noel, I thought: putting up Christmas decorations. I came down again with a piece of cloth that had once been a red shirt. It had worn through in the arms. The cloth was soft and rotten, too soft to be worn, but the colour was still red and vivid.
"Can you tear it? Into a little square?"
"This big?" The elder child tore a square, two and a half inches on the sides.
"Now stuff it with pine needles, with anything, make a ball and tie it with the threads hanging." They stood right under me. The small one tore the cloth with her face puckered seriously, looking at the elder's handwork while she tried to copy it. The elder did what I described and had a plump, small red ball with a ragged end and threads dangling to tie it to the boughs with.
Their faces turned up bright. "Thanks, Mr. Anthoni!" They fell on the shirt, tearing it eagerly, but carefully.
"Not too small. Don't make the pieces too small!" the younger cried.
"Don't worry. Look, we can use the seams like strings to tie the boughs up with," the older answered her.
I had to go to work. I hurried. I was running late. I had delayed to watch the children make the decorations. The winter day was not frozen hard. Old men pulling carts of fuel were struggling, because the wheels got stuck in the slush. My balance isn't good. I can't throw both arms out to steady myself if the ground is slippery. I looked down, careful with my footing as I hurried along the trench-like paths in the snow.
It was winter like this the very last time that I dreamed I was going to lose my glove. I'd slept in a billet with a coal-fire stove. It seemed important when I woke up that I had finally dreamed that I would lose my glove, but what did it matter really? I felt like I had reached a great change in my life, like graduating or being born even. It was only a dream. We were fighting partisans in the towns along the coastal foothills. The day ahead of me with the danger of snipers, the tense work of going house to house, searching, the possibility of mines and booby-traps: that was a lot more important than if I lost a glove, winter or not.
I never felt it when it hit me. I was in the middle of a group going up a slanted street. Gunfire ripped out without sound or sensation. When it echoed, it had echoed in my deaf ears. I took the hit and fell, feeling nothing, down and dead before the sound began.
I was cold, waking: bitterly, bitterly cold. I was gummy, sticky with blood and burning with pain. I had lain unconscious, perhaps three hours, on the road between four dead soldiers and I was lying in a pool of blood.
I could see my arm on the road above me. The sleeve ended, fragments of flesh had no feeling. They had frozen in the cold. I tried to get up, to pull my weak body up onto my knees. I could not. My blood had frozen and I was stuck to the ground.
My chest heaved, panting. The unyielding ground was hard as stone. It sucked the warmth from me slowly. It held me locked flat like teeth. I pulled on mangled, frosted flesh. I felt savage pain around my elbow and pulled with all my strength anyway. I was frozen to the ground as securely as if I was nailed.
The blood had run from my arm under me. My coat was frozen also, by the blood that had saturated it. There was no more fresh blood. When the torn muscle had frozen, that had sealed the wounds. I could kick. I could scrabble with my boot toes. I was shuddering with the cold, dying of the cold and I could not get up.
I lay between the humped up bodies of the dead men for the middle part of the day. I didn't stop struggling feebly. I could turn a bit and look up at the vivid blue of the sky. I tried to break the frozen blood every way I could think of. By rocking side to side, I got my gummy coat freed a little. The red crystals cracked and peeled off of the black pavement. My shoulder stayed down like it was part of the road itself. My cheek was freezing where it touched the road. My face was frost-bitten. The numbness spread above my elbow. Now, even when I struggled, I could not feel pain there.
And then I heard the crunch of footsteps, slow and careful in the snow. It was a partisan, a big man with a black beard who moved warily around the group of fallen men. I gave a frantic kick and his eyes gleamed at me. I could not use a weapon, even if I had been able to reach one.
He stooped at the other soldiers, sliding his mittened fingers into their pockets, searching them. He took their rifles and hung them on his back, and all the while his grinning gaze turned to me, while I kicked again and again.
He came to search me also. He poked hard in my numb ribs and pulled. Steam came from around his teeth. He didn't point a gun at me. Why should he? Bullets are expensive and I was helpless. The cold would kill me cheaply if I laid out there for a couple of hours more. When he had pulled all the weapons and any ammunition that he could find away from the men who littered the road, the partisan went away.
He came back again with a weapon that needed no ammunition. He stood above me looking down. He was enormously tall, dark against the sky, a giant with an axe. His eyes measured, centred on me as he brought the tool up high. His eyes bulged as it was aimed. They fixed on me, glaring, holding me. I kicked but didn't scream. It came down unstoppable, a dead weight, hissing in the frigid sky.
It landed clean. It took him one blow. He took off my arm. I screamed blood then. The pain was numb lightning. His hands wrestled with my stump and tore me free. The frozen blood ripped as it released me, with an obscene sound like that of tape being peeled back. I was limp and screaming as the man clutched cloth against the end of my arm. The big man seemed to shimmer in and out of a black oblivion. I wavered, conscious and unconscious by turns as he wrestled with me roughly, tying up my stump and kneeling on my stomach to hold my convulsing body still.
I don't remember much of how he dragged me out of the road, nor of the hospital. I know the partisan cut off my arm just below the elbow. He was a kind enemy, because if he had been able to save my elbow, I would have had that much more use of my arm afterwards. But in the field hospital, one of our own surgeons took the arm off again, much higher, only a little below my armpit, because the rot got into the elbow.
I shivered for a month in a canvas cot, vomiting from the pain, the smell of pus disgusting as it seeped yellow beneath the bandage. I survived. I don't regret surviving. But I never again dreamed my recurring dream about the lost glove.
That is why I believe my dreams are prophetic, and why I am not very much afraid of dying. Whatever sends me my dreams, to me that means there is something more than the world I see. Something good sent me my dreams as a warning. If there is a power for good that reaches beyond me in dreams and singled me out this way for its kindness, then I believe it will bring me back to Noel again.
* * *
When I reached the scarred concrete building, which used to be a warehouse, and is now city hall, where I work, there were trucks parked outside. I passed inside. The building smelt of heating fires where garbage had been burned, but the rooms were cold.
"We got paid!" The only person in the office was my boss, the regional census and manpower manager. Martha is a lawyer, a sixty-four-year-old woman, too arthritic to type. She was beaming from her desk, bundled in a couple of shawls. "You'd better hurry," she said. "You have to go out to the airport."
On my desk was my pay. We usually get paid every two weeks. We are supposed to be paid in advance, and if possible in scrip instead of in kind. I stared at my desk. There were a few creased pieces of scrip, clipped together. But what I saw on my desk was something I had never expected to see again. There was a bag of oranges.
I took up the bag and turned to look at her with an incredulous smile. She beamed back again. "Can you believe it? But now that the planes are coming in safely, these must have been flown in from Morocco, or even from the States! Oranges! I'm going to give one to my sister, and one to the man who brings me my firewood and one to my nephew . . ."
The bag held eight oranges. Not just one orange but eight. They were bright, round and vermilion. Oranges. I could almost smell, like a hallucination, the sharp sweet acidity of their scent when the peel is broken. I wanted to tear one open right away and eat it, but I couldn't do that. To peel an orange would take time. It takes two hands to tear the bright rind back easily. I didn't have the time.
"Why am I going to the airport?" I asked her.
"There are planes expected this morning. New manpower. New people to feed. You will have to get the lists. I can't go because I am meeting with the rationing manager," she explained.
Our job is to make and maintain the list of people on the city rolls. Usually she gets the information and I type it. The labour bureau and the rationing office need the lists of the living to allocate resources. The lists of the dead we compile so that the survivors can learn the answers to their questions later.
The lists are all-important. I have a great collection of old papers to compile, the scribbled reports of fire wardens from those terrible days when the city shuddered and burned and the guns boomed. In this building on this date, a family of six, only the surname given, were killed. At this address four families: three survivors, mother and two daughters escaped from the bottom flat. This house apparently empty when the flames consumed it. This bomb shelter on this date: a direct hit. All died.
The survivors care. They still come week after week to see if there is any news, if the one name they are seeking for has finally appeared on any lists, if there is confirmation. The lists are everything. I remember when I found Noel's name at last on a list.
MIA; a list that means everything and nothing. Missing in action. And so I went over the lists and prayed and gave up hope and hoped again and found a new list to check, waiting for confirmation for weeks and weeks. It was two years before I found his name on that other list: KIA. Killed in action. And then I knew that for two years I had been hoping when there was nothing to hope for.
"I really am not joking: Do your best to stay alive for me. I don't want to stay alive through everything I've seen and done for nothing. I'd die and get it over with if it wasn't for the thought that you will be there for me when I finally get to come home. I am living in a nightmare, and holding out for the hope that someday I'll wake up, it will be all over and I can be together with you again," Noel wrote. So I had stayed alive, but his nightmare had been stronger than he was.
Death come dance with me. Let your hand link my hand with Noel's hand. Why should I be afraid? There is no way that dying could hurt worse than when I was wounded. Whatever sent me my dreams will give me the answers that the three letters "KIA" did not. Noel, did you die quickly?
There were half a dozen trucks waiting for me, ready to go to the airport. I climbed up into the cab of one beside the woman driver. She grinned at me merrily, with teeth spotted by malnutrition. The aged gears clashed and slush churned up as the ride to the airport began.
Noel was a clown, hard to pin down, seldom serious. The first night he ever flung himself down on my bed, waggling his naked rump provocatively in the air, he had used the word love. "Oooh! I love you! Come and get me!" His ass had been firm and warm and muscular, deep hollows on the sides, the most beautiful ass in the world. He used the word love so easily it was impossible to think he meant it. But then he had written me all those letters.
Smooth flesh, round hard shoulders, a supple hot body; we had wrestled. It had taken me all of my strength and both arms to pin him beneath me. So much skin and warmth. His tongue seeking up my thigh, lapping on my scrotum, had made me go still. By the time his eager mouth had worked its way onto my prick, Noel had me pinned in his place. Both my arms had not been enough to hold such a cunning young fighter with so much strong young muscle.
When we got to the airport the planes had not landed. There was a delay. There was always a delay. Out on the runway, little dark figures with brooms were sweeping. The white fields stretched barren to the white sky. Once there had been a forest on the edge of the airport, but it had been whittled away, tree by tree, and brought back on sledges to be burned for firewood. Now there was only snow and the squat building, like a bunker that had been put up to replace the building that had burned.
I wandered slowly in the building. There was no place to sit down. The rep from the relief society was there, a teenaged girl with two long dirty braids, unloading armfuls of thin blankets. When I looked at the pile, I knew that they had been told to expect several planes.
She worked slowly at the dogged pace that I was familiar with, the way that people work who know they have several hours of labour ahead of them and begin by conserving their strength because they are already exhausted. Everyone works that way. So do I. There are not many energetic people in the city. Months of rationing had seen to that.
I thought about offering to help her, but I was tired, and too lost in my thoughts. I stood and looked at the white sky, watching for the planes instead.
Will it be a plane crashing here that brings the skeleton to me? A sudden onrush of dark metal and sound, inexorable, and then the grim white bony fingers lunging through the blood and gasoline to clutch at my wrist and drag me to itself? I hoped it wouldn't be a plane. If it were a plane, then other people would die: the crew, the passengers, and the girl rep from the relief society. I would much rather be the only one to die, but just as I am sure that the skeleton is inescapable, I am sure that I can do nothing to warn the people around me.
Perhaps the war isn't over, perhaps the ceasefire has rotted apart, perhaps now the bombers are coming again and I will die as the city explodes. I shook my head, denying the thought that came to me. That would be unbearable. It would be too wrong to lose the little that is left. But the unbearable has already happened, happened a hundred times over and over, and I have endured my share.
Just let the skeleton come for me! I begged mentally. For me, and no one else.
Snow fell, thin and silver in the warm winter air, falling as fast as the runway sweepers could work. Another convoy of trucks came in and lined up behind ours. Their uniformed drivers, all women, came in and we traded rumours: The planes are held up at St. Stephen, but they are held up because of the weather and will be here soon. The planes are coming from a DP camp at Eirmok. They are letting the cholera patients from the camp hospital come here. The planes are held up because of paperwork. There is a cargo plane expected. The planes will be military planes, but they will not come.
Sometimes the rumours are right. Usually the rumours are wrong. I lost interest after awhile because I began to think about Noel again.
He wouldn't enlist with me. "If we enlist together, we can probably serve together," I had said.
"Suck me," Noel had grinned.
"No, Noel, I'm serious. One of us, or both of us, are going to get drafted real soon. We have to make a decision now. Can't you think of anything other than sex?"
"Suck me." He had taken my head in both hands, staring into my eyes, and then pulled my face down. "Go on. Kiss my prick."
"Noel, stop it!" I had torn away. "Please. I want to go down to the enlistment office with you."
"I don't want to."
"Be realistic! Our names are on the list! We don't even have a month left together. I want you to come with me."
"I want you to suck me. That's what I want."
"Why won't you come with me?"
"Because I don't want to come with you." When he was forced into seriousness, Noel's face had been pale. "I don't want to serve beside you. I don't want to spend every minute of the war watching you, wondering when it will be. I don't want to go into the field with you. I don't want to see it when you get hit. I don't want to be there . . ." His voice had trailed away. "All I want is for you to suck me. Is that too much to want?"
"No," I had agreed. "That's not too much to want."
"My drill sergeant screams at us, 'You are a bunch of fairies!'" Noel wrote to me. "And I always think, 'Yeth, thank you, Thergeant!' but I never say so, because he thinks he is being insulting. Besides, poor man, I pinned him when he was trying to demonstrate unarmed combat to us. He would find it terribly embarrassing to learn that he had been sat on by a 175-pound high-school-wrestling-team fairy."
It was afternoon before the planes finally did arrive. They came in formation, white-bellied, short-bodied cargo craft, without fighter escort. The runway sweepers ran off of the field. The planes began to land, one at a time dropping to hurtle the length of the runway. They came in quickly, one after another, spacing themselves closely. They had military markings. It took nearly an hour before all on the planes were down. It took longer before they could taxi and get to the front of the airport building. The sweepers had to clear a path for them and we had to wait. Only a few people came out of the planes and shuffled through the clinging snow, but one of them came to me.
"Here: passenger lists. You're the manpower and resources rep? Where is the relief society rep?"
"Where are they from?" I asked as I gestured at her.
"Quaow Da," he called over his shoulder.
I stared at him in consternation. Quaow Da? On the other side?
When I saw the men come into the terminal, I understood. They shuffled slowly, emaciated men in rags with fever-bright eyes. Their uniforms had letters stencilled on them. The bright pale orange had faded under the dirt, but I still knew the initials from photographs that I had seen. They were prisoners of war.
Manpower? Not these once-young men. There was not a man in the halting file that was fit for work. They had been starved. They were young men who did not look like young men. They were skinny, spindly, emaciated. They were just as wasted as the corpses in the city morgue who had died of malnutrition or cholera. I felt my breathing come out trembling. This is what was left of all the beautiful young men from ten years ago.
I wanted to cry out in anguish. So many beautiful young men, gone. These ruined old men were all that was left of them. But I leaned my clipboard up and I began matching the names. They might be starved but they were alive, and more than that, they had been released. So I read their names as they came into the terminal, and made notes on where they should go. They were staring around themselves with amazed eyes. They limped slowly, some helping others, others tottering along.
I was supposed to allocate where they would go. I was supposed to put some names down on the labour roster and other names down as unfit. But they all needed to go to hospitals where they could be fed. They all would need provision for new clothing. Some of the threadbare emaciated men were even barefoot.
The rep from the relief society moved among them, placing blankets around their shoulders. They looked at her and at the uniformed women with disbelieving eyes. In the prison camp they would not have seen women for over two years. The girl's lips were crooked tremulously as she wrapped the blankets around the gaunt shoulders and the line moved forward.
I wrote "H" for hospital after every name that I read. Then my pencil stopped moving and I looked at the name of the man that was next on the list: Noel Darlington. I raised my head.
Bone-thin, paper-white, eyes dark stunned hollows in his skull, Noel stood before me. My skeleton was Noel. He was a walking skeleton, a living dead man, as wasted as if he had risen from a grave. It was unmistakably him.
"Noel . . . !"
I folded my arm around him and I clung. "Noel. Noel." I felt every rib. It was not a cry of joy or relief that greeted me. It was anguish in a whisper.
"Your arm! Oh Jesus, what happened to your arm!"
I could not let go of him. I held my skeletal lover locked tight. I was trembling, or else he was and the shivering racked both of us. All around us the voices murmured, awed and joyful for us. "Brothers. They must be brothers. Look . . . !"
I could not let him go. I did not let him go. How I finished my work, I don't know, because I kept hold of him, and he of me. I wrote the names all down. We got the men into the trucks. I kept Noel at my side. I would not send him to the hospital and lose him again. No! I was fierce in my determination to keep him. He rode in the cab of the truck with me, with my great coat covering his thin uniform.
"You lived," he whispered. "You did. You lived for me."
The driver dropped us off in front of my building. She could do no more for us. Her face was crinkled almost tearfully at the sight of us. She took a detour of many streets to bring us home.
"Good luck, good luck with him," she called.
It was dusk then, feather-light snow dropping in the blue twilight. I held Noel on his feet. By then he was beyond walking. Ahead of us the windows gleamed with light, one candle in the window of each room, tall and white, haloed by the melted frost on the window. My neighbours had bought Mrs. Keitch's candles and lit them to shine for Christmas. Only my window on the top floor still was dark.
I carried Noel in under the boughs. The stairs defeated me. He weighed so little. Under my greatcoat, there was nothing there to fill a pair of arms. But I had only one arm to hold him. It was too much. I dragged him up, step by step our boots clattering. It was hard.
The noise brought out my neighbours into the dim stairwell: the old couple peering down from above, the two children clinging to the railings, Mrs. Keitch and the old man from the ground floor.
"What is it?"
"He's come home."
They didn't care who or what Noel was to me, only that he was a lost soldier, come back at last. They brought him upstairs for me. Their many arms caught us both and tugged us upward.
"A prisoner exchange in time for Christmas!"
The heater in my room was purring. I felt the warmth on my cheeks as we got in. It must have been rumbling away for a long while already to make the room so warm.
"He's so thin, poor man!" They eased Noel into my bed.
"Wait," I said. "Thank you." I dug in the sleeve of my greatcoat and brought out the oranges. "For you. Thank you."
They stayed in my room, helping, clustered around my great joy. "Happy Christmas, Mr. Anthoni!" the smaller child fluted in her shrill voice. The sweet acid smell of orange peel filled the air. Mrs. Keitch brought up her chicken, golden roasted with crisp fat, and shared it with us all. The children's mother had wrapped small dolls for them in tissue paper. They opened them in my room and shared their delight with us. The old man from the ground floor had chocolates, wrapped in foil to share. All those faces glowed with smiles as they celebrated what I had gotten back.
I kept Noel pressed up against me, feeding him segments of orange and slivers of chicken. He smiled and kissed my fingers. He kept his cheek pressed against my side. Unbelievably, with so many people in it, the room became warm and we shed our scarves and shawls and sweaters. Even Noel's cold skin became warm, with my blankets wrapped around him.
After they were gone, Noel, worn out, slept under my arm, perfectly warm, and I lay awake in the dark beside him. I did not need to sleep. My mind ran over everything that I would need to do to keep him and to get him strong again. It would be difficult to get enough extra food; I would find a way to do it. I was confident. I would restore him to himself again.
No more dreams. The skeleton had come. I kissed him. I would never dream that the skeleton was coming for me again, because now I had him and I would keep him forever. Far off in the dark, I heard a church bell pealing the hour. It rang twelve times for midnight. It was Christmas day. Snow covered the rubble of the city in a soft blanket. My room was perfectly warm and my lover was in my bed. I closed my eyes. Noel.
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