I can feel his skin vibrating through my palm and I instinctively know that my hand is the only thing keeping him tied to this packed room, cornered in a house sagging with alcohol. I keep it there, awkward and unsure. I saw him retreat to this wilted stained couch, stuffed in the alcove, and I witnessed his rocking begin. He shakes like this when he drinks now and none of us really know how to hold him. When he came home from the war he had two new tattoos and two new habits.
I do not always know how to hold this grief. I try to cup it in my hands and let it flow through my fingers, but tonight half of my knuckles are changing colors gripping his shoulder and the other half are clutching his knee. They are too full of his unraveling husk to hold much more. He looks down at the wood floor and asks,
Do you know what death looks like?
This is why Joshua talks to me, words tumbling out of his rattling jaw, because we are the only people in this overflowing frat house that have witnessed dead bodies, that know the acidic stench of too much blood, and somehow that makes me the person he can trust. I have unwillingly become his Virgil but I do not shed skin like a ghost can and I am unsure I can lead us through this.
I did not know I would kill so many people.
Joshua has a damn good aim. He joined the Marines when we were 18, straight out of our hick town high school. We all thought it was the best anyone could do.
So when they lined him up to practice, a few days into training, he shot his best, hitting every target dead on. No one advised him differently, the others coming from military families or had buddies from before that warned them “shoot your worst on target day.” He lowered his weapon and looked around, seeing the severely misaimed bullets scattering the yard and a split second of comprehension broke, a split second before he was pulled out by his training officer and told, “Machine Gunner.” Front lines, with eight seconds to live, my friend Joshua who burst into gospel song when he saw me became a highly trained killer.
Was there ever any chance to be good? Can you make the right choice when your life is quivering against another animal’s chest? Is there a right choice? I am hugging a murderer and I am shaking now too.
He speaks in pentameter, unknowingly and brutally, each breath shuddering from his clenched mouth, teeth bared, hands twisted and contorted around the bottle neck.
I saw their faces, I killed their sons, I listened to my bunkmates when they laughed about going out at night, and I said nothing. These were my brothers, thicker than the dust we all inhaled, just as likely to give us cancer as the never-ending supply of cigarettes and iron supplements. These were the men I swore to protect; these were the men I gave my own trust to.
He looks me right in the eyes and it takes all the strength I have to meet him—brown to brown—his quivering and terrified, mine attempting hide my disgust at monsters—and he asks me, What should I have done?
I cannot meet his eyes, I drop them involuntarily, I am sickened and I do not have the stomach for any of this. He has lived through this unbearable agony; the least I can do is listen to him speak. But my stomach is churning now and I wish I could taste bile to give me an excuse to scurry away from the torment. My physical body does not give me an out and instead he raises the bottle to me and I have no choice but to swallow.
I do not know what he should have done, besides never joined the Marines in the first place, but I am clear enough to know that my liberties were won by men like him. I used to believe in war and I did not know any better because I grew up in a state stained red. And then the bombs exploded and I do not know which argument I can defend: we are all on the losing side and the lines in this war have become so convoluted that solid men have become drifters and suicidal because their hearts were ripped open too. There was never enough conviction to make soldiers this time around—instead we brainwashed our good men into monsters and animals with murder in their teeth.
Even in this drunken haze, I am smart enough to know that I cannot blame our military and I cannot blame Joshua for joining. I love his human body despite all of this because in simpler times he would just have been a warrior we gave thanks for over a roasting deer. There is nothing evil about that spirit—we have only constructed a system that makes it so.
I do not know, love. I do not know what you should have done.
Grace somehow finds me and I know that in this room, there is no space for anything but forgiveness. I know Joshua would fly out of his skin as fast as he could if his brain would let him. Neither of us sleeps very much anymore and is there really anything I should say besides give him a chance to breathe? The bodies are dead, the war is ongoing, and in that space, in a pulsating cave where we are two lonely vibrating souls, is there anything to be given besides mercy?
I do not know if his God will forgive him, I do not know if tomorrow he will be able to greet the Dawn and be grateful he survived. But I know that my palms have held innumerable grief and agony and I do know that their contact is making a difference in his incessant agitation. I do know that his skin will stay on and I do know that my flesh against his raw hide has some chance of keeping his good heart beating. I do not deny that I am holding a hunter but I know that men sometimes need to be unfolded and it is not a choice I get to make about right and wrong. Joshua’s back is bent over in what will be a lifetime of begging forgiveness and I have no doubts that his heart is a broken geode.
What have we done to our good men? Is there enough thread in the world to even begin sewing back together the pieces we have ripped apart? Could we ask the silkworms to double their fibrous production so that I could carry a mending kit in my back pocket for nights like these? Would I even know which fragments align?
When Virgil lifted Dante and crawled down Lucifer’s legs were his palms sweaty and strange too? When I finally lift Joshua from this drooping ottoman I wrap his thick bicep around my own wavering shoulder. I shrug his mammoth Carhartt jacket over both our frames and we dredge our way through the hot coals of red solo cups littering the carpet; the northern and southern hemispheres have tilted for most of the remaining swaying youth. When I reach the door handle, it falls open and the clear night sky pushes against our dusty lungs, drawing crystal breath in. We step onto the lawn, brittle air butting into our ribcages.
I push my hipbone against his and he is nearly standing on his own.
Look up, I tell him.
The stars are magnificent, blossoming and echoing, the Milky Way is undulating ribbons, and this ceiling is the only glass he cannot break. He finally starts to cry, ugly and misshapen; surging and howling: he is a creature like no other.
We made it to the other side and his salty tears relieve me. The core of his hell has not destroyed us yet. As long as we can lay in the grass, even frosted and unwelcoming, if we can still see the stars and if they still remind us that we are good, there is Beauty left in our skeletons.
I rub my hands together, generating heat and place them over my face. There is unspeakable ancient wisdom in these palms, deft and weathered, and Joshua and I lie on the frozen dirt, sobbing and grateful, weaving back together the shrapnel of our souls.
Summer Jarrard is a chef, writer, and traveler. She writes to make love that cannot be un-made. She wants to create space for fierceness and tenderness, for love and anger, for authenticity and savageness. Her writing is inspired by real experiences in the world and living in diverse communities. She currently lives in Oakland, CA with her fiance and their quirky coyote.