After Frankie died, his shack in the woods became a sort of shrine. People travelled from all over the country to visit this place in the mountains to the south of our country, where he’d seen out the last of his days. Students and children camped outside on the grass, sleeping under light blankets, eating yellow broth cooked up in a pot over a fire. People read excerpts from Frankie’s work. A local band played.
I didn’t attend the funeral. I watched these pictures on the TV in the barracks. I knew that Frankie would not have approved of the scene. But things had already overtaken him, the way they had overtaken us all. The war continued. Border incursions occurred every day. We were strained and tired and preparing for defeat. We did not need Frankie to die.
* * *
Coming over with the night train and what else is there to say? Moonlight and gin is the recipe. None of us have the time. Starlings and eagles happen. Dream is the key. The line of traffic in the rural road, the faded adverts on the service station, (no cola these days, little petrol) the lost shoes and bird wings taken by the hawk. An arrow flies forever. Morning. This is spring.
ah death 18 March 2010
* * *
I heard about Frankie’s death from Margaret, a message sent to my mail account. Those days, I was difficult to track down. As I rode the slow train through the mountains, the blue and purple rock hanging above me, the sides of the valley below the rails littered with weeds and scree, I thought about how I had been consciously delaying my grief. Times are too fraught, I told myself. It seemed to me that grief was the one remaining decadence of these days. It was almost a treason. Two days before Frankie died, for example, I lost one of my squad out on patrol. He was a seventeen year old boy. No one grieved. We moved on. We left his body behind on the raid. If we’d had the time, we might have got drunk and said a few prayers for him. But there was not time. The barracks was attacked the following morning. This time, we lost five more men.
* * *
Chill factor and sun index. Bleak. The romance of brown leaves and acorns. The earth is dug. All the old slogans dictate that the night is filled with badgers and angry criminals. Who leaves out the milk? Again the night train. The distant horn and my heart is sad. Oh camphor and woodsmoke. Oh stars.
Nostalgia for the old futures. Silver discs and suits. Men staring through screens at a strange planet. But however alien, this is always our world. “We can learn something from them, Captain, even though their skin is green.”
Race. Any idiot can run but only a genius can catch. Do you follow?
ah death 13 October 2012
* * *
The journey took me three days in all, and three days of lonely travel is a long time indeed. I slept often, taking care to refresh myself after a hard few months on the front line. Usually, I would stare out of the window, at the flatlands before the north country, the bare reclaimed lands, marked by ditches. That there were still figures in this landscape, rural people tending to the land in the old ways: this I felt was a small victory. In small pockets like this, ordinary life could still go on.
The chronology sometimes seems insane. Five years ago, our parents died in one of the first city raids. We –Margaret, Frankie and I— fled to the mountains. Two years later, I joined my first shotgun squad. A month later, Frankie was diagnosed with the disease. Margaret wrote to me, telling me the news. A few months later, Frankie wrote his first postings. It’s incredible to think how quickly their popularity grew. Quite soon, it seemed everyone in the country was logging onto Frankie’s site and reading his journal. Sometimes it felt that no one could get through the day without him. I was no different. But I turned to him, not as a brother, but in the same way as everyone else, for comfort, insight, wisdom. I would always call my brother by his family name, even though to the whole world he was known by his pseudonym, but I suppose Frankie was lost to me from that moment on.
* * *
Jesus it rains! Womb days. Wet heat of sex and the body dissolve. All day with lungs close to my ribs. Oxygen like a liquid we pour down our throats. But then: the thunder of the mountain, the release. Lightening chasing across the sky. Sheet music from the humid days. Sweet electricity in the air. It raises the hairs on my arms. It brings me around.
A girl from the village. Out here, playing with friends. She stands under the rain, her arms outstretched. She is the world balance. She is the scales. She holds us all. And when we fall, where do we end? An emptiness, a void.
I don’t like to think about it.
ah death 5 August 2013
* * *
Margaret was waiting for me at the station. I saw her as I stepped from my carriage. She looked thinner, and her brown hair had faded a little, turning to grey. All of us are a little less distinct, these days. We are all fading away.
We embraced each other gently. “How did you know I’d be here,” I asked. I had wanted to surprise her.
“The barracks told me when you left. I’ve been meeting the daily trains for the past couple of days.”
“It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you. You look pale. Strong but pale.” She put her fingers to my face. “Your skin. You don’t look like you’ve seen the sun in years.”
We walked out to the front of the station. “Let’s not go to the house,” Margaret said. “People have gathered there. They say that they want to see everywhere he lived. They might bother you.”
“Is it still that bad?”
“Bad is the wrong word. These people are genuinely grieving. A woman I met yesterday, she could hardly speak.”
“Don’t you think this is a little hysterical?
She shook her head. “Do you?”
I didn’t answer. I knew that she was right. I couldn’t judge the way these people felt. I was numb, wrecked, shaken by war. That I was aware of this did not alter the effects. That I was aware of this could not make me feel.
* * *
Cough, cough, cough and that’s all that matters. The intense perfume of summer leaves us dizzy. The dripping flowers, the white. I forgot. Mood. The pains in my chest. Blood today. Serum and painkillers. The tongue grizzling itself. Lap me clean.
Starwhiteworld sudden on the window. The sun blanks us out.
The indefinable traces of a laser on your skin. Who’s target are you today? This is the meeting we fear. The intrusion of the unseen eye on the side of your face. That light connects you. Brother and father and mother and sister. The tribe and pack. We all have ghosts to catch.
What did we miss? Nothing. What will we miss? Everything.
Chants and parataxis. A taxi to the mountains. A mounts to be debited. Hitching a ride.
ah death 5 September 2013
* * *
Margaret and I walked towards the woods, taking streets through the town which I had almost forgotten. A row of single story wooden houses. A local store, painted yellow. Any instinct for the hidden alleys and routes of this place that was once my home had been replaced by a knowledge of the geometry of trenches near the border, the foxholes and pits of a battlefield. I found myself having to take Margaret’s lead.
Eventually, we stopped by a bench at the foot of Frankie’s hill. We sat down and looked over the town. It was so placid, so quiet and ordinary, I found it difficult to equate this as the same country as the frontline. The blue slate of the roofs seemed impossibly colourful.
We talked for a while. I asked Margaret if she had met another man. Her lover was killed a year before, on the frontline to the south. She told me that she hadn’t found the time. She had other commitments. She was teaching in the school. Frankie had needed her help. These were excuses, could tell. It would be the story of Margaret’s life to help other people and, in this way, ignore the help she needed for herself. I saw it without sadness, only resignation.
Margaret said, “He had been dying for so long, we all thought he’d never die. That’s right, isn’t it? I mean, it wasn’t just me who felt that way.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t only you.”
“And now that he has died,” she started to say, but broke off. “No. I can’t carry that on. It’s wrong.”
“I know what you were going to say. You were going to say that now that he’s died, our fight will die. Now that his struggle is over, we won’t have the strength for victory.”
She didn’t answer. She looked up at the woods. In the distance, a ribbon of smoke was rising from the clearing.
“I think everyone feels that way,” I went on. “And they are probably right.”
She looked back at me. “You mustn’t talk like that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth. The fighting gets worse every day. Our losses . . . we can’t carry on. I know. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The generals are worried.”
Margaret turned away. “I don’t want to hear you talking like that,” she said. “I don’t think its right.”
“I’ve lost one brother. And the chances are I will lose you too. I am aware of that. I know you are too. You have the resignation in your eyes. It scares me.”
“It’s a fact of life at the front,” I said. I wanted to tell her about the friends I had lost. I wanted to tell of the deaths I had seen. I wanted to tell her what it was like to kill.
“All that time, I never saw that look of resignation in Frankie’s eyes. And when you die, it will be from a grenade or a shotgun shell. It will be quick, I think. It will not take years.”
“I can hope for a quick death, it’s true.” I said. I was struck how little the words meant to me. “But there are ways that it would be drawn out. Prisoners are taken. We can only imagine what happens to them.”
“I am not asking you to compete. But I have already lost one brother. I might lose a second. But what I cannot stand is that both brothers be lost from each other.”
Margaret stood up from the bench, she huddled into her cardigan, although I felt no chill in the air. “I’m going to head back home. Come around later. I’ll cook you a meal. You can stay over. When do you have to go back?”
“I’ll leave the day after tomorrow. They can’t be without me for too long.”
“I’m sure,” she said. She walked away. I watched her leave.
* * *
“Aaaargh that we must leave! Damn skullstones and ribcrack. The ache in the blood. The curse in the cracked helix. Hello criminal, I believe you said it’s dark. I’ll bring the light the fire the lightening peace of mind. If its quick we hunt, if its slow we’re haunted. It is not the bee that hovers. It is not the leaf that falls. It is not the stone that shatters. It is not the water in the ditch. It is not the broken pyramid. It is not the bullet. It is not Mars. It is not the space station. It is not God. It is not the enemy. It’s fear.
ah death 25 May 2014
* * *
I walked through the woods to the clearing. The pine trees stood uncannily still. I felt that any movement they would stir into life. I could see the smoke rising amongst them. I remembered how we would walk here, Frankie, Margaret and I. Later, when Frankie’s illness was confirmed, he chose to move up to this shack, even though it delayed his treatment. Although he was already resigned to being beaten by the disease, he expressed no fear. I remember something he’d written once, in a letter to me, not one of his postings. “This is part of me, this illness. Like the curve of my jaw or the length of my arm. It is genetic. What can I do? We live together and die together.”
I broke through the trees into the clearing. The shack stood at the highest point, the yellow varnished wood speckled green with moss. The camp was how I had seen it on television, a mess of people lying on the grass, canvas tents pitched in circles, people cooking food over fires. People were reading portable computers with their backs to the trees; reading Frankie’s site, I didn’t doubt. It was chaotic but there was a sense of peace too, an order. It was something like reverence.
A few people turned to watch me as I walked to the shack. I ignored them, until an older man moved towards me, breaking off a conversation with a couple of children. He wore a scruffy panama hat turned up at the edges, his grey hair tied back in a ponytail.
“You’re the brother, aren’t you?”
I nodded. He put out his hand. “Jacob,” he said. “We’ve been here since the day of the funeral. I read the last posting on the site and I drove up from the West, with my grandson.”
“That’s good,” I said, although I really didn’t know what to say. “Thanks.”
“It’s nothing. It’s an honour.” He stood, staring at me with his eyes of a faded blue that was almost grey. He wouldn’t let me leave, and spoke for a while about his journey to the mountain, the sights and smells of this area of the country, how they experienced everything as Frankie had described it. “It was something I thought we’d lost,” he said. “With the war. Something we are in danger of losing, still. But he kept it alive. He kept all of us alive, in a way.”
“That is what everyone says,” I replied. “That is why these people are here.”
“I wanted to ask you,” he said. “What was it like growing up with him. I . . . I mean all of us. We’re fascinated with any stories you have to tell. I’m writing them down. People’s experiences of him while he was alive. I think its important. My grandson is very young. He might forget this experience.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. He was my brother. We did things that brothers do.”
“Anything would help,” the old man went on. He stared at me, his mouth open slightly. His lips were very wet.
“I don’t know. I just came here to see the shack again . . .”
He winced and his hand went to his forehead. “Of course. Of course. We’ll talk later. I don’t want to intrude. Go and see the shack. I’ll be here.”
He walked away from me, turning to glance back at me as he went, and returned to the children. I walked into the shack.
Everything was as I remembered it: the low campbed pushed up underneath the far wall, the wood burner in the centre of the room, the small wooden desk underneath the window, the computer hooked up to the network. A shelf with books stacked on top of each other. Maps on the wall: a large relief map of our country and an atlas. A painting by Margaret, of the woods at night. Family photos: Margaret and I, standing together, my arm around her shoulder. Our parents on their wedding day. A knife which belonged to my father. An old blue globe, made of tin. I realised that these possessions, which Frankie had imbued with some private meaning, would become relics for those people outside. I knew it was inevitable. The familiar smell of the cabin came to me, a mixture of damp and wood and the smoke from the wood burner. I had imagined this smell many times since I had been away, and it had always given me comfort. It did not give me comfort now. It stank of death, the death of a stranger.
I left the shack. I walked back through the camp. The old man moved towards me again, but I cut him off as he approached. “I’m going home,” I said. “I won’t be staying.”
* * *
“Breath pains. Wake to fatigue. The release. White sun. A music of trees. Birds I don’t name. Over my years in this high outpost, I have collected personal trophies from these woods. Today I will discard them. An eye on a feather creeps me. A rough cube of anthracite and a cut of jarrah. The spiked skull of a chestnut. The husk of a flower. All the juice has gone. The great relax. Relapse. Real translation. Pain in my wrists. Painkiller memories. The kill that pains.
Strange bliss to this day. The sudden shape of a crow. The whole world shadowed by the shape of a crow.”
ah death 5 April 2015
* * *
Evening was falling. The sun was red in the horizon. As I walked back through the pine forest, my previous feeling was intensified. The trees seemed sentient things, watchful, malignant. I didn’t know whether the ghosts of my past were haunting me, or whether my soldier’s instincts were playing tricks. Every tree seemed to be prepared to turn against me. The sky was a gun sight, ready to fire. I have never been at home in this part of the country.
As I walked back down to the town, I thought about the old man Jacob, writing the history of Frankie’s life. I wondered what stories he would tell, what details he would decided would be the most revealing. The time Frankie had climbed the tree in our garden and found himself stuck. The time he found a neighbour’s cat lying dead on the road, and brought it to their kitchen while they were eating. The way he would walk into the room while our parents argued and would not leave. I thought of myself and Margaret, and how we would feature in this history. I thought about the war, to which I would soon return, a war which I knew would claim me. But because of the old man, I would survive this war. By the very fact of the story of his life, Frankie would save me.
I remember staying in the shack, sleeping on the floor, although Frankie offered me his bed. We talked long into the night, laughing over old jokes, old games. The next morning, I woke to see him at his desk. He seemed drawn, very pale. The window glowed behind him. I saw that snow had fallen during the night. We drank tea and sat together at the table, looking out at this magnificent absence behind glass.
And later, when we walked outside, we saw that it was a perfect snowfall, not even animal prints breaking its surface, a low lying cloud obscuring the trees. It was as though everything had vanished, everything had been wiped away. We walked out and broke the whiteness with our steps, stumbling out into the emptiness like we were the very first people alive. It was our world. We had to create it. It was up to us to shape and name, to start everything again.
Note: A short story from around 2002, though some parts date from much earlier. I had an interest in mixing genres at the time, which proved to be something of a blind alley. Elements of the John Titor story mix in with my impressions of early blogging. That all sounds rather dated now. Part of me wonders why I’m preserving it – it hardly represents my current writing – but it seems to fit this space, somehow. I’ll probably write about genre soon, anyway.