Saturday, April 19, 2008

Excerpt (Long)

Hey. This is a little insane, but with the end to my book approaching I thought I'd post an excerpt. This is the work that got me through the deployment. This is what helped me get through Iraq. I can't promise that it will stay up forever, but I thought it was time to share.

It's a little long, so please be patient.

The section you are about to read takes place in Part Two of my young-adults' novel, "Tree-Dancer." For two years, the title character Alina (Pen'ya) has been the adoptee of a tribe of feral adolescents--the Children of the Wood. Now twelve, she mourns the death of her only friend and mentor, fifteen-year-old Indigo. Indigo has been killed in the midst of her rites of passage, her Trials, and now Alina is left to grieve this loss alone.

The following chapter deals with Indigo's death rites, and though I think it a bit heavy, I feel that the writing is solid. I hope to share this with somebody--this secret. It's a bit rough yet, but I hope you enjoy.

Here goes:

Chapter 11: Friend, Sister, Hero

I fell back into the clutches of mourning as I returned to the camp. I climbed back up the ladder to my hut and felt the shroud over my thoughts grow heavier. I remember feeling tired, more tired than I had ever been in my life.

The hut was deserted when I entered it. I wondered after Wintergreen, and secretly longed for her company. We were united in our loss, she and I. With none to share in this event, I sat and sulked alone in my hut. I broke down again, mourning my fallen friend. I was angry at Nightshade, angry at Ave'chane, even angry at Indigo. Most of all, I was angry at myself. I understood none of these feelings, only the sense of abandonment and betrayal that they brought me. I remembered, for the thousandth time in days, that I was suddenly alone in my tiny world.

Hours passed. The clouds darkened, and the light of day began to fail. From somewhere below, I picked up the smell of cooking squash. I can remember that it awakened my hunger, but at that moment I can only say that I felt no desire to eat. At one point, I heard movement outside. Stepping out to investigate, I looked east to see a long procession of Children, approaching in two lines along the edge of the clearing. At first I panicked. I worried that perhaps I had missed the assembly for my Indigo. Then, as the group passed under my hut, I saw who was at the front of the procession--Wintergreen. Ave'chane walked beside her, and my hutmate leaned against her as they went, sobbing. I realized then whose burial was about to take place. I realized, too, that Wintergreen's was a pain different from mine, a pain that I could never share. It shamed me to stay where I was, but I could not bear the idea of going out to see the funeral. I felt the old sting of guilt again, but still I went back into my hut.

Time passed. I thought of what was going on out in the woods. I lay on my side in Indigo's hammock and curled myself into a ball. I thought I could still smell her on the musty hide. After a time, a single drumbeat echoed in the treetops outside my hut. A cry of many voices followed. Another beat followed a moment later, followed again by an eerie wail of mourning. The drums and the chant then merged into one, and I knew then what was happening. Frostbow's funeral was now in progress. The noise sounded muffled, faraway. It must have been quite distant, I thought.

The eerie funeral chants went on for some time. It moved like a wave; as each cry faded, another sprang up in its place. The effect frightened me, and when I listened closely I found I could imagine the pulling of hair, the sobs, the tearing of clothing. I had never heard of such an outpouring of grief. Laying there on that now-abandoned bed, I thought of what the Song-Keeper had said, how Indigo's funeral would be different, somehow less in honor than the one afforded to Frostbow. I still felt anger at this memory, and once more I cursed Ave'chane for her stubbornness. I tried to imagine what was going on out in the woods, but when I pictured the ceremony the face I saw in the grave was not that of Frostbow, but Indigo. Even in my mind, her face looked cold and lifeless, a shell.

As evening approached, I heard the clamber of footsteps on my ladder. A figure appeared at my doorway. I looked up. It was Rowan. She had abandoned her usual scarlet robe for one of charcoal gray. Her dreadlocks were tied back, and her eyelids smeared with some black substance. The effect reminded me of Nightshade. She didn't knock, only stood there and waited for me to notice her. When finally our eyes met, she asked me, "Are you coming, Pen'ya?"

I stared at her. At the time, I was sitting on the curved floor of the hut, leaning against the far wall. I drew my arms against my chest, and looked at the backs of my hands.

She pressed me again. "It's time, Pine-Nut. The ceremony is about to start."

I held my silence. I knew that this was the time of goodbyes, but just then I remember a sudden sense that I didn't want to go. I had been preparing myself for Indigo's funeral for days, but after my conversation with the Keeper-Of-Songs, I suddenly found myself filled with dread. Perhaps Rowan saw this. She stepped into the hut then, shivering at a sudden gust of damp wind. She approached me, and knelt. As her shadow swallowed me, she leaned in and took my hands into hers. The act made me look up. I saw the older girl's face there, thrown into shadow.

"You have to be strong, young one," she said, pausing. "For her. And for me. Come now."

She stood, still gently holding my hands. I avoided her gaze, but did as my guest commanded. I stood and, led by one hand, made my way out of the hut.

We didn't go immediately to the burial site. Instead, we stopped by the fire-pits first. My guide knelt and licked a fingertip. She ran this finger along the edge of a charred log, and rubbing it against her thumb, made a paste of the soot. She stood, and turned to me.

"Close your eyes," she said.

Reluctantly, I obeyed. I felt her fingertip, coarse and grimy, caress my eyelids. I made to squint, but then she corrected me. "Don't squirm, or it'll sting." She pulled the hand away, and when she brought the finger back, I recoiled at the sticky wetness that was there. I sighed and endured the discomfort until Rowan pulled away again.

"There," she said. "Open them."

I did as I was told. I could feel the flecks stuck to my eyelashes, and as soon as I looked up I knew that now my face resembled Rowan's. As if expecting me to ask, she spoke again.

"It's tradition. We blacken our eyes with ash when mourning the dead."

Tiv'ria. Tradition. I had found myself hearing that word often of late. I remember the distaste I was forming for the idea. Granted, child, not all tradition is bad, but like any good knife, it cuts both ways. Some traditions uphold our shared sense of self, and others trap us in the past, blinding us to ugly truths. In any case, this week found me hating the word. Rowan bade us walk then, and so once more I followed.

We headed south down the western edge of the clearing, taking the same path that Frostbow's procession had followed earlier. Rowan and I traveled in silence for sometime, until out of nowhere she spoke.

"I'm sorry, Pen'ya."

I looked at her. I still felt anger at the Healer. Not sure of what she meant, I asked her: "Why?"

She looked down, shaking her head slowly. "All of this." She glanced out at the clearing as we walked. "We should have found you as soon as the Scouts returned. It wasn't right for you to have to find out the way you did. I know you think we were hiding Indigo's death from you, but believe me, all we wanted was to get you somewhere where I or Oak-Root could tell you gently."

She fell silent. A look of guilt crossed her face, and for a moment I had pity upon her. "I hurt you," she went on, "and you have no idea how sorry I am for that. I should have done better."

I looked away. I remember feeling the urge to say something cruel, but thought better of it. "What does it matter?" I asked instead.

"Pen'ya," she chided me. "It does matter. This was your friend, and you deserved to know sooner. I'm just sorry that I let it get out of hand. It was my fault, and I'm sorry. Ja'su ci'desa."

I stared down at the path, frowning. "Did you kill her?"

A pause. I didn't see Rowan's face, but her reaction was clearly one of shock, almost offense. "What? Of course not."

I glanced up at her. "Then what was your fault?" I looked away. "Blame whoever did it. Blame Nightshade."

"No, Pen'ya. That's the wrong way to look at it. This isn't about blaming anyone, and certainly not about blaming her."

She folded her hands in front of her. She said, "I know that Nightshade is difficult. I understand that, and I know that it's easy to blame her just because she was there. But if you only knew how this was affecting her, you'd..."

A sudden silence. I stared at her, and she trailed off. She sighed, and shook her head. She looked up at me.

"I'm not getting anywhere, am I?"

She gazed at me a moment, searching. I looked away, and she said nothing further. She began walking again, and seeing this, I followed behind her in silence.

We moved west and away from the Star-Meadow, into a part of the Wood that I had never seen before. The trees were mostly bare here, and began to block out the already-dimming light overhead. By this time, the clouds had spread, but in the west the dying sunset threw golden splashes of light across the tallest branches. I looked up. High in the reaches of a massive birch, a falcon held a clawed foot to a piece of prey, tearing at its prize with savage jerks of the head.

Going deeper into the Western Wood, I found the setting looking more and more like one of my mother's old fairy-tales: dark, unfamiliar, gloomy. I found myself reaching for Rowan's hand again, and she took it without complaint. I followed her in silence as she led me deeper into the Wood. We went first over a shallow creek-bed, the stones wet and cold and smooth underfoot. Then we began to climb a shallow ridge, which took us down into a broad, bowl-shaped depression.

We were headed into the setting sun now. Here the trees grew straight and thick, and there was almost no brush to block the path. The sun's rays slid orange over trees whose trunks were scarred by the deep grooves of age. The air danced with specks of dust caught by the evening light. Here and there, I began to notice large stones jutting unevenly from the earth. Their were the work of human hands, and they ranged in color from peppered gray to almost pink. Squinting, I could see some marked with hand-carved symbols. Some I knew as Ara'pal, while others were styled in some older, stranger script. I looked to Rowan for answers. Without a word from me, she gave them.

"Gravestones. All the Foundlings who ever died are buried here. Some of these stones are older
than anything in this Wood."

"Where are we going?"

She glanced over at me. She did not smile, and the effect made her seem cold and alien. "You'll see. It's just up ahead. There's a tree there were Indigo wished to be buried."

"I thought that Indigo didn't deserve a proper burial."

It was a statement, not a question. Rowan ignored me. We turned right, walking along the bank of another creek. I tried another tack. "This tree.... what's so special about it? Why'd Indigo..."

Rowan gave me a strange look. "It was where she was found, Pen'ya."

A pang of guilt. I thought of the first time that Indigo and I had met. I thought of the story she told me, thought of a younger Indigo, lost and crying out into the Wood. The image brought me an unexpected pain. We walked along the creek-bank then until at last, following a hook in the stream, we came to the stump of a gutted-out old oak. What remained of the tree stood at least six yards tall, and one side had collapsed, leaving the hollowed innards bare to the sky. A bed of mulch lay disturbed at its base. A new stone jutted out of the center--I recognized the name engraved there--and a large bundle lay in a deep pit at the front of it, wrapped in a hide blanket.


I had to take a deep breath. The desire to start crying again was just too great. We were not alone there. A crowd had already gathered at the base of the tree. Dozens of people, all with eyes smudged black like our own. They flocked around the great stump, but none dared block the path to the grave. I frowned--even from here, I could tell that the group numbered nowhere near so many as had gone to bury Frostbow.

The mood was somber. Children stood, holding each other, speaking in hushed tones. Some were crying quietly. I recognized faces there--Oak-Root, Ivy, Claywort. Even Wintergreen was there with the Healer Crabmoss. She was standing off to my right, sobbing into her friend's shoulder. Crabmoss, pudgy and awkward, looked lost in this position. The only faces I couldn't see were those of Nightshade and Ave'chane. I gave no thought to this. I didn't feel the need.

There were also two faces present that I didn't recognize. Two boys, long and thin like Oak-Root. They had dark hair, and also like Oak-Root went bare-chested. However, I noticed that their bodies were painted in striped hues of red and black. Their faces were done in much the same way. I thought of Nightshade's own unique style of war-painting, and when I looked closely I thought I could see the same hardness, the same intense eyes. I pointed them out to Rowan.

"Those boys," I asked her. "Who are they?"

A somber look crossed Rowan's face. "Alder Guards," she whispered. "Personal attendants of the Black Alder himself. The taller one is their Master, Stonewood. The other is named Birch-Splitter."

"Why are they here?" I pressed.

Rowan remained silent. I gave up on further questioning, and after a moment Rowan led me between the throngs of people, hugging and offering kind words. I followed her until at last she bade me stay where I was, as she went up to the grave and began speaking to Wintergreen. They stood there, talking as Wintergreen sniffled and nodded, for a long time. I eventually found myself standing lost in the crowd.

Watching Rowan, I soon realized that, far beyond being a Healer of the body, Rowan was in some sense a Healer of the soul as well. She was by nature incapable of doing harm to others, and the idea of bringing about harm in any way genuinely grieved her. I had never even seen her eat meat. She attended to the sick of heart as well as the sick of flesh. In being here, I realized that she was carrying out her life's work. I felt a swell of respect for her then, as well as a sense of envy. Rowan, I realized, was kind but also strong, firm yet soft. She was giving in ways that I could never be, and for this I felt ashamed of myself.

We must have lingered there for nearly an hour. The affair that followed was quiet, almost pitiful. There was silence for a long time. People stood around and stared, as if not quite sure what to do. The entire assembly seemed ill at ease. There was no beating of drums, no sobbing or wailing songs of grief. These, I saw, were a people lost in a situation they could not grasp. I wondered how many there had actually lived to see a Foundling die. After what seemed to be an awkward eternity, a shape brushed past me from behind. I jumped and looked to my right--it was Ave'chane. Her limp seemed especially bad this evening, and as she glanced back at me I saw her face made heavy by some weight that I could not guess. Perhaps it was the pain, I thought, or perhaps the setting. Either way, I took no comfort in the Song-Keeper's gaze.

She turned to face us. She clung to her staff, but when she breathed in she seemed to grow a few inches in height. Indeed, her very being seemed to swell with terrible purpose. The Song-Keeper pursed her lips, and held her head high. Her sleepy eyes flared with new vigor, and after a moment, she spoke.

"A Foundling is dead."

Her voice came out stronger, more clearly than I had ever heard it. It seemed to stretch out into the farthest reaches of this glade. There was no shout to it, but rather an intensity that bade one listen. She paused, allowing this statement to sink in amongst the gathered, before continuing.

"Today, I mourn for us, for today we have lost a part of our future. We have lost Indigo, Scout-in-training, and there can be no replacement for that loss."

I flinched. A drop of rain struck my forehead. I looked up. The sun was still out, though barely. Curtains of rain were beginning their descent from the skies above. They shimmered orange and silver in the twilight. I looked around, hoping to see a rainbow, but found none. Meanwhile, Ave'chane began to pace, and stared out at the faces assembled around her.

"Some of you knew Indigo. You are most fortunate. It is not often that we see such a spirit as Indigo's, and to have such a one as her in our midst in a rare treasure.

"However, most of you--" she glared out into the crowd--"are here mostly as a formality. You came here expecting a memoriam that you will not find. There will be no funeral songs today, no stamping of the earth and weeping the soul of the fallen to sleep." She turned, and fixed the two Alder Guards with an evil look. They seemed to shrink into themselves, ashamed.

"And why?!" She bellowed. "Because Indigo died a Foundling, and our custom dictates that we not weep for the Seed that lays dormant in the ground. We do not mourn the egg that never comes to hatching. And so we bury this one, never have known the true beauty, her true grace." She raised her arms to heaven, staff in hand, as if calling down a mighty storm. "Those of you I have mentioned before--those of you who come only to pay polite respects, I pity you. Yours is the true loss today. Your life is less the rich by having missed her."

More raindrops. The Song-Keeper continued to pace, and all the while the air around us seemed to hum with a tension. For a time, Ave'chane's youth was restored by anger, by grief. She appeared to me then as great as the mountain, as terrible as the storm. I could see then why the old woman was respected so among the Children of the Wood. I felt shame then, that I had blamed her for what she had told me earlier. I could see now that it affected her deeply as well. She went on.

"For those of you who do not know, I will tell the story." She stopped in front of the grave. "Indigo was taken from us in the midst of her Trials. She was in a place where she was supposed to be safe from intruders, and yet that safety was violated!

"As has become so often the case of late, Indigo and her party came under ambush by Raiders of the Wheel. These strangers, these so-called 'adults,' with their wars and thirst for blood, defiled the sanctity of our Wood, and in so doing exposed Indigo to dangers that she should never have had to face." She sought out Oak-Root with her eyes. She implored him, shouting. "Noble Scouts, open your throats and tell me if this is not so!"

The droplets became a sprinkle as she spoke. The gathered Scouts, including Oak-Root and Silver-Seed, responded by pounding their staffs upon the earth. A quick one-two beat, and then a thunderous shout in unison: "Ca'es'ci! It is so!" I watched the Alder Guards stiffen noticeably, and here I realized why they had come. They were here to oversee custom. Ave'chane, the stubborn old woman that she was, was busy working up the mourners into a frenzy, and in so doing defying the orders of the Black Alder himself. I stared at Ave'chane, feeling a sudden swell of pride.

She raised her hands and began to pace again, so that even her limp nearly disappeared altogether. She pointed out into the crowd, and continued. "And what did Indigo do?!" Ave'chane roared. "What did she do? She stood as a fully-tried Scout, and fought by her instructor's sides, even when they attempted to speed her to safety!" For a moment, her eyes found mine, and I could see the fury there. The Song-Keeper looked away toward the others.

"She made no distinctions between Child and Foundling! She did not try to shirk her duty because some would not treat her the same!" She pointed to the swaddled lump of Indigo's body in the grave. "No! This one stepped forward! This one accepted the danger. She took the fate she was given, and fought bravely, such that the raiders of the Wheel, when they retreat to their campfires, will tell years from now of a dark-haired terror--one of their own former slaves no less, escaped of her bonds! Surely they will remember the blur of her whirling staff! Surely they will remember the fierceness of her blows! It is for us that Indigo dispensed such wrath! It is for us that Indigo fought and ultimately died!"

She cast out her hands before her. "Who among you!?" she asked. "Who among you dares to think that they possess such courage?! Who among you would sacrifice her chance to partake of eternal youth, so that the ones she loved might continue to enjoy such a gift?! Who among you can claim to EVER deserve such an honor?!" She pointed at faces in the crowd accusingly. "You! You who come merely to pay your respects! You who would deny her the honors of a full burial!"

She fell silent, looking out among the faces. Her eyes found mine again, and for a long moment we stared at each other. "I can think of only one," she continued, "who might find something of herself in the tale of Indigo's glory! One among us we might consider Least! So before you grieve in Indigo's name, grieve first for the one she leaves behind! What is that one to do with the loss of such a worthy friend? What lessons have been denied her in the death we mourn today?!" She broke her gaze from mine, and began to walk again. She cast her hands high, and lifted her faces to the boughs. The rain had arrived at last, and was misting its way down through the boughs, while far above, the last of the sunlight was fading to a bloody red.

"Will you not speak for her?! Will you not sing for her?!" She turned toward me, face still turned skyward. "Will none forget what is custom, in favor of what is right?!" She looked upon the crowd of mourners, almost pleading.

"Will you not give her memory the justice it deserves?"

Silence then. Ave'chane hung her head, exhausted, and turned away from the group.

"No," she said, quietly. "Of course not. It is not custom."

A few individuals exchanged glances. Oak-Root and his Scouts stared at the ground. I looked over at Rowan, who gazed straight ahead and wiped at her eyes. Even the Alder Guards looked chastened. It was custom, I would later learn, that the Artists would compose a funeral song--an elejat--and perform it in the name of the fallen. However, the Artists were obviously absent, and either none here had thought to compose one themselves, or none wished to. I flushed again. Here, I saw, was a group of Children in a place where tradition could not guide them. It seemed as though none knew how to respond. The crowd fidgeted awkwardly. For a moment I feared that I was going to either scream or cry in frustration, but then my thoughts were interrupted by an entirely different sound altogether.


"The drops alight upon my cheek... I feel the coming rain."

It came from behind me--a girl's voice, high and sweet. The crowd turned. It was Nightshade. She had been lurking behind a tree all this time, and now she stepped forward. She walked slowly toward us, and the crowd parted to let her through. She held her head high, and her voice echoed in the treetops. She sang in an older, more stylized form of Ara'pal, much like High Eng, but the words were clear enough to me, and beautiful. Her tone was light, almost innocent, but the melody was low and full of sorrow:

The spirit sendeth me Her tears

To cleanse me of my pain.

But still, this loving gift, I fear,

Cannot assuage my grief.

The greatest Tree be made the less

If it be less a Leaf.

"O Indigo! O Indigo!"

I call thine honored name,

"Thy sacrifice hath cut me deep

And I am not the same!"

And so I swear, on all I love,

And to this vow am held,

That if thou art forgotten hence

Then 'twill be I who failed.

She approached the grave, but did not look at anyone. Eyes went wide across the congregation. Even Ave'chane stared openly. However, Nightshade took no notice.

To know and have been known by thee

I stand amongst the Bles't,

And so I thank thee, Indigo

And bid thee soundly rest.

Her voice caught slightly on the final couplet. She sniffed and played it off. There was silence again, save for the rain. The sun was entirely gone from the sky by now. The crowd stared blankly at each other, and Nightshade bent down to throw a fistful of earth upon the body. She exchanged a cold look with the two Alder Guards, and then departed, walking out of the circle without a word. She passed me as she left, and I saw then that her eyes were red.

I stared after as she disappeared, confused. This one, Nightshade, who cared for none but herself, had been the only one to stand up and give Indigo her due. I didn't know what to think of this. Slowly the sounds of whispers and sobbing returned. A few Children, including Rowan, followed Nightshade's example and tossed earth onto the body, but for the most part the gathering dissolved quickly. I struggled to step toward the grave, but found that my feet could not move.

Rowan came to me and bade me take her hand. She led me to the body, and I did as the others had done with the soil. Then we turned, and she was leading me back toward the village. How she found her way amazes me, even now. My vision was too blurred to see anything.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Double Down

What is war?

War, at least in my limited experience, is supposed to be a protracted military engagement. Front lines, clear objectives, elaborate chessboards and games of terrain and resource. War, at least in my opinion, is supposed to be about something. It may be cruel, and stupid, and heartless, but at least there's supposed to be an end, right?


So what is this, then? Join the Army, lured in by the promise of jobs, decent pay, health care and money for college. Join for an ideal, for self-respect, to defend your country. Only, you get there, and nothing is as you thought it would be. Long hours, no privacy, and for what? Yeah, that nineteen-year-old high-school sweetheart of yours? Said she'd marry you, thought it was "so romantic" being the bride of a soldier on his way to war? Yeah. She's got no idea what she's in for.

Between field problems, CQ shifts, and late-night GI parties, she's never gonna see you. She's gonna be stuck, in a foreign country, doesn't know anybody, doesn't have anything to do but wait for her name to come up in the DOD civilian hiring system. It's all computerized, so expect her to wait half a year for that. And that's if she isn't already busy raising your kid, whom you never see. This is bad enough.

But you think it's bad now, wait until you get downrange. That goodbye, that late-night going-way waiting for the buses, dark and cold and freezing your ass off, standing by your ruck, weapon slung on your back. Her, leaning on you, trying not to cry. Wipe her tears from the shoulder of your Gore-Tex, form up for roll call, answer the first-sergeant when he shouts your name. Then say a final goodbye, get on the bus, and wave everything you know and love goodbye. Spend a little time looking around you, wondering, "Will some of these guys not make it back? Will I not make it back?"

If war was war, you might at least be able to put up with it. "All quiet on the Western front," and somesuch. But this war isn't. It's not war. It's something else. War, you deal with boredom, and loneliness, and fear, but there's an end to it. Sure, you deal with the mortars, and the bullets, and the constant thud of helicopters overhead late at it. But at least there's a purpose. At least there's a point. There's supposed to be an objective. Supposed to be.

This isn't war. It's something else. Every day, the same thing. Pray that a day passes by without a mission coming down, pray that today you get a shower and to sleep in your own bunk. Pray that you get to call your wife, pray you don't get those niggling doubts about where she is when she doesn't pick up the phone. Pray that the rumors you heard about getting extended were just bullshit. You've had a hard six months already, and you already have another six coming. Your R&R leave ended three weeks ago, you don't need another three months tacked onto your sentence.

Let me tell you why this isn't war: First, war is an actual fight. Sure, there's gunfire, and explosions, and sure, people die, but at least it's you against the other guy. There's soldiers with uniforms and tanks, not some pricks in shemaghs firing 155s out of a PVC tube in the back of a white Nissan pickup truck. There's a frontline, not merely "everything outside the wire." There's enemy soldiers, and civilians, and the guy who smiles and waves at you as he plows his fields today isn't going to be planting a daisy-chain tonight out on Tampa.

In war, you're working toward an end. If things go bad, you're supposed to revert back to your training. Over the trench, into the breach, don't you know. You're at least supposed to have an argument in your favor. Get off the first shot, get sent back to the rear, something, anything. But that doesn't work for an IED, does it? It doesn't work for that mortar landing on your trailer. It doesn't work for the rocket that slams into your maintenance bay, or your DFAC while you're trying to eat chow. It doesn't work for that stray bullet that comes arcing in over the HESCOs, coming to drill into your skull while you PMCS a forklift one Monday morning. The last sound you hear, the drone of a bullet just above you--the lucky one that misses, not the silent one that doesn't.

That's what this is about. War sucks, but you have solutions. Shoot first, go nuts, piss hot, something. No, this is a crap shoot. A fucking crap shoot. Vegas rules, baby, Daddy needs a seven and you ain't got it. Training only works here if you were gonna survive anyway. And that ain't no war, bro. That shit's called luck.

Which brings me to my second point. War has an end. War is supposed to end. That's the whole point, to secure peace, either by silencing their guns or killing so many they can't fight anymore. But there's no end to this. Even if you make it back, even if you get back to your wife again, to your family, to a hot shower and your old civilian wardrobe, back to beer and late nights at the bar and sex with your woman, it's all just temporary. Didn't you hear? Fifteen months on, twelve off, IF you're lucky. Don't count the field problems and CQ shifts. And then guess what, then you get to do it all over again. Back to the strip, back to the lights and the ladies. Only this strip is called Victory Loop, these lights are run on gas-powered generators, these ladies are the Air Force girls who check out your X-rays at the Tactical Hospital.

And guess what? It's gonna be that way for as long as you're in the Army, even after you're out. Even when you make it through the night with your shirt, you gotta go back. You always gotta go back. Vegas, baby, Vegas. Only you gotta remember: House always wins.

If it ain't your life, it'll be your mind, or your health, or your family. So ante up, boyo.

Roll the dice, motherfucker.

Roll the dice.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Logos (For Alina)

I am the Writer, the Creator,
Keeper-Of-Songs, Shaper-Of-Worlds,
A stroke, and I set the stars in motion
A raise of my hands, and I reap the tides.
My fingers spark, blue lightning at their tips,
And in them is the spin of a world's particles,
The ionic fires of birth and oblivion.

Imagine a door, a place, a moment,
And seeing it as it will be, as it will become,
Imagine seeing it, held in the Inner Eye,
And when you come to that door, that place
Step into it, into what you have seen and known
A synchrony like no other, an understanding.
This not power. It is the Godhead.

Create a world, and you will know,
That there is no All-Good, All-Just
Only a restless and questing Mind,
For the act of Creation is Division
A sundering of the Self, a re-birthing,
And in that cleaving, a holding-up to Light,
A seeing-of-ourselves, pain made beautiful.

It is a gutting-of-the-heart, this thing,
A self-destruction that brings ascension.
You come to understand the Samana,
The scourger, the ascetic-of-Walden,
For this act, this Creation, is a Sacrifice,
Shouting: "This is beauty, and it was mine once.
"It is yours now! Take it!"

When all else in the world is dead,
This torment, this salvation remains.
It is the eye of Another, a Girl
Who might show me of Herself
And take me with Her.
Her story is mine, a hidden life
Whose mysteries might reflect in my own.

I live and weep for this,
This communion,
This search for answers.
And yet for all my words,
I am afraid, afraid that all the words,
A million words might never be enough.
What is explained? And what done justice?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Blue Falcon

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

For years, I defended him. For years, I tried to argue his virtues, his professionalism, his loyalty as a friend. For years, I covered for him--even went before the commander myself and pleaded with him not to chapter Oz from the Army. Now, with the unit moving to Knox and my ETS date rapidly approaching, I find myself in a place I had hoped never to be. I've become caught between two very different definitions of friendship, and not sure which one is worse.

I've had to cut ties with Oz.

Oz is an alcoholic--"recovering," anyway. I've known it for a long time, and so has he. His problems started not long after I arrived at the unit, just as the main body was returning from downrange in '05. At the time, he was sidelined by a knee injury, sent home early, and so he was subjected to a great deal of scorn by his compatriots for "shamming out," for "being a shitbag." For a long time after the redeployment, nobody wanted anything to do with Oz, and even if nobody else saw it, I certainly did. Wracked by guilt, isolated from his peers, Oz began to drink more often, and more heavily, until before long he was showing up to formations reeking of vodka.

I saw it, of course. People laughed, called him a drunk, on top of everything else. I tried to defend him, tried to argue that he was under stress, but perhaps I just wouldn't see it. Can I be blamed? He was the first person to actually make me feel welcomed into the unit. Could I be expected to simply leave him by the wayside? Perhaps. But that's not how I wanted things to end.

He got busted, of course. I tried to get him away from the barracks, tried to get him help, but nobody listened, least of all him. He ended up in the Krankenhaus for alcohol poisoning, and so he got stripped down to E-1. He was on extra duty for so long that we barely got to hang out until just before our deployment in '06. A lot of things happened for him during that time, and he went through some pretty emotional periods. He got involved in AA, met a German girl who was supportive. Little by little, he came to acknowledge that he was an alcoholic. He became serious about his meetings, became serious about maintaining contact with his sponsor. Myself, I've never been a heavy drinker, so it was easy for me to abstain from beer when he was over at my house. Things were rough, sure, but all the signs suggested that he was getting better. He was, as we say, "taking the hit and driving on."

Then we deployed. Soldiers in combat are prohibited from drinking alcohol, and so for a time, it was good. I won't lie--it sucked. We were in the same squad at first, with the same incompetent crew chief. We hated life, but we made do. Then he got transferred to Support Platoon, Recon Section, and I followed a month later. With a new mission and longer leashes, Oz and I did pretty well. Oz became a star performer. He earned over 11 separate awards, and gained all of his lost rank, plus one, inside of a year. Now SPC Oz, there soon emerged talk of sending him to the board. He certainly had the time in service, and more than enough of the experience. None would have denied him the rank. Even I, as jealous as I was, had to admit that he would have made an excellent NCO.

And so it was. Cut away from the booze, with a better chain of command and better resources available to him, Oz managed to make a name for himself. He became known as a hard charger again, if perhaps one fueled by too many Monster energy drinks. He gained the respect of his fellows within the unit, and by the time we returned home, it was easy to see something in his bearing, his eyes, which had never been there before: Pride.

I'll say it again: we got lucky. No kills, no deaths, and over 150 missions out the wire, some as long as two months. Neither I nor Oz saw anything which should have permanently warped us, though to be certain we had our scares. So why am I left feeling like a fool?

Came back to Germany, Oz got orders to Leonard Wood. He proposed to Saskia, invited me to be his best man. Of course I accepted. As was his right, finally free of the stressors that had once fueled him, Oz allowed himself to cut loose a little bit. I didn't necessarily like it, but despite my concerns he handled himself well. A beer here, a glass of wine with dinner. Nothing major. I raised my eyebrow, but he never gave me any cause to doubt. Time passed, the unit began to shrink, and Oz informed me that Saskia was pregnant. My best friend was going to be a father. I was ecstatic of course. Plans for the wedding were made, preparations for his move to Leonard Wood set in motion. We all hoped he'd get a few years with his wife as part of the training battalion there, but we all knew he'd be going to 50-Boat. Oz said it didn't bother him,

I went off to my old job at the Legal Office, working as my unit's Tax Advisor. Oz and I saw less of each other, which saddened me. But come on, I told myself--we work in different offices, we both have women at home. It bothered me, but I wasn't about to complain--after all, I have a wife as well. But then Oz gets busted again for Drunk on Duty. He has a relapse. I'm upset of course, not least of all because he didn't call me for help. But making it worse, not two days later I call him up--his fiancee miscarried. Horrible, of course, but I'm on it. I cancel my plans for the day, talk him into coming over to visit. And then it hits me, halfway through our conversation. He's drunk. He's drunk again, and arguing with me about his right to be so. And then I find out that he had help from the guys in the barracks.

It's eight a.m., and a bunch of guys in my unit are playing beer-pong with a known alcoholic There is no curse vile enough to describe my contempt for these people.

I call up my crew chief, of course. I talk him into not punishing Oz. I get him out of the barracks, get him to my place where he can sleep and sober up. He gets busted again, of course, but he takes the hit this time. His orders are coming up, and so we don't have much time left. His wedding day is near, and we agree to make plans to go out sometime before the bachelor party.

So where does he want to go? The Irish Pub.

Go out, play pool. He drinks. We talk about the bachelor party, and he tells me what he wants. He talks about wanting to go out one last time with some guys from the barracks. "Are you going to drink?" I ask him. He doesn't answer. When I press him again, he gets defensive. For the next three hours, I try to gently nag him on the subject, pointing out that he's not had a good record with the demon rum. He doesn't want to hear it. Meanwhile, next to him his fiancee, who isn't exactly a model of temperance herself, works on her fifth Jack and Coke, saying nothing even as I remind Oz that he currently has FIVE alcohol-related offenses under his belt.

"That's a full-house, bro," I say.

"I'm fine, dude," he replies. "I'm cleared out of the unit. They can't touch me until I get to Leonard Wood."

This isn't quite the response I was going for.

I let it go eventually, but here the first whispers of guilt begin to fill my mind. I'm worried--is this the right thing? Am I asking too much to insist that he NOT drink at his own bachelor party? I spend a day or two mulling this over, while I sleep it off. Things go back to normal, and I decide I'm going to call him about it, one more time. As it turns out, however, I'm not going to get that chance. Oz calls me up, last night, already drunk. He says he's getting ready to come over, that he wants to hit up Pure Platinum by around nine. "What are you talking about?" I ask. He says: "The bachelor party, bro."

"Dude," I say, having to pause my game of Half-Life 2. "The party wasn't supposed to be for ten days yet. I haven't even sent out the invites yet, or made the reservation."

"Well, everyone else thinks its tonight," he tells me. "Come by the barracks when you're ready, I should be there around 8."

A pause. I tell him I have to call him back. A few minutes go by, and finally I dial him again. My first words: "Who exactly is 'everybody else?'"

Inside my brain, something snaps. He's drinking again, he's asked me to be his best man, he's talked over and over about how I have to pay for everything (it's CUSTOM), and now he wants to change the DAY on me? On top of which, he tells everyone BUT the HOST? I don't want to be rude here, but I have some stuff on my mind. I proceed to give him a polite but pointed earful, telling him that he can't just change things on me, that he has to let me play the host and handle this myself. He doesn't want to hear it. He whines that I never call him, and I point out that he never answers his phone. I tell him, "Look, I'm already compromising with my morals here by letting you drink at the party I'm hosting you, but now this shit? I'm starting to feel a little taken advantage of."

Silence. Over the phone, I hear his fiancee, yelling in her broken English for Oz to refill her drink. I start to fume. I resume the upbraiding, until finally Oz tells me, "All right, look dude, we'll do it on the 12th, like you wanted."

"Look," I say, "you want to just go out and get drunk, we can do that. You want a fuckin' PARTY, you gotta let me arrange some shit, okay?"

"Whatever, dude, it's fine," he says. "Look, man, I gotta make some calls yo. I'll talk to you later."

"All right. Hey, thanks for understanding, all right?"

He burps. "Whatever." And then he hangs up.

Relief. My worries are growing though. What does he think he's doing? Does he think he can just sweet-talk me into giving him his way? Is that it? This isn't the Oz I remember. I try to shrug it off. Brooks and my friend DeSoto from Legal come by for dinner. We spend a good couple of hours talking and laughing over beers, and then by 9 o' clock first Brooks, then DeSoto bid us adieu. All is quiet for perhaps half an hour after they leave, until at last the phone rings. It's Brooks.

"Hey, man," he drawls. "I just ran into Oz and Kenneth. Them and Stein're goin' out to Pure Platinum. I think Oz's been drinkin' again."

I can feel myself biting the inside of my cheek. "No shit," I say. "All right, man. Thanks." And I hang up.

We have a term in the Army: Blue Falcon. Among the rank and file, it's usually pronounced "Buddy Fucker," and it can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to one who, for whatever reason, goes out of one's way to betray a fellow soldier. However, most of the time it refers to one who, through either ignorance or sheer laziness, leaves a battle buddy out in the cold, either through lack of information or simply by not policing up his friend's performance. This is the term that I am left with.

Who is the true Blue Falcon: the one who drinks with a known alcoholic, or the one who tries and fails to save him? I come to the realization that night: I can't support what he's doing anymore. I've tried my best, and no, I didn't want it to be this way, but I'm getting ready to leave the Army. He's getting ready to move to Leonard Wood. We only have a few weeks left, and I wanted to try and part ways with him on a positive note, but I see now that he's just sliding down too far. I have to do as SSG Mueller said: Cut my losses.

Even now, it's a bitter feeling. I could just leave it be, maybe long enough to say goodbye, to see him happily off into the world of marriage and his next duty station, but now I see that I can't. He's gotten to this place because he was surrounded by Blue Falcons, Buddy Fuckers, who knew his problem and yet did nothing to try and stop him. He may be getting ready to leave, but even after I'm gone, maybe he'll look back and see what a friend he had in me. Maybe he'll see what I tried to do, and maybe it might dawn on him.

Or maybe it won't. Maybe I'm the Buddy Fucker. Maybe we all are. All I know is, I've tried to do the right thing, tried to show integrity, and failed. I failed him, failed my best friend. Fifteen months and a safe return home, and I couldn't pull security when he needed it most.

I'm calling him. Right now. Going to tell him that I can't be his best man anymore. It ends here.

I'm sorry, Oz.

Crossposted at Low and Left: Part Deux)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

They Hate You If You're Clever, And Despise A Fool...

Back while I was deployed, there was a bit of a dustup over some rather heated things I said on my other blog. For a while, I had to go dark, owing to large numbers of people in the conservative blogosphere trying to root me out--prove I was a phony, a fraud, or simply a "traitor." I received threats to my career, even threats to my life.

Even now, it angers me--for all the talk about "supporting the troops," it seems that said support only applies when you go along with the official line. I don't support the war, indeed I have lost my taste for war in general as a valid option for enforcing policy abroad. So when I spoke up, suddenly I was exposed to the ire of the warmongers and the party-line goose-steppers.

It was bad enough that I had already been extended for three more months, but then to be told that I had no right to be angry? It's said in the Army that "we don't live in a democracy, we just work for one." This only became clear to me after I dared to express my frustration.

A lesson: In the Army, you are not a person, you are property.

So imagine my surprise: A recent study by Special Operations Command has been released, which considered recommending that high-profile bloggers be co-opted, even be placed on the Army's payroll. That's right: your tax dollars went into research that considered turning us into propaganda tools. Don't take my word for it--go read. It's disgusting.

To think: I could have avoided all of this hardship, all of that fear, if only I had gone along. I might have even been able to make a dime on it.

(Crossposted at Low and Left: Part Deux)