Monthly Archives: May 2011

Mnemosyne

A poem by Trumbull Stickney, American poet (1874 – 1904)

Ranch Dressing – 11

The shot hit Steve’s left shoulder, spinning him around and throwing the rifle six feet away. Steve staggered, fell, got to his knees and lunged for the rifle. Boone fired again into the sand near where the rifle lay.

The next one goes in your heart, fuck head, he shouted.

Steve slumped down and sat with a leg folded under him trying to stop the bleeding with his right hand.

You always were a shit-hot sniper, dude. You win, said Steve. Just finish it. I’m not spending the rest of my life in prison. Finish it or I’ll make you finish it.

First tell me why you are trying to kill me, said Boone. Then I’ll decide if your sorry ass is worth killing. Maybe you don’t deserve the easy way out. Maybe you need to spend a few years as a quad in a VA hospital first.

Steve sat down fully, gasping at the pain in his shoulder.

Do remember that shithole position about thirty clicks outside of Kabul? Remember the girl in the village below us, asked Steve.

The worst scene of his whole tour was never far from Boone’s mind. He woke reliving it constantly. A Pashtun girl had apparently broken tribal law–probably by having an affair–and was to be subjected to an honor killing. They watched through binoculars from their camoflaged position in the mountains as the village men below stood in a circle around a wood chipper. The girl had her head covered and was kneeling on the ground in the middle of the circle while an angry village elder excoriated her. Steve and Boone had called Centcom and asked, begged, pleaded to intervene. A few well placed shots or a nearby air strike would have broken up the party. Centcom said no. This was tribal justice. Local custom. Do not reveal your position and do not intervene.

The next scene was burned into the synapses of Boone’s brain. Nothing could dislodge it. No amount of alcohol or blind rage took away the slightest detail.

Yea, of course I remember. So what, said Boone.

The girl. I–I knew her, said Steve, his voice on the edge of furious tears.

Boone let that statement sink in for a long minute. What do you mean you knew her, he asked.

She came to our camp with some friends when we were getting ready to deploy, Steve said. We had some laughs and then things took a turn, you know? She was going to meet me when we rotated back. Steve’s voice trailed off. His body shook with silent sobs that had turned the gears of his soul backwards on himself grinding everything in his life to dust.

You were senior officer, Boone. You could have done something and no one would have known. We could have moved our position later. Remember, I begged you but you were fucking regular Army. When I tried to stop them you threatened to shoot me.

We were going to get married, said Steve.

Boone put the Ruger down. He pulled himself to a sitting position, eased himself down onto the hillside and hobbled over to Steve. He picked up the rifle, pulled the firing pin out and threw it as far as he could. He sat down beside Steve.

Steve, I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry, said Boone. I am so fucking sorry. Why didn’t you say something.

I couldn’t. The words weren’t there.

Here. Boone handed Steve the Ruger. You always were better with a pistol, he said. Last chance.

Boone had calculated his odds and believed he knew Steve better than he knew himself. But he would not blame him if he took the opportunity. If he didn’t, maybe there was hope for both of them. Maybe the VA hospital in White City could help them both.

Steve took the Ruger and aimed it at Boone’s forehead. You fucking asshole, he said, taking the Ruger and throwing it as hard as he could down the hill. Help me up.

Boone and Steve helped each other up and stood until both were steady enough on their feet to walk by holding onto each other.

They hobbled to the top of the hill. Boone took out his cell phone, found a weak but steady signal and called 911. The operator in Bend told them it would take two hours to get an emergency vehicle to them. Keep the cell phone on so they could triangulate.

They found shade behind a boulder, sat down saying little, and watched in silence as heat as dazzling waves shimmered across the desert.

Steve, why the dead coyote?

Steve shifted his back against the rock to try and find a position that eased the pain in his shoulder.

When I was out of my mind, everything I saw that was a good hunter reminded me of you. That one came around our place a lot outside of Medford–taking house cats, mainly. After a while it became you, I guess, or at least your stand in until I found you. I put it there to distract you–like the Hajis used to put stuff out to distract us, even for a minute. I regret it now. Worked though, didn’t it?

Yea, I guess it did.

Ranch Dressing -10

Maybe 15 minutes, maybe 45 had gone by since the last shot was swallowed by the indifferent stillness of the desert–Boone could not gauge it. The desert sun, crawling up the pale bowl of sky, began it’s days work in earnest. Boone shielded his eyes from the light with his hand and scanned the section of desert visible from the rock shelf. His heart rate had slowed but the blood still pounded in his ears. He couldn’t risk exposing himself so he listened with the intensity that only came when death was near as his own skin. He collected every slight rustle of air, forming a picture in his mind of how he would approach the situation if the roles were reversed. With a probable, but not a visual kill against a trained, wounded sniper, he would probably flank in a wide circle looking for any evidence of an escape. He estimated it would take about a hour to move the jeep to a place out of sight and start working his way around and up the hillside behind the notch, scanning with the scope the whole way. Boone’s position wasn’t visible except from straight up the hillside so that was in his favor.

A lizard skittered from a crack in the rock and stared at him at eye level. The lizard lifted one front leg and the opposite back leg periodically to prevent overheating on the skillet slab where Boone lay. Something floated up in Boone’s mind as he watched the lizard. The vision of the dead coyote stuffed into the ranch toilet roiled up and began to merge with the lizard forming a flick-tongued desert dybbuk that stared at him across the rock. He decided it was a friendly. Any advice for me, pal? The lizard with the coyote face said nothing and eventually disappeared in the small, barren world of rock, sand and heat that now made up his whole existence.

Focus. Just focus. The heat and the leg that had started to throb again robbed him of the thoughts he knew were there, just over the rim of awareness, the thoughts that might save him.

Then a small rock slide tumbled down the hillside sixty feet to his left.

He raised the Ruger and aimed at a spot to the left of a low rock where he guessed Steve would appear. There would be no visible evidence that Boone had escaped the notch so Steve was apparently feeling confident enough of his kill to move somewhat carelessly now.

Boone’s mouth felt like charcoal and his tongue had started to swell from the dehydration. He held the Ruger with both hands steadying it on the rock. Then another small rockslide. A minute later Steve emerged wearing desert camo, carrying his rifle in his left hand, working his way slowly down a shallow gully.

Boone waited while every muscle fiber and nerve raged. Steve, fifty feet from him and slightly below, stopped. He cocked his head at a slight angle, turned and looked in Boone’s direction.

Boone squeezed the trigger with infinite slowness and fired between the heartbeats that still pounded in his ears.

Canine Carpe Deum

Song

One hundred poems
one sings loudest, soaring
high–like a child in church

Ranch Dressing – 9

Boone’s watched the red Jeep drive slowly to the margin of the playa where the sage grew in dry clumps against the low hillside. The Jeep stopped below him about quarter mile away. He watched Steve get out on the far side of the vehicle. Boone ducked down behind the duffle. He knew Steve would search for him with a spotting scope. It wouldn’t take him long to spot his trail leading to the rock notch and set up for a long range shot. The air was calm and warm. It was a relatively easy shot. They had often hit targets a half a mile away and once they killed an Taliban leader while he sat low against a wall drinking tea at slightly under a mile. A shot like that was a work of art. There was three feet of arc at that distance, plus the wind correction, and the target needed to be still for 3-4 seconds. This shot was like a day at the office.

There was only one way he could think of to get out of this cluster fuck and the chances of pulling it off weren’t great. Boone unzipped his duffle and looked frantically for a bottle of Gatorade he had picked up at a 7-11 in Elko, hoping he hadn’t left it in the truck. There it was. Unopened. Red Gatorade too. A tiny bit of fool’s luck, he thought. He opened it, took one long drink and placed the bottle in the center inside the duffle, cap off, and packed his clothes around it. Then he reached over and quickly brushed some of the sand off the outside of the duffle to make it a bit more visible. He turned and crawled back from the entrance of the rock notch looking for a back door from the death hole. The only exit was over a car sized boulder. At least it was out of direct sight of the Jeep. Boone’s vision narrowed to a tunnel and his ears buzzed as he struggled to hoist himself up and over the boulder to a slabby shelf above and behind the notch.

He lay down–heart pounding almost outside his chest. He steadied his breathing and pulled himself on his elbows, Ruger in his right hand, to where he could peer around the edge of the boulder.

He saw the muzzle flash from beneath the Jeep at almost the same time his duffle and the rock below him exploded in a shower of rock chips, dust and Gatorade. Two seconds later a second round ricocheted around the small stone canyon beneath him looking for flesh to tear into. Steve had put that round high into the side wall of the notch looking for the ricochet. The charry acrid smell of shattered rock floated up into Boone’s nostrils.

Nice shooting, asshole. It’s still your move, but I just got my queen back.

A normally dry oasis

For many years, when the “November in the soul” became too heavy to bear during the often wet Oregon spring, I drove east of the mountains to find sunshine. It was a reliable way to jump ahead a few weeks, hike velvety hillsides before they turned brown, and soak up some of what I knew was headed our way. Now I look on my iPhone weather app to find rain and thunderstorms in Hood River, the Dalles, and farther — as far east as I can drive in a day. I drove last weekend to Maryhill– a normally dry oasis in the Columbia gorge– and ended up scurrying back a few hours like a drowned rat in a drenching thunderstorm.

Some say this extra wet weather is due to La Nina in the Pacific. Perhaps.

The best explanation I’ve heard about the effects of climate change was this: “look, if you raise the average global temperature you are putting a whole lot more energy into the jet stream. The job of the jet stream is to dissipate energy and all that new energy has to go somewhere.”

May God comfort the people who lost family in the Joplin storm. I have no burden compared to theirs. I will find my spring solace in a glass of single malt scotch, a good book and in looking for a new motorcycle. Maybe it can take me someplace where the spring looks like it used to.