Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where Death Lives

Where Death Lives

Art Rosch

            I was dead.  The last thing I heard was the vicious whine of a shell that hit the beach about ten yards to my left, between me and the empty Higgins boats floating like toys in the surf.   The black sand erupted and something ripped through my helmet and threw me forward onto my face.  For a while it was dark and quiet; it was a beautiful relief.  A minute ago I had been so scared that I was afraid I'd wet my pants, or worse. 
Now it was over.  Just like that: boom!  Over.
            It seemed like a long time, the sweet blessed dark.  It seemed like a year of rest and peace.  I fought my sense of returning awareness.  No!  I'm dead!  I know it!  Why would I want to return to Iwo Jima, why would I want to be anywhere near this unspeakable war? 
            First there was utter confusion as the light began to return.  Where was I?  What was happening?  Then I righted myself as if I had been thrown into a roaring surf.  I knew which way was up.  I knew which way I had to go.
            My body lay with half its face buried in the sand.  I could see one eye.  It was still open but nothing moved.  The iris no longer reacted to the changing light.  The muscles were utterly still.  I felt a tearing and complete sorrow.  That used to be me!  And now, it’s…what is it?  It’s not me.  I won’t be living and moving inside those muscles and sinews, not any more.  A piece of shrapnel had sliced open the helmet and pierced the body’s skull.
            I died fast, at least there was that.  One second I was a lieutenant in the  Marines.  The next, I was up here, above the beach, floating.

My pathetic little carbine had been flung barrel first into the sand.  It stood canted at an angle: my first grave marker.
            Well, Sam, here you are.  You’re dead.  You got forty feet up Iwo's black sand  before a shell splinter popped your head open.
I realized that this was the crucial moment, this was Samuel Podolski’s crisis.
A consciousness still existed that was ME.  I knew I was dead.  I had prepared myself for this moment.  When I was a teenager I had thought about becoming a priest or a monk.  I had read all kinds of books.  I had imagined my death a hundred thousand times.  I was curious, not morbid.  I was just a kid.
            Then the war came and changed everything.  Now I was a lieutenant in the United States Marines.  Instead of leading souls to God, I led men into combat. 
            This was not a book.  This was real, this was Death.  Above all things, I knew I had to get this right.  I had to die right; I was like a bell that had been struck and must ring true.
            Voom!  Some force grabbed me and lifted me into the air until I hovered about a thousand feet above the beach.  I could see everything.  Shell bursts, tracers, fire from ships, fire from marines, fire from Japanese bunkers.  Deadly projectiles flew from dugouts and log-covered rat-holes.  It was completely silent.  I saw the scrambling dots of marines along the landing zones.  They were still falling out of the Higgins boats.  Some of them didn't even make it to the surf.  They were frozen on the edge of the landing craft with their arms dangling.  Oh, dear God!  Such carnage!
            The sea was paved with ships.  The little island was a heap of black, red and orange, the colors of erupting sand and dirt, wreathed with fire.  It was just a rock with a couple of airfields.  There was barely any vegetation.  A little scrub, torn up branches, and a five hundred foot rise they called Mount Suribachi.  Artillery barrels poked from camouflaged emplacements.  A flash of light, a puff of smoke and the barrel disappeared in its recoil. The shell exploded down on the beach.  Return fire pocked around the enemy gun but it had vanished.  This was happening all over the island, the vanishing guns, the futile return fire.
            My last living thought had been about my guys, the men in my company.  Thorne, Willis, Zelazny, Frier, almost two hundred others.  MY guys.  My responsibility. 
            I had been looking back over my shoulder when the shell hit.  I saw Sergeant Poston slogging up the sandy slope, his arm wind-milling to wave the troops forward.  His face was a mask of murderous rage and terror, his mouth was gaping wide and his tongue was thrust out but he was still going, he was running as fast as he could and waving his squad forward.  The hot deep sand made the act of running a scuttle towards complete exhaustion.  The heat was fierce.  There were no clouds in the sky, just smoke and flying debris.  It seemed like the whole island had come alive and was trying to kill us.
            Now I could move freely through all this chaos.  I could look at a place and be there instantly.  Sergeant Poston had brought four other marines into a little rise of ground where their eyes could just peer over the barrels of their rifles to return fire.  Japanese soldiers were invisible. 
            One of the Marines with Poston took a bullet right through the forehead.  It was Shelby Franks.  He was a good kid, a hard working farm boy who dropped out of high school to fight for his country.  Now he was dead.  He had passed from life to death in a fraction of a second.
            I watched intently.  I saw a misty form coalesce over the boy’s body and it was his spirit.  It was nearly transparent but it was him, Shelby Franks.  His face was full of terror and confusion.  I heard the first sound since I died. I heard Franks screaming.  His spirit-form, his ghost, whatever it’s called was running back and forth howling “Mommie, Mommie, Mommie!”
            A wave of calm descended through me like a blessed mist.  It was warm and comforting like a mother’s embrace.  It brought me knowledge. 
            As I watched the poor kid screaming, running back and forth yelling for his mother, I knew that I was there to help.  I didn’t know why I could help; I just could.
            I floated next to Franks’ ghost and put my ghostly hand on his ghostly shoulder.
It wasn’t like touching flesh.  It was like feeling cotton.
            “Shelby,” I said, and a voice came from my mouth, a voice more feminine than my own.    “Shelby,” I said, “everything’s okay.  You’ll be all right.”
            The boy stopped his ragged dance and looked at me with frightened innocence.
            “Mom?” he asked, his voice swollen with hope.
            “No, son, I’m not your mom.  I’m Lieutenant Podolski.  Everything’s going to be okay.”
            He pointed at his body lying prone and still, with its face pressed into the dirt.  The hands were still fixed to the rifle’s stock and trigger.  “But I’m dead!”  He wailed with a terror that made his voice sound like a shredded piece of fabric.
            “I know, I know.”  I touched his shoulder again, and it seemed as though some of my calm flowed into the cottony feel of his ghost-form.  “You’re a Marine, son.  Those are the breaks.  You did your duty and fought bravely. That’s all anyone can ask.”
            The form trembled and turned away from me.  “I can’t be dead, no!  I can’t!  It'll kill my mom!  Who's gonna take care of her after the war?”
            He floated back towards his body and seemed to dig at it like a dog digging for a bone.  He tried to push his ghostly presence back inside the body but it was no good.  He threw himself down and bounced away.  The dead body rejected him.
            He looked back at me and then was at my side.  “Mommy,” he said, “I think I’m hurt real bad.  I need your help.” He put his ghost-head into my chest and embraced me. 
            “Shelby Franks,” I said gently, “I am Lieutenant Podolski, I’m not your mother.  You just died on the beach at Iwo Jima.  It’s best that you accept this."
            He recoiled from me, floated backward.  “You’re the devil!” he screamed.  “You're lying!  You’ve come to take me to Hell!”  He turned and tried to run but he didn’t go anywhere.  His form changed from moment to moment.  He slipped through the ages of his life, from being a newborn infant to a boy, then a teenager and finally a Marine at war.  His countenance looked alternately angelic and cruel.  It was the same face but it bore so many marks of both good and evil that it oscillated from great sweetness to the horridly vicious.  Then it settled into the face of the soldier I knew and he returned to me and said with infinite sadness, “I AM dead, right?  I won’t be going home.  But I’m still like this!”  He gestured with his fingers to indicate his ghostliness.  He seemed to look inward, deeply inward.
            “I think I’ll be going to Heaven.  I was a good kid.  I wasn’t perfect but I went to church.  I helped my mom on the farm after my dad died.  I was a good kid.”
            “I know you’ll be going to a good place,“ I told him, as truthfully as possible.  I didn’t know where anyone was going.  I didn’t know where I was going.  I had a sense that the realm of Death may be a bit more complicated than Heaven and Hell.
            “Private Franks!" I barked, asserting my officer's authority.  “You're a Marine!  Square yourself away!  You still have duties to perform.”
            He seemed to flush with embarrassment, then straightened himself and saluted.  “Sir!  Yes sir!” he cried.
            “Go and find other marines who have died.  Just be calm and comfort them, and tell the truth as you see it.  This is your new assignment.”
            “Sir!  Yes sir!”  Again he saluted.  We looked around us, at the battlefield, which was still wreathed in eerie silence.  There were ghosts rising from bodies in all directions.  Not all the dead were alone.  Various forms had materialized around them.  Some looked like the parents and grandparents of these boys; some looked evil and taut with malice.  Most of the dead were simply alone, rising like smoke from their lifeless bodies.  A great wail slowly broke through the silence.  It was made of the various calls for solace.
            “Mommie, help me. Mama, mama, mom!” The sad tender music of mother-longing filled the battlefield.  All these boys were reaching for their greatest comforter.  Other cries rose from the slope.  “Oh lord Jesus, help me.  Christ, oh Christ! Adonai, Aylee Adonai!  Dear God dear god I’m so scared.”
            The shape of the world suddenly changed.  An amphitheatre was forming, the walls of the beach curved upward, the ocean arched overhead, the hard rock of the island’s interior, the bulk of the mountain, all of it became a great bowl.  Inside this bowl the spirits of the dead ran in all directions, bumping into one another, confused. 
            I stayed where I was.  I seemed to be at the center of the bowl. 
            “Lieutenant?  Lieutenant?”  A voice supplicated and a cottony hand fell upon my shoulder.  I recognized Corporal Williams. 
            “Yes, Corporal,” I responded.  The corporal did not forget his salute.  I returned it.  "At ease, Corporal," I said.  He relaxed and took position at my side.
            “We’re dead, ain’t we, sir?” Williams stated.
            “Yes,” I answered.
            “Shit!” the corporal cursed.  Then he looked sheepish.  “Maybe I shouldn’t be cursing in this place…whatever this is…at least it’s goddam quiet.  Aw shit, I did it again.  Uh..Sir.”
            I tapped him on the chest with my cottony hand.  “I don’t think you’ll be judged for a few curse words, corporal.”
            Williams relaxed.  “Guess not.  Bigger things are happening, huh?”
            “Yeah,” I said.  “Bigger things than a few curse words.”
            The two of us sat together and spirits came to us.  I saw so many of my guys, far too many.  The battle was terrible.  Their spirits came in various conditions of confusion and denial.  I simply told the truth.  We were dead.  I didn’t know what would happen next, but it would be okay.
            Time and space were elastic.  An hour passed in a second.  A minute passed in a month.  I found myself going from soldier to soldier.  I was being moved by a greater force, a force that used me as if I were a doctor making rounds.  It carried me to the place I was needed.
            Colonel Waterford refused to believe he was dead.  I found his body covered by a tarp while his spirit raged at his junior officers.  “Get those men off the beach!  Where’s Kline?  He should have suppressed fire from that fucking mountain!”
            None of his staff heard his voice.  It was driving him crazy.  He reached impulsively for the forty five strapped to his hip but his hand came up with a nebulous object, something that looked like a gun but was not a gun.  It slipped through his fingers and he scrabbled in the sand, cursing with frustration.
            I approached and performed my best salute.  “Sir!” I said.  “Lieutenant Podolski
reporting with an urgent message.  Sir!”
            "Well, what is it?" shouted the Colonel.
"Sir.  You are dead, sir. Killed In Action."  I showed him the body under the tarp.  He refused to accept the truth.  He looked around for an MP.  “Someone arrest this idiot!” he bellowed.
            No one heard.  I began to see cracks in his composure.  He carefully smoothed them over and continued howling orders.  It took me a long time to settle him.  He couldn't accept the fact of his death.  He raged and complained.  “Who left that corpse here?”  He pointed to his own body.  “Somebody take it away for fuck’s sake!  It's beginning to stink.”
There was nothing more I could do.
            When the spirits of the first Japanese soldiers began to drift into our expanding circle, many marines instinctively reached for weapons.  There were no weapons.  When they tried to fight with their hands, it was impossible to grip the cottony substance of the  enemy.  Next to me, the spirit of Corporal Williams said, “Aw fuck it.  Look at ‘em, sir.  They’re just kids, like our guys.  Just kids who got killed fighting for their country.  What a waste!”  He made a full turn, looking at whatever he saw.  I didn’t know if he saw what I saw, but his next statement endeared him to me forever.
            “You know,” he said, “from this vantage point, war looks like the stupidest most moronic thing in the whole fuckin’ world.”
            I noticed that in the sky above the huge amphitheatre of war there were hordes of spirits.  They were tumbling about, all in a confused mass.  They seemed to be trying to descend to the level of the beach.  They stopped one another.  Light spirits with wings of gold reached for the rising souls of the young soldiers.  Demons with black fangs tripped them, held them, obstructed them, wrestled with them.
            More and more soldiers came to join our mass of spirits.  Japanese and Americans sat quietly speaking.  Language was no impediment.  They understood one another.
            It seemed like we were caught between two wars.  The angels and devils competed to get past one another.  I looked farther up and saw an orb of light that was brighter than a trillion suns.  It was burning with sweet ferocity, yet it did not blind or sear.  It was light and it caused everything to be what it was.  It took no sides. 
One at a time, the spirits in the air passed through their own conflict and drifted down, to float near a soldier.  Many of the angelic spirits came.  Some of the devils came too, but not so many.  Each one chose a soldier.  The spirits extended their wings, or claws, and took the soldiers.  The angels lifted their charges towards the light.  Holes opened beneath the hooves of the demons and they carried their assigned souls down and down, into the earth's crust.  Gradually the pairs of spirits disappeared.  They faded away, vanishing over and through the bowl that was Iwo Jima. 
The battle was ending.  Flame throwers were mopping up.  The bowl of the island grew transparent.  I could see inside Mount Suribachi with its many caves and tunnels.  Charred Japanese bodies lay stiffened in grotesque postures.  Blackened bones of clutching hands pushed into the air.  They would stay buried there forever.
It seemed as if only a few minutes had passed.  The shape of the island had been changing from that of a bowl to one of a flat plain.  It was an endless desert with but a few pebbles to mark off the distance to the horizon.  A ragged line of Japanese soldiers were huddled together, tiny, far away.  Near to me, a fortress stood, with walls that extended into the sky.  It was a monstrous battlement, with ten thousand flags waving.  It bristled with guns and spears, arrows and vats of boiling oil. 
I knew what would happen.  I knew because it was as logical as fate.  There was no caprice, no irony to it.  Only a terrible dignity.  The Japanese stood proudly, waving their curved swords.  A man stood among them, taller, more proud, more dignified.  He was dressed like all the others except for his high boots and the open white shirt collar over his tunic.
He was the general, Kuribayashi.  He seemed to be miles away but I heard him speak.  His soldiers looked to him with great love and devotion. 
He was talking to his men, though something more intimate in his diction told me he was speaking to his family, to his son. 
“My life is but a lantern, glowing in the wind.”  Those were his last words.
Banzai!  The solders charged the huge fortress, waving their swords with great ferocity.  In response, the massive thing seemed to swallow deliberately and then spit a giant bomb.  This bomb struck the oncoming soldiers and vaporized them instantly.
The battle was over.  I was all but alone.  Here and there, I could see the living but they were becoming more tenuous as the ghosts became more real.  The spirits from the final charge were taken by a great Samurai ghost, a creature of impeccable composure.  It wore an elaborate helmet with antlers of carved ivory.  The General bowed to the Samurai spirit.  It bowed in return.  There was flash of light, as if the sun had gleamed on a sword blade.  The soldiers vanished.
I sat quietly.  The Great Light, that light as powerful as a trillion suns, the light that did not burn but healed, came closer.  It drew itself out of the heavens and approached.  As it did so there coalesced yet another form, another being.  It was dressed in ordinary civilian clothes.  It walked on the ground, coming forward until I could see it plainly.  I had an odd sense that I was looking at my own twin.  The being was so much like me, yet different in many ways.  It was both male and female.  It radiated such peace of countenance.  If I could chose to be anyone, I would chose to be this being who now put its arms around me.
            “Samuel,” it said, “you’re ready.  You’ve done well.  It’s time to go.”
            “Yes,” I said, “It’s time to go.”
            I allowed the being to absorb me in its embrace.  I felt more complete than I had ever imagined it was possible to feel.  This being was myself and not myself.  It was something I could call soul, or spirit, or any of a myriad names.
            It rose into the sky and carried me towards the light of a trillion suns.



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