The Father's Guns
It turned out his father owned two guns, a rifle and a pistol. The rifle was for putting food on the table, and the pistol for keeping humans and other varmints off the nine-hundred acres sowed with wheat and soybean and later, when the market tumbled, less than cattle-grade corn. The father showed all three sons how to shoot the rifle, but of the three, only the youngest, Jeremiah, took to hunting. Michael, the eldest, was a gangly, quiet kid who preferred to ride his horse through the fields. Martin, the middle son, cringed when a turkey or deer came into view, and became a vegetarian and a minister. When he was six, Jeremiah, shot his father's hunting rifle and thought it the biggest gun in South Dakota; years later, he would find it insufficient for elk, terrorists, and other big game.
All three sons forgot about the pistol, although they knew it was kept in a box with a combination lock for safe-keeping. The mother did not forget about the pistol.
When he was 17, Jeremiah packed his crossbow and arrows and took Sheila up to the foothills that curved down to the edge of the farm. They made camp in an old deer blind, padding the ground with his sleeping bag and the woven wool blanket her mother had made, and brought enough food and drink to keep them comfortable for a day or so.
They waited for the turkey to strut through their campsite—they had seen the fine bird pass through twice before—but by late morning they knew they would not see the Tom until dusk, if they were lucky. He kissed Sheila, and then unbuttoned her jeans and stroked her lower stomach before burying himself between her thighs. When the thin wail of sirens from across the fields found them, they paused. Clouds of yellow dust billowed from the winter wheat field where Michael had been harvesting. Sheila whispered, maybe we should go back, and he looked at the dust, then at her lips red as just-plucked cherries, and pulled her back down into their nest, laughing.
It was only a slice of bread, but after ten days of field rations and the thin unleavened nan-e bread the Afghans ate, it tasted the way Jeremiah imagined manna might taste. He sat on the edge of rocky outcropping the hour before patrol began, the slice cupped in his palms. The smell of it brought him back to the fields, the grain rippling silver in what little breeze the summer could muster. To Sheila patting small wheat tortillas and frying them in the pan, to his brother's warm house smelling of yeast and rye and cardamom. He thought of Maryam then, of the way she chewed the wooden end of the brush when contemplating the next strokes of a painting, and his brother Martin sitting in his armchair watching him teach Josh power chords on the guitar, and for the first time since he arrived in Afghanistan, Jeremiah felt the space in his chest swell.
He tore off a small piece of the still-warm bread and let it dissolve in his mouth. The sun hovered two inches above the mountain ridge. Soon, he thought, I will hunt in the dark. He ate half the slice like that, tiny pieces of white dropped on his tongue, then wrapped the other half in a piece of plastic to eat the next morning.
Two weeks after birth, lying in the bassinet. “He disturbs me,” the father said to the mother. “His eyes follow every little thing that moves, even me. Why can't he just sleep like our other two boys did?”
“There is nothing we could do,” the man in white said. “Nothing anyone could do. It is the way of God and nature--those unprepared to live must make way for the strong.” But the doctor let her hold the gray infant swaddled in pink flannel, and her sobs filled the hospital.
After Sheila left. “The only thing I'm good at is hunting.”
For years, when he dreamt of sex, he dreamt it was Maryam who lay beside him. In his dreams she came to him, arms open, supplicant and soft, her pink robe slipping from her left shoulder. She was like falling into a nest of eider down. Often in his sleep, while dreaming this dream or even thinking about Maryam, he would turn to Sheila and she would curve into him, unknowing, and they would make sleepy love.
In the morning when he awoke, he felt cleansed and confident, but as the day wore on and he remembered the way he held Maryam, the way she held him, he felt dirty for coveting his brother's wife.
When he heard the click beneath him, so quiet and unassuming, he was not sure, so he froze. But then through his night vision goggles he saw the ridges, the faint outline of the IED. You goddamn idiot, he thought.
He tried not to tremble from the cold, the odd sensation growing hard in his gut. The WinMag grew heavy on his shoulder, digging a groove, and he thought for a moment whether to turn it around, place the muzzle in his mouth, and pull, for that was a better, cleaner alternative.
But there was hope, always hope. When he did not return by daylight, base camp would search for him. Six hours he could stand stock still. Six hours he could wait.
The sky tilted, carrying the stars with it. His breath danced around him like a tired ghost in the frigid night air. When he thought he could not stand still another instant, the edge of the sky melted crimson into the mountain ridge. He closed his eyes, let the sun warm his face, and thought of Sheila working the clay, of Maryam standing by the window, the crunch of gravel as the car brought him closer, the sheer curtain hiding her face. He thought of the bread in his pocket, the way the soft crumbs dissolved in his mouth.
I love my Creative Writing Class at Hopkins. Every week we have a prompt to respond to, focusing on some facet of writing: plot, narrative, point-of-view. This story focuses on characterization. And the prompt? A huge nod to Michael Ondaatje, whose prose poem 7 or 8 Things I Know About Her (A Stolen Biography) served as an armature to dig deeper into the character of Jeremiah Anselm--in love with his brother's wife, lover to a Lakota potter, American Army sniper, and a player in THE MINISTER'S WIFE, my novel-in-progress. Peace...