I walked past the War Cemetery every day on my way to work, but it was years before I noticed him.
A tiny old man dressed in khaki, kneeling on hands and knees.
Always khaki, always kneeling, every day.
Some days I didn’t see him at first, but he was there, kneeling among the gravestones, perhaps hidden between the larger monuments.
One bright April day, I bought an extra tea from the shop and brought it to him.
I gave him the cup.
He bowed his thanks.
I introduced myself.
“I am Duc,” he said. He was a tiny man with a lined face, toothless and wrinkled like an ape.
“I see you here every day.”
He smiled and held up a pair of worn chopsticks. “I tend my friends’ graves with these. It is my privilege.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We built a railway together,” he said. “For the Japanese.”
What Pegman Saw
The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. As chronicled in the 1957 classic Bridge On The River Kwai, The Japanese Imperial Army found a ready supply of labour in British prisoners-of-war captured when Singapore fell in February 1942. The line was completed in just a year. Starvation, disease, and the brutal treatment by their captors all took their toll. More than 13,000 POWs and 100,000 native laborers lost their lives. One man died for every sleeper laid.
“If it was a war,” Susan argues, “Then where are the bodies?”
“Perhaps they were eaten. Maybe they rotted. I don’t know.”
Dr. Thrang stays out of it, busying himself taking samples and looking at them through his spectrometer.
“I think it was something else,” she says, folding her arms. “Nuclear war would have destroyed everything.”
Dr.Thrang put shis instrument away, picks his way across the rubble.
“Well?” Susan asks.
“I found traces of an unknown biological agent,” he says.
“I can’t tell until we get back to the lab. One thing’s sure. We’ve all been exposed to it.”
Thanks to Rochelle for using my photo this week. My daughter and I took a trip to the ruined Searsboro Consolidated School in central Iowa, built in the 1920s to allow children from surrounding farm communities to attend high school. It’s hard to remember now, but the one-room schoolhouse was still common in much of America until after World War Two.
The wholesale collapse of family farming that began during the Reagan administration stripped rural people of a way to make a living, all but destroying the small towns in the midwest. The rise of corporations such as Walmart finished the job by killing the local businesses that supported them. It wasn’t a war, exactly, but the effect was much the same in the end.
A thin winter’s moon cast its watery light across the pool beneath the Tower gate. A pair of boatmen rowed the prisoner with muffled oars. Beneath the stinking burlap hood, the chained man was also gagged, lest he attempt to bribe the rowers. He was known to be a silken-tongued devil, and Cromwell was taking no chances.
The oarsmen backed water as they waited for the portcullis to be raised, the boat rocking in the turning tide. The prisoner sat erect as a statue on his thwart.
Bow Oar leaned around and spat into the black water. “Bloody hell. They must have an ancient bugger on guard tonight. Sleeping his watch, like as not.” He called through the gate. “Ho! Gatekeeper! Open up! We ain’t got all night.”
Stern Oar hissed, shook his head. “We was told to stay quiet.”
“What, you think anyone is listening?” bawled Bow Oar. “Not bloody likely. Them high blown sods needs their sleep.” He cupped his hand to his mouth. “For the love of Christ, open the goddamned gate!” he yelled. “You’ll make us miss the ebb.”
The gate creaked and began inching upward, chains rattling behind the walls.
“Finally,” muttered Bow Oar, and resumed his rowing. “Even so, it will be a hard pull home.”
Sunday Photo Fiction
Our moms had been best friends since kindergarten. They got married on the same day, a double wedding. Both got pregnant on their wedding night. Ralph’s birthday was August fifth, mine August eleventh. Next door neighbors, closer than any brothers.
As kids, we loved the war movies, especially the John Wayne ones. The Flying Tigers. They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima.
But then came our war. Vietnam. Jolene Frances’ brother came back missing an arm, face burned up like sausage. Billy Hill didn’t come back at all.
We wore peace buttons, watched the news.
Born six days apart. My draft number was 324. Ralph’s was 11.
I told him I’d go with him to Canada. We would go to college in Montreal, become rock journalists. We didn’t tell our moms.
But there at the border, Ralph changed his mind.
We took the bus down to Fargo to join the Marines together.
What Pegman Saw
The Selective Service lottery drawing was held on December 1, 1969. This event determined the order of call for induction for registrants born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. Those with low numbers would be called for immediate induction to the armed service with likely deployment to Vietnam. There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range. In 1968 and 1969 alone, more than 20,000 American troops died in Vietnam.
Stuart ordered a cup of coffee. He poured cream into it and stirred it in. He swiveled his stool part way around to keep an eye on the building across the street. The man sitting next to him was eating a donut, breaking it in half and dunking one of the halves into the coffee, biting off the dunked part. Stuart thought the donut looked good, so he ordered one and ate it the same way.
A large clock with luminous hands hung on the wall. A motto was painted on the clock in luminous block letters: TIME TO EAT.
This is an excerpt from an unpublished short story Quality Time Pieces. I’ve written four stories with Stuart Dulley as the central character. A quiet and often ineffective young man, Stuart nonetheless gets caught up in the tide of history and winds up somehow joining the Marines, fighting on Guadalcanal, and even earning a couple decorations. He’s a strange guy to write about, since his personality is so subtle. This snippet is very much in the style of all the stories.
If you’re interested in the full piece, you can download a PDF here.
Abbot Gírad d’Cist took an avid interest in the drawings the master mason etched in smooth plaster to help guide construction, especially those that depicted how Angers Cathedral would look to an observer. He clapped his hands in delight.
“You must understand, Excellency,” said the master mason, “we are years away from what you see here. Decades.”
“Of course,” said the abbot. “Still, I would like to view it.”
The mason walked him around the grounds, showed him the great footings dug into the soft earth, the stacks of rough stone awaiting the chisels that would shape them into useful blocks.
“Why is that man off alone?” asked the abbot, pointing.
“That man? He is Giles Mallant,” said the master mason. “He carves our gargoyles. A curious fellow. Insists on his own place to work, his own stone.”
Abbot Gírard could see the mason did not wish to visit the carver, but his curiosity got the better of him and he walked over. The man muttered and growled as he worked. He looked up at Gírard’s approach. “You come to see my sinners, have you?” he grunted.
The abbot saw to his horror that the stone bore the living likeness of a man enduring the tortures of hell, writhing and wincing in agony, so real it seemed to be moving.
“Remarkable,” he said, voice shaking.
“This here man was trapped in stone long before I came to free him,” said the carver. “Not that it’s a favor, poor bugger.”
Sunday Photo Fiction
“You entirely create your reality. It is only by complicit agreement that the world as you understand it exists, your shared human beliefs giving it shape and substance. It is not that the tree falling in the forest makes no noise if nobody is there to hear it; it is that without a hearer, the tree itself cannot be.”
The woman’s transformation was astonishing. While in the trance, her cadence changed. Her closed eyes twitched and fluttered, her voice abnormally deep. She had a strange accent and seemed to stare through closed eyelids as she raised a crooked finger.
“You question the reality your dreams, but I tell you the world you create in them is just as real as the one you now see around you. Because a dream is yours alone, its world requires no outside reinforcement. You create a wholly separate reality.”
I had the curious feeling we’d had this conversation before.
What Pegman Saw
Note: Depersonalization disorder, also known as depersonalization-derealization syndrome, is a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.) diagnosis assigned to individuals who persistently experience feelings of detachment, either bodily or cognitively, from themselves or from their environment. Depersonalization disorder falls under the dissociative disorders group of conditions, which are characterized by feelings of disconnection from reality. Sufferers of derealization may experience:
-Feeling detached from their surroundings
-Feeling that general life events are unreal
-Perceiving objects as changing in shape, size or color
-Feeling that people they know are strangers
-Feeling that environments they know are unfamiliar
Other cultures consider psychic events and perceptions differently. One person’s mental illness is another’s divinely gifted vision.
A small-town doctor who buys a daily half gallon of whiskey causes gossip. During the course of a week, I’d hit six different liquor stores in three different towns, none of which I lived in. I’d dispose of the empties the same way, hauling the bottles to the landfill or a dumpster behind a bar. I never drank in public.
When my wife left me, my main concern was to maintain appearances. “Gone to stay with her sick sister,” I’d planned to say. “But the lucky thing is that she lives in Hawaii.”
Except none of my patients ever asked.
Algar worked his shoulder. The wound was painful, but the bleeding had slowed. With some difficulty he shucked off his woolen jerkin. He took a deep breath, uttered a prayer and waded into the haelwaters. The cold was stunning, but he braced himself and went to the center of the pool. The boil of the falls fell fierce about him, the water roaring like a wild beast as it crashed down on his back and shoulders. Standing beneath the cascade, the horror of the morning still hard upon him. He and Father had been checking the snares when they came upon the trio of Normans astride great gray horses. The men wore gleaming armor and carried swords such as Algar had never seen. Father, not knowing their queer language, had offered them the brace of hares he carried. The horseman laughed and unsheathed his sword, slew Father without a word.
What Pegman Saw
The sun felt good on her face. She closed her jet-lagged eyes and breathed in the spring smells. Flowers, baking bread.
“Må jeg bringe dig noget at drikke?”
She looked up to see the waiter, his crisp white shirt and black vest. The sun gave his blue eyes an otherworldly glow. She reached for her Danish phrasebook. “Vil..de..bringe mig spieskortet?”
He smiled. “It’s okay. I speak English.”
“Oh thank God,” she said. “Danish is impossible. At least for me.”
“I felt the same about English. I was an exchange student.”
“A glass of wine?”
He was so handsome.