Jim always said a Hail Mary to the dawn and a fuck you to the night. A ritual, he would explain. He was a bear of a man, a man of few words. He liked to smoke cigarettes, and there would always be one between his lips, and sometimes even between his teeth when he imagined a cigar in its place. Best addiction ever invented, he would say, second only to beautiful women. Other than these occasional spurts of opinion, Jim hardly spoke, except when scenes of childhood passed over his tired eyes. There’s some pretty country out there, he would say, his back against a wall of dirt. What I wouldn’t give to dip my feet into the river again, he would say, propping his blistered, booted feet onto another wall of dirt. His heels often ground twin signatures into the dirt before him. The rain always defaced them. I didn’t know it at the time, but his footprints would remain in my mind.
He looked like a man who never slept, but was always asleep. Canyons of lines framed his eyes, waxed with an impenetrable layer of something called dreams. Jim stayed up many nights, thick brows furrowed into two slants across his forehead. The rest of us preferred to sleep whenever we got a chance, hoping to wake up somewhere else. Any other place or time that was less unfortunate would have done just fine. Maybe even we could forget this ever happened in the first place. Jim was different. I think he was afraid he would be forgotten in the nameless masses of faceless servants. Perhaps he wanted to stay awake so that he could remind us how to spell his full name when we placed the coins on his eyelids. I didn’t think much of it then. So he would keep pondering deep into the night, drawing deep breaths through seared tobacco, holding eternal vigil over the quiet forms outstretched beside him. What he contemplated, we were never sure.
Jim was the only one of us who could paint with words. Minister’s son, he would explain. He drafted letters home for the men on oiled sheets of brown paper, his long fingers racing to keep up with his mind. He wrote too, when he thought everyone had gone to sleep, but it was a different kind of writing. It was the type that one scrawls silently in the margins of a tattered bible in the deep of the night, holding one’s breath for the next morning. I often wondered what inhabited those silent spaces, and why. I imagined the dancing forms flowing onto those pages, arching to meet the pen’s cold steel. I always found myself hoping that those wet black letters were bargaining for our lives, or at least penning an alternate universe to for us to walk right into. Some thought he was numbering his sins, while others thought he was fitting himself into history, or out of time. We asked him one day, but he just leaned back and smiled, nothing to speak of. We never asked again. Illusions of the mind, he whispered to me one night, when he and I were the only ones awake. I didn’t know how to respond.
He reminded me of my father, when he wrinkled the corners of his eyes. Jim too had been a carpenter before trading in his tools. My father would wake me up in the silent gray mornings of my boyhood to show me the magnificent forms he had hewn out of nature. He would trace a finger along the grain of the wood, and follow it until it waterfalled over a corner. He took himself away from me one night when I was asleep. A stark crack echoing in the barn had woken me, and I never discovered what form of God had possessed him then. I ached when I remembered him.
When we woke, Jim would tell us the thoughts that had visited him while we were asleep. Beech leaves quivering, Jim would say. A lullaby at dusk. That had been another lifetime for him, for all of us. Jim treaded softly through the sands of the past, careful not to disturb the sleeping grains. It was the only thing that all of us believed had really happened. Those were the days when we didn’t wonder whether our rations would last until the next dispatch, or when the wet would stop eating away at us inside our boots. We were stuck in time- in an everlasting present, so all we could do was listen and wait. The men inhaled his poetry into their spent bodies. We tried to exhale reality, but it would always get stuck halfway out, and retreat backwards. Great peaks blanketed by grey haze, he would say. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Tennessee. He never realized he was sitting in his own grave.
The golden days of youth are nevermore, he said one day. At last we reach the farthest shore. Jim took his helmet off. Hail Mary, full of grace. It was dawn. The Lord is with thee. The shelling had begun again. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. He laced his muddy boots. Grenades in the distance. Holy Mary, mother of God. He stood up, eyes looking towards the distance, seeing not barren land, but the Great Smoky Mountains. Seeing home. Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. He climbed out, and sprinted into No Man’s Land in great, loping strides. Amen.