Ghosts in the Desert
Corporal Underwood said I was hallucinating, trying to ward off evil spirits because I was scared some jihadi bullet would get me in the back as I waited in line to board the C-17 out of Afghanistan. “Tell the guys what you told me,” he said when we’d stowed our gear and settled in for the six and a half hour flight to Ramstein, Germany.
“I told you I hoped a big ass airplane would fly high and fast enough to get us the hell away from the crazy s.o.b’s what just got a bunch of Russian-made .50 caliber machine guns.”
On board, in a regulation body-bag, was both parts of Army Specialist Richard Calhoun who’d been cut into when some Pakistani opened up on him. I wasn’t more than five feet away from him when he got an uber-ration of lead. Close enough to hear him say, “Mother of God, take care of my wife,” before he died. I hoped he’d heard me say, I will man, before I a tossed a grenade and hit the two gunners dead center, sending their arms and legs ten feet in the air. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a leg for a leg....
Underwood wiped the sweat from his forehead with a red cowboy neckerchief, and said a little too desperately for my money, “No, the ghost part.” Everybody got real quiet then. As quiet as when Chaplain Grubbs was gathering up Calhoun’s personal effects and saw the picture of plump little Jennifer Calhoun laying in his locker, sat down on his cot and started crying. Grubbs held that picture to his heart like it was a picture of his own wife and it was like we all disappeared and he was all alone with his sadness. Except for God, of course.
“I saw an old man with a white beard in an old, gray uniform I saw in a textbook once. He wore a yellow sash dotted with dried blood. He asked if I was ready to go with him.”
“Go where? Tell them where,” Underwood said.
“I said the same thing, go where, and he said, ‘to the battlefield’.”
Underwood let go a little laugh. “Guess you’re ghost didn’t know where he was.”
“I didn’t say he was a ghost. You said that. I said I saw a man.”
“A Confederate officer, from the sounds of it.” Tomlinson said. He was looking at his dusty boots.
“But, what would ol’ Bob E. Lee be doing in Afghanistan?” Bailey’s eyes were closed. He’d been pretending to sleep since we got aboard.
“It was Calhoun what brought him. Lee’s sorta the patron saint of Virginia the way St. George is the patron saint of the British.” Tomlinson knew a lot about history. “Did he say anything else?”
I looked at him and then at Underwood. “Go ahead. Recite your poem,” Underwood said.
I pretended to search my memory. “The bullets flail my flesh and break my bones. I lay bleeding, crushed and chewed up by inventions while the rest sing to me of how admirable is courage. A passport to immortality because here there is no such thing as mercy or morality. There is only life and death.”
Bailey jerked straight up and shot Tomlinson a look that told me they shared a secret. Tomlinson shrugged like it was no big deal, but I knew better. Bailey was now as fidgety as Underwood. “What’s going on, guys?” I said.
Bailey fished around in his pocket and brought out a small black notebook. “This was in Calhoun’s locker. Grubbs gave it to me to give Jennifer. Here, you take it,” he said as he tossed it to me. I opened up the cover and saw the pages were dated, like Calhoun was keeping a journal.
Saw the gray soldiers again. This time they came on horseback. I asked
them to take me home, and said it wouldn’t be long now. My Granddaddy
said his Granddaddy said a guy in his militia saw Lee right before he got
killed at Gettysburg. Heaven is home to southern boys. I hope that’s true
because I’d sure like to see my Mama after I take a bullet. Grubbs says
we’re going home in a few days. He ain’t a Baptist, so I’m not sure if I put
more stock in what he says than in what Lee says. Lee says there’s no
mercy or immorality on the battlefield. Just life and death.
“You read Calhoun’s notebook before you thought up your poem?” Bailey said to me.
“He ever tell you about seeing General Lee?”
“No. He never said anything about generals except they all had shit for brains,” I said and everybody laughed.
“That was Calhoun alright. Never thought much of rank or titles.” Bailey’d been Calhoun’s friend from day one. Probably because Bailey was from Kentucky and Calhoun considered it part of the C.S.A. even though it was technically a border state. “Thought Colonel Sanders cooks some mean chicken though.”
I gave the notebook back to Bailey. He held it for a minute or so, then wiped the cover on his uniform before putting in back in his pocket. I think it had some tears on it. “What do you think it means? You both seeing Gen. Lee and you writin’ a poem with Bailey’s words.”
The Shrinks call it survivor’s guilt, and I guess we all had a touch of it. Nobody wants the distinction of being the last man killed in a unit before it goes home, but losing a guy like Bailey was tough. Especially when we’re counting down the hours instead of the days. We all swore this was going to be our last deployment because the Army was phasing out two armored brigades—one at Fort Hood and one at Fort Bliss—and none of us were going to re-up.
“I guess it means Grubbs wanted you to read Bailey’s last entry so you’d feel less bad about his dying,” I said.
But Underwood wasn’t inclined to be philosophic. “It’s Virginian voo-doo. That’s what that is.”
Tomlinson gave him an elbow nudge. “See Lee and die? That’s a new harbinger.”
Bailey looked at me. “Warren saw Lee and he’s still alive.”
“Lee didn’t say Warren was going home. Just that he should go to the battlefield,” Underwood said. He squinted his eyes and panned the plane. “Anybody else get a message Lee besides Calhoun and Warren?” Nobody said anything. Bailey took out Calhoun’s notebook again and scanned the pages. Tomlinson rested his head on his duffle bag and closed his eyes. Underwood turned towards the window and stared out at the clouds. They were all searching for an answer, in their own way, going inside themselves, wondering why some people have apparitions and some don’t.
“Here it is,” Bailey said. “Listen to this—dated six months ago. The day he found Wheeler in the ditch. Calhoun said:
When I saw all the blood around Wheeler, I knew he wasn’t going to make it.
The quiet tears rolling down his face let me know he knew it too. As though it
weighed a ton, he lifted one of his black hands and laid it over mine. You found
me, he said, and that he was glad to see me because he didn’t want to die alone.
He only had a few minutes left at that point, but to was long enough for him to
know someone cared he was passing. He turned his head and I saw him smile,
and I saw what he was looking at. There was a flower next to his cheek. A
droopy frail, sorry excuse for a flower. Maybe it was nothing but a weed. But
it fought sun and blood and wind and heavy, dying people trying to crush it, so
it could bloom just for us. I knew then that I feel the same way. I can’t think of
anything sadder than to be so far from home and to die alone.”
Battlefields are between places–like purgatory is between heaven and hell—like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood—they’re between life and death. And it’s the between places that give us the most problems, the places we need other souls so desperately.
“Where’s Grubbs,” I said, and Bailey waved towards the officer’s seating in the front of the plane. I found him nursing a cup of coffee, pencil in hand, leaning over a New York Times Crossword puzzle book. Big Print Edition, the cover read. I could see it from four feet away. I could also see he was just pretending to be involved in puzzle solving because not one square had a letter in it. He was just staring at the page. I thought he had the hardest job in the world then. Being there for so many people to lean on, and tell their troubles to, to shoulder bad news.
I made some noise so I wouldn’t startle him, coming up on his right flank that way, but he looked up sudden like anyway. “I just came up to see where we are,” I said.
“About halfway between Afghanistan and Germany, Warren. You want a cup of coffee?”
I didn’t, but I said yes and let him get me a cup from the forward compartment. I figured I could let mine sit a long spell the way he was doing. I picked up the pencil and looked at the first clue across. 1. Bara of Hollywood. Theda I wrote.
“Oh, sure,” he said, “I should have known that one. I kept thinking Yogi Berra and why they’d got the clue so wrong. Confused, I guess.”
“This you book?”
“Think you could let me have a page and a pencil to pass the time?”
“Sure. Sure, Sit on down.” He sat opposite me and put a point on my pencil with a sharpener shaped like a mini-VW Bug. Every once in a while, he’d read me a clue from his puzzle and I’d try to answer it. Maybe he knew. Maybe he didn’t. I think he just wanted to make sure I was really there.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, and former community college instructor who taught Political Science and Sociology. She received the EKU
English Department's Award for Graduate Non-fiction (2011), and has been published in Main Street Rag Anthology—Altered States, Wherever It Pleases, Danse
Macabre, bioStories, Cobalt Review, Dew of the Kudzu, Nazar Look, and Black Lantern, among a slew of others. Her novel, “The Ninth Circle”, published by Barbarian Books, and
her novel, “Raphael Redcloak”, was serialized by Jukepop. Visit her webpage: Jenean-McBrearty.com