“Bad Soldier” by Chris Castle
They said he was a hero.
That’s what people wrote about you in the newspapers. In town, where I collect the groceries, I feel people staring at me from the aisles and I hear them whisper about me; there goes the hero’s wife. Sometimes, when I walk around town, I sit in the square underneath the statue. I sit and I sip my bottle of water and carefully eat the pastry I treat myself to from the local baker’s. I close my eyes and I try to be at peace. But even then, when I’m sitting on my own and there’s no-one near me, I can still feel the network of voices all knitting and humming around me, all of them pointing and whispering and admiring. The same word murmured, until that noise becomes a hum, that hum a scream; hero.
I step away from you and walk over to the kitchen window. I open it and the breezes ride over me in great waves. It feels good, so good I almost smile and then remember my swollen lip, the dried blood around my chin. I run water and splash it over me, stopping my blood from drying into a crust. It feels so good, the cold water, I can’t stop myself. As I turn the tap harder and harder, the water rockets out and bounces off the sink, onto me, over me, into me. Soon I am drenched, the white dress I bought for myself that you so disapproved of, is wet through.
“Look at me now,” I say and turn to face you. Soaked through, the fabric is almost transparent, my body clearly on display. Just how you imagined it to be when I first showed it to you, all those months ago. The curl of your lip, the dull hatred in your eyes as you looked it over, as if it was smeared in dirt or another man’s aftershave.
‘No,’ you said. The hero only ever used one word, as if discussion were an abstract, rumoured thing. Whatever you hated, in the bedroom, only ever ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It was only when you stepped out into town that you found words, as if they were only permitted outside out front door. The moment before you died, it was still only a single word you spoke. This one ‘whoa!’ as if you’d just climbed onto a bucking bronco.
I crouch down and look at you face, turned sideways, as if inspecting ants on the linoleum. One eye is lost in the puddle of blood but one is still open, almost finding me. It is still blue, electric blue and I look hard into it, wondering if there is any part of you, ghost or remnant that can still look back at me. I pull my dress down and lift it up and show you the parts of me that you were so scared of, that you were so jealous of others having, that you will never touch again. I get down on my hands and knees and look into your eye, no more than a wet marble now and I look for my own reflection in it, as if it will trigger some horror-movie curse. But I can’t see any of me in you anymore.
I pull myself up and set the kettle back onto the stove. I should wash it but something in me tells me not to. Instead, I set it down, the smears of blood drying over the chrome, the metal indented from the impact. If I looked hard enough, I might be able to find hair, fibres and all those other things good detective find with ease. But I position it just so and watch the stove turn orange. Once, when you thought I was very bad, you held my face mere inches from those rings, so close I saw my own beads of sweat bubble away into nothing on the surface. And all the while, I was simply thankful you had remembered to hold my hair away from the heat.
You were a bad man before the war, so there’s no excuses to hide behind, is there? You started fights in bars for no reason and maimed a sweet boy who once bought me a book. Your friends gave you a nickname, to show they respected your hate but all it really told me was how much they were scared of you. If I had had anything else, I would never have married you, but by then you had left me with nothing. I remember even that, the act of you forcing the ring onto my finger was rough and almost violent. Your insistency and force and my compliance, even as my skin thickened, screamed out and fought against you.
The war made you a hero and my home made you a bad soldier. I think of all the small, petty actions that added up to our life together; they are simply too great to imagine now. Instead, I recall those big gestures of yours, the ‘Friday night specials,’ when the other women would not follow and you found your way back home to me. I thought about those women as you stepped inside our house; what I had saved them from and what I accepted for them, so they could wake up un-bruised on a Saturday morning. I wondered if any of them could ever feel me then, if any of them shuddered in their sleep as you put me through each ‘lesson.’ I closed my eyes until you made me open them wide and I tried to see them at peace as you roared into my face, teeth bared, with spittle flecked across both our lips.
The kettle whistles and I pour myself coffee in the one cup left untouched amongst all this chaos. It is not my favourite mug but it will have to be now, as a virtue of having survived you. I fill the coffee up to the rim and spoon in three sugars; I am painfully thin, even though you never ceased to call me fat. I never saw you happier than when you dreamed up a new name to call me; the light in your eyes would pop and you would turn towards me, delighted. I almost think you were pleased to be with me then, that I was there for you to hammer with your spite. Sometimes, I think the names hurt worst of all; the bruises faded, even the scars merged back into me, but the names lingered, a light coating I could never quite free myself of.
I sip the coffee and the heat of it makes me wince. I keep drinking, aware it will wash away the blood still clinging and tangy in my mouth. A sudden rush hits me and I wonder if any of your blood is in this drink; I should feel sick but instead I smile, to think this is the very last of you in me. I drink quicker, ignoring the heat and when it is over I return to you and crouch back down, careful to avoid the pool of blood; it has spread a fair way but will not stretch any further, I’m sure.
I bypass the eye and lean into the ear. Before I realise what I’m doing, I’m whispering into his ear. I say all the names he called me, listing them the way he did my faults, in a sturdy, steady monotone. When I am done, I feel a light-bulb pop in my own mind and I start to say all the names I had come up with for you, back to the very start. I talk and have to check how hurriedly I speak, not wanting to run out too early, wanting to savour the taste of each one in my mouth. By the time I am finished I am almost screaming and I touch my lip, feeling a fresh split on the lower part of it. As I clear my throat, I gently and very carefully spit into your earlobe, feeding the thin line down into the inner hole, hoping the web has both my blood and yours in it.
I sit back in the chair and wonder how long it will be before someone comes to take me. You were pretty loud and I’m sure people would have heard us. It has never made them act before, but I think the broken glass should have been enough to make at least one of our neighbours put in the anonymous call. The sheriff is a good man and has always known. Sometimes I have looked into his face and saw him torn up, wondering if I’d understood his thinly veiled offers for help. Maybe he is in love with me and has a vested interest. That’s okay if he is; I have always been a little in love with him too. He never looked at me as a thing the way you did, though he has glanced at me once or twice. No, he listened and followed me as I spoke. He is a man who would only laugh when something was funny and otherwise would politely smile and this makes him real in a way you never were.
I stand and walk back to the window and feel the breeze. I lift my hand up to it and feel the gusts crawl over me like baby fingers. I close my eyes and remember a time, a time when I was fourteen years old. It’s a moment I’ve never told anyone my whole life. I waited so long for you to look at me a certain way, to just offer me a shred of kindness, of patience, so I could have told you this, but you never did. I hear the sirens coming from a way off and I realise this’ll soon be over and that my life, as it stands, will soon be over. I don’t feel fear or even anything as strong as sorrow; just relief. Relief that this life is over and done at last. I try not to think of the time wasted, or the hurt but instead feel my mind tearing in two directions; the future coming with the sirens and the past that touches me with the breeze. I shut out the siren and let the wind carry over me and I open my mouth to speak at last:
“I was sitting in my pa’s truck and we were driving down the highway. We were driving fast but not too fast, as was my old man’s way. I wound down the window and I drew out my arm into the wind. The force was so strong it jolted me back a little but then I steadied myself. I held it out there, high and proud and I closed my eyes as I rolled my wrist, balling my hand and then setting my fingers free. It was a feeling, like running your palm over the tips of blades of grass, which is like nothing else in the world. I did that, leaving my arm out for as long as I could and I remembered thinking, ‘this is what it is to be alive.’ I said it out loud and even though I didn’t open my eyes, I felt my daddy looking over to me and smiling and then nodding. He said something, not much, but something and I just nodded in agreement and didn’t say anything else. It was one of those times when words were unnecessary, really. And we kept on driving and I remember thinking, I wish this could go on forever, this feeling. And I remember my heart soaring on one plain and sinking on another because I knew it couldn’t last, not really. I knew that life would keep rolling and there’d rarely be moments like that one, when you could be inside a place but totally free at the same time. When you had nothing but wanted for nothing and that was just fine. I guess we were trying to outrace life but the world just caught up with us in the end.”
I open my eyes and feel the wind dry my tears. I’m thankful it does that. The sirens have been switched off now and the police car is in the long driveway. I draw down my hands and ball them into a fist. I am strong now, having shed the past. My throat is dry but I am ready for the future. Suddenly, the door is opening.