Presumed Fallen

Like a tiger stalking, Dania slinked through the lianas, careful to step over a death adder with his bare feet.  His little brother was somewhere behind, stalking him in their game of soldiers.  Dania pulled the New Guinean jungle from his eyes and saw the old Corsair.  Rhododendron strangled the fuselage, and what the vines didn’t claim the rust consumed.  The valley forests of Irian Jaya had no respect for World War II armor plating.

He made out shapes within the cockpit but couldn’t tell what they were.  Dania cleared away webs of spider nurseries that coated the Plexiglas.  He lifted the bubble, liberating musts imprisoned for decades.  He flinched when he spotted the skull, the upper half anyway.  A yellow banded spider cloyed out of the eye sockets as the cooler air rushed in.  The upper teeth were unworn.  The pilot had been young.  The cranium was still clad in a half-rotted pilot’s cap.

The rest of the bones lay disarticulated, slithering out from sleeves eaten by moths into disassembled chain links strewn on the seat and floor.  Something had scattered them, probably a denning possum.

Strange silvery things in the lap of the bones drew Dania’s eyes.  They wanted to be picked up, handled, surmised.  He gathered up the dog tags but Dania couldn’t read the letters that spelled JACOB MARNES.  And on the seat rested something gold.  He slipped it on his own finger, but it was too big to stay.  Dania jiggled it off and studied the tarnished inscription: TO JACOB.  COME BACK.  IN ONE PEACE.

*                                               *                                               *

His breath fumed whiskey.  Jan Marnes waited by the clunky, ebony phone.  He stared at the table radio, the one with varnished trim that trellised over the speaker.  Neither would fruit any news, good or bad.  His only child, Jacob, had been missing for three weeks.  Jacob’s Corsair had flown out on a sortie from the escort carrier, Suwanee, and never returned.  Jan picked up the Tribune but the papers were worthless too, and he murdered the headlines in his butcher’s fists.  All he could do was wait.  Jan Marnes hated waiting in a bakery line, much less for news of his son.

“I’ll never forgive myself for letting him enlist,” he said to his wife in the kitchen.

Louise simmered potato dumpling soup on the stove.  She cooked out the bone cold Chicago autumn and filled their apartment with the steam of onion and coriander.

November murk shrouded the windows of the Dahlstrom’s bungalow across the street.  Louise leaned over the lipid beads of her broth and saw her own eyes, and the eyes of her son.  She sobbed, and her tears salted the soup.

In the living room, Jan elbowed the old RCA radio off the table and kicked the speaker in.  The Smith & Wesson rested in the drawer of the end table, but she didn’t know about it.  Louise kept to her place in front of the stove.

The Navy did not presume Jacob to have fallen, but she knew.

*                                                           *                                                           *

There is no need for eyes.  No shadow.  No difference.  No distinction.  Everywhere, it has always been this way. Belonging. A single peace.

He feels a throbbing.  Not his throbbing. Theirs.  He remembers the ones left behind.  The pair.

Their pounding ache.  Deep at their core, something ripped away will never grow again.  Nothing can fill the hole.

In the instant, he knows.  He will return to the pair.  But the old point of entry has closed and will not re-open.  So, he uses a new one.

Before he crosses back, he wants to remember: there was never any reason to worry about anything.  There is no fear.

*                                                           *                                                           *

The enclosing darkness.  That is the first thing sensed.  Darkness.  And space.

Beating, breathing. Something keeps rhythm.  Time.  There are moments.  A before and an after.  There had just been Now.  But Now shrinks, ground between what was and what will be.

Something breathes inside him. Inside.  If there is an inside, then there must be an outside.  What is inside is him and what is outside is that.  Inside/outside.  This and that.         

This and that. More than one.  Before, there had been one, but now, there are more than one. Things he ends in.  A beginning and an end in space.  A top and a bottom.  And from the middle, a stem connecting him to something vast and dark and warm to which he belongs.

Pushing.   Something pushing him out.  Pain.  Pushing makes pain.  An insistence.  He is ejected from the darkness.

He no longer belongs. The old connection is gone.  He needs to do something, to break something, just to live.  He pulls through a new entry point.  Wiggled, slapped.  Pain.  It is unfriendly but it allows him to breathe.  He is cut from his belonging, and this makes him afraid. But the fear allows him to survive.

Now he must breathe to go on.  And there is, deep at his core, something ripped away.  Replaced with a bottomless hunger. He must consume to continue.

Something begins ticking, counting.  He’ll race against it for the rest of his life here.  And they’ll teach him to see a countless number of divisions, each ending in fear.  They’ll teach him to look for the spaces between things, for the things between spaces.

*                                                           *                                                           *

“Jan, hurry or we’ll be late,” Louise said from the bedroom.

“Why do we even have to go?  It’s raining.”

“Because he was your father, that’s why.”

“Didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me,” Jan said.  That froze her in the dresser mirror.

Jan Marnes, Jr. came out of the bathroom with a couple red tissue berries on his face.  He was 14 and he’d just started to shave.  Her mannequin pose stopped him as he passed by.

“He was your father,” she said again.

“Why do you always gotta say that like . . . like he’s God or something?”

She finished pinning her hat on.  “He had a hard life,” she whispered.

“Yeah well he didn’t make mine easier by dying before I was born.”

She picked her white gloves up from the perfume tray on the dresser.  A tear welled in her eye.  Jan saw the wound.

“I’m sorry.  I’m ready when you are.”

Silence gilded the drive to the cemetery.  They were always quiet each November 9th, the anniversary of Jan. Sr’s death.

She let her son practice his driving down the narrow, winding cemetery lanes to the plot. In 18 months, he’d be old enough to drive on his own.

He stepped out first and popped opened the black umbrella, big enough for two of them.  He swung her door wide and held her hand as she rose in her black dress.  The dappled, black veil hid her eyes.

They walked hand-in-hand.  They stepped together to keep the umbrella over them.  She carried a laurel to the grave.

They stood by a dogwood, heavy with rusty leaves and late bloody fruit and thick gems of cold rain.  Rhododendron lined the slate gray mausoleums, where wealthier men slept.

She leaned the wreath on the headstone.  She peeled wet leaves from the engraving hewn from pink granite: JAN MARNES, 1901 – 1944.

She stepped back and stood with her son.

“Always seems to rain this day,” Jan said.

“It was like this the day he died, too.”

Jan missed her tears. They fell to the jeweled grass.  He peered down at an unmarked grave next to his father’s.

“There’s no body in that ground, is there?” he asked.

“No.”  She wiped her cheeks with her black sleeve.  He offered her an old tuft of hankie from his coat, and she took it.

“You told me some day you’d tell me who it was for.”

She squeezed his hand.  “That’s for your older brother, Jacob.  Missing in action. Presumed fallen in the War.”

It felt strange having a brother he never met.  But Jan felt he’d known him.

“Why isn’t there a name on it?”

“I hoped that someday, he’d come back.  That he was just missing.”

She sniffled, dabbed her nose.

“Funny thing is, I wanted to name you Jacob, too. Because your father was so attached to him.”  Her face, still angelic at 53, crinkled like broken glass.  “But it wouldn’t have been true to your older brother to give his name away.”

He nestled his arm around her shoulder and massaged it with hands already the size his father’s had been.

“It’s okay, Ma.”  He hated his father for leaving her like this every November 9th.

“If only he’d have known about you.  If I’d known a few days earlier that I was having you . . .”  She couldn’t finish.

“It’s not your fault.”  A wind rose in the branches, and the tree sprinkled them.  “He would’ve done it anyway.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder.  He laid his head on hers.  He was her man now.  They both knew that.

“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do, Ma.  I’ll marry and have a son.  I’ll name him Jacob.  He can take my older brother’s place.”

“You’ve taken Jacob’s place,” she said.  “You’re so much like him.”

He knew that he was.

“Your father would’ve liked that.”

*                                                           *                                                           *

Jan Marnes the elder floats in light that needs no eyes to see.  He can’t remember what deserved his blame.

He waits years.  He waits a single moment.

He remembers the one left behind.  No, two.  There are two now.

He needs to return.  A hole left behind.

He is spat out, cold and blind.

“A boy!” someone cries.

“Then we’ll name him Jacob,” his father, Jan, Jr., answers.

© 2019 by Michael C. Just

Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.

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Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002LFMXAW