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Matthew Modica

Articles of War

 

I.

We tried everything we could. We screamed silently at the spiteful clouds covering the moon, and sang songs without lyrics, and whispered into the yawning mouth of the pot-bellied stove. We pounded our chests like primates, and gargled with salt-water, and pinched one another as hard as we could. But nothing helped. There were three of us then.

II.

The letter arrived on a hot day. The gravel was hot on our bare feet as I walked to the letter-box. The sun commanded the red-rock mountains in the distance to shimmy. I brought the letter inside. There were ceremonies. Afterwards we were stuck in the house, the three of us, with nothing but a deck of cards and a few rusted pots and some whittling tools. What could we do? We played cards but didnít know any three-handed games so the odd man out whittled on the porch while the other two played rummy.

III.

Sometimes in the first part of the day the red-rock mountain behind the house rumbles, casting a shower of rocks into the backyard. The rubble piles up against the back of the house. I often wish I had a flag, because if I did, Iíd climb the rubble and plant it at the top. Then Iíd wipe my forehead with the back of my hand and survey my dominion. It would be like that monument made of the famous photograph, except Iím not a soldier.

IV.

The sky is bright blue in the first part of the day. It turns pale in the second part, and scarlet in the third. Sometimes we tried to watch it change colors but the turn was so gradual that it was impossible to notice. Yet if we left for a while and then came back it would be clear as could be, the change of colors. We found this paradoxical and amusing, that if we paid careful attention to the daylight we couldnít tell what time it was, but if we ignored it we could check it at any time and it might as well have been a clock. The sky, I mean, and the sun. Flint used to say it was like growing a beard or gaining weight. You can look in the mirror every day and notice nothing, but then one day you die of heart failure, your beard down to your knee. Flint used to say this. But after his voice finally ran off to join ours and all the others he took to pointing to the sky and then stroking imaginary whiskers while he puffed his cheeks.

V.

Mine had disappeared first. I imagined the fields and streams of disembodied chattering and knew my own voice was there but probably not saying a thing.

VI.

I stopped playing cards. They were all marked and torn, but the other two played on anyway, pretending not to cheat. Besides me and Flint, there was Bill. I wish I could say his name was Tinder or Steel, but it wasnít. Just Bill, or William. Bill and Flint rapped on the table and made faces at one another as they played. I found a good chunk of wood and sat on the porch, carving without skill. Then, one day, the other two threw down their cards and ran off, shaking their fists at the sun falling into the abyss, and I stayed behind, carving my little man.

VII.

I donít mind how my voice ran off because we never got along in the first place, if I remember correctly. Though Iím not sure of this. The business of remembering, I mean.

VIII.

The house only has four rooms, and a cellar from which I hear spiders spinning their webs. It is a whistling, humming sound, this. The spiders spin and spin, morning till night, and I have grown used to the whistling and humming, but I donít go into the cellar.

IX.

My little man is starting to become. He looks like a bowling pin with two little arms sticking out at the side as if he were being crucified or welcoming a friend. I do think I had friends at one time. Sometimes as I sit on the porch whittling and listening to the murmuring desert I remember bits of a dream I once had, in which I lived in a city of some sort in some kind of apartment building without rubble piling up behind it and a refrigerator full of vegetables. There is another person there, too, in my dream, but I canít make out the face, only lots of hair. Maybe this is just my memory of the dream, not the dream itself. I canít really say.

X.

The house is made of wood and is covered with a tin roof, with tar paper covering parts of it. Where the sun hits the exposed tin it sounds like a wind chime; where it hits the tar paper it sounds like a sigh. I walk around the house and listen to the sighs and chimes, and sometimes I follow particular routes to compose songs, aching and elegiac. The songs vary depending on what part of the day it is, because the tones of the sunlight bouncing off the roof deepen or lighten based on the color of the sky. Itís complicated, but Iím figuring it out. It seems there are sounds for the sunlight striking the desert, too, but I never venture from the house far enough to learn them. So the desert remains a sea of incomprehensible murmuring.

XI.

Do not be sad or angry he died in the most honorable way do not be sad or angry he died in the most honorable do not be sad or angry he died in the most do not be sad or angry he died in the do not be sad or angry he died in do not be sad or angry he died do not be sad or angry he do not be sad or angry do not be sad or do not be sad do not be

XII.

As for food, there is a cabinet full of canned fruit and soups and some potatoes with bulging eyes, staring at me with disbelief. The eyes falling from their potato sockets sound like water rushing up the xylem of a thirsty plant.

XIII.

Dead things have started showing up on the porch. This is troubling, but not as troubling as I might have once imagined. First there was a dead opossum, then a dead roadrunner, its legs sticking up cartoonishly. After that there was a dead jackrabbit, then a dead lizard. The dead things appear in droves, piling up on the porch, mists of sparkling blue flies rising from their carcasses. I bury them beneath the rubble in the backyard, but each morning more appear. For an instant I am reminded of another time, two figures hovered over a dead squirrel, two prodding sticks. But it is only an instant; the image flickers and vanishes, and I am left grasping fruitlessly, like trying to catch a dandelion gone to seed, dispersed in the wind.

XIV.

Something else is on my porch. It is not a dead thing, but a woman. It is the second part of the day. I know this because the sunlight on the roof is playing something jaunty and march-like in a major scale. The woman has pale skin and hair not unlike the hair in my dream. She has many bags and a stained face.

XV.

I do not know what to do with my visitor. I sit at the table and smile at her some of the time and some of the time I sit on the porch and whittle while she drinks tea. The sound of the water boiling in the tea kettle is like the sun gnawing at the clouds. Sometimes she interrupts my concentration with her shocking, horrible voice, which is unlike anything I can imagine.

XVI.

I am growing fond of my figurine. I can imagine him when he is finished, looking faintly gnome-like, wizened. One eye will be squinted, as if he were pursing his lips around a corncob pipe. I sometimes scold myself for imagining he will talk, repeating over and over do not be sad or angry, his voice my lost voice. Because figurines do not talk. Also, what is this business about a squinted eye, and corncob pipe? Where I come up with these things who knows.

XVII.

The woman has left. Her voice had started to go to the place where all the others have gone. Before she left she knelt in front of me on the porch and looked into my eyes, asking me to remember something. I had no idea what she was talking about.

XVIII.

I have tacked the letter to the shutter behind my whittling chair on the porch. It flaps in the wind, providing percussion for the sun-desert orchestra. I sit on the porch and consider my carving and my shadow, which lies broken across the porch railing. The head of the little man is shaping up, his ears two lumps and his eyes two dots above a featureless face. The broken shadow troubles me.

XIX.

Two black specks shake on the horizon, far across the desert. I believe they are horsemen coming to take me away, spirits in dark cloaks and burning eyes bringing with them ruin and judgment. I can feel the hooves of their steeds vibrating the desert floor.

XX.

For three days the dots have shivered in the distance, growing larger as the sun detaches from the sky. I whittle feverishly. The eyes are completed and the nose and ears, and with little grooves meant to represent the hair. But I canít bear to start the mouth, for if I ruin the mouth the whole thing is no good. The sun wails like a newborn as it sinks.

XXI.

The dots are no longer horsemen. They changed yesterday, in the third part of the day. They have revealed themselves as twin funnel clouds, and I watch them dance mordantly in front of the otherworldly sun, violet and orange and fierce. I hope against all hope that they will come for me and sweep me and this place away.

XXII.

The clouds twist and convulse, and then, suddenly, break into a run. They are not funnel clouds at all, but the other two, Flint and Bill, coming back from across the desert, and they are on fire. Flames shoot from their bodies as they run through the sagebrush, jumping over arroyos and stumbling over rocks. It is disappointing.

XXIII.

They are shouting. They are standing in front of me, and shouting. We found our voices, they shout, though I canít tell which of them is doing the shouting. Both of their mouths move but only one voice emerges. There is so much out there where the sun goes in the third part of the day, they say. There are people laughing and hugging and killing each other. They pant as they stand on the porch. Donít you remember?

XXIV.

My little man looks nothing like my brother, nothing like me, nothing like anybody I know. Flint and Bill look at me with expectation. I remember nothing. Rivulets of sweat trickle down their faces, their chests heaving. The sweat sliding down their skin sounds like a weathervane creaking in the prairie wind. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. The other two urge me on, and I know it is imperative that something happen, though I donít know what it is. I look down at my little man. I hold up my figurine, thrusting it to the sky.

XXV.

It, too, is silent.


Matthew Modica has previously published a story in the Beloit Fiction Journal and has been a writing fellow at the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Portland, Maine.

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