Articles of War
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.