“There we are. Feeling better?”
“All done.” She stared down at him, at the parchment skin and skewed rictus grin that was more a mockery than a rehearsal of rigor mortis. He was the closest imitation to death one could ever get without actually dying; except for those marble blue eyes that rolled in their sockets.
“Now, I’m going to move you to the left. Give these a chance to heal.” Crisp white sheets rustled against his body. He was so light, he has become like sawdust.
“They’re looking better.” Her voice smiled.
“Right.” The metallic clang of a kidney-shaped bedpan hit the septic water. In his mind the sound made a pretty splash, complete with a crown of perfect little droplets.
“I’ll get rid of these.”
“Be back in a bit.” Footsteps, a half shuffle, then the muffled scrape of the bucket on the faded linoleum. Then, the static of silence; the most powerful form of nothingness.
There was a pause as the room adjusted itself to this absence. The man also became still (if that was possible). He fancied his heart slowing down, his breathing became shallower, lighter. Then after a while, after he deemed it safe, the blue orbits came alive, oscillating with great effort from left to right, up and down. Every three days they came to wash him. Each time they’d move him into a different position, sometimes right, sometimes left. Right meant a view out the window and beyond. It meant moving scenery. The left meant a blank wall with nothing but a mirror and a star-shaped medal that hung from a hook. Left meant watching the world back to front, left meant a reminder of the war. Today the surface of the mirror glowed smooth and hard as it reflected the cold clinical light. Clouds, mounds of clouds passed by on its pock-marked surface. Cirrus, Nimbus, Cumulus. The silver film on the back had deteriorated over time marring what would otherwise have been a perfect reflection. They weren’t that different to the age-spots on his hands and face.
“Eyes are the windows to the soul; but the face is the mirror of the heart,” his mother would say. To an extent it was true, for his eyes were now cold and hungry just like his soul. Yet his face dry and puckered like his heart reflected a deceptive nothingness. From this he knew that mirrors lied, for his face showed nothing of his dark secret. This elderly man, stricken with paralysis, had made a Medusa of his life. And that gorgon of sin had followed him back from the jungle, from that smoking village of vengeful ghosts. The war was over, victory had been theirs; a vain and empty win. They celebrated under the banner of the great Golden Eagle, yet it was under that very totem of American pride that lurked a more ancient, more grotesque avatar. At first they called it ‘battle stress’. On his way home across the wide ocean, scenes of that sinful day slipped into his dreams. The glint of a machete threatened his throat, a maze of bamboo groves would separate him from his comrades, and dark, slanted Vietnamese eyes stalked him like tigers. Then there was the dog; a big, black terrible dog. A hell-hound with blazing eyes, and in its jaws the mangled body of a baby girl. The nightmare that rode him all the way back to his hometown.
His eyes alone roamed, along with his mind, into the labyrinth of memories. And the key to one hung there on the wall on a blood-red ribbon with his name on it. Hung on the cord of god knew what poor lives he had taken.
The army had taught him, the army had told him to obey. In the army you did not think, it was forbidden. You obeyed like a dog. You had dog-tags. They stamped your name on them and from then on you were property of the state. Like a dog you wore them round your neck. Name, number, date of birth. You were an object whose sole purpose was to mirror the will of others. Kill, destroy, decimate. In the event of death, you were just a statistic. And that’s what happened when the order came to clear the village. ‘Clear’ meant ‘clean’. ‘Clean’ meant ‘kill’. Like marionettes they marched, chewing tobacco like it was gum and breathing napalm fumes like it was perfume. They cut their path through thick bamboo groves towards the target. Like blood-hounds unleashed, the twelve-mile trek through dust and mud made them hungry, savage, full of adrenaline. Every sound heightened their nerves, fear pulsed in their ears.
The calm before the storm, the wait behind the bushes; it was the moment between intention and action. A woman came out of a hut, an infant on her hip. A pail of water stood near the well. From somewhere there came smoke. A baby whimpered, voices soothed it, an elderly man coughed and swore. Moments before the storm, moments of calm, until…
… A deafening staccato report lifted the woman off her feet, making her a mascot of their terror, and her blood a martial graffiti on the wall of the hut. A territorial signature. The flurry, the unbridled rage, the horror that ensued was dredged up from some bottomless pit he had never known before. Blind to their own rage they killed and killed, but for what, he knew not. Even after all these years, he still didn’t understand that monster within him. Flashes of combat; dark, lean men with machetes, knives and clubs came at them but fell before they had a chance to use their crude weapons. It was a danse macabre; the act of man killing man being a different form of cannibalism. To revel in another’s cruel demise, to make their misery your happiness was to imbibe on misfortune. And they feasted, for that is what they were told to do. These were the rules of war, the promised spoils of Mars. In those few minutes of sweltering madness, he had lost his humanity forever.
And just as quickly as it had begun, it had ended. Exhausted after the frenzy, he had stayed to survey the chaos. Bodies littered the floor indecently. Arms and legs in unnatural positions. Bits of flesh, bone and brain flecked the ground. The pools of blood had begun to congeal and attract columns of red ants with their sick-sweet smell. They traipsed through ear holes and gaping mouths and out through nostrils in ordered regiments. Just like soldiers. In minutes the ground was covered with them, a shimmering carpet of chestnut red. On their backs they carried bits of offal; to his disgust he saw what he fancied was a bloody eyeball, followed in surreal sequence by its’ twin; as if they couldn’t bear to be apart.
Thoroughly sickened, he turned back to the jungle when he heard a deep, unearthly growl. Behind him stood a great black dog shivering with rage. Its’ flanks were ripped to shreds, he saw a madness in its eyes and the tell-tale froth of dementia about its’ muzzle. The animal snapped and bared its teeth, the whites of its eyes rolled, stalking him. Now it was the predator, and he the prey. In the eyes of this mad mongrel he saw his own brief insanity reflected like a terrible mirror. The rabid dog he had been, the blood-hound. The dog froze, then launched itself at him. A single bullet caught it in mid-air blasting its jaw clean off, but not before it let out a desperate, heart-breaking yelp. Near the stiff body of the animal lay the pail of water that had once belonged to the woman with the baby. In it he caught his own reflection. His face was caked with dust, his mouth spattered with blood. Just like the dogs.
But that dog didn’t die, it followed him. It stalked him on the boat home, it turned up in his dreams. It was present when he married his school sweetheart; it was there when he received his medal of honour. He saw it in mirrors, glass windows, reflections, always behind him, always waiting. It lurked in alleyways, in the shadows across the street. He would see it briefly in the rear-view mirror as he backed out the driveway. Always waiting, always grinning with that little corpse in its’ terrible maw.
Battle stress. His had come on slowly, and he had tried to hide it by practising bland expressions in the mirror. No one could know his shame. He hid his dark secret behind a mask, but one day that mask cracked and his secret seeped out in the form of madness. The nightmares grew more vivid, he screamed and cursed in his sleep. Then one morning his wife caught him talking to his reflection. Obscene things issued from his mouth, things learned in the army. Another time neighbours witnessed him hammering the shed door shut, threatening to ‘set the goddamn thing on fire and watch it burn to hell.’ Then there was the incident with his daughter that finally tipped the scales. One night he heard a scraping noise from her room, and when he went to look found the dog on the bed with her torn to pieces. It was then they took him away.
At the asylum they tried everything; cocktails of drugs, counselling, group therapy. But when that didn’t work there came the ‘shock shop’, and eventually, lobotomy. It was not the war, not the horror, nor his night terrors that petrified him; but the asylum. There they took away all his mirrors, all his defences. He could no longer look at the reflection of life. They had taken him to the gorgon itself – and she had turned him to stone.
“Alright I’m back. You have a pretty little rainbow of pills today.”
“Let’s turn you the right way round shall we?” Strong, slim hands pulled him back on his back. His skin was cold to the touch.
“Let’s cover you up. You’re freezing.”
“Now, let’s start with the blue one.”
“Now, it’s no time to be playing games, you must take these.” The nurse peered down into his face with a mixture of pity and concern.
“What’s the matter?” She passed her hand over his face. Nothing moved. His eyes stared through her.
The nurse felt his arms and hands; they were stone cold. She reached into her pocket and drew out a small mirror. She held it to his mouth. Nothing. She put down her tray of pills and slowly drew the white sheet over his face.
As she turned to leave for the doctor she thought she saw what looked like a dark shadow slink out the door. It looked like a dog.
NOTES: If you are wondering what ‘Magpie Tales’ is, then I suggest you wander off to visit the website. Every few weeks an image is posted, where people can write a story or poem around it. This weeks image is of a mirror. It’s my first time participating in the ‘Magpie Tales’ after finding out about it from Mark over at ‘Absorbed In Words’. He did a fabulous short story entitled ‘Stella’ that inspired me to write one of my own. He’s a great writer, so I highly recommend you go and check it out.
The following story took me two days to draft and write. It wasn’t going to be so long, but one thing led to another and I came up with this. I hope you enjoy it as I had a lot of fun writing it.