It is early morning, barely dawn. It rained all night, and it will be raining again soon. The air tastes green and fresh and heavy. The park is deserted. I walk along the path, carrying the teddy bear in my left hand, as if it were something as normal as a newspaper. Somewhere ahead of me, the Wall is waiting.
It was July and raining; there was a thunderstorm working up. You’d been dead for three months. I was in my room; I was reading. One of the guys who had served with you came to your funeral. I can’t even remember his name, but he’d had both his legs amputated at the knee, and he was in a wheelchair. He was the only person who talked to me like I was old enough to understand what was going on. He gave me All Quiet on the Western Front and said, “This is about what happened to your brother and what happened to me.” I read it that night, and then I read it again, and then I went to the library, and I started reading like it was life. I read everything I could get my hands on, including a lot of stuff the librarians didn’t think a thirteen year old kid should be reading. But everybody in town knew about Dad, and Mom just said, “It’s educational, ain’t it?” and hung up the phone.
That day I was reading A Separate Peace, lying on my bed with a headache throbbing in my eyes. It’d be another two years before anybody figured out I needed glasses. But the headache was all right; it was like the book and like what was happening in my mind. I heard a crash through the wall, from your room, a crash that felt like the Last Trump. I lay there for a moment, my tongue thick in my mouth and my heart banging in my chest, and then I got up and went out into the hall.
Your door was open; it hadn’t been open since you’d gotten on the plane in Knoxville. I looked in. Mom was on her knees, leaning into your closet, throwing things into a big cardboard box. The crash had been your track trophy missing the box and breaking against the floor. The little running figure that had been on top of it was halfway across the room, lying hard and cold and helpless between the bed and the hall door, as if he’d been struck down trying to escape.
“Mom?” I said.
She sat back on her heels and pushed her hair out of her eyes and said, “Yes.”
“Yes, I’m throwing out all his things. I refuse to have a goddamn shrine in my house for the rest of my life.” The glare she gave me was like a dog getting ready to bite. She wasn’t crying; she wasn’t anywhere close to crying. I knew she’d broken your trophy on purpose.
“Mom, shouldn’t you-”
“Get out,” she said.
I stood there, the book still in my hand, one finger still marking my place. I stared at her.
“Didn’t you hear me? Get out!”
I went back to my room and closed the door. The thunder started about ten minutes later, and for a while it was like there was another war on, between Mom and the thunder. Everything of yours that was breakable, she broke.
She dragged the cardboard box out to the curb in the rain, and then another one, and then another. And then she went into the kitchen and started dinner. We both knew Dad wouldn’t be home until midnight or maybe later, and he’d be drunk. So it was just Mom and me, and she’d make dinner, and we’d eat it, and then we’d each go into our own room and die by inches. I don’t know what Mom did in her room; I never did know. She had let you go in there sometimes, but you had never told me what you all talked about. I’d thought I could ask you later, when I was older.
Veterans’ Day is November eleventh. That’s a bad day at work. Even my patients are restless, and the other wards are hell, where there are people who can follow a calendar and who understand that this should be their day. It isn’t their day, and they know it. Nothing we do can make it their day. Nothing anyone can do can make it their day ever again.
You died on April twenty-second. I can take a day of vacation then, and I always do. I tell everyone that I’m going home to see Mom and Dad, and that always works. They know about you a little bit; I keep having to explain to people why I work where I do, as if intelligence ought to exempt me from trying to help those still trapped in the wreckage.
I lie, of course, when I say I’m going home. I haven’t been back there since I went to college, except for funerals. Dad’s luck finally ran out the year after I graduated. He went off the road in his Ford late one night, dead drunk as usual. The car hit a telephone pole, and by the time the ambulance got there, he was just dead. I think I’d been expecting it to happen since he showed up drunk for your memorial service. Mom and I didn’t speak to each other at Dad’s funeral; she looked straight through me and defied me to remind her that I, too, was her son. I returned the favor.
I dreamed of you again two nights ago.
The Wall is black. It’s not the color of a scar, but that’s what it is: psychic scar tissue made visible, tangible, cold and hard and real. There is no way to describe the action of the Wall against the ground. Its black, silent presence is verbless; it is the place for people who do not have verbs. The blackness of the Wall eats action as the blackness of a black hole eats light.
You volunteered for Vietnam. You were eighteen; you didn’t know any better. I was twelve; I knew even less. I thought anything you did was right by definition. In my experience you had never done anything wrong. You knew Communists were evil, and there was a great hunger in you to do battle with darkness and sin. You never got to read The Lord of the Rings; you were not warned about the price of victory, even for the good and pure of heart.
In the VA hospital, there is a lounge with a long bank of windows. On sunny days when we wheel our patients in, we try to put them where they’ll be able to feel the sunlight as long as possible. Even plants respond to sunlight.
Mom didn’t care if I read at the table; it saved her from having to talk to me. I sat there with my book and turned pages, because it was good camouflage, but I wasn’t reading. All I could think of was your things out there in the rain in those boxes, and how the scavengers would start coming by tomorrow, and they’d take away anything that looked worthwhile, and then the garbage men would take the rest, and that’d be it. Nobody who knew you would have anything of yours, and the people who had your things wouldn’t care at all about who they’d belonged to. I thought about the rain hitting the pages of your books. She’d ripped all your paperbacks in half before she threw them in the boxes; I’d seen the pages sliding out of box after box and falling around her in the rain. I thought about the paper puckering and the words blurring and dissolving, and when I remembered to, I turned a page in A Separate Peace. Mom ate like some kind of machine, her hands and jaws moving, her eyes blank and fixed, like they were made of glass and filled with mercury. If you broke them, her tears would poison you.
The names on the Wall do not accuse, or even stare. It would be better if they did. Statues would be easier against the conscience. Statues can look back at an observer, or even simply look at each other. They can give, however fleetingly, the impression that death is not lonely. The names are simply signifiers that have nothing left to signify. They are unforgiving because there is nothing left in them that can forgive.
I dream of you in Vietnam, although I have never been there. I dream of you in the jungles and the heat, dream of you cutting your way through greenness turned hostile, dangerous, alien. I dream of you with the other soldiers in your unit; sometimes the man who came to your funeral is there, but I always dream of him in his wheelchair, the stumps of his legs covered by a quilt in the pattern called the Delectable Mountains. In my dreams, you talk to them and laugh, but I can never hear your voice.
Usually what I do on my Veteran’s Day�your Veteran’s Day�is go to the local cemetery. It’s an old place, full of silence. I look at the gravestones of the soldiers who are buried there; I read their dates and think about yours. I remember the fantasies I used to have, that you were still alive, a POW or a monk in Tibet or wilder, even more impossible things. In my dreams, you were always dead, beyond the reach of fairytales, but lying awake, staring at the night outside my window, I told myself stories, and I still don’t know if they made things better or worse.
After dinner, we washed the dishes. We didn’t say anything; we didn’t need to. Then Mom went into her room and slammed the door. She probably locked it, too. She usually did, and I never knew if it was just to keep Dad out, or if she was keeping me out, too. She sure as hell wasn’t letting me in.
I catch my first glimpse of the Wall, black against the green, and suddenly become aware that there is somebody standing beside the path. I turn my head, my heartbeat accelerating. But the man beside the path isn’t going to hurt me. He’s wearing camouflage pants; his dogtags gleam against his naked chest. Half of his head is gone in a red and gray ooze that stains his neck and shoulder. His remaining eye looks at me. It is brown, so I know that he is not you; your eyes were blue.
I think of you when I look at my patients. I wonder if it would be better if you were one of them, if you were alive and I could touch you. I look at their wives when they come to visit, at the hope in their eyes that turns to pain every single time, and I think, no, it’s better that you’re dead, that I can’t even pretend that I will ever see you smile again. But when I wake up at five in the morning and know, because my eyes and pillow are wet, that I’ve been dreaming of you, I know that anything would be better than this emptiness, and I would give anything to be able to touch your hand again, even if you didn’t know I was touching it.
A few paces further on, there is another soldier, and then a pair, and then I am walking through a crowd of men, all of them wearing uniforms, all of their dogtags so visible it hurts. I know that if I stopped, I could read the names on those gleaming tags, and the names would burn themselves into my memory. I turn my face away and refuse to read their names, refuse to know them. I think that I see my patients in the crowd, their faces younger than the faces I know, their eyes bright and quick. But I do not stop even for them. I would stop for you, if I saw you, but no matter how hard I look, you are not there. I am struck by a horrible fear: would I recognize you if I saw you? I last saw you in the flesh when I was twelve. I have no pictures of you. When you are in my dreams, you have a face, and I know that face to be yours, but no matter how true they are, dreams are not real, and I don’t know whether my dreaming mind has ever succeeded in catching your real face.
I went to my room, and put my book on the bed. I sat there for a while, watching it get dark out the window and listening to the rain and thinking about your stuff in those boxes and about what Mom would do to me if she caught me sneaking out there. I thought it was pretty likely she’d throw me out of the house, tell me that if I didn’t want to do things her way, I could go live with Aunt Cindy in Lenoir City. You’d remember the way she used to say that. That summer I could feel the threat in the air all the time, although she’d quit saying it out loud. I think that’s because it had quit being a joke.
Your door was still open; I’d seen that before I went into my room. And I remembered the way you’d gone out the window to meet your friends. After three-quarters of an hour, I eased my door open again and went into your room.
I hadn’t been in there since you enlisted, and you’d never really wanted me in there anyway. But I remembered the way it had been, with your posters on the walls and your books in the one bookcase by the bed. Mom had ripped all the posters in half and thrown them out, like the books, and she’d stripped your coverlet off the bed, along with your sheets. There was no personality left in the room, nothing of who you’d been and what you’d thought about. Mom had said she didn’t want a shrine, but she’d turned the room into something worse. When I read about the aftermath of battles, that’s what I see: your room in the darkness, and how empty it was and how horrible.
I didn’t dare shut the door behind me, in case Mom heard it, or came out of her room and noticed. I walked across from the door to the window as if there were someone sleeping in the room, someone I might wake if I wasn’t careful. I eased the window up, one inch at a time, and only realized when I’d pushed it all the way open that I was holding my breath.
I knew how you’d gotten out; I’d watched you do it once or twice on nights when you’d co-opted me to be your alibi. But I’d never done it myself, and I sat there for some time in the window, wondering whether I could or not. But the rain was still coming down, still obliterating your memory out there in those cardboard boxes. Finally, I swung one leg over the sill and leaned out toward the tree.
It was a big dogwood; I couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been exactly as it was, wrapping the side of the house in its embrace, green and white and laughing or bare and brown and hungry. The nearest branch was just far enough from the window that I don’t think either Mom or Dad ever imagined you could use it to get out of the house. Every time I’d watched you do it, my heart had been up in my mouth, and it was even worse when it was me, when it was my hands reaching, my left leg gripping the inside of the window sill, my body swaying out against gravity. There was a moment when I was sure that I was going to fall, that I was going to free Mom from having to look at the way my face was almost but not quite yours. And then my fingers reached the branch, and my hands locked against it as if the tree itself could negate the whole world and teach me how to fly.
I swung myself gracelessly from the house to the tree, scraping my hands and arms, bruising my legs, getting spider webs in my hair and dogwood leaves down the back of my shirt. When you had done it, it had looked so easy, so effortless.
I nearly fell twice climbing down, and when I was finally standing on the ground, my heart was racing and I was trembling all over. But Mom’s window was on the other side of the house; she wouldn’t see me.
I crossed the yard in the rain. The boxes were clumped sadly by the curb. I had to force myself to push the flaps back on the nearest one, and then I found that I couldn’t look inside. I couldn’t bear to look at your remains. The Army hadn’t found enough of your body to send it back home, or at least that’s what we were told. These cardboard boxes were all that was left. Blindly, I stuck my hand inside. My face was wet, and my hair was dripping down my neck. My fingers came in contact with something damp and soft, and I pulled it out.
Between the rain and the dusk, I could scarcely make it out. It was your teddy bear, the one you’d given up when I was six and you were twelve. Teddy bears were for babies, you said, but when Mom suggested you give it to me, you said, “It’s mine,” and it went in your closet. Standing out there in the rain, I remembered how that had made me feel, how small and stupid and worthless, as if I had to be something even more contemptible than a baby. And then the next day, you’d taken me to a movie, some stupid science fiction thing that Mom wouldn’t have let either one of us see if she’d known, and I’d felt ten feet tall.
My fingers tightened around the teddy bear, and I walked back to the house. It was only at the foot of the tree that I realized I couldn’t climb back to your window holding the bear in one hand. I tucked the front of my T-shirt into my shorts and put the teddy bear in my shirt. It lumped against my stomach, squashy and damp and neglected, and I climbed up.
Getting back in your window was even worse than climbing out had been, but I did it. I’d come too far to give up now, and I knew that if Mom caught me, she’d make me take the teddy bear back out to the boxes, or she’d do something else to destroy it. I could imagine her burning it: the stench of scorching plush, her face, remorseless and inexorable, lit from beneath by the flames. I crept back across your room, back along the four feet of hall that separated your door from mine, back into my own room. I eased the door shut behind me, and started breathing again.
And started looking for a place to hide the teddy bear from Mom.
Sometimes when I dream of you, you are in my apartment, wearing your fatigues and dogtags, prowling through my living room as if it were a Vietnamese village. You look at the books on my shelves, pick up the knickknacks on my end table and turn them over as if they puzzle you. You go into the kitchen and inspect my refrigerator; you go into the bathroom and look in my medicine cabinet. The night before last, for the first time you came into my bedroom. You never used to remind me of a cat, but you prowled around my bedroom like a cat looking for another door. You seemed both restless and unhappy. You came and stood by the bed for a long time, staring down at me. I couldn’t read the expression on your face. Then you went prowling away again, opening my closet, looking through my dresser drawers. You found the teddy bear. You picked it up, turned it over the way you turned over my bookends, and put it back down with a little, tired sigh. You didn’t recognize it. It meant nothing to you.
The dead men crowd around me as I walk. They do not touch me, do not even reach for me. Only their eyes yearn toward me, yearn toward warmth and memory. They do not remember who they are. They cannot read their own dogtags. I feel a cramping, agonizing need to read their tags, to tell them their names. But at the same time, I know they won’t remember what I tell them. The dead cannot remember themselves; that’s why the living have to. And I cannot be memory for all these men, although I could destroy myself finally in the process of trying. I cannot even be memory for you. I have lost you somewhere. The teddy bear is nothing but a teddy bear, a conglomeration of fabric and stuffing and glass as dead as you are. Nothing green and vital can grow from this teddy bear; it is not a magic talisman that can keep you near me or even let me pretend any more that you belong to me.
I come to the Wall. The dead men press their hands against the panels and turn to me, terrible pain in their eyes.
“I can’t help you,” I say and flinch at the sound of my own voice. They can’t hear me; the only sounds they listen for are their own, the names they can no longer remember.
Mom died a year ago. Cancer: it took her fast, devoured her body as if she were her own funeral pyre of dry wood and kerosene. I visited her in the hospital in Knoxville. We stared at each other, and I realized that while I look like Dad, and like you, I have her eyes.
I was the only mourner at her funeral; everyone else who had loved her was dead.
I hid your teddy bear for years, moving it from secret place to secret place around my room. When I went to college, it went with me, packed in the bottom of a box full of sheets and pillowcases. I hid it from my roommate, knowing that I could never face explaining why I had brought a ragged, mildewy teddy bear with me. I liked my roommate fine, but when I was eligible to move into a single, I did. It was my secret�our secret�and I would rather have died myself than desecrate it by sharing it.
I don’t know where your name is on the Wall and no longer believe that it matters. I choose a panel near the middle and leave the teddy bear in the border between the Wall and the path. I leave the dead men clustering at the Wall and walk away.
I look back. Like Orpheus, like Lot’s poor stupid wife.
But this isn’t a story. There’s nothing there.
Having completed her Ph.D. in English literature, Sarah Monette now lives and writes in a 99-year-old house in the Upper Midwest. Her first two novels, Melusine (2005) and The Virtu (2006), have been published by Ace Books, with two more novels in the series to follow: The Mirador (2007) and Summerdown (2008). Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Visit her online.
Something about the juxtaposition of a teddy bear, one of the strongest symbols of childhood, and Veterans’ Day, a holiday which commemorates that least childish of sacrifices, evoked the Vietnam Memorial in my head. And from there it was just a matter of listening closely enough to hear the story the narrator was trying to tell.