The mountains were sunlit, like glory loose of heaven, dark as old souls at their valley roots, in the clutch of earth trembling from a sky-high battle with its last aerial shot not yet fired, its last echo of death riding the sweep of air, when the screeching, not identified, began on high. The sounds of death had breath to spare, and the U.S Air Force’s F-86 Sabre pursuit fighter plane from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, out of Suwon Air Base or Kimpo Air Base, both in South Korea, tumbled from the sky, the roar, the screech, the scream of air being sliced nearly by its atoms or other miniscule thinness not measurable by any of the troops facing each other on the ground.
In ghastly sky-shared company, plummeting slower than the aircraft, came its parachuting pilot, free and loose in the air, heading surely to imprisonment, anger, torture, bodily harm, at the hands of North Korean custodians, or Chinese counterparts. The hills below, on both sides of an unmarked battle line, were crowded with troops of several nations, from the very continent, and from countries and other continents across the globe, their new or at least temporary homes being nothing more than holes in the earth, deeply-dug bunkers fortified with logs or sandbags, any place not in direct in-line sighting of small arms fire.
From a hill-top observation post, an army corporal, at the controls of a battery-pack powered SCR-300 radio transceiver (a walkie-talkie), carried for his commanding officer directing the attack of U.S. infantry units, reported to his base headquarters, after some hillside interruptions causing garbled communication: “Please advise Air Force the loss of one F86 Sabre Jet aircraft, just shot down and crashed beyond Hill 598 near Kumhwa, its pilot in parachute deployment now and settling into enemy custody.” He added, in a different tone of voice, a soldier of an honest and neutral appreciation, “We have no further information on pilot or plane, but both apparently are goners.” He almost swallowed his own words; “Goners, I said, absolute goners!”
Air Force officials, eventually via regular service connections through the War Department and a volunteer at the Post Office, delivered a telegram to the pilot’s lone family member, a brother in St. Louis, Missouri. The telegram carried note of his brother, Charles Egert Dawsing, being “missing in action” in Korea. The brother was William Levert Dawsing, senior by six years, a professor with tenure in the English department at St. Louis University.
Professor Dawsing was looked upon by students and fellow instructors as a thoroughly good teacher who used a great deal of drama and emotion in the classroom, and all agreed with a statement his wife had once delivered to a group of cohorts from the university, that “Bill prepares more for his classes than any man I’ve ever known and we all ought to be thankful for his deep interests at all levels.”
She didn’t tell anybody that she often heard her husband’s words coming through the rooms of their home long after she thought he’d gone to sleep in his study, the way those words rang off walls, stairs, pillars and posts with his orotund voice. Much else of what she did not say, but could have said, considered that she often recognized the words as coming from a famous author or poet in her circle of personal favorites.
Bill Dawsing, the war in Korea in its second or third year, his brother near the end of a year of aerial combat, on one sad and fateful day, saw an old friend coming timorously to his door with a yellow telegram in his hand; he felt the contents before he read the telegram from the War Department.
His mind had searched other grounds in a matter of minutes, not knowing how or where they had originated, or why, inhaled odors savory and unsavory, heard sounds of life … breaths taken, let go, scuffling feet, knew dust rising and falling back in place, almost detected hands from a hidden tunnel rubbing each other in anticipation of promoting pain, causing harm, threatening the tight little room of life about him from the very second the door swung open.
Then, as often as not, he heard something from beyond the door of the tight little room, a beginning and an ending occurring at the exact same moment, an implausible acceptance of place in the order of things: he was at the point of pain before it arrived in his presence, before it made known unspoken demands, before life began its precarious balance, or played the end of one day against the beginning of another day.
No whisper of things warned him; they were as real as life. Silence, indeed, had something to say; he had long sworn to listen to every sound in the universe that came his way, a peep of a bird, the grunt of a pig, a step on a stairway from utter depths, the hello of the Devil himself.
The sound came once more. He stiffened. It was closer. His whole body knew it was closer, all his parts in concert with each other and the whole being. It was not just in his hearing. It did approach. It did make inroads. It said so. The metal toe. The kick. The slash. Ping Tu smiling through his ugly and malodorous teeth. Oh, would Ping Tu have a thirst for amontillado! Oh, were he himself the finest of stone masons, setting Ping Tu up for the full sentence; to make an end of my labour, to force the last stone into place; to set the best of mortar, forever.
Caught between the professor and the captain!
In the darkness, in the cell, he had himself convinced for the thousandth time to use all his body parts, to get them all concerted into the game. It was the only way to pass time, evade terrors abounding, to keep a thin shred of sanity if nothing else was there to hold onto. Against darkness he fought and loneliness and the constant threats of bodily harm that came from different directions and at different tempos each day, each hour.
To fight back, he had to hold the final, and internal, control, keep on his toes, to be fully aware of signs and signals of new twists of pain and derision in the offing. Food was a tool both ways; he had to survive with less than they planned to give him, to live on nothing as usual as food, but to look elsewhere for other life.
His torso twisted anew in simple gestures, manipulations and the reach for tools of capture arising again. Thumb and finger. Thumb and finger. He had them poised, ready to clutch, grasp, snare what vermin of his cell dared be caught. If the smallest of the lot trod the ground between those pincers, he’d have an addition to any bit of food. Perhaps the entrée, though small as it promised. In the pit of darkness, this room with no aperture, no stars allowed, no moon, no haze off the unseen horizon, silence baiting him as always, he could not see thumb and finger. But they were there a perilous distance apart. Then for hours, in the absolute darkness, they were but a whisper apart, a hair’s breadth, and at times his whole arm trembled from the noble and vowed concentration. The length of that side of his body, at times down to his toes, knew that tremble as a simple arc of electricity, but knew the burn it could threaten.
Now, there was another thing … the toes. Time after time in the darkness he had tried to master a most difficult manipulation, to squeeze a big toe against its neighbor when he felt the vermin at that extremity, picking or digging its way through or into his skin. Way back in his memory, from an old news film maybe, he could bring back the picture of an old man making baskets; weaving, for god’s sake, baskets out of strips of dried grass, with his toes! Toes like fingers! Toes using a double-edged razor blade to strip the grass or reeds into long, slender pieces! A lifetime at it, most likely, and that a likely mental reservation of his own. “I’m due a few,’ he said aloud in the circumscription of the imposed cell.
Would toes be at a greater advantage for vermin catching, them so unsuspecting? Ha! thinking like that! What an attribute for them! Or then, there was that other older man he remembered, one without arms, who typed with his toes, he too in an old film of sorts that came flying back on demand. Oh, he could see the carriage return sling backwards harsh as a rifle bolt, could hear the bell click on an old L. C. Smith/Corona, a metal monster with music in its own right, the dumb, inert, potential of great novels, short stories cutting to the quick, poems that could melt him down in their abject simplicity. All from that black giant of quick mechanics. He could hear it again and again, that musical bell, that energy sign. Oh, the short sentences of the solitary typist at his task, digging at his brain, punching with his toes. Hemingway stuff, stripped down to the nerves themselves. Adjectives coming alive in the stream. The return bell ringing and ringing. Most likely an A Flat, he’d try to convince himself, though tone deaf. The bull charged. The people ran. Pamplona exploded. A Flat, without a doubt. A Flat. A Flat.
Then the itch, invariably, would begin at a point on his back he could not reach, and it was arriving again by the clock, perfectly timed in its entrance. At the small of the back, as if in between the cruddy vest remnants he wore, forced on him by the prison captain, and the worn and thin blanket he tried to sleep on, infested no doubt with creatures warmer than he’d ever be again. Bare, the air talking on his skin, his arms, at least the one not shivering, felt the chill, knew it to the bone, trying to be company with the itch.
A shiver, a body’s full shiver every once in a while, the entire course of him, was the most pleasure he might have for hours. It would attest to his total consciousness, his whole being, as much a passage fully memorized and fully realized from his old reading days taking hold of him, finding his soul, freeing the very words in their simple grandeur, their grand simplicity: It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
Oh, dear Christ in nearest heaven, he had catapulted now through E.A. Poe to the captain; jailer extraordinary, stick wielder, percussionist, with the long yellow teeth, the sneer and contempt embedded in his face, his all-out hatred in-born for America and the mothers of prisoners and the Grand Canyon and a Saturday full of football and spring loaded with baseballs echoing off the bats. The captain, Ping Tu, long and fanged and yellow-toothed, with the metal toe on his shoe, just the right one, meant for backs, shoulders, elbows, bone, sinew, body, the very reach and portal of the soul. He did not know if it were Poe or the quickened sound beyond, a noise in the night, like the swagger stick striking on another back, across the barest of another’s flesh. He and Fortunato, he and the captain, the captain and Fortunato. Where did it end or begin? He could hear his old professor, John Norton, reading the passage, coughing his cigarettes into the paragraph, posing his hand between belt and self, sitting on the edge of his desk, nodding at the words, his voice alive, the Tower Bell ringing at the end of class, May smothering him with trees and the promise of evening coming at the break of day and all the day long, like a line at a theater queue, Humphrey Bogart on tap, Henry Fonda, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, a host of floating faces and known voices carrying their own music, their own tempo.
His voice repeated itself: Caught between the professor and the captain!
It was at him again. The then and the now. Still, he clasped that finger and that thumb, those entities in the darkness, poised, relentless, waiting. Hunger, he realized, would accompany him all the days of his life. Oh, such weariness it could sustain. A being in itself. It would never change. No matter how many times Ping Tu kicked him, no matter how many times the stick flashed in the air and he could feel its slash before it hit his skin, the void in his body would reassert itself, the ever-calling vacuum, wanting, needing, crying for food, more food, decent food, one solitary piece of rye bread soft enough for his teeth where he held off the pain. It would do no good to get pain there, in his teeth. If he let it in it would be with him forever. He’d suck it out of his teeth before he’d let it come at him, gnawing its way home, coming like an insidious disease, taking over, controlling, as conscious as breathing. Suck the teeth dry of pain, that was the trick. Call on perseverance repeatedly. Make it stand-to. A man made demands on his body, on his complete self, the ego and the muscle, the sinew and the thought, the search and the grip. The echo came in the back of his head, even if it had to be that way until the last day. What he feared most was the lack of measurement, the inability of allowing or creating reference points, two points around time, time at the center of two points as distant as stars. There was that hunger for the sight of stars in this room without aperture. That hunger was there like an organ of skin, enveloping.
It was déjà vu, it was a turntable event. The sound came once more. He stiffened. Again. It was closer. Again. His whole body knew it was closer. It was not just in the hearing. It approached. Again. It made inroads. Again. It said so. The metal toe. Again. The kick. Again. The slash. Again. Ping Tu smiling through his teeth. All over again. Oh, would Ping have a thirst for amontillado! Oh, were he himself the finest of stone masons, setting Ping Tu up for the full sentence; to make an end of my labour, to force the last stone into place; to set the best of mortar, forever.
“Yo!” he said into the darkness, quickly alert, his voice making an attempt at strength, soldierly, once again in the ranks. His mind leaped another leap. The finger and the thumb! No matter what joy comes, keep the finger and the thumb deployed. Be vigilant. Be ready. Anew came the full shiver. A shot of joy few minds would ever understand came over him. Alive and alert was he, down to his contriving toes. Oh, one grasp. One grasp! Oh, but for Christ, one grasp.
Then, as if timed by some legitimate god, a god of the deserts, a god of the deep unknown, a moan came out of the darkness, serious, cutting, soul-filled. It arched through his body. The rotted vest, the filthy piece of cotton beneath him, felt cold as stone, as hard, and as brittle if he moved an inch the wrong way, crumble and shatter its promise. Once more he was penetrated and violated in the darkness. Ache was in his soul, he was positive of that. It had a presence he thought immeasurable, untouchable. But here it was, at him, in him, with him, paining him as no pain had ever come to him.
Even yesterday, when Ping Tu had kicked him so many times that he lost count, where the metal plate in his shoe was now felt anew, was not as bad as hearing that moan, knowing Ping Tu at new carnage and employ, speaking indirectly to someone’s mother. It nearly cost him his concentration. The finger flickered, tremulous, came back to place and the organ of his skin searched its wide expanse for the presence of vermin nearing that vise. Courage came anew, and vigilance, determination. There would ever be the thought of mortar setting in place, a cry lifting itself to the limits of the universe, a metal toe plate rusting back to its beginning.
He thought his eyes had closed for a moment, that sleep had come in the place of Ping Tu, that the moans and other sounds faded into the stiff darkness, lifted off to a distant place, yet to be remembered with vivid clarity.
Sleep had come. He woke, this prisoner, stood up roughly with ache anew, stiffly and absentmindedly slipped the rotted vest off his torso, and removed the remnant pants torn at the crotch, torn the length of one leg, letting the frayed string belt fall away. He dropped them and the worn cotton blanket into a tattered cardboard box at his feet, and, in an habitual manner, kicked the box under the cot.
In dawn’s first precious light, he looked at his brother’s picture, the major’s leaf on his collar, the distance in his eyes, his brother six years a prisoner of war, dead of an abrupt stroke on the rescue plane, never to come home.
He touched the picture frame, cool in the first sparkle of light, spoke the words again, as he had every morning for more than a year, and stepped into the shower, the words echoing, beseeching, apologetic in the bedroom behind him: I know, Charlie! I know! I know!