Fiction by Mikaël Thomas Bouckaert
by Mikaël Thomas Bouckaert
THEIR EYES SCANNED across the road and then back to the charred windows from where fire had caught their comrades the day before. Metal had clicked on metal a mile back and the last hour had been a muted grind through dirt occasionally covered by ash clouds parting to a violence tracked only in more dirt and ruin. Then he saw the girl and her family move out the side of the building and he knew before he knew—‘the sick sense,’ he called it, the way you gauge the thickness of walls, the hostility of a crowd, the smiling child that slits its finger across its throat seen out the back of your head, the thin wire legs of a tiny spider sticking out the road turned to metal in your mouth right before it’s too late—sure, but then it’s too late, that’s the sick part—knew before he knew, only he couldn’t speak.
He tried to look away so he could take their eyes with him and explain before they saw but they had already followed his eyes and shot and so had he. He looked back up at the scene that had already changed, the girl he’d covered in her family’s blood now tiny as a bunny clinging to the chest of the soldier that carried her, crying, away. So then he must have figured he might as well shoot that as well.
His flesh was loose around the gnarled bones of the hands curled in on themselves around the camera like the crumpled rag of some more humble profession. Watching the hands squeeze the camera like it could break or the dirty wash at least seep out. The locals yelling at the soldiers, the soldiers yelling at their interpreter, the interpreter yelling at the locals. The soldier who’d fired the shot that had killed the mother of the girl he’d carried off was perched on a pile of rubble and his face broken over the dirt turned to Constant and held until the soldier and then Constant again turned away.
The father of the soldier called and said his grown man of a son had come home and sat in his father’s lap like a little boy and told him how he and his comrades had accidently gunned down that family and the next morning the father had found his child hanging from his belt in his closet. The line was very quiet. Constant offered his condolences and apologies. The man said he was sending over a picture Constant was going to publish as his own. Constant said he was sorry but he’d signed a form saying he wouldn’t photograph—the man said that Constant had sure photographed the hell out of those dead Iraqis that had led to this very dead American and that if people didn’t have the stomach for wars they shouldn’t send their kids off to die in them but maybe he’d fucked up the focus or should have stepped a little further back instead of just the bloodless purple bloated face taking up the entire frame, what the fuck did he know, he wasn’t the fucking professional. But he could try again and again and again, no problem, or maybe Constant would care to come over and finish what the fuck he’d damn well started, you god damn—
“Are you a whiskey man, sir? I’m a whiskey man.”
“Johnnie and I will see you in four days.”
“Johnnie blue, you godless fucking—”
Constant sat across the kitchen table and they drank and talked without a sound coming from the mother washed away upstairs on gin and sleeping pills. The father stared at the moon over the snow surrounded by the ink black night framed by the window because every other bit of flat white wall slid off into a false image of his dead son alive. The man drank and said he was a fool to have ever had a child because he had given the world something it could take away and harm him by and only a fool wouldn’t know this world would do exactly that. Constant’s cowardice was perhaps a form of wisdom, having only ever given the world copies of its creations which it could no more feast on than a man on dreams of beef, and Constant’s ghosts only fantasies he’d drummed up out of the guilt of having survived and in some cases profited off human beings he had never truly known, let alone sufficiently loved, the proof thereof being that he was not only still alive but in fact doing exactly what he’d been doing when those others had died, copying himself and them, probably even telling himself it was to honor their memory or their sacrifice or some other such perfectly similar sanctimonious bullshit he at least had the decency and shame not to speak aloud and be comforted in the warm mire of its near universal echo. The man shrugged and said he’d been a penniless poet before he’d met his wife in a windblown taqueria in Sonora and discovered himself a father nine months later and he guessed there was now nothing stopping him from drowning himself in that glorious season in hell where a worm always waited at the bottom of a bottle of mescal except that he’d developed a taste for good scotch, he loved his wife, and that the delusions necessary for the creation of poetry and the conscious choice of poverty came more easily to a young drunk intoxicated by what little he’d seen of the world than to an old drunk so disgusted by the sight that he recoiled at its taste and would wish he’d go deaf, dumb, and blind, except nature was already taking care of that.
The man’s laughter died quickly and then he stared at the white snow glowing in the dark night and after some time Constant said that the editor of the New York paper that had published the photos of the man’s boy and the little girl and her dead family had contacted Constant later that day to ask if he had any images with yellow in them. Constant had stared at the request a long time, paying especially close attention to the part where the editor explained that he had an add for perfume on the page opposite and needed something to match. After about an hour, Constant had gone out to the pool of the hotel. There had been a kid swimming laps. It was the middle of the night and the pool was pitch black and Constant yelled, “L’Oreal!” and a little later he added, “Chartreuse, marigold, lemon chiffon. War is all the rage these days in the perfume industry. It just has to be war and the war just has to be yellow.”
The kid toweling off asked Constant how he slept at night in such a place, by which Constant inferred that he meant Baghdad, Iraq, war, although he had quite probably never left the Green Zone, meaning America, safety, more or less his mother’s tit. And then there was the fact that Constant was quite obviously as awake in the middle of the night as the kid, though not quite as sober. Nor could Constant make any greater claims to reason himself, having glared at the kid for the last hour or so, trying to will a perfume scented dead Iraqi family into the head of this kid who probably thought he was on Spring break, chasing pussy. That’s the last thing Constant remembered thinking. Then he was telling the kid that he sometimes slept on his back, sometimes on his side, he wasn’t sure because he’d never actually seen himself sleep and thank God because he always woke up like—he let go and laughed as the kid flailed at the empty night air, cursing and gagging—“that,” Constant said, his hands in the Upstate New York kitchen already molded around the neck of the kid before Constant noticed the man whose son had just a week ago choked to death on a rope staring back at him. Constant managed not to say that it was one kind of tragedy to take your life for a horrible mistake but it’s a whole other level of tragedy turned farce for the original victims of that tragedy to be so wholly drowned out by the latter as to have their image seem fit for the sale of perfume to citizens of the country that had killed them. He simply apologized, got up, and went over to the couch that had been made up for him to sleep on.
The next evening several members of the family’s congregation held candlelight vigil outside as Constant sat at the back of the church, the mother in black fallen over the coffin and weeping, the father in black with his hand on her back and refusing to weep, the light through the pebbled glass steadily wavering all through the bitter cold night over the scene it lit up. The broken figures came out the dark to lay their hands on the glowing flag draped casket like testifying. Two sets of hands formed the base, the flag made the apex. A triangle. The most basic and hence firm and even classical composition. They hadn’t said you couldn’t photograph the caskets yet but the father wanted the other picture out there and he wouldn’t allow the one with the flag to go anywhere further than his own hands. Constant said that was fine. He’d taken it for the family. It was the least he could do.
“The least,” the father of the deceased agreed, holding a printout of the image. “God damn this godless country. God damn you and all your kind.” He tore the image in two, in four, eight, tore until the stars and stripes sprinkled like dust from his hands. “This is a house of the one true God,” he said. “And as the Lord hath done onto your idols, surely He will do onto their maker. You reap what you sow. The chickens come home to roost. You don’t get to wave your big dick over some distant sandbox for seventy years and when some infinitesimally small part of these people it’s a miracle not every last one not only hate you but act on that hatred fly some planes into some buildings and kill some people come onto my television all sad faced consoling father and serve me a big ole cone of soft serve grade A American horseshit about freedom democracy and hating our way of life and send my son who can’t tell his ass from his elbow to die for it. Fuck you. Fuck you you godless sanctimonious soulless ciphers of human beings the dumbest most leveled down tripe of common knowledge blows through your vacuous heads and hollow hearts like wind through wind and into my ears as foreign policy and the noble sacrifice of anonymous soldiers draped in chest candy. Talk to me like a man. Tell me the oil is worth it and necessary. Tell me Israel is worth it. Tell me and tell all the family of the dead and all the dead. All the dead. Brown and white and black and blue. Say it to our faces, you cowards. Then tell us you do not give a fuck about how we feel about it. But do not insult us. Fuck your flag burials. Fuck your funeral marches. Fuck your wreathes and your candles and your twenty one guns and your little blue eyed blonde haired cannon fodder babies waving the very same flags you will bury them under. Fuck you all. I motion we thank the soldiers for not charging us at the welcome home pageants, sit them down before the gathered masses on thrones of bone, unwashed of blood and ash, and jail anyone who refuses to listen to absolutely anything that the warriors who gather our wealth and protect our kingdom wish to say or scream or blubber or whisper of what they alone know. If we are to have ritual reenactments of our suffering and loss, let us be drowned in all the blood of all the lambs slaughtered. At least stop running from your shadow like a god damn—”
His figure with his hands held out before him pulsed with the shadow and light from the candles still cupped against the wind outside and he collapsed into the arms of his wife.
All that night Constant laid very still on the living room couch and stared at the stairs that led to the room with the glowing closet calling to him to write one word on a piece of paper he would take from the office next to the kid’s room and pin it to his own shirt with a binderclip or stapler he would surely find there. The parents who would never again sleep very deeply might hear him even if he walked up there in his socks and it would disturb them so much in the immediate future that they would never make it to the more distant future in which it might seem a sort of justice, although the gift he proposed to give them was obviously only an excuse and justification for a completely selfish act he alone wouldn’t have to deal with and which they would only blame themselves for, going over and over the brief time Constant had spent with them for things they had said or done to him as they surely already would go over and over the manner they had raised their son, lashing themselves and each other with recriminations and accusations for what they knew was ultimately only his way of shaping the particular clay he’d been given, such reasoning of as little help to them as it was now to Constant or to the girl covered in the blood of her family the soldier and Constant had shot and who their final acts of contrition and apology would never reach or in any way impact even if they did. All of which was probably only Constant being too selfish and afraid to finally for once do something that might—what? Change the world? That had gotten so old so long ago he felt like a kid stuck so long on a merry go round he’d outgrown the parents solid on the benches blurring by. Because if he took one step off the couch he’d be hanging in the closet but he no more knew if that was the right image than any other he’d ever taken or would take and he was so tired of trying to figure it out maybe he should stop. Except—
He woke to the smell of coffee and bacon and the morning light glittered over the snow outside and he thanked the family once again for their hospitality. He located the girl in Iraq through various aid organizations and bypassed them all to directly send her a considerable check. He wrote a message on his social media platform which consisted of the word, sorry, and the image of a uniformed American soldier hanging from his belt in his parent’s closet. He announced to no one but himself that he was officially retired and laughed all through the brief moment he felt better, until he was just as broke and broken and afraid as he’d ever expected or deserved or been.
Mikaël Thomas Bouckaert was born in Belgium, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and currently lives in New Orleans. His work has been published in Gargoyle, The Bacon Review, and other magazines. His travels in Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Egypt inspired his latest novel, Graven, which follows an American war photographer through thirty years of conflict in the Middle East. "Dead Americans" is a stand-alone excerpt from Graven.