“This Year’s War” – Fiction by Nickalus Rupert

Thunderstorm on the Oregon Trail - Childe Hassam, 1908
Thunderstorm on the Oregon Trail – Childe Hassam, 1908

The grand finale of our Spring 2016 issue is “This Year’s War,” Nickalus Rupert‘s satirical yet tender tale of civil war in a not-so-improbable America.

{ X }

I’M GETTING TOO OLD FOR WAR, even the fictional kind. Our Reclusive Fifth hasn’t fought a real battle in years, and we don’t care to. Like so many others I’ve spent the better part of my adult life waiting for the thundering trumpets and molten skies that’ll finally herald the end times. Makes sense that the lesser cataclysms I’ve witnessed might set the table for a more proper apocalypse.

On the first Monday in April, we conduct our biannual meeting with the governor of New Oregon. Colonel Rivera reports heavy enemy casualties as usual. According to the records, we’ve laid low scores and scores of Cumberland soldiers, which is why Governor Swerth lets us keep our costly horses. Swerth drinks liberally from a flask looped around her shoulder. Her eyes moon with pride as Rivera embellishes the details of a battle we never fought. The more our colonel lies, the more I sweat, worrying that Swerth might want more details, might start demanding proof of battle.

Governor Swerth assures us that our victory is imminent and that Cumberland is run by unenlightened parochial mouth-breathers. Everyone knows that Swerth’s brother claims himself governor of Cumberland’s New Georgia, but no one mentions him. Swerth is so impressed she throws a few pieces of reformatted gold in with our usual bounty. Not that we need more gold.

On Tuesday, we march through another ruined town. Medford, maybe. Weeds and young trees spring from building foundations, confusing them for planters, while goats and rabid horses graze between toppled tombstones. Silas keeps chomping his bit and throwing his mane as we pass through. Even from a distance it’s obvious that many of the remaining townsfolk are delirious from heavy metal poisoning. Through my collapsible spyglass I watch two raggedy derelicts club each other with rusty appliances.

Shadowy mountain ranges tumble up from the northeast as we pass, their peaks sharp and frosted. Mt. McLoughlin reveals itself by degrees, a newly-formed tooth. To behold such a place, you might believe there’s more to the world than what we’ve seen ruined.

Rivera waxes sentimental about Crater Lake, that great barnacle nestled among the Cascades. He talks about the purity of its waters, which pool over three hundred fathoms deep inside the rim. It’s irritating to hear him go in like this. I’m not one who likes to get distracted by the landscape, which can kill you just as well as anything else out here.

On Thursday we round a river bend to find a brick-red canoe lashed to a tree on the opposite bank. The dozing fisherman’s pole is still poised over the water. We all smile easily until Doris motions to the faint ribbons of smoke curling over the pointed hemlocks behind the canoe. We hush our horses and scuttle under the firs. Echo huddles beside me on the dry loam. She and I are the only gray-heads in the bunch, she several years my senior, and already showing symptoms of toxicity. Over the years, I’ve seen her stove in her share of skulls, but now she sits with a fledgling bird in her coat pocket.

“I named her Pickles,” she whispers.

“Why Pickles?” I ask.

“Because that’s what I was hungry for, Clark.”

A few minutes later, we see the first enemy soldier. He parts the hemlocks along the opposite bank and swoons in the sunshine, shoeless and shirtless, his chest bearing three tattooed feathers—an emblem trademark of the Cumberland flag. He saunters along the river, pulls a serrated knife from its scabbard, and belches. The sleeper in the canoe doesn’t stir, so the soldier tickles the inside of the sleeper’s ear with the blade. That wakes him up. Without a word, the soldier hauls the man up by his hair and drops him onto the muddy bank. The fisherman pleads with the soldier, who laughs. Another Cumberland grunt appears at the soldier’s side and they begin laughing and kicking the fallen fisherman, either man lean as a bayonet. One of them pulls the guy’s oars out and chops his ribs good. I’m surrounded by gaping mouths. Few of our regiment’s soldiers are old enough to have encountered any significant conflict. No way they’ll risk their lives for this stranger.

A Cumberland soldier spits into the mud and starts piling river stones and driftwood into the canoe. The other soldier nods and adds branches of his own. They load the flimsy fisherman back into the canoe, pinning his legs beneath a snarl of branches and anchoring the branches with more rocks.

The fisherman doesn’t dare move, not even when his canoe lists over, water already threatening to spill over the gunwales. The soldiers swell toad-like as they taunt. They’ll drown this man. They’ll probably kill me if I try to interfere, but that’s not reason enough to stay hidden. Better to make a worthy sacrifice, no matter how feeble the effort.

With all the bravado I can muster I splash into the river and make for the far side. Halfway across, I realize I’m too goddamn old to be a war hero. I’m sapped by the river and its chill. This isn’t like the Pacific shores I walked as a child. This river has no memory but hard mountain snowpack. Its nature is to smother. Echo and my comrades call out to me in anger and surprise, but their words are lost to the churning water.

I finally come ashore on my hands and knees, hacking river water at the feet of my Cumberland foes. Long-haired boys, eyes rapid in their skulls. The nearest man’s laughter leaves my bones quaking. I’m close enough to see that he’s wearing an old pair of corrective glasses, though he must’ve removed the right lens.

“The fuck are you?” he says, shoveling his warty toes under my chin.

“Mainland’s finest,” I say.

“What’re you doing?”

I bite my lip and glance at the river, but the fisherman has already vanished. The soldier levers his toes. He still wants an answer.

“I—I was going to lift one of those stones and stove in both of your skulls,” I say. “Now do your worst.”

“No, I’m serious,” he says. “You trying to swim your decrepit ass back to the good old gravy days or what?” He glances at his comrade. “What about this one here, Clyde?”

“Let’s keep him, Arthur. Maybe this old crab can tell us what it was like romping with mermaids back when the world was still flat.”

A third Cumberland man passes through the hemlocks. He pauses to urinate a few paces upstream, ignoring the three of us. Clearly older than Arthur and Clyde, he stands on legs fashioned for a much tinier body. When he’s finished, he strolls over and bends down to see me, his hat embroidered with what’s supposed to be the single squat-looking feather of a colonel’s insignia. It looks more like a jalapeño.

“Who’s the corpse?” he finally says.

“Mainland’s finest,” Arthur says.

“Come on out, Rivera,” the colonel shouts. “Dinner’s on us.”

{ X }

The Cumberland soldiers are hospitable, if not warm. I stare into the flames of their campfire, sitting naked while my fatigues steam dry. Two scrappy grunts throw a flayed deer carcass over a scummy grill and light the coals underneath. From the odor, I’d guess the meat is at least two weeks dead. I watch Arthur rub a few handfuls of sage into the rib meat, and for all my hatred of sage, my appetite stays nettle-sharp.

Many of Cumberland’s hires seem no sturdier than porcelain dolls. One of them looks so much like my dead grandfather, I silently promise myself that no matter what, I can’t shoot him. Gleer, their colonel, boils a pot of tobacco tea and passes it around the fire to both factions. He deploys a bowl of sage-dusted corn cobs, dry enough to split molars. Rivera makes low humming noises as he tears at the fly-bitten deer, as if to show Gleer how tasty it is. No one’s convinced.

Gleer whispers to a young girl who giggles quietly and pulls a painted board and a pouch of lumpy rocks from her rucksack. Takes me a beat to realize it’s supposed to be a chess set. Gleer waves to Rivera, who wipes rancid gravy from his chin and sits opposite the Cumberland colonel. That leaves me in the company of Arthur and Clyde.

“Where you hail from, anyway?” Clyde asks between bites of corn.

“Gresham,” I say.

“Shithole,” Arthur says, adjusting his broken eyewear.

“How’s the Mainland paying you these days?” Clyde says.

“It’s pretty fair,” I say, not really knowing how much to disclose to these two.

“You all hiring?” Arthur says.

“No,” I say, looking away. “No, we’re not.”

Rivera looks a little green from the deer meat now, like he might be fighting back his own sick. Gleer has just palmed his king’s bishop, but Rivera slumps forward and stares into the fire, arms covering his belly. Gleer offers Rivera some tea, which Rivera waves off.

I excuse myself from the company of Arthur and Clyde to search for Echo in the firelight. She and a bespectacled Cumberland man who introduces himself as Bellows are trading hits from a carved horn pipe.

“Have you not so much as a uniform, friend?” Bellows asks, passing the pipe.

“It’s drying,” I say, taking a puff.

“Mr. Bellows and I were talking about the war,” Echo says. “We were trying to figure out when things got so ugly.”

Bellows shakes his head. “I was just suggesting to Echo here that things were probably never so pretty in the first place. I’ll tell you a story: acquaintance of mine fought for Cumberland under Colonel Diaz. Name was Napier. Raving asshole. Complained about everything. Fussy eater, too. He got captured by Mainlanders who couldn’t bear to kill him or release him because he was such a pleasure to torment.”

“Does Cumberland really sodomize its captives with a chained bear, as rumor goes?” Echo doesn’t ask the question so much as shout it, frail hand drawn to her mouth.

“Golly, no,” Bellows says. “Anyway, the Mainlanders would stuff Napier’s mouth with horse shit and pine cones until he chewed, then they’d fall about the camp laughing as he cussed them out. Six months this lasted before they ran into Colonel Diaz again. Diaz was prepared this time. All but wiped out the entire Mainland regiment. Diaz saw what Napier had been through and released him from contract immediately.”

“Good story,” Echo says. “Reminds me of a horse I had as a girl.”

Bellows shakes his head, as if to clear Echo’s comment. “Not a year later,” he says, turning to me, “this Napier would offer to brawl his own mother if she so much as over-salted his eggs. So what does suffering really teach us?”

“Napiers, all of us,” I say.

“Less than a century ago,” Bellows says, “we traipsed the moon for the pure hell of it.” He squints at me, my nakedness, as if I’m to blame for the world, such as it has become.

Rivera finally abandons his seat, dumping the chess set with a loose knee. He staggers out to the treeline, doubles over, and vomits bad deer meat and steeped tobacco into the wind.

Gleer has already resituated the chess board and a few of the pieces when Rivera returns. He crosses his tiny legs and leans back in his seat.

“Hurry up, please,” Gleer says. “It’s time we get down to business.”

It’s so quiet I can hear my stomach puzzling over its rotten meal.

“We’re feeling the pinch,” Gleer says, “and our hawk of a governor wants proof of combat before he’ll pay any more bounty.”

“What proof?” Rivera says, wiping his brow.

“Ears and noses, Rivera. Back to the dark years. Not that we hold any grudge against your Reclusive Fifth. Hell, I remember the prosperous times, when we all used to get drunk and hunt rabbits by the moonlight and report that as battle. But that was high cotton. If it comes between starving my troops or fighting you, then I’ve got to fight you.”

They schedule the battle for the following Saturday. A consummate gentleman, Gleer allows Rivera to choose the terrain. I should’ve known he’d choose the old ruined lot at Crater Lake. Rivera asks if Gleer’s soldiers have ample weapons and supplies. Gleer thanks him and promises that his troops are a proud bunch who’ll make do with what they’ve got.

It’s quiet among the mountain firs and pines, and as we wind up into higher climes, the months seem to reel backward. The air feels thinner, cooler, the low-flung valleys still dusted with snow. We stop in the early evening to make camp and complete our prep work for Saturday, and when I’m finished with that, I stretch out under a thin spine of mountain sunlight and sleep. I wake to find Echo weeping quietly and coaxing a very dead-looking bird to fly. I drape an arm around her and cover Pickles’ tiny body with my overcoat.

“She’s gone, Echo.”

“She’s feeling better now,” she whispers, rocking back and forth. “She’s feeling better.”

We lose our way along the mountain roads, and when we finally meet Gleer’s company, it’s nearly noon. High time for a battle. A sizeable mob has assembled to witness the skirmish. Several spectators sit behind canvases fashioned from paper or tautened animal skins. They stoop with paintbrushes poised, ready to capture for posterity’s sake whatever stirs their sympathies. A few Cumberland grunts walk over to shake hands with us and whistle at our weapons. I can’t help staring out past the ruins of the old lodge, where the ridge gives way to the crater—that vast terrestrial canker. Rivera’s eyes keep sweeping toward the caldera, but he’s neither surprised nor thrilled to see it.

The two colonels briefly debate the ordering, then we divide into our respective ranks. I scan the eastern skies, still hopeful for that great cataclysm, but there’s only wide blue space and a few wispy clouds. There’ll be no escaping—not by running scared, not by divine holocaust. It’s battle again. True battle.

Cumberland proves hungrier in the early rounds. Several of our soldiers incur heavy blows to the head and collapse. The surviving Cumberland soldiers bend down to hew their prizes, but Gleer waves them off.

“Not till the battle’s over,” he says. “Be respectful for Christ’s sake.”

When my turn comes, I gather up my rifle and stand alongside Echo and Rivera. Arthur and Clyde watch from the far side of the lot, laughing and grinning at us. Arthur scrapes his boot against the ground like an enraged bull, posturing for the journalists.

Combat itself works somewhat independently of its participants. Few civilians understand the sense of mechanical impersonality. I’m still burdened with a sort of dull will to survive, but that can be suppressed. I’ve cobbled together a foolproof plan: I only keep three rounds in the rifle’s magazine, and there’s no chance in hell I can mark either man from such a distance. Besides, who’d begrudge an old fucker like me for missing his shot?

Arthur charges forward, blade raised, and catches a round in the shoulder. He spins a sloppy pirouette and flops to the ground. I figure one of his comrades must’ve fired at him by mistake, but none of them is aiming in his direction. I cycle the breech and let the barrel drift over to Clyde. I let the barrel drift well past Clyde, in fact, but the shot slaps into his thigh and he stumbles headlong into the dust. I drop the rifle and listen as the fallen men curse me.

“Pathetic!” I say.

Echo fends off advancing soldiers with a scattergun, wincing with every pull of the trigger. Even at her advanced age, she’s a precise shot. She sends Bellows hopping away with only a few toes missing. He seems greatly relieved, keeps turning back to tip his hat at her.

I stand there and I wait, but no one bothers to kill me. Clyde and Arthur lay prostrate, harmless as worms. They’ll probably live on to terrorize more civilians. No doubt they’ll even reshape the battle in its retelling, make themselves heroes. But campfire stories can’t save their colonel. Gleer and Rivera trade shots. Both men settle down drunkenly beneath a layer of violet smoke.

The firing dies immediately as soldiers from both sides gather around the two fallen colonels. The Battle of Crater Lake is already being scribed into history by way of a few melodramatic oil renderings. It’s an unspoken rule that when just one high-ranking officer suffers a critical wound, the battle is finished. I stand and watch, claimed in full by neither life nor death. To be honest, I’m not even winded.

We lay Rivera on a broken stone wall overlooking the sheer drop hundreds of feet down into the crater and the lake it contains. The water isn’t blue anymore, if it ever was. It’s darker than Gleer’s tea, and choked with pond scum. Through my spyglass I scan the shores, where plastic bags and bottles mass like a fleet of dead jellyfish. Crude shanties stand among the perimeter firs. One child nets the shallows for fish, while paces away a smaller child voids his or her bowels. As Rivera promised, Wizard Island still commands the near side of the lake, the defoliate volcanic cone skirted with stubble where the timberline would’ve been.

“You still think I’m naïve to love a place like this,” Rivera says, eyes fixed somewhere above my head. “But what is it that you love, Clark?”

There’s no answer to a question like that, so Echo and I stand there toweling the sweat from his brow as he dies. Echo looks paler than usual. Her fatigues are stained pink, but she insists it’s not her blood. Young soldiers walk over to pay their last respects to the colonel, who’s still conversing with them as Echo and I turn for base camp. Almost immediately, I feel compelled to walk back and apologize. I want to tell Rivera that I respect his desire to die somewhere beautiful. I want him to know that I’ve always envied his fascination with natural wonders—the creeks and craters.

Echo collapses before I can turn back. I figure she’s just sick with grief over Rivera, but finally she tugs open her tunic to show me her torso—a mess of blood and threshed fabric. Knife wounds, by the look of her. I’ve seen enough field trauma over the years to know that she won’t survive. Even so, I dress her injuries and stroke her hair while she glares at the distant upheavals of earth and sky.

“I’m just not as quick as I used to be,” she says.

“You’re okay,” I say, my voice uncertain.

“I hope I come back as a madrone,” she says.

An afternoon thunderhead drags over the caldera’s far rim, coughing dry thunder swells. The sun grieves low over the ridge, casting ugly reflections on the water. I hope it’ll tilt over the ridge and roll down into the crater, boiling the lake water with a sustained hiss, melting all that unforgiving rock into a smooth glass bowl that seals me beneath its surface. I want that righteous cataclysm we’ve been promising ourselves for so long. Mostly, I want to forget.

I’ve overseen the burial rites of countless fallen comrades but this time I just can’t seem to clear the fog. We soldiers have very little to say, and the artists and spectators have all gathered their easels and gone. Nothing left but a field of shoddy grave markers and a lone coyote waiting to uncover its spoils. I stare over those burial mounds for a long time, watching lavender ripple in the breeze, trying its best to overpower the smell of iron and burnt powder.

In the morning I wake to find my fellow soldiers assembled outside my tent. Samuel commands point position. They’ve been eyeing my valuables for a long time. We all know I’m the last of a dead legion.

“Glad it’s you,” I tell Samuel. “Just make it quick, and promise you won’t spend it all on poker and whores.” I wink at him and point to the cache of gold I keep inside my tent.

Samuel shakes his head as if he’s embarrassed. He says on account of remarkable bravery, I’ve been elected Colonel of the Reclusive Fifth by a landslide majority. I keep waiting for him to admit it’s all a joke. He doesn’t budge.

My inheritance includes an envelope filled with Echo’s sketches. Most of them detail mountain landscapes or random birdlife. Her renderings make the world look more majestic than it really is, but they help me remember some of the places we’ve seen. Maybe they’ll help keep a part of her around—the part that would’ve refused despair and focused on living.

As Colonel, I march our Reclusive Fifth high into the mountains where no one travels. Each night we watch the dark valleys take shape, their contours revealed by soft yellow lights. I wonder whose hands tend those delicate lights. When I try to imagine civilians, all I can think of is the terror in the eyes of that unlucky fisherman.

Weeks pass uncounted. Some nights I spot the light of a lantern winding up the mountains. I convince myself that such a light must belong to Arthur and Clyde. Their shame will drive them to find me and kill me. The sky will be dull and gray on the morning they stalk our smoldering campfire, the perimeter littered with war bounty and the dog-eared pages of Echo’s sketchbook. Silas will shake his reins and I’ll roll over just in time to catch the flash of Arthur’s single lens, or the flick of a well-honed blade. It’s only a matter of time.

I ask Samuel if he believes people get what they deserve. He recounts a childhood spent stealing empty milk jars from the last of Tillamook’s dairies and selling them off to the moonshiners. He says one rancher got wise, came out spraying buckshot and vowing macabre revenge as Samuel peeled away on his bicycle. With a wry grin, Samuel lowers his pants to reveal the unfinished constellation of lead interred in his buttock.

“Ran into him years later at the town market,” Samuel says. “I’d been living in fear of the things he’d do to me, but he didn’t know me from the next guy.” There’s something close to disappointment in Samuel’s voice.

I ask him what he thinks about Echo and Rivera, and he says that if anything, they enjoyed some of the more dignified deaths he’s seen this year, military or civilian. “We should be so lucky,” he says, rubbing his wasted paunch.

The nights grow cooler and I totter in and out of dreams like something cobbled from driftwood. Scouts on night patrol return with wild tales of strange people and unfamiliar towns, rich food smells, old forests set ablaze with carnival lights. They’ve seen the shapes of improbable creatures loping past those lights and trumpeting their calls, and they’ve reconnoitered old highways trafficked with caravans of fire and light. Faint melodies swing up from the valley, jaunty tunes that somehow drag with them old scents that I remember from childhood—traces of trampled hay and hot buttered popcorn. We sway in time and sing along tunelessly, stomachs keening. For too long, we’ve fed on thinned rations and meager greens that spring from the mountains like apologies. No one ever complains or questions me, but we all know we’re starving to death.

Samuel’s story leaves me restless. Arthur and Clyde should’ve killed me by now, and I worry that maybe they’ve forgotten. What’s become of the world in our absence? What do people down in the valleys have to say about the war? Do they even remember?

Seems like a terrible thing to forget.

Another sun smothers itself against the mountains and the star fields strike their familiar patterns. For dinner, we boil a pot of hairy and bitter-tasting mountain weeds. When they’re finished eating, the soldiers occupy themselves by cradling their aching bellies and staring down at the valley lights.

After lights out, I spend a long time charting an imaginary path down the ridge. Such an easy maneuver, a short gravity-chug down the mountain. But how will the people in the valley receive us? A hero’s welcome? Summary execution by Cumberland radicals? I tiptoe the campsite’s perimeter, smiling for the first time in months, my heart expanding as I watch over the sleeping camp.

“Come sunrise,” I whisper, “we make for the valley.”

{ X }

NICKALUS RUPERT spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 2015, he completed an MFA fellowship at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a first-year PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction appears in PANK, The Pinch, Tin House‘s The Open Bar, WhiskeyPaper, Blue Monday Review, and elsewhere.

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