St. Mary's College of Maryland

The Mulberry Tree magazine is published by St. Mary's College of Maryland, Maryland's public honors college for the liberal arts and sciences. It is produced for alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, the local community, and friends of the College.

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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
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Cont'd from The Tide King by Jen Michalski:

***

They set the pup tent over an abandoned trench that they could roll into if any funny business found its way to the camp. They laid boot to head. Stanley was a kicker. It was easier if Johnson fell asleep first.

“Read me something from your book.” Johnson laid his arms across his stomach. When they’d first started the whole bloody business, in Africa, he’d seen a soldier trying to hold in his intestines after getting shot, a slippery pink worm pulsing out between his fingers.

“Read it yourself.”

“I’m tired. What’s it about?”

“Well, every book Tom invents something new. So this time, it’s the metalanthium lamp.”

“Metalanthium lamp? What the hell is that?”

“It’s a device that emits these rays that can heal the sick and bring people back from the dead.”

“Sounds interesting. How does it work?”

“I’m not telling you anymore. You want to find out, you have to read it yourself.”

“I don’t have time to read.” Johnson rolled over, away from Stanley’s feet. “In case you didn’t notice, there’s a war on. Why are you carrying a children’s book, anyway?”

“My mother bought it for me when I was a boy.”

“Couldn’t you have brought something more useful?”

But Stanley had fallen asleep, his snoring choked with hot, dusty mountain air. The sound reminded Johnson of the clogged carburetor on a motorcycle he’d fixed up one summer in Ohio. At night, his own mind churned. The war had been hard to swallow. He did not know what he had expected, but he had not expected this. The exhaustion. The hollow fear—fear so intense it burned a hole through you and left you hollow. The walking. They walked along ridges and through valleys for miles and miles, up and up on roads that lead to little towns full of rock and cement houses in which lived Italians with gaunt, piercing eyes who begged for candy or sugar and cigarettes and mostly had nothing because the Germans had taken everything.

The Italian women were attractive. Sometimes he would look at them as they took his chocolate rations, their long olive necks the soft fruits of their lips, and he wanted to lay with one on the ground. Not anything sexual, although he always thought of that. He wanted to lay on the ground with one to feel her heart through her chest with his fingers, the pulse of a vein on her neck, the soft skin on the underside of her arm, to remember what it felt like, the warmth of living skin, the soft quiet of humanity in measured breaths. The skin on the dead looked like rubber, and he did not understand the difference, the living, the dead. So many had died, men in little piles, only boys, really, their limbs thrown about like tire irons, hoses, their mouths open where something had taken flight. If they could all only go on living, with quiet pulses in their necks, wrists, little bird chirps. If no one had to die, except the very old.

Sometimes it got so bad, the need to touch, he wanted to hold Stanley. He thought of waking him up and asking for the book, to take his mind off things. But he was too tired to even open his mouth. He thought of Spanish galleons instead. For some reason he imagined that they were gold like coins and flew across the ocean. But for one to take you home, you would have to die.

Johnson guessed that was fair.