Authors: Anne Korkeakivi
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For Antti, of course
Â Â Â Again it is peaceful, the valley is silent,
Only the birds and the stream have their noise,
The twittering, bubbling sounds of nature.
Apart from thisâsilence which nothing destroys.
âGeorge Fraser Gallie, 1943
CROWD OF SPARROWS
flies up, peppering the California sky overhead. His heart constricts, and Michael Gannon thinks:
Today is the day I am going to die.
“Look at that cloud,” Luke says, lowering his paintbrush. “It's going to rain.”
“It's not going to rain,” he tells his middle son, struggling to catch his breath. “Don't give up in the home stretch, Luke. Another hour, and the house will be done.”
His heart squeezes; his fingers and jaw stiffen.
You'll be all right, corpsman,
the doctor at Letterman told him, signing his release sixteen years ago. There were more than seventy thousand of them moving through Letterman Army Hospital in Frisco that year.
If you could make it through the Bataan march and three years in the hands of the Japs, you can make it now. You'll be all right.
But heart failure can be a sneaky enemy, quietly waiting to strike the fatal blow. He had plenty of opportunities to see its tricks, barely out of medical school, trying to keep his fellow prisoners alive in the Pacific. People say it's the brain that keeps you aliveâ
Give up, and you are done for
âbut who is to say that the will doesn't have its home in the heart? And if that heart just won't function?
He climbs carefully down the ladder and leans his back against a panel that has dried. All he and the boys have left is a bit of trim around four windows and under an eave, and the paint should be good for another ten years. Last December, he finished paying off the mortgage.
At least, this.
Death no longer flits overhead, waiting to brush his neck with its frigid fingers, to breathe its mortal fog into his mouth. He left death behind on an island in the Pacific and then on a cot in Letterman hospital. He is strong now. Tomorrow, with the painting done, the kids will dye the eggs for Easter. He'll put the crib back up for the new baby. Barbara will bake a coconut cake to have ready for Easter dinner. Life will continue, as it should do.
The pain is becoming heavier, pressing down against his throat and clavicle. If this is the real thing, the sooner he can get help the better his chances.
Give in, though, and it's as good as giving up.
“Dad,” Mike Jr. says, peering sideways at him from atop the stepladder, paintbrush poised in midair. “Are you okay? You look a little funny.”
He slides down against the side of the building into a crouch. No. He has lived through so much. Nothing can beat him. He won't let it. Heâ
*Â Â *Â Â *
. He keeps his head down. Any untoward movement, any sign of weakness, any act of petition elicits a bark in Japanese, a bayonet flashing. He will not think of Hughes or D'Auteuil, lying in the dirt a few miles back. He will think of the living. He will think
living. He focuses on the Filipino dust, the detritus of other men who have trod before him along this hellish road up the Bataan peninsula. His socks have worn through, his feet blistering inside his ruined boots. The last halt they were given, he used a sharp stone to remove the leather over his toes, a rude sandal. Now pebbles and dried bloodânot his, but from those who couldn't make it, from those who have fallen, from the young blond kid to whom he offered a precious sip from his canteen but too late, the boy fell to his knees, and then the
ran up, shoutingâ¦âencrust his feet. He takes what is left of his shirt off and wraps it around his head.
Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
He is but mud, but filth, but hunger.
The trick is to set goals. The abandoned cart ahead. That distant banana grove.
The flies are thick, big as hummingbirds, heavy with the refuse of human carcasses. Waves of them, and then the mosquitoes. He wants to slap at them, to slap the sun, to slap away the sound of men pleading, grunting, moaning. But he can barely move one foot in front of the other.
The fever returns, waves of it, hot and then cold, racking his body, a heavy pendulum swinging in and out of the Ice Age, knocking the fiery center of the earth from one side of his frame to the other. A thousand porcupine quills tipped with burning then freezing poison penetrate his neck, his back, his groin, his calves. A dark murky burning wash pours over him, like swimming through phosphorus.
The world is melting off his face, sliding down his nose, cheeks, neck, shoulders.
His mouth swells so thick and sticky it almost chokes him.
Water. Please, God, water.
screams at him, pointing.
A trough of river, shallow and oily and littered with limbs attached to lifeless bodies. He descends as directed, lowers his face into the wet, pushes a corpse away. His body shakes with revulsion and pleasure. The water, the water. He dunks his canteen in swiftly. The
shouts at him from the bank above, and he reaches for the bobbing helmet he's been sent down to salvage.
There he is, his reflection looking up at his self.
Climb out of here. Climb up those banks and keep on climbing.
Breathe, stay calm, pray. Believe God does whatever he does for a reason.
*Â Â *Â Â *
His heart doubles over.
He relaxes into the pain, as he learned to do in the Pacific, tossed from one POW camp to another, fed little more than a small ball of dirty infested rice a day, his body riveted with disease. As he learned to do in order to survive.
A veil of sweat breaks out along his hairline.
“Dad?” Mike Jr. repeats.
“Just need a sec, buddy,” he manages. “Hot.”
“Do you want something to drink, Daddy?” Patty Ann says, stepping out of the kitchen door, pink pedal pushers poking out from beneath her mother's apron. Her dark ponytail shines in the sunlight. “Mommy and I made lemonade.”
“That would be swell, sweetheart,” he says, forcing his tongue to cooperate. Patty Ann, his precious first child, his only daughter.
And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself
But his heart muscle presses down against his rib cage, hard, harder.
And then, just as suddenly, it releases.
His breath frees. The heaviness vanishes.
“Fresh lemonade!” Barbara says, stepping out the kitchen door now, the old white pitcher in her hand. Her round belly lifts the apron she is wearing. It won't be long before the new baby arrivesânot more than four weeks. Maybe a second daughter, maybe a fourth boy. They each hope it's another girl. Neither of them says so, but both of them know it.
“Look at Daddy,” Patty Ann says. “I told you he wouldn't mind, that we shouldn't wait until they're all finished. The body is sixty percent waterâjust a loss of one and a half percent already begins to bring dehydration.”
“Thank you very much, Miss Smarty-Pants,” Barbara says, smiling. “Oh, Michael! The house looks so fresh and clean and bright, like a baby chick. And just in time for Easter, like you promised!”
How beautiful she is. His Barbara.
“Why yellow again, Dad?” Luke says.
“Yellow is a nice color for a house,” Barbara says. “A happy color for a happy family.”
“I think yellow is a good color,” Mike Jr. says.
“Yellow is pretty,” Patty Ann says. “Don't you like yellow, Lukie?”
“I never said it wasn't nice,” Luke says. “I was just curious why the same color twice. Why not white? Or blue? I'm just wondering.”
“That's enough, Luke,” Barbara says. “I love the yellow.”
The world suddenly upends itself, spinning.
“It has to be yellow,” he says, dropping his head between his arms.
*Â Â *Â Â *
She's wearing bright red lipstick, a little too old for her, and a crisp yellow dress. Not a nurse but a local girl, volunteering. A very pretty local girl, with shiny dark hair and a round face.
Where you from, soldier?
When the first B-29 flew over Jinsen dropping supply packages, he and the guys burst open the packets of Spam and chocolate bars and sucked out every last sweet drop from the cans of peaches, cans of fruit cocktail, the sticky liquid dripping down their cracked lips into the sores on their necks. Over three years as a prisoner, he'd lost almost one hundred pounds from his six-foot frame. Anything, everything, was like manna. But it wasn't until he was picked up by a transport plane three weeks later and dropped in Honolulu that he could keep a meal down. For another three weeks, the nurses stuffed him with an endless feast of sulfanilamide, Atabrine, pork, and oranges to fight the beriberi, the malaria, the dysentery before sending him on. Then the mainland. This girl.
Does she notice how his bones still press through his shirt, the dry red patches on his skin, the uneven patter of his weakened heart?
Bet you can't wait to get back there. You have a sweetheart waiting for you?
I'm not going back. I'm going to spend the next two years at the University of California in Los Angeles. I joined up the day I finished medical school. But I still have two years to go before I'm a full-fledged doctor.
The touch of her little hand on his shoulder sends sparks all the way down to his bloated ankles. Thank the Lord the swelling in his scrotum has faded.
A doctor! But the University of California in Los Angelesâthat must be expensive.
Uncle Sam's dime.
Is that a fact? Well, Lord knows that's the least we can do for you, after all you boys have been through.
And then corrects herself:
After all you boys have done for us.
She lowers the tray stacked with books and magazines so he can go through them without sitting further up. He takes his time, although he's ready to read anything. The written English language looks as beautiful to him as this girl.
Well, almost. Nothing could be as beautiful as this bright-eyed girl. She is life itself.
She doesn't hurry him. Instead she smiles some more and starts to play at helping him choose.
How about this one?
she says, holding up a copy of
He read it as a boy: a fighting dog, cold, capture. He shakes his head.
She picks up a copy of
magazine with the words
and a girl in a two-piece swimsuit underwater on the cover.
That looks nicer,
She takes a closer look at the cover image and frowns.
No, not this. This looks terrible.
And then she shoots him an even more brilliant smile that lets him know, at least to this beautiful girl, he is by some miracle still whole.
Will you come back again tomorrow?
he asks her.
She frowns for just one brief moment, maybe deciding whether it is worth losing her job or skipping school or whatever coming back tomorrow will cost her.
You bet. I'll come back to see you as often as you'd like me to.
And she does.
Her name is Barbara, and she is nineteen years old, one year out of high school and working as a receptionist. She lives at home alone with her folks; her only brother fell on D-day and is buried in Normandy.
My mother's family is French. So at least in a way he's home,
she tells him, and he understands right away that this is how she survives, that this is the way she has chosen to navigate this world. That she is a girl who will fight to the end, fight to remain cheerful no matter what life throws at her.
That's a good way to think about it,
It's the only way to think about it,
After ten days, he is ready to go outside for a walk. In a light warm drizzle, they stroll through the Presidio to the waterfront.
She leads the way, pointing out the Golden Gate Bridge, Torpedo Wharf, Anita Rock, the yacht club.
We used to come down here most every morning when I was younger. Looking for something to put in the pot.
At the yacht club?
If we'd been that type of people we wouldn't have needed to fish for our supper! But it was okay. We'd go before school and, with the day opening up over the water, I always feltâ¦I don't know, like something good might arrive with all the light.
The edges of her mouth turn up. It's the dearest mouth he's ever seen.
Would you miss it?
he asks, taking her small cool hand in his.
she says, still looking out to sea.
If you married me and moved down to Los Angeles.
She turns to look at him.
she says, her eyes sparkling like the water at their feet.
I wouldn't miss it a bit.
He could kiss her all day, and all night, too, but he doesn't want to make a spectacle of her in public. Not his Barbara. So he kisses her once, just once, and there have been a few other girls, but it's the best kiss he's ever known.
Are you sure you're ready to throw your lot in with an old man like me? Ten days isn't very long to know someone.
He is twenty-six years old, nearly seven years older than she. And being in the war ages a man.
She stretches up onto her tiptoes and kisses him again.
We'll have a lifetime to get to know each other, soldier.
She's been in the war, too. Not in the same way, but still.
*Â Â *Â Â *
“Michael?” Barbara says, holding a glass of lemonade out toward him. “Everything okay?”
His head is still light, his arms feel strange, uncomfortable, but the pain hasn't returned. Maybe this attack, whatever it was, is passing.
“I'm the one who is supposed to be asking you that,” he says, working to keep his voice even. If he were to lay his hand on her belly, he would sense the heartbeat of his fifth child. For that he doesn't need his stethoscope.