Our Sleeping Children
By Timothy Yang
The greatest silences are those of the heart, when it gives up, stops. The cavernous silence where a regular, comforting pulse used to be. The silence becomes overwhelming and unbearable, to the point of pain – very much like a dull ache in the bones, a fever that will not abate. Silence is like being in a darkened room, and not daring to say a word in case you wake a child up. But it is in those very silences, where there seems to be nothing, when only emptiness remains – that's when you can see the shape of your heart. When you learn what used to be in it, what used to fill it. Only when it becomes quiet and silent, do you actually hear what was said to you. And what you have to say.
I had left my wife behind, at home, as my unit was mobilized. She had seen me off at the airbase, tearing a little. We had hugged, and kissed, but there had been an awkward silence between us, as if the both of us were screaming at each other at the same time, and neither wanted to hear anything the other was saying. Don't get me wrong, I love my wife, and I knew she loved me. Some of my friends had their families throw a little farewell party for them, with sparklers and flags, others had teary, emotional, elaborate goodbyes and promises to return. My wife had simply put up a hand, and then clutched at her mouth. I saw a little redness in her eyes. I had simply waved, and turned away. I stared at the smooth black tarmac all the way to the plane.
The tarmac that filled my eyes soon turned into the brown, dusty, broken roads of the Middle East. We were scouring the empty streets of Baghdad, a Humvee patrol with a detachment of four men. I was leading it. It was dry and dusty, and we dragged our feet, shuffling like doomed men as we tried to keep wary and alert, but the hot afternoon sun just lulls you into lethargy and all you want to do is hide underneath the shade, take off your helmet, pull your cap over your eyes and sleep. Our rifles weighed us down and we became acutely aware of everything on our body, especially the chafing between our legs as we trudge on, our shoulders slumped under the oppressive sunshine, under a cloudless sky.
I tried to keep my eyes open for the enemies that could be around us, when I caught sight of a single white feather slowly floating down to earth, tracing a graceful spiral. I paused in midstep, entranced by it, and I thought to myself – a dove feather. It probably wasn't. It floated, and bobbed, not wanting to fall, and trying to rise, but light as it was, it could not escape the inexorable pull of gravity. It fell before me, arcing through the silence.
Then chaos came and swept us up in a fury – starting with a familiar whistle and then an explosion, and then the ringing in my ears was maybe worse than the silence I was enduring.
I radioed in for backup, amidst ordering the men to find cover. We scattered like frightened rats, jumping into the low ditch that lined the road, or dashing round the corner of the next building. The Humvee was in full retreat, reversing down the street as the gunner laid down suppressing fire with his MG. We scanned the buildings, the windows – it was a nightmare, fighting an entrenched enemy in buildings full of civilians. Where had the rocket come from? Were more to come? A fool-hardy private stuck his head up to improve his visual field. I yelled at him to get down, but it was too late.
Hi head disappeared in red spray, as tongues of flame leapt at us from the windows. Looking down at his dead body, I thought - this was a boy who had dreamed and lived and loved. He had a photo of girlfriend in her bikini that he would show around in the locker-room, he had parents who would recieve a letter and a flag. But in the emptiness that was my heart, I felt no more for him than a twinge of regret that I had lost a man on a mission. I was vaguely repulsed by my callousness. My mind could not afford to dwell on the private anymore - I could smell the hot steel, feel the sting of broken bricks on my cheek. We had paid the price in blood, but the enemy had given his position away, and I radioed in for an air-strike on his location. There was another whine and explosion, as our cover was rocked by another rocket. Dust and blood covered my face, and stung my eyes as I willed them open to keep assessing the situation. I thought to myself, any other men would have been curled up in fear, but not me, not my men – not Marines. It was funny that I was having such patriotic thoughts, but I thought it was important that I had to keep alive, at least for my men's sake. I had already lost one.
But keeping alive? What for? So I could return to the silence?
I told my men to stay put, and watch their backs and the building with the enemy. We heard the coming thunder of the air-force, then the heavens broke and fire fell from the sky, with a mighty roar and the building in which the enemy hid erupted into a blanket of flame. The roar of the explosion sucked the breath right out of you, and turned the area into a furnace. Even though we took refuge behind shelter, our bones were still reverberating from the force of the attack, our exposed flesh cooked-red and raw, and I secretly felt elated and dismayed at the same time, wondering if there had been any civilians in the building, and then mentally shrugging my shoulders as I told myself that if they had been harbouring the enemy – that made them the enemy, too.
After the devastation came the silence. The building was flattened, a heap of debris that reminded me of a parody of installation art. After retrieving the dead body of our fallen comrade, we prodded through the rubble and the smoke when the fires had died down, when there was nothing left to burn, half-heartedly, looking for survivors, to make sure the enemy was well and truly dead. Their broken bodies were partially vaporized, and only steaming corpses and mangled bodies remained, in grotesque poses that would remain long in our mind even after this was all over. A piercing wail cut through the air and broke the numbing silence in my mind. I nodded to a trooper to check it out.
"It's a child, sarge!" He called out to me. "Looks pretty badly hurt. I should just put it out of its misery." He cocked his weapon.
A child. I walked over to the young, belligerent private. He was right. The child was covered in soot and dust and blood, one eye opened, the other caked shut. He had a mop of short, curly, black hair. Whatever remained of his clothes were in tatters, he cradled his arm limply as he curled up and screamed, and screamed and screamed. For his parents, for his friends, for his home. He screamed, like my ears had never heard before. He screamed in anguish, in pain, in loneliness, in fear.
He screamed for all of us, for all humanity – for all our sins, for our deeds, for the blood we've spilt. We were frozen to the spot, transfixed by his wailing, all except one.
"God, it's annoying the hell out of me!" The private raised his weapon, and I put my arm out to stop him. "But Sarge!" He whined, as he put his weapon back on safety.
I saw the child looking at me, through his one good eye. He had stopped screaming for the moment. What came over me next, I still do not know. Guilt, perhaps? It was like the feeling you get, that tug on the sleeve when a child wants something from you but you're too busy with your own thing to pay attention to him – that sort of guilt, the sort you just drown out, because if you don't, you wouldn't get anything accomplished. This was one of the times I paid attention to it, I guess. I knelt in front of him and picked him up from the rubble, very carefully, like cradling a new-born child. In essence, he was new-born – born out of fire, a single life amidst the death surrounding him. He looked hurt bad, and I nodded to my 2IC, who had been with me since the beginning, and was already radioing for a medevac.
Back at the base, we took our showers and I stood under the cool water for ages, and I closed my eyes, imagining I was back home in Idaho, and it was the first shower of spring – I had run out with my girlfriend into the rain, laughing and shouting and clapping, and both of us were topless. I watched her smile and the sun beams caught her hair and turned it into a golden halo, and then where sun met rain, I saw a fleeting rainbow. I told her so, and she laughed, saying I was mad, that I was drunk. Perhaps I was, in those days, but not drunk on spirits but we were drunk with happiness, and I thought my heart would burst –
Then I was toweling myself dry, just listening to the boys brag and joke. They say that being in a war, being close to danger, that's when you feel the most alive. I could see that was true for some of the boys here. They were strangely exuberant, happy even, although they complained and they hated it, and they wanted to go home. But I had heard stories of guys who went home and all they wanted to do was to come back to the dust, to the blood, to the war – where they had felt most alive. I looked at the photo of me and my wife – I had married the girl from the field in Idaho, and we looked back at me, smiling, our eyes twinkling. I put it back in the locker, into the dark, and closed it.
After I had changed, I idly wondered how the child we had rescued was doing, and soon found myself in the medical center. I suddenly decided I'd rather not know, and just forget about it, but it was too late to go away. I heard a familiar scream, muted, but still loud and long. The wailing went on, and on and would not cease, and everybody who walked by was muttering something about the damned racket, and trying to escape it. I headed towards it.
I wandered into the ward. It smelt of medicine and death and stale urine, and the nurses and doctors flustered around the wounded. There was a small commotion at the back, where the screaming came from. I found myself in the midst of them, and I made eye-contact once more with the little Arab boy with the mop of curly black hair, who was now cleaned up and bandaged – there was large bandage over his arm, and another over his eye, and another over his chest and side – tubes came out of him, but he trashed and screamed and would not stay quiet. The nurses tried to soothe him, and shushed him, and they shouted at him, but he kept right on, and I could see the other patients losing their patience. Then I made eye-contact with him, and the screaming stopped, and the boy started sobbing and murmuring.
"Finally, you managed to sedate the kid?" A nurse asked another.
"No," She looked curiously back. "I was about to, but I haven't yet - "
The child stretched out his arms, weakly, towards me. The nurses looked at me. "Well, I never! Go on, Sergeant, he seems to like you!" They gently nudged me in front. "Don't be afraid, his bark is larger than his bite!" They all laughed. I resisted still. "He's only a little boy, don't tell me a big marine like you is afraid of him! He can't be more than three or four years old!" I took a step forward.
Then I scooped him up, out of the bed, and cradled him to my chest. The boy seemed at peace. I felt at peace, strangely, just holding him, rocking him gently. The nurses found an easy chair for me to sit by the bed, and I just held him. One came up to me and passed me a teddy bear that had a bandage around its head, just like the boy – and told me, "It's for the little kid, for when he wakes up." An older nurse grabbed her arm and whispered something into her ear, and she looked a little uncomfortable. "Oh," She said, "Well, keep it anyway. Just in case." I took the bear with my free hand, and passed it to the boy.
He seemed to like it, and hugged it as he fell asleep on my shoulder. A doctor approached me, out of the tangle of nurses. "I hear you're the guy who found the boy. Looks like he's taken to you." I nodded. "Don't get too attached." The doctor told me, suddenly turning serious. "He's in bad shape. He's a fighter, and he's struggling to live, but he lost quite a bit of blood. His lungs were badly burnt in the explosion, so his breathing is pretty compromised, it's killing him. Just breathing is painful beyond description, that's what's making him scream like that. I don't expect him to last the night." He looked at me gravely. "So don't get too attached, alright, Sergeant? He could go any time."
I nodded. The doctor patted me on the shoulder, and left me to be alone with the boy.
That's what I've done, mostly. Nodding in acknowledgement. I don't have the words for anything else. I looked at the child, and he seemed – smaller than he should, diminished. When he was screaming he had looked a lot larger. A lot scarier. But he was just a child. Would I ever know his name? I'm not sure. I don't think I even needed to know. To know his name – that would've made him a person, someone who would matter. If he was someone who would matter, that would mean I killed him, didn't I? With my little radio. I wondered what he would say or do if he knew we had killed his family, and probably him too. Then I looked down at him, again, and I stopped trying to feel guilty for just doing what I had to do. It was stupid, trying to feel guilty for the sins of a nation. We are but blunt tools of war. That dull ache in my chest wasn't guilt – it was something else, I knew then. Because here he was, asleep on my shoulder, peaceful like a little cherub with a mop of curly black hair.
My wife was asleep, her head resting on my chest as we rested. I couldn't sleep, then, as I lazily ran my hand through her golden locks. Her hair smelt so good. I loved the smell of her hair. I imagined that she could feel the rise and fall of my chest against her cheek, and I could feel her breath against my skin. Our breathing was perfectly synchronized. In my other hand, I held a pregnancy test kit. I held it up, and it caught the moonlight that had filtered in through the window and framed my wife's beauty, and I could see two strips for positive.
The nurses had left us now, after changing his IV and making sure I was comfortable. The ward was getting less busy as the day drew to a close. The other patients had visitors. I watched them flit about, smiling, exchanging pleasantries. Laughing, talking, joking. They said, get well soon. Most of them would. The hustle and bustle of the ward took my mind away for awhile, and I watched their little dramas, their little private lives unfurl – their stories – their pains, their hopes – and I cradled mine against my shoulder.
I must've held him for hours, because the ward was very quiet now. It was getting dark, and silent. The boy was awake now, breathing shallowly, gasping quietly in anguish, but quietly, and I was just looking at him, studying his dark, Arabic features. His button nose, his black hair. This was a child someone had loved – many had loved. This was a child who would grow up to love. He would love greatly. I knew if he made it, he'd turn out to be an Arabic lady-killer, tempting them out of their burkhas. He seemed to be studying me too. I don't know what he saw – my eyes had lost their sparkle – oh, I wouldn't say that I had seen too much death in this war, but I had seen death – my cheeks were hollow – they used to be full and colourful, in the pictures that were stored away in that little dark locker. My teeth were yellowed by incessant smoking. I only started recently. But his eyes saw into my heart, and I knew he knew I wasn't all there – my heart had given up. It stopped.
The waiting room was silent, and the doctor had left me. I entered the hospital room. My wife was very still on the bed, and I stood at door, looking at her. She saw me come in, and she turned away, looking out of the window. A nurse who was busying herself with the drip finished her job and I moved aside to let her out. It was only three steps to the bed, but each step seemed to last a life time, mine, hers, and – it would have been his – I sat beside her, looking at her, not knowing what to say in the silence that greeted me. In that Idaho field, in the spring rain, as we collapsed to the soft grass together, I had known exactly what to say, and my wife had laughed, and said that I always talked too much. So not knowing anything else to say, I said it again, and then I put my head on her chest.
The words of a Simon and Garfunkel song that my mom used to play came to me, a song from my childhood, when I was a little boy, about the same age as the one that was in my arms. I had lost my favourite toy, a tiny teddy bear, Super Ted, I called him. He would have grand adventures in the house. I had brought him out one day, to the farmers market, and in the crowd and commotion, I had lost my mother. When we were reunited, by the security boys, I realized I couldn't find Super Ted anymore, and I screamed, and screamed and screamed. Back home, my mother soothed me, as I laid my head on her shoulder. Cradling me, she hummed along to that Simon and Garfunkel song as it played on the radio, and I still remembered the words.
I can hear the soft breathing of the girl that I love, and I watch as her chest gently rise, gently fall. She looked out of the window. The doctors had said it had been a fighter, but it hadn't had a chance. They had told me this, outside the maternity ward, while I was looking at the freshly-born babies through the observation window. They were pink and fresh and raw, swathed in white. They were so small and with their tiny limbs, their large heads, they reminded me of the teddy bear I had lost. As I watched the babies, felt the doctor's hand on my shoulder, I brought a knuckle up to my mouth as I bit down on it. My reflection in the observation window stared numbly back at me, wet-eyed as I sucked in my sobs. I saw our reflection in the window of the hospital room, my wife and I. The sun was glaring oppressively, and there was not a cloud in the sky. My wife whispered to me. "Draw the curtains, please, dear," she said.
It was under a cloudless sky I had met the boy in my arms. I had saved him from the explosions, I had killed him with fire and I had saved him from being shot. I stroked his mop of curly black hair, gently, like I had stroked my wife's hair that night we discovered she was pregnant. I hummed him the Simon and Garfunkel song that my mother had hummed to me in my childhood. I thought, maybe, in some way, he had killed me and saved me, too.
In the darkened ward, even though my arms grew numb and my feet started to tingle, I didn't dare move, for fear of waking the boy up, partly in fear that he might start screaming and wake the whole ward up. But it was more than that. The teddy bear had fallen to the ground. The child was very still on my shoulder. He hadn't screamed since I started holding him. In fact, I couldn't feel his breathing anymore. I couldn't feel that little heartbeat that had pounded weakly but resolutely against my chest. There was a cavernous silence, where a regular, comforting pulse used to be. He was silent. I didn't stop humming. There had been a dull ache in my chest, ever since I started holding him, like my heart knew something my brain didn't and it didn't want to let on. Now the ache was fading away.
Everything was fading away, like when you stare right up into a cloudless sky when you draw the curtains back and the glare of the sun stares right back at you. The sky goes deeper than the ocean, and when you're just looking at the sky, and nothing else, it's just like you're flying.
Something felt different, something in me felt changed, almost. I felt light. Like a white feather that was slowly rising on a hot air current – escaping into a clear, blue, cloudless sky, becoming one with the sunlight. I tried to understand what was going on in my mind, in my spirit. My eyes became moist, and I could feel tears tracing little paths slowly down my cheeks. A great sense of restfulness and peace came upon me, and I felt very drowsy. I smiled a little at the thought that the nurses would come tomorrow morning and think both of us were dead. In a sense, maybe we both were. As I dropped off to sleep, and it was getting harder to think, I realized - I realized - my heart had stopped screaming.
I dreamt. I dreamt my unit returned home after our tour, and that my wife had greeted me at the airbase. Now that my heart had stopped screaming, I realized exactly what she was saying, and what I had to say. So I said exactly the same thing I said in that Idaho field, and I dreamt that we were back in that field, and the little Arab boy and his mop of curly black hair was with us, and we linked hands and ran in the gentle spring shower and we were all laughing and smiling and I didn't know if it was the rain or tears of happiness that stung our eyes.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009