Naomi Long Eagleson is the author of a chapbook, Radiant Field, and has published poems in Arts & Letters, Tinfish Journal, and Manoa. She is a graduate of the University of Hawaii and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and works as a book editor in Los Angeles.
In the dark, I notice a voice: fragrant, meditative, embedded with thorns, a guest here as I am. Sweat steams from bodies, from heated stones. In a circle, a bowl of cool water is passed; prayers toward each of the four directions. His, without desperation, but urgent, as if at an end. Or, at a beginning. Is there a Creator? Are words—all words—nothing? Perhaps walls are made solely to absorb what cannot be contained. A burning. Inside a hollow bone.
When we are fully clothed and recovered, his voice no longer urgent, but tired, he tells me I’m naive, that I hide. Because I kept my clothes on? I say. He shrugs. Who are you? I ask. He turns his gaze toward mine, replies: There is much to tell. Walking together, we wind down the black road. Our steps unsettle a detritus of tales. Inside the house, before anything, before even feeling, he asks me to marry him. Why, I answer. Because I kept my clothes on?
At night, chilled with stars, he tells me his stories. As if, by confessing, he absolves the past. Convinces the ghosts, clamoring around him, to depart. As if the exact magnitude of exile can be measured. In words. In miles of empty roadway. We pause—briefly—at rest stations. Crude configurations drawn in the dust, swept away by morning. Or by strong winds, enraged by our presence. As if, as if we really mattered.
Like jaguars. We lived under cover, he says. We hunted, lit small fires, made love on damp forest beds. Never foreseeing who would die. Or when. It was agreed. If the enemy found you alone, you pulled the pin. We’d hear an explosion. The echo of falling debris. Wonder who, among us, was missing. We didn’t keep our distance. To make losing easier. As if any loss would be easy. I’d climb into a ditch, find the body of the man I just shot. Bend close. See my twin face lying there. The same smooth brown skin and bird-like nose. The same curly black hair. But the worst, the night that convinced me to leave: We had been walking for days. Nearly a hundred of us. Fell, exhausted, under the trees. As we lay dreaming, there came the whip of helicopter blades, the thud of shells, bullets more numerous than the rain. Out of ninety-five. Only myself. And one other. To count our losses. To bury our dead.
He continues: I fled north, across the border, towards the sea. There, I led a life, bare and elemental. Without clothes or meat or human company. All day, I painted. Canvas after canvas thick with raw remembrances. Then slept deeply, dreamlessly, on the floor. After a year, spent with images, I sat on the roof under a dim mural of stars, the moon slim and impatient. I was caught inside a decision. To remain in seclusion. Or to go. This time, away from the past, from the violent misuse of my hands.
At the heart of an old world: seven healing pools, seven virtues. We immerse nightly, slip from eye to eye, pond snakes greedy for restoration. Others float past, bellies like bloated islands. I lie back against a sheet of luminous water, sink into a shallow depression. Steamy ribbons exhale from my skin. Then two hands pull at my waist, drag my body—back and forth—like something paralyzed. I stare up at his eyes, black stones I cannot enter. That have made a stranger out of him. Out of me.
The Deep below. Heaven above. It is winter, as if always winter. I stand at a convergence. All lines move at once. First, in ordinary tones. Then a change in pitch, a rising. Of two absolute wills. What I don’t foresee, all along you foresaw. Your hands fly at my throat. The cold sea rises over me. For the first time in my life, I can’t breathe. Your eyes. The hot wound behind them. You release your grip, look away. Without apology. Never an apology. Not even in memory.
The war is still inside you, I tell him. He replies, I know. A steep, red mountain looms, fills the windshield, then diminishes into dust. We’re over, I say. He looks out the window, hands on the wheel. I know that, too.
There are men in our lives who have been permanently altered by war. Fathers, brothers, and lovers. They leave for Iraq or Afghanistan as people we thought we knew, and return home as strangers. My father had been a soldier and medic in Vietnam and when he returned to the States, he brought his ghosts with him. They lived with us in our little apartment in Hawaii. They kept him up at night and drove him to drink, until he died of a heart attack thirty years later. He and his fellow vets would swap stories of the war, stories I overheard and absorbed as a child and which slowly and invisibly altered me. By the time I was fifteen, all I wanted was to be a combat photographer. I’d fantasize about walking through war zones and taking photos of the madness and horror unfolding around me. When I imagined myself in these places, I felt at home.
Thankfully, I never took that career route. But years later, while I was living in a small desert town, I met a man who had been a guerilla fighter in a country in Central America. He had been living in exile in the US for ten years. He was in his mid-thirties and working as a muralist. As we traveled the desert in his green RV, he’d tell me stories about his war and his dead. Like my father, he too was haunted. Then one day, during an argument, he snapped, and it was as if the war had returned. And I had become his enemy.
Although more women are fighting in wars, the majority of soldiers are men. When they return home, when their paths cross with ours, their wars become our wars. As wives, sisters, and daughters, we feel for these damaged men; we seek to understand them, and to heal them. But sometimes the violence and paranoia, the axiom of war they practiced out in the field—to kill or be killed—erupts in our living rooms, and the only way we can protect ourselves is to leave. By writing about these men, by recreating their voices in my poems, I can draw close to them while maintaining a safe and necessary distance.