Six Letters from the Sand
You told me once that it was okay to despise what I’d inherited.
That you, too, often felt dead in a city of pulses.
But I’ve never met anybody else who’s as alive as you are.
The kind of life that’s not found with the tips of my fingers pressed to the insides of your wrists.
I’ve always been lost between all that I was and all that I could become.
And you would whisper that sometimes you must fight in order to be free.
You crawled beneath my skin when we were young and never had the good manners to leave.
And when I finally saddle up to those pearly white gates and they turn me away,
Smackin’ a list of all the people I’ve ever put into my crosshairs for you, I’ll still love you.
Even after I fall.
Because I have dreams of it.
I dream about it while I’m pressed into the sand of this forsaken desert, warm to my marrow.
It’s cold and it’s wet, it’s snowing, I’m numb, and I fall.
I fall so far and everything is so white and I scream your name ‘til I hit the bottom.
And I breathe in the sand too sharply and smell all the blood I have on my hands when I wake.
I swear I can feel your heartbeat like an earth tremor beside me though we’re half a universe apart.
I will love you until it kills me in one way or another.
Because you’ll be the one that everyone remembers.
The one they write about in the papers and put into the history books.
They’re gonna talk about you until they run out of things to say.
But I loved you first.
As long as they get that right, I don’t care about the rest.
And I lay out in this heat and I feel it in my core.
I feel it boil my blood, set me on fire from the inside.
Someday I’m gonna bleed out, dry out, in this forsaken desert.
They’ll ship me home in a box, in pieces finer than the sand I soaked red.
I never wrote down my next of kin, didn’t bother to give them a name.
Because the only name I would ever think to put down is yours.
And I would die as many times over as the number of flecks they’ll burn me down to before I let them deliver that box to you.
I’ve written it to you before.
Only I don’t mention my ashes or my dog tags hanging from a box.
Because if I’m coming home it has to be cold.
Snowing, sleeting, hailing, or blizzarding.
I want to be cold in my soul, frost-bitten so badly I’ll wake with the fear of missing toes or fingers.
I want to freeze because I’m so goddamned tired of being warm.
If I’m bitterly cold it will remind me of that dream, about what could have been, what still could be.
It’ll remind me that I’m no better than any other sorry sinner on this planet, damned like all the rest.
Maybe even damned twice over because some people know exactly who they are and what they’re good at.
Math, art, medicine.
I know I’m a killer, stone cold.
Damned once for sticking to my strengths.
And damned twice for ever thinking I was worthy to love you.
I used to tell you it was funny that you were the kid that went to a public school.
And I was the kid that went to a Catholic school.
My father used to say religious education was the only surefire way to break a believer.
I left you at home for a reason, for something that was more than just photographs and letters.
Because I’m selfish and I know you would be right beside me in this sand if I had let you.
But I need something to come back to, if I ever come back at all.
And it doesn’t need to have a roof to be a home.
Not for me.
So long as your arms can still be the best home I’ve ever returned to.
I asked you to stay, wanted you stay, because you still don’t get it.
And you never will, just like you never listened.
Cause you’re curled up beside me now in this goddamn desert,
Sayin’ it’s because things only got worse.
That they needed you over here and anyone else strong enough to serve.
But they don’t need your body, any more than this fight needs your immortal soul.
Because Hell isn’t a fire and brimstone pit beneath our feet.
Hell is here and the world is ugly.
And no number of Hail Mary’s helps me get to sleep at night.
Not with you whom I love so completely here with me instead of staying where you were safest.
While you worry at your grandmother’s cross strung on a chain I bought you for your sixteenth birthday,
I try to think of why I’m so goddamned afraid to die.
It goes something like this:
Hail Mary, full of grace, get her home safe.
And if you have to take someone, then take me.
Because she’s the only thing I’ve got to go home to.
And if saving her means taking someone in her place, you have to do that for me.
Sáncta María, Máter Déi, please save our immortal souls.
But don’t spend too much time on mine because I’ve been damned since the get-go.
Because I’m the Sunshine Patriot.
I’m the one that wants to shrink away from the gun they put in my hands.
The only thing I’ve ever been good with.
I’m the summer soldier.
I’m the one that wants to shrink away from the truth.
And if Tyranny is just like Hell, then I don’t think either one will ever be truly conquered.
Because where do you go if you know the world is headed to Hell?
When you know that only the tyrants make it well for a matter of time.
Maybe it’ll take that fall to make me realize that I could be that cold soldier.
That maybe I’m capable of turning off what makes my breath catch
every time I put someone’s face in my scope.
That maybe I could exhale,
and remind myself it’s for you.
That one less life keeps you safe.
That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
All I’ve ever needed to live on.
Everybody says to tell the truth and everything will be alright.
But the truth never gets any easier to tell and I never feel any cleaner.
It almost feels too clean.
Like I’m made of cellophane and everyone can see right through me.
Read the cracks in my ribs where I fell from a tree trying to help you down.
Read the tears in my muscles where I trained too much,
tried too hard to be strong enough.
I tell the truth and it’s like giving away little pieces of who I am.
All those months ago, when I missed your letter that told me you had enlisted,
when I was dragged through the burning sands and shut away,
waterboarded. Electrocuted. Dissected.
And they promised to spare my life if I gave them everything
I didn’t tell all my truths.
Because even in that damned cave where I knew no one would look,
I needed something that was mine.
Something they couldn’t take away from me.
Four months, nineteen days, six hours, and fifty-two minutes
is the timestamp at the top of all the official paperwork they gave me when I saw daylight again.
And I can tell you that’s the only thing I recognized on that paper.
Because somewhere in that cave I left behind my name.
I left behind my childhood memories.
That process of purposefully stepping in every puddle to avoid them.
I left my life painted across those hollowed walls.
In Basic they taught us a litany to repeat under torture.
Name. Rank. Serial Number.
And I let them have that too.
I spent so long swallowing water into my lungs and screaming my own name to save myself.
But that wasn’t what they’d taken me for.
I tried too hard to be stronger than them.
And after a while I ran out of life to keep screaming.
So I filled my dark days with the thought of you home safe and unaware of this.
You were my quiet secret, my last truth.
I clung to that until some jarhead was sawing at the leather cuffs holding me down.
Even as he carried me out and into the day.
I tell you, that’s the only time I was ever so happy to feel the sun.
I wanted to lay out and bake, hope all the water they poured into me would evaporate, dry me out.
Because the only other option was to freeze.
And I could hardly breathe without someone reminding me to do so.
Without someone telling me that it was okay to try and keep myself alive now.
I spent so long thinking of you, and of drowning, dreaming of falling from frozen white mountains,
that I let them break me and I let them take parts of me that had always been mine.
Even though you’re not mine, you’re all I have left.
And my breath doesn’t catch when I line up my shot now.
Because I’ve never been fond of the sun.
Never liked the idea of thawing out or heating up.
And if every life I take makes me colder, so be it.
If that’s the price, well, then I’ve only ever wanted to freeze.
It’s been three months, it’s September, and they’ve given me something for all the pain.
The roar has been dulled to a static hum.
And the burn smothered under a too-early snow.
Perception drives the reality, the doctor tells me.
The basketball hitting the backboard doesn’t have to be a gunshot.
My blankets getting tangled around my ankles don’t have to be the leather cuffs I wore
for four months, nineteen days, six hours, and fifty-two minutes.
But he doesn’t understand that it’s not the gunshots that get to me.
It’s the feeling of being chained, of being owned, of those cuffs around my wrists and my ankles.
We’re all cut from the same cloth, the shrink reminds me.
But I’m starting to see the point where my reality meets the illusion too cleanly.
And I’m afraid of getting too close.
Of losing myself in the stitching and becoming one with the seam.
Every day I’m discovering what they did to me.
How parts of me drowned every time they held me under.
I’m missing so many pieces now, like a puzzle that can never be finished.
Scream my name and scream my number and scream for whatever life I have left.
I’ve been screaming since they found me and I haven’t stopped quite yet.
And now I understand that when you remove someone’s power to act with reason,
you remove their humanity.
I listen and I reflect on all the reports of the day.
At O-eight hundred an IED takes out three guys returning stateside next week.
A child with a bullet in his brain because he didn’t run is the tragedy of the afternoon.
Private James packed into a copter as the doc says they’ll have to take his leg.
And the pangs I once felt a little to the right and beneath all the bone don’t come.
Not even when they talk about a mosque needing to be bombed.
I am motionless, unfeeling.
But they promised that the drugs wouldn’t anesthetize.
They’ll soften and they’ll clarify but you’ll feel everything all the same, says the doc.
Just focus on recalling some of the things you say they took away.
You see though, I remember sobbing and asking them to make it stop.
I remember you standing in the corner where they made you stay,
and in the back of my head I swear I could hear my Ma, muttering as she sometimes did,
Che la mia ferita sia mortale, “May my wound be deadly.”
You don’t know this but there are some things I need to say.
It’s more than I can bear and it’s all that I can hear.
If I forget who I am, would you please remind me?
Because you gotta know, you gotta know, you’re the only face I can remember.
You’re in my every memory, since I was old enough to be making them.
I’ve got so much of you in my head, shining like the goddamn sun.
The thing is, I think it’s getting worse.
I’m curling in, caving in, shrinking.
God help me, am I shrinking?
When I look in the mirror, I’m still the same size.
But everything inside of my head feels so much bigger than what’s holding it all in.
Like I can’t contain it, I have to freeze, or I’m gonna die.
Because I can’t tell you what hurts, or where it hurts.
Only that it hurts so goddamned bad.
It’s so strange a way to feel because I remember so little, so very little.
Cave walls and too much water.
It’s everything before that I am lacking save for the smallest of details.
‘Cause I can remember the four white-painted steps up to your front door.
Where we buried our time capsule under the rose bush in the corner of your backyard.
Your hand so much smaller in mine as I held it.
The strange, soft purple of your eyes.
But I can’t remember the digits of the home phone number I had for sixteen years.
Or the name of my second grade teacher.
They feel like insignificant things, taking up all the space I have left in my head.
It’s you, you, you, shining in my head, and everything else has iced over.
And I need to tell you what’s all in here.
That there’s something so wrong festering inside of me.
Just rotting, bracken water.
I’m all messed up.
But the words won’t come and the shrink says that’s normal.
They keep telling me that not everyone is strong enough.
That facing Hell makes all good soldiers run.
I was trained to be brave though, trained to hold my ground.
Taught to suspend all emotion and don battle-heated judgment.
But I’ve always been the kind of brave that leaves fear like ice water in my veins.
Every too-big kid I knocked down for you,
before cradling your bleeding face against my white shirt with shaking hands.
I have always been a trembling sort of brave.
A knee-knocking, shivering-cold brave they tried to burn out of me.
And I keep waking up wondering if today is going to be the day.
When the world stops sloshing and churning and something will come back.
No rushing, never rushing, the doc says, because the mind is such a fragile thing.
Broken things are glued back together piece by piece.
Not held too tightly between your hands in hopes that it holds, that it sticks.
It’s becoming this breathy anxiety, this freezer burn of desperation in my chest.
‘Cause they keep calling me broken, like I’m still mending.
Like there’s a combination of drugs and therapy hours I can take to endure.
So that I don’t become glass that cooled too quickly.
But I have stopped asking where, what, why me, and started wondering.
Was I ever in a war?
Or is my body just occupied territory?
There was a thread but I have lost it.
Now they’ve got me on a cocktail that would drop a mammoth.
A mix of sedatives and suppressors and little blue pills.
It’s a miracle, maybe, that I can even write this to you.
Because everything’s so hazy, so blurred over, and too calm.
I feel like I could peel my soul right out of my skin house and no one would know the difference.
It’s because you’re suffering, they keep tellin’ me.
It’s because you’re angry and in shock, we know, we understand.
But there’s no training course in Basic that teaches soldiers how to mend.
Least of all the kinds of wounds that don’t look so broken, but feel so wrecked.
Whoever I was when I came over here died on that table in that cave.
And all I am now is Zoloft, Prazosin, and memantine Namenda.
One for the pain, one for the nightmares, and one to help me clearly remember the first two.
But my body is whole and undamaged, so I force them to sign me onto every mission with you.
Because while I may have become a dope addicts wet dream,
I have always been the gun I carry and level at faces I’ve never seen.
The cold has found me now.
That beautiful, freezing fall through snow.
I feel it rage between my ribs, feel it where my heart once felt at home.
And beside me, I feel you.
Like the summer sun on asphalt, trying to burn away the tar that fills my flaws.
Trying to heat me up and crack me open so that every broken piece of me can breathe.
Because Icarus must have known, my god he must have known.
But I am your gun and I am your shield and I cannot let you thaw me out this time.
That cave claimed every last ounce of my human sense, left nothing but desensitized violence.
I will die before you and you know it.
I can feel it under my skin.
I will never make it home.
And maybe it’s the drugs or maybe it’s the cold,
but beneath the soldier I’ve become, somewhere there the person I once was
wonders how this emptiness can feel so heavy.
So, it’s with a burdened heart that I go, taking with me everything I have ever known.
This damage, this death, this loss, and this love.
I have sworn to carry it to the end.
With the burns on my back and the bitterness in my blood,
and this frozen, watery graveyard of a soul,
I will follow the sun as I fall.
And the man that knew where the sidewalk ended once said
that there are no happy endings because endings are the saddest part.
But he knew, and I know, what it means to have a happy middle,
and a very happy start.
Because it’s cold and it’s wet, it’s snowing, and I’m numb.
But your name is still my lead weight, my last secret, and my home.
And I know now that true heroes aren’t defined by their ability to stay,
but by their decision to return.
--- Last correspondence of Sergeant Elizabeth Valdair, MIA 16:13, December 2016.