War and Water

I wrote this when my husband was deployed in Afghanistan.

In honor of Veterans Day, those who serve and the ones who love them.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Ten months ago, when winter held Vermont’s Green Mountains in a white-knuckled grip, the man I love deployed to Afghanistan.

I can be strong when the need arises. But during the weeks that led up to his departure, I wasn’t of a mind. I backed away slowly, and then turned and scrambled for the shelter of work and purpose. There, I stood over the woodstove like a vengeful witch and brewed up survival plans: stories to write, paintings to paint, garden harvests to grow and can, books to read. In no time, I had built a sturdy fortress, and when he marched from the hue and cry of a fluorescent send-off ceremony, I ran into my fortress and slammed the door behind me.

This is my second time to lose him to a deployment. Again wearing my pointy hat, I fashioned a figure of a seasoned warrior. I comforted myself with this mojo in much the same way as I have the death of a cat: I’ve endured it before; it will be easier this time. But it doesn’t work that way. The same primordial force descends just as fresh and terrible as it did the time before. It simply takes a bite from a different place.

The Family Readiness people from the Vermont National Guard call me now and then. They ask how I’m doing and if I need anything. I often ignore phone calls, but I don’t ignore those. The people are kind, and they understand the sadness; it hovers around them like a fragrance. I assure them, no leaky faucet, chimney fires or downed trees this month. Wood is stacked and the roof is sound! I’m a seasoned warrior!

Romance can be useful, sometimes.

I am good at solitude. I like the silence; it allows the deeper, subtler shades of the mind to come through. But solitude is not the same as being alone. Thanks to the brilliant metroplex of the Internet, I am not wanting for contact with my man; I talk to him every day. But he is a virtual lover. He might as well be on Mars, complete with oxygen tanks, bottled water and slimy monsters. The months have turned him into a character in a science fiction tale, a holographic transmission fading in and out to the beat of an active sunspot. When the connection ends, my fortress is silent and all my plans blink at me stupidly.

My little cabin is a big place now, a shrine to the power of my imagination. I talk to my cats, the dead or half-dead creatures they bring in and those I manage to rescue from them. I talk to my fishes, and whenever I find one stuck to the filter intake, a part of me dies too. I talk to my plants, to the gardens outside, the birds and dragonflies. I talk to the spider that lives outside the bedroom window and works on its web each night. I talk to my truck, eyeing the creeping rust as I would the countdown timer on a roadside bomb. With so much companionship, I shouldn’t feel lonely. But I do.

It took me these ten months to realize my sturdy fortress is built on a swamp. All my plans have grown mold and sagged into the murky waters. I don’t feel like painting, or reading, and my garden barely yielded enough to snack on, let alone can. Writing feels like reaching into the stars to touch an invisible planet that won’t support life. I wear a clever mask, in public. “Oh, I’m working on this and that,” I say. “Very busy, ayuh!” Whatever.

This cabin is full of ghosts: cats and fish I’ve laid to rest, rejected manuscripts, abandoned ideas, the knitting project I lost interest in, the vitality of an ivy that doesn’t care for the west window. The wraiths of another passing summer fill the place like a nervous crowd. When my man is here, the ghosts are faint, as if he wields the power of the earth to scare them away. They don’t flee from me like that. A watery creature, I attract them.

My lover is a Green Mountain boy. Strong as the hills, and as reliable. He emails me pictures of the mountains in Afghanistan, which are vast, tall, dangerous and inaccessible except to goats and vultures. The irony of this is not lost on me. “Wow,” I say, wearing the same specious smile I wear while waving my seasoned-warrior mojo over the widening cracks. “Nice mountains. When are you coming home?”

Time can be cruel, but it is wise. The silence of solitude has finally managed to cut through the meows, chirrups, trickles and rustles of my interior dialog. Without the roots of the mountains, I drift out into the sea of my imagination like a mermaid whose heart got broken by a sailor. Two weeks left before he comes home. If I start swimming now, I should be within earshot of the shore by then.

© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.