“The Honored Dead” by Breece D’J. Pancake
Watching little Lundy go back to sleep, I wish I hadn’t told her about the Mound Builders to stop her crying, but I didn’t know she would see their eyes watching her in the dark. She was crying about a cat run down by a car—her cat, run down a year ago, only today poor Lundy figured it out. Lundy is turned too much like her momma. Ellen never worries because it takes her too long to catch the point of a thing, and Ellen doesn’t have any problem sleeping. I think my folks were a little too keen, but Lundy is her momma’s girl, not jumpy like my folks.
My grandfather always laid keenness on his Shawnee blood, his half-breed mother, but then he was hep on blood. He even had an oath to stop bleeding, but I don’t remember the words. He was a fair to sharp woodsman, and we all tried to slip up on him at one time or another. It was Ray at the sugar mill finally caught him, but he was an old man by then, and his mind wasn’t exactly right. Ray just came creeping up behind and laid a hand on his shoulder, and the old bird didn’t even turn around; he just wagged his head and said, “That’s Ray’s hand. He’s the first fellow ever slipped on me.” Ray could’ve done without that because the old man never played with a full deck again, and we couldn’t keep clothes on him before he died.
I turn out the lamp, see no eyes in Lundy’s room, then it comes to me why she was so scared. Yesterday I told her patches of stories about scalpings and murders, mixed up the Mound Builders with the Shawnee raids, and Lundy chained that with the burial mound in the back pasture. Tomorrow I’ll set her straight. The only surefire thing I know about Mound Builders is they must have believed in a god and hereafter or they never would have made such big graves.
I put on my jacket, go into the foggy night, walk toward town. Another hour till dawn, and both lanes of the Pike are empty, so I walk the yellow line running through the valley to Rock Camp. I keep thinking back to the summer me and my buddy Eddie tore that burial mound apart for arrowheads and copper beads gone green with rot. We were getting down to the good stuff, coming up with skulls galore, when of a sudden Grandad showed out of thin air and yelled, “Wah-pahnah-te-he.” He was waving his arms around, and I could see Eddie was about to shit the nest. I knew it was all part of the old man’s Injun act, so I stayed put, but Eddie sat down like he was ready to surrender.
Grandad kept on: “Wah-pah-nah-te-he. You evil. Make bad medicine here. Now put the goddamned bones back or I’ll take a switch to your young asses.” He watched us bury the bones, then scratched a picture of a man in the dust, a bow drawn, aimed at a crude sun. “Now go home.” He walked across the pasture.
Eddie said, “You Red Eagle. Me Black Hawk.” I knew he had bought the game for keeps. By then I couldn’t tell Eddie that if Grandad had a shot at the sixty-four-dollar question, he would have sold them on those Injun words: Wah-pah-nah-te-he—the fat of my ass.
So I walk and try to be like Ellen and count the pass-at-your-own-risk marks on the road. Eastbound tramples Westbound: 26-17. At home is my own darling Ellen, fast asleep, never knowing who won. Sometimes I wonder if Ellen saw Eddie on his last leave. There are lightning bugs in the fog, and I count them until I figure I’m counting the same ones over. For sure, Lundy would call them Mound Builder eyes, and see them as signals without a message, make up her own message, get scared.
I turn off the Pike onto the oxbow of Front Street, walk past some dark store windows, watch myself moving by their gloss, rippling through one pane and another. I sit on the Old Bank steps, wait for the sun to come over the hills; wait like I waited for the bus to the draft physical, only I’m not holding a bar of soap. I sat and held a bar of soap, wondering if I should shove it under my arm to hike my blood pressure into the 4-F range. My blood pressure was already high, but the bar of soap would give me an edge. I look around at Front Street and picture people and places I haven’t thought of in years; I wonder if it was that way for Eddie.
I put out my hand like the bar of soap was in it, and see its whiteness reflect blue from the streetlights long ago. And I remember Eddie’s hand flattened on green felt, arched knuckles cradling the cue for a tough eight-ball shot, or I remember the way his hand curled around his pencil to hide answers on math tests. I remember his hand holding an arrowhead or unscrewing a lug nut, but I can’t remember his face.
It was years ago, on Decoration Day, and my father and several other men wore their Ike jackets, and I was in the band. We marched through town to the cemetery in the rain; then I watched the men move sure and stiff with each command, and the timing between volleys was on the nose; the echoes rang four times above the clatter of their bolt weapons. The rain smelled from the tang of their fire, the wet wool of our uniforms. There was a pause and the band direct coughed. I stepped up to play, a little off tempo, and another kid across the hills answered my taps. I finished first, snapped my bugle back. When the last tonee seeped through to mist, it beat at me, and I could swear I heard the stumps of Eddie’s arms beating the coffin lid for us to stop.
I look down at my hand holding the bugle, the bar of soap. I look at my hand, empty, older, tell myself there is no bar of soap in that hand. I count all five fingers with the other hand, tell myself they are going to stay there a hell of a long time. I get out a cigarette and smoke. Out on the Pike, the first car races by in the darkness, knowing no cops are out yet. I think of Eddie pouring on the gas, heading with me down the Pike toward Tin Bridge.
That day was bright, but the blink of all the dome lights showed up far ahead of us. We couldn’t keep still for the excitement, couldn’t wait to see what happened.
I said, “Did you hear it, man? I thought they’d dropped the Bomb.”
“Hear? I felt it. The damn ground shook.”
“They won’t forget that much noise for a long time.”
Cars were stopped dead-center of the road, and a crowd had built up. Eddie pulled off to the side behind a patrol car, and made his way through the crowd holding his wallet high to show his volunteer fireman’s badge. I kept back, but in the break the cops made, I saw the fire was already out, and all that was left of Beck Fuller’s Chevy was the grille, the rest of the metal peeled around it from behind. I knew it was Beck’s from the ’51 grille, and I knew what had happened. Beck fished with dynamite and primer cord, and he was a real sport to the end. Beck could never get into his head he had to keep the cord away from the TNT.
Then a trooper yelled: “All right, make way for the wrecker.”
Eddie and the other firemen put pieces of Beck the Sport into bags, and I turned away to keep from barfing, but the smell of burning hair drifted out to me. I knew hair was the stuffing in old car seats, and not Beck, but I leaned against the patrol car, tossed my cookies just the same. I wanted to stop being sick because it was silly to be sick about something like that. Under the noise of my coughings I could hear the fire chief cussing Eddie into just getting the big pieces, just letting the rest go.
Eddie didn’t sit here with any bar of soap in his hand. He never had much gray matter, but he made up for it with style so he would never sit here with any bar of soap in his hand. Eddie would never think about blowing toes away or cutting off his trigger finger. It just was not his way to think. Eddie was the kind who bought into a game early, and when the deal soured, he’d rather hold the hand a hundred years than fold. It was just his way of doing.
At eight ball, I chalked up while Eddie broke. The pool balls cracked, but nothing went in, and I moved around the table to pick the choice shot. “It’s crazy to join,” I said.
“What the hell—I know how to weld. They’ll put me in welding school and I’ll sit it out in Norfolk.”
“With your luck the ship’ll fall on you.”
“Come on Eagle, go in buddies with me.”
“Me and Ellen’s got plans. I’ll take a chance with the lottery.” I shot, and three went in.
“That’s slop,” Eddie said.
I ran the other four down, banked the eight ball to a side pocket, and stood back, made myself grin at him. The eight went where I called it, but I never believed I made the shot right, and I didn’t look at Eddie, I just grinned.
I toss my cigarette into the gutter, and it glows back orange under the blue streetlight. I think how that glow would be just another eye for Lundy, and think that after a while she will see so many eyes in the night they won’t matter anymore. The eyes will go away and never come back, and even if I tell her when she is grown, she won’t remember. By then real eyes will scare her enough. She’s Ellen’s girl, and sometimes I want to ask Ellen if she saw Eddie on his last leave.
Time ago I stood with my father in the cool evening shadow of the barn to smoke; he stooped, picked up a handful of gravel, and flipped them away with his thumb. He studied on what I said about Canada, and each gravel falling was a little click in his thoughts; then he stood, dusted his palms. “I didn’t mind it too much,” he said. “Me and Howard kept pretty thick in foxhole religion—never thought of running off.”
“But, Dad, when I seen Eddie in that plastic bag. . .”
He yelled: “Why the hell’d you look? If you can’t take it, you oughtn’t to look. You think I ain’t seen that? That and worse, by God.”
I rub my hand across my face, hang my arm tight against the back of my neck, think I ought to be home asleep with Ellen. I think, if I was asleep with Ellen, I wouldn’t care who won. I wouldn’t count or want to know what the signals mean, and I wouldn’t be like some dog looking for something dead to drag in.
When Eddie was in boot camp, me and Ellen sat naked in the loft at midnight, scratching fleas and the itch of hay. She went snooping through a box of old books and papers, and pulled out a bundle of letters tied with sea grass string. Her flashlight beamed over my eyes as she stepped back to me, and watching her walk in the color tracings the light left in my eyes, I knew she would be my wife. She tossed the package in my lap, and I saw the old V-mail envelopes of my father’s war letters. Ellen lay flat on her back, rested her head on my thigh, and I took up the flashlight to read.
“Dear folks, We are in—the name’s been cut out.”
“Why?” She rolled to her stomach, looked up at me.
I shrugged. “I guess he didn’t know he couldn’t say that. The way they do thes people is awful bad. I found a rusky prisoner starven in the street and took him to a german house for a feed.” I felt Ellen’s tongue on the inside of my thigh and shivered, tried to keep reading. “They didn’t do nothin for him till I leveled off with my gun and Howard he raised hell with me only I seen that rusky eat one damn fine meal.” I turned off the flashlight, moved down beside Ellen. He had never told that story.
But it’s not so simple now as then, not easy to be a part of Ellen without knowing or wanting to know the web our kisses make. It was easy to leave the house with a bar of soap in my pocket; only the hardest part was sitting here, looking at it, and remembering.
I went through the hall with the rest of the kids between classes, and there stood Eddie at the top of the stairs. He grinned at me, but it was not his face anymore. His face had changed; a face gone red because the other kids snickered at his uniform. He stood at parade rest, his seaman’s cap hanging from his belt, his head tilting back to look down on me, then he dragged his hands around like Jackie Gleason taking an away-we-go pool shot. We moved on down the hail to ditch my books.
“You on leave?” I said.
“Heap bad medicine. Means I’m getting shipped.”
“How long?” I fumbled with the combination of my locker.
“Ten days,” he said, then squinted at the little flag upside-down on my open locker door. “You sucker.”
I watched him until he went out of sight down the steps, then got my books, went on to class.
The butt of my palm is speckled with black spots deep under the skin: cinders from a relay-race fall. The skin has sealed them over, and it would cost plenty to get them out. Sometimes Ellen wants to play nurse with a needle, wants to pry them out, but I won’t let her. Sometimes I want to ask Ellen if she saw Eddie on his last leave.
Coach said I couldn’t run track because anyone not behind his country was not fit for a team, so I sat under the covered bridge waiting for the time I could go home. Every car passing over sprinkled a little dust between the boards, sifted it into my hair.
I watched the narrow river roll by, its waters slow but muddy like pictures I had seen of rivers on the TV news. In history class, Coach said the Confederate troops attacked this bridge, took it, but were held by a handful of Sherman’s troops on Company Hill. Johnny Reb drank from this river. The handful had a spring on Company Hill. Johnny croaked with the typhoid and the Yankees moved south. So I stood and brushed the dust off me. My hair grew long after Eddie went over, and I washed it every night.
I put my fist under my arm like the bar of soap, and watch the veins on the back of my hand rise with pressure. There are scars where I’ve barked the hide hooking the disc or the drag to my tractor; they are like my father’s scars.
We walked the fields, checked the young cane for blight or bugs, and the late sun gave my father’s slick hair a sparkle. He chewed the stem of his pipe, then stood with one leg across a knee, and banged tobacco out against his shoe.
I worked up the guts: “You reckon I could go college, Dad?”
“What’s wrong with farming?”
“Well, sir, nothing, if that’s all you ever want.”
He crossed the cane rows to get me, and my left went up to guard like Eddie taught me, right kept low and to the body.
“Cute,” he said. “Real cute. When’s your number up?”
I dropped my guard. “When I graduate—it’s the only chance I got to stay out.”
He loaded his pipe, turned around in his tracks like he was looking for something, then stopped, facing the hills. “It’s your damn name is what it is. Dad said when you was born, ‘Call him William Haywood, and if he ever goes in a mine, I hope he chokes to death.’”
I thought that was a shitty thing for Grandad to do, but I watched Dad, hoped he’d let me go.
He started up: “Everybody’s going to school to be something better. Well, when everybody’s going this way, it’s time to turn around and go that way, you know?” He motioned with his hands in two directions. “I don’t care if they end up shitting gold nuggets, somebody’s got to dig in the damn ground. Somebody’s got to.”
And I said, “Yessir.”
The sky is dark blue and the fog is cold smoke staying low to the ground. In this first hint of light my hand seems blue, but not cold; such gets cold sooner or later, but for now my hand is warm.
Many’s the time my grandfather told of the last strike before he quit the mines, moved to the valley for some peace. He would quit his Injun act when he told it, like it was real again, all before him, and pretty soon I started thinking it was me the Baldwin bulls were after. I ran through the woods till my lungs bled. I could hear the Baldwins and their dogs in the dark woods, and I could remember machine guns cutting down pickets, and all I could think was how the One Big Union was down the rathole. Then I could taste it in my mouth, taste the blood coming up from my lungs, feel the bark of a tree root where I fell, where I slept. When I opened my eyes, I felt funny in the gut, felt watched. There were no twig-snaps, just the feeling that something was too close. Knowing it was a man, one man, hunting me, I took up my revolver. I could hear him breathing, aimed into the sound, knowing the only sight would come with the flash. I knew all my life I had lived to kill this man, this goddamn Baldwin man, and I couldn’t do it. I heard him move away down the ridge, hunting his lost game.
I fold my arms tight like I did the morning the bus pulled up. I was thinking of my grandfather, and there was a bar of soap under my arm. At the draft physical, my blood pressure was clear out of sight, and they kept me four days. The pressure never went down, and on the fourth day a letter came by forward. I read it on the bus home.
Eddie said he was with a bunch of Jarheads in the Crotch, and he repaired radio gear in the field. He said the USMC’s hated him because he was regular Navy. He said the chow was rotten, the quarters lousy, and the left side of his chest was turning yellow from holding smokes inside his shirt at night. And he said he knew how the guy felt when David sent him into the battle to get dibs on the guy’s wife. Eddie said he wanted dibs on Ellen, ha, ha. He said he would get married and give me his wife if I would get him out of there. He said the beer came in Schlitz cans, but he was sure it was something else. Eddie was sure the CO was a fag. He said he would like to get Ellen naked, but if he stayed with this outfit he would want to get me naked when he came back. He asked if I remembered him teaching me to burn off leeches with a cigarette. Eddie swore he learned that in a movie where the hero dies because he ran out of cigarettes. He said he had plenty of cigarettes. He said he could never go Oriental because they don’t have any hair on their twats, and he bet me he knew what color Ellen’s bush was. He said her hair might be brown, but her bush was red. He said to think about it and say Hi to Ellen for him until he came back. Sometimes I want to ask Ellen if she saw Eddie on his last leave.
When I came back, Ellen met me at the trailer door, hugged me, and started to cry. She showed pretty well with Lundy, and I told her Eddie’s letter said to say Hi. She cried some more, and I knew Eddie was not coming back.
Daylight fires the ridges green, shifts the colors of the fog, touches the brick streets of Rock Camp with a reddish tone. The streetlights flicker out, and the traffic signal at the far end of Front Street’s yoke snaps on; stopping nothing, warning nothing, rushing nothing on.
I stand and my joints crack from sitting too long, but the flesh of my face is warming in the early sun. I climb the steps of the Old Bank, draw a spook in the window-soap. I tell myself that spook is Eddie’s, and I wipe it off with my sleeve, then I see the bus coming down the Pike, tearing the morning, and I start down the street so he won’t stop for me. I cannot go away, and I cannot make Eddie go away, so I go home. And walking down the street as the bus goes by, I bet myself a million that my Lundy is up and already watching cartoons, and I bet I know who won.