NO LONGER AFLAME
The final few minutes of John, husband to Margie, father to Trina and Grace, son to Fred and Constance, grandson to Agnes, Methodist and car mechanic, six-time pub trivia champ, dilettante poet, alcoholic, soldier.
At daybreak in Herat he angled his head up away from the boys to watch a sandbag tumble out of an overloaded truck. The sandbag teetered atop a jumbo sandbag heap. The sandbag rolled down the sandbag heap. The sandbag rolled over and over and it rolled to the top of the truck bed rail and stopped. And the sandbag rolled over the rail and tumbled out of the truck and struck the earth. Dust rose and the dust floated a bit and he could barely see the dust from where he stood. And he listened to a soft thud. And he squinted.
Because the war is unjust a fireball exploded down the street near his squad mates and they are all dead. The fireball exploded and his chest tightened and his head hurt and fire was on his face. The fire ate from his face, and he screamed, and he slapped at his brow and cheek, and he burned all over and his arms flailed, and he fell backward and dropped to the earth and pumped his feet up in the air. And the fire offered his face. He dug his heels into the earth and some dirt and pebbles skittered away and he was aflame. And he pitched onto his chest, and he grated the top and front of his face against dirt and pebbles to put the fire out.
After grinding his face in the dirt he set his chin down and did not breathe and nothing was. He looked but did not see. He listened but did not hear. His tongue had no words and his heart did not want. Then the burning returned, and the burning was real and he wanted to die to escape the burning. The burning was some bears guzzling a mangled man. The burning was ships at sea assailed by storms and the ships’ sailors drown. The burning was city walls breached by enemy armies who envelop the boys of the city and the boys fall before them. This is where he burned: his arms burned and his face burned and his neck burned and his body burned, but his legs did not burn. And his face burned the worst; the flames on his face were knives skinning it. He clenched his fists and flapped his feet and gasped for air. He listened to the long loud roar of a lion and it terrified him and he cried out. And he looked for the bird but the bird was gone.
His eyes were not open. He tried to open his right eye. It was stuck shut. He opened his left eye. Light poured into it, and he closed it and cocked his head downward and covered his face to hide from the light. As he hid from the light he burned, so he kicked dirt around and he whimpered. The light flowed through his hands to his left eye. The light flowed fast and splashed his face. The light flowed faster and pinned his kicking feet to the earth and rushed into his foolish whimpering mouth and stopped it. Still aflame, he exposed his face and angled his head up and opened his left eye. The light flooded his left eye and he was submerged in the light.
And John said: “Someone save me from this fire.” The fire licked his lips. The fire ate from him. And the long loud roar of the lion was closer and it came from a she-lion lair. John pleaded for mercy, and the fire would not be sated and its flames bit into him over and over. John looked with his left eye in the light. And John tasted burning flesh, the flesh of his own mouth and nose. The fire said: “What are you doing here, John? Where are your wife and daughters, John?” And John was afraid. John pleaded with the fire, that the fire would purify and consume him. And he ate of his flesh, and the fire heard him.
John tipped his head back but not far enough. John tipped his head back more but not enough still. So he cocked his head away from the dirt and pebbles and he tipped his head back a third time farther. And John looked with his face and saw the heavens as brass and the earth as iron and the rain as powder and dust. John closed his left eye shut and shuddered. And he slept.