There was a day my heart did not beat. Sometimes I wonder what day it was exactly that it began, a day when there was peace, when peace was possible, the day that peace ended. It is, of course, a day I cannot remember--a faint cleaving in the red darkness, when my heart welled up and drove me squalling into the world.
My heart has troubled me ever since, shuddering me through my days, too strong for its casing. It is not the seat of passionate loves and great despairs--I wish it were. It is simply too strong, a brute muscle whose pounding has kept me awake nights, shaking my bed and rattling the glass on my nightstand.
I grew up in a small town, in a small house with a church on a rise next door. In the evening, the long shadow of its spire fell over our house. My parents were hardworking and unremarkable people who seemed to live baffled by their lives. My father stood on the porch every year as the first snow fell, as amazed as if he were seeing it for the first time. My mother would lift up her eyes from the table for a moment, then duck her head again quickly as if she'd be singed for looking too long. She was not meek, but rigidly contained, and she lashed out at impertinent variety--the weather, pass of days, other people. I was delivered in a stream of obscenities so thick that the midwife scolded her for it during the labor. They named me Brendan for my mother's father and Kane for my father, and neither name bespoke anything but a lack of imagination down through several generations. They had no other children, and even their intermittent attentions were smothering to me.
I took refuge for a time in a mossy library down the road from our house. It was all but abandoned, with shelves of moldering books that promised hints of life different from my own, but unmoored to it, as if under glass, with no means to reach its expanse from my own cramped days. As my heart grew stronger, those pages grayed and crumbled; the library musted and shrank until I too abandoned it.
When I was seventeen, the pound of my heart drove me out on a wet, fragrant spring day. There was still snow in the shadows of the hillsides, but the air was warm and sweet; the land was quickening and I knew if I stayed long, it would catch me and hold me for another summer, another fall, another year. I paused at the roadside, waiting for the tug of a restraint that did not come. South I drifted, blind to the land I moved through, south down fog-shrouded valleys, along a river, until I found myself at the edge of the ocean.
There I found work in a small tavern, where I passed an empty fall and a cold and empty winter. The tavern was grimy, and it stank; the tables were chipped and broken and graven with names on names. Business was good--sailors mostly, who kept me from seeing the sameness of that world, from feeling the sourness in me, the rise of bile, the staling air as the world pressed in.
Their bulbous mouths smiled wary smiles, flecks of grease trailing onto stained shirts as they enthusiastically wrestled bits of gristle from their teeth. I moved among them with loathing for myself and disdain for them, provoked by the heart that pummeled my chest. I boozed it quiet with beer and sweet West Indian rum, and I would sleep for a night, but it would rouse me again to spoiling meat still clutched in drunken hands--old men incontinent from their pleasures and clouds of regurgitation floating in warm beer. I might have sunk into this life, waited as the fluid world cooled and congealed, thinking the days were changeable, were not mounted in lockstep one dusk to that same day's dawn, until I found myself, like the sailors, on the other side of my possibilities, shiftless and baffled. I suppose I should be grateful.
That day I had awakened sour and tired, and but for the bobbing of his tall black hat over the crowd, I might have passed the day inside, and so on in the string of days that held me. But I did see it, first a stovepipe in the fashion of a decade ago and greasy, and then his face, broad and flat, cut from rough lumps but with his eyes alight within it. He approached with a jostling and barking crowd of retainers, did not beckon, and moved past. I felt the weight of his gaze rest on me for a moment, then lift, and felt myself pulled into the crowd and down onto the docks.
He clambered onto a barrel, leaning on the shoulder of one of his lieutenants to steady himself, and turned to regard us. He raised his hands gravely and the crowd subsided into silence.
"Gentlemen," he began, "I greet you this day in joy and in sorrow. From beyond our borders, men look to us with eyes ablaze with hope, their spirits vexed by chains of law, of tradition, of religion, of economy. They feel themselves in dim prisons growing feeble. They see us free, and each imagines himself free, imagines loosing his chains and passing through the world as a man among men. In their hearts, their tyrants fear us--not our generals, nor our leaders, but most our men, for they know in each lies a force that they detest and struggle to extinguish in their own people.
"Now we find that liberty carries responsibility and the spirit of justice calls us to arms. If we are to preserve what is most precious to us, we must look within our borders, at our neighbors, our brothers, at ourselves. We must seek out that which has decayed within us, whether it dwells in a distant community or in our own; whether it is called just or unjust; we must see that there is a truth beyond the truth of today and we must tear this half-truth from us, carve it from the living flesh of our nation before our healthy eyes fill with jaundice, our spirits with lead, our hearts with stone. And so, my countrymen, I call you to battle and to arms; I call not for words nor ideas, but for guns and knives, for cannon, sword, and bayonet. And it is for that that I sorrow today.
"Mothers, I am calling for your children; fathers, for your sons; wives, your husbands. I harbor no illusions that any may be spared; our streets will wash with blood. And for what? No lifetime of ease for the living, no marble tombs for the dead. But you will have preserved, if only for one moment, the spirit that is essential to man; you will have shown the world, and the generations that will follow you, that difficult justice is possible, and that man can give his life in service to man. Fearful mortals! Archangels are not the champions of liberty--we are.
"Yours will be the stories that good men teach their sons, each a witness to what you have borne, each a reminder of what it means to live, to shine in use; your remembered feats will offer hope for the despairing, regeneration for the ailing, strength for the downtrodden. Those lost and weak spirits will join with yours, and those before you, into a great and mighty host, the host of just and righteous men. There is no nobler company."
I stood on the dock and felt his words fill me, felt my troublesome heart fall into step with their rhythm. The dock swelled with applause; men set their faces and squared their shoulders. He knelt first, stiff and awkward, and then stepped delicately down. The crowd fell in step behind him as he returned up the narrow street, following him to join up in that moment. I marched with them, my bile rinsed away and my heart pounding joyfully. Two days later I found myself boarding a train to take my place in this new world, to fight and die for it. In the space of that half hour, my world had been transformed; the old had dropped away and seemed already dim and distant, and the new sprang up in rich and vibrant colors, as if I had always been living this life.
At first, life in the army was good; we were issued a uniform and a rifle and taught to march and fight, taught to bear ourselves as soldiers. At night we filled the barracks with our projected exploits and their bawdy rewards. I kept quiet, and held on to the words that I had heard on the docks as the flags snapped in the wind and the horizon sped away.
From training, we marched west, and south and west again. At first people cheered for us, and handed us cakes and bottles of beer as we passed. Then there were few, then none; cows munched dully in barnyards in front of darkened houses, and meadows fell to seed. Feral children ran chattering past in the underbrush, and harried us from trees like monkeys.
The battles were smoky affairs, with men rising up from nowhere and fading again, and a stream of shouting and cursing, screaming, of trumpets blaring and the crack of rifles and the crump of the cannon; later, when the guns subsided, the groans of the dying would swell. In the falling darkness, men called for water, and for whiskey, for their wives, for blankets to ward off the cold. Men sought their friends, and found them, and could do nothing. One and then another man was appointed to lead us, each younger and less certain than the last.
I marched through the heat unscathed. I was not brave, but I tried to do as I had been ordered and was not shot, not stabbed, not clubbed. I did not succumb to the fevers that descended in waves, nor to sunstroke. My blisters did not infect, my scratches did not become gangrenous. Instead, I remained free to watch my companions die, free to feel helpless at bedside after bedside, free to watch their bodies rot while they walked, to watch red fingers of infection creep up their legs, across their chests, to watch red turn black and black turn green. I had the luck to hear the dying words of man after man until I could not remember whose children or wife were to be told what, or where they might be found. Day seeped into day across the empty fields, fever into fever, blood into dust.
There were some ghouls, as there will always be, who sought to make what profits they could from looting. They disguised their thievery as care, laying a man gently to rest, then relieving him of his few coins. They descended at the end of every battle, flitting from body to body. I began to follow them, gathering not rings and coins, but the letters that seemed to peek from every soldier's pocket.
I stuffed them into my pockets and lined my jacket with them. As we marched south, I gradually emptied the gear from my bag and replaced it with yellowing packets of letters. I did not read them--they were not for me to read, for my edification or my ghoulish curiosity, but their gathering was a duty and a means of insulation, of holding back something from the rough pox of bodies, of connecting, somehow, these dead men with a dim and distant land of living.
Once in a great while, as I lay waiting for sleep, I felt the dim echoes of the words that had drawn me here; I tried to follow my trajectory from the dock out, and down, tried to discover the moment when I had been carried by my momentum into this other, this alien world.
Balaam's Hill was the worst. I found myself stumbling among bodies swelling in the gentle sun, my eyes watering from the stench as I gathered the letters to me. I moved back from the dead to the living and saw things I should not have seen. Arms and legs stacked like cordwood outside the medical tent. Blind men shuffling forward and tripping over the dead and dying. Men staring in amazement at the gaping interiors of their own bodies. Men cried for their lives and cursed the world; they told stories of home, of the faces and hearts of women and children, and died in shame and anger. I moved among them trying to avoid their faces and glassy eyes, looking only for scraps of paper. One man seized me by the collar and pulled my face close to his. A stained deck of cards spilled from his vest into a pool of blood draining from his belly. His eyes were flat, yellow to red to black; his mouth gaped around flecks of spittle, but no words came. He glared at me, bellowing, grinding his teeth, then pushed me away.
That night I huddled close to the fire. Winter was leaking down from the north and the night was clear and cold. The stars stood distant in the sky, neither warming nor illuminating. Outside the circle of the campfire, I could hear the snuffling of dogs as they fed. I looked around at my companions and I tried to imagine their thoughts, tried to think to speak, but could find nothing, imagine nothing. I felt within myself a great severing--it was as if I were suddenly surrounded by giant insects, staring at their impenetrable compound eyes, the clacking of their mandibles, and the jerky flicking of their forelegs. I found myself alone amid them, shivering in the cold and darkness.
I sneaked out of camp that night, walking north. I carried only the letters with me, stuffed inside my shirt and jacket, under my cap, bundled with straps over my shoulders and straining against the seams of my bag. I woke to blue and black and white skies, clouds moving quickly, the sunlight flashing, bright but not warm, the wind bristling through the trees, driving the clouds, pulling warmth from the sun, leaves from the trees, life from the land, a scouring wind, making ready for winter. The moon rose early, the silver light, unlike the sun, transforming the land beneath it--changing shapes and forms, obscuring what it revealed, a magician, a deceiver.
The fierce orange of sunrise gave way to a bright white gold, and the deep blue of a clear sky promised a beautiful day. But the sun cut off its climb and started to slink across the horizon. The white gold of the morning faded to a weak yellow by ten o'clock. The wind was strong, shaking shutters and flinging trees, but the day seemed weak and ineffectual, a day where little of worth could be accomplished, a day to be tolerated, to be endured in hopes of better days to come. But each one was like this, over as it began, passing swiftly from birth into age, hastened by strong, chill winds.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Rope Eater by Ben Jones. Copyright © 2003 by Ben Jones. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.