The old man never said another word. He gradually grew blue and rigid. We avoided each other’s eyes, more embarrassed than anything else. When our train slowed to a limp, they rolled his lifeless body out of the boxcar. Some of them stood at attention as he, it, what was once our commander, disappeared down the embankment. The body flopped and twisted its way down to the waterline in a nearly comical gravity dance. It wasn’t that interesting so they soon returned to their places in the filth. They rocked with the surging rhythm of the train. All our movements had faded to tropisms by then.
What could the old man have meant? I sat looking backwards, on the edge of the boxcar, watching the sun bleed, watching dark hills unfurl in the world we had left. What was it that he meant to say? Whau could we not now believe? We who had seen such creative butchery that all the demons of Hell could only stand by in mute awe and nod to each other. The war had accomplished nothing. It had merely been a celebration of necrotic imagination.
Over and again: What could we not now believe? I pulled more smoke into my lungs and nearly fell asleep. Each time I nodded off I saw the girl I had loved. I said “had loved” not because I’ve stopped but because the situation became untenable.
She hadn’t minded that I was the enemy. From the moment I saw her, arbitrary borders were the furthest thing from my mind. Of course we never actually met the entire time we were together. She loved a man in uniform and I loved being out of it. Even now her furtive eyes peak through a wisp of blonde hair just out of reach.
We lived without names for what could have been months. She could just puzzle out my language but I never found my way to hers. We healed the wounds of our nations in our bed each night. Not that we knew it at the time. We were too strong for symbolism then; and too much ourselves.
This is what matters. When I told her I was leaving, she handled it as though she had knocked a glass to the floor — quietly and efficiently. The crucible we’d made had boiled away any cloying personal details, leaving a pure and untouchable memory. It left us not empty but in the quiet of concert hall with the orchestra’s last lingering note.
I lit another cigarette on a smoldering filter. What kind of damn fool was this commander who couldn’t even finish his last sentence? He wasted the remnants of his breath telling us that we wouldn’t believe what he didn’t have time to tell us? Why not share that pearl of wisdom of his and let us decide the credibility?
The train whined its way onto a spidery trestle bridge, now high above the river. The hypnotic ostinato of grinding metal drummed out the theme of the last time I saw her. On our final day together, she conducted herself with the appropriate sadness. We pronounced the required lines. The day never came to an end but only stopped. A picnic on wet cement in the rubble of a ruined city, the sun warming her hair, the promises not to miss each other and then the night settled over us in its awkward way.
In the seconds before an explosion ripped through our train, shattering the trestle and bringing us all crashing down into the river far below — the same river that had just brought the body of our commander downstream to join us — only in those last eyeblinks I came to understand what he had intended. What we would never believe is that we soon would be becoming him.
We, who had come to regard each other with such contempt, were no more than scattered reflections of a faceless life. It is only the fear of what we share that drives us to invent our histories. The illusion of identity, the myth of fingerprints, as we’ve heard but not understood — the warmth of it suddenly overwhelmed me. If we all live the same life then birth and death are merely distractions. Our screams and cries are frights in a fun house.
In that last moment I could hear every conversation in the box car and the surrounding countryside, every last word in every language. Each syllable pounded out desperate attempts at autoclassification, at selfness. It was as though through sheer volume alone we thought we could separate ourselves, one from the other, denying the only gift we have. I wanted to shout back to each of them but there was no more I and there was no more time. And they wouldn’t believe it.
Denial in the face of the inevitable is absurd. The only reasonable response to the absurd is laughter. I (and what could no longer be called I) laughed. In disdain, in sympathy, in surprise, I laughed until the roar of the dynamite drowned out these their final conversations.