You sailed like Ulysses through the border-void--
fiery atmosphere below, black oblivion beyond--
your own Scylla and Charybdis. A distant dream: Ithaca.
—A. E. Wilson, from “Yuri Gagarin” (1962)
Her brother Harry hadn’t written from Korea for more than a year, or at least none of his letters got through. Then out of the blue he called, said he was in South Carolina, he was taking a train, then a bus and he’d be in Crawford at the Trailways terminal in three days: Could Annette or Tim pick him up? Tim and the car had been gone for three weeks and two days at that point. It was too complicated to explain over the phone, especially long distance, so Annette said she would see her brother in Crawford. It required her taking a day off from school and borrowing Carl Reynolds’s Ford, but she managed it.
She arrived at the bus terminal a few minutes late but suspected the bus would be even later. However, she’d only stepped from the car when she spotted Harry on a bench in front of the station, which also sat vacant and lonely. Harry was lost in his own thoughts and didn’t notice her right away, which gave Annette a few moments to look at her brother and truly see him, almost the way a stranger might take him in. He was thin, perhaps even wiry beneath clothes that looked like hand-me-downs from an older and somewhat larger brother, nonexistent. His hair was brown with—was it possible?—the beginning streaks of white at his temples. It’d been cut short but that was weeks ago and the neat haircut had been growing of its own accord. Trousers of summer-weight wool, soon to be unquestionably out of season; a cotton shirt with a button-down collar, unbuttoned, and zippered jacket, unzipped, also soon to be too light for the time of year. His shoes may have been new but definitely in need of an energetic polishing. Harry was smoking, something he must’ve picked up in the service. More accurately, he was watching the lit cigarette between his fingers, as if a complicated thing which warranted careful study.
Annette was reluctant to interrupt his seemingly peaceful contemplation, but Harry must’ve sensed her presence, or someone’s, and he looked up. Sis, he said, not so much in greeting as in practicing. He hadn’t seen his sister in nearly five years, and perhaps with all that had transpired in the intervening years he needed a sort of rehearsal to reprise his role as kid brother.
Look at you, said Annette kissing him on the cheek, rough with stubble. You’re so skinny. The scent of his cigarette elicited a recollection of Tim, who would smoke after dinner, and the memory was unpleasant and unwelcome.
The Army isn’t known for its haute cuisine. Quite the opposite. He exhaled a final breath of smoke and stepped on the butt with the toe of his shoe.
The car’s just over here.
He slung an army-green duffel over his shoulder and picked up a medium-size suitcase, old-fashioned, with leather straps—his only possessions it would seem.
On the drive back Annette tried to make small talk, which in itself felt strange, to speak to her brother as she would a virtual stranger, but Harry’s responses were perfunctory at best. Annette wondered if he was upset to be in the passenger seat. Maybe he’d become one of those men who felt it was a fact of biology that the male of the species should always take the wheel. Tim believed it. After a while, Annette decided her brother’s taciturnity was more a matter of his preferring quiet. So she left him to his own thoughts, and he seemed content to watch the old familiar countryside, rushing past in its early orange hues, the fields dotted here and there with farm animals.
You can smoke if you like—probably best to roll down the window.
Harry took out his pack of Chesterfields.
Annette had only begun to use the spare bedroom as a what-not room—she’d set up her ironing-board, for example—so it was easy enough to prepare for Harry’s arrival when he called. He hadn’t asked to stay but she assumed, and apparently correctly. He didn’t inquire about Tim, either, or about anything for that matter. Annette imagined Tim’s absence from her life was abundantly clear. Harry put away his few things almost as soon as they got back, and easy as that they were roommates.
Annette wondered if she should have a welcome-home party for Harry, but growing up he’d had few close friends, and fewer still remained in the village. Zane Robbins’s bone spurs kept him out of the service, as did Herbert Green’s vertigo. Zane worked the family farm. Herb lived at home, taking correspondence courses. There was Beth Ann Ferguson, too, the school librarian. Harry and Beth Ann had gone to a dance or two together, nothing serious. As far as Annette knew, Beth Ann wasn’t seeing anyone—nor had she ever indicated that she wanted to be.
Harry had been a quiet, bookish boy, yet he didn’t find school especially interesting. He would have preferred to stay home, reading and studying whatever he pleased. It wasn’t surprising when the Army attached him to a unit specializing in linguistics, not as a translator but as a transcriber. Harry lugged his portable typewriter and folding table and chair from one encampment to another, usually near the front line. His typewriter’s steel case saved him from injury twice, once deflecting a wildly off-target bullet, another time a piece of shrapnel as long as his thumb. The case bore the scars of those close calls, along with the innumerable hard knocks from time in-country, each leaving its mark on the Army-issue Olympia that he returned to the quartermaster before his discharge. The carriage-return arm was bent, the carriage itself tended to slip when underlining, and the ribbon had been worn so thin it was opaque in spots, well past being re-inked. Harry had managed his final transcript and submitted it along with its carbons to the lieutenant who was his immediate superior.
For months it seemed that his only words were those that belonged to the North and South Koreans who had been interrogated or interviewed, respectively. Their stories, whether mostly true or mostly false, had been his stories, their lives his life. He felt as if he only existed when he was transcribing, and the brief interval between scripts was a time of silent incompleteness and waiting to be reanimated by the story of the next bearer of words. Meanwhile, the horrors of the conflict multiplied around him like an earthquake’s suffocating rubble. The only relief was immersing himself in the transcribed lives of others. The night-colored letters on the paper, hammered there by the Olympia’s solid strokes, formed a fortress against the bodies torn asunder, friend and foe alike, combatant and collateral kill, men and women, children. Even the images of slain animals haunted him, family pets, and livestock slaughtered in fields and left to rot.
By the time Annette met him at the bus station in Crawford Harry hadn’t completed a transcript in nearly two months, weeks exposed to the world without periodic relief inside the sanctuary of others’ words. Their stories, no matter how horrific the images they related, were like invocations that protected his fragile sanity. Harry could slip behind the walls of words and breathe more easily for a few blessed minutes.
Annette had left Harry alone to go to school. She probably thought he was sleeping in on his first morning back home, but in fact he’d been awake for hours listening to the cricket chirp of night transform to the birdsong of morning. Then Annette was up rushing through her routine. He loved his sister and appreciated her giving him a place to stay, truly, but the idea of speaking to her—to anyone—was overwhelming. Conversation was exhausting. Sometimes the exhaustion came from trying to think of something to say, and sometimes it came from holding back the torrent of words wanting to break forth. For months Harry had found himself at one extreme or the other. When he was transcribing, the words of others were enough and he didn’t feel the crippling pressure to unearth or embank his own.
At last Annette left for school, and the house was quiet. Harry dressed then went to the kitchen. He checked the icebox and breadbox. He might eat something eventually but he needed coffee and a smoke. He prepared the coffeepot and lit the burner with a kitchen match. While he waited for the water to boil, he went to the bookcase in his sister’s small dining room and perused the selection of hardcovers and paperbacks. Several of the latter were Armed Services Editions, leftovers from the previous war still circulating a decade later. Harry ran his finger along the spines, listening for the coffeepot’s boil. One title in particular arrested his attention: Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems. He took the well-worn paperback from the shelf and in a few minutes was seated on the back porch with the Sandburg, his coffee, and cigarettes.
It was a cool morning; leaves from an elm lay on the steps, a scarlet harbinger of winter’s slow approach. The book of poetry was divided into sections, and the one titled ‘War Poems (1914-1915)’ stood out. Obviously they were inspired by the Great War, but he suspected the Great War was as terrible as his own, or any other. He lit a cigarette and began reading. Later, one image especially would stay with him--Red drips from my chin where I have been eating. Not all the blood, nowhere near all, is wiped off my mouth.
He sat on the porch for a long while with the poems and the thoughts they conjured. Mrs. Holcomb next door had come out and spent some time cleaning fallen leaves from her flowerbeds and primping the mums and asters. She pretended not to see Harry, not wanting to disturb his privacy perhaps; or maybe she truly didn’t see him, half hidden by the porch itself.
On her way home from school, Annette stopped at the grocery for a piece of sirloin and some new potatoes. Normally her main meal was the hot one prepared by the school cooks; then at night she would nibble on cold cuts and crackers or some fruit. When Tim left she wondered if it was because of her inadequate dinners, at least in part. But, no, he seemed generally unhappy with everything and everyone, inside and outside their home. It wasn’t as simple as poorly prepared meals. Still, it sometimes nagged her. Maybe because so many of the wives took such pride in their ability to cook, and several were associated with a particularly popular dish: Mrs. Reynolds’s rabbit stew, Mrs. Abernathy’s quail in white gravy, Mrs. Johnston’s minted lamb-chops, Mrs. Phillips’s fried chicken and cornbread, Mrs. Whittle’s chicken and dumplings, Mrs. Smythe’s morel soufflé, Mrs. Moreland’s honey-glazed pork roast. . . .
On one level Annette knew Tim’s happiness was beyond her influence—no effort great or small seemed capable of achieving it for long—yet his discontent picked at her peace of mind. She would think of the eagle that tortured bound Prometheus, little by little without interruption. Tim’s leaving triggered a tide of complex emotions, some sharp, some subtle, but the most immediate and most profound was simple relief: The harpy had suddenly ceased plucking at her liver, and it was, in a word, glorious.
These thoughts and feelings returned to her as she was preparing the meal for Harry and her, and she examined them like exhibits in a museum, or, better, like specimens in a zoo—for they were safely sealed off but still very much alive, and their quickness lent them an element of danger, should one or two of the more predatory types get loose.
Annette scraped cubed potatoes from the cutting-board into the pan of salted boiling water. Harry was in the living room. The evening news was on, the picture more snowy than usual. It didn’t seem to matter: He sipped at his can of Falstaff and stared at the fuzzy newsman, the Zenith’s sound all but off. She considered attempting a conversation—about something, anything—but her brother appeared content so she elected to let him be and focus on making their dinner.
While she stirred the roiling potatoes she thought of all the times she wanted to talk with Tim—always in an attempt to make things better, it seemed in retrospect, either via a conversation that dealt with a problem or one that deflected from it—eventually, however, the futility of talk, of any kind, became clear, and it was simpler to keep within her own thoughts. Even though this felt different, Annette resolved that she wouldn’t let avoiding conversations with her brother become a pattern.
They ate at the dining-room table. Harry turned off the television, and he poured his beer into a glass. Drinking from the can at the table must’ve seemed poor etiquette.
Everything smells great, Netta.
It was the first time he’d used her nickname since coming home, but rather than a sign of normality it felt a forced attempt to mimic it.
Thank you, she said. I’m afraid I’m out of practice in the kitchen. She thought that Harry must be wondering about Tim’s absence, but he hadn’t said a word. Did he wonder, did he assume, or did he not even notice?
Some of Tim’s things remained. Old clothes in the closet of the spare room (now, Harry’s room), odds and ends of tools in the shed, along with various shovels and spades and the mower, an item or two in the back of this drawer or that. To Annette these stray remainders were reminders of Tim’s absence, but perhaps to others, to Harry, they were as unworthy of note as a burned out bulb, or the unraked leaves in the corner of the yard.
She wondered at times if there was something wrong with her. Shouldn’t she be devastated Tim had left and their marriage of six years was through? Shouldn’t she become weepy at the thought of it? Shouldn’t she be lonely, and desperate to fill some vacuous void?
Everything told her she should be all of these things and more. In truth, though, she felt only serenity and the strange stirrings of contentment. Now her life could have meaning which she herself ascribed to it. She was just beginning to understand Tim’s abandonment and what it may mean for her when Harry called about his discharge and his needing a ride. As they sat across the table from one another, eating the sirloin and mashed potatoes, Annette found herself wondering how long her brother would be staying with her. It was an uncharitable line of thought and she tried to dismiss it altogether. The click and scrape of Harry’s fork as he scooped up tinefuls of potato punctuated her selfish speculations.
You’re almost out. Would you like another Falstaff?
Harry looked at the finger of yellow liquid in his glass. Sure, sis, thanks.
Annette pushed herself away from the table and her unkind thoughts. She retrieved a can from the icebox, punctured its top twice, big and small; then returned to the table and poured some of the beer into her brother’s glass. Her water glass was empty so she poured the rest of the beer for herself. Annette took her seat:
I was thinking, we should have a welcome-home party for you, give everyone a chance to say hello all at once. I’m sure we could use the basement of the church. I’ll speak with Pastor Phillips. She didn’t say: Letting everyone know you’re back may prompt someone to offer you a job. She tried to imagine what Harry would’ve done if he hadn’t gone off to Korea. It was difficult to imagine. He’d always been a bookish, quiet sort of child, though not much interested in school unless it was a subject he especially liked. Mythology, for example, and the Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad was a favorite and of course Odysseus’ great wanderings. She recalled his making a cyclops out of papier-mâché. It was nearly three feet tall and required most of their immediate neighbors’ old newspapers, torn into strips.
Plans were made for a potluck in the church’s basement. Pastor Phillips insisted that the Methodist Ladies Auxiliary would supply the main course and cake. Guests could bring salads and sides. The pastor imagined that the whole village would turn out to welcome Harry home. The returns of World War Two boys, less than a decade earlier, were still fresh in most folks’ minds. Those were some bona fide parties, said Pastor Phillips, grinning a bit mischievously beneath his thick glasses. He would have Mrs. Holcomb put a notice about Harry’s party in the bulletin. Between that and word-of-mouth, the whole village will be in the know in no time. The pastor enjoyed his turn of phrase.
Annette thanked him before hurrying from his office to get to school on time.
Harry had spent the morning reading, thinking, smoking, drinking coffee. The sky was gray and mildly threatening as he considered it from his sister’s back porch. They were nearly out of coffee, and he was down to his last two cigarettes. They were low on bread also, and cornflakes. All the time sitting, relaxing, had given way to a goading restlessness, so he decided to walk to the grocery to restock essentials. He was already feeling a trifle guilty about staying with Annette and not pulling his own weight, especially since Tim seemed to be out of the picture. He felt that he should say something about his absent brother-in-law but he didn’t want to pry—that was one excuse he allowed himself. Really, though, it had more to do with his belief that if he broached the subject, it may lead to his sister confessing a cascade of heavy, complicated emotions, and it would be more than he could bear. There was so much heaviness and complication inside of him already, he sensed that another straw more may be his undoing. He may collapse beneath it all. Besides, he never cared much for Tim Wilson, and it was a pleasant surprise not having him around.
Annette kept a sturdy wicker basket with long handles on a hook next to the backdoor for the express purpose of carrying items home from the grocery store. Harry knew, in part, because she’d had the same basket for years. He removed it from its hook and began walking to Wilson’s Grocery (the owner was a cousin, once or twice removed, of Annette’s husband). It was a short walk along Willow Street to Main, made shorter by Harry’s hurrying: the skies looked more threatening than they had from the porch. Large, icy drops were beginning to pelt him as he reached the store. He regretted his timing as he didn’t know how long he’d be pinned down by the rain.
There was a young woman working the counter whom he didn’t recognize. How could that be? It was a place where everyone knew everyone. He was Wilson’s only customer at the moment. Harry nodded hello to the blond-haired girl; she was working a crossword puzzle. He began perusing the small store’s slim inventory.
Outside, the rain intensified. Harry could hear it monsooning against the roof, raindrops mixed with pellets of hail. It was warm inside the store. He could feel sweat on his neck. The girl seemed unconcerned about the weather as she filled in letters of her puzzle with a yellow pencil. Light glinted off canisters of soup. Harry blinked at the shards of white. He heard the first grumble of thunder. The girl looked up too. She smiled briefly—perhaps reassuringly—then returned to her crossword.
Harry’s mouth was dry. He wanted a long drink of beer. A flash of lightning broke across the gray, instantly followed by the thunder’s crash. Harry dropped the basket and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt: He was suffocating. His t-shirt was soaked under his arms and along his ribs and spine. He was near a bin of vegetables. He fought an instinct to squat behind it, shielding himself from the flashing windows.
Another bolt then bellow of thunder. He put his hand on the wooden bin for support. A head of purple cabbage shifted and fell to the floor. As he watched it topple, the bin’s wet scent of boggy earth rose around him like a closing bag. Another head fell. He may have kicked it as he lurched forward, or it may have been that his legs felt as stiff as crutches—but he lost his balance and groped for a handhold. He found a rack of sealed jars. One or two fell and glass shrapneled across the floor as the briny smell of pickles rippled over him. He couldn’t breathe. Harry fumbled his way out of the store, which felt as claustrophobic as a coffin. More items may have fallen and burst in his wake.
Down the streets rain running in streams, calling his name, someone. Red umbrella, porch, Annette’s, blanket on his shoulders, Annette’s. Smoking.
Donald and Rita Gale (née Hopkins) were both only-children of parents who had them later in life. Thus Annette Elizabeth and Harrison Scott Gale grew up with no extended family to speak of. Their father had a distant cousin, a nun, whom they met once at the funeral of a still more distant cousin, a salesman of some sort, door-to-door. Don Gale passed (coronary) when Annette and Harry were in their early teens; Rita five years later (cancer). They’d been dutiful parents but not doting. Annette, who was a voracious reader starting in childhood with the works of Lewis Carroll, soon advancing to Jane Austen then the Brontës and beyond, came to think of her parents, especially her father, as affectionate in a British sort of way—though he was as Midwestern American as a boy and then a man could be. Her mother wasn’t quite as aloof as her father, but she seemed to prefer her husband’s company to her children’s, and she was devastated nearly to the point of petrification at his sudden passing. In Annette’s recollection her mother had died shortly after her father. She would have to remind herself there was a five-year interval, during which her mother seemed morbidly intent on joining her spouse in death. Rita showed the preoccupation of a commuter who’d missed her train but was determined to catch the next.
Sometimes Harry saw the Koreans who were the subjects of the translations he typed into transcripts, in triplicate. Seeing them was more likely if they were South Koreans. But it usually took several days or even weeks for the translated interviews to reach him for transcription. So he rarely had any idea whose words he was reading. Over time, his mind began selecting one of a small collection of Korean faces as the subject. While working on a transcript, Harry would automatically assign a face to the voice he heard in the words. He thought of them almost as masks stored in a theatrical cabinet, except of course real, living faces. The mask—thickset or thin, bright-eyed or beady, saintly or sinister—spoke the words he read on the pages, the Koreans’ comments and confessions, rendered into English by the translators, most of whom broadcast an air of superiority. They delivered the words Mosaically, as if Jehovah’s own, not to be doubted, leave be amended. One could almost smell the acrid scent of a burned bush upon the pages.
After a time the Korean faces began appearing in his dreams, whispering to him in English with their distinct accents. They floated in an ethereal sea, a space all their own, a sort of in-between but with no sense of what lay before or beyond. In the beginning, they whispered snippets of the transcripts he’d typed on the portable Olympia. One night, though, they started murmuring of other things, barely audible in the rush of ether, only partly formed, mostly pieces of images, a helter-skelter of tiles from incomplete mosaics. Harry woke in the dark tent knowing something was different—knowing he was different.
More and more the faces spoke to him when he was awake, in the background of his consciousness, like distant voices in a crowded theater before the opening curtain. He’d catch a word or phrase, not enough to constitute a whole thought, just enough to remain frustratingly at the edge of intelligibility. He thought of the cast who occupied the fringes of his psyche as his own Greek chorus, a joke meant to lessen his fears about their worrisome presence, but it had little effect.
Annette had informed her teaching colleagues about the welcome-home party while they were in the faculty dining-room. She communicated the details over the noise of scraping forks and slicing knives. Two teachers immediately gave their regrets. The remaining dozen or so implied they would attend by not saying they couldn’t. Annette wanted to be sure about Beth Ann Ferguson’s attendance.
When the end-of-the-day bell had rung and the students had rushed away as if the school was sinking, Annette went to the room which served as the library. Bookcases, tall and short, cut the space into narrow aisles. Beth Ann’s desk, constructed of some ancient wood, dark and dense, stood sentinel near one wall. Beth Ann was so diminutive, when she sat at her mammoth desk, she could at first look like one of the children. She was not at her desk, however, and Annette believed for a moment that she’d already left; then she heard a sound among the tall stacks, and she found the little librarian in the 800s.
Annette startled her. Sorry, Beth Ann—I thought you probably heard me come in.
It’s o.k. She peered up, above her half reading glasses, which she wore on a cord around her neck.
For a second Annette doubted what she knew to be true, that Beth Ann and Harry were the same age. With her hair pinned back, and her reading glasses, and her blue dress with the lace collar, Miss Ferguson projected the image of an older woman. Earrings of pearl, like grandmotherly types in the village wore for special occasions, looked almost too weighty for Beth Ann’s delicate ears. Annette wondered if she, too, presented a similarly dowdy persona. She hoped not.
I couldn’t recall if you were at lunch when I mentioned Harry’s party, Annette fibbed.
Yes, it sounds like a nice thing for Harry. She replaced a book to its spot on the shelf. Euripides. Annette knew the collection, and sometimes shared an excerpt from The Trojan Women with her class as further context for Homer. The stacks were pleasantly heavy with the musty scent of old books; there was also a floral trace of Beth Ann’s powder—subtle but it stood out because of its strangeness among the rows and rows of rarely read books.
Do you think you can make it? To Harry’s party?
I’m not sure . . . I may have plans. The lie lingered in the air between them. Beth Ann added, I may have a friend coming in from out of town. The lie maintained its buoyancy in spite of the added weight.
Your friend would be welcome, of course. I’m sure it would mean the world to Harry to have you there.
I’ll see. I’ll try to make it. She pulled a book from the shelf. Aeschylus. Thank you. . . .
Thank you. Annette manufactured a smile of warmth. As she was leaving the library she thought of The Libation Bearers.
During the thirty-six-hour cross-country trip Harry discovered that reading helped to calm the chorus—not quiet their voices completely, nor drown them out, but at least the author’s voice could distract his attention from the chorus’ multilayered murmuring. On the bus Harry was reading a collection of New England ghost stories, and he found that some authorial voices were better at distracting from the Korean chorus than others. The more complex the sentence structure, the more obscure the vocabulary—the further the narrative distanced the incoherent choir. The ghost stories were sweet relief.
At Annette’s home, Harry doubted that the collection of Sandburg poems would have much effect, but the poet’s voice could more than distract Harry; in fact, some of the poems seemed to get the choral voices to stop altogether, for a few minutes at least. It was something about their rhythm, perhaps interwoven with particularly vivid images, that provoked the chorus’ silence, ceased their steady whispering, like a wind that is harbinger to storm.
I cannot tell you now;
When the wind’s drive and whirl
Blow me along no longer
The poem was titled ‘The Great Hunt,’ but it seemed to be more about seeking than hunting, thought Harry, because he associated hunting with killing, and the poem was about seeking someone with a great soul, or searching for that great soul beyond death. In any event, the words froze him in the realization of his solitariness, in understanding the lonely state of his own soul. He wondered if his soul was great, or could be great.
Harry savored the moment’s utter silence as if rays of golden light temporarily tore through a stubborn gray cover.
Most of the translations Harry typed were the quintessence of banality—subjects’ mundane descriptions of daily routines, uninspired details of local topographical features not included on the Army Corps’ survey maps, and rambling acknowledgments of connections between family members and friends. One day, however, a translation landed in Harry’s assignment box that was out of the ordinary: A South Korean, from Taejon, identified only as Im, was interviewed and claimed his profession as master storyteller. As substantiation Im told a tale that was so ancient no one knew its attribution, he said. Its title was translated as ‘The Tale of the Old Man with No Legs.’ It turned out to be a frame narrative (Harry recalled when he first learned the term in English class--Arabian Nights, Chaucer’s Tales, The Ancient Mariner). The unnamed narrator meets an old man with no legs on the wharf and inquires as to how he lost them. The old man recounts,
In my youth I was a sailor, one among a crew of twenty whose ship was battered by a terrible storm and driven many leagues from our course. We came to an island unknown to us. A strange-looking keep stood on the headland overlooking the sea. We were hungry and thirsty and exhausted from our ordeal in the storm. We had no choice but to ask for assistance. We climbed to the keep and called at the tall, queerly arched door. No one responded so we pushed the door ajar and entered the barely illumined interior. The smell of animals was strong and at a distance we heard the bleating of sheep and other pasture creatures. We were relieved, for surely the master of the keep had plenty of food and could spare some for lost, woebegone travelers in need. Our relief was fleeting, however. Just then a giant, terrible to behold, came into dim view from the dark edges of the vast room. We made our plea to the giant, who loomed above us as a very large man does tiny children. He made no reply, but went to the door and secured it with a ponderous timber. We were trapped. He disappeared into the dark only to return momentarily with a pile of wood and start a blazing bonfire. Still without a word he snatched one of our number and proceeded to roast him alive; then eat him to every last morsel. Meanwhile all that we could do was watch in horror.
When the giant finished his meal, he drank greedily from an earthen vessel, which must have held strong spirits for soon the giant lay on his back snoring, a sound like felled trees tumbling together. We rushed to the door and tried to budge the timber which held it fast but it was too massive. One of our number had a small knife used mainly for carving figures. We resolved to blind the giant and slash his throat. We managed the first order of business, but the terrible injury woke him to sudden rage and frantically he grasped for us. We scrambled to the far side of the room, where we found the giant’s sheep and pigs. He followed us but every time he reached down he clutched an animal instead of a man. We each picked up a sheep and carried it on our back. The giant went to the door and opened it so that his stock could go to pasture, which allowed us to escape the keep. We ran for our lives to the beach and our waiting ship.
The giant heard our clamoring down the rocks and called to his brethren for assistance. We boarded our ship but before we could reach open water the giants held us fast. We beat their hands with oars and clubs and stabbed them with fishing lances until they released us, and the tide carried us away. Weary from our escape, however, we soon ran upon treacherous shoals, which tore the ship asunder. All of my mates drowned. I clung to a piece of the timber, a rib of the splintered ship, and was the sole survivor. As I floated in the sea, a frightful fish bit off my legs. I washed upon a lonely island, where I remained marooned for many years—surviving against all odds.
Harry recognized the Korean tale from Odysseus’s great wanderings as well as from Sinbad’s voyages—all the ancient authors drawing from some still more ancient source, a common human head water.
As the day of his welcome-home party approached, Harry felt more and more uneasy. Perhaps it was the very idea of it: The village no longer felt like home. No place did. It seemed, then, that the idea was to welcome him to a strange place, one that offered no hope of becoming familiar.
The village had donned a disquieting mask
The line came to him—alone in the house, brewing coffee—as if spoken (whispered) by someone else. It took him a moment to attribute it to the chorus, which was whispering other words: a flood of images. As soon as the coffee was done he took a cup to the back porch, along with a notepad he found in a drawer and a pen. It was a chilly morning but Harry was warm enough in a heavy sweater, with a scarf knotted around his neck—in addition to the words burning inside of him. He scribbled the line about the disquieting mask, then the next:
as dramatic a change as from Drama to Comedy, from Dionysus to Apollo, from
Discord to Calm
He sat for a long while writing the words, working them, before he accepted that he was making a poem. He wrought images into lines and lines into stanzas. Harry discovered that the chaos of his chorus had become a more tamable torrent, one that could be checked with dikes and causeways and dams, by controlling diction, syntax and punctuation—even blank spaces provided some buffer for the rising tide of words.
In the corner of the spare room there was a small desk on which sat an Underwood typewriter. Harry took the pages of handwritten poetry—with their crossouts and insertions, arrows and asterisks—and sat in front of the machine. Even his juxtaposition to the typewriter calmed his mind further. He found clean sheets of paper in one of the desk drawers and rolled a sheet into the carriage. He worked to bring meaning to the disordered ideas and images. After a time he had a draft with which he felt some level of satisfaction. He unrolled it from the carriage, folded the newborn poem in thirds, and placed it inside Sandburg’s Chicago Poems. He’d titled it ‘The Human Voice.’
The Ladies Auxiliary prepared most of the food, including their signature ham loaf, and decorated the church basement. Annette’s students made a banner out of an old sheet and purple fabric paint: Welcome Home, Harry!! There was some debate as to whether ‘Harry’ should be ‘Mr. Gale’ or ‘Cpl. Gale,’ but Annette decided the simplest approach best. The banner hung on the basement wall above the refreshments table. Mrs. Holcomb had made a cake, white icing with purple script repeating the message, and color scheme, of the banner.
Pastor Phillips had placed a notice about the welcome-home in the bulletin, prominently anchoring the front page; and he made special mention of it during both services. Other notices were posted here and there: the windows of Owens’ Café and Reynolds’ Barber Shop, on the bulletin-board in the library, and on the wall at the Farm Service office.
Harry: (To the Audience) I hold no animosity for my neighbors—but neither do they hold a
special place in my heart. They strike me as ghosts, a part of my past that has returned
to me unwanted and unbidden, even though it is I who has returned to them. They
dully occupy a space which should be my future, as yet unformed. Are there seeds
beneath the soil that shall claw their way to the surface and the enlivening light? Or have they lain dormant too long and forgotten their purpose, and will merely rot in the
damp earth? Food for another’s dream.
Annette: Are you ready? The guest of honor shouldn’t be late, not even fashionably so.
Harry: I cannot of course count my sister a ghost. That would be unkind, for one, and she has
always been kind to me; even when we were children. Also, there is life and living in
her more so than most of her (our) neighbors. She is a seed whose brave shoot may yet
break into the light—perhaps only to whither in the inhospitable climate. She may be
brave enough to try, but am I brave enough to let her?
Chorus: Harry has not broached the subject but Annette has obviously been abandoned by her
husband. Tim loaded the car with what he wanted—leaving enough behind to tell the
tale of his departure—and he drove toward some other future. Though this place is
rife with spirits, a new Asphodel, how could Harry abandon his sister too? It could be
the last bit that breaks her.
Annette: Look. They’ve made you a banner: Welcome Home, Harry!!
Pastor Phillips: Here’s our war hero. Let us shake your hand.
Jim Goodpath: Welcome home!
Carl Reynolds: It’s good to see you!
Harry: Thank you, Pastor, for lending us use of the basement, and for arranging the food.
Pastor: You’re welcome. The ladies were delighted to have a project. It’s been a slow year in
the wedding and funeral departments, sadly and gladly, respectively.
Chorus: A funeral, that’s what this feels like to Harry: The village turning out to pay their
respects, then have a free meal and eat a piece of white cake. He manufactures a smile
for new arrivals and shakes hands and responds to the same few questions again and
again. When did he get back? What’s he going to do? Implied: Will he be staying? A
couple of weeks ago . . . ? . . . ? The too-sweet smell of the ham loaf reminds him of
his parents’ funerals.
Pastor Phillips: (Confidentially.) Your arrival home was quite fortuitous—the timing we mean.
Jim Goodpath: Just when she needed a man.
Chorus: It’s a well-established fact that a woman needs a man. The several women
in the village and in its history who appear to have successfully ignored the fact are
mere exceptions: Outliers, often nearly as literal of a term as figurative. Harry looks
across the basement at his sister, whom he would describe as thoughtful, but not
unhappy. It makes sense: There is much to consider, given her change of
Pastor: I have been saying an extra little prayer for Annette—and here you are . . . and for your
safe return to us, too, of course.
Carl Reynolds: Let’s get your picture.
Pastor: I see you have a new toy.
Carl: Picked up the new flash in Crawford yesterday. Been chomping at the bit to try it out.
Chorus: Harry has brought the ragged copy of Chicago Poems with him, in his side pocket— the weight of the book against his hip, slight as it is, gives him a sense of security. He
takes the Sandburg from his pocket to pose for Carl Reynolds, amateur but avid
Carl: That’s great. Chin up a bit, smile, on three . . .
Chorus: The exploding bulb dazzles Harry for a second. As his vision clears he sees Beth Ann
Ferguson standing next to Carl, as if she has materialized with the burst of light. At
first, before his vision returns completely, he thinks she is a child at Mr. Reynolds’s
side. When he recognizes Beth Ann, he recalls that her childhood nickname was
Polly, something to do with a story about a parrot in one of their primers. Harry must
be imagining it, but a faint residue of the blinding light seems to linger in the space
around Beth Ann, like an aura.
Harry: Hi. I didn’t notice you come in.
Chorus: His extended hand holds the book of poetry still, as if an offering. Beth Ann takes
the accidental gift and looks at the spine before returning it.
Beth Ann: Sandburg.
Chorus: Eruption of laughter, if you please. . . . Thank you. It is because Mr. Abernathy has
gotten into the basement storage-room where the church’s theatrical properties are
kept and emerged wearing a goat mask. Mayor Whittle and Doc Higgins join in, and
they are a cow and a pig. The trio begin to make the appropriate noises, much to the group’s general delight.
Pastor Phillips: What do you think, Harry? Bet you didn’t know this would be a masquerade.
High noon inside the playhouse large cool fishes glisten singing of life in the sun: Chorus.
Harry: I need a smoke.
Beth Ann: I could use some air.
A grinning skull waves of sound beat the sidewalk a new way: Chorus.
Harry: The night is clear. The stars are like comets. They should all have tails of stardust.
Beth Ann: You always noticed the oddest things, Harry Gale.
Harry: Did I? I’d nearly forgotten.
Cars whir by when high waves come closer into the hoofs on a winter night: Chorus.
Beth Ann: Is something wrong?
Harry: No. . . .
Soft echoes on a bronze pony in the cold and lonely snow and into dawn: Chorus.
Harry: Do you have a car?
Beth Ann: I can use my dad’s Mercury.
Harry: Would you drive me to Crawford? To the bus terminal?
Beth Ann: What? Now?—Do you want to let Annette know?
Harry: I can call. She can send me my things.
Alone with a picture after the dead beat their hands outside of what poets leave their skulls
in the sun for: Chorus.