THERE IS MORE TO DEATH THAN LIFE
by Dan A. Cardoza
The past cannot be cured –Queen Elizabeth I
Buddy is a good friend but will be an even better Marine. He is open to following directions. He will die face down in Pleiku, far away from his dreams, alone. But today, Buddy is twelve and entitled to his share of dreams. After all, most nightmares are reserved for adults. Buddy’s stepdad had a job for us.
I wait at the bottom of the wooden steps. Buddy bayonets the spring-hinged door, with the tip of his dad’s .410 shotgun barrel, now pointing straight at my big red heart.
Ok, Dan, let’s get this done.
BANG!—As the heavy redwood screen door slams hard against the chipped teal door jam. Dark crows explode off a crooked sycamore branch. I drop my shoulders with relief. Cradling his dad’s Remington break action, single shot in the crook of his elbow, Buddy skips down the steps, flipping the shotgun shell high in the air, ass over tea kettle, catching it in his right-hand palm, just as his feet step to the ground.
Grab her! He croaks in his broken preteen voice.
What the hell? At ten, my voice still rings clear, like a choir boy.
Here, hold the gun then, he barks, tossing the gun at me with a little extra push.
Buddy dives in the shadows, hidden under the wooden steps and snatches up Cat-Cat in his oversized hands. If he were a wide receiver, his fans would be frenzied with glee, chest bumping.
He pushes to his feet, cradling her in comfort. His torn Levi knees stained with lime green and grass rash.
Buddy stands and grunts. Let’s walk toward the tracks.
Why? It’s easy to see Cat-Cat is days from kittens.
You will know soon enough, Dan the man. Then Buddy imagines his stepdad’s cuffed hand, on the back of his neck, like a warm baseball glove. He quickly marches forward.
After about twenty minutes, we reach the railroad tracks. The creosol vertebrae ties and steel rails extend their endless spine deep into the woods, and then evaporate into the forest. We do not speak.
My mind fights a hooked rainbow trout in my skull. As it fans its desperate gills, gasping for water, I wonder why I follow my impulsive friend, without any real knowledge of what he is planning. I feel guilty for something I didn’t do, but I follow.
These are mill town tracks for trains made of steel, for cargos of logs to lumber, then lumber to market. In the August heat, we follow the drifting ghost of tracks through a forest of Cedar and Spruce. The steel tracks mirages flow ahead of us like rivers of mercury. We walk south speechless about something obvious. In another thirty minutes, we reach a bend in the spine.
We are nearly engulfed in a forest of Douglas Fir, Cedar, and red oaks; each tree with its own scintillating electric green address. He stops abruptly.
Buddy gently strokes Cat-Cat’s fur, with the calm of betrayal, he has grudgingly learned from his mother and stepfather over the past years. He then gently places her in tall dried weeds and thistles, nearly ten feet from tracks crushed granite bedrock. She obediently sits and reverently gazes up at him. Buddy knows all too well the nuances of reverence and obedience. He takes two steps back, yet does not call her name, because he is aware she may follow. He slowly back steps several more feet. This hypnotic dance seems to lull the forest back to sleep, if just for a few seconds longer. And, just before the alarm rings. It’s heartache quiet.
I smell smoke, as the wind returns in the tall trees. I see a bloody explosion, in slow motion. And only then do I hear the sound. I view my arms still stiff from holding a now invisible shotgun. Somehow Houdini has conjured the shotgun from my arms. My ears pound steel on steel, then ring like a tiny purple bluebell flowered forest, announcing death in every small tinkle and jingle. From the leftovers of Cat-Cat, newborn kittens pour from her hyaline sack, wriggling desperately for a chance of air and life. They crawl on their slimy bellies, blindly thrashing the thistles and dried witch weed stalks in a sticky, raspy sound, never to be forgotten.
We stare at each other for an abbreviated eternity. Buddy then cracks open the hot barrel, as it ejects a smoking plastic shell with hot brass: his only shell. The casing summersaults to the tracks, smoking hot, cracking the shiny iron rail, then settles to the crushed granite.
Buddy turns quickly, determined, and begins his quick pace toward his home. I follow. We each walk our own I-beam of mirrored steel. As we walk, balancing on our high bar, we faintly hear the dry weeds crackle and rattle manically. It’s the muzzled sound of a mad Guiro. With each step we take, a new bloody thatch of silence grows at our heels. Death will be slow in its mercy, if at all?
Dad said to only use one shell. Buddy quips as he looks down at his rail, concentrating hard so not to fall.
I don’t answer. I only hear the sounds of shuffling sneakers on track, the gathering caws, punctuated only by the intermittent defining silence.
The train tracks river us along, into an imagined shallow lake, all mirage. We slowly wade all the way back. By the end of our trek, I am drowning in guilt and begin mourning a lost friend. We part ways for good at the corner of Sunset and August.
In the haze of midnight, Buddy envisions he is leading troops into battle.
I hike into sleep and listen to the muffled sound of a raspy Giro in tall, dry weeds, the crazed caw of crows.
Dan A. Cardoza is the author of two chapbooks: Nature’s Front Door and Expectation of Stars. His work had been published in Amethyst, Ardent, Better Than Starbucks, California Quarterly, Chaleur Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Curlew, UK., Earthwise, Entropy, Esthetic Apostle, Friday Flash Fiction, Oddball, Poetry Northwest, The Quail Bell, Skylight 47, Spelk, and Vita Brevis.