The Dead Lion
Of all the grim journeys a soldier may face none may be more daunting and unpredictable than returning home from war.
The Dead Lion
by Steven Lee Gilbert
If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted,
or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude
has been salvaged from the larger waste,
then you have been made the victim
of a very old and terrible lie.
—Tim O’brien, The Things They Carried
Shut up, shuttin’ up!
— Yosemite Sam
Only a handful of mourners are present, standing together at the foot of a mountain on a narrow spit of lawn, like a knot of sullen protestors huddled beneath the rain-drenched sky and mushrooming plume of umbrellas. Their faces are turned down and their shoulders squared off against the wet and the cold and the melancholy note of mortality, while a gray-bearded man in a camouflaged jacket addresses the solemn congress. He is sharing a few words, presumably, of the figure wrapped head to toe in a white burial shroud and presented before them on a long willow frame set on four equal risers of gray cinder block. His voice is low, muffled against the falling rain which has begun in some places to soak through the thin ceremonial fabric giving way to patches of grayish-pink flesh. A broad forehead, the bridge of a nose. A pair of prominent cheek bones. One hand resting atop the other.
At the edge of the assembly, a young woman pokes her head from beneath an umbrella and jeers skyward, her eyes are puffy and red and harden with admonishment as they fixate on the foul weather. Her jaw hardens too as she turns and leans over the head of a child to speak in the ear of the tall, balding man standing next to him. Who in return offers barely a look, a single, slight shake of his head. The woman straightens and stares. She says something more in his direction and before he can register any further dissent she passes the boy her umbrella and turns out into the rain.
She hurries across the lawn toward a woodshed where there loiters a short, round man with his back to the service and dressed in the full Highlands costume. Scottish green kilt, black feather bonnet, tartan piper’s plaid. She taps him on the shoulder and the man turns. She gestures to the bagpipe he has cradled in his arms and draws a for him a series of tiny, tight agitated circles in the air. The bagpiper smiles and nods. He fingers the blowpipe to his mouth. Then stops abruptly and floats through clenched jaws this one question: Sorry for asking, but who again is it we are burying?
I remember the day, the very minute in fact, John David told us he was joining the Army. He was eighteen, I was twelve. We’d just sat down to dinner. His graduation was the next day and so Daddy was pressuring him about going to college again, using the same arguments, income and opportunity, that he would later give me—right up until I got pregnant. John David had made his mind up though and so he sat there not saying a word. After a while, Daddy did the same. The two of them sitting there stewing and picking over their plates, until the silence got too big even for them and one of them had to say something.
You’re sure about this? Frank asked.
Pretty sure, answered John David.
A decision this big, seems you ought to be more than just pretty sure.
John David looked across the table at his sister. Would you please pass me the beans, Edie?
Edith looked at him oddly, as if he’d spoken to her using some unfamiliar language. The beans, he said again.
So when might this happen? Frank pressed.
John David shrugged as he piled more beans on the ones he’d not eaten. All depends on the needs of the Army.
The needs of the Army?
That’s what they said.
That sounds like a thing a recruiter might say. Did they at least give you some indication?
Well like what?
John David shrugged. Different things.
Edith sat watching them. Neither had yet to mention there was a war going on.