Taking what I learned in Isaac Babel’s My First Goose, I wrote the following short story. It’s an exercise, and not meant to be original. I wish I could tuck most of it away behind a fold and link to it, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. So instead I’ll just plonk it all down here, and if you don’t want to read it, then hell, I guess you don’t have to.
When I awoke First Lieutenant Abrahams was stepping back from my bed, his face dark above me, silhouetted by the barrack lights. He looked still and grave and his silence gave me more pause than all his barked commands these long two weeks past. I sat up, my heart thudding in my chest, and knew that somebody had died, and that I was going to have to tell their family.
“Sorry to wake you, son,” said Abrahams. His voice was soft. I didn’t know he had it in him to speak like that. “But I’m afraid you’re going to have to get on your feet. We’ve just received word that Lance Corporal Pata was killed. Died in action off Tannhauser Gate.”
The floor was cold under the soles of my feet and I nodded, not quite awake yet but feeling a weight settle on my shoulders, a weight fill my gut. This would be my first casualty notification assignment. I knew the drill. I’d been preparing for this night since I arrived. All that preparation had made it no easier.
“Alright,” I said. “Who’s assigned to head out with me?”
“I’m not sure you’re registering the pertinent details,” said Abrahams. I looked up, and saw the deep lines cut into his face. Saw the fatigue under his eyes, how care sat on his brow. “Lance Corporal Pata was that Lussof that made it into the Corps.”
I breathed out and blinked rapidly, staring through Abrahams chest as I digested this and just like that I was finished waking up. Abrahams was watching me closely.
“Are you going to have a problem with this assignment?” he asked.
“No sir, I don’t reckon I will.”
“Well that’s good. Command says the family deserves to be treated with the same courtesy and respect we’d show any of our own, and I expect you to do exactly that. Especially since it looks like Pata’s going to be awarded a Bronze Star for valor. Understood?”
I stood up, and rubbed the base of my palm into my eye. “Understood, sir.” He nodded, and walked out.
One hour later I was riding in the jeep with Chaplain Morris, the sky a dark and indistinct gray, the planet’s sun not yet risen. Already it was humid, humid enough that my full dress uniform was clinging to my body and I dreaded the heat when the sun came up.
Chaplain Morris was looking out the jeep’s window. It was a ten minute drive down from the base to Settlement Three, and the road was rough and unpaved. We jounced along, and then he shook his head. If the window had been open, he’d of spat.
“Excuse me for saying so, sir, but this is bullshit.”
I didn’t respond. Morris subsided into uneasy silence, but I could tell from the way he kept shifting in his seat that he hadn’t had his say just yet. He was a big man, with big hands and thick neck. He played on the base’s football team, and played well, and was well liked by the other men. I’d played back on Earth, but had not been welcomed onto the team yet.
“How we even going to find them?” he asked, turning to glare at me. “How we going to recognize them?”
“We’ll just find somebody that speaks English,” I said, “And ask for directions if we have any trouble.”
“Right.” He turned back to the window, and I could still he still wasn’t done. That he thought I was failing to grasp his point.
“Do you have a problem, Chaplain?” I asked.
“Don’t you?” He turned and eyed me, and then shook his head. “This doesn’t stick in
“Should it?” I wanted to draw him out. Get him into the open.
“Hell yeah it should. You kidding me? Ten years ago we were killing these monkeys, and now we have to pretend they’re like us?”
I lowered my chin. The road was leveling out, the blasted and rain gullied plain vast and orange before us. Once this had all been forested. Now you couldn’t see a tree in any direction. All cut down to fuel the need back home.
I didn’t answer Morris. Settlement Three was appearing up ahead, a large enclosure of single storied buildings, a refugee camp turned permanent home. A large chain fence enclosed it, but it was purely symbolic. There was nowhere for them to run to.
I passed through the open gates, and drove down the main street between the low buildings. The air was beginning to lighten, and there were Lussof moving slowly between the dark doorways, pausing to turn their golden, reflective eyes at us as we passed. There were no Lussof children playing in the street. There was no sound in the air. It was like driving through a ghost town who’s ghosts were visible.
I followed the directions, and pulled up outside a building near the center of the camp. A blue star was placed in a circular window. After we left, it would turn gold. I turned to look at Morris. He was staring straight ahead, jaw tight. I looked at him till he turned and met my eyes, and I could see him measuring me, gauging me.
I got out of the jeep and began to walk up to the open doorway. Morris got out and followed. The Lussof never closed their doors, keeping their homes open to each other. There was no door to knock on, as a result.
I stopped outside the door, and looked within. I could make shapes moving slowly about in the darkness. Eyes turned towards me and gleamed faint copper in the gloom.
“Excuse me,” I said “Is this the home of the Pata’s?”
A shape came forwards, growing distinct as it approached, and an old Lussof stepped up to the doorway. It was frail, hunched over, its large ears tufted with white fur, its pinched, long snouted face as inscrutable as the face of a statue. It looked up at me with gold eyes.
“Excuse me,” I repeated. “Are you Mr. Pata?”
The Lussof smelled faintly of cinnamon, and its face seemed to betray no intelligence, no comprehension. It felt like speaking to a dog. But it nodded.
I was supposed to ask to enter, to have the family members sit down before I told them. I thought of my years of training on Earth, of the glorious blue skies I missed so dearly, of the orange dust that rose from the training yard as the soldiers struggled to score a touch down.
“Your son is dead,” I said.
Mr. Pata blinked his long lashed eyelids, and then raised his long clawed hands to cover his face. He didn’t make a sound.
“Your son died in combat outside Tannhauser Gate. He died with honor, and his body will arrive at the base in the next few days.”
The Lussof didn’t react. It just stood within the doorway, long claws curled around its snout, hiding its brilliant eyes. I stood still, staring at it, and then turned and began marching back toward the jeep. I opened the door and climbed in, and started the engine. Morris entered the jeep and slammed it behind him. I began driving, and didn’t look in the rearview mirror.
We drove in silence till we left Settlement Three, and began to drive up the rising road back toward the base.
“I could of sworn you were going to give it hugs when we left the base,” said Morris, his voice quiet.
“I’m not the hugging type,” I said.
“Guess not,” he said, and then he laughed, shifting his weight to sit more comfortably in the seat, holding onto the oh-shit handle above the window.
I drafted my report for Abrahams and sent it to his Inbox, and then sat in the dark of my room. A Family Responder was supposed to remain at the bereaved family’s home for as long as it took. They were supposed to become that family’s go-to person for all matters military pertaining to the fallen soldier, and the trainers who had coached me in this duty had told me how close the Family Responder and the bereaved family could grow. I sat still in my room for a long time, and when I left the sun had cleared the horizon and was flooding the hallway outside with light.
I entered the mess hall for breakfast, and after serving myself a tray of food I went to sit down by myself at my usual place. As I passed one of the tables, one of the older soldiers looked up at me.
“Why don’t you join us, sir?”
I stopped, and placed my tray down on the table. They shifted aside to make room for me, and I saw Morris at the far end, hunched low over his tray. He nodded to me, and I returned his nod.
“So how you finding base?” asked the man to my left.
“I’m waiting for it to grow on me,” I said. They laughed, and I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “It sure isn’t New York, that’s for sure.”
“What’s New York like?” asked the man across from me.
I shoveled a spoon full of beans into my mouth, and then spoke through them, “Large, noisy, full of women with the longest, smoothest legs you’ve ever seen.”
Somebody whistled, and then they laughed again, and one of the guys began telling the table about a woman he had slept with back on Luna. I relaxed into the conversation, eating expansively, allowing the conversation to flow around me. A pitcher of water was passed down the table, and the man to my left filled my cup without asking.
“We’re going to throw the ball around later this afternoon after drill,” said Morris, and I looked up, and saw that everybody was looking at me. “If you ain’t busy, you should come on over. If you know how to play ball, that is.”
“I bet I can teach you a thing or two,” I said, and the guys leaned back, crowing with amusement. Morris laughed, and I grinned at him. “You ever hear of the Three Over Play? It’s the play that won us the Division Championship back when I was going through the Academy.”
“You ever hear about raw athletic talent?” asked Morris, “Because if not, you’re going to get an eyeful later on.” The men laughed again, and then stood, gathering their trays. They walked off as a group, and though they didn’t say goodbye, I didn’t mind. I sat alone at the table, trying to finish off my meal, but then set the spoon down. I looked out the window at the drill yard, at the buildings across it, and at the low pink sun that had risen and was making its rapid ascent into the hazy tan sky. I thought of the blue skies back on earth, of the women striding along the New York avenues, their legs long and smooth. But my heart, stained with shadow, grated and brimmed over.