A Night on the Home Front by Beth Garland
It is 2:31 A.M., and I am wondering where you are right now, my love. Six weeks, six very long weeks have passed, and still I wake in the dark each night, pulse pounding from some sound I think I heard, some terrifying nightmare I had, and sometimes, like tonight, before I open my eyes, I let myself believe that you are lying here beside me. Instead, it’s our baby who’s crying, and I can feel how hot her body is through her clothes before I ever put my hand to her forehead. At daylight, I will call Mama and Daddy, and they will come, but until then, it’s just me and this baby who is so hot. Her skin burns my hand, and it scares me to be alone with her.
It’s 2:37 A.M., and I am pacing in front of the French doors in our room, rubbing our daughter’s back and hoping the acetaminophen will kick in quickly. The moon is bathing the verandah in a silver white light, and I think about what the sky looks like where you are: blue and cloudless, the sun already scorching, you in desert fatigues, riding in a convoy of slow moving humvees, sweat zigzagging in rivulets down your back, 20 oz. soft drink bottles with the labels torn off rolling around on the floorboards, their contents drained and replaced with tobacco stained saliva, fifty caliber machine guns mounted on turrets, sand spattering against the windshield, blood hissing in your veins. I imagine that your heart is beating fast and hard right now, like mine, that our fear can make us one again.
It’s 2:49 A.M., and I am wiping up the last of our baby’s vomit. It smells sickly sweet; I can detect a hint of the peaches she had for supper. The cleaner I’m using has eucalyptus in it, and it mingles with the regurgitated peaches. What do you smell right now: gun powder, body odor, blood, death? A raccoon got run over near my house when I was little, and the stench of it rotting filled up the air for days. Is that what a human body smells like, the organs decomposing beneath gray, bloated flesh, the blood coagulating? The baby’s temperature is 104.1 now, going up instead of down like it sometimes does before the medicine takes affect. I’m afraid her blood is boiling, scalding her insides.
It’s 3:26 A.M., and she is finally resting. The fever is on its way down, and I am listening for the gentle rush of air that she exhales every couple of seconds. I can’t go to sleep; the silence of the house is so loud, I can barely hear if she is still breathing. I wonder if you can hear anything over the droning hum of the cavalcade as it moves across the desolate land or if it covers up everything, like the clouds of dust it leaves in its wake. How do you know if the enemy is approaching? Do you hear the crackle of gunfire or see a flash of movement in the distance? Or is it a silent, invisible enemy, like the fever, the absence of breath, exploding on you without warning?
It’s near dawn now. I can see the first sliver of gold cutting into the dark when I raise my head from a few restless hours of sleep. I put my hand on the baby’s chest first, then her forehead. Still breathing, still cool, but it’s the clammy cool that appears between fevers, evidence that the glassy eyes and the searing skin will return. Is that how your pistol feels if you slide your hand inside its holster, cool against your palm until the next time you have to draw and fire it, the bursting bullets making the barrel smolder?
I leave the baby to sleep and make my way to the stairs in the shadowy light, trailing my fingertips along the wall. The lamps in the entrance hall give off a soft glow as I descend, and the daylight continues to chase the night across the eastern sky. In the kitchen, I make the call to my parents’ house, listen to my mother’s sleepy voice telling me that they will be here as soon as they can. I feel the tension releasing some of its grip on my throat as I run cold water into the kettle, as I allow myself to take a little comfort in knowing that my time alone this time is almost over. I put the kettle on the stovetop and wait for it to heat up. I wish your arms would slip around my waist right now, that your lips would find that spot on my neck that warms my face more than the heat rising from the burner.
Soon, the water will roll into a boil, and I will take the kettle off before it whistles, so it doesn’t wake the baby. Soon, after the pouring and the steeping, I will taste the cardamom and cinnamon of the Chai tea that comes from the same continent where you are now. Are you able to wash the saltiness of your sweat and the grit of the sand out of your mouth, or does it just return as soon as the water’s all gone, leaving your tongue dry? Is there ever an adequate amount of water to remove the taste of war and ruin that you must ingest every single day that you are there?
I take my cup of tea and go to the front door. The sun has almost completely risen, and the dark is gone for now, already on its way to you. As I watch the sun inch along the sky, I wonder what the dark means for you, if it’s more dangerous than the light. I take a sip, hold the hot liquid in my mouth, swallow the burn. If you were here, there wouldn’t be any dark or danger, sickness or fear more powerful than us. If you were here, I wouldn’t be standing here, looking out the window. I would be looking at you, touching you, smelling you, drinking you in, bathing in the sound of your voice; it would be like water, enough to wash away my thirst for a thousand years.