THE STAIRWELL of the farmhouse was hung with soldiers, living and dead. Mostly dead. Carl Frieden could hear his grandson Kevin introducing them to his fiancée as the two young people made their way up the stairs. He strained his ears to catch more of the conversation as their voices rose to his second-floor bedroom, but it was no use. At 75 he counted himself blessed that his eyesight was still keen, his hands steady, and his bowels regular, but his hearing wasn’t what it used to be. Until the pair climbed higher, he could make out only a few scattered words.
“Battle of the Bulge…”
They’re looking at Walter, he thought. His older brother, forever 21, had smiled from that wall for half a century while Carl grew wrinkled and paunchy alongside Walter’s girl.
The soldier’s wall had been Ruthie’s idea. It featured military men from both their families, but Walter had pride of place on the landing halfway up. Walter’s photo wasn’t hung like the others; Ruthie had placed it on a small mahogany shelf, and beside it a crystal bud vase that never lacked a fresh flower in fifty-two years. Carl minded that longer than he should have. Years after there was a sag in the middle of the marriage bed and four children running up and down those stairs, Carl would pause on the landing to remind Walter that he was dead.
After Ruthie’s funeral two years ago, he’d paused there to deliver a different message: “Take care of her, you. Show her around.”
A photo of young Kevin, most recent in the line of family soldiers, hung at eye level above the top step. Carl heard Kevin’s girl exclaim, “Now that’s handsome!” as they reached it. A murmur, a feminine laugh, and a short but meaningful silence told him his grandson had seized the moment.
Good boy, Carl thought. Never a smart boy, that Kevin—he’d even been held back a year in junior high—but always a good boy. A kind one, too, using precious days of his Army leave to go hunting with an old man. What Kevin lacked in brains and sense, he made up for in heart.
Kevin appeared in the bedroom doorway, his fiancée, Mandy, beside him—both of them so fresh-faced and young it made the old man’s bones hurt to look at them. They were holding hands, Mandy’s right in Kevin’s left. They might have stepped out of a milk commercial, except that the girl’s nipples were up. Kevin wore his hunting clothes but Mandy was still in pajamas, a silky blue nightshirt over striped cotton shorts.
“What’s taking you so long, Grandpa?” Kevin asked. “It’s getting light. The biggest buck is probably strapped on top of somebody’s car by now.”
“I hope the biggest buck ran off to the next county,” Mandy said.
“Bambi-lover.” Kevin aimed a playful slap at her round bottom, but she sidestepped with ease.
Carl held up a leather belt, thin and pliable with age. “Can’t shoot if my damn pants are falling down, now can I?” He threaded the belt through the loops of his faded work pants, adjusting it below the doughy mound of his belly. “I thought the service would teach you some patience, boy. ‘Hurry up and wait,’ that’s the Army motto.”
“I saw your picture in the stairway,” Mandy said. “In your dress uniform. Were you in World War II?”
“Korea. Drafted in ’51.” Carl opened his top dresser drawer to extract two oversize red bandanas. He stuffed one into his right hip pocket, the other into his left. Atop the chest of drawers, Ruthie’s dark eyes reproached him from a silver-framed photo. “Wasn’t old enough to join up for the big war.”
Kevin leaned against the door frame. “Like my dad,” he told Mandy. “He was just finishing high school when the Vietnam War ended. That’s why he’s not on the wall.”
Carl grunted. “That’s why he’s still walking around breathing,” he said, reaching for the blaze-orange vest laid out on the bed. “Eddie would’ve got his fool head blown off for sure. Clumsiest kid I ever saw—even worse than you, Kevin, and you got two left feet.”
“Hey, now—” Kevin protested.
Mandy giggled. “It’s true. He mashes my toes when we dance. I have to lead.”
Carl was willing to bet she did the leading off the dance floor, too. She had a set to her jaw and a spark in her pretty eyes that warned a man he’d best steer in the direction she already wanted to go. Well, that was all right. Kevin was the kind who’d be apt to drift without a strong woman beside him. Look at how he’d drifted into the Army just because he couldn’t decide between an auto-repair class at the vo-tech school and trying for a job at the mill.
Carl zipped up the orange vest and turned to face his grandson. “Plan to stand here yakkin’ all day, or we going hunting?”
He didn’t look at Walter on his way downstairs. He didn’t look at any of them.
THE DEER STAND was two miles back in the pine woods behind the farm. The men made their way single file along the narrow dirt trail, Kevin striding ahead with his Remington and a backpack of provisions for the day; his grandfather following more slowly with his Springfield .30-06 slung across his back. Kevin made a godawful lot of noise, Carl noticed. That boy was about as stealthy as a harness mule.
By long tradition, they would talk a little in the first mile, then go silent for the second, approaching the stand without so much as a whisper between them. Kevin piped up somewhere around the quarter-mile mark.
“Who’s been shooting knotholes?” He pointed at a scraggly white pine leaning at a drunken angle toward the trail, then at a straighter spruce beyond.
Carl gazed up at the bullet holes, each dead center in a knot of wood. “Somebody’s target practice, I guess.”
Kevin gave a low whistle. “Man! Wish I had that kind of aim. There’s a guy who’s going to get his buck for sure.”
“Not if it hears him blasting away at trees.”
They moved on.
After another quarter-mile: “They’ll ship us out to Iraq soon, I guess. That’s what everybody’s been saying.”
“They’re likely right,” Carl said. “Mr. Bush got his green light from Congress, I don’t suppose he’ll wait long to stomp on the gas.”
“It could be mostly an air war, though. That’s what my buddy Duane thinks.”
“Could be.” Except that Duane was kissing cousin to a moron if he supposed there wouldn’t be troops on the ground. Infantry was the backbone of the Army, always would be.
Kevin paused long enough to point to another bullet-pierced knothole, this one just slightly off-center, then went on. “Mandy wants to get married before I go. Mom and Dad think we should wait till we’re older, have a big wedding after I’ve done my tour.”
Carl thought of Ruthie, bent double sobbing over Walter’s coffin. Not wife, not widow, but the grief was the same. They gave the flag to Ma.
“You and Mandy, you figure out what’s right between the two of you,” he said. “Parents look at a son your age, they don’t always see him straight. They see some little boy, barely out of diapers.”
Kevin glanced over his shoulder. “Mom, maybe. Dad keeps calling me the family warrior.”
His grandfather snorted. “Your daddy watches too many war movies.”
At Walter’s funeral, Ruthie had wept in Carl’s arms as the casket was lowered into the earth. “We shouldn’t have waited,” she had whispered as her tears dampened his neck. “Then maybe I’d have his baby to remember him by.” Carl had just stood there wordless, smelling her hair. It was three years before he dared to court her himself.
“You work it out with your girl,” he told Kevin. “Don’t you listen to anybody else.”
The mile mark came and went. In silence they passed under another spruce with a pierced burl. It looked like a blinded eye.
THE TRAIL dead-ended at a clearing, the tall meadow grass gone autumn yellow and wet with early-morning dew. They kept to the perimeter, moving clockwise to reach the deer stand set back among a cluster of poplar trees on the far side. A breeze blew at a slight angle across their backs as they approached it. With the ease of long experience, Carl calculated how this would affect his aim.
With the stand close ahead, Kevin’s footsteps sped up even as Carl’s faltered. The old man’s knees ached. Everything ached in the mornings since Ruthie’s passing. He slowed, then stopped, breathing deeply to calm the too-rapid thumping of his heart. Let the boy go on ahead, he thought. Just let him go.
His body felt suddenly heavy, the rifle heavier. His joints protested as he sank slowly to one knee and unslung the cold weight from his back. Thirty feet ahead, unnoticing in his eagerness, Kevin set one foot and both hands to the deer stand’s ladder. He looks like Walter, Carl thought. How is it I never noticed how much he looks like Walter?
In the quiet of the clearing, the rifle fire rang out unnaturally loud. Blood bloomed abruptly on Kevin’s left hand. Where a heartbeat before there had been five fingers, now there were three. Something—shock?—kept the boy still, frozen in place until the last fading echo of the shot. Then Kevin screamed, his arms flailed, and he went tumbling backward off the ladder.
Carl let the Springfield drop onto the wet grass. Fifty years since he’d fired at a living human being and still it felt the same: Powerful. Simple. Wrong.
He unbuckled his belt as he ran, moving with a speed his body hadn’t managed in fifteen years. Kevin lay at the foot of the ladder like an overturned turtle, thrashing and gasping, his pack still fastened on his back.
“Get down,” he cried out as Carl knelt beside him. “The Knothole Man’s shooting at us. Get down, Grandpa!” His whole right hand clutched the maimed left, blood seeping between his fingers.
Carl stroked the boy’s hair, fair like Walter’s but with Ruthie’s curls. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s all right now, shhhh. Shooting’s over.”
Half a century ago he’d said the same words to Private First Class Alvin Morris at Outpost Harry, a godforsaken barren hill where the casualties ran so high that a different company had to be set to defend it each night. Morris had been past hearing him, though, sitting splay-legged against a bunker with three bayonet wounds in his chest and somebody else’s boot drooping from his slack hands. The somebody’s foot was still in it, but there was too much blood to say if its owner had been American, Korean, or Chinese. Once a man got reduced to body parts, Carl figured, nationality didn’t much matter.
From what felt like a great distance, the old man watched his hands do their work. Two hard tugs freed the leather belt from its loops. A swift circle wrapped it once around Kevin’s forearm. One brutal yank tightened it down to pinch the boy’s flesh.
Kevin yelped. “Jesus! Jesus God, you’re killing me—”
His grandfather gave the belt a steady pull until the bleeding stopped. “You’re not dying, boy. Hush now. Hold this end here, keep it tight.”
Kevin’s breathing was harsh, his eyes startled, but he took hold of the belt with his right hand. Carl patted his shoulder. Such a good boy.
“Somebody shot me.” His voice was filled with pain and indignation. “Grandpa, somebody shot me.”
“Shot isn’t killed,” Carl said. “Hush now, you’ll be fine. They’re going to bury you when you’re an old coot like me.”
The boy stared up at him. Carl pulled one of the red bandanas out of his pocket and folded it once, twice, three times until he had a pad of cloth; this he pressed hard against the wound, ignoring Kevin’s whimper. The other bandana he wrapped around the hand to hold the first in place.
“All right,” he said after a time. “Let’s ease up on that belt and see how much bleeding we got.”
Kevin obeyed, and in that dumb, faithful obedience Carl saw a clear path to a lie. This wasn’t a bright boy. He would believe in Knothole Man, or in an old man’s foolish accident. Hell, he believed glory stories from his father, who had never seen a trench full of dead men with the trench-rats gnawing on their bodies, or watched men turned into meat by mortar shells. He’d believe anything.
Carl’s lips opened on the lie, then closed again with the words unspoken. He eased an arm under Kevin’s shoulders and helped him sit up long enough to remove the pack, which was then pressed into service as a pillow.
“You rest a little,” he said, stroking the boy’s hair again. “You rest a minute and then we’ll get you on back home.”
Jaye Lawrence, 44, is director of Web communications at Carleton College in Northfield. A 2005 graduate of Augsburg College, she won the college’s John Engman Writing Prize for Fiction for her story “Fallen Idols,” which later appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. Other published stories include “All the Blue-Haired Ladies” (Great River Review, Spring/Summer 2004); and “Kissing Frogs” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2004), which was a shortlist selection for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Lawrence lives in Eagan with her husband, Theo Durbin, and teenage daughters Kristen and Teagan. She blogs about her writing at http://wordswoman.livejournal.com.
Lawrence says her own grandparents’ wartime marriage “bears some resemblance to that of Carl and his wife in the story. As a child I was fascinated to learn that Grandma had been married before, to Grandpa’s older brother who’d been killed in the war. I always wondered if she married him because of his connection to the other man she’d loved.”
THE 2007 TAMARACK
Minnesota Monthly will begin accepting entries for next year’s Tamarack Award competition on March 1. Rules and submission guidelines will be available soon at www.minnesotamonthly.com.