Horse With Human Hands
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Sweet the sound of swinging bird, poxlace round a thing unheard
Abound the cream of chosen worth, skimmed from cull and curd
Brought to bear a river blessed, sanct within a beating breath
Fare for Charon’s tolling breadth, a ring for life and death
Frayed in knots our living tax, union of our breaking backs
Brought a shade of woven flax, melt us into living wax.
– From the “Niall Prayer Book”
“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”John Steinbeck
It wasn’t easy coming home, not after the jungle.
Most of us didn’t come back, and those who did, well, they were back in pieces. Might’ve had their arms and legs and all but they weren’t whole, none of us were. Being back on “safe” ground didn’t mean much to me, or to any of the rest of us, I reckon. The lesson I learned in Vietnam was that this nation, these people, don’t care about us. Not for a minute longer than it takes to cash your ballot.
I’d been back not a couple months before it started to set in, the fatigue. Remembering it was a weight I bore. Crouching through the underbrush, not only wary of soldiers dressed up and hidden in the underbrush, but wary of whatever not human thing might be out there too did something to me. The smell of smoke and fire. The things we did to survive…
Had a squad mate, name was Emilio Horwitz. Sweet Italian guy, fresh off the boat before he got tricked by the great big Blue and White Wolf. Signed up to help serve and sure as shit, not long after he was on a helicopter and landing in a zone they thought was safe.
All of us thought it was safe, even the flat-footed cats like me. ‘Course there wasn’t a doubt in any of our minds, the Italian included, they’d picked on a whole lot of folk who looked like me to go out and fight for our place. We were expendable.
Thing is, in that fight, everybody was expendable. Good luck figuring out what Big Brother wants from us when we’re all just numbers in the big machine. I got picked up by the draft. Calling it a lottery was a bit of cruel irony, to me. Had all kinds of folk going in hoping we were going to make a difference. Instead we got killed. Some of us got it worse than others. Some of us got to come back alive.
Back on American soil after the war wasn’t a life I’d want anyone to live. By ’73 when we had word we’d be coming home all of us were done up with excitement. Not the kind I’d ever want to feel again.
My plane hit the runway and as we unloaded, the first thing we saw were crowds of reporters and protestors lined up on the other side of a barrier fence, screaming at us for doing what they expected us to do for their country. After years and years of talk about “doing what is right” a whole lot of us did that and look what came from it?
Horwitz got back with permanent lung damage. I’d been stabbed, couple other guys took bullets in places that shouldn’t leave you alive, but they were still kicking. As much as they could.
We walked past the entourage of people who didn’t know what we’d seen, or what we’d had to go through and every single one of them shouted. Either questions or objections, it didn’t matter.
We made it home and all started to realize we didn’t come back to same folk who left. I could still feel the hot air in my house with the air on high. The smell of blood when I butchered up a flank of steak tinged somethin’ inside me and I’d seize up.
If it weren’t for Murph, I might’ve lost the plot.
I’d known Murphy since I could remember. He and his family lived a house down from my own. His momma kept my sisters and I safe some nights, and I looked up to them. Especially his pops. Both our parents were close, as close as they coulda been given the way the rest of the neighbors looked at us. His pops was in Germany when we were young, looking to put a stop to another war.
Wen Murph’s old man got back from Europe I doubt there were protestors outside the airport waiting to tell him he was an animal.
Wasn’t the first time I’d been called an animal, though.
When I got back from duty Murph was the first one I called. I wanted more than anything to talk to someone from before, from an old life. Most folk would’ve scorned Murph for skipping the draft. His number got called just like mine, but unlike me he had connections out there to keep him safe. A few phone calls and he got to stay home on safe land and start a family.
His old lady picked up the call.
She had a sweet voice, I came to know her a little better in the following weeks, and boy she was as sweet as she sounded. A tender thing who didn’t take any backtalk from Murph, just what he needed.
“You don’t know me, uh, I’m a friend of Murph’s if you want to let him know Clyde got back home.”
She let out a quick squeal and I realized I might have understood my relationship to Murphy less than I’d thought.
“Clyde Berringer, right?” She giggled and palmed the phone to shout, “Murphy dear! Clyde is home!”
Down the hall I heard the old sod grunt. The squeaking of his floorboards came through the speaker till he picked up.
“You old bastard how come you didn’t warn me!”
“I sent a letter.”
We shared a short laugh, and then fell back into a rhythm like I’d never left.
That was how I got back to the real world, through Murphy and his wife Betsy, who took me in and helped me get back on my feet. Shortly after coming home my old auto shop who promised toehold a place for me, turned me away after seeing “the kinds of things” that I “participated” in during the war, as if they knew the breadth of the things I had to do.
It was a hard few months, getting back to normal. Murph got me a gig working part time with a lawyer friend of his, another connection he picked up somewhere along the line while he was making a life for himself outside of ours.
The whole time we’d both been trying to reach out to another friend of ours from the old days, Simon Albright. If Murph and I were the faces of a quarter, Simon was the ridges on the edge. Just enough like each of us to fit in but not really the same. Poor boy was cut from a different cloth.
Growing up in an abusive household was worse than an absent household, but he made due. His father had a bad stripe about him, we heard. He’d show up to school with bruises and when it got real bad, cuts in places it wouldn’t be too easy to call an accident.
He always did though.
The three of us were tight knit, thanks in part to the Carmine family’s big house and quiet place to play. Murph didn’t really know it, but in a lot of ways he saved both me and Simon just by being our friend and for that, I owe him a debt so large it’s hard to see all of.
Seemed to me like Simon made some choices that weren’t for the benefit of himself while I was away, and according to Murph he’d been getting too far down a dark road. I was upset that Murph didn’t keep trying to help him. He said he was starting a family and couldn’t condone the decisions Simon was making and I know that’s how getting older is but it stung to hear.
Eventually, we made contact with old Simon, who’d checked himself into a rehab facility on the other end of the city. He made sure to tell us when his visitation hours were and we planned to go.
When we showed up, the front desk girl told us he’d skipped out on them.
We spent all weekend looking for the damn fool and didn’t have a bit of success. A few days later, he called us from a friend’s place and told us he’d love to get coffee. We obliged and set a time. We made sure to get there extra early to make sure that if he had the jitters he wouldn’t be able to snake away from us, but he never showed.
That’s how it stayed for a while. He’d drop a line and apologize for missing our last meeting, set up a new one, and then he wouldn’t show. After a few weeks of it Murphy gave up trying to make the meetings, but I didn’t.
I’d always been a little closer to Simon anyway, Murph was closer with me. They didn’t see eye to eye about a whole lot but it didn’t really matter til after the war.
Murphy welcomed a brand new abby boy into the world in the summer of ’73, and around that same time I started doing some digging. I didn’t have a missus, so I started trying to track down Simon, I mean really track him down. I wasn’t about to let my best friend wind up in a back alley somewhere with no organs.
Keeping up with the man who barely knew what he was going to do next was challenging enough, but eventually I found his routes, and consequently, found a man who was looking for him, claiming he owed this man a few hundred dollars. Whether it was the right choice or not, I paid him off and got the man away from Simon before I continued my search.
I found Simon at the Lieberhaus Recovery Clinic. Finally, after months of searching, I was able to speak to my friend face to face again.
I was led by a young receptionist to a small room, painted head to toe in white with oak floorboards and the whole place looked as if it were taken straight out of a hospital nightmare.
After a few moments, Simon made his way from a back room and came to sit beside me. My friend who I’d been searching for pulled a chair a bit too small for him and sat, his gaunt, emaciated frame rocking back and forth. Bags beneath his eyes signaled his lack of sleep. Cracked skin on his lips and around his fingernails accented what was otherwise a ghost. Simon Albright was barely the man I knew.
Even still, we talked and talked and talked. He told me everything, apologizing face to face about the way he’d been so flaky and I accepted it.
It was just nice to have another friend back.
While we spoke, he said something that’s been bothering me.
“I don’t feel like I belong anywhere, anymore, Clyde.”
He couldn’t tell me why, and I chalked it up to the abuse, but after we ran through our visitation hours and I was escorted out, it stuck with me. He was lonely, of course, but I couldn’t help but think of ways to help him more. I wanted Simon out of there and back on his feet as soon as he could.
When I called up the following weekend to ask for another visit, they informed me, as if I should have known, that he was gone.
I was mad, and so I did what I expect from either of my friends if I were to go off the plot.
I called his mother.
Marguerite Albright was, in no uncertain terms, a shrewd and bitter woman. Through little fault of her own, she grew wrapped in a hard shell of cynicism and anger at the path her life had taken, but I knew just like she did, that she loved Simon completely. If she couldn’t help get him straight, no one could.
When I made it to her place, she told me about his struggle in depth, and how much she’d already tried, and she didn’t know what else to do. The visit ended poorly, but I wasn’t about to give up.
At the house, I found some papers she’d been holding, about a “wellness program” run by a charitable church on the north end of town. She’d already placed a call with them, but I wanted to follow up myself.
That night, at home, I prepared a script for myself, I was never all that good with talking business. Anytime I had something important to say, I’d start to ramble. So, I penned out a collection of words to say and made the plan to call the following morning.
I went to bed with a hopeful heart, and just before I nodded off to sleep, I heard a knock at the door.
It was Simon, covered in bruises again like he was when we were ten, and he was clutching his stomach.
It took a long time for me to get him to calm down, between the drug enchanted mumbling and the blubbering of his tears, he was making less than no sense. Eventually, when he’d calmed down and I worked on treating his wounds, he was able to communicate what brought him to my doorstep, and given that I’d not told him where I lived, hopefully he’d explain how he found me.
“I was wrong, Clyde.” He mumbled. “I’m so sorry. I’ve found the answer. It isn’t here, with this.” He gestured to the air around us, ripe with his stench. “I’ve found the answer, it’s this.”
He pointed to his exposed belly, through rips in his shirt, he placed his fingers gently on a spot a few inches below his belly button, where there was a small bump raised beneath the skin.
It was hard to believe, but I stared down and against the understanding of anything I’d ever known, the bump was squirming.
“I’m going to be saved, Clyde. They’re going to save me.”
I tried to ask him who, but he refused to tell me. It didn’t take long for the drugs to wear off and in a moment, he was asleep on my couch, cradling the writhing bump on his belly like a newly pregnant woman.
That was the last time I saw him alive, but it was not the last time I’ve seen Simon Nye Albright.
Thank you for reading the sixth entry in Horse With Human Hands.
The next entry comes out tomorrow!
Horse With Human Hands is a fiction story I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time. This is only the beginning. These characters and the lives they’ve led are part of a much larger whole. Immediately after Lifeis+2023, I’ll be focusing time to expand this narrative into something I hope you are excited to be a part of.
This story is a little different, and you’ve likely parsed that by now. It isn’t a consecutive telling but rather a disjointed series of events.
Thank you for participating once more in the Lifeis+ celebration. I’ve got a lot to celebrate this time around so you’ll be hearing from me often. If you’d like to read more, you can check out me current fiction project Sisters of Westwinter & The Heart, Felt Series below!
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