Sky Burial Soldiers all heard the stories, folklore of the shaped- charge monster, unbeatable IED, flipped an Abrams on its back, the fable goes, until it's like they're waiting for it, for today, for the sudden protean flower of sand and flame, what a second before was the lead vehicle -- now a rain of shrapnel against bulletproof glass of Humvees that follow, now a fiery-dark windstorm blowing up a desert floor. The long second where one's intake of breath stops for an under the breath "God," a place where you can only watch, in the long second before radio talk between vehicles, frantic security halt, bracing for secondary IEDs, possible complex attack, in that second I imagine three soldiers calm like yogis, shamayim all around in the sudden sky, I wonder is it a journey to nowhere -- in the long second. The recovery team, later, finds nothing, not a piece of skin, no bones, nothing to ship home, come back with a pretzel-shaped steering wheel they show to officers around camp. And I think, these three are burned into the desert now, a Shroud of Turin, never going home – home, where a memorial service's beauty of flowers is nothing to say goodbye to – nothing to cling to but a folded flag. Home, where memory of a face, sound of a strong voice, are offered as a gift to eternity, grief stopping speech, silently -- the idea of a place where loved ones continue to be loved needed to let a heart keep beating, let lips open to mouth a silent "goodbye." Widow One of the peaceful places in Kabul, outside the grounds around Embassy Row, an open stretch of grass, a few trees, and chalk-colored stones, was my convoy's frequent lunch stop, pulling the Humvees under the limbs of cedars. We'd eat the spicy lamb meat, rolled fajita-like in naan bread, then rolled up in the flowing script of a daily newspaper and bought by our interpreter from his street-vendor cousin, in the shade and sound of songbirds. The first day there I was glad to stop in this quiet, away from the ripe stone street channels of sewage, the congestion of busy markets and honking horns, past an Afghan checkpoint that kept out most traffic, but as Americans we could go anywhere, So, I watched the eager sergeant major who'd been commanding this Kabul patrol for two months unroll the food he was unafraid to eat, in this quiet of cedars, wondered if the paper's stories were Pashto or Dari, looked at the hazy mountains that ring the city, And at the woman in full blue burqa that billowed up in gusts of wind as she sat in the high green grass opposite the dirt road from us alone. After a while the interpreter took a lamb bolani from the unrolled paper on the hood to her, and an arm appeared from the burqa to take it. So I asked who she was, and Hashem said she's a widow, her husband was an Afghan soldier killed in an outlying province. The next day we fed her again, and I asked why she sat here, and Hashem said, "to beg." The soldiers who patrolled let her stay because of her army husband. And the next day I wanted to ask where she went nights, but part of the purpose of lunch was the mission brief by the sergeant major for the rest of the day, so I just wondered as SGM Sanchez talked about itinerary and ammo counts, Imagining a mudbrick house where she was barely tolerated by relatives, driven out in the day to beg in her blue ghost costume, seen on every woman outside the city, but less so here in Kabul. Every day for a month she was there. One day she was gone. Late Friday Night at the VFW Bar When beers become gradients of time, gradually taking good-natured men at a corner table back like years from baseball scores and current politics, loosening stories from those lives that led them here, to the days when their hearts were full of darkness. An Iraq vet recalls firecracker sounds of small arms fire from windows, the flip flop clomping of tank treads as it pulled up and wound its turret, its round devouring a building's walls, turbaned men thrown like dolls, falling with collapsed masonry over the sandy street. A Vietnam vet tells of sudden ambush in a delta fertile with green trees and rice paddies, unloading magazines, afterwards finding his spent casing sprinkled over a buddy, and when he kneeled down to brush them off, saw his own reflection in his stilled friend's staring eyes. These are men who can conjure violent figures, in nightmare worlds where all options seem bad, where no parables are found that guarantee survival, only heroes that may have saved a buddy's life to die themselves in a mutilation of any happy ending. Last call, and they rise from their stories, glancing at the American flag tacked to the wall beside a reflective Michelob sign, and it gives some relief, some meaning as they head for the door under the red exit sign, outside to lead normal lives and keep terrible secrets. The Ironised Voice of the Soldier's Ghost, 500 Years After His Desertion "A skeleton was discovered with sword and knives under the old Dubingiai bridge in Lithuania's Lake Asveja. Scientists with Vilnius University examined the body and said that the person was male and died in the 16th century, though they don't yet know why he died." --November 12th, 2020 I expected to lie down in battle by the bodies of men, the dark folding me as death already folded them. Bemused by the play of light on ripples I tripped awkwardly on the bridge, my inner eye looking for my heroic future. The shock of the cold water was like a klaxon cry as my armor sank me into this ethereal world. These five hundred years below water, only fishermen's boats appeared disappeared by day above in the distance. At night, well above me pinwheels of stars spun their ancient patterns, But in the gloom I never saw them. Mourner's eyes be pools of sorrow for loyal knights who die for the kingdom, unlike these eager eyes that now pick and measure. With what is left of me I tell you my pain was not in death or drowning but that no blow flies came to buzz and whisper: "You are dead on the field of battle" -- embarrassment my pain, like the water it still saturates me. June 4, 1937 Picasso adds the last thing to Guernica a light bulb gives unity to chaos: bodies bend and bruise wrack and burn scream at the sky sword broken baby dead arms outstretched The highest figure the bull still on its feet tail floating like Luftwaffe in the sky above People forever trampled in firebomb winds of shrapnel, Basque victims of other people's wars A light stays on forever lest we forget
A US Army combat veteran, Steven Croft lives happily on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia on a property lush with vegetation and home to various species of birds and animals. His poems have appeared in Liquid Imagination, The Five-Two, Ariel Chart, Eunoia Review, Anti Heroin Chic, Synchronized Chaos, and other places, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.