By Jearl Rugh
Zach poked at the small campfire with the charred end of a broken tree limb, raised the flaming stick to light another cigarette and waited for the inevitable. He drew a deep drag. As the smoke filled his lungs, a defensive wheeze rattled his chest and a raspy cough bought up a retch of phlegm. The sputum hissed like a rattler’s warning as it hit the fire and, as if it was the first time he had ever witnessed such a wonder, Zach watched transfixed while the rheum shriveled in the blaze.
Stabbing the prod into the dirt to snuff the flame, he dropped it beside him and reached for the Bud resting on the only unbroken arm of the weathered, wooden Adirondack-chair. After a sip and, with the can still in his grasp, he lifted his sweat-crusted Red Sox ball cap by the bill with his left hand, and ran his right over the flesh of his bald pate. When his fingers had combed through the tangle of greasy, gray hair that hung limp on his neck and shoulders, Zach settled the cap over his head again and found the chair’s arm to rest the brew.
* * *
In the late sixties, Zach had been a fulltime student with little desire to serve his country in an undeclared war. His high school grades had reflected his athletic interests, but neither had been sufficient to get him a scholarship into state college. So he studied just hard enough at the local junior college to keep his student deferment active—not enough to impress anyone—and worked part-time at a department store to earn cash for school expenses, his ’66 Malibu SS, and girls—not necessarily in that order.
Selling women’s shoes was certainly not a career choice nor was it the highlight of any day, until he stumbled onto what he eventually called “the beaver hunt.” It happened the first time on a Saturday afternoon while he was helping a fresh from high school eighteen-year-old find a pair of heals. She had pointed out several she wanted to try.
Once he pulled the stack of boxes from the stockroom, Zach took a seat across from her on his stool. While he removed the tissue from the first pair, he eyed her straight blond hair cascading over shoulders clad only with white spaghetti straps, and wondered if the color was natural or bottled. With a smile, he reached down and took the back of her right foot in his left hand. Lifting it toward him, he caressed her ankle, lightly wiggling her foot back and forth. The rhythmic motion relaxed her leg, which was covered only with a pink mini skirt. His voyeur eyes traced the line of her inner thigh, stopping at the sight of the black tuft between her legs. He quickly shifted his eyes to hers and saw to his surprise that she not only smiled an acknowledgement, pleased that he had discovered her secret, but nodded an encouragement to take another, longer look.
He did. And after collecting Ruth Ann’s phone number, he did it again that night.
* * *
A glint of sun caught Zach’s eye as it bounced off a pair of black wings coming to rest on a tree fifty feet away. A familiar sight from his encampment, no leaf had covered its frame in a decade and yet it stood erect and arrogant above the others. Except for a small nub at the crest where the raven settled, like a knight’s lance poised for a jousting contest, the top ten feet were stripped of branches.
He watched with uneasy dread as the Corvus’s head jerked this way and that to survey the surrounding landscape. When its eyes locked on Zach’s, the uncontrolled but familiar shudder lurching up his spine was the only evidence of time’s passing. Those black, piercing eyes prophesied his future, yet as definite as that ruin, it blanched in comparison to the memory of the tragedy. Waiting day after endless day in terror of the final judgment, he feared more what his heart knew but was unable to confess—the memory was the only thing giving his life meaning, no matter how monstrous, no matter how—
* * *
The only distraction to Zach’s inactive routine of was when “the boy”—he never called him by name because he didn’t know his name—would come by his campsite a couple of times a week to make sure Zach was doing okay. Over time, Zach reasoned he must be his younger sister’s son, but by the time she died childless in an automobile accident just before her high school graduation, Zach had already blown away any memory that could have saved him.
Jason Samuels, now thirty-eight, never stayed long on these visits. Just enough to make sure there was an ample supply of firewood, clean up the debris that would get tossed about, and bring in more ice, food, cigarettes and beer, especially the latter two. From time to time he would also straighten up inside the ramshackle remains of the 1965 Scotsman trailer where Zach lived in the back corner of the campground.
One decoration, a tattered photo fixed to the paneled wall with yellowing cellophane tape, had often caught his eye. The uncaptioned newspaper clipping, a picture of a woman and a soldier, by the time Jason started checking in on Zach, had faded to the point where the faces had become unrecognizable. He had asked Zach about it once, but a startled and unforgiven stare was the only response, and he never asked again.
There was rarely any conversation on these visits, either. In fact, the last one of any import came about the time the photo disappeared from the wall. Jason had pulled a hospital snapshot from his own wallet and showed it to Zach.
“This is your granddaughter, Sara,” he had said, holding the picture of the newborn out for Zach.
Zach turned his head enough to take a glance, grunted an almost unintelligible “Uh huh” and then stared back into the fire with his poker ready to shift a log to a better position.
* * *
“’H’t ease!” First Sergeant Johnson, a veteran of the Korean War, barked at 6:00 a.m. that Tuesday morning.
Students had taken over the administration building at the university on the Friday past and formed an antiwar sit-in. Each day since, new demonstrators who moved from protest to protest like morbid spectators drawn to a fatal traffic accident had gathered on the steps and overtaken the Quad. “This is not a training drill.” Johnson paced back and forth in front of the troop formation like a caged hungry tiger while he spat out today’s orders. “The Governor promised the National Guard and as soon as I take that call from the CO, we’ll move out. This morning everyone, even the motor pool, will draw weapons, live rounds and gas masks.”
Fifteen minute later, after Johnson laid out the tactics they would employ, he said, “After you’ve drawn your equipment, take a break in place. Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em and wait for my orders.”
By 6:45 Zach had finished the inspection of his duce-and-a-half, drawn his provisions and leaned back against the front bumper of the troop transport truck with a half-eaten glazed donut in hand. The stench of diesel exhaust belching out of his and the fleet of other trucks on the concrete apron invaded his nostrils and altered the flavor of the already stale pastry. The donut may as well have been deep-fried in motor oil.
“Finally some action,” a soldier who had joined him at the bumper said, “looks like we get to kick some hippy ass today.”
Zach surrendered a polite smile and then starred into the lukewarm black coffee in his white Styrofoam cup. He empathized with the protesters but had chosen a different path to non-violence when, on December 1, 1969, his birth date, June 13, was drawn in the draft lottery. Having been born on Friday, he had always joked about his unlucky birth date and when it was the 69th plastic capsule to be drawn from the glass jar, he knew fate had screwed him backwards—again. To avoid the inevitable all-expense paid trip to the “Hanoi Hilton,” he joined the Guard.
The Quad, a large area extending out three hundred feet in front of the administration building, by nine that morning was filled with a cacophony of sensory stimuli. Normally a serene setting with groupings of trees and benches lining meandering sidewalks, today, smells of urine, sweat, incense and weed wafted in the morning air. Hippies, who hadn’t seen a shower in weeks, shouted obscenities and antiwar slogans through bull horns while they paraded with handmade picket signs up and down the steps. From the an upper window of one of the offices recordings of Led Zeplin’s “Whole Lotta of Love” and The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” had been blasting. And now, Doug Ingle droned the lyrics of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Opposite the administration building, a low hillside where students on a normal day would gather on the lawn to neck, study, eat lunch, visit and share a smoke separated the epicenter of today’s unrest from Zach’s position. He squatted to one knee, gasmask strapped in place, near the left flank of a line of troops. Uniformed in olive-drab, they formed at the base of the knoll. Behind his line, second quad formed an identical line and awaited Sergeant Johnson’s orders.
“Execute,” was Johnson’s one word command and the second column of men stood and marched to form a new row on the right side of the Quad in plain view of the demonstrators. From his knelling position, they were blocked from Zach’s sight but it was obvious from the shouts over the numerous bullhorns that the second squad’s new station had evoked a heated response.
Second squad had been in formation less than a minute when a buzzer echoed across grounds signaling the end of a class period. Zach cast an eye to his left and met a frenzy of hurried activity as students, like it was on fire, exited the two story hall next to the administration building. He lost the majority of them when they disappeared behind the hill to cross the Quad on their way to their next class. “They either haven’t noticed the troops or don’t feel threatened since they’re not part of the protest,” Zack thought.
The screaming bullhorns and chants of “End the war now” continued, and less than a minute after the students entered the Quad, Zach heard three pops in rapid succession. An immediate cry rose from the stunned people on the other side of the mound and only seconds passed before he saw clouds of teargas billow above the hill. That was the signal his squad watched for. In unison they stood, unslung their M-16 rifles from their shoulders and then, with the barrel pointed toward the foot of the knoll, cradled the butt into their shooting shoulder. From this vantage point, Zach could now see the Quad was a swarm of disorientation. Students and activists alike tried to flee from the flank of exposed troops and shield their eyes from the noxious gas. Several ran and stumbled toward the grassy hill not knowing his flank stood watch.
* * *
With just a few second’s frozen glare, the raven jumped from the perch and, with its broad outstretched wings, swooped straight toward Zach. Fixated on the approaching black fiend, he could feel the terror rising in his bowels as they constricted and twisted without mercy. He dug his broken fingernails into the underside of the splintered arms of the decrepit chair. As cataleptic as death, his horror-induced paralysis prevented him from escaping his sedentary campfire-vigil as much as the photo which provided tangible evidence that his truth was the truth.
When the bird was fifteen feet away, Zach managed to pry his fingers loose from the chair’s arms and raise his gun. One shot at this oncoming attacker was what it took. Like a powerful and vivid olfactory stimulus, Zach’s gnarled psyche ricocheted back to the tragic event that led to his capital choice. A vaporous memory of the seen and unseen played in a continuous and grotesque loop through his frantic mind. Embellished by the daily haze of alcohol, tobacco and self-pity, it balanced him on the perilous precipice of schizophrenia.
* * *
As the first people came over the top, a shot was fired. Zach turned toward the sound just in time to see a protester fall. First Sergeant Johnson’s voice, muffled by his gas mask, shouted, “. . . fire.” and then other rifles around him joined the fray.
Zach turned back to the hillside in front of him just as a girl of maybe nineteen years came over the top on a sprint toward him. Her long black hair trailed in the wind. She had something in her hand but with the lenses of this mask shrouded in a light fog from the excited breath escaping his lungs, he couldn’t tell if she was armed. He kept his weapon lowered but pointed in her direction.
She locked eyes with him and then tried to turn back, but the crush of the terrified throng behind her propelled her forward. He didn’t want to hurt anyone and now realized she posed no threat, but since he had orders to fire, and, with the random gunfire on either side of him, he kept the barrel pointed at the foot of the hillside and applied pressure to the trigger. Just then, the guardsman’s rifle next to him came to life. The unexpected report only three feet away caused Zach’s hand to jerk upward.
The gentle recoil nudged into his right shoulder. It felt somehow understated compared to the impact of the bullet as it struck the girl now only a few feet in front of him. He could see her eyes fill with panic as the realization of what had happened washed over her, and her gasp knowing this was the last beat her heart would make and the last breath her lungs would take. He watched her knees buckle as the force of the hot lead projectile pushed her body backward onto the grass.
Zach, not knowing or caring if the guns had stopped discharging, peeled his gas mask off in one swift motion and dropped it and his rifle to the ground. Having removed his own mask, Sergeant Johnson’s shouts of “Cease fire; Cease fire” were distorted in Zach’s ear by the surge of blood and panic racing through his head. He charged toward the fallen girl, grabbed her books and macramé purse as if she had just stumbled, and then, as he knelt at her side, realized the futility of finality.
When she hit the ground, her hair had landed uncomfortably covering most of her face like the black feathers of a raven’s wing. With his fingers, he brushed the hair away and looked into her eyes. He recognized them. Moments before, they had been brilliant and beautiful. Now Ruth Ann’s lifeless orbs starred deep into eternity.
His stomach began to churn and he took a deep breath to relieve the spasm he felt coming, but his lungs filled with an acrid cocktail of teargas, spent gun powder, blood and the urine that involuntarily burst from her bladder. His stomach wretched again and he vomited what remained of the stale coffee and greasy donut.
As he turned back, placing his hands on the wound to her chest as if he could stop her life from ebbing away, the tears of remorse welled in his throat and then spilled down his face. Something clicked to his left and he realized the guns had stopped. Amidst the sobs and screams from the wounded and dying around him, while the drum solo of the long version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” blared from a third floor window, he turned. His eyes fell on the reporter who had just taken a photo of the girl and him.
* * *
Zach saw that the invisible air rifle formed with his hands had not stopped the raven now only a few feet away. The bird veered to the left, heading towards a stand of white birch trees. As it banked, it screamed, “caw, caw, caw, caw, caw.” The haunted sound echoed through the trees and was answered by the cries of a host of winged creatures. They burst from their hidden roosts filling the warm afternoon sky around Zach with dozens of black, menacing, impish wings, flashing in the sunlight as they kept their trenchant eyes fixed on him.
Zach, having eradicated years ago any hope of liberation from his torment, threw his arms up to cover his face and let out a terrifying, guttural wail that echoed throughout the campground. Yet, just steps away, beneath his bed, still crusted under a piece of tape and lying amidst the debris sequestered away for decades, that photo’s long forgotten caption read, “A soldier weeps as he tries to render aid to a coed killed by another guardsman.”
* * *
“Grandma, can we put the icing on yet?” Sara asked, standing on a stool and pointing to one of the pumpkin shaped cookies cooling on the kitchen counter. “I want to make a jack-o-lantern!”
“Just a few more minutes, we have to color the icing orange.”
“And black!” Sara shouted. Her enthusiasm rising with the smell in the sugar cookie scented kitchen.
The phone on the kitchen wall rang.
“Yes, black like grandma’s hair,” she said, as she slipped her arm around her granddaughter’s waist, stealing a hug, “but in a minute. Let me get the phone first.”
“Hello?” she said into the receiver and paused, listening to the voice on the other end. “Yes, this is Ruth Ann Samuels.”
Jearl Rugh, a native of southern California, has made his home in the Pacific Northwest for the more than 20 years. Living in the small historic lumber and railroad town of Snoqualmie, Washington, he and his wife enjoy the Bohemian culture nestled in the foothills of the Cascades Mountains. By day, Jearl works in Seattle as a program manager for an international law firm. When he is not working, enjoying his family, or reading on a sandy beach, you will find him in his fantasy room surrounded by legacy and contemporary imaginings of some of the world’s most brilliant minds. There he creates the characters, settings and scenes that make the stories he wants to tell. As an active participant in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and SnoValley Writes!, he works alongside other writers who are committed to perfecting the art of storytelling.