The Passages of War and Sickness

by Victor D Sandiego | Published: Jan 10, 2023

His beliefs are living beings, Holden says, talking about himself again. At first they fall as impoverished angels into his eyes as dawn paints the window reddish. Then they lather his daylight with hard thoughts of who should receive a suggestion of death and who a short sentence of life. They tumble into the crevices of his doubts, clamoring with their sharp edges of how he must rise and admire his administration of justice.

What's that? I say. You're not a great god, not even a mayor or a teacher. Only a failed novelist.

True, he says. But we all have more inside.

Give me more coffee, I say to the waiter. He bows and retreats to the kitchen.

It wasn't always like this. Before the world rolled clouds across the sky faster and made clocks our masters, we rode from one end of our neighborhood to another on bicycles, playing the pedals like drums. We pounded rhythms with a ferocity that thrust phantoms from our dreams and gave them flesh.

Holden clears his throat. Do you remember how we loved Antonio?

Of course, but where is he now?

He went to the revolution.

Yes. He went to march the hills in search of institutions to tumble. Yet I always wondered how he kept track of whose side he was on.

I tap the rim of my cup with a single finger. The waiter pours, bows only the required depth his duty demands, pads across the tile floor to check the street. Morning is still alive and people walk past maybe looking for work or a reason to go home and give up on the day.

And Martha the ghost? How she charged through the ghetto!

I remember, I say. It would be impossible, even irreligious, to forget.

The last time we spoke we sat on the curb under our street's only fruit tree. Oranges drooped from their branches, some of pale health, but many hearty and seemingly eager to burst into our waiting mouths with the sweet innocence of harvest. We talked of abundance and want, of war and other sickness. We promised to never give up.

Martha had gone to volunteer at the hospital.

Why do you want to be a nurse? a man asked. He was a middle-aged man with a mustache who was director of this or that.

It’s our duty, Martha said. All of us must win this war.

Do you stand by our faith? The one that speaks in punishments and rewards. It gives and it takes away. Have you been to Calvary?

I don’t know about those things, Martha said. My father was a doctor, though.

It’s true. When we were little, Martha’s father would knock on the door and then duck his head to come inside. He had thermometers and small vials of pills.

They didn’t take her. Of surgeries and smocks they were sure. But they were afraid of contamination, afraid to infect their patients with ideas outside the borders of their faith. Better a failed body than a divergent soul.

But why didn’t you pretend? I asked. I thought of an orange but we were seated and the branches were out of reach.

It’s too hard.

I already knew that. I had tried to enlist in the guard but they wouldn’t have me. I was the right age, young enough to run quickly yet insufficient of years to understand that wars aren’t for soldiers or ideals. They’re for library men in robes with their tea cups, and men in suits who hire staff to count their money. But I didn’t know that then. I thought we should fight and maybe die to keep our constitution unharmed.

That’s the spirit, the man of the guard had said. Before you get to thirty and start a family or a business, get out there and help repel foreign invaders.

Foreign invaders? I asked. We lived in a time of strength. None would dare.

It’s simple to do what you’re commanded, he said. That’s the important part. Don’t ask questions. Jump with much enthusiasm at the opportunity to help the nation in its time of need. When we are strong, we must protect our peace abroad. Do you understand?

Peace? I asked. I thought we were at war.

We’re always at war. You just don’t know it. There’s hoards out there in the cold world who want to take what is yours.

My what?

They decided I wasn’t fit. I went back outside and for a moment marveled at the rows of soldiers on the field, each aligned to the next, one indistinguishable from the other, like old women at their sewing machines in a clothing factory.

Yes, it’s too hard, I said. Martha nodded.

When we stood up, Martha walked one way, I another. I would have looked back and waved if I had known what infirmity lay cancerous in her bones at that moment, ready to begin its treacherous journey into the heart of her good health. I would have given her a hug if I had known, a long wrap of love for our lives up until that moment, that we would each find a peace in the world and a place. That we would treat each day like a fresh fruit.

But I didn’t, I say to Holden. My coffee is cool.

Oh? Do you regret her disappearance?

A little.

My beliefs are real, he says. Made of emeralds, just like yours.

I would build with mine if I could, I say. I would construct a jeweled palace where sickness could confine itself in splendor outside our bodies, the bodies of our families. And friends. Let flesh be free flesh, not burdened with the weight of famine or rotted with the dryness of thirst.

I finish my coffee. More, I say to the waiter. He bows and retreats to the kitchen.

That’s not how it works, says Holden. We can’t wall it off.

He’s right of course. We can’t. It’s not possible to contain the drought that assaults us.

A spiritual drought, I say.

Holden puts two fingers on his temple. We can call it that, he says.

A sensation starts in my legs and moves up through my torso. They say that the soul dries before the spirit, that the soul moves through the body in search of nourishment and splendor. It’s a warning sign, a wakeup that there’s still time.

Yes, let’s call it that, I say. It gives us something to hold onto.

Holden lowers his fingers, points them at my cup. I see streaks of marble in his eyes.

Outside, feet lightly pass. The impoverished angels of our lives hover. The waiter quietly pours.

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