"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

After the Killing

After the Killing

    After the killing, after her husband has hanged the women slaves, Penelope descends from her bedroom to stand linen-white in the gore of the great room.  She doesn’t look at the suitors’ bodies, bristling with arrows, these men who for twenty years have camped on her doorstep and feasted in her home, this invading army.  She has a cold stare only for the man who has arrived in beggar’s clothes and calls himself her husband.  The old nurse pleads with her, and so too does her son, Telemachus, who, though he is a man now, in his own tooled armor and with his own killing spear, wants only to see his parents embrace, a thing he has never seen before.  He pleads with her, but her face is cold marble. 

    And it is this cold marble face, Penelope’s unblinking eyes, that cuts through Odysseus’s bloodlust, that snuffs his fury into a coil of steam.  I cannot turn the pages fast enough.  She is cold as ice, cold as a glass pitcher of unsweetened tea.  Odysseus will be tested; he has not proven himself by battle, as a suitor might, but will need to answer, and answer well, for his disguise, for his fury, and for his absence.  This is how he knows he’s home.  “Go upstairs,” he tells Telemachus, and there is a smile breaking across his blood-streaked face, as there is a smile breaking across mine.  But Penelope does not smile, does not yield. 

    I have secrets, deep private memories and urges that I cannot imagine sharing with anyone, least of all the people I love, and I am comforted to discover that my grandfather, the patriarch of our family and my namesake—he was Victor and I am Victoria—had secrets of his own.  Or, better to say, he had at least one secret, though I know how secrets are.  They are like cards in a hand, one hiding behind the other, which you may tidy up in a little block or fan out in sets and runs.

    There are two types of stories about Victor’s time in the war.  In the first kind, impish young officers play clever tricks on one another and on their families at home, tricks that speak to the boredom of war, to the buoyancy of the human spirit, and, in my favorite, to the unauthorized detour by one Navy blimp pilot during a training run over central Virginia in 1939.  I have the note framed in the stairwell of my house.  It is a dirty and deeply creased slip of paper, which was at one time wrapped around a rock and which reads in large uppercase pencil: 

    HI MOM

    My great-grandmother found the note after it thumped off the roof of their Buick Special.

    In another photograph, this one also framed in my stairwell, he stands holding a jackrabbit by the ears, his arm straight out toward the camera.  There is a Navy-issue rifle at his side.  He wears a bomber jacket and earmuffs and his is grinning with both rows of teeth, looking off to the right side of the frame.  My father always began this story by explaining that, before the war, Victor was a track-and-field star in his hometown.  Despite appearances, he did not shoot the jackrabbit.  He ran it down.  This took an entire afternoon.  In the final meeting, he butted it to death with the stock of his rifle.

    Or this: a letter in elegant brown script, whose margins and letterhead are covered in a watercolor skyline.  It is downtown Danville, as it was in 1943, and the letter is to my grandmother from a man named Harold, who was then a cartoonist for the Danville Register.  He courted my grandmother during the war, to no avail, and when Victor returned to marry her, in 1945, after his hospitalization, she showed him the letters, which by then were letters between friends.  So too did Harold and my grandfather become friends, and I knew him myself before his death.

    Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca, after the war, is a story of shipwreck.  His fleet is overtaken by a howling storm at Ismarus, spun by a tidal rip at Malea, swamped by Polyphemus’s hurled boulder, and driven rudderless across an ocean by the mutinous West Wind.  His sailors are plucked apart by giants, devoured alive by the Cyclops, stupefied and transfigured, and above all drowned, one by one, in the wind-and-lightning storms that scatter their fleet across the Mediterranean Sea.  Odysseus himself is finally cast into the sea, where he clings to his broken keel, broken himself and alone, drifting among corpses and the wreckage of his thunderstruck ship.  Seven years later, off Phaeacia, he is wrecked again, his raft destroyed, his flesh shredded on shallow reefs, and this time he spends ten days clinging to a beam of Black Poplar, rowing with his hands, half dead and vomiting up the salt. 

    All told, Odysseus spends fourteen days wrecked at sea: two weeks, alone, in open water, parched and sun-drunk, barely alive.  Wherever he lands, he tells his story.

    Victor spent three, and he never spoke about them that I know of.  Not to my father, and it drove him—my father—to distraction to know that there was something so private about what Victor had gone through, what he’d seen and perhaps what he’d done, that he wouldn’t share it with his own son, even on his deathbed.  After this final failure, he asked me to try.

    Not three weeks after Victor was shot down over the Philippine Sea, and not a hundred miles west, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine.  She took on water fast.  It was just after midnight.  Nine hundred of the twelve hundred sailors escaped overboard, and these men bobbed on the ocean in a slick of engine oil, sick and vomiting, clinging to scattered life jackets and to each other.  They watched by moonlight as the ship rolled, pointed her nose, and sank.

    Over the next four days, those nine hundred men clung to one another in rings, arms linked, drifting in the sun.  Once the oil moved off, the water column was crystal clear to a hundred feet, and beneath them circled eight-foot whitetip sharks, feeding first on the dead who sank below and then rising, slowly and finally, to feed at the surface.  One by one the men vanished, swallowed by the sea, or burned to death by the sun, or broken by exhaustion and fear.  They drank salt water and went mad, or looked too long at the horizon, which stretched blue for four hundred miles in every direction, or down, three miles to the sea floor, and went mad from the distance.  Six hundred died on the open ocean.

    By the time the survivors of the USS Indianapolis were rescued Victor had been released from the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor, had signed his Navy discharge papers, and was on a bus through the Blue Ridge Mountains heading toward Danville.  He was married in August and in September he and my grandmother took a train to New Jersey.  He enrolled at Princeton on the G.I. Bill.  My father was born on the day of the P-rade, 1946.

    I did not learn any of this from my phone call with Victor after his second stroke, the phone call my father requested—begged—that I make.  It turned out to be the last time I spoke to my grandfather.  Beyond that, and beyond the strange, physical anxiety I felt before dialing the hospital, it was an unmemorable phone call.  I did not have a chance to ask him about the war.  He could not hear well by then and we shouted to each other for a few minutes before the nurse took the phone.

    The truth is, at that time, I did not much care about what had or hadn’t happened to my grandfather in 1945.  I tried to do right by my father, to help him heal a wound.  Perhaps “flush” a wound is more accurate, though even that feels like a slippery use of language, since it was never his wound to begin with, though it affected him like one.  Victor died, and his wife’s children sued over the will, and things became muddy and tense for my father and his siblings over issues more immediate than the war.  Then my father himself became sick and died.  And here I remain, troubled once again by 1945.

    What, exactly, is troubling me?  

    My father was not a giver-upper.  He subscribed to three different newspapers and half a dozen magazines and read them all each week.  He built things in his workshop: writing desks for me and my brothers, a new birdfeeder every spring, Adirondack chairs for the front porch.  A skiff we labored over for two summers when I was in grade school and which still floats like a cork.  He worked thirty-five years for Bell Systems and later Bell Laboratories, took his retirement, and a month later reported to work at The Home Depot in an orange apron, happy as a pig in shit.  His own father was the one puzzle he could not solve, and more so than the gap in Victor’s history, it was the “why” that bothered my father.  Or, rather, the “why not?”  As in, why not talk about it?  By all accounts, Victor lived a fine life, untormented by nightmares, happy in his first and second marriages, a family man, a good father and grandfather, and a moderate drinker.  What could be so terrible to think about, to admit, that he couldn’t share it with the hardworking, loyal, forgiving son he had raised, successfully, in his own image? 

    But that isn’t it.  My father had his demons and his white rabbits, but they died with him.  What troubles me is something else.  Perhaps it has had to do with the end of my marriage.  It may also have to do with my work, which keeps me on open water, often alone, delivering Venta boats to dealers and boat shows and private buyers up and down the east coast.  There is something desperately private about the ocean, and I believe Victor must have understood this better than most.

    But I cannot talk my way around this thing.  It’s simply this: more and more, I find myself imagining it.  In these imaginations, what is unspeakable is not the horror, but the calm.  Perhaps, even, the pleasure.  It is as though there has been a cave-in at an abandoned mine.  No one was hurt—no one has been down the shaft in years.  And only I know that, behind this wall of rock, which appears to be the end of the tunnel, there is, in fact, a room.  And through my knowing this, it becomes my room.

    Often in my life I have felt like Odysseus, shipwrecked, saved, only to discover myself a stranger at my own gates.  Other times I have felt like Penelope: cold in my strength, ungiving, a thick-walled container for a deep and violent grief.  And other times still I have been Telemachus, my eyes upturned.

    Here is what I have discovered as fact:

    My grandfather, Victor, and his gunner, Naval Aviator Geoffrey McClure, were shot down in their SBD Dauntless bomber over the Philippine Sea on July 10, 1945.  They made an emergency water landing and were able to deploy the onboard life raft.  McClure was injured, either during the initial attack or in the subsequent descent or landing, and he died during the first night on the raft.  Two days later a Naval transport plane spotted the raft and shortly thereafter my grandfather was rescued and transported to the USS Solace and from there to the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor.  He was honorably discharged.  He flew from Honolulu to Los Angeles, then to Nashville, and from there he took a Greyhound bus across the mountains to Danville.

    I know that, three weeks after my grandfather and his gunner were shot down over the Philippine Sea, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine not far from the site of the crash.  Of the nine hundred crewmen who escaped the sinking vessel approximately three hundred survived to be rescued over the course of the day and night of August 2nd.  Of the six hundred who died on the open ocean, the causes of death were overwhelmingly salt poisoning, exposure, dehydration, shark attacks, drowning, and suicide.

    I know that my grandfather, an avid fisherman in his youth, continued to fish after his discharge from the Navy, though he never again fished in saltwater.  Late in his life, and often in the company of his friend Harold Freeman, the watercolorist and my grandmother’s onetime suitor, Victor fished for trout and salmon all over Montana and Idaho, Alaska, Russia, Argentina, and New Zealand.  He spent his money marrying and fishing.

    Some of this information I got from the Naval Archives, and some from the family of Aviator McClure.  Some I got from local libraries.  Much of it I found on the internet.  And some is common knowledge in my family.  Victor learned to use email in his eighties, and he lived to ninety-three.

    The rest I have had to imagine.

    What was the nature of McClure’s injuries?  How close were he and Victor?  Had they flown together often, and were they friends?

    Did my grandfather speak of this to his first wife, or to his second?  Having known the third and fourth, I doubt that he spoke to them in private at all.  Did he speak about it to Harold?

    Did he begin to crave, as did the survivors of the whaleship Essex, the eyeballs, rich in vitamin K, of the fish that surrounded his raft?  Did he catch and eat them?  How did he eat them, and how did they taste, to him?

    Did he hallucinate?  If so, what did he see?  Were his visions as fanciful as mermaids, underwater cities, orchestras in the clouds?  Or were they as mundane as cheeseburgers, cake, a glass of ice water?  (I have started dreaming of an underwater city.  Parts of it—the palace—are the same each time.)

    What is the worst thing—worse, even, than what I have imagined?  Did he finally do it— eat and drink of McClure?  Worse?  What, then?  What, alone, can you do?  I am not being imaginative enough.  

    What did he do alone in his head?

    I spend a week alone on a Venta 37’, sailing slowly from Newport to Virginia Beach.  I let myself get thirsty.

    Odysseus returns to Ithaca, slays the suitors, humbles himself before his wife, tests her and is tested in return.  He makes sacrifices to Poseidon and bears an oar deep into the desert and his sea-curse is lifted.  He wages war on the suitors’ families, wins the war, governs his people, cultivates his vineyard.

    Tennyson was not satisfied.  In his telling, Odysseus grows bored.  His wife is old, his son grown.  He delegates his responsibilities of the state, one by one, to Telemachus.  He visits old soldiers.  He builds a ship.  He cannot remember the thirst, the peeling burns, the swelling.  The snakes in his vision, and the way the sea seemed to curl up at the edges, like a great building wave.

Is that it?  Has he forgotten the agony of shipwreck, the excruciating loneliness of it, and the way his body and mind grew rotten and mutinous around him?  Has his memory taught itself to lie?

Or is it something else?  Perhaps he remembers it clearly: the agony, the helplessness, the exquisite torture of time passing.  And wants something from it still.

I don’t know.  But I am finding out.  And I think, too, about Penelope, who never knew shipwreck, but who knew very well the passage of time, and the hollow place in the rock.

Dwight Curtis is a candidate in the Fiction MFA program at the University of Montana. Before entering the program, Dwight graduated Cum Laude from Harvard University with a major in creative writing, taught high-school English, and coached sailing. His stories have appeared in The Molotov Cocktail (2018), Shark Reef (2018), Pangyrus (2015, 2014), and many others.

Cover photo by Giuseppe Murabito on Unsplash

Mouth Full of Plaster

Mouth Full of Plaster