Saturday, February 12, 2011

For Trees Have No Tongues (Muse 7)

First Muse Part 1
First Muse Part 2
Deep Sleep, Deep Space, Deep Shit
Reluctant Titans Part 1
Reluctant Titans Part 2
Fuck Origami
Ein Plein Air Part 1
Ein Plein Air Part 2
A Faint Hint of Ambergris 
Space Illiad 
Threepenny Bet

Mahogany lines the hills while Rattan and Palm covet white sands. Languid and lazy casting shadows with loose fronds on sun kissed beaches. Ignorant in bliss beckoning the traveller to stay and bask under their dappled shade. Ignorant trees. Unaware of the flotilla and destruction across the blue break. They've stood tall through quake and eruption, survivors oblivious to the carnage beyond blue.

Kate is about to wave her favourite son farewell, his departure breaks her heart. "Mum, I'll be back honest . ." assures Peter Vale. His uncle now an aged guest of Her Majesty and his father cold in the grave. Kate hugs her son as banners wave and streamers ribbon from the side of HMAS Australia. "Mum I have to go . ." her tears now streaming wild and bloodshot eyes staring into those so eager for battle, "Darling, come home . ." she whispers into his stalwart neck, "Please come home . ." He reaches into his pocket, "I'll make  you a bet, I'll be home by Christmas." She feigns laughter through the tears and takes the threepence he offers for the wager, "Be careful my darling boy. Come home, safe and sound." He turns and doesn't look back for fear she'll see the doubt in his eyes. A meld of excitement and fear are causing water to well,

Peter Vale enlisted at 17 one year ago and now walks the plank aboard the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia bound to sort the Japanese at Leyte  in the Philippines. His mother doesn't know where he's headed. Her last born son is leaving and she is at wits end.

Fondly known as 'The Aussie' his heart can't wait to broach the heads and set to sea. Although his head acknowledges that the ship has a jaded past.  Commissioned in 1928 she was the second ship to bear the name of her country and had already sailed the Atlantic and fought in Dakar and Senegal. She'd been targeted by the Luftwaffe in Liverpool during the blitz, sailed the Indian Ocean in search of German raiders. "The odds are looking better" he thinks hoping the law of probability will mean safer travels into dangerous waters.

Oceans away as blossoms fall from the cherry trees,  Kaneshiro Shingen is prepped and willing for 'shimpu'. He doesn't want to die but Imperial orders dictate that if he cannot disable allied ships he must use his fighter as a bomb. His wife is weeping as he prepares. "Don't do this. I love and honour you. Your children need you."  A moment of doubt fleetingly shows upon his young face, "I do not yet want to die . . .but this is an important mission. I will do what I have to do to retain the honour of our family, our village, our nation. Don't weep for me woman. This is a splendid way to die." She kneels and weeps silent tears. He is a good man, loyal, loving but to her mind has a misguided allegiance to an Imperial force that is mistaken in its quest to rule the world. She is moving towards modernisation. She no longer dons the kimono but respects her husband on the outside, resents his fervour deep within. He wipes her tears and holds her close but there's no solace in his embrace. He is going to die and she will be left alone. Honour holds no purpose for her.

Pete's enjoying the ship-board life as they sail north along the Townsville coast and towards the Coral Sea. He's always liked condensed milk and there's plenty on board. Being a ship, the cold rooms are full of beef and lamb and the cooks aren't half bad at putting on some hearty tucker.  Then there's artillery training.  He's ready for this and the fear and excitement of actually seeing combat are playing see-saw with his stomach. He's not afraid but he is afraid.

The "Aussie" is one of a small Australian fleet taking part in a massive invasion preparing to land American troops at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines, enabling General MacArthur to honour his promise made two years earlier to return to liberate the Philippines. The frigate HMAS Gascoyne and motor launch HDML1074 form the hydrographic survey group, plotting the approaches to the landing beaches and then the landing ships HMA Ships Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia are among hundreds of transports and landing craft. The cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire, the latter having been transferred from the Royal Navy as a replacement for HMAS Canberra lost at Guadalcanal in August 1942, and destroyers HMA Arunta and Warramunga are part of the covering force.  As he stands on the deck surveying the waterscape, he's in awe. So many, SO MANY.

They will shell enemy positions on shore and protect the landing craft taking soldiers to their designated landing beaches in Leyte Gulf. Plans are afoot, strategies considered, seamen at the ready.  What they didn't expect was assault from the air.

Anchored just off a bombardment point, late in 1944, "Aussie" receives its first taste of a new weapon of warfare. Out of the blue skies of Leyte comes a 'Divine Wind" piloted by Kaneshiro

He prays, takes aim and flies the missile into the foremast of of the "Aussie"', spewing burning fuel and debris. The fuel fire explodes in hellish flames across the foredeck and the bridge begins to burn. Screaming men burning alive flee in all directions as others frantically tackle the fireball.  Peter is forward and cops the edge of the flac as the type 273 Radar lantern falls onto the compass platform, pinning his leg to the deck and dangerously close to licking fuel flames. Both high-angle directors and the director-control tower are put out of action, and the port strut of the foremast is broken. Able bodies fight the fire which is quickly brought under control. Thirty are now bent, burned and broken, 64 lie injured and begging, Peter lies motionless beneath the radar lantern, charred and twisted but alive, a 19 year old boy who looks like he's about to lose a bet.

The injured are hurried to the rec room where sick bay attendants work  furiously tending their burns and wounds and the dead prepared for burial. Thirty bodies have a 40 inch shells put between their legs for weight, then stitched into white canvas. Tomorrow they will be laid on top of a board in the shape of a table top and covered with an Australian flag.  After short words regaling their bravery and God given purpose,  they will slide into the depths. Food for sharks.

The campaign continues but the Kamikaze are sporadic. Peter is still comatose in the rec room, his toes are turning black and his burns weep while medics do what they can to keep him unconscious. Morphine doesn't stop the pain, it just confuses the mind. He doesn't think, he doesn't dream, he's just in a state of stupor. Stinging yet comfortably numb.

Raids resume and a kamikaze aircraft crashes and explodes not 30 metres from the side of the ship, blowing a hole in the hull. Flood waters wash in and cause a list. The fifth and last attack on the unlucky Australia  lops the top off the ship’s funnel. No casualties as another devotee of the rising sun forfeits his life but the "Aussie" can remain no longer and limps on to Espirito Sancto for repair, rest and relaxation. Vale has lost half his bet, he won't be home for Christmas and he won't be in one piece but he is alive.

He wakes in the open air hospital to the sound of harmonious hymns. For the first time in 2 months he feels OK. His head is clear, his wounds bandaged and less painful. He's been washed and is wearing someone else's pyjamas, he can tell because they're far too large. A nurse smelling of sweet frangipani and coconut oil adjusts the saline in his drip. "You come round fast young man. You looking good." She says and flashes a Melanesian smile that he cannot see. "Where am I?"  He hears the scrape of a chair being drawn as she sits beside his bed and takes his bandaged hand, "You're in Espirito Sancto, Port Vila . . this is the field hospital and you are looking very, very good." Why did she comment on his looks. Self doubt or paranoia, he hasn't even thought what's wrong. The last memory he has is the radar mirror pinning him on the deck and the freezing heat. Strange how burns feel cold before the heat sets in.

"Have you got a mirror?" he's suddenly aware that his face is wrapped and his arms are bandaged.  "Now young man,  you don't need a mirror just yet. You still need rest." She pats the bandaged hand, offers him some juice which his parched tongue relishes through a waxed straw then she retreats.

It's dark, crickets chirp and remind him of home. The air is warm and the breeze cool. He needs to pee and he's sick of the bottle and the bedpan. The ward is quiet and he raises himself into a dizzy sitting position, posing for a while, waiting to get his bearings and let the blood rush from his head. He swings his legs over the side of the cot and places his hands on his knees . . . his knee. "Fuck! Fuck . . Sister!  Fuck!" there's little more than a thigh stump where his right leg used to be although he swears he can feel his toes. "Fuck me, fuck me dead . ." he screams. "Why did you take my leg?"  She comes and calms him down, his fuzzy wuzzy Frangipani Angel. "There now Mr Vale, you're alive, you'll survive. I't's just a shock. We'll help you with your leg." He cries and he doesn't know why. He knows 30 comrades perished, he knows he's lucky to be alive but still the self-pity pours like typhoon rain and he is in the pits of despair. She takes his head against her bosom and holds him as if he were a child and rocks while he sobs. He hasn't yet seen his face.

"Right Mr Vale, time to change these dressings and let your skin see some fresh air, " says some pompous idiot posing as the medical officer at the infirmary. The bandages are unwrapped and there's a crisp sting across his eyes as the last gauze is removed. "Hmm, healing nicely but a little way to go. Can you see my finger?" He sees nothing. No light, no movement, just dark swirls and shadows as you do in that moment between closing your eyes and unconsciousness. "No, can't see anything. Nothing." This is just as well, because he can't see the disparaging looks on their faces. His eyes have literally melted shut. Scar tissue has formed and sealed the lids, he looks asleep and as if his face were made of butter and some cruel child has smeared a knife from temple to temple. He is horribly disfigured  but sweet lips have been saved and from his nose down, he has a beautiful face. "Mr Vale, you have been badly burned. You're healing well. Some fresh air will do you good but . . " He knows what's coming and after the hysterics about his leg, he's more relaxed about bad news. "I don't think you'll see again."

He doesn't see the palm trees or the Azure lagoon, he can't see the lush mountains or the smiles of locals. Once again aboard the 'Aussie' he is heading home.  He thinks of  the Kamikaze pilot. He was lucky, death was his choice, fortunate he was. He'll be hailed a hero. His family will be proud, they'll build monuments to his courage. Peter Vale returns an invalid not a hero.

Kate is waiting, this time no streamers and banners just her, as a precious boy limps down the gangplank, aided by a wooden crutch, trousers neatly tucked up one leg, led by a comrade, head down and sad, so, so, sad. "Pete, . ." He 'looks' at her but sees nothing. She looks at him and is grateful he can't see the expression on her face."Oh my darling. You're home, it'll be alright" There are no words. There is nothing to say as she embraces him with mother's arms and cries tears of regret.

Peter moves back into the maternal home and his mother becomes his nursemaid but this arrangement will not do. He is morose, depressed, won't go out. Spends hours listening to talking books on the gramophone and fondling the Threepenny bit. She gave it back for luck but he fears his luck has run out.

His sister Elaine visits often and brings the children in a hope it will cheer him up. It does not. He's realising that his 'impediment' as he calls it means he's destined for a life of loneliness. What woman will kiss that face, what hand will grace that stump.He's 20 years old and useless, ugly, alone.

She has an idea. "Peter, I have a friend, a good friend. Her husband was killed three years ago and she's alone. She's attractive, she has money and she'd be perfect for you". He cringes, "For fuck's sake, why would you want to set me up. She'll be disgusted. I can FEEL what I look like." She winces on his behalf but continues, "You don't look that bad. Your eyes are stuffed but seriously, you look alright. She's worked with people like you. She does rehabilitation, works with guys who've lost limbs or been disfigured, it's an everyday thing to her. Let me introduce you?"  He doesn't care but she's determined and Elaine on a mission is not to be trifled with. Angela is contacted and invited to dine at the Vale's. She comes not out of pity but because she herself is lonely and lacks the support of family. She knows what it's like to be ostracised, not part of the crowd. Angela is aboriginal in a very, very white world and the introduction to a blind man? Perhaps he will not judge. "I'll bet you that threepence you'll get on?" He smiles, reluctant but knows there's no dissuading a persistent sister  once she's on a mission.

Dinner is polite, Just family and a new friend.  Naughty children muck about under the table and solicit a flick with a tea towel. Ageing Kate is frazzled in the kitchen and he feels helpless in his armchair. Once seated, calm returns and deep in conversation the words flow. It's a good night. He likes her. She says little that's judgemental, helps cut up his food. Talks of programs for returned veterans and how he should join in a therapy class. She tells him she's from the country where it's wide and brown and hot but loves the city and its buzz and would love to live somewhere in between. He speaks of Vila and coconut crabs and mangoes, the latest books and the love of his gramophone that reads them to him every night. "I have a talking book you might like," she volunteers.

Within a week she's back the latest release tucked under her arm. "The Blood of Others" Simone de Beauvoir, "Peter it's not a talking book but I'd be happy to read it to you." He indulges her and she does. Each afternoon they sit on his bed, he reclining, her sitting on the edge as she reads. Her voice is calming, the story intriguing and he imagines how she looks. "Can I touch your face?" He stops her midstream and leans towards the warmth on the edge of the bed, "Yes of course." He takes two hands and gently uses thumbs to trace each eyebrow and lid, feeling tenderly across her cheekbones. He traces her nose with his index finger and then her lips, slightly parted. He uses open hands to form the shape of her face, her neck, her shoulders, her breasts. This is dangerous territory she knows but he is lovely.  As hands move from underarm to waist he can feel her body beneath his palms and smell the faint waft of perfume from her wrists. Tactile as he is, he can 'see' her. He moves towards her and she guides his face into a kiss, his hands into her groin and fate is sealed. Hands, mouths take over what eyes cannot see and within moments, the embrace is charged with lust.  He will be alright. She is good for him, she loves him, she doesn't care about his looks as she lowers herself upon him. He is grateful.

"Things will be difficult you know?" He doesn't understand why, "Peter, I'm Coori, Dharug no less. You're white. People will talk, this isn't a common thing." Her concerns are real within a nation that has a policy of genetic dilution, "My family aren't like yours we're not accepted. The only reason I have any credibility is because I help veterans but I'm still treated like a maid, a supplicant." The words hurt. With his new perspective he judges by smell and feel and sound and sense. He places value on personality since looks are irrelevant.  The visual has no importance. "I'll take care of you, I need someone to get me out of this rut. We'll be fine. Marry me." Again, he takes the threepence and gives it to a woman whom he loves. "I'll bet we live to be a ripe old age. Have a hundred kids and a house between the country and the city, everything will work out." She isn't so sure but her answer is irrefutably "Yes."

Kate is not phased by the unusual union. Quite contrarily she is pleased. As she scrounges among her husbands papers, locked safely and hidden until long after his death she finds them. Deeds to a small landholding in Windsor, 25 acres near the Hawkesbury with an old Settler's hut. Probably long gone by now but the land holding firmly in the family. "Something old. . " she sighs.

The service is small and he's wearing his dress uniform and for the first time in a long time, proud to have served. Fellow sailors form a guard of honour. She is stunning in white although he cannot see, he can feel the softness of the silk and the tickle of tulle when she brushes against him. He smells the scent of Chanel and hears the whisper in her voice as she says "I do." Hands are shaken, congratulations given. And for the first time, in a long time, he is happy.

Written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory - River of Mnemosyne Challenge
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Gotta be Careful What You Wish For


  1. You misspelled "Leyte" the first time you used it. Again, ships are italicized. Given the historical nature of the piece, I don't think Shingen would have been a formal kamikaze pilot... just someone who rammed a ship with his plane.

    The line "He thinks of Kaneshiro Shingen." reads odd. How would Peter know his name?

    And I get scolded for a crotch-grab in a crawlspace, but your blind dude gets to have one the first time he touches a woman? How rude.

  2. Fair points. I'll fix. And I'm sorry but some bedside lovemaking is hardly the same as a crotch grab in the crawlspace. (God that sounds more dirty than it is).

  3. Well, I am glad it turns around for this guy!

  4. I like this chapter. Not sure how you do it, but I really like how you reveal a character's character (yes, I'm tired and can't think of another word) not only through conversation, but narration that shows the passage of time, yet doesn't interrupt the feeling of the story being in present tense. Not sure I'm explaining it right, but it's a style thing I've seen in other stories of yours. And I like it.