He tried to teach me the constellations once, out at the lake at Warren Park. It was the first time we’d been together outside my shop, and even then, after two agonizing months of him leaning real casual against my counter, telling me about the war and his family and asking trade questions I’d have thrown anybody else out for asking, I still wasn’t sure exactly what he was after. He’d said he wanted to go out there and see the spot in the woods where some kids had found the headless body of a young woman earlier that week, to look for clues—“Something the police might have missed,” he’d said, meaning primarily her head, which they still hadn’t found—but the sun was already setting as he said it, and gone by the time we got there.
We laid our jackets on the ground and sat on the banks, with our backs against one of the big trees, our shoulders close but not touching. I tried to think of something to say. Spread out before us, the dark water was distinguishable from the rest of the darkness only by the way it shifted and rocked, so slightly you could easily fool yourself into thinking it wasn’t there at all, that your eyes were inventing movement where there was none, the way they do when you stare at a thing for too long.
“There’s Ursa Major,” he shouted helpfully. The cicadas shrilled so loud you had to yell over them just to talk. Sounded like the bark itself buzzing as the trees trembled to hold themselves solid around some great pressure within their trunks.
“Ah,” I yelled back in my best approximation of interest. On the list of things I was interested in beholding, the constellations were fairly low.
He pressed a fingertip to the sky and carved out the lines that were supposed to hold the stars together, momentarily extinguishing each one he touched. “The Great Bear,” he said. “Or the Big Dipper.”
“Which one is it?” I said. “Both.”
“How’s it supposed to be a bear and a dipper at the same time?” “Use your imagination.” He took his shoes off, rolled his pants up to his knees, and stretched his long legs out over the grass. I plucked a blade and split it apart, peeled fiber from fiber and laid them across my knee. Somewhere behind us, the moon rose bright and full, cast the faint, tangled shadows of the branches over us in a net and gave the water shape, held it down under a thin sheen of silver. I slapped my neck. I kept thinking I felt bugs crawl under my collar.
“You see any heads?” he said, squinting. “No,” I said. “No heads.”
He lit a cigarette, cupping his hand around the lighter’s flame.
It dug shadows into the deep creases of his palm.
“That’s all the investigating you’re going to do?” I said.
“It’s too dark,” he exclaimed, as if this was a situation none of us could have foreseen.
That girl getting murdered was the best thing that had happened to him since he got home. His daddy had been chief of police in the thirties, until he went and got himself killed rushing in to save somebody when the gas station on the corner blew up.
Frank’s mama insisted he start college in the fall, make good use of the GI Bill, but after that he was going to join the police force. He read detective stories and pulp novels all the time, and earlier that very same week had been complaining about how the only crimes that occurred around here these days were somebody getting too drunk in public, stumbling down the sidewalk for children to see, and teenagers stealing jars of pickles from the general store. He was always waiting restless for something worse, for the string of grisly murders that would give him the chance to prove his bravery and prodigious deductive powers, and to encounter the scantily-clad ladies who always managed to get themselves drawn into the seedy underworld of crime and knelt in bosom-heaving supplication on the covers of his paperbacks, of whom, in those days, I was still unsure whether I ought to be jealous.
“Anyway, they’re good to know,” he said. “In case you ever get lost.”
“I don’t plan to ever go anyplace that would require navigation by stars to get myself out of.”
He grinned. The tip of his cigarette flared and faded with the breath he drew through it. As he reached to pull it from his lips, his sleeve fell toward his elbow, away from the dark lines on his arm. Carefully I pulled a filament free from another blade of grass. It stuck to the skin under my thumbnail.
“What are those?” I said, nodding.
He looked real hesitant, then took a deep breath of smoke, rolled his sleeve halfway up his biceps, far as it would go, and exhaled. It was hard to separate the markings on his skin from the shadows of the branches that overlaid them: they tangled from the middle of his forearm all the way up over his elbow and kept going under his sleeve, drawn in thick, clumsy black lines like the old woodcut prints you’d see in history books of villagers flinging plague-ridden corpses over their city walls and into heaps on the other side. There were so many of them so tangled together, I couldn’t hardly tell at first what they were or one from another, had to wait for my eyes to adjust to the knotted chaos of his skin like they did to the dark before it sifted itself into some semblance of order. Everything on his forearm was underwater: a marlin and lobster and fish all crowded together and overlapping, and an eel insinuating itself between strands of seaweed that swayed with the muscles they were etched over as he tapped his fingers on his leg. Above them, a whale swam in choppy waves, and the waves broke on a stippled sandy shore, from which sprang thick clumps of grass where, on the tender skin inside his elbow, an oak tree’s roots traced his veins. On his biceps, a buck was arrested in mid-leap, its antlers slipping under his sleeve as if to pry it up, and a dog of uncertain houndish breed and gangly limbs paused with one paw lifted, watching a squirrel and waiting endlessly for that one movement that would set it running. They were all drawn in those same thick, woodcut lines, and they weren’t anywhere close to proper scale: the squirrel was near as big as the buck.
“We all went out and got them one night,” he said. “A few days before we shipped off. It was supposed to be a sort of show of patriotism and solidarity, I guess. An eagle on the chest, right over the heart. Then I just kept going back every night and getting more.”
“Didn’t it hurt?”
He nodded and pulled his knees to his chest. The soles and sides of his feet were smeared with dirt, and his calf was lashed by deep lines, the imprints of grass blades, like the creases a pillow might have left on his cheek while he slept. I watched his skin slowly start to fill itself in from underneath.
“We were strutting around so puffed up and full of ourselves, the rest of them probably didn’t even feel it,” he said. “I was the only one of us sober. Including the fellow who was doing it. Probably could have done a better job myself.”
“They ain’t that bad.” Already I’d started to sound like him.
“They make me look like a criminal. I have to wear long sleeves the rest of my life. Even in summer.”
The cicadas’ song smoothed itself out into one endless, pulseless drone, always on the verge of a crest but never tumbling over. He flicked the nub of his cigarette away—it faded from orange to dark as it fell—and sat forward, the shadows of the branches sliding from his shoulders, down his arms and back and onto the grass, soaking into the dirt underneath. When he stood, his knees made a loud sound like paper crumpling, and he leaned against the tree. Its trunk trembled on the edge of unwinding.
“I tore them up,” he said, “dropping to the ground so much.” He ripped a tender shoot from one of the low branches. Where it tore loose, the pale wood, twisted and splintered, looked exactly like the dried-out chicken I cooked before I knew any better, shredded apart under the fork. His legs were smooth again under their blond hair. Somehow I’d missed the moment, that last moment, when the imprint pressed flush again to the skin around it.
I followed him clambering down the bank, onto the large, smooth rocks they’d piled to stop its erosion, though the mud just ran right between them, out into the water, and the little waves carved the bank so concave you could stay dry from a rain if you huddled back in it, behind the rocks. The water that splashed against them was edged with a muck as thick and pliant as skin. It clung to the rocks when the rocking water lapped against them, and stretched as the waves subsided, and when the ebb finally managed to pull it down again, it left a shining residue on the stone.
Frank peeled the bark from the shoot, scraping it away with his fingernails, while he stared out at the water. The reflections of the stars blinked on and off atop it, their light alternately smoothed out and folded up into dark pleats.
“All those boys drowned when we landed at Omaha Beach,” he said. “Every single one.” Just as soon as they jumped off the ramps, they started going under. They were too far offshore, and their packs were loaded down with equipment and supplies. They filled up with water, just soaked it in, and pulled the ones who weren’t strong enough down under the waves. For a second or two they’d bob there, shouting and trying to push themselves up, tear foaming wounds into the water, and then they sank down, and the water, like a wound, closed over them in clots of reflected light.
“And that water was cold,” he said. “It was the middle of summer, and still that water was so cold you felt like you’d just woken up. Like your entire life before that had been one drowsy sleepwalk.” He’d gone under a few times, swallowed a lot of seawater, but he and a couple boys from other companies made it to shore. The Germans were shooting down on it so heavy the sand their bullets kicked up looked like a fog gathered thick round the bluffs, but the other two were so excited to make it to land they crawled right up on it, even when he yelled for them to stay in the water, and into the line of fire. “Turned them inside out,” he said. “That’s how it looked. Like they’d split open and burst out of themselves.” Then he did the only thing he could think of, which was wriggle back out into the water and lay under it, his pack against the sea floor, with just his face exposed, water slapping the sides of his nostrils, so the tide could carry him hidden toward the cliffs a little at a time.
He’d never told me about the fighting before, just the geography and weather and wildlife, as if each battle had been another stop on some luxury vacation cruise, each destination more restful and interesting than the last.
“All that was in the first five minutes, I guess,” he said. “Time ran real funny. Seemed to stretch out forever. Like nothing would ever end.”
He stepped off the riprap and into the lake. His pale, bare feet warped in the churned water so drastically they seemed to fold in on themselves and disappear completely for a moment before opening again into thin, rippling approximations of their original shape.
“After a while, you couldn’t really feel the water for itself no more. All you felt was this pressure. This hard pressure all over your skin, like the whole ocean was trying to break into you. Feeling you all over for weak spots it could split apart. And then there was this—some part of me buckled under the pressure, and the water and the cold just seemed to rush in, filled me up until I wasn’t nothing but a tingling feeling. Like the kind you get when you sit on your leg and put it to sleep. Feels like dissolving. That’s how I felt, all the way through.
“None of the boys from my platoon—a lot of the others washed up onshore eventually, but our lieutenant had got on us bad about strapping our packs on as tight as we could. Held them down on the ocean floor so the waves couldn’t even wash their bodies where somebody could find them. They were just gone. That’s how good the water swallowed them up.”
The branch was pale and bare as bone. He flung it out into the water. A heavier object would have flown halfway across the lake, hard as he threw it. But it was so light, it barely got anywhere. The water rippled in slow, shallow furrows that flattened as they moved toward the shore.
“The worst part,” he said, as we climbed back up the bank and sat down again, “was warming up. Once I fought my way under the cliffs and found the boys from the other boats. Felt like every cell in your body closing in and crushing itself, every blood vessel bursting.” He rolled his jacket into a pillow, put it between his head and the tree so he could lounge back, and dug his hand in the grass between us, wriggled his fingers into the dirt. The waves on his forearm churned. “Sensation coming back,” he said, shaking his head. “You don’t feel it at all when it disappears, but when it comes back, you wish you’d never feel another thing.”
He looked at me in the dark, and for a moment I saw on his face, like a reflection on a clouded pane, a kind of ache, blurry and diffuse; and like a reflection, so fragile any stone thrown might shatter it, any light turned on in the dark might wipe it clean, it slipped off the surface and was gone.
“There’s Gemini,” he said, and leaned close, the space between us crushed hot and crowding against my ribs, to draw the lines between each of their stars in turn: the twins Castor and Pollux, one mortal and one immortal, who loved each other so desperately that when Castor went and got himself killed in some battle, Pollux couldn’t bear to live forever without him, so he begged his father Zeus until Zeus plucked Castor from the underworld and set the both of them as stars in the sky. At least that’s how it went in one of the endings. Another one said that Pollux had to give up half his immortality to his brother, and then they shuttled together back and forth between Olympus and Hades, one day among the gods in paradise, the next crowded together in the cold grave, toward which they now were headed, the canopy tangled about their ankles and dragging them from the heavens.
It always bothered me how so many of those old myths had different endings. You’d read one version and think you were really something, think you knew what had gone on, the whole story, and then you’d read a different book and find out you didn’t know a thing. As if the very same action could have five or six different outcomes, and you could never be sure which one you’d get, as if, even long after it was over, you could never be sure what a thing meant.
He leaned away again. The space between us slackened and subsided.
“That doesn’t look anything like them, though,” I said. “None of these things look at all like what they’re supposed to.”
“They do,” he said, sounding personally offended. He burrowed his long, bony toes into the dirt. “They do. You just have to let your eyes go a little fuzzy.”
“When I let my eyes go fuzzy, I can’t see any stars at all.”
He laughed. “Just try,” he said, and I did, but the stars had already drifted away from where they’d been only minutes before, and the sky had already filled the grooves his fingertips had carved into it.
From HIDE. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Griffin.