Craig on Tinian Island, 1945

by Emily Kiernan

He'd gotten tired of the war—bored, really. Here, swaddled up with the foliage, bundled in by the green-gray of the waves, it had all begun to seem like a silly memory, like the silent squabbling of children outside a closed window. He'd be lucky if he wasn't court-martialed—or so his bunkmate had told him that morning, watching as Craig had pulled on a pair of half-dry swim trunks instead of his uniform. It was the third day in a row, and Private First Class Alexander Craig was pushing his luck.

"They have every reason to bring you up on desertion," he'd heard from behind his back, but Craig had only half-smiled, half-raised up a hand. He was spoken to less each day, and answered accordingly. A permissive silence was gathering about him. But the bunkmate was a friend, or had been, and so still took notice of Craig's gradual disappearance from meals, outings, and now airfield shifts. If any excuses were still necessary, they would be made for him.

Outside of North Field was a tropical profusion with a few wide, worn paths beat into the vegetation. Craig kept to these at first, moving fast and enjoying the sensation of sweat pooling on his neck and in the wrinkles of his clothes. Some of the men had been stationed in Hawaii before the war, and a few more had fought in New Guinea. They scoffed at him when he talked about the jungle here, pointing out the pine trees, the open view of the sky. He would shrug, not answer. The world seemed to push in on him here, smelling of water and dirt. After Utah, Tinian was different enough. There was nothing lesser in the place, nothing halfway.

He watched the underbrush as he walked—started off into the undifferentiated haze of the distance. It felt good to be away from the clatter of the base, the heavy presence of the other men. Craig had gotten on badly with the men of the 6th—who'd they'd joined on the island, who'd absorbed them—as badly or worse than with his own unit. He'd failed to make compatriots of any them. He was persistently lonely and confounded by it. He'd tried so often to earn their friendship. He'd believed—faithfully, assuredly—that with each new assignment, each move, there would be a change. But the change, when it came, was different than he had hoped, not a reassessment, but just a reassignment of what manner of different he was to be. At home in Tennessee he had worn a variety of descriptors—mullatto, high-yellow, mixed, foreign—all vague assignations, meant only to convey what he was not, leaving as canonical mystery the question of what he was. At bootcamp it had softened into a question, "What are you anyway?" Not so different, perhaps than the "where you from" that was tossed about so genially, but he knew that when they asked him they were not looking for a relation or a countryman. In Utah they guessed some kind of Indian, maybe as much for his silence as for his skin, and he was followed by what he guessed was a chorus of war-whoops. But mostly now it was jap, and wherever he went that followed him, spoken slow and heavy, a complete explanation, everyone suddenly sure about him, no matter what he said.

And to all of it he could offer no answer but a shrug. He knew no better than them the origins of his face—the too-pink lips, the smooth, long forehead, the heavy brows that cast a shadow on the small, golden eyes and broad nose. He had noticed the strangeness of his face when he was too young to ask about it, had felt how he stood, a stern solidity beside the lightful freedom of his siblings, and so had never asked, but had simply accepted his difference as one of the unknowable, subterranean truths upon which the world was built. In time, explanations had come, unasked for. He heard how he had been "left to them," how they had always "loved him as their own." Though in later years he would begin to describe himself as an orphan, as a ward, he most often believed he was their own (of one generation or the next, his older sister, an impetuous, wild cousin—a shameful secret). He seemed theirs, as much as anyone's, which meant little. He seemed no one's. He felt kinless, and hardly known even to himself.

They'd been on Tinian almost three weeks, and it had been enough to render him invisible, inert in the midst of all their activity. The climax was upon them, the end of this story they'd been told or had been telling, and he would not be a part of it. It had become clear in Utah that he was not one of the 509th most valued constituents. He was too odd and quiet for the work of bomb dropping, and he knew they questioned his loyalty, though he was loyal. He would have liked to have done better, to have made his mark, and felt sure he could have. But he did not fit, and he made them doubt themselves, so when Tinian had come and offered a crack in their unified facade he had slipped in to hide himself, and everyone felt safer for it. There would be no court martial, no desertion charge, no attempt to reel him back into the fold. Liberation had come upon him unexpectedly, a thief in the night.

When the noise from the base receded and was replaced by bird-voices and bug-voices, he turned off of the path and made his way through the brush, stomping a trail towards the shimmer of water. The spot was nowhere in particular, just one of a thousand exits from the land. He felt freer when he swam; he felt less observed, less scrutinized. He held the deep and indefensible view that no one owned the oceans. He stripped quietly, dropping his clothes into a small, neat pile. He swam for a while, then floated on his back, his fingers laced. He tried to fall asleep and wondered if he would drown.

He heard a voice—or supposed he did, it was only a little ripple of a sound—and raised his head. A man was sitting by the edge of the water, sitting on the ground with his fingers in the wet dirt where the water lapped up around them. If he had spoken he gave no sign of it now. His head was hanging down and his knees were pulled up close to his chin; he stared at the spot where the water met the earth with an expression of absorption, like a man seeing something wholly new and beautiful. Craig meant, at first, to call out, but he did not, and was not sure why. He stopped himself, and stayed where he was, treading water, watching the figure on the shore. Slowly details reached him. He swam a little closer, trying to keep quiet and the water still. The man still did not look at him. His clothes were torn and dirty, and through the holes there showed wounds, some old and caked over with black scars, others weeping and white, red rimmed. The fabric that hung loose from his shoulders still held the impression of what it had once been—degraded and spoiled as it had become—and the realization of the man's uniform altered the relationship between the two men more fully than the sight of the man's face had done. For a moment Craig perceived them as if holding the ends of a ridged pole: enemy soldiers, separate and in natural opposition, but that clarity would not hold—his own nudity dissolved it, the way he was unmarked and unclaimed and the other man was such a wraith, such a mockery of any title that could united or decide them.

Craig was not wholly surprised. He'd heard rumors of men living out in the jungle, squatting in holes in the ground, emerging at night to scrounge the bugs and berries they ate for food. Some of the groundcrew from the 6th had told him about it; they said they used to stumble on the traces of them all the time, little burrows dug into the earth, lined with cloth torn from Japanese uniforms, the occasional rusted knife. They'd been hiding since the Americans took the island, laboring under the delusion that their presence or absence mattered one jot to the concrete and the machines that had overgrown the place. A few they had found dead, starved. A few more had been captured—the ones who had become too addled to stay out of sight, and who had stumbled nearly onto the base itself, naked and screaming, sure they would be killed. They disappeared fast onto ships or planes, as such people do.

"Well why don't we just shoot them," Craig had said "They're the enemy aren't they?" This had been too much and the other men, who he'd meant only to impress, had looked at him with disgust on their faces. Yet he'd never shot at man in his life, or even at a plane with a man trapped inside it, and how many of them could say that? He guessed that was why, because they had, or knew he hadn't, but it still didn't seem fair. They had said most of the Japanese had surrendered by now, or starved, but Craig had figured there were still a few—the toughest or scaredest, grown all thin and quiet from living out on the island like that. He'd watched the underbrush for them as he walked, feeling the certainty of this moment coming.

The man looked up then, and a movement flickered over his face and eyes that made Craig wonder if he had been seen at all; there was something spasmodic in the motion, something blind. But the eyes stayed on him—the face turned expectantly forward—even as they seemed to drift and roll in their sockets. He was held in their relation. He would approach. He would approach as a man, naked as he was, as a man asking another what had happened, what was needed. A few strokes brought Craig to the shore; he gathered his feet beneath him and prepared the words in his throat, carefully chosen, though he did not know if the other man would understand the words or comprehend that he was being spoken to. His foot pressed the jagged, rocky beach, the sand and dirt adhering to his sole. His head dashed back, struck against the ground, the bottom of the water. The air went out of him and when he tried to gulp it back in it was only water, water in his mouth and lungs. The other man was light and weak, and the rush had taken most of what he had from him. He was easily rolled off of Craig's larger and healthier body; he was removed without Craig's having meant, consciously, to move him, but for a time Craig could make no counter action, save to sit with the other held beneath his hand, trapped by the weight of an arm that could not fight him any more than he could, himself, fight on. Craig's eyes saw a kind of blankness—still saw but understood nothing but the rending expansion of his chest, the awful necessity of forcing air into overflowed lungs. The man had moved quickly, but no so quickly as all that—not so quickly that Craig did not see and have time to know. But he had not known—had watched the man come at him with a kind of expressionless depth in his eyes that had not looked like anger, and had stood and waited, unable to read any intent at all in the man's movement. The attack had been silent, decorous, a mime play that neither participant believed to be real.

When his coughing and gasping was done, and the world had blurred again into the dark funnel of his vision, Craig looked at the body of the man beside him. He was lying quite still, looking dead but for his eyes, which focused on nothing and seemed to pull everything into them—bottomless and hungry and beautiful like a woman's. Craig reached out his hand to the face, fingers landing below the eyes, in the thin, soft place above the cheekbone. If he had meant at all, he had meant only to touch, though his hand had wandered without his asking it to, but now he was seized with a kind of panic, a sudden need to find some mold to form the action. He began to push. He grabbed the man under the arm and hoisted him—doll-light and tensionless—into the shallows beyond them. He slid his hand to the man's chin, over his mouth, and pushed. As they passed under the water the eyes closed, and this sent a reverberation through Craig that was not relief. He waited, watched as the lips parted and the mouth filled with brack. He resisted the limp-flailing arms that slapped at his chest, his shoulders, never reaching his face. He wondered how long it would take such a man to drown. He did not think it would be long.

He released. The man did not sit up though his hands still fumbled, so Craig pulled him out of the water and rolled him to his side to let him cough and gasp and vomit. He felt a low, rumbling shame pass through him as he did this; the man seemed hardly to notice him at all, even in this extremity had barely seen him. Craig at least had looked into his eyes, but to the other there was no intimacy, and to him Craig was nothing, only a dull force for the body to work against. He had not meant to end his attack any more than he had meant to begin it, but since he had first seen the man there had been an awful pressure building in him, and every action he made was a blind and instinctual bid to let the pressure off, like a sick man trying to writhe away from his own stomach. But the feeling remained, and so he swallowed it down, became stoic.

"Get up," he said when the man had quieted. He lay on his side, legs drawn up—fetal and unhearing and peaceful. Craig rose himself, shakier on his feet than he had imagined, and pulled the man up by his shoulder. Still he kept his eyes turned away—like something lost.

"Come on," Craig said, but he could see already that the man could not walk—he swayed, unable to find his balance. His feet shuffled oddly, little digging steps, as if he did not trust the ground to hold him. He would have to be carried. Craig would carry him.

The man did not resist being lifted, and by the time Craig stopped to rest, only a few hundred feet down the trail, he was unconscious, or, Craig half believed, asleep. He had still a homeless memory of being carried himself, small and weak and tired beyond tired. He remembered the comfort of that. He was surprised by the warmth of the man's body, the suffusing glow of it across his shoulders, the way it seemed to penetrate beneath his skin. Stretched out and resting, the third or fourth time, he could feel the heat sinking down through muscle and bone, loosening the bindings. A heavy exhaustion was upon him, a happy grogginess, and he wanted to stay, to disappear from the base and the memory of its men, to stay wrapped up in the soft shelter of the underbrush and the other man's heat. But he stood, he lifted the man again. It was a fever, of course, and his friend was dying of it, and so he lifted him up and carried his body onwards to the gates and the guards and the guns.

The weeks passed. Craig was back at work now, arriving for shifts diligently and on time. His appearance at the gate that day, with the half-dead Japanese soldier slung over his shoulders and something come loose and drifting in his eyes, had brought him urgently back to the awareness of the base. The attention of the US military outpost at Tinian had focused firmly upon him, taking him in for the first time, sensing a new danger there. He was disciplined harshly for his absenteeism, his pay docked, and he was made to know that he was being handled with a mercy that would not extend to further infractions. He was reeled back in. Something in the sight of him had shaken them—stumbling out of the wilderness with another man's body clung tight to his own, and a look on his face that showed them the danger of their permissiveness, of their ignorance of this man, of the something they'd let grow while their eyes were elsewhere.

The Japanese, on the other hand, had proved useful. After a course of antibiotics and a few days of rest, he proved to be essentially sound and, seemingly, quite eager to convert to American habits. He'd picked up a few English words and used them with obvious, beaming pride. Not a week into his residence on the base, he had indicated to his doctor that he was to be addressed by the name "Jim," which was the name of one of the orderlies—a broad-shouldered, Iowan farm boy of solidly Norse extraction who found the compliment (if it was that) entirely hilarious.

In most cases Jim would have been removed to a POW facility as soon as he was fit for transport, but from the first he seemed to be scheming to stay. It began with small chores around the infirmary—the nurses would arrive for their shifts to find the cabinets restocked and the linens straightened, and the other patients reported that Jim was quite solicitous of their comfort, fetching them water, magazines, extra blankets, often without being asked. As soon as he was well enough, he took to slipping out of his bed and endearing himself to the base at large, becoming a kind of capering mascot, drinking whatever the men would slip him, dancing wildly to the American radio stations they would play, singing along in his odd, chirping voice, a polyglot mixture of misheard or misremembered English, Japanese, and an improvised nonsense that left the men howling. He was a popular figure with the rank and file, but higher up there were worries by his presence and the unconstrained element he introduced, the cacophony that seemed to accompany him.

He knew what was coming, or seemed to in the moments when he would sit alone, staring out from the infirmary window and across the water, for then there was something deadly serious and scheming in his face—the universal expressions of a man who's been stuck a long time with his back against a wall. If he was spotted in this attitude he would undergo a rapid transformation, the very flesh of his face seeming to soften and expand as his eyes dulled to a stupid joviality. If you were inattentive you would doubt you had seen the other face at all, though maybe a hint of it would linger, there near the creases of the eyes, or there again in the tense jaw beneath the softness of the skin. What he was looking for, in those moments you would not quite see, was obvious enough; he was searching for the path into their machine, trying to make himself, finally, indispensable.

One day he became agitated; the change was sudden, decisive. It was just after lunch and the orderlies were walking back from the mess hall, lingering and letting the sun reach into the folds of their pressed, white clothes. Jim had slipped out again. They saw him standing by the barracks' south wall, speaking to some men there, rapid and insistent, his splayed hands gesturing out the punctuation to his words. The men shrugged, tried to turn away, looked sheepish and concerned; they did not understand. Jim grabbed at their shoulders, their hands. Finally he succeeded in showing them what it was he wanted—he wanted the men, four of five of them at least, to go with him off the base, into the uncleared and feral island beyond. They balked, did not want to follow, counting up the rules they would be breaking. Still they did not wish to disappoint him—had grown used to humoring him, thought he was like a child or a dog who would be crushed by their refusal to join in his games. But he would not be played off, and so one by one they began to agree, to go with him, casting looks from one to another, and letting hands drift to their weapons—just to be sure—when they thought he would not see, though he must have.

He led them to a spot near the tip of the island. Not so far from the airfield, but sheltered all around by high cliffs and the concealing weight of the trees. He brought them to a small clearing, and in the middle of the clearing was a deep indentation in the dirt, a smooth furrowing built over months or years by the edge of the tide. The place was quiet and still and the men felt shy there. One reached out to grab Jim by the sleeve as he strode past them, still jabbering and pointing, but another stopped him, letting what would be be. Jim was puffed-up, moving slow and deliberate like a showman, finally sure of his place. He drug the moment out, calling the men over one by one, cajoling and intimate, a hand on their shoulders, a sudden palm thrust up to block their way: go slow. He gathered them at the edge of the deep place in the earth and pointed down, at the man who was huddled there, dirt-caked and sunburned, the man beginning to scream.

Craig watched them as they returned with the new man in the midst of them, his arms pinned behind his back by many hands. The men were laughing and joking and the man was a kind of prize to them, though if anyone had asked they would have said they rescued him, that they'd saved him from his own misformed or uneducated fear, the fear of death which would have surely killed him. That would, indeed, be the story that was later told, by the men and their commanders and by the human interest features that a few newspapers would print, looking for something kind to fill an inch or two of column space. The story of the Jap whose life they'd saved, who'd been convinced by the goodness in them, who'd save the lives, eventually, of twelve of his countrymen, bringing them from the wilds into the American's safety and light. "They trust him right away," the stories all said, "they understand each other, and they know he has no reason to hurt them." But Craig had seen what happened when these countrymen's eyes met, had seen the nothingness, the unrecognition so deep they might have been staring into the sea, and he knew that there was no understanding at all.

Jim was moved into the barracks; even if his conversion was not trusted in all corners, he had made himself inconvenient to remove and safest to keep under the eyes of the men, who were curious about him, who had him under a benevolent control. Craig soon found that he could not sleep with the other man so near. He would wake up gasping, imagining the weight of the other body on his, the touch of the other hands on his neck. He would lay awake, feeling the eyes upon him. In the day, they avoided one another—or rather Craig skirted around the edge of Jim's presence, trusting neither to approach nor to turn away, and Jim seemed never to see him at all, would not even look, and the intensity of that refusal was the only clue Craig had that Jim knew him at all. But always Craig was aware of the air that existed between them, of the malleable space that would hold them apart if he did not push his way through it, and sometimes fear and expectation would wash into something that was not either, and as he waited in the dark for the attack, he hoped for it as well. And even this he could not be sure of, that it even was an attack that he waited for, because when he stood on the airfield, and the other men were beside him in their uniforms, they felt to him like whispers or animals and he could hardly even find their faces to look into them, and nothing they said was what he would have said, and nothing they wanted was what he wanted, and they were like nothing but a smear of background from which Jim stood out vibrantly, the man who would have killed him and who he would have killed.

All around the war was ending. The machinery was slowing to an inevitable conclusion, and everyone knew that some final statement was coming. The men began to talk of going home. Craig had not thought of the place in a long time, and when he tried to picture it there was only a muddled remembrance of swaying trees and the smell of pine needles, and all shot through it was the new world of water and the voices of men yelling and the suffocating warmth of bodies. The place had faded almost out of recollection, and it seemed to Craig impossible that he would ever be returning there, though he did not know how he would manage anywhere else. He thought perhaps he would die first; he felt somehow fated.

The final night—the last of any importance—was spent pressed in around the radio, listening as President Truman told what the men there had done, the weapon they had delivered. They were quiet as they listened. Jim was there among them, and now and again a glance would fall on him, trying to determine if he understood, showing a perverse embarrassment at his presence. But he sat with his fixed, foolish grin, and they decided that he did not know what was said. But Craig watched him only, and did not trust his uncomprehending face. It is possible, Craig thought, that he knows and simply does not mind.

And that night, like always, Craig was awake when the others were sleeping, and in his head the sound of their breathing was unlike any human noise and he thought that maybe he was entirely alone and listening to the sound of the same wind that blows everywhere. He was alone in a place where there were no other people and that sound was the wind. And even as he drifted towards sleep he was waiting, waiting for the sound to be swept away by the sound of footsteps—the friendly pressure of the hand at his throat—that would bring all the humans back to themselves. And even before he slept he was waiting, certain it would come.

A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, The West, and places that aren't the way she remembered them. Her work has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, The Good Men Project, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Dark Sky, Redivider, and other journals. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.


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