I had the distinct honor of reading alongside award-winning novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff last night. Although Flashes of War was for sale on the book table, I knew instinctively that this year it was time to read something different. At this retreat in particular, the audience members are receptive to new or in progress work. In fact, in many ways they leap at the chance to hear such work because they, too, are each heavily involved in creating new work. It felt right to meet them halfway and offer my own drafts. After days of minor worry and then an afternoon of trepidation and last-minute revising and rehearsing, I settled on reading Chapter 8 from the novel. Although I felt nervous at the podium and told the audience as much, once I got going with the momentum of the piece, the nervousness dissipated. Walking back to the cabin afterwards, it occurred to me that the novel felt suddenly real–like a living thing readying to meet the world. I’ll share the opening paragraphs here:
Excerpt from STILL COME HOME, a novel-in-progress, Chapter 8:
It’s another fetid sunset—this one orange, molten—and Nathan watches from the high perch of a security tower, sunlight seeping across the city as if from a wound. A small headache balls at the base of his skull. Block by block, the city fades into shadows. Airborne particles of sand catch the sun’s rays, mother nature’s tracer fire. Within minutes, the horizon appears lit by a throbbing Armageddon. Four tours and it has come to this: the night before Spartan’s last mission outside the wire. Nathan has gotten them this far, though previous tours came splattered with explosions that reduced his fellow soldiers to bits: a leg, a torso. One time, a gunner’s nose and ear blown right off his face from the force of a blast. Mr. Potato Head, Nathan remembers thinking, I need Mr. Potato Head and his bucket of parts.
That’s how the mind works in such moments. Twisted, private humor, like a teen jerking off in his parents’ bed. A curious sickness that makes Nathan shrink in shame and feel charged with life all at once. The nose went one direction. The ear went the other. The memory almost makes him laugh out loud. Before he knew it, he had applied well-aimed, direct pressure to the wounds, then Doc took over. Next, he wiped his hands on his DCU’s and high-tailed it to the two insurgents his men cuffed. He could have killed them, but of course he didn’t—the two of them kneeling at his boots with bags over their heads, one just having shat himself and the other wailing some tinny, syllabic prayer.
Nathan moves from the tower, the clap of his boots echoing down the stairs. His own feet walking. His own breath quick across his lips. For quite some time, he has experienced himself as if from outside of himself, an entertaining little mindfuck, though the jury’s still out on whether this renders him more effective against the enemy. In either case, there’s no time to find out. He crosses the courtyard, returns a few salutes to new recruits in line outside the phone center, and flashes for a moment on his wife Tenley. He really ought to call. Then it’s onward toward the staging area and there, at the end of a long row of concrete bunkhouses, Nathan spies Spartan gathered around their Humvees for a mission debrief before chow.
They haven’t noticed him yet. He can’t even hear himself approach; bunkhouse air conditioners humming like spacecraft, as if this whole tour has been an alien invasion. Exhaust swirls in Nathan’s face and he walks down the corridor, flashing between slanted bunkhouse shadows and angled light. It could be Kansas. It could be Oz. It could all be about to blow away. Laughter breaks through the pasty air and Nathan recognizes First Sergeant Pilchuck’s snare-drum bray, a natural leader and the platoon is better for it. Pilchuck. Upchuck. Everybody calls him Yak. Around Yak, nine more Spartans wrestle and juke like Olympians before their next heat. Nathan is determined to get his men through this final mission, the weeks of paperwork, then homeward bound. The smell of diesel fumes hits him and his throat tightens, the human body so needy, so easily rattled. It’s all a wonder as he steps through the last patch of shade into the bright, final seconds of daylight unreeling from that goddamn-ever-racing-sun.