Three days he marched with men he didn’t know. Three days and three nights, down from the hills and along the railroad tracks. Reinforcements were coming, this is what they said. They’re coming and we’ll meet them and they’ll bring us back to Hagaru-ri, and it was faith that kept them on the road when others walked away. They didn’t feel their feet anymore or their fingers, and it was no use changing out their shoe-pacs because their feet had frozen against the felt. The numbness gave way to burning when the blood came back, and their skin froze and thawed and froze again and split open in the air.
Benjamin tugged at the scarf he’d tied beneath his helmet. He tried to cover his ears, but the wind blew through the wool. No sleep and no rations after the second day either and no warming fires because the Chinese were coming close, and tonight trucks were burning along the road as far as he could see. Men were pinned beneath them and pounded against the doors, and it was no use stopping because nobody could move those trucks or carry the wounded and there was nowhere to take them anyway.
A sergeant in front of him lay down in the snow. Benjamin knelt beside him. Get up, he said. He shook his shoulder and rolled him over, but there was no waking him. His eyes were closed and his face was orange in the light, and for a moment Benjamin wanted to steal his parka and his scarf. He left the road then because it wasn’t right how his thoughts were going. He walked away from the burning and the shouts.
He crossed the shoulder and went toward the reservoir. A few men were already on the ice, walking low into the wind. He followed them, and it was lonely as the moon out there on the water. He moved his fingers inside his gloves to bring the blood back. Somewhere in the hills flares went off and lit the falling snow. He tried to remember what it was like to feel the sun against his skin. Conjure it back, a world without snow and ice, without winds that raised the tears in his eyes and froze them. Evelyn was waiting for him in her summer dress and the neighborhood kids were outside again and playing on their swings. Gentle light of August when the sun came through the trees and it was time to water the grass because look how dry it was. He splashed the Miller boys from the hose and listened to them shout and once he splashed her, too, and she was mad at him for days. He wanted to lie down and sleep on that cratered bed. He wanted to dream his way back to her.
He’d keep his secrets if he lived. He’d bury them here where the ground was frozen. That Japanese girl wasn’t even eighteen and he’d paid her more than she’d asked for, more than the all the others were paying, even the officers, and still it wasn’t right. He didn’t look at her face afterwards. He didn’t watch her dress or comb that straight black hair she had. He’d leave his shame here by the shoreline and the railroad tracks so Evelyn wouldn’t see it in his eyes. They’d leave Boston. They’d go someplace warm and stay there and there’d be no more snow for them, no snow and no ice and all the winds would be warm and dry.
The moon was full on the third night, and he looked for it but he saw only snow. He rubbed his nose with his palms because it was numb already and starting to burn. Every summer his parents took him to the New Hampshire shore or sometimes farther on to Maine. The night waves moved like mercury, and he watched them from the window. He tried to walk into that black water once when his mother wasn’t looking. He left the room and went down by the shore. She pulled him by his hair when she caught him. She spanked him hard. You scared me, she said, you scared your mother, and she was crying, but she wasn’t angry, he knew this even then. She wrapped him in a towel and brought him back to the room, but he couldn’t sleep because the moon was shining through the drapes and the water was still moving outside and breaking across the sand. Conjure them back, all those warm nights and the days, too, when the sun shone down and burnt him.
He didn’t remember coming into Hagaru-ri. He didn’t remember boarding the ship, either. The Americans burnt the port just as he left. They set the fires before the Chinese could take it. He saw the flames from the deck and how they lit the sky, and when he woke again he was in Japan and the nurses were injecting him with sugar water to keep his muscles loose. He called all of them Evelyn because they had eyes like hers and they were sweet how they touched his face, and when he slept he was home again. He was thinning out the corn that grew beside the house, and she watched him from the kitchen window. He saw her and the dress she was wearing, and it was the same dress that she wore when she met him at the Boston station. He left his crutches on the train though he needed them still. He left them and walked to her, and he was afraid for a moment that she saw something in his eyes, but she smiled at the sight of him, smiled and wept and took him into her arms.
L. Annette Binder was born in Germany and came to the U.S. as a small child. She has an A.B. from Harvard in Classics and an M.A. from Berkeley in Comparative Literature. Her poem “Cartology” is forthcoming in JMWW and she has just completed her first novel.