WHEN IT WAS DARK ENOUGH

 

My father seldom talked about the war

as if nothing had happened, but he talked

in his sleep. My mother never understood

what he said. Some attacks were malaria

and she fetched his quinine tablets.

 

He sat up sweating, clutching her arm,

nightmare unspoken. Water in her hands

cooled his sudden temper even in daylight.

When he first came home his darkness

scared his mother. He wanted to start

a new religion, all false.

 

He brought back few souvenirs. Wooden shoes

for his sisters and an Arab knife, a gift

from North Africa, handle sun-bleached wood

wrapped with coat hanger wire, steel blade

sharpened by hand and bent in waves

from opening K-ration cans. He gave away

 

the chocolate bars and most cigarettes.

He told us he picked bugs out of his mess kit

until he decided they tasted pretty good.

Then he caught more and dropped them in.

We knew the war by his jokes. He was the only son;

his sisters all married veterans. They sat in a circle

 

at our family picnics, hands clutched around necks

of brown beer bottles, red coals of cigarettes

rising in gesture and sinking to mouth and armrest,

quietly talking over the drone of mosquitoes

after their wives sought the safety of the porch.

 

We crept closer to hear what they said,

but they pulled their silence tighter around them

like an oily tarp on night watch, darkness descending

until they finally said it was dark enough

to light the firecrackers they brought.

They held their ears and smiled.

 

Terry Tierney has had poems appear in Kalliope, Kansas Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Puerto del Sol, California Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Cottonwood Review, Great River Review, Lullwater Review, Third Wednesday, Cold Creek Review, and other publications.

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