The Wooden Elephants of Herat
I type Afghanistan into a search engine
that spits out words connected to places
and I get more places: Kandahar, Khowst,
I never deployed to Herat.
But Herat is where a woodcarver cut
scraps of walnut into two elephants
I brought home from the war to give my son.
For eight years they roamed his room as he played
in the ivory carpet of his imagination
until the tusks, tiny as matchsticks, fell out.
He is ten now. He does not remember teething
on my dog tags or holding my sweat-stained
patrol cap in the Fort Knox gym the night I came home.
He does not remember stopping
to salute the flag when the trumpet played retreat
on post. He no longer plays with elephants,
and now I pack them into a cardboard box
with faded uniforms and dusty boots—
relics we’re unable to throw out
but no longer want to display.
The silent doe stiffened in her bed of leaves,
where moments ago she fell, panting.
Her last breath rattled.
Life passed from nutbrown eyes
into damp January morning.
The snow wrapped us in a womb of silence.
My frost-tipped fingers wrapped tight
around the stained handle of a buck-knife,
the curved edge trembling.
Warm against my back, my father’s hand.
Soft against my ear, my father’s voice—
Careful, son. Cut gently.
We eat what we kill.
We honor the animal.
We honor the dead who give us life.
Boys like me are not made with words enough for this.
When We Were Boys
every grandfather contained stories
from The War, told in whispers from other rooms.
Their trophies preserved eternities
fixed between the quick and the dead.
Framed inside a shadow box on the wall,
my best friend’s grandfather kept
a utility sleeve and brass casings
from two Japanese bullets that sailed
close enough to rip the fabric but miss
his young muscle and bone.
Another friend’s grandfather trudged
across Burmese jungles and swamps
picking off Japanese officers,
disappearing into mist.
Long after the war, he wouldn’t lie
down in a hammock—in his dreams
the emperor’s soldiers still crawled
into camp, buried their knives
into his buddies’ sleeping bodies.
His wife painted her kitchen red orange
like the rising sun. The old man
refused to speak to her
until she buried the enemy’s shade
beneath a hue of muddy harvest gold.
These were the ancestors we worshipped
in backyards when we played war,
when we stormed beaches with sticks and hunted
hidden enemies deep inside the caves
of our imaginations, before we understood
what must be survived before coming home.