Brieftrager (Letter Carrier) by Robert Bharda (Ward)

For Captain James H. Ward, D-Day plus 4, Sword Beach.

 

Hans:
how precious is the power
of memory?
The must and musk of a favorite
beer garden;
the lover’s tongue raping
your ear;
a brother’s playful
punch.
And the minor treacheries:
the jealous insult;
an uncle’s scornful gaze;
the hair falling out
of our heads?
What is the caliber
of light?
It orbits the spine, the brain
hemispheres, the blood knows it,
but from where
does it birth?
If I knew I had your ear,
would I tell you of this day?
I confess,
there were questions marks
and periods
in my satchel too, as I geared
morning, wind
and hills,
the November sky
shredding grays above.
The roads were brittle with the rigor
of scars, the earth slick
with frost. The bucolic
landscape was both flat, hollow,
the pockmarks of the bombs
rounded to drumlins
by the rain,
the mud-cake a flem-like
green.
I pedaled by strafed remains
of hedgerows, tree
groves, carcasses
of horses and cows,
their rotting ribs like mute
organ pipe.

Once,
I believed roads
an endless prayer:
the racing
inside their circuits,
the nexus of life
itself.
No one taught me this.
Not even you.
We discovered it together.
All beginnings pop
like a seed from the brain
flower.
Suddenly, we can choose
to be oneself.
And the power of this freedom
is an anthem.
It echoes behind the eyes,
taken to bed
to awaken, sing to each morning.
It cannot be misplaced.
And no one
can steal it. So,
I asked myself, “Am I not also
a road?”
In June of two years past,
you wrote me
from the south: Brother,
the Front opens before us
like a pretty girl’s dress. The buttons form pockets
of resistance which our disciplined
fingers pluck aside, until
the garment falls away and we
sport in that heavenly landscape that hides
no more secrets.
Is this analogy too course
for you?
Perhaps I should compare skinning
a rabbit, gutting a pig! I apologize
and fart in your face.
What do you know, with your cushy
postman’s job? This soldier work
brings me closer to the flesh.
So far the bombers and heavy guns
do the dirty work.
But brother,
there is blood on the hands
of everyone.
Nothing we have done
is an accident. Yet,
what joy there is when we secure
a new small town.
On the troop carriers, we doff
our helmets, sing as the road rolls on
as it did for our cycles.
How I long to show you
my ass again, you slow poke! In five
summers ago, Hans, we rode the distance
races, a team of brown and golden hair.
The miles
we inhaled in pure covenants of breath
have no equivalence in Euclid.
Through parks and streets,
we rippled over cobblestones, around pedestrians,
fountain-side mediators, the pigeon
feeders as if they were all clouds
of steam.
Cascades of church bells rained
on our heads.
On the corners, vendors sold flowers
for a penny a bunch,
and young girls tossed them
before us like spectrums of kisses.
We’d answer with stunts of complete impromptu:
you equipoised, accelerating
on a single wheel:
I aloft upside down upon my handlebars.
Applause echoed behind us like flocks of laughing
birds. Our reward? Panoramas
of country hills, hours
of gliding, grunting, balancing
beyond the cities, shouting,
to where words weaved between us in silk
quiet air.
We stopped only to drink from stone
lined streams, and the water tickled our lips
till we laughed and could drink
no more.

When I was called,
they said to me (since this was an early time
after many victories,
and patriotic banners hung from all windows,
and they could afford to ask)
“What can you do?”
The Gothic chamber echoed strict decorum
as they sat, young men
elevated with faces of arrogant
granduncles, eyebrows arched with
incredulity.
“I can ride a bicycle,”
I said.
So I was assigned to a postal section.
When I returned from the four week camp
where I marched with a wooden shovel, learned to sing
in a patriotic basso,
I began to carry mail.
My motorbike was old, but not
underpowered. Mornings were most welcome.
Issuing missives, the toothpick chewing mail sergeant
would pinpoint my itinerary.
Clocking 100 kilometers daily
was average.
My eyes hypnotized
with the detonations of autumn,
the warm blanket of mid-October days,
I’d declare myself
incongruous to an army, a country
at war, or worlds alien
to my focal length.
Brother, we take what we need as we find it,
and then some.
Occupying a new town, we assess
the best homes for quarters. “Rouse!” we tell
the occupants, and they do.
I don’t know where they go. That’s
not our business.
It’s troubling to remain in one location
too long.
The military government must enforce
power with terror. Yesterday,
I witnessed a mass execution
of spies and resistors.
There were women, as well as men.
Don’t scoff!
The women can pull a trigger just as well here.
For some in my unit, this was the last
lesson they learned.
But I do not care for this mass
justice. Tomorrow,
we’ll move on. Who knows
how long the corpses
will hang
in that square?
Hans, the official directives
I courier are of the most
uninspired and useless
origin.
One read, “Field latrines must now
be shortened by 2 centimeters square, but
the depth increased by ½ meter;
Another: caps of furloughed
troops should always
ride square on the head, but
a “cocking” of more than
15 degress to either side is
a violation.”
Do they think we want to be Russians?
But I carry letters too
for officers of a private
nature. Letters from wives, mistresses,
parents, children.
Closing their door,
sometimes I pause, chuckle
to hear a special laugh or sigh
escape unawares.
Letters they gave me in return
were addressed boldly
or in nervous script; letters of heroes
or farewell
which I carried as equals.
I’ve become expert at detecting extra contents
by touch: money, a pressed flower,
photographs, a key.
Nights, I quarter
with enlisted men. Easy to make
friends here.
Most are clerical or requisition staff.
Commonality of lesser rank
makes us all secret fellows,
as we ask each other,
“What’s the news?”
Officers in charge always
tell us our fight is for survival against
savage enemies: only
victory will preserve our heritage,
so our children would inherit
the earth.
None of us
believe this drivel.
“ The ones who have the power want to keep it.
The others –
they want to take it away,”
one fellow insisted.
We laughed and nicknamed him
“Karl Marx.”
“The truth is,” another said, “we have
simple needs. We want to be
left alone, be
with our wives, children,
earn a living.
But if someone gives us orders,
that’s okay too.”
Everyone told a different story. Fundamentally
though, we are here, and not
somewhere else,
and none think ourselves different
from each other, or those
who follow.
My access to roads made me
a popular fellow.
We share newspapers, food gifts from families,
letters from comrades.
Always I carry a long list of favors
asked.
Brother, we are farther east.
The siege of cities
is brutal business. How long have
these buildings stood without our advice?
In days, we reduce them
to forests of brick and mortar.
No. Not forests.
Jungles.
Inevitably now, the dirty work is left
to our infantry.
Street to street, broken hovel to gutted factory,
we fight over inches of rodent nests
our tanks cannot maneuver.
The ranks of our best are thinning
from this logic. Instead of moving forward,
we turn circles.
There is little audible complaint.
There are three types of killers
I note among us:
some do it as a game.
In our ranks, they recognize and understand
each other and socialize.
They like what they do.
Then there are those who kill
from divine guidance or patriotic mission.
They’re the most dangerous.
All death has meaning for them, regardless
of friend or foe.
Then, there are the others who kill
to remain alive, like me, if for no other reason
because I wish to see you again.
It’s amazing
the things that survive the rubble,
unscathed.
Yesterday, I found a china closet
unshaken amid house ruins.
Inside was a collection
of tiny figurines, one of which
was a bicycle racer.
I’ve saved it for you. There is still hope.
In warm weather,
I carry the mail in stout leather
pouches strapped
to the rear of the cycle.
But as autumn unravels,
I wear a stiff leather jacket.
It makes me feel awkward.
So I place the parcels
in a large muslin bag I carry
on my back.
What’s the difference?
But I’m not alone in displaying
superstitious or obsessive
habits.
And no one tries to explain
them either.
This is fear.
It begins on the lips when beer rations
are shorted, or the stomach, when bitter,
thin coffee is drunk
without sugar.
Or in the throat when the effort
to speak is squandered
limbering ungloved hands.
And why’s this inexpressible?
We are all dancing the same dance.
Each day, we grow deeper into this commonplace.
Day and night,
the bombers wave in
like flocks of valkyries, or herds
of flying elephants shitting
down the crap
of all creation’s time.
The stench.
The four directions are shrinking
to an evermore defined
center.
But who will admit something’s out of tune?
You hear it simply
in unnatural warbles of men’s voices, and then
in the eyes
when they stare at you as if
they were miners.

~ * ~

Hans,
this road is new to me.
A crone with centuries for a face,
it was only cut through
in late spring.
Boots had stamped it until
it was raw flesh in hot summer.
Then waves of half-tracks, tanks ripped it
to the red bone.
When the fall rains ended,
the road was a ghost
of itself,
a river bed long dry,
and this the wind carried in dusty,
gnarled digressions
to the west.
Spare parts have run out
for cycles.
Petrol is rationed
like liquid gold.
I have a bicycle now. It came
with a bent rim.
They gave me a tool satchel
and tire patches.
I made it work.
Today, the silence is peculiar:
a hidden animal breathing
in a tree.
I’m riding to a distant outpost.
The front’s thunder
is 20 miles below. For three hours
I’ve pedaled,
and in the last 30 minutes
have seen nothing move. The sky’s
white in somnolent haze
and the sun glares through it, a lamp
in a meat storage locker. Brother,
you could be anywhere, be anyone
you please. But I am no one and this place
is nowhere.
Have you heard the dead laugh?
For years, we’ve shelled it out to everyone.
Now, we’re the bull’s eye.
And no escape,
except by one form of wings or another.
They sent us here in Spring equipped
for a summer rout.
So we are dressed like vacationers
in a place where there are
no holidays.
For heat, we’ve burned everything available.
For food, we’ve even boiled our
leather belts and satchels.
The volley of enemy rockets is ceaseless
and pinnacle from all points.
They quit
only for the occasional ground assault
by their bull-whipped troops.
Where can one find sleep?
Their new trick is to attack
with earth moving machines, filling in our
trenches with snow, burying our men
alive.
For some, this end is welcomed.
The dead are everywhere, frozen in their
last rationalizations, like manikins in Hell’s
clothing store.
I have not resorted to “alternative”
sources of nourishment.
I cannot speak of others. One corporal
boiled dog hair to make tea.
He used his own urine.
Nothing is wasted here,. Nothing
and everything.
What do we have in common? Look up, brother –
we have the dark, the stars. You have quiet,
Perhaps even silence. Soon, I will have
the latter too.
How tight my scarf garotes
my neck, my hat flaps mute
my ears.
The missives in my satchels
were born of the magic
of heart and brain,
then telegraphed through fingers
impassioned as candles
onto paper until thought
married time.
As their sentinel,
I vigiled safe transit, preserved
for their moment of intimate
implosion.
Another courier might have
condemned these letters as penned
by madmen, or the damned,
and ditched them.
But I was not thinking of them
when the bullet crept into my back.
Severing
thought from motion,
it twirled my body like a broken
chord of music.
There were three.
They had watched me , a speck on the horizon
waxing larger and waited.
Examining their craft,
they pronounced me dead, throwing open
my coat, the satchels,
rummaging through all.
Mistaking all script and print
for military intelligence,
they left me in the center of the road,
my limbs awry over the rubber rimmed wheels,
my eyes open
to witness the coming of the stars.
I could feel nothing.
But I remember pulsation, crescive colors,
the heavens a Vatican
of light and silence.
All at once,
a genesis of massive bombardment
began, with flashes of rockets so
relentless, it appeared day again,
and the moon was now the sun.
I felt myself traveling
with inexplicable speed, but
relaxed, calm.
In the distance, there was the rumbling,
blind jerkiness of enemy
tanks. But I did not know it.
I could not feel them rolling,
the incomprehensible weight
rolling nearer on the road.
I had no hope
they would see me, or their steel treads
would not find me, or that there were
no more words….
Brother, a soldier is human
too. That girl in the south wanted the room
dark.
She would not say why. I’m such
a joker. When we were naked, I clicked them
on again. “No lights!” she screamed. A scar
mapped her stomach in a bizarre shape.
Wet and sobbing, I held her. “It’s alright,”
I said. The scar was like a red mouth
opened wide. “It’s alright,” I said….
My forehead rivered sweat into my eyes,
freezing my lashes, blurring vision
into disjunctive crystals.
One Christmas, I remember
looking through a house window.
A tall decorated tree regaled the room.
Candles were on it and bright tinseled baubles.
Somewhere, a band was playing,
And as my breath fogged the window
white, the room
became translucent, a brilliant transfigure
of warmth,
The music softened, fading slowly down
the snowy streets. I thought,
I must go home now.
And I was running, and heard icicles
breaking from rooftops, the sound like glass
ground in a mortar.
I remember calling out
your name.


Robert Bharda WardOriginally from New York City, Robert Bharda (Ward) has resided in the Northwest U.S. where for the last 35 years he has specialized in vintage photographica as a profession, everything from salt prints to poloroids. His illustrations/artwork have appeared in numerous publications, both in the U.S. and abroad, and are current on covers of Naugatuck River Review, Blue Five NoteBook, and within recently published Cirque and Rio Grande Review. His portfolios of images have been featured in cahoodahoodaling, Blue Five, Superstition, AADUNA, Serving House Journal, The Adirondack Review, and are forthcoming in The Critical Pass and Santa Clara Review. Also a writer, his poetry, fiction and critical reviews have been published in The North American Review, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Quarterly West, Willow Springs, ACM, Cutbank, Fine Madness, Kansas Quarterly, Yellow Silk, Poets On, Conclave, and many others, including anthologies.


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