Here are the readings for the first session of this Spring’s course on War Literature at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. Please have them read, if possible, for our first meeting in April.
Tim O’Brien – How to Tell a True War Story
This is true.
I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley but everybody called him Rat.
A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and writes a letter to the guy’s sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she had, how strack the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real soldier’s soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point, how her brother would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or going out on these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.
Anyway, it’s a terrific letter, very personal and touching. Rat almost bawls writing it. He gets all teary telling about the good times they had together, how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way. A great sense of humor, too. Like the time at this river when he went fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades. Probably the funniest thing in world history, Rat says, all that gore, about twenty zillion dead gook fish. Her brother, he had the right attitude. He knew how to have a good time. On Halloween, this real hot spooky night, the dude paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and goes out on ambush almost stark naked, just boots and balls and an M-16. A tremendous human being, Rat says. Pretty nutso sometimes, but you could trust him with your life.
And then the letter gets very sad and serious. Rat pours his heart out. He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something, they had a whole lot in common. He tells the guy’s sister he’ll look her up when the war’s over.
So what happens?
Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does 1 Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story,” in Paula Geyh, et al., eds., Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 174-183. not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl, He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old—it’s too much for him—so he looks at you with those big gentle, killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.
You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fucking letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.”
The dead guy’s name was Curt Lemon. What happened was, we crossed a muddy river and marched west into the mountains, and on the third day we took a break along a trail junction in deep jungle. Right away, Lemon and Rat Kiley started goofing off. They didn’t understand about the spookiness. They were kids; they just didn’t know. A nature hike, they thought, not even a war, so they went off into the shade of some giant trees—quadruple canopy, no sunlight at all—and they were giggling and calling each other motherfucker and playing a silly game they’d invented. The game involved smoke grenades, which were harmless unless you did stupid things, and what they did was pull out the pin and stand a few feet apart and play catch under the shade of those huge trees. Whoever chickened out was a motherfucker. And if nobody chickened out, the grenade would make a light popping sound and they’d be covered with smoke and they’d laugh and dance around and then do it again.
It’s all exactly true.
It happened nearly twenty years ago, but I still remember that trail junction and the giant trees and a soft dripping sound somewhere beyond the trees. I remember the smell of moss. Up in the canopy there were tiny white blossoms, but no sunlight at all, and I remember the shadows spreading out under the trees where Lemon and Rat Kiley were playing catch with smoke grenades. Mitchell Sanders sat flipping his yo-yo. Norman Bowker and Kiowa and Dave Jensen were dozing, or half-dozing, and all around us were those ragged green mountains.
Except for the laughter things were quiet. At one point, I remember, Mitchell Sanders turned and looked at me, not quite nodding, then after a while he rolled up his yo-yo and moved away.
It’s hard to tell what happened next. They were just goofing. There was a noise, I suppose, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrowwaisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.
In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.
In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.
I heard this one, for example, from Mitchell Sanders. It was near dusk and we were sitting at my foxhole along a wide, muddy river north of Quang Ngai. I remember how peaceful the twilight was. A deep pinkish red spilled out on the river, which moved without sound, and in the morning we would cross the river and march west into the mountains. The occasion was right for a good story.
“God’s truth,” Mitchell Sanders said. “A six-man patrol goes up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation. The idea’s to spend a week up there, just lie low and listen for enemy movement. They’ve got a radio along, so if they hear anything suspicious—anything— they’re supposed to call in artillery or gunships, whatever it takes. Otherwise they keep strict field discipline. Absolute silence. They just listen.”
He glanced at me to make sure I had the scenario. He was playing with his yo-yo, making it dance with short, tight little strokes of the wrist.
His face was blank in the dusk.
“We’re talking hardass LP. These six guys, they don’t say boo for a solid week. They don’t got tongues. All ears.”
“Right,” I said.
“Affirm,” he said. “Invisible. So what happens is, these guys get themselves deep in the bush, all camouflaged up, and they lie down and wait and that’s all they do, nothing else, they lie there for seven straight days and just listen. And man, I’ll tell you—it’s spooky. This is mountains. You don’t know spooky till you been there. Jungle, sort of, except it’s way up in the clouds and there’s always this fog-like rain, except it’s not raining—everything’s all wet and swirly and tangled up and you can’t see jack, you can’t find your own pecker to piss with. Like you don’t even have a body. Serious spooky. You just go with the vapors—the fog sort of takes you in….And the sounds, man. The sounds carry forever. You hear shit nobody should ever hear.”
Sanders was quiet for a second, just working the yo-yo, then he smiled at me. “So, after a couple days the guys start hearing this real soft, kind of wacked-out music. Weird echoes and stuff. Like a radio or something, but its not a radio, it’s this strange gook music that comes right out of the rocks. Faraway, sort of, but right up close, too. They try to ignore it. But it’s a listening post, right? So they listen. And every night they keep hearing this crazyass gook concert. All kinds of chimes and xylophones. I mean, this is wilderness—no way, it can’t be real—but there it is, like the mountains are tuned in to Radio Fucking Hanoi. Naturally they get nervous. One guy sticks Juicy Fruit in his ears. Another guy almost flips. Thing is, though, they can’t report music. They can’t get on the horn and call back to base and say, ‘Hey, listen, we need some firepower, we got to blow away this weirdo gook rock band.’ They can’t do that. It wouldn’t go down. So they lie there in the fog and keep their months shut. And what makes it extra bad, see, is the poor dudes can’t horse around like normal. Can’t joke it away. Can’t even talk to each other except maybe in whispers, all hush-hush, and that just revs up the willies. All they do is listen.”
Again there was some silence as Mitchell Sanders looked out on the river. The dark was coming on hard now, and off to the west I could see the mountains rising in silhouette, all the mysteries and unknowns.
“This next part,” Sanders said quietly, “you won’t believe.”
“Probably not,” I said.
“You won’t. And you know why?”
He gave me a tired smile.
“Because it happened. Because every word is absolutely dead-on true.”
Sanders made a little sound in his throat, like a sigh, as if to say he didn’t care if I believed it or not. But he did care. He wanted me to believe, I could tell. He seemed sad, in a way.
“These six guys, they’re pretty fried out by now, and one night they start hearing voices. Like at a cocktail party. That’s what it sounds like, this big swank gook cocktail party somewhere out there in the fog. Music and chitchat and stuff. It’s crazy, I know, but they hear the champagne corks. They hear the actual martini glasses. Real hoity-toity, all very civilized, except this isn’t civilization. This is Nam.
“Anyway, the guys try to be cool. They just lie there and groove, but after a while they start hearing—you won’t believe this—they hear chamber music. They hear violins and shit. They hear this terrific mama-san soprano. Then after a while they hear gook opera and a glee club and the Haiphong Boys Choir and a barbershop quartet and all kinds of weird chanting and Buddha-Buddha stuff. The whole time, in the background, there’s still that cocktail party going on. All these different voices. Not human voices, though. Because it’s the mountains. Follow me? The rock—it’s talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam, the place talks.
“The guys can’t cope. They lose it. They get on the radio and report enemy movement—a whole army, they say—and they order up the firepower. They get arty and gunships. They call in air strikes. And I’ll tell you, they fuckin’ crash that cocktail party. All night long, they just smoke those mountains. They make jungle juice. They blow away trees and glee clubs and whatever else there is to blow away. Scorch time. They walk napalm up and down the ridges. They bring in the Cobras and F-4s, they use Willie Peter and HE and incendiaries. It’s all fire. They make those mountains burn.
“Around dawn things finally get quiet. Like you never even heard quiet before. One of those real thick, real misty days—just clouds and fog, they’re off in this special zone—and the mountains are absolutely dead-flat silent. Like Brigadoon—pure vapor, you know? Everything’s all sucked up inside the fog. Not a single sound, except they still hear it.
“So they pack up and start humping. They head down the mountain, back to base camp, and when they get there they don’t say diddly. They don’t talk. Not a word, like they’re deaf and dumb. Later on this fat bird colonel comes up and asks what the hell happened out there. What’d they hear? Why all the ordnance? The man’s ragged out, he gets down tight on their case. I mean, they spent six trillion dollars on firepower, and this fatass colonel wants answers, he wants to know what the fuckin’ story is.
“But the guys don’t say zip. They just look at him for a while, sort of funnylike, sort of amazed, and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can’t ever say. It says, man, you got wax in your ears. It says, poor bastard, you’ll never know—wrong frequency—you don’t even want to hear this. Then they salute the fucker and walk away, because certain stories you don’t ever tell.”
You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever. Not when Mitchell Sanders stood up and moved off into the dark.
It all happened.
Even now I remember that yo-yo. In a way, I suppose, you had to be there, you had to hear it, but I could tell how desperately Sanders wanted me to believe him, his frustration at not quite getting the details right, not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth.
And I remember sitting at my foxhole that night, watching the shadows of Quang Ngai, thinking about the coming day and how we would cross the river and march west into the mountains, all the ways I might die, all the things I did not understand.
Late in the night Mitchell Sanders touched my shoulder.
“Just came to me,” he whispered. “The moral, I mean. Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothing. Like that fatass colonel. The politicians, all the civilian types, what they need is to go out on LP. The vapors, man. Trees and rocks—you got to listen to your enemy.”
And then again, in the morning, Sanders came up to me. The platoon was preparing to move out, checking weapons, going through all the little rituals that preceded a day’s march. Already the lead squad had crossed the river and was filing off toward the west.
“I got a confession to make,” Sanders said. “Last night, man, I had to make up a few things.”
“I know that.”
“The glee club. There wasn’t any glee club.”
“Forget it, I understand.”
“Yeah, but listen, it’s still true. Those six guys, they heard wicked sound out there. They heard sound you just plain won’t believe.” Sanders pulled on his rucksack, closed his eyes for a moment, then almost smiled at me.
I knew what was coming but I beat him to it.
“All right,” I said, “what’s the moral?”
“No, go ahead.”
For a long while he was quiet, looking away, and the silence kept stretching out until it was almost embarrassing. Then he shrugged and gave me a stare that lasted all day.
“Hear that quiet, man?” he said. “There’s your moral.”
In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”
True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.
For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.
It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times, many versions—but here’s what actually happened.
We crossed the river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, Curt Lemon stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff.
Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know—no farms or paddies—but we chased it down and got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.
He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested.
He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was just to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week he would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now it was a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth, and deep greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly and butt. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a light bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay very still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb.
Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but then cradled his rifle and went off by himself.
The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a time no one spoke. We had witnessed something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a name for it.
Somebody kicked the baby buffalo.
It was still alive, though just barely, just in the eyes.
“Amazing,” Dave Jensen said. “My whole life, I never seen anything like it.”
“Not hardly. Not once.”
Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders picked up the baby buffalo. They hauled it across the open square, hoisted it up, and dumped it in the village well.
Afterward, we sat waiting for Rat to get himself together.
“Amazing,” Dave Jensen kept saying.
“A new wrinkle. I never seen it before.”
Mitchell Sanders took out his yo-yo.
“Well, that’s Nam,” he said, “Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin’s real fresh and original.”
How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorous, the purply black glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a fire fight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil—everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self—your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it; a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.
Mitchell Sanders was right. For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is absolute ambiguity.
In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing much is ever very true.
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?
This one wakes me up.
In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Norman Bowker and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines. The gore was horrible, and stays with me, but what wakes me up twenty years later is Norman Bowker singing “Lemon Tree” as we threw down the parts.
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.
Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half-step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.
Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories, she can’t understand why people want to wallow in blood and gore. But this one she liked. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.
I won’t say it but I’ll think it.
I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.
Because she wasn’t listening.
It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. It was a ghost story.
But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. And it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.
In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.
Edith Wharton – Writing a War Story
MISS IVY SPANG of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war.
It was called “Vibrations,” and was preceded by a “Foreword” in which the author stated that she had yielded to the urgent request of “friends” in exposing her first-born to the public gaze. The public had not gazed very hard or very long, but the Cornwall-on-Hudson “News-Dispatch” had a flattering notice by the wife of the rector of St. Dunstan’s (signed “Asterisk”), in which, while the somewhat unconventional sentiment of the poems was gently deprecated, a graceful and lady-like tribute was paid to the “brilliant daughter of one of our most prominent and influential citizens, who has voluntarily abandoned the primrose way of pleasure to scale the rugged heights of Parnassus.”
Also, after sitting one evening next to him at a bohemian dinner in New York, Miss Spang was honored by an article by the editor of “Zig-zag,” the new “Weekly Journal of Defiance,” in which that gentleman hinted that there was more than she knew in Ivy Spang’s poems, and that their esoteric significance showed that she was a vers-librist in thought as well as in technique. He added that they would “gain incommensurably in meaning” when she abandoned the superannuated habit of beginning each line with a capital letter.
The editor sent a heavily-marked copy to Miss Spang, who was immensely flattered, and felt that at last she had been understood. But nobody she knew read “Zig-zag,” and nobody who read “Zig-zag” seemed to care to know her. So nothing in particular resulted from this tribute to her genius.
Then the war came, and she forgot all about writing poetry.
THE war was two years old, and she had been pouring tea once a week for a whole winter in a big Anglo-American hospital in Paris, when one day, as she was passing through a flower-edged court on her way to her ward, she heard one of the doctors say to a pale gentleman in civilian clothes and spectacles, “But I believe that pretty Miss Spang writes. If you want an American contributor, why not ask her?” And the next moment the pale gentleman had been introduced and, beaming anxiously at her through his spectacles, was urging her to contribute a rattling war story to “The Man-at-Arms,” a monthly publication that was to bring joy to the wounded and disabled in British hospitals.
“A good rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you catch my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending — that’s about the idea. But I leave it to you; with your large experience of hospital work of course you know just what hits the poor fellows’ taste. Do you think you could have it ready for our first number? And have you a portrait — if possible in nurse’s dress — to publish with it? The Queen of Norromania has promised us a poem, with a picture of herself giving the baby Crown Prince his morning tub. We want the first number to be an ‘actuality,’ as the French say; all the articles written by people who’ve done the thing themselves, or seen it done. You’ve been at the front, I suppose? As far as Rheims, once? That’s capital! Give us a good stirring trench story, with a Coming-Home scene to close with . . . a Christmas scene, if you can manage it, as we hope to be out in November. Yes — that’s the very thing; and I’ll try to get Sargent to do us the wounded V. C. coming back to the old home on Christmas Eve — snow effect.”
It was lucky that Ivy Spang’s leave was due about that time, for, devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.
Was it any wonder that she took it seriously?
She, Ivy Spang, of Cornwall-on-Hudson, had been asked to write a war story for the opening number of “The Man-at-Arms,” to which Queens and Archbishops and Field Marshals were to contribute poetry and photographs and patriotic sentiment in autograph! And her full-length photograph in nurse’s dress was to precede her prose; and in the table of contents she was to figure as “Ivy Spang, author of Vibrations: A Book of Verse.”
She was dizzy with triumph, and went off to hide her exultation in a quiet corner of Brittany, where she happened to have an old governess, who took her in and promised to defend at all costs the sacredness of her mornings — for Ivy knew that the morning hours of great authors were always “sacred.”
She shut herself up in her room with a ream of mauve paper, and began to think.
At first the process was less exhilarating than she had expected. She knew so much about the war that she hardly knew where to begin; she found herself suffering from a plethora of impressions.
Moreover, the more she thought of the matter, the less she seemed to understand how a war story — or any story, for that matter — was written. Why did stories ever begin, and why did they ever leave off? Life didn’t — it just went on and on.
This unforeseen problem troubled her exceedingly, and on the second morning she stealthily broke from her seclusion and slipped out for a walk on the beach. She had been ashamed to make known her projected escapade, and went alone, leaving her faithful governess to mount guard on her threshold while she sneaked out by a back way.
There were plenty of people on the beach, and among them some whom she knew; but she dared not join them lest they should frighten away her “Inspiration.” She knew that “Inspirations” were fussy and contrarious, and she felt rather as if she were dragging along a reluctant dog on a string.
“If you wanted to stay indoors, why didn’t you say so?” she grumbled to it. But the inspiration continued to sulk.
She wandered about under the cliff till she came to an empty bench, where she sat down and gazed at the sea. After a while her eyes were dazzled by the light, and she turned them toward the bench and saw lying on it a battered magazine — the midsummer “All-Story” number of “Fact and Fiction.” Ivy pounced upon it.
She had heard a good deal about not allowing one’s self to be “influenced,” about jealously guarding one’s originality, and so forth; the editor of “Zig-zag” had been particularly strong on that theme. But her story had to be written, and she didn’t know how to begin it; so she decided just to glance casually at a few beginnings.
The first tale in the magazine was signed by a name great in fiction, one of the most famous names of the past generation of novelists. “The opening sentence ran: “In the month of October, 1914 — ” and Ivy turned the page impatiently. She may not have known much about story-writing, but she did know that that kind of a beginning was played out. She turned to the next.
“‘My God!’ roared the engineer, tightening his grasp on the lever, while the white, sneering face under the red lamp . . .”
No; that was beginning to be out of date, too.
“They sat there and stared at it in silence. Neither spoke; but the woman’s heart ticked like a watch.”
That was better; but best of all she liked: “Lee Lorimer leaned to him across the flowers. She had always known that this was coming . . .” Ivy could imagine tying a story on to that.
But she had promised to write a war story; and in a war story the flowers must be at the end and not at the beginning.
At any rate, there was one clear conclusion to be drawn from the successive study of all these opening paragraphs; and that was that you must begin in the middle, and take for granted that your reader knew what you were talking about.
Yes; but where was the middle, and how could your reader know what you were talking about when you didn’t know yourself?
After some reflection, and more furtive scrutiny of “Fact and Fiction,” the puzzled authoress decided that perhaps, if you pretended hard enough that you knew what your story was about, you might end by finding out toward the last page. “After all, if the reader can pretend, the author ought to be able to,” she reflected. And she decided (after a cautious glance over her shoulder) to steal the magazine and take it home with her for private dissection.
On the threshold she met her governess, who beamed on her tenderly.
“Cherie, I saw you slip off, but I didn’t follow. I knew you wanted to be alone with your inspiration.” Mademoiselle lowered her voice to add: “Have you found your plot?”
Ivy tapped her gently on the wrinkled cheek. “Dear old Madsy! People don’t bother with plots nowadays.”
“Oh, don’t they, darling? Then it must be very much easier,” said Mademoiselle. But Ivy was not so sure —
After a day’s brooding over “Fact and Fiction,” she decided to begin on the empiric system. (“It’s sure to come to me as I go along,” she thought.) So she sat down before the mauve paper and wrote “A shot rang out — ”
But just as she was appealing to her Inspiration to suggest the next phrase a horrible doubt assailed her, and she got up and turned to “Fact and Fiction.” Yes, it was just as she had feared, the last story in “Fact and Fiction” began: “A shot rang out — ”
Its place on the list showed what the editor and his public thought of that kind of an opening, and her contempt for it was increased by reading the author’s name. The story was signed “Edda Clubber Hump.” Poor thing!
Ivy sat down and gazed at the page which she had polluted with that silly sentence.
And now (as they often said in “Fact and Fiction”) a strange thing happened. The sentence was there — she had written it — it was the first sentence on the first page of her story, it was the first sentence of her story. It was there, it had gone out of her, got away from her, and she seemed to have no further control of it. She could imagine no other way of beginning, now that she had made the effort of beginning in that way.
She supposed that was what authors meant when they talked about being “mastered by their Inspiration.” She began to hate her Inspiration.
ON THE fifth day an abased and dejected Ivy confided to her old governess that she didn’t believe she knew how to write a short story.
“If they’d only asked me for poetry!” she wailed.
She wrote to the editor of “The Man-at-Arms,” begging for permission to substitute a sonnet; but he replied firmly, if flatteringly, that they counted on a story, and had measured their space accordingly — adding that they already had rather more poetry than the first number could hold. He concluded by reminding her that he counted on receiving her contribution not later than September first; and it was now the tenth of August.
“It’s all so sudden,” she murmured to Mademoiselle, as if she were announcing her engagement.
“Of course, dearest — of course! I quite understand. How could the editor expect you to be tied to a date? But so few people know what the artistic temperament is; they seem to think one can dash off a story as easily as one makes an omelet.”
Ivy smiled in spite of herself. “Dear Madsy, what an unlucky simile! So few people make good omelets.”
“Not in France,” said Mademoiselle firmly.
Her former pupil reflected. “In France a good many people have written good short stories, too — but I’m sure they were given more than three weeks to learn how. Oh, what shall I do?” she groaned.
The two pondered long and anxiously; and at last the governess modestly suggested: “Supposing you were to begin by thinking of a subject?”
“Oh, my dear, the subject’s nothing!” exclaimed Ivy, remembering some contemptuous statement to that effect by the editor of “Zig-zag.”
“Still — in writing a story, one has to have a subject. Of course I know it’s only the treatment that really matters; but the treatment, naturally, would be yours, quite yours. . . .”
The authoress lifted a troubled gaze upon her Mentor. “What are you driving at, Madsy?”
“Only that during my year’s work in the hospital here I picked up a good many stories — pathetic, thrilling, moving stories of our poor poilus; and in the evening sometimes I used to jot them down, just as the soldiers told them to me — oh, without any art at all . . . simply for myself, you understand. . . .”
Ivy was on her feet in an instant. Since even Mademoiselle admitted that “only the treatment really mattered,” why should she not seize on one of these artless tales and transform it into Literature? The more she considered the idea, the more it appealed to her; she remembered Shakespeare and Moliere, and said gayly to her governess: “You darling Madsy! Do lend me your book to look over — and we’ll be collaborators!”
“Oh — collaborators!” blushed the governess, overcome. But she finally yielded to her charge’s affectionate insistence, and brought out her shabby copybook, which began with lecture notes on Mr. Bergson’s course at the Sorbonne in 1913, and suddenly switched off to “Military Hospital No. 13. November, 1914. Long talk with the Chasseur Alpin Emile Durand, wounded through the knee and the left lung at the Hautes Chaumes. I have decided to write down his story. . . .”
Ivy carried the little book off to bed with her, inwardly smiling at the fact that the narrative, written in a close, tremulous hand, covered each side of the page, and poured on and on without a paragraph — a good deal like life. Decidedly, poor Mademoiselle did not even know the rudiments of literature!
THE story, not without effort, gradually built itself up about the adventures of Emile Durand. Notwithstanding her protests, Mademoiselle, after a day or two, found herself called upon in an advisory capacity, and finally as a collaborator. She gave the tale a certain consecutiveness, and kept Ivy to the main point when her pupil showed a tendency to wander; but she carefully revised and polished the rustic speech in which she had originally transcribed the tale, so that it finally issued forth in the language that a young lady writing a composition on the Battle of Hastings would have used in Mademoiselle’s school days.
Ivy decided to add a touch of sentiment to the anecdote, which was purely military, both because she knew the reader was entitled to a certain proportion of “heart interest,” and because she wished to make the subject her own by this original addition. The revisions and transpositions which these changes necessitated made the work one of uncommon difficulty; and one day, in a fit of discouragement, Ivy privately decided to notify the editor of “The Man-at-Arms” that she was ill and could not fulfill her engagement.
But that very afternoon the “artistic” photographer to whom she had posed for her portrait sent home the proofs; and she saw herself, exceedingly long, narrow and sinuous, robed in white and monastically veiled, holding out a refreshing beverage to an invisible sufferer with a gesture half way between Melisande lowering her braid over the balcony and Florence Nightingale advancing with the lamp.
The photograph was really too charming to be wasted, and Ivy, feeling herself forced onward by an inexorable fate, sat down again to battle with the art of fiction. Her perseverance was rewarded, and after a while the fellow authors (though Mademoiselle disclaimed any right to the honors of literary partnership) arrived at what seemed to both a satisfactory result.
“You’ve written a very beautiful story, my dear,” Mademoiselle sighed with moist eyes; and Ivy modestly agreed that she had.
The task was finished on the last day of her leave; and the next morning she traveled back to Paris, clutching the manuscript to her bosom, and forgetting to keep an eye on the bag that contained her passport and money, in her terror lest the precious pages should be stolen.
As soon as the tale was typed she did it up in a heavily-sealed envelope (she knew that only silly girls used blue ribbon for the purpose), and dispatched it to the pale gentleman in spectacles, accompanied by the Melisande-Nightingale photograph. The receipt of both was acknowledged by a courteous note (she had secretly hoped for more enthusiasm), and thereafter life became a desert waste of suspense. The very globe seemed to cease to turn on its axis while she waited for “The Man-at-Arms” to appear.
Finally one day a thick packet bearing an English publisher’s name was brought to her: she undid it with trembling fingers, and there, beautifully printed on the large rough pages, her story stood out before her.
At first, in that heavy text, on those heavy pages, it seemed to her a pitifully small thing, hopelessly insignificant and yet pitilessly conspicuous. It was as though words meant to be murmured to sympathetic friends were being megaphoned into the ear of a heedless universe.
Then she began to turn the pages of the review: she analyzed the poems, she read the Queen of Norromania’s domestic confidences, and she looked at the portraits of the authors. The latter experience was peculiarly comforting. The Queen was rather good-looking — for a Queen — but her hair was drawn back from the temples as if it were wound round a windlass, and stuck out over her forehead in the good old-fashioned Royal Highness fuzz; and her prose was oddly built out of London drawing-room phrases grafted onto German genitives and datives. It was evident that neither Ivy’s portrait nor her story would suffer by comparison with the royal contribution.
But most of all was she comforted by the poems. They were nearly all written on Kipling rhythms that broke down after two or three wheezy attempts to “carry on,” and their knowing mixture of slang and pathos seemed oddly old-fashioned to the author of “Vibrations.” Altogether, it struck her that “The Man-at-Arms” was made up in equal parts of tired compositions by people who knew how to write, and artless prattle by people who didn’t. Against such a background “His Letter Home” began to loom up rather large.
At any rate, it took such a place in her consciousness for the next day or two that it was bewildering to find that no one about her seemed to have heard of it. “The Man-at-Arms” was conspicuously shown in the windows of the principal English and American book shops, but she failed to see it lying on her friends’ tables, and finally, when her tea-pouring day came round, she bought a dozen copies and took them up to the English ward of her hospital, which happened to be full at the time.
IT WAS not long before Christmas, and the men and officers were rather busy with home correspondence and the undoing and doing-up of seasonable parcels; but they all received “The Man-at-Arms” with an appreciative smile, and were most awfully pleased to know that Miss Spang had written something in it. After the distribution of her tale Miss Spang became suddenly hot and shy, and slipped away before they had begun to read her.
The intervening week seemed long; and it was marked only by the appearance of a review of “The Man-at-Arms” in the “Times” — a long and laudatory article — in which, by some odd accident, “His Letter Home” and its author were not so much as mentioned. Abridged versions of this notice appeared in the English and American newspapers published in Paris, and one anecdotic and intimate article in a French journal celebrated the maternal graces and literary art of the Queen of Norromania. It was signed “Fleur-de-Lys,” and described a banquet at the Court of Norromania at which the writer hinted that she had assisted.
The following week, Ivy reentered her ward with a beating heart. On the threshold one of the nurses detained her with a smile.
“Do be a dear and make yourself specially nice to the new officer in Number 5; he’s only been here two days, and he’s rather down on his luck. Oh, by the way — he’s the novelist, Harold Harbard; you know, the man who wrote the book they made such a fuss about.”
Harold Harbard — the book they made such a fuss about! What a poor fool the woman was — not even to remember the title of “Broken Wings!” Ivy’s heart stood still with the shock of the discovery; she remembered that she had left a copy of “The Man-at-Arms” in Number 5, and the blood coursed through her veins and flooded her to the forehead at the idea that Harold Harbard might at that very moment be reading “His Letter Home.”
To collect herself, she decided to remain a while in the ward, serving tea to the soldiers and N. C. O.’s before venturing into Number 5, which the previous week had been occupied only by a polo-player drowsy with chloroform and uninterested in anything but his specialty. Think of Harold Harbard lying in the bed next to that man!
Ivy passed into the ward, and as she glanced down the long line of beds she saw several copies of “The Man-at-Arms” lying on them, and one special favorite of hers, a young lance-corporal, deep in its pages.
She walked down the ward, distributing tea and greetings; and she saw that her patients were all very glad to see her. They always were; but this time there was a certain unmistakable emphasis in their gladness; and she fancied they wanted her to notice it.
“Why,” she cried gayly, “how uncommonly cheerful you all look!”
She was handing his tea to the young lance-corporal, who was usually the spokesman of the ward on momentous occasions. He lifted his eyes from the absorbed perusal of “The Man-at-Arms,” and as he did so she saw that it was open at the first page of her story.
“I say, you know,” he said, “it’s simply topping — and we’re so awfully obliged to you for letting us see it.”
She laughed, but would not affect incomprehension.
“That?” She laid a light finger on the review. “Oh, I’m glad — I’m awfully pleased, of course — you do really like it?” she stammered.
“Rather — all of us — most tremendously — !” came a chorus from the long line of beds.
Ivy tasted her highest moment of triumph. She drew a deep breath and shone on them with glowing cheeks.
“There couldn’t be higher praise . . . there couldn’t be better judges. . . . You think it’s really like, do you?”
“Really like? Rather! It’s just topping,” rand out the unanimous response.
She choked with emotion. “Coming from you — from all of you — it makes me most awfully glad.”
They all laughed together shyly, and then the lance-corporal spoke up.
“We admire it so much that we’re going to ask you a most tremendous favor — ”
“Oh, yes,” came from the other beds.
“A favor — ?”
“Yes; if it’s not too much.” The lance-corporal became eloquent. “To remember you by, and all your kindness; we want to know if you won’t give one to each of us — ”
(“Why, of course, of course,” Ivy glowed.)
” — to frame and take away with us,” the lance-corporal continued sentimentally. “There’s a chap here who makes rather jolly frames out of Vichy corks.”
“Oh — ” said Ivy, with a protracted gasp.
“You see, in your nurse’s dress, it’ll always be such a jolly reminder,” said the lance-corporal, concluding his lesson.
“I never saw a jollier photo,” spoke up a bold spirit.
“Oh, do say yes, nurse,” the shyest of the patients softly whispered; and Ivy, bewildered between tears and laughter, said, “Yes.”
It was evident that not one of them had read her story.
SHE stopped on the threshold of Number 5, her heart beating uncomfortably.
She had already recovered from her passing mortification: it was absurd to have imagined that the inmates of the ward, dear, gallant young fellows, would feel the subtle meaning of a story like “His Letter Home.” But with Harold Harbard it was different. Now, indeed, she was to be face to face with a critic.
She stopped on the threshold, and as she did so she heard a burst of hearty, healthy laughter from within. It was not the voice of the polo-player; could it be that of the novelist?
She opened the door resolutely and walked in with her tray. The polo-player’s bed was empty, and the face on the pillow of the adjoining cot was the brown, ugly, tumultuous-locked head of Harold Harbard, well-known to her from frequent photographs in the literary weeklies. He looked up as she came in, and said in a voice that seemed to continue his laugh: “Tea? Come, that’s something like!” And he began to laugh again.
It was evident that he was still carrying on the thread of his joke, and as she approached with the tea she saw that a copy of “The Man-at-Arms” lay on the bed at his side, and that he had his hand between the open pages.
Her heart gave an apprehensive twitch, but she determined to carry off the situation with a high hand.
“How do you do, Captain Harbard? I suppose you’re laughing at the way the Queen of Norromania’s hair is done.”
He met her glance with a humorous look, and shook his head, while the laughter still rippled the muscles of his throat.
“No — no; I’ve finished laughing at that. It was the next thing; what’s it called? ‘His Letter Home,’ by — ” The review dropped abruptly from his hands, his brown cheek paled, and he fixed her with a stricken stare.
“Good lord,” he stammered out, “but it’s you!”
She blushed all colors, and dropped into a seat at his side. “After all,” she faltered, half-laughing too, “at least you read the story instead of looking at my photograph.”
He continued to scrutinize her with a reviving eye. “Why — do you mean that everybody else — ”
“All the ward over there,” she assented, nodding in the direction of the door.
“They all forgot to read the story for gazing at its author?”
“Apparently.” There was a painful pause. The review dropped from his lax hand.
“Your tea — ?” she suggested, stiffly.
“Oh, yes; to be sure. . . . Thanks.”
THERE was another silence, during which the act of pouring out the milk, and the dropping of the sugar into the cup, seemed to assume enormous magnitude, and make an echoing noise. At length Ivy said, with an effort at lightness, “Since I know who you are, Mr. Harbard, — would you mind telling me what you were laughing at in my story?”
He leaned back against the pillows and wrinkled his forehead anxiously.
“My dear Miss Spang, not in the least — if I could.”
“If you could?”
“Yes; I mean in any understandable way.”
“In other words, you think it so silly that you don’t dare to tell me anything more?”
He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer — it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject: and that’s the main thing, of course — ”
Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”
“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”
“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.
“You’ve got hold of an awfully good subject,” Harbard continued; “but you’ve rather mauled it, haven’t you?”
She sat before him with her head drooping, and the blood running back from her pale cheeks. Two tears had gathered on her lashes.
“There!” the novelist cried out irritably. “I knew that as soon as I was frank you’d resent it! What was the earthly use of asking me?”
She made no answer, and he added, lowering his voice a little, “Are you very angry with me, really?”
“No, of course not,” she declared with a stony gayety.
“I’m so glad you’re not; because I do want most awfully to ask you for one of these photographs,” he concluded.
She rose abruptly from her seat. To save her life she could not conceal her disappointment. But she picked up the tray with feverish animation.
“A photograph? Of course — with pleasure. And now, if you’ve quite finished. I’m afraid I must run back to my teapot.”
Harold Harbard lay on the bed and looked at her. As she reached the door he said, “Miss Spang!”
“Yes?” she rejoined, pausing reluctantly.
“You were angry just now because I didn’t admire your story; and now you’re angrier still because I do admire your photograph. Do you wonder that we novelists find such an inexhaustible field in Woman?”