IN THE COLD, DARK TIME
For Neal Barrett
It was the time of the Icing, and the snow and razor winds blew across the lands and before and behind them came the war and the war went across the lands worse than the ice, like a plague, and there were those who took in the plague and died by it, or were wounded deeply by it, and I was one of the wounded, and at first I wished I was one of the dead.
I lay in bed hour on hour in the poorly heated hospital and watched the night come, then the day, then the night, then the day, and no time of night or day seemed lost to me, for I could not sleep, but could only cough out wads of blood-tainted phlegm and saliva that rose from my injured lungs like blobby bubbly monsters to remind me of my rendering flesh. I lay there and prayed for death, for I knew all my life had been lost to me, and that my job in the war was no longer mine, and when the war was over, if it was ever over, I would never return to civilized life to continue the same necessary job I had pursued during wartime. The job with the children. The poor children. Millions of them. Parentless, homeless, forever being pushed onward by the ice and the war. It was a horror to see them. Little, frost-bitten waifs without food or shelter or good coats and there was no food or shelter or good coats to give them. Nothing to offer them but the war and a cold, slow death.
There were more children than adults now, and the adults were about war and there were only a few like myself there to help them. One of the few that could be spared for the Army's Children Corp. And now I could help no one, not even myself.
In the bed beside me in the crumbling, bomb-shook hospital, was an old man with his arm blown off at the elbow and his face splotched with the familiar frostbite of a front-line man. He lay turned toward me, staring, but not speaking. And in the night, I would turn, and there would be his eyes, lit up by the night-lamp or by the moonlight, and that glow of theirs would strike me and I would imagine they contained the sparks of incendiary bombs for melting ice, or the red-hot destruction of rockets and bullets. In the daylight the sunlight toured the perimeters of his eyes like a firefight, but the night was the worst, for then they were the brightest and the strangest.
I thought I should say something to him, but could never bring myself to utter a word because I was too lost in my misery and waiting for the change of day to night, night to day, and I was thinking of the children. Or I tell myself that now. My thoughts were mostly on me and how sad it was that a man like me had been born into a time of war and that none of what was good in me and great about me could be given to the world.
The children crossed my mind, but I must admit I saw them less as my mission in life than as crosses I had borne on my back while climbing Christ-like toward the front lines. Heavy crosses that had caused me to fall hard to the ground, driving the pain into my lungs, putting me here where I would die in inches far from home.
"Why do you fret for yourself," the old man said one morning. I turned and looked at him and his eyes were as animal bright as ever and there was no expression on his crunched, little face.
"I fret for the children."
"Ah," he said. "The children. Your job in the Corp."
I said nothing in reply and he said not another word until the middle of the night when I drifted into sleep momentarily, for all my sleep was momentary, and opened my eyes to the lamplight and the cold hospital air. I pulled a Kleenex from the box beside my bed and coughed blood into it.
"You are getting better," he said.
"I'm dying," I said.
"No. You are getting better. You hardly cough at all. Your sleep is longer. You used to cough all night."
"You're a doctor, I suppose?"
"No, but I am a soldier. Or was. Now I am a useless old man with no arm."
"In the old days a man your age would have been retired or put behind a desk. Not out on the frontlines."
"I suppose you're right. But this is not the old days. This is now, and I'm finished anyway because of the arm."
"And I'm finished because of my wound."
"The lungs heal faster than anything. You are only finished if you are too bitter to heal. To be old and bitter is all right. It greases the path to the other side. To be young and bitter is foolish."
"How do you know so much about me?"
"I listen to the nurses and I listen to you and I observe."
"Have you nothing else to do but meddle in my affairs?"
"Leave me be."
"I would if I could, but I'm an old man and will not live long anyway, wounded or not. I have the pains of old age and no family and nothing I would be able to do if I leave here. All I know is the life of a soldier. But you will recover if you believe you will recover. It is up to you now."
"So you are a doctor?"
"An old soldier has seen wounds and sickness, and he knows a man that can get well if he chooses to get well. A coward will die. Which are you?"
I didn't answer and he didn't repeat the question. I turned my back to him and went to sleep and later in the night I heard him calling.
I lay there and listened but did not move.
"I think you can hear me and this may be the last I have to say on the matter. You are getting better. You sleep better. You cough less. The wound is healing. It may not matter what your attitude is now, you may heal anyway, but let me tell you this, if you heal, you must heal with your soul intact You must not lose your love for the children, no matter what you've seen. It isn't your wound that aches you, makes you want to die, it's the war. There are few who are willing to do your job, to care for the children. They need you. They run in hungry, naked packs, and all that is between them and suffering is the Children's Corp and people like you. The love of children, the need not to see them hungry and in pain, is a necessary human trait if we are to survive as a people. When . . . if . . . this war is over, it must not be a war that has poisoned our hopes for the future. Get well. Do your duty."
I lay there when he was finished and thought about all I had done for the children and thought about the war and all that had to be done afterwards, knew then that my love for the children, their needs, were the obsessions of my life. They were my reason to live, more than just living to exist I knew then that I had to let their cause stay with me, had to let my hatred of the world and the war go, because there were the children.
The next day they came and took the old man away. He had pulled the bandage off of the nub of his arm during the night and chewed the cauterized wound open with the viciousness of a tiger and had bled to death. His sheets were the color of gunmetal rust when they came for him and pulled the stained sheet over his head and rolled him away.
They brought in a young, wounded pilot then, and his eyes were cold and hard and the color of grave dirt. I spoke to him and he wouldn't speak back, but I kept at it, and finally he yelled at me, and said he didn't want to live, that he had seen too much terror to want to go on, but I kept talking to him, and soon he was chattering like a machine gun and we had long conversations into the night about women and chess and the kind of beers we were missing back home. And he told me his hopes for after the war, and I told him mine. Told him how I would get out of my bed and go back to the frontlines to help the refugee children, and after the war I would help those who remained.
A month later they let me out of the bed to wander.
I think often of the old man now, especially when the guns boom about the camp and I'm helping the children, and sometimes I think of the young man and that I may have helped do for him with a few well-placed words what the old man did for me, but mostly I think of the old one and what he said to me the night before he finished his life. It's a contradiction in a way, him giving me life and taking his own, but he knew that my life was important to the children. I wish I had turned and spoken to him, but that opportunity is long gone.
Each time they bring the sad little children in to me, one at a time, and I feed them and hold them, I pray the war will end and there will be money for food and shelter instead of the care of soldiers and the making of bullets, but wishes are wishes, and what is, is.
And when I put the scarf around the children's necks and tighten it until I have eased their pain, I am overcome with an even simpler wish for spare bullets or drugs to make it quicker, and I have to mentally close my ears to the drumming of their little feet and shut my nose to the smell of their defecation, but I know that this is the best way, a warm meal, a moment of hope, a quick, dark surrender, the only mercy available to them, and when I take the scarf from their sad, little necks and lay them aside, I think again of the old man and the life he gave me back and the mercy he gives the children through me.
"In the Cold, Dark Time" was originally published in Dark Harvest Summer/Fall Preview, an advertisement for Obsessions, a book in which the story also appeared. It was later included in the Lansdale short-stories collections Writer of the Purple Rage, published by Carroll & Graf, and Bumper Crop, published by Golden Gryphon Press. "In the Cold, Dark Time" © 1990 Joe R. Lansdale.
Hop in your Buick and head back this way next Thursday, January 23, for another yarn spun by Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!