February 18, 2014
Name: Ross Magee
Returned from: Afghanistan
Note: Ross Magee wrote often for The Sandbox during his deployment. His numerous posts include THE BIRDS, PYRAMID OF WOOL, SEVENTY THOUSAND, A VERY KABUL CHRISTMAS, THE COMING OF A STORM, and THE DONKEY.
It was fall when I came home; a year to the day from when I left. I stepped off the rotator and into the arms of my wife and it was as if I was suddenly awake, like I’d been asleep for a year. In my first weeks at home I staggered about, relearning, remembering and trying to find my place in my country, in my home, in my marriage, in my own head. I spent a lot of time thinking about last fall and trying very hard stitch together memories and create a fabric of what it meant to be at home. I kept coming up with an incoherent patchwork quilt that held pieces of me, pieces of Afghanistan and pieces of life at home. They fit together but the shape of the thing was unrecognizable to me.
I ran miles along the trail, past the secret persimmon trees where my wife and I collected fruit in the weeks before I left home. It seemed like a distant memory, like a dream from another life, another era. In a way I suppose it was. It was after all, Before Afghanistan.
Everything in my life now falls into three categories which are unevenly weighted: the thirty-six years of my life Before Afghanistan, the one year of my life In Afghanistan and this new space where I now find myself. The present. The handful of weeks of my life that consist of the entirety of my life After Afghanistan.
We gathered persimmons and made scones and a cheesecake. The warm deep yellow flesh of the fruit spoke to me of home, of fall, of this life. We drove west to the orchard where we picked apples last year. The familiar road settled me, reminded me that there are consistencies in this life, that things can be familiar if never the same again. The sun was warm and the day was bright. I helped the Old Dog out of the truck and he stood unsteady in the tall grass. He tottered around for a few minutes before collapsing and resting in the sun. We offered him water and he lapped enthusiastically at the bowl, his wide pink tongue sloshing the water out across my hands. Then I picked him up and put him back in the truck. I cracked the windows so that he might enjoy a bit of a breeze and we set off to collect our apples without him. Last year he wandered the orchard with us, exploring, sniffing, rolling in the discarded fermenting fruit and helping as only a dog can. This year it was all he could do to circle the truck. Much has changed.
Fall seemed to last forever. Perhaps that is because I was only offered a taste of it last year. The temperatures cooled and the days shortened. The leaves along the parkway began to fade from the lush green of summer into a bouquet of ocher, henna and gold. The American flag on our front porch swayed gently in the breeze, illuminated by the rarefied air and unobstructed sun. The sugar maple in the front yard turned into a brilliant yellow sun almost overnight. The crepe myrtle bronzed and then surrendered its leaves in the span of a few days. The Japanese maple clutched its foliage, slowly turning from burgundy to burning crimson, shining like the flame of fall’s truth in the morning sun, a torch of light marking the eternal passage of time.
The Old Dog rustled in the dark and I helped him to his feet and then opened the front door. He stood at the threshold and breathed deeply, peering into the dark before turning and staggering into the living room. I left the front door open and walked down the driveway to pick up the paper. When I turned back toward the house I heard the Old Dog skittering down the sidewalk towards me. He kept moving when he hit the grass, not strong enough to stop and stand still knowing that his only chance at remaining upright was to keep moving forward. I marveled at his determination, and then my heart sank when I thought about how painful his life had become. He slowed and walked an unsteady zig-zag across the front yard, gradually working his way down the hill as he relieved himself. He fell in a heap beneath the sugar maple, colorless in the dark, and looked back at me. I walked across the yard and sat next to him, pulling him between my legs and placing my hands on his body. We did not speak.
We sat together in the pre-dawn darkness and listened to the wind blow through the trees. The large leaves came off the oaks some sixty feet above the ground and tumbled through the grey sky in loops and circles backlit by the streetlamp like bats chasing moths on a summer night. Leaves swirled across the yard, spinning themselves into a tiny tornado that coursed across the street and back again before washing over us in a blast of leaves and grass clippings. The Old Dog lifted his nose towards the fading stars and breathed in deeply, distilling the coming day from the night wind. Entire herds of leaves migrated in waves down the street, pushed forth by the wind and a communal drive to move. The herd gathered more and more leaves into their company as they went plunging along with their rough edges and stems scratching at the pavement like the hooves of a thousand tiny animals on a migration as venerable as time itself.
The Old Dog rested his chin on my leg and looked into the distance facing the dawn. The sky seemed to lighten fractionally and I felt the warmth of his body against my legs. I shivered and tucked my hands under him to warm them beneath his chest. He looked up at me and I could feel his old heart beating weakly.
My wife came looking for us and asked if we were okay.
“I think so. We’re just waiting,” I said, unsure of just what that meant.
She returned with a fleece and a cup of coffee for me and a blanket for the dog. He stirred like he wanted to get up but did not have the strength, and we resolved to rest a while longer. I wrapped him in a blanket and cradled my coffee in my cold hands. Our breath smoked, rising and disappearing into the sky. We watched silently as a lady unaware of our presence walked her dog down the street. A school bus rumbled past. The sky turned silver and I could begin to discern the color of leaves as the world moved from the starlit black of night to the brilliance of another autumn day.
I found myself wondering how many autumns the Old Dog had seen. Eight? Ten maybe? I hoped it was at least that many but knew that it was certainly not more than that. He surveyed the yard then looked up at me before resting his chin on my leg again. We waited for dawn. This would be his last fall and I wondered if he knew that. It was my first one home from Afghanistan, my first with him and it would be our last together.
A few weeks later I loaded the Old Dog in the truck and my wife and I drove down to the river’s edge. I carried him down to the bank where we all sat in the warm afternoon sun looking out across the water. It was impossible to not think of crossing the river. I wondered if the sun was warmer or the breeze sweeter on the other side, what the woods might smell like, if they might be free of pain. An hour later I carried the Old Dog back to the truck.
He died that afternoon. We sat with our hands on his chest and spoke his name to him as he took his last breath and made the crossing alone.