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Rus Mental Contagion
Notes from open land
by Wendy Lewis


I came up the narrow path through overgrown honeysuckle and buckthorn from Weldon's campsite on the eastern edge of the prairie at eleven o'clock. The glow of the campfire and voices were behind me now, echoing down the river where I'd left the boys, who would make a longer night of it than I was able with an early morning commute to the city. A nightcap of Irish whiskey was warm in my stomach and the evening had been entertaining. We had watched the beckoning curve of a crescent moon appear over the river. Fish were jumping and owls could be heard hooting from across the rippling water. Other creatures rustled around in the underbrush while witty lines were passed back and forth with a bottle or another cold beer. I've spent a lifetime in the company of guys and slip into the rhythm of their humor easily. Rounding the tree line, tiny lights blinked on and off in the tall grasses drifting into the woods beyond. I had never seen fireflies on the prairie during the eight years I'd lived here, certainly not in these numbers and I wondered what about this particular summer had summoned them. I wandered into the field and stood there for a while, smiling. It had been a very hot day and the sun-baked grasses smelled sweet and nutty in the cooling, humid air. A flashing at my waist where a firefly rested on my thumbnail, throbbing neon green until the dark wings parted and the little lighthouse lofted silently over my head.

Having cracked the 600 page spine, I'm in an infantry line with the boonierats of the 101st Airborne (Airmobile) Division of Company A (Alpha), 7th Battalion, 402d Infantry, creeping through the jungles of the Khe Ta Laou Valley at a speed of ten paces a minute, less than 330 yards in an hour. Silence is mandatory. Every muscle in my aching body experiences a repetitive series of calisthenic movements, constantly corrected with each unpredictable step and made more painful under the weight of a 100 lb. rucksack and an 8 lb. M-16 rifle clenched in hand, not to mention the extra weight of grenades, sidearm and ammo. The air is claustrophobic and the heat merciless even though light from the sun barely penetrates the canopy to the slippery mud of the jungle floor. I cannot see the person in front of me, only a moist green-textured wall of vegetation. Just beyond the next palm frond or entangling vine, a gun barrel could be in my face or I might suddenly feel the concussive phafffft of a mortar round leaving its firing tube not knowing if the subsequent kaarrmp will leave me limbless or turn all the lights out entirely and forever. I am beyond terrified and have no choice other than to keep moving because I can't get out of this. I can't go home. I am clumsy, weak and unsteady. The straps of the rucksack have ruptured the skin of my shoulders and my grey feet are steaming in my boots. I'm hungry and exhausted, eating unpalatable C-rations of meat that smell like dog food and not having slept more than a few hours for days. The leeches in the razor edged elephant grass we crawled through on our bellies and slept in last night left welts on my skin that have begun to fester and ooze. I stink of jungle rot and fear. The humming, stinging insects are insufferable, but I must endure them and the sunburn and the blistered lips like everyone else, keep quiet and keep moving into nothing and everything that will inevitably come and I'm afraid I won't know what to do whenever any of it arrives. Right now it's all about right now and it's Mommy Nature and the terror of war kicking my 19-year-old ass in August of 1970. Another shapeless, blind night is descending and the LT has us dug into our NDP on the steep incline of this fucking rainforest and we're not even in deep yet, Whiteboy said, the shit hasn't even started yet. I'm on second watch so right now I'm supposed to be sleeping. Above and below me, the muffled sounds of soldiers settling in for a few hours of nightmares. It's dark. It's so goddamn dark. I'm scared shitless. I lay my head against my ruck, pull the poncho up around my raw neck, my eyes straining to see. The familiar smell of tobacco smoke, grandpa, rescue, my childish eyes following the tiny, glowing string of bobbing amber nightlights igniting one by one, gently guiding me into the tunnel of grateful unconsciousness.

The red, extended-cab Chevy bounced down the tiny, gravel two-track towards the abandoned house and myriad dilapidated-out buildings on the south end of the property. The four of us piled out an hour before sunset and scattered through the tall, damp grasses to check out the spoils. He had lived 90 years on 233 acres: a husband, a father, a teacher, a chicken farmer and an avid gardener. In one building, hundreds of history and gardening books were stacked, toppled or strewn across the dirt floor having slid from broken shelving. They spilled into teaching manuals, calendars, magazines, colanders of all sizes, old tin buckets, stainless pots, utensils, steel cages, broken chairs, useless appliances, space heaters, oil burners and towers of tin cans. One curious series of small, musty, leather-bound books from the late 1800's were printed in Swedish. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust.

We stepped slowly through stinging nettle and arching raspberry canes to another building where dozens of small, faded McDonald's French fry boxes from the 70's were tacked to the wall and filled with variety seed packets. More seed packets were tacked to the walls individually beneath 2x3" cardstock with undecipherable but neatly printed code, the mad workings of an old pack rat who played God in his garden. We stepped over broken glass, rusty hinges and around nails protruding from window and door frames fallen in under the weight of sagging roofs and collapsing walls. Chicken feathers were matted to the ground and into the corners. We were peeping Toms peering through the shattered windows of this stranger's obsessive if focused, cumbrous life. We waded carefully through poison ivy, waist-high pigweed and thistle to one building after another, each having become a floodplain for his expanding obsessions. By the time we reached the northern end of the property, the sun had dipped below the tree line. We edged along a fractured fence-line of wood stakes and barbed wire, ducked under some low hanging bows and entered a cathedral of old growth pines, which someone had carefully planted 150 years ago in a long row, creating a windbreak from the open fields. The lowest branches were as large as entire tree trunks now, bent down like sturdy arms to accept climbers and then arcing skyward, blocking out the remaining light. It was cool and damp beneath the massive boughs, the ground aromatic and spongy beneath our reverent feet. I don't know how long we stood there or if we spoke.

The sun was gone when we moved cautiously from beneath the pines, watchful for the barbed wire. At the edge of the acreage, where spring wheat waited eager for harvest, I looked south. Amber squares etched through the darkness from distant farm kitchens, and lampposts standing vigil near barn doors drew comparable yellow circles. A pair of headlights appeared cresting the hill on the county road from the south. The stars began showing up, fashionably late. We took another way home, windows rolled down, the truck's beams reaching confidently into the night as if we could own it, conquer it or comprehend it.

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers