In the Apennines, he said. In the war, our patrol. A man of our unit took a shot to the gut. Get down! I shouted, and we each of us fell to the ground as he’d done, but of our own will we did it. The shooter was invisible save for his work, where the man of our unit lay face up and shot clean through but not dead yet. His chest heaved pendulumically, blood pumping out his back to pool and melt the snow about him. I’m not dying! he yelled between oscillations. Don’t you worry ‘bout me boys, I ain’t fucking dying! The man of our unit coughed a sound we’d heard before and all of us, lying there still in the snow the way we were trained to, imagined our own selves out there alone in the open and making that sound. Our training: Don’t give the shooter a target; be still and observe; await your orders. Except the man who gave us our orders was the man left there heaving, and so all we could do now was wait. Somewhere up the other side of those trees was another man, but not of our unit, not of our side, watching the man with our orders through a scope and waiting for one of us to try and save him. We awaited our orders still. I’m not dying! the man yelled again. I’m not dying! The blood just kept pumping out in beats, the periods lengthening. I could smell it by the look of it. I listened for birds but heard none, just behind me some other man of our unit crying. And then, from behind me again, Sir, yes sir! You’re not dying, sir! Our training was to stay silent, but perhaps these indeed had been his orders. I’m not dying! the shot man of our unit echoed, quieter now, faintly, the pump losing power. I’m not dying, I’m not dying, I’m not dying. Sir, yes sir! You’re not dying, sir! No you’re not motherfucking dying! shouted another. The shot man of our unit was shivering now, what warmth he had having drained into snow like spilt oil. You’re not dying! another voice joined. You’re not dying, I blubbered into the snow. No fucking way! shouted another. Shouts and Nots and No-Fucking-Ways. Not dying, you’re not, you’re not dying. Fast as it had happened there was a full chorus of us, a perfect machine of warfare following orders as on the parade ground, echoing this man of our unit until just such a time had passed that what sun there’d been that day disappeared, and it was too cold and too dark for any shooting. Only then did we carry ourselves and our man out of that place in silence.
Joseph Riippi is author of A Cloth House, forthcoming spring 2012 from Housefire Books. His other books include The Orange Suitcase, Do Something! Do Something! Do Something!, and TREESISTERS.