Priya Padhye

The First and Last Battle by Academy Monthly

A short story inspired by Sherman Alexie’s Flight.

Each day, I forget a different part of my old life.  It started with the small things first: which day my family sold eggs at the market, the color of the dress my sister, Paulina, wore to church.  Then the gaps in my memory expanded, until I couldn’t recall the taste of the oatmeal I ate daily on the farm, couldn’t remember the precise color of my mother’s eyes.  Everything’s disappearing under the cry of the bugle and the haze of rifle smoke.

But I don’t have time to think about what I’ve lost right now.  The past ninety-three days of my life have been spent in preparation for this-- the moment when I’ll find justice for my father and brother, for those who have met their deaths at the hands of savages.  Indian savages who slaughter and pillage and drink without restraint, who spill American blood on American soil. Indians who lay claim to what isn’t theirs, and will continue to do so if they aren’t stopped.  

We have every intention of stopping them.  

We stand to attention as the General approaches our ranks.  The men around me still, their snickers and quiet remarks subsiding as they observe the General’s somber expression.  With him is an old man, skin as wrinkled and beaten as the leather of my old mare’s saddle. The General reminds us of the battle to come and introduces us to the old man, Gus, an Indian tracker who will lead us to their village.  The place where they will meet their final judgment. The General reminds us of the settlers who perished, and I think once more about my father, who rode out with the men of our town to settle disputes with the Indians once and for all, who fought nobly to protect his land, home, and family.  I think about my brother, Elijah, who had been wearing the same uniform I am when he died with an Indian arrow buried in his chest. I fight to complete their work. I fight to ensure their deaths were not in vain.

We mount our horses and begin to follow Gus.  The General yells a flurry of instructions, his voice containing a sharp pitch, as if he, a hardened warrior, is experiencing the same strange excitement as us, soldiers entering our first battle.  He herds us into formation, and soon we are weaving between clusters of trees, amid open plains and fields, and the world becomes a murky blur of green and yellow and brown in the blistering heat. As we ride, I try to imagine the weight of a rifle in my hand, the heat it radiates as a bullet flies, the dull crack of bone splintering as that bullet hits its target.  For some reason, I don’t feel triumph as my imaginary bullet hits its nonexistent target-- instead, I feel an inexplicable hollowness. I try to imagine wrapping my hand around the hilt of my sword and driving it between an Indian’s ribs, and this time my stomach roils. I suddenly no longer want to think about the fight to come.

My mind wanders back home.  The dust flying up from beneath our horses’ hooves reminds me of the burnished gold of Paulina’s hair, and the muddied green blades of grass interlock like the fibers of our tablecloth.  The simmering heat transforms into that of those lazy days I spent with Elijah on the lake, catching trout and setting them free, talking about Elijah’s job with the railroad and the house he was going to build once he got married.  I meander down the hazy path of memory, and I wonder which one of these moments will slip from my mind in the next week or month or year.

I almost ride straight into the soldier in front of me, but stop in time.  We have halted. We stand atop a ridge overlooking the village. The General turns to us, and he has a gleam in his eye that I can’t read.  Before he says anything, Gus chokes out a strained cry, and our silent, rigid troops break into an unstoppable avalanche. We advance down the hillside in a cacophony of yells and hoots.

There is no grand ceremony upon entering battle.  There is no warning before the first kill. I barely blink before a bullet hits the first Indian.  Blood seeps through his battle garb, forming a red blossom. And suddenly there is red unfurling from every corner of my vision.  One soldier, a man whom I have shared meals with and who told me stories about his home in Colorado, rides over an old Indian woman with a horse whose hooves leave imprints dotted across her limp body.  Another friend of mine drives a sword into the stomach of an Indian man and wrenches it in a full circle, carving a gruesome arc into his skin. Little sound escapes his lips as he falls.

An old man tries to hobble away from a soldier on horseback, but he is shot in the back.  Another Indian nocks an arrow and shoots it at the soldier who killed his father, his grandfather, his neighbor.  The soldier falls from his horse, crying out as he lands on the shoulder that was hit. The Indian is absorbed back into the tangled mesh of men fighting, of bloodied bodies striking the ground.

I watch as a group of four soldiers-- my brothers in arms-- grasp a screaming woman by the arms and drag her away.  I do not look away when another soldier impales an Indian that has already been shot and repeatedly stabs him, until his whole upper body is a mess of punctured skin and blood.

I am frozen.  My arms are heavy by my sides.  I think of my father, of Elijah, of my mother and sister at home, whom I have sworn to protect.  I lift my saber and secure a target.

A small figure darts through the throng of fighters and I immediately lunge after it, leaping over the corpses of Indians.  After we have cleared the crowd, I gain some ground, and finally the Indian is within reach, within mere inches of the gleaming point of my sword--

My stomach drops.  It is a small boy, no older than Paulina.  He bares his teeth at me and draws back his bow string, but his blooded fingers tremble.  He can’t fight back.

This Indian could become another trespasser, invader, who tries to take what isn’t his.  But all I see is a small boy. The Indians almost took my father’s farm, almost left Paulina and my mother homeless.  I tell myself that completely eliminating evil is the only way for good to survive, that Americans will only be completely safe once the Indian threat has been eradicated.  But I still see a child before me, quaking in the midst of bloodshed.

Before I know what I am doing, I sweep the boy into my arms.  I pray that God doesn’t reserve a special place in Hell for traitors and deserters.  I pray that my father and Elijah can forgive me. I pray that this small boy doesn’t become a murderer.

Then I run towards the hills.  We are moving so quickly that the world is a streak, so quickly that my feet are barely touching the ground, flying.  I cradle the boy close. I do not look back.

Movie Night by Academy Monthly

This is a short story written from the perspective of a minor character, Max, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.  Though Max only makes a brief appearance in the novel, he represents the potential for love and hope for a main character, Lola.  I attempted to convey the possibilities and dreams he carries through this first-person account.

When Lola called it quits, I felt like a bullet had travelled between my ribs, like there was a gaping hole in my chest.  But she’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’ve been dreaming of her and Nueba Yol every night since she’s left.  The months we spent together keep playing on repeat, spooling out in my mind like some sad film reel. Usually I can kick some of the memories, find some peace, but there’s this one day that keeps coming back to me.

I remember that I picked her up a couple of streets down from where her school is, the one full of los ricos.  She never said anything, but I’m sure that the girls at her school would have given her shit if they saw her with someone like me, so I kept my distance.  Lola walked up with a serious face, her forehead a knot of worry lines, but she cracked a smile when she saw the reels under my arm. She settled onto the motorcycle behind me.  I felt the warmth of her breath against my neck.

You’re delivering?

Two reels.  Come with me?

She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed.  

We wove through the traffic, dust flying up from the road.  Lola liked my job; she enjoyed the thrill of zigzagging between bumpers, the high of defying the sluggish lines of traffic.  There were a couple close calls-- some idiota with a beer bottle almost rammed his car right into us-- but each time, Lola just laughed, a deep, rich sound.  I could feel the way her laughter made her chest vibrate, could feel the curve of her body against my back. The drive to the theater felt too short. I wish I could have held onto that feeling longer, of our bodies snug against one another, of us being one.

We walked inside and I handed one of the reels to the girl at the counter.  For the four o’ clock showing, I told her. I held up the second reel. Señor said I could have one screening room.

The girl shrugged and went off with the first reel.  Lola took my hand and we walked down the poorly lit main hallway.

You got us a room?

I nodded.  The viejo who runs this place likes me.  I always bring him his reels on time.

Which movie?

That’s a surprise.

We entered the theater, and Lola settled into one of the seats in the far back while I gave the reel to the kid handling the projector.  I sank into the seat beside Lola and stared at the blank screen as the lights dimmed and the room was cast in shadows. I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath until the movie flickered to life and ran through the title scene.  Lola grabbed my arm and looked at me with shining eyes.

The Incredible Journey.  You remembered it was one of my favorites!  Her eyes were still wide with disbelief. Where did you find this?

One of my tia’s friends has a husband in the film industry.

Lola leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek.  The warmth of her lips lingered on my skin for a few minutes afterwards.

The movie was some children’s story, something about a group of animals that escaped or fled back home.  I lost interest in it. I spent most of the time watching her. In the gauzy light of the projector, she was transformed.  Her features shifted like clouds on her midnight skin; at parts, she looked thoughtful, her brow wrinkled, but then her lips would quirk up in a strange, half-smile, as if she was laughing at some joke that only she knew about.  She was luminous, emitting light and life.

I leaned over and whispered, Tu eres guapa.

She rested her head against my shoulder.  I felt it again-- the thing I felt rising when we were together on the motorcycle-- that feeling of wholeness, of warmth.  I didn’t think too much about it, just enjoyed being with Lola, until the movie ended. The lights sputtered back on and we stood.  The space between us grew. But the whole way out of the theater, Lola was smiling.

Did you like it?

She kissed me in a way that made my heart pound.  It was wonderful. Thank you.

We decided to walk along the Malecón as the sun set.  I listened to Lola talk about Oscar over the sounds of the waves and the rustling palms-- she missed him like crazy, worried about him all the time.  She even began to talk about her mom. I miss her, she said, in spite of her insanity.

As dusk fell, I told her about my plans to move to the US, about how I was going to make it big, earn enough money to buy cars and build my own house from the ground up.  Lola’s eyes were fixed on the ocean as she began to stretch her legs.

I don’t care about all that, Max, she said gently.  It’s really not so bad here.

I didn’t understand how she could say the DR wasn’t so bad after she had lived in America, but I stayed quiet about it.  We talked for a few more minutes, and then it got dark. Lola wasn’t supposed to be out too late, so we walked back to my motorcycle and began to drive home.  Lola was quiet during the ride. The night breeze whipped strands of her wild hair into my face.

Her abuela was standing in the doorway when we got home.  Lola thanked me again, hopped off the bike, and began to sprint-- fly, really-- toward her abuela.  I watched her, a shadow lined in moonlight, as the distance between us multiplied. It was then that I understood the feeling that had been mounting all day, defined it with absolute certainty.  The day, the moment when I realized that I loved Lola loops infinitely in my dreams; each night, I call out to her as she runs farther away, as she disappears.