Round 3 finalist: “Purpose of Plunder” by Jennifer Sears
“There are some proper pirates among them, but most do not deserve this name.”
—Henry David Thoreau, from his account of the 1850 shipwreck of the Elizabeth
And from that old box stored under the eave of the barn, Angelo frees a silk flower (white roses don’t bloom after the fields are shorn) from my father’s collection of German helmets and guns, rust dulling their edges, joints calcified with time. We’d inherited that contraband with the barn.
“Those old things must be worth something now,” my wife says.
But she knows they’re all I have left of my father’s stories, evidence of how he and the others ransacked those fields and bodies so quickly after the fighting stopped, dust from the rubble still floured their mouths. During his earliest retellings in 45, when victory’s adrenaline still ignited the country’s veins, those helmets and guns served as proof of heroics instead of death’s accouterments. I remember how my mother polished and arranged each piece in a cabinet with doors made of glass. (She wouldn’t touch the silk flower that trembled when my sister and I tumbled past.)
But years dull all homecomings, and soon enough, our father’s factory job (he’d quickly proved useless on the farm) gave his mind too much breadth, and the war took him again though nocturnal rages that stole our family’s sleep. In his wild ramblings, we learned of a gun leveled at a baby in a grandfather’s arms or how his buddy’s hand jerked and clutched until their foxhole became his grave. (In that story’s trance, he gripped my fingers so tight they turned black.)
But instead of release, those confessions only distanced him further. We came to fear that tightness that showed around his eyes and made his lower jaw clench, foretelling harsh words or an otherworldly silence that held him captive before that cabinet, his stew of memories capsizing the present.
Later during Nam (a war I protested with my mother’s blessing), a friend brought home a “gook’s” ear in a wooden box. Though he couldn’t answer, I kept asking what that ear meant to him, hoping I might understand what made my father wander off between rages, fleeing at last those helmets and guns.
Like shipwrecks and storms, war plunders men’s souls. Shamefully, weren’t we all half-glad he had gone?
And this too I remember: how our mother, when she was certain our father wouldn’t return, packed up that box and walked toward the barn as my sister ran after her, carrying that silk flower.
“From some Berlin whorehouse,” our mother said. “Throw it in if you must.” Then she climbed to the haymow, banishing that box, though for years I shivered beneath those guns and ghosts.
- “Those old things,” my wife begins again. “Have some kind of spell.”
And sunlight illuminates the petals of that brave flower in Angelo’s hand, the old weapons disintegrated into relic and curio, grown eerily benign with time.
Jennifer Sears’ fiction publications include Guernica, Ninth Letter, Fence, Fiction International, So to Speak, Barrelhouse, Sequestrum, The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, and Fiction International. She has received awards from the Millay Colony for Arts, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Money for Women Fund, and The National Endowment for the Humanities. She grew up in Northern Indiana and Kansas, and after many years of teaching yoga and dance, is currently Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology.