Readings — From the November 2013 issue
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From Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, by Jennifer Percy, to be published in January by Scribner. The book is an account of the two summers Percy spent reporting on a Christian camp for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
April Somdahl’s trailer sits at the end of a wide dirt track near a patch of hundred-year-old North Carolina woods: a dark wall of yellow birch, flowering dogwood, witch hazel, wild strawberries, and the thick rise of spruce. Chickens nap in its shady border, burgundy heaps of damp feathers. A fence holds back the growth.
April didn’t want to move to the trailer, but her brother Brian returned from the war convinced that the Iraqis were going to invade America. He told April to move to the woods, to a place away from people, with enough land to grow vegetables and raise chickens. April didn’t think the Iraqis were going to invade America, but she loved her brother and so she bought the trailer, a place where she could take care of him until he’d recovered from the war. Three days after she bought the trailer, Brian shot himself. They found him facedown in the Cumberland Center Pavilion, head blown off, bleeding on the steps where he’d married his wife three years earlier.
April says to get to the trailer you go past the hog farm, and past the dumpy trailer park, past the place where civilization ends, and then take a right at the balloon. The driveway’s a half mile long.
When I arrive two horned goats in a wire cage take their hooves to the metal. The trailer door’s open and the television’s flickering blue. I walk up the steps. A fake Uzi in the shoe rack points toward a framed diploma from the Hypnotraining Institute of Northern California: “April Somdahl is hereby awarded a diploma as Master Hypnotist.”
No one’s inside. The air is quiet.
April and her daughter Khaia appear wordlessly from the back yard. In Khaia’s arms — an oily black chicken, motionless and gripped by the child’s tight fingers as if taxidermied into a position of grief.
“This is my blind chicken,” she says. It’s got no eyes, just a beak. “Oh, chicken,” she says, rubbing her cheek against its small head. “Come here, chicken.” Khaia loops a rubber band over the chicken’s neck, slides it over the beak, drags it up the head until tiny feathers rise straight. “There they are.” Two eyes like swollen ticks. “Not really blind.”
The chicken is carried up the porch steps, into the trailer, set on the carpet like a child. Khaia disappears. The chicken paces around three cats wrapped like dolls in blankets. Another whacks at a ribbon. On the windowsill is a caterpillar named Wormy who lives in a plastic home. Outside, in the back yard, April built a purple chicken coop.
April’s already making sweet tea, and she tells me she wants to sunbathe while we talk because there’s a competition going on at work: she needs to outsexy Donna. “She wore this black silk halter top with these itty-bitty jeans and black heels that looked like they should be onstage. I show up for work in my sweatpants. ‘Oh, I won,’ Donna said, ‘I look hotter than you today.’ I feel honored that there’s this beautiful person competing with me. She doesn’t even know that she’s beautiful.”
After Brian shipped off to Iraq, as a helicopter mechanic with Fort Campbell’s 96th Aviation Support Battalion, he and April made a habit of talking every night using Internet voice chat. April would ask how things were going and he’d say things were fine. He lied to her for a while.
It wasn’t too long before Brian invited other soldiers into the room at night to listen to April’s voice. Soon the room was piled with soldiers from the 96th, all in their sleeping bags like on a grade-school sleepover.
“Keep talking, April,” they said. “Just keep talking.” If someone walked by — a guard or a superior, someone who’d get the men in trouble — April pretended to be a radio and recited the news of the world. Sometimes she sang songs from American Idol, or lullabies she’d learned as a child.
The first time Brian put a soldier on the line, April said, “How’s it going?”
“We need to exterminate out here!” the soldier said. “We need to exterminate all the cockroaches.”
A few soldiers giggled. “Yeah, man, all these cockroaches. All breeding and taking up my air.”
Another soldier’s voice: “Yeah, their families all live in one house. They all live together, like a cockroach nest.”
April told the soldier he was a racist and that all the Iraqis had mothers and fathers just like he did. After a long quiet, the soldier cried. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “It was them. They told us to think about the Iraqis like cockroaches because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to shoot them.”
Brian said he was happy only on two occasions in Iraq. The first was on May 1, 2003, when April was home watching the news of president George W. Bush on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier with the big sign behind him that read mission accomplished. “You’ll never guess what,” she said. “The war is over! Yeah, I’m watching it right now.”
Brian called the soldiers into his room. April asked what they were looking forward to most when they got home. One guy said BBQ chips. Another said sleeping. Another said pillows.
Then the soldiers started thanking April for her voice. They said they were never going to forget their conversations. When they got home they were going to get together and have a cookout. They were talking and laughing, and then a soldier said, “But April, it doesn’t feel like the war is over.”
The second happy moment involved a chicken, and Brian said it was the best day he’d had in Iraq. The soldiers, sick of the mess-hall food — the soggy broccoli, warm fruit in a Styrofoam cup, the burgers and hot dogs — decided to go to the market in Baghdad. They weren’t supposed to be out, but they went anyway. They were ducking behind grain sacks and goats until Brian located a fat orange chicken. April didn’t understand the economics of the exchange, but all that matters, she tells me, is they got the chicken. They crawled back, maneuvered around stalls and cars, disappeared into crowds of people. When a military Humvee passed, Brian ducked. “If we hide,” his buddy said, dragging Brian from his crouched position, “they’re going to think we’re fucking Al Qaeda and shoot us.”
The soldiers made it back, and they went into Brian’s room and they shut the door and they put the chicken on the table. They were just sitting there in the barracks with this chicken and none of the boys knew what to do. They didn’t have anything to make that chicken into a meal.
“We’re going to have to go on another mission,” Brian said. “We’ve got to break into the mess hall and get some spices and steal some shit.”
One soldier kept lookout while Brian and the others went to snoop. They smuggled barbecue sauce, seasoning, a bottle of mustard, a spatula, and they took it outside and they cooked this chicken in the sun on an old grill. Other soldiers followed the smell and joined them with sticky red mouths, glistening fingers. The soldiers kept coming, and the pieces were cut smaller and smaller so that every soldier could have a bite.
“Wouldn’t it be crazy,” a soldier said, “if the Iraqis shoved a bomb in this chicken and we all died?”
It was the winter of 2007 when Brian started speaking to angels and receiving prophecies from God.
He called April his “little treasure box of secrets.” Open up, April, and I’ll put all my treasures in your head. Visions about the fourteen acres in the North Carolina woods where no Iraqis would find them. Visions about his own death. Visions about Khaia getting run over by a car.
In Brian’s vision of Khaia, she crossed the road and walked a mile to the neighbor’s house, where a woman lived with five diapered children. Khaia played, grew bored, and returned. The gate was locked, so she tried the secret passageway under the bridge. It was flooded. She couldn’t crawl through. Next she tried the barbed-wire fence, but it pricked her. She tried the gate again, but it was locked. Khaia got the idea that she would check the mail in the mailbox across the street. That’s when the white car appeared, ran her over. Killed her. Brian was waiting in the trees to collect her soul.
Brian talked about his own death as if it had already happened. “It all makes perfect sense now,” Brian told April. “I know what I have to do. I have to die. I have to leave the physical realm and leave earth and go up in heaven and be part of the Army of God.”
A vision of April bent over his partially decapitated corpse, in a casket, and her running hysterically out of the funeral home.
“You’re not going to end up in a casket,” April said.
“I’ll come visit you when I’m a ghost,” he said. “You’ll know because I’ll smell like musky cologne, like Old Spice.”
April is allergic to cologne. “It gives me a headache. How about peppermint candy cane?”
They agreed, and Brian said he’d return on the Fourth of July.
April finds a framed photograph of Brian cooking his barbecued chicken in Iraq. She sets it on the counter and says, “I hope you like chicken because we’re having chicken for dinner.” Her pale hands pull lucent chicken breasts from green Styrofoam. “I never freeze my meat. I like it fresh.”
A teenage boy appears from the back room, looks at me, and turns around. “How many kids do you have?” I say.
“Oh, that’s my son, Patrick. My third child was born still. That counts, though. I got four kids. I went through it all, so it still counts. It does.” Her eldest daughter, Emily, has her stomach pressed to the taupe carpet, face lit by the computer screen. She carries with her the smell of electronics burning too long.
Khaia chants, “Bad kitty. Bad kitty. Kitty, kitty, kitty. Hi, kitty.”
“I hope Brian is wrong that she’s going to die next year. I’m so scared it’s going to happen,” April says. She wipes her eyes. She speaks with an unlit cigarette caught on her bottom lip. “Sometimes I get mad at him. He left me. I get so mad at him, you know, and then I’m like, man, that asshole, he probably just told me that my poor little girl is going to die just to fuck with my head.”
“Who was driving the car?”
“Brian said it was Khaia’s daughter from a past life who asked God for permission to be the one with the privilege to kill her.”
Khaia rolls chicken parts in bread crumbs. “Don’t tell the chickens we’re eating chicken,” she says.
“Once we had a chicken,” April says, “who looked just like a box of KFC. His name was KFC.”
Khaia leans over the counter. Her pink flowered shirt soaks warm sink water. “Mama was in the yard running around, saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you, chicken.’ He ran away. We never saw him again.”
“Sometimes we hear him,” April says. “He’s out there still — high up in a tree, thinking we’re gonna kill him.”
Khaia points to the woods and she says, “We like to go out there with chain saws and look.”
We get the machetes from the shack, put on boots and heavy packs, and take our legs high to press and pass the forest’s soft-bodied vines. “Okay,” Khaia says, “we just survived a plane crash. Got it?” She raises her knife high, but it catches no sun. “This way,” she says.
The machete is a dark bird fluttering ahead. The earth takes our feet, rises over them. “KFC is out here. I know it. Did you hear what Mama said? She said, ‘We’re gonna eat you, chicken. He’s been hiding out here. Looks just like a box of KFC with legs.’ ” She stops in the brush, pulls a white mushroom from the ground. “Here, chicken, chicken, chicken.”
The machete rises, finds itself in the skin of a tree. Khaia hacks and wiggles until the bark parts and the tree’s white insides gape and its smell is released into the world. “So we know how to get back,” she says.
The air is old, heavy, trapped there.
In the forest’s center, a tree is felled, and in its light we rest. Khaia takes her hand and lets it swim through the green light.
“He’ll come,” she says. And we wait.
The day the police discovered Brian’s body in the Cumberland Center Pavilion, April’s mother called to tell her the news.
“Oh, Mom,” April said, “it’s okay. I just talked to him actually. I should go because he might be trying to call. I told him to call me in the morning.”
“What time did you talk to him?”
April said around one in the morning. Her mother said they found the body around seven. “April, we knew this was going to happen. I have the suicide note.” But the mother took the suicide note and put it in her purse. She wouldn’t let April read it. Not ever.
“I didn’t know,” April said.
“I was talking him out of it.”
“I did everything I could.”
The night before, Brian called at 12:46 in the morning. April was already in bed with Dane. Ever since Brian left for Iraq she’d slept with her cell phone underneath her pillow. Just in case.
April said, “Hello?”
Brian said, “Good-bye.”
April said, “Hello?”
Brian said, “April, I’m telling you good-bye. I knew you’d be mad if I didn’t say good-bye. Good-bye, April. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye.”
April asked Brian where he was going.
Brian wouldn’t stop saying good-bye. He said it over and over, dozens of good-byes. April remembers about thirty good-byes, all in different voices, as if he were saying good-byes for the others too. April just sat there on the phone while voices roared in her ear: Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye.
“Brian,” April said. “Please stop.”
“Good-bye,” he said again. “Good-bye.”
“Where’re you going?”
“Going away,” he said. His wife was getting an abortion and the last reason for him to be here was gone. “You told me I would enjoy being a dad.”
“She can’t get an abortion because she’s in her third trimester. Go to bed, baby boy. Sleep in your jeep. No one will bother you there. Call me in the morning.”
That’s when Brian shot himself.
“Hello? Brian, you dropped your phone.” She waited. “Okay, I’ll just wait a second.” Dane was lying in bed next to her. “Is everything okay?”
April turned to him, “Brian’s okay. He said he’d call me in the morning.”