This poem is set at a July 4th picnic during my childhood. My father and uncles were veterans and I wonder what they felt and what memories the holiday revived.
When It Was Dark Enough
My father seldom talked about the war,
as if nothing had happened, but he talked
in his sleep. My mother never understood
what he said. Some attacks were malaria
and she fetched his quinine tablets.
He sat up sweating, clutching her arm,
nightmare unspoken. Water in her hands
cooled his sudden temper even in daylight.
When he first came home, his darkness
scared his mother. He wanted to start
a new religion, all false.
He brought back few souvenirs. Wooden shoes
for his sisters and an Arab knife—a gift
from North Africa, handle sun-bleached wood
wrapped with coat hanger wire, steel blade
sharpened by hand and bent in waves
from opening K-ration cans. He gave away
the chocolate bars and most cigarettes.
He told us he picked bugs out of his mess kit
until he decided they tasted pretty good.
Then he caught more and dropped them in.
We knew the war by his jokes. He was the only son;
his sisters all married veterans. They sat in a circle
at our family picnics, hands wrapped around necks
of brown beer bottles, red coals of cigarettes
rising in gesture and sinking to mouth and armrest,
quietly talking over the drone of mosquitoes
after their wives sought the safety of the porch.
We crept closer to hear what they said,
but they pulled their silence tighter around them
like an oily tarp on night watch, darkness descending
until they finally said it was dark enough
to light the firecrackers they brought.
They held their ears and smiled.