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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Fragile Landscapes

by Gillian Haines

“The war made us all sick fucks.” Wulf rubbed his shaven head and revealed a shrapnel wound that skipped and puckered along the pale underside of his right arm. “I’m glad it’s starting to come out. You should check out the articles I’ve been reading. One in Men’s Health describes this soldier in Iraq. He zeros in on this kid just as the kid takes aim to kill him.” Wulf’s freckled hands grasped a phantom M16 and he mimed looking through the sights. “The soldier doesn’t miss, the kid dies, and the soldier ejaculates. He’s horrified. Ashamed. But later, he can’t climax without that image.”
Wulf dropped his voice to a tired whisper. “It’s not just that. There’s two things going on. National Geographic says soldiers are brain-damaged by their training even before they get to war. Every time something goes off, you lose something. You can feel it!” he said, placing his hands on his ribs. “Those I.E.D. blasts! After every battle, blood comes out your ears, nose, and throat. How can we not be fucked up?”
He looked at me without blinking for a long time, and I nodded. He’d been issued prison coveralls too small for his bulging thighs.
“I’ll read them,” I promised.
Eight years ago, when I first volunteered to visit four inmates, I wasn’t sure why I felt such a tremendous pull toward confined men when I was already giving too much to a husband who was trapped in a different type of ruin. I didn’t think it was because I grew up in a country founded by convicts, or even because the government had hung my great uncle for setting fire to a hayrick. Only now can I admit that suffering had isolated me and I thought I could understand the loneliness of prison.
I sighed. I hated that plain white, windowless visiting room. Above us, a florescent light buzzed and flickered. Those lights that cast no shadows seemed to undress us. “I’m so sorry. I understand your disgust for people who don’t want to know about what soldiers have to do.”
He nodded.
“You say were a good soldier and you were promoted to Sergeant. What made you good?”
“The ability to keep calm in chaos—the worse it gets, the more focused I become. I kept my team together and did the job, whatever the goals.”
“That steadiness in a storm, I’m like that, too. When my husband was in the ER, the family in the room next door shrieked hysterically. They carried on so much, the doctor threw them out. In that instant, I knew the icy calmness I felt was essential.”
John, my husband of twenty years, had lost a fifth of his brain to a stroke on the day we moved to Tucson, ten years prior. He’d been a genius. He still scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for some cognitive tasks but he scored in the first for quite a few others. His fertile mind had been excavated and I was still seeking him in jagged crevices. Peering into sinkholes. Truth be told, I was looking for myself in those same places. I left Australia to follow him and in America, I gave up a job to look after him. I’d been the wife of a charming professor but suddenly I’d not been able to leave his side. Even after he’d shrugged off paralysis and returned to academia, his disasters consumed my life: dousing bonfires he lit in the fireplace, turning off our stove’s hissing gas jets, racing across town to deliver anti-seizure meds that he’d forgotten to swallow, and shrieking as he readied to throw our daughter into the air and into the whirring blades of a ceiling fan.
Early on, I sometimes had to drag myself to prison, wrung out and depressed. But then I’d started to look forward to going. I wanted to know how the men were doing. I’d become used to bearing the weight of their conversations. At some level, I knew they made me stronger. I listened with my ear and my heart and I forgot myself. The prisoners’ complications made mine simpler. By making space in my mind for their voices, I re-set my attention away from the hurried world where I lived—a world that judged before a thought had been completed—to a place of receptivity and openness, where two people paced their breath and pulse. 
 I gazed at Wulf, relaxing in his seat while I perched on the edge of mine, despite an ache in my lower spine. There were no tables. Just four mandated feet of space between our knees. Although Wulf took his ease against the backrest, I had no doubt of his complete attention. He ignored the many distractions across the aisle—shapely ankles in strappy red shoes, lustrous brown hair pinned with a yellow flower, bright swirls on a floral dress—distractions he must have hungered for. Such intense focus was rare, even on the outside.  
“Keeping your men together must’ve been a challenge. Some must have been terrified.”
 “They watch. They take their cues from you. You have to tell them it’s all right, even if it’s not.”
I nodded. When my husband’s body had first writhed as though captured by an invisible predator intent on breaking his neck, I’d squeezed my eight-year-old daughter’s hand. John’s rehab hospital had trained me for that moment so I was able to say, “It’s a seizure. Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll just be a few minutes and Dad will be okay.” She had stared at me, wide-eyed and unblinking.
“Were you scared?” I asked Wulf.
“No. I trained for it all my life.”
“But at first. You couldn’t have imagined what it was really like. Surely, then.”
“Maybe. But your training takes over.” He laughed. “It doesn’t prepare you for the stench. Dead people stink! Everyone releases liquid shit when they die.”
Across the aisle, a baby wailed and a prisoner placed it over his broad shoulder. It quieted immediately, hanging like a limp comma in a pale blue onesie.
 Wulf snorted. “The Hajjis stink when they’re alive. Urgh! Sweat and piss, they don’t wash much.”
I didn’t react when he bad-mouthed his enemy. It was probably essential if you were going to kill someone. And I didn’t want to silence him.
“When you survive a battle, every cell feels alive. It’s a rush! Sexual arousal is common.” His eyes never left my face, gauging my reaction.
I nodded soberly.
“Rape happens every day. It’s not the rare thing the news makes out. Rape and killing. The Hajjis hate us and we hate them. You get to a stage where killing means nothing.”
With all my heart, I hoped this man I cared for was a soldier who had never raped. Maybe I was a coward but I never asked. In prison, the fortress of boundaries, I drew a line I never crossed: only ask when you can deal with the answer.
But without realizing, I crossed that line. I asked Wulf why he was sent to that prison, a facility that specialized in sex-offenders, snitches, ex-gang members and the chronically ill. I thought his war wounds had been the ticket.
His handsome face went wooden. Wulf always looks me in the eye but for a long moment he couldn’t. Someone thumped the vending machine. The microwave pinged and the smell of bacon disturbed the layered flavors in the air: a woman’s floral scent and the reek of a full diaper.
Wulf looked back at me and raised his chin. “Conspiracy to transport a minor over state lines for unlawful sexual purposes.”
I felt like I’d trodden on a landmine. His forty-five-year sentence was so long I’d wrongly assumed he’d done something traitorous. In all the years I’d known him, he never flinched at my probing questions and was prepared to show himself in unflattering ways. We’d talked about sex and lovers using anatomical terminology, not interested in salacious details but curious about the rules of intimacy, the accommodations and the friction. I never detected an unhealthy interest. When he said his cellie was a gunner, a prisoner who masturbates in public, Wulf was so indignant. He said he wouldn’t live with a guy who jerked off where people could see and he forced the guy to stop. I’d believed that meant Wulf wasn’t a sex-offender.
I don’t know how I replied to Wulf’s tense recital of his crime. Somehow I continued the conversation but afterward, I didn’t remember a single thing. I kept my appointments to visit other inmates but was ensnared by a numbing fog. I know I laughed with them but the only thing I remember is that the Kung Fu shoes had gone. Prisoners now wore pale grey Crocs. I drove home troubled, feeling slightly nauseous.
I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I’m naïve. I went over all my interactions with Wulf but found nothing creepy. Quite the opposite. We had different values and disagreed about everything but he never got angry. He’d crossed boundaries I couldn’t imagine: from idealist to cynic, patriot to mercenary, protector to killer. I thought violence was a sickness and he thought it was the only way. But he protected mentally feeble inmates from prison bullies. He gave welcome packages of shower shoes, soap and deodorant to new men in his block and he told them how to survive. He gave prisoners ideas on setting up businesses and had shown the newest one how to iron tortillas to make burritos.
I shook my head. What sex crime could be so horrendous that just planning it got him forty-five years? What troubled me most were my feelings. I still cared for him, the worst kind of sex-offender: one who had hurt a child.  

Home life with a man who’d become like an autistic person had prepped me for prison. I got better at relationships with men I couldn’t fathom. And over the years, I’d already worked hard to understand rather than condemn Wulf. When I learned that he didn’t believe women belonged in the army, I was surprised. His blue eyes had shone. “I’m reading this real good book on the differences between the sexes. It supports what I’ve always thought: a division of labor makes sense. Women can’t carry the weight in my pack and every woman in the army has mental issues.”
When I challenged him, he listened good-naturedly and let me tease him about outdated attitudes. This willingness to banter made it easy to accept his sexism. But when he absorbed the racist prison code, I was dismayed.
“I’m not ignorant,” he’d said. “I’ve met two blacks in my life that I liked. I understand what you’re saying about pre-judging.” The freckled pink skin on his bald head shone as he turned to the right and then to the left. “You say this. But now I live with them, I see that. They’re noisy, they steal, and they don’t raise themselves up.”
Oh, yeah? And I guess Obama raised himself too high. But I tried to imagine what would happen to me if I were locked up in a place where fear forces you to form alliances based on color. When your life shrinks to the size of a prison bunk, it’s not just your joints that knot. Your thoughts become contorted, too.
“You give me so much trouble,” I’d said. “I keep leaving here thinking, how can I care for you? You’re sexist. You’re racist. You’re suspicious of altruism. And you believe in eugenics, for goodness sake!”
An amused expression had animated his face. “I keep telling you, you haven’t had the experiences I have.”
          “You know, that’s a bit…” I’d paused and then went for it, laughing. “It’s arrogant. I will go to my death bed believing in kindness!”
Wulf had looked at me with such a glint in his blue eyes that I thought he wanted to scratch me behind my ears. “Look, I’m glad there are people like you. It makes everything I’ve done worthwhile.” In his mind, war was worth it to protect goodness, a worn and faulty rationale for violence, but I didn’t say so.
At some unknown point, we’d shared so much of ourselves, we became friends. “You’re it,” he’d said. “I need you. I need to talk to you about what’s going on because you’re all I have. You have no idea what you do for me.” Like most prisoners’ families, Wulf’s abandoned him when he needed them the most.
Ours was a strange friendship. A friendship that would never have had a chance if we’d met outside prison. But Wulf allowed me to witness his struggle to make sense of a thwarted life, even as I fought to love a husband diminished, a man whose needs thwarted my own once-cherished hopes. Wulf helped me inhabit more of the person I wanted to become.
One day, he had exhaled loudly and looked away. “I miss fighting.”
My smile disappeared. He knew I was a peacenik. “How can you miss war? The fear, the danger? The killing?”
“If I was out today, I’d sign up in a minute! For anyone.”
“As a mercenary?”
“But you have sons! How could you kill other people’s children for a cause you don’t believe in or understand?”
“You think government-sanctioned killing is more legitimate than killing for money?”
My spit had evaporated. I slumped backwards and remained there while he watched me. “With wars fought over oil, you’re right.”
He nodded quietly.
“But that doesn’t make it okay! It’s not good for your soul.”
“It happens all over the world. Right now. And I’m good at it. Look,” he regarded me intently. “I don’t take pleasure in killing. I’m not a sadist. It’s a job. And I miss it. The intensity. It’s not fear. When you know you might die today, everything becomes crystal clear. It’s powerful to be with men who are good at what they do and who have accepted death.”
Shocked and at the same time, riveted, I tried to understand. “War must heighten everything. You live in the moment. And when comrades share that profound clarity, when they share the danger, and you trust them to watch your back, it must seem like a special brotherhood. Is that what you mean?”
          I watched his eyelids open very gradually until blue eyes locked onto mine. To call it a blink would describe the action but not the duration. At the same pace, he recaptured my own eyes and held them, nodding silently.
I understood that shared adversity unites. John’s stroke had been mine, too.
But I’d always imagined that soldiers overcame a reluctance to kill for duty and patriotism. Despite knowing that career soldiers existed, it never occurred to me that combat could exhilarate.
We lionize historical warriors like Patton and Lee, although both admitted to loving war, but it’s not acceptable for contemporary soldiers to speak unashamedly about their passion for combat. While I didn’t support the war Wulf fought in, I believe we are all responsible for the roots of conflict. And we set up young soldiers for isolation. After we train them to kill and they have achieved their purpose, their experience makes them social pariahs. I decided to deal with my discomfort at Wulf’s disclosures.
“It’s rare to talk like this,” I’d said, uneasy and fascinated. “Our values are so different and you must think I’m naïve but neither of us gets angry. I get to understand you because I’m not busy defending myself.”
I drove away from prison that day past desiccated creosote and wrinkled cholla, still green but wearied by drought. Mesquites thirsted for a rain that wouldn’t come, their canopies strung on branches like limp dishrags.

At the coffee shop, I sat beside my friend, Jim. “Now I know Wulf was going to hurt a child, I’m surprised my affection hasn’t disappeared. I feel like a bad person by association.”
Jim was detective-handsome with epaulet shoulders. Wavy grey hair added gravitas but it was an infectious, good-natured smile that made my women friends swoon. Now retired, he’d once specialized in sex-crimes but today worked as a private investigator. Although he loved crime novels focused on the dark milieu of world-weary gumshoes, his own demeanor was up-beat and compassionate. In my mind, viewing others with compassion after twenty-five years on the force made him due for a medal.
We never scheduled our meetings but had hung out on a nearly daily basis at Starbucks for a decade. We hugged only on birthdays but felt comfortable enough to lapse into silence or ignore the other while we typed or texted at our shared table. We were lonely. Jim was single and looking for a partner. I shared a marriage bed with a man whose brain injury made him forget how to love me.
“What you do in prison is a good thing,” Jim said. “You won’t stop seeing Wulf?
“No. I signed up to support men who’ve done terrible things because no one is beyond redemption, no matter how long it takes. No one deserves decades behind bars without a soul to visit. I won’t stop going but it’s hard.” I shot my hands in the air. “I don’t know what Wulf was planning to do to that kid. The title of his crime rocked me but now I’ve had time to think, he could have run away with an underage girl he loved. Wrongly! Stupidly! Illegally! That would be the best scenario. But I can’t help imagining others that are lots worse. I have to find his case somehow.”
“What if you find something that changes how you see him?”
“I know. But I’m already upset. I have to know the details and then I’ll settle it in my mind.” I sighed. “It’s stupid, really. I knew about this possibility from day one.”
“You’ll be all right.”
But I wasn’t. I couldn’t sleep. I’d cracked Pandora’s Box and burned to peer inside. Disgusted, I told myself that my job was to support Wulf while he endured prison, not to satisfy voyeuristic curiosity. But for peace of mind, I wanted to know the worst.
On my next visit, Wulf walked toward me with an easy grace born of fitness, holding his sculpted, bald head at a proud tilt, allowing his indigoed arms to swing loosely.
Before he even sat down, I blurted, “I can’t stop thinking about your crime. It’s messing with me. What happened?”
“I was back from Iraq doing this woman. She was fucking with her kid.”
“Abusing? Sex?”
Wulf nodded, pressing his lips together until they whitened.
“Why would you want a relationship with someone who did that?”
          “I was fucked up. I knew I wasn’t coping and had signed up for another tour. I didn’t belong here anymore. War was the only thing I understood.” He looked away. “I knew the woman was doing it. Their interactions were off. But it was none of my business.”
My stomach plummeted.
The skin on his face stretched tight over chiseled bones, as taut as I felt he was stretching our friendship. “Anyway, she didn’t have a car and asked for a ride. I dropped her and the kid off someplace.”
“Across state lines?”
“I lived five minutes from the border.”
“She made the trip to hurt her boy?”
“I didn’t know. Didn’t care, either.”
My mind went round and round. He’s a dad. How could he ignore an abused kid? I ached for that trapped child. It hurt to imagine a woman so damaged that she would inflict such pain. And I thought war had loosened Wulf’s grip on his soul.
As soon as I got home, I turned on my computer. The online documents I found said Wulf urged the woman to have intercourse and oral sex with her ten-year-old son while Wulf took photos. I slammed my computer shut and cried.
The tears dried but left behind an ache in my chest that made me want to run. I didn’t want to know more but I couldn’t not know, either. With my hand still over my mouth, I re-opened my laptop. I wanted to read the case transcript but could only find a decision denying Wulf’s appeal: a brief summary of the case. But I did learn that soldiers returning from combat in Iraq commit more violent and sexual crimes than their civilian counterparts. After the slaughter of war, I could imagine a heightened tendency to explode, to slash, and to screw. I could understand attempts to replicate combat’s adrenaline high when life at home seemed pedestrian and trivial. But the quiet perversion required to photograph a mother opening her legs for her boy’s virginity was something else entirely.
I dreaded my next prison visit. But when I got there, Wulf talked about his boys and I was able to cope.
“I call every night but they haven’t answered for six months.” Relaxing, he stretched his feet forward. He’d been issued a torn Croc shoe. “It used to amaze me how much Cliff remembered. He was only six when I fell. But if I was home, he was with me.” He smiled. “If I worked on the car, he was beside me. If I hung out with my guys, he was there.”
Tenderness washed his face. “When I came home injured from Iraq, I still had the bloody field splint on. I was helicoptered to the Green Zone and then to Germany but decided to come Stateside for surgery. I came through the airport doors leaning on crutches, and his little face fell. I threw my crutches down and called him over. I picked him up and he pressed his face in my shoulder.” Wulf’s arms moved to cradle the memory of his son and he laughed. “It hurt so bad! I was biting my lip so he couldn’t hear me crying. My dad came over and I had to lean on him. But I kept saying to Cliff, ‘It’s okay.

For six years, Wulf wore a beard that kinked its way to his chest, looking like it had been steeped in blood. But one day, he entered the visiting room with a neatly trimmed goatee. There was stubble on his head, too. He’d ditched that menacing prison style: bald and bearded.
“I like it.”
          “It’s a very pretty red,” he ran his hands over his hair.
The color was beautiful but I stared, checking my laughter, searching for a hint of self-ridicule. Surprisingly, there was none and I chuckled. “Even if you say so yourself!”
The room was full and noisy. Groups of loud visitors sat on either side of us and I jerked the row of connected seats forward. Two seconds later, an officer leaned over me. “Move it back!”
Wulf caught my eyes, twisting his lips together, as if saying, Welcome to my world. Then his handsome freckled face abruptly lost its vigor and his chest heaved. “I don’t feel like I’ve got much to offer. Life doesn’t change in here. I was listening to this guy tell his story; I’ve heard it at least six times before and I started thinking, ‘Do I bore her?’”
“No! We talk about so many things. Those conversations we always come back to are contentious and fascinating. You’ve helped me learn things that are important to me.” I shrugged, embarrassed. “I only knew it in theory before but friendship can flourish even when values don’t coincide. I’ve learned to suspend judgment in favor of curiosity and wonder.” I shrugged, embarrassed again.
But he nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t feel like I’m an asset anymore.”
“You are to me. You’re a window to worlds I don’t know. War, the military, prison, your peccadilloes. I don’t know anyone else who can disagree so adamantly without getting angry.”
He raised his eyes and sat straighter. “It’s true, contention is interesting. I like hearing different views in case there’s something I haven’t considered.”
He held my gaze for a long time. Then he whispered, “I just paid fifteen hundred dollars to a lawyer to review my case.”
“Because I didn’t do it.”
Connected by his silent stare, I regarded him closely. Strung about his neck, in place of a crucifix, hung a miniature axe. He was the most fascinating man I visited but he challenged me constantly. His laughter, his tenderness and his roving intelligence had not lulled and blinded me to the cut of his blade.
“Why didn’t you ever say?”
“Ambiguity matters. Character shows.”
I liked that he’d never tried to persuade me, that instead, he thought I’d work it out.
 “You took a plea bargain. You pled guilty.”
“I did transport the kid. But no one took photos. If there were photos, they would have charged me with that. They charged me with conspiracy because there was no evidence. His mother made it up to get me involved and to bargain for a lower sentence for herself.”
“Did you witness the acts?”
“No. But I knew something was up.”
I put both hands on my forehead. “My head’s reeling. I can’t process it, yet. You’re innocent! God, to go from the intensity of war to a cell, you must have been climbing the walls.”
“No. I was in shock. It was so far out in left field, I was stunned.”
I believe him. Oh, you’re so naïve. Why would you believe a felon? All you have is his word.
Almost as soon as those thoughts arrived, I didn’t believe them. In all our time together Wulf had displayed startling honesty and the courage to show himself even when he knew I might not approve. My decision to accept his innocence wasn’t necessary to avoid internal discomfort. When I thought him guilty, I learned to accept it and feel comfortable that I cared for him, still.
Eighteen months later, his lawyer said that Wulf had been imprisoned illegally and that he would fight for Wulf’s release. But such legal battles take time and Wulf and I will continue our conversations in prison for many years.
Conversations forge a path to those in-between places, like marshes that are neither sea nor land. Oozing, slimy places where missteps are fraught. Those fragile landscapes are disappearing because we want to drain them and fill them with rubble. But marshes are rich with tasseled reeds and the dense Belgian lace of interwoven roots. Wulf was not my guide when we explored there, nor I his, but you can’t go there alone.

Gillian Haines lives in Tucson’s desert where she loves hummingbirds and saguaros. For the past eight years, she has volunteered to visit four men in maximum-security prison because they only know the desert’s thirst. Her work has been published or accepted for upcoming publication in The Ilanot Review, Gravel Literary Magazine, Rain Shadow Review, Stories from the Other Side 6th edition, and an as yet untitled Punctum anthology. She is writing a memoir about her prison experiences.

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