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“In the Light”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Marilyn Johnston

In fourth grade, our teacher taught us
how to write with invisible ink.
We’d dip a Q-tip into lemon juice,
pen our words onto jagged-edged scraps
of left-over paper, then hold a lit candle
underneath and wait until the message
came through. I found out then
how much heat it takes to lift up
invisible words, but not the time needed
to buff down the jagged edges.

My husband’s memories slow to appear—
lit deep, left to smolder:
The moonless night a Viet Cong soldier
with a satchel charge in his hand
ran into a concertina wire strung
on the north side of the Base.
My husband and his Platoon
picked up pieces of the man
at daybreak,
strewn along the hillside.

And the stifling day on his supply route
when he found 18 women and children
machine-gunned down.
Every day, sweat dripping like hate—
for war, its collateral.
Every day, wanting it over, to get home
and never re-up. But how do you leave
a group of men, knowing any one of them
would walk in a jungle, all night
with a broken leg to find you.

It’s taken 49 years, even after
the Veterans Against the War protests,
and through the long nights
when his restless legs awakened us,
to decode those unwritten words
as they emerge—what with the crack!
of the Howitzers and the roar
of the chopper as if still overhead.

But the years have reduced the colored
smoke grenades of the landing zone
to a faint scrim—
and now there’s depth,
the underpinnings of relief, lifting.
A searing clarity.