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The Ritual

by Ken Williams

Standing in front of mirror covered with finger smudges.  A single edged razor blade held to his throat.  Hands trembling.  He’s as cold as liquid mercury.  Still… Grimacing.  Knowing the pain before him.  A thin-smile.  Bloodless lips. Knows well the ritual.  Awaiting pain.  This would be the three thousand thirty-seventh time he had imposed this particularly brutal ritual on himself.  Briefly closing his eyes, seeing calendar next to refrigerator where he will mark this latest attempt—a self-made calendar that runs years not merely months.

He isn’t a cutter—a self-mutilator. If only!  He flashes back to the time a hooker spent the night and caught him in the ritual.  That was her two-cent psychological bullshit diagnosis.  What did she know of life!  The ends of his dead mouth pull upwards.  He could see why she would think him a, “self-mutilator.”  But he was much more than that.  A warrior! A malevolent darkness chased what little light there was from his eyes.

The tattoo on his neck is deep in black and rich in color.  Red being the predominate hue.  It was like he had had it inked to his neck yesterday.  Leaning in closer he sees the age in his eyes, spider lines that crease their corners. Eyelids that are heavy with years.  No.  He was no spring chicken.  Taking in the rest of his body he determined that he wasn’t in too bad shape.  Still scrawny as he was all those years ago when he walked out of the tattoo parlor in Hong Kong.

He remembered the tattooist questioning if he really wanted the design he had drawn on a piece of paper when he had shown the Mongol.  Asians!  He’d had his full of their baffling ways.  He was as sure now as he had been back then that the act of pulling out a K-bar knife and slamming it down on the table had been the game breaker.  The little tattoo artist did as instructed and commenced inking his neck.  Still… He was more than a little surprised when the man refused payment for services rendered.  But he quickly got over it.  Hell!  The oriental’s code of honor saved him a cool thirty bucks!

Leaning back he admired the tattoo.  Angry flames leaping from straw huts covered his neck.  Burning bamboo was in the background, a pig in the foreground.  Personally he didn’t see the problem.  You had to look real close back then to see the body of the elderly man under the feeding pig.  A darkening frown ate away at his eyes turning them midnight black.  True.  He had taken liberties with the scene from My Lai by incorporating the old man from Cua Viet:  My Lai village hadn’t really burned—A few huts perhaps.  But hell.  If you weren’t there you were none the wiser.

Leaning closer, he put his hands on the sink.  The tattoo was as crystal clear as the day it was inked.  No fading to the color.  No softness to the lines.  And, no scar tissue!  This last fact creased his face with regret.  If he hadn’t been so stupid!  If only he had had the tattoo put on his chest or back.  Someplace, anyplace where he could cover it up.  But noooo.  He had to tell the kook to ink a full neck tattoo.  There was no shirt in the land that could hide it.

When he first got home it didn’t bother him the looks that were cast his way.  He may have been on the thin side but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his body.  “Hard as rock and damn proud of it!” he muttered.  It was only after a Marine, a fellow Vietnam Vet took offense to the tattoo and beat the shit out of him that be began to get gun shy.  Fucking Marines—them and their code of honor!  After that he had even went so far as to wrap his neck in gauze bandages whenever he left the house.  Made up a war story: scars from battle.  It was good for free drinks, sad eyed stares from hot chicks but he tired of the effort.   That’s when three thousand thirty-seven days ago to be exact he came up with his brilliant plan.

Closing his dark brown eyes he dragged up the memory like it was laser imprinted.  He could see himself drinking the half bottle of whiskey while he positioned his tools:  A single edged razor.  Cotton balls.  Towels.  Antiseptic cream.  Bandages.  The plan was simple.  He would cut his throat over days—nothing too deep, to cover up the tattoo with layers of scar tissue.  He had even come up with a new war story.  The injuries would of course be blamed on the war.  He threw in a Purple Heart citation along with that of a Silver Star.  Any references to My Lai would of course be dropped.

The side of blood running down his chest the first time had frightened him.  He was worried that maybe he had cut himself too deep.  But the quick application of a towel, which rapidly slowed the flow of blood, reassured him.  He worked on a quarter of the tattoo before deciding he had cut enough cress-cross lines.  After all, he didn’t want to do any damage outside of scaring.

He remembered the bandage he applied had stopped the bleeding.  He also remembered passing out from all the booze he had consumed—maybe also a little shock from his self-surgery.  Eyes flying open told the rest of the story:  Seeing himself wake with a raging headache.  Watching, as he made his way from his bedroom to the bathroom.  Standing in front of the mirror he had began to unwrap the bandages to see his work.  Surprise had slowed the unveiling when the fact that he felt no pain on his neck registered.  Weakness rocked him when he dropped the barely bloody wrapping.

There was no scaring.  The tattoo was whole.  Outrushing of air came next.  Shaky legs.  Hands on the sink basin to study himself.  Then horror.  There was one change.  The pig was gone.  Now the old man, the papasan was center stage looking remarkably like the man he had killed all those years ago.  His legs gave out.  He had collapsed to the floor.  Regained standing only to again see the absence of the pig.

Back to the present:  The first shallow cut drew blood.  He pressed a towel to it.  Lifting it he saw the blood flow had reduced to a trickle.  More lines were cut.  Blood flowed easier.  He pressed hard with his hands then wrapped bandages around his neck.  Here and there red blood soaked through.

Walking out to the front room he sat heavily on the couch.  It creaked threatening to break.  What did he expect with a castoff from the Salvation Army thrift shop.  Street noise filtered in passed closed curtains.  A car racing up the street fouled the air with the smell of gas fumes and burnt tire rubber.  On the end table next to him a half empty bottle of Vodka stood.  He grabbed it.  The cheap rotgut burned when he upended it.  Finishing half of the remainder he finally lowered the bottle.

“My Lai!  My Lai!”  The sorrowful words bounced back from bare walls.  “What’s the big deal?  You shoulda’ seen Cua Viet after the B-52s had finished!  They had truly wasted them, turning one and all to crispy critters.”

Cautiously he looked about.  He had begun talking to himself outsides the confines of his house.  Even got cops called on him once.  They thought he was nuts but not harmful to himself or others so there was nothing they could do.

A laugh made cruel with diabolical harshness settled into his soul.  Those B-52s carried tons of bombs.  “Now that was real carnage!”

The image of the old man walking out of the dust storm the bombing had caused froze him.  It was so real:  The blood flowing from his eyes, nose and ears.  The little body of the child he carried in his arms, tiny arms swinging lifelessly.  The way his bent, arthritic body strengthened when he had stopped before him laying a curse.  The way he had chuckled in turn.  And then the rapid fire bark of his M-16 when he shot the papasan.  Clear as if it was happening now!  “A curse!  For God’s sake!”  Still…he brought the bottle up and finished it to chase away the sight.  A quick look-about did little to discharge the static electricity from the back of his neck.

He remembered the sounds of the B-52s made on their bombing approach.  If anything it was even more real than the scenes of a minute ago.  The roaring sound grew louder as if the engines were screaming in protest.  His face screwed down cutting deep gorges into his face.  Blood running cold chilled him.  He stood a second before impact.

                        Epilogue

“It’s a miracle that no one else was killed!”  The firefighter adjusted the nozzle on his hose.  He was being respectful of the coroner who was carefully walking out of the smoldering house.

“Bombs you say?” the firefighter asked, his voice raised in skepticism.  He didn’t believe it for a moment but couldn’t figure out why the Coroner would lie.

“Dummy bombs.  Still they weigh quit a lot, and with the force of gravity behind them…crushed the man and made kindling out of most of the house.

“Don’t let anyone in.  The place is unstable.  We’ll yellow tape it when you guys are done.”

“Mostly just wetting things down.  Not much of a fire.  Obviously the bombs didn’t go off…dummy bombs tend to do that.”  The firefighter chuckled at his sarcasm.

The Coroner, finding nothing funny let it slide.  “You must have heard the plane…the B-52 as it passed over.  Your firehouse is just down the block. The pilot said the engines were erratic that’s why they were so low.  And then for some reason the plane ejected the bombs on its own.  Swears he did nothing wrong.  Says they were on their way to conduct a practice run thus the dummy bombs.   Least that’s what he said when we contacted the base.  Weird.”

“Not as weird as that,” the firefighter said looking down on the body as it passed.  A corner of the blanket covering the body had slipped exposing the man’s face and neck.  “I’ve never seen anything like that…”

“Me neither,” the Coroner concurred.

The man’s neck was a mass of scars.  The only object identifiable was an old man that stood in the middle of the scars.  The firefighter couldn’t guess why the man was grinning.