Ted's defenses buckle finally, as what happened--what he'd try to hide from himself--rushes back into his life. He is, once again, helpless.
Cut the grass, Ted thought. Keep it up. The French towns, the Belgian villages, the German countryside--it was already destroyed by the time his unit was chasing Krauts across Europe. Today nothing there could possibly look the same, nothing at all. Everything would be different. It would all be gone--every sign of what was there.
"You know," Mark said, "I always thought they died in a tight little clump or something--like 'circle up the wagons,' you know? Like they all died together, but they didn't," Mark said. "It was much worse than that, man."
"How do you know so much?" Ted said.
"Read," Mark said, without really thinking. "Maybe it would have been nice, you know--I mean, if they'd all died together." He raised his eyebrows, almost as if he'd like a chance to rewrite history. "Maybe it would have been easier."
"Maybe," Ted said. "How come you want to know about all of this?"
Mark jerked his head backward quickly. "You guys like me to read," he said. "But you want to know what really gets me?" He stopped, folded his arms across his chest and looked at his father closely, eyes squinting in that deadly serious, still childish way, Ted thought. "After it was over and they were all dead, the Sioux squaws came up--and the kids too," he said, and just like that he stopped, looked down at his fingernails, chewed them. He stood there for a minute, then laughed as if to cover something he wasn't proud of.
"So what?" Ted said. "What are you saying?"
"They, like, finished the job, Dad," he said.
"I don't get it."
"I mean, like the one who weren't dead--the women killed them. Sometimes they bashed their faces with clubs so dumb hard that the men couldn't even be identified."
"It was something he'd thought through, Ted thought, something that had burrowed into his mind and stayed there when maybe it should have blown away. "What do you mean, Mark?" he said.
"The women, Dad--and the kids." He threw up his hands as if nothing more could be said. "They sliced up people--the women did. Cut off their arms and the squaws cut off men's head. Even other parts, Dad." He shook his head and shut his eyes as if the thought alone had blinded him. "Isn't that awful? They were hacked to pieces. They weren't even identifiable--the women ripped off all their clothes."
Ted stood beside his son, rubbing his hands.
"Here's what I think, Dad," Mark told him, trying to figure somehow, as he always did. "I think it proves they were really savages."
"All Indians?" Ted asked.
"Yes," Mark told him. "Maybe not today anymore, but when the white people came to this land, some of those tribes were really stone-age, Dad. I'm not kidding."
"What do you mean, savages?"
"The women and children chopped off their heads, Dad--that's what I'm telling you."
For his son's sake, Ted tried to imagine what it might have looked like out there: a swarm of women and children hacking away at bloodied bodies, the gentle sloping landscape unfurling violence, Indian woman shaking limp legs from gray wool pants, flashing long knives over hair soaked in blood.
And then it happened. He was visited by a memory. Walls formed on an endless prairie vista, and soft grass melted into a thick and slimy morass, the stench of mud and excrement. The sky closed over him as if someone had drawn a final curtain, and he heard the sounds of Babel. Naked men, thighs no thicker than sapling birch and messed with shit. Eyes that seemed gouged. Hairless, sexless prisoners who stared at GIs as if his men were aliens. A man offered him a cigarette he took because he felt obliged to honor the only gift the prisoner could offer. Many were crying, not in joy but in disbelief that whatever hell they'd been in was gone now with liberation.
Babel. Confusion of tongues. Whole rotting barracks full of men cowering in shit and mud, grieving, it seemed, at death's having abandoned them. Madness. Anger. Screams. His men carried the dying outside into the sun, some screaming as if to have to live were horror.