Fireworks

Jan 17, 2017

On the 299th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Edward Gibson found himself troubled by a remarkable case of déjà vu.

He couldn’t have dreamed this before; the only thing less likely than a dream was this reality. Certainly it felt like a dream: his limbs moved with a sluggish stubbornness, his vision blurry and clouded, the glow of soft lights bobbing like faeries around him. But his reason told him that these sensations were genuine, that his legs ached from ceaseless activity and his eyes still burned from the close call with a phosphorus grenade the day before. Officers walked nearby, their reassuring whispers easing fears, their carefully policed flashlights casting dancing shadows on the dirt and fractured concrete below their feet. No, this was real, as real as the pain from the open blisters on his feet and the gritty shrapnel dust in his hair.

He tried to ignore the feeling of unease, that prickling sensation that rumored that he was but a puppet in a vast choreographed dance. The theologian in him began to draw a smirk to his face, but weariness squelched it before it left his mind. The soldier in him hated that idea.

Around him in the darkness, hundreds, maybe thousands, marched silently, rugged boots thudding softly on the pavement, rifle straps and buckles muffled to a sullen clinking of muted metal by bits of cloth. Their officers hadn’t needed to impress upon them the gravity of the situation to ensure silence; fatigue did that, as did fear and the incalculable weariness of combat. The militiamen and their American allies couldn’t have laughed had they tried.

To the north, a terrible and momentary false dawn lit the clouds with scathing brightness. A thundering, rolling rumble echoed through the soil moments later. Then another flash split the sky, followed by another and another—a rain of fire coupled with delayed cracks of thunderous violence. Gibson looked as around him weary faces gazed skywards, eyes twitching from the constant assault of light, mouths opened with wonder. The officers prodded the stragglers with harsh whispers, yet even they found themselves entranced by the sheer spectacle. The artillery roared and thundered and shouted with abandon. Gibson’s ears rang with the cacophonous diatribe. Diversion, they called it; feinted attack for strategic withdrawal, yet he called it the dawn of the reign of Hephaestus: an empire of ash, a kingdom of fire—

 And then, without warning, there it was. The wisp of memory, half-imagined fragment tormenting him with thoughts of predestination, leaped fully-formed from his mind. A young girl, laughing, danced down the boulevard of his thoughts. The smell of charcoal mingled with the wisps of smoke from sparklers. It was the Fourth, the Fourth of July, a particular year from his youth; his younger siblings laughed and danced and cheered as each new firework exploded brilliantly in smoke-obscured sky.

But he stood apart, smugly content in his scrawny male adolescence. He dreamed, but not of independence. He carried a lawn chair, slung across his shoulder like a rifle; manicured grass faded into the bitter snowdrifts of Chosin. He imagined each concussion as an airburst of a shell; he closed his eyes to blot out the garish festive colors.

“Eddie? What’s wrong?”

His father had noticed his silence as the boy stalked the sidewalk ahead of rest of his family. Five meter spacing, his dream self said. Keep the platoon widely spread to prevent heavy grenade casualties. He responded quietly.

“No, dad, nothing’s wrong. I’m just enjoying the fireworks.”

His father laughed.

“Well, typically, Ed, you actually watch them. You know, with your eyes. I’ve heard that they look a lot better that way.”

The young man smiled slightly.

“Sure, dad. I’ll keep that in mind.”

On the darkened road in Kaduna, Edward Gibson wished this moment would last forever. He grasped tightly to the recollection—the sounds of his siblings shouting and mother laughing and the neighbor’s dog barking in a frenzy at the cacophonous skybursts—yet still it faded. The half-remembered scent of charcoal disappeared into the pungent odor of burning cordite and superheated brass; the lawn chair on his shoulder melted away into his rifle; sooty fatigues replaced his youthful t-shirt. The memory vanished as it had come, and he was alone.

On the shore of the river, the artillerymen continued their deadly duel with their counterparts north of the city. They stood resolute near their guns, night blind and deafened by each concussion. Whistling shells leaped into their midst from enemy counter-battery fire, and from time to time a gun would vanish in an explosive death of twisted metal and shrapnel. Yet the marching lines continued to dwindle into the distance, passage assured by the death of each man at his gun.

A young Nigerian near Gibson, scarcely a teenager, began to whisper under his breath, words half-formed and almost inaudible. A nearby soldier joined him, and the fragments of a tune floated in the breeze, sung in the hoarsest of whispers by men with parched, smoke-choked throats. And yet it was beautiful.

“The minstrel boy, to the war has gone, in the ranks of death you’ll find him….”

Several more took up the song, voices quavering just above a whisper, the soft thud of boots providing a percussive accompaniment.

“His father’s sword he hath girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him….”

The officers looked silently from man to man. The moonlight revealed tears tracing down the cheek of the captain.

“’Land of Song!’ said the warrior bard, ‘tho’ all the world betrays thee, one sword at least thy rights shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee!’”

Gibson closed his eyes to block out the garish lights; he felt each flash against his eyelids. All around, he could hear the sound of fireworks.

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