Fort McClellan, Alabama 1990
When I opened my eyes, a facemask obstructed my vision.
Oxygen, pure as life, enervated me, and I turned. Because I could.
I could breathe,
whereas last I remembered,
I was gasping,
and no air came.
Wanton joy filled me, but I knew not to sit up,
horses’ hooves would descend upon my chest,
So I turned onto my side,
taking tubes and facemask with me.
My roommate was IV-free.
Her spine was curved toward the window,
and she looked like a cast-off bit of bark.
Except she coughed once,
and the silence was not to be the same.
I cleared my throat, as if to speak.
A “what are you in here for?”
She didn’t move,
but a tanned steer hide hung thick between our beds,
but for the strong smell of horsehair leggings that filled the room.
She was fierce in her aloneness.
Walled up in a leaded curtain.
I wanted to share my oxygen with her.
As the brown recluse spider had burrowed its way
into her battle dress uniform, leaving a small hole,
which had spread,
infecting the area,
rotting her body,
She had burrowed into denial.
I knew this aloneness.
To be a female soldier on an all-male squad,
no possibility of buddy checks,
the ticks embedding deep under my breasts,
my bikini line,
nothing to do but to wait while medics picked
out the body parts.
The ticks, fat and somnolent,
But I, parts puffy and inflamed,
was no longer whole
Younger than me,
one leg removed below the hip.
My lungs would heal and I would go back to the rifle range in a day or two.
She would be mustered out.
Her leg left behind,
Her life separated into before and after
a brown recluse hunted for food in her flesh.
And she stayed silent.
Unwilling to undress before men.
In this way, she remained my soul sister.
Fort Collins, CO, U.S.A. Laura Mahal is a two-time winner of the Hecla Award for Speculative Fiction. Her work can be found in Sunrise Summits, the 2018 Fish Anthology, Still Coming Home, The Daily Abuse, and DoveTales. Laura’s the member liaison for Northern Colorado Writers and occasionally blogs for The Writing Bug: http://www.writingbugncw.com/. Twitter: @leela_mahal.