Both men were probably in their forties, tending their fields like the men of their village had for a thousand years, defending their families and their livelihood and their land like men everywhere. In a few hours or in a few days they would be dead — after the ARVN beat confessions out of them, or applied electrodes to their balls and sent jolts of concentrated anguish through their bodies until they wished to escape by dying, by being shot in the head or dragged behind an Amphtrack or thrown from a helicopter, anything to make the pain stop.
My grandmother has told me the story so often, I vividly recall the milk house although I have never been there. It is built of gray stone gathered from the fields and held together with chalky mortar. A patch of moss by the door looks like a velvet pincushion. Inside: a cream separator, the churn, gleaming tin pails, and butter paddles, their wood frayed from years of use. I see them through her eyes as she recites them like the rosary, like a charm.
I am now at an age where I have watched people grow old. They look older, maybe more feeble, their bodies thickening, their bones feeling more frail or their bodies a little stooped, their faces worried in a way I have always associated with older people. I see my friends looking more and more like my aunts and uncles did when I was a child. This is the first generation I have seen grow old. And it is a shock.
I know I’m in trouble when N. starts saving for a tent and sleeping bags. Then she brings home a book with the ominous title, North Carolina Hiking Trails. Actually, I’m fond of hiking, especially if I can relax at the end of the day with a bed and a bath. But to my wife, this is like washing down a gourmet dinner with a Dr. Pepper. She wants an experience of nature unmediated by civilized comfort. She wants to show me and J., her thirteen-year-old son, how to rough it.
Water will not put out a reality fire. Those little red extinguishers are useless. A reality fire will not be tamed. As the eyes move from object to object each bursts into flames and is consumed, gone forever, and no smoke either — for a reality fire will consume so thoroughly that nothing is wasted. No smoke escapes. Never any smoke. From a reality fire there is no smoke.