Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.
—Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
Before we leave, Tom, who is sixteen, folds the letter from our ancestor and buries it in the yard. Dear Mother, our ancestor wrote in the beginning, Ten o’clock there started a run on every bank, by noon all were closed . . .
We take the frying pan because it can also be used as a weapon. Dried apples, peanuts. Water in BPA-free bottles. Sleeping bags. Sunglasses. Toothbrushes. One pair of underpants, each. Many pairs of socks. Hats. Dad’s knife from the war. Shovel. Rope. Matches. We have the dog for protection.
What do they have? Other than a self-righteous indignation that they are dead and we are not?
Pandemonium reigned, our ancestor wrote. Dad read the letter to us often.
Our father took a Glock 19 Gen4 with a dual recoil spring. Our mother an X-Bolt hunting rifle with a solid lock mount. Both carried ammo. But they didn’t come back. At first, Tom boards the windows and doors with bookshelves. But it is too hot, we can’t get air because every sundown more of them bang the windows, walls, and door. There is no doubt they will break in. Tom and Sheila call a meeting. We decide to leave. We are only children, we can’t be accountable for our decisions.
Our ancestor wrote: America has been given something to pry ourselves out of this Slough of Despond. We are getting action and every day is full of the most exciting events.
From the yard, our house looks smaller than we thought. Our mother was born here. In her room still glow the ceiling stars our grandfather put up when she was a kid. We have her wedding ring and great-grandfather’s diamond tie tack. Hundred-dollar bills rolled into our socks.
We sing songs our parents taught us as we walk: offer us solutions, offer us alternatives . . . tell us with the rapture and the reverent in the right . . .
We sing: hey, hey, hey.
We are exhilarated, we are risking things, we are no longer left behind. At first we think the dog will run; Dawnie, who is nine, uses a ribbon to tie him, then forgets to hold it. The dog stays. Sheila kicks a rock down the pavement; Tom takes it up and passes it to Dawnie. Jamie skips, raises his arms to the sun.
Each of us brings one book. We have pictures of ourselves as pink-bowed babies and boys at bat. Sheila, who is fourteen, carries lip gloss; Tom carries condoms along with hope.
Our ancestor wrote: America was hungry for a leader whom they could follow out of crisis and back to sane thinking . . .
Ancestors carry contaminated water, cockroaches, worms, and sour tea. Remnants of clothing like a foot in a shoe. They carry the violence that caused the silence. They are disease. They carry hunger.
Tom carries small bottles of Johnny Walker and Beefeater Gin. Sheila has boxes of Band-Aids, Dawnie the iPods and iPhones, though the batteries are sapped like bodies drained of blood. But who knows. Who knows.
We have maps from Dad. We walk the sun because they prefer dark. If you leave, Dad said, walk the riverbed and we do, but it’s hard on our ankles. Jamie, who is five, cries. We carry him. At dark we go into the pine barrens where the trees attend like soldiers. Tom and Sheila dig a pit. Cover it with the tarp and tree boughs. Find our matches. Sap sticks to our clothing and hands.
There they are, in the trees, our ancestors. Our dog paces, barks. Runs. Barks until the last bark ends like a blade. Dawnie tries to follow but we take her in our arms.
Our ancestors sing, follow us—
They are the moans, grunts, and whispers of the end of the world.
Hush a bye—Jamie sings—Hush a bye—pretty horses. This is the song our mother sang to help us sleep. His voice is like hers, high and sweet. We keep him covered, but he sings to the roof of the tarp.
Our ancestor wrote at the beginning: The American people are a great people; we’re going to come out all right. It is all so thrilling and I shall never forget such a crusade as long as I live.
We buried his letter.
Except for Jamie, who is asleep, we take turns sitting up with the knife.
Tonight, when we each sleep, we dream our parents belong to the past we carry in our minds: to the small house, to the bookshelves filled with novels, to the apple green kitchen and the pancake griddle, to the fuzzy slippers in the closet, to the mail on the foyer table, to the dinner table set with napkin rings, to the feather pillows on our beds, to the songs she used to sing, to his warm, strong arms.
For as long as we can be, we are quiet in the dark.