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Senior Staff Sergeant (retired) Joseph Cislowski lay open mouthed on his bed in the Veterans Administration Palliative Care Ward at UCLA in Los Angeles. His breathing was heavy and spasmodic – there were long pauses of stillness followed by a sudden intake of breath as that barrel chest heaved upwards, then a slow sigh as he exhaled and that sad torso sank further and further down.

The eyes were open but sightless, sunk into their sockets, his false teeth missing, a thin tube leading up one nostril and down into his stomach. His chest was bare, its curling grey hair wistfully poking up at the base of his neck where the slight stubble of a tough white beard poked out that stubborn chin, a military buzz-cut still sat sharp on his head. Around one wrist was a plastic identification bracelet with his name written on it in large red letters and on one finger, a wedding ring.

The pauses between breaths were becoming longer now, each an agonizing wait for his blank-faced wife and two children, seated round the bed. They watched that face intently, scared to look away, occasionally flicking a glance across the bed to see how each other was faring. Above the bed a large hospital clock ticked away the seconds, silently mocking the struggle beneath it. His wife was crying silently, her face impassive, eyes just leaking tears. The daughter sat, pale and wracked, turning a small pink handkerchief into a knot in her fingers while his son, a youngish, red headed man with a fresh blush still on his cheeks, held his mother’s hand and looked up at the doctor standing by. The doctor smiled gently and shook his head. No, not yet.

The old marine was far, far away, standing in a shaft of sunlight on a black, steaming beach, arm extended in welcome as a group of armed villagers stood a distance apart. At this, the moment of his death, he had never felt more alive, swimming there back in time, once more a young man, healthy and fit among a million of them, all off to war.

Joe’s war was long stretches of inactivity in the Pacific basin, interspersed with moments of terror. For six days once in 1944 he had been based on Tanna, holding his link in the supply lines as the Allies thundered towards Iwo Jima and the Philippines. Here he was again. Army boots digging into hot sand, his shirt front open, dog tags hanging over his grey T-shirt. Around his shoulders his ammunition, in his hands the gun, that helmet shielding part of his face from the strength of the sunlight stabbing through the palms. He was twenty years old. It was the best time of his life.

There was a kind of inane innocence to him as he stood there in front of twenty overwhelmed natives. The slightest wrong move could mean a hail of spears and arrows, a charge, a slash, a kill – but young Joe Cizlowski knew no such fear. He, like all young men, was invincible.

He was a broad-shouldered jock, one of those genial freaks who just happens to have the right genes for a life of easy athletic prowess. Amongst his peers he was known as ‘Big Joe’ and the sight of his pecker in the showers was the stuff of legend. Broad shoulders, already brown from the sun, a day’s growth of beard and a gun full of bullets; Joe was a man in his prime.

With one free forearm he wiped the sweat from his forehead and out of his eyes, then reached into the top pocket of his open shirt, fumbled for the sunglasses, snapped them open with a flick of his wrists and put them on.

There was a gasp from the natives and they recoiled in fear. The sunglasses were reflective silver on the front, flashed sunlight at the villagers, but to them this white god’s eyes were on fire.

’Hi,’ he said blithely, ‘I’m Joe. Joe from the US of A.’

The natives reacted in shock. Suddenly spears were raised, there was shouting and prodding at the air, a sharp spurt of danger lifted Joe’s awareness and he tightened his finger on the trigger of the gun, raised the barrel slightly. He showed no change of emotion in his face, those clear green eyes shining a guile-less bonhomie at the threatening crowd.

The glint from Joe’s eyes was just a flash, but enough to convince the natives that he was a god. He turned his face slightly to the right and the sun caught in his glasses again. The villagers shouted and he held his gaze, shining back the reflected sunshine into their eyes. His seemed, from a distance, to be on fire. One man shrieked and ran towards him, spear poised, ready to throw. His flat splayed toes dug into the sand as he charged toward the apparition, spraying out black dust. He howled as he approached, raised his arm even further and prepared to throw.

Then the thing made the very loud noise.

His grieving wife reached for his hand, grasped it, burrowing her fingers into his unresponsive palm. She was exhausted, they all were. This vigil had gone on for ten days now. The daughter, and then the son had flown in from their other lives to join in this half-death of the old, now they were united as a family for what they all knew was to be the last time. None of them really knew just what it was they were crying for anymore. It was not just the loss of their father they grieved, it was the loss of it all, the end of those two childhoods, the death of the security of home. They were all in a kind of slow-motion shock, traveling inevitably towards its conclusion.

Another breath, a noise in the back of his throat as the old man rattled his last, a clasp of that sweaty hand from his wife, a gasp from his son, a sigh from the girl and time was suspended, an agony of waiting through the milli-seconds till the clock could tick again. She thought she felt the faintest squeeze on her hand and squeezed back.

‘He squeezed my hand,’ she whispered.

‘He knows we’re here, ma,’ said the red headed son, and clasped her round the shoulder. It was a long, still moment of ineffable sadness. The doctor felt privileged to be there, allowed to stay in such a time of family at its most raw and urgent. The daughter broke down suddenly, burying her head into the blanket beside her father’s arm. She sobbed noisily, shattering the moment. A flicker of annoyance crossed her brother’s face but as his eyes returned to his father’s face he forgot all that. There was a light shining out his father’s eyes that made him gasp.

‘Pa?’ he said.

Joe Cizlowski barely moved. As the native ran towards him he slowly raised his gun, took careful aim, and, without altering the benign expression on his face, shot the warrior through the head.

The bullet entered just above the right eye and traveled through blood and bone and brain to rest two or three meters behind him, buried in the hot earth. There was no slow-motion ballet to this death. The villager simply dropped backward to the ground, his brains and pieces of skull spattered out on the black sand behind him. The spear dropped useless to the ground beside him, his arms splayed out and there he lay, still, dead, gone. As the rest of the tribe fled howling, as the birds finished screeching their warnings and the roar of the waves returned to guard the beach, the corpse twitched slightly, his nerves paying their final respect.

They’d never seen a gun, nor heard a sound so loud. Tom’s father fell to the sand, his head a bloodied mass. He lay there till nightfall, till the deep blackness of a moonless tropical night covered their tracks, till four strong warriors spirited the body away to be washed and sobbed over, marveled at and inspected. Their grief was mitigated by the injury. How could anybody stand up to powers like this, they said. This thing was a god, your father just a man. There is no shame in this death. Joshua’s grandfather still remembered the pain of that day. It was the day the gods made him chief.

One shot and Joe’s war was won. The tribe scattered into the jungle in terror and, for one brief moment, Joe was alone. He stood on the beach, wreathed in clouds of steam, looking at the dead native in the sand, not sure it was a battle well fought. That young forehead furrowed for a moment, but Joe Cizlowski was not a man of deep thought, so he checked himself and blinked energetically. Objective accomplished single handed, he chuckled to himself. One dead native was nothing. This was war.

Look, doc, he’s blinking his eyes.’ said Joe’s son. Indeed, Joe was. For a second his consciousness seemed to return to him, his eyes focused and a frown crossed his brow. He seemed about to speak, his jaw trembled and, with a sigh, the old man expired, a high pitched beep wailing his departure from the heart monitor behind him. The doctor reached over and switched it off. The sudden silence in the room was too much to bear. A thin wailing rose from the throat of his wife, from the widow she now knew she was and she stood up, leaning gently over the body of her husband, absently stroking his forehead, still hot from dying, keening over his corpse as widows have done for a million years.

For the spirit of Joe Cislowski that was not it, just yet anyway. There were some places to go first and big 0l’ God will just have to wait till Joe got there before he was going up to Heaven or wherever he was going.

‘OK, God?’ whispered Joe as he left his body behind him, ‘can I go?

There was no reply but as he watched the doctor turn off the heart monitor and place a hand on his wife’s shoulder, as he flew upward and through the ceiling, as he lifted into whatever it was that surrounded him, he knew that he could travel anywhere his thoughts led him.

Then he was back on the beach at Sulphur Bay.


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