The Path Less Taken
In the deep dark solitude of the verdant forest, Jack Walker felt a lifetime away from the sand swept battlefields of Tikrit and Ramadi, Central Iraq. It was good to have made it back to the land he loved the most; the forest of his youth.
There was nothing here to remind him of the war, just infinite woodland that stretched farther than the eye could see. As he walked, pine needles crunched under his Marine Corp issue boots, reminding him of the sand he had trod just a few weeks before he came home. Every now and then the bramble reached out and snagged at his camouflage and released again as he walked on, but he did not mind.
He carried with him the souvenir from the battle zone which he could never shake and the less he thought about it, the better. He was thinking about it now and it unnerved him.
The war was the principle reason why Walker felt safe in these woods. There had been a stunning Afghani girl named Behrukh who helped around the base hospital. Her name meant beautiful in her language and she was appropriately named, he would tell her. As much as they were all under orders not to fraternize with locals, everyone had their little bit on the side, he knew. They had plans to marry and move to America.
Her father had other plans. As far as he was concerned, the Americans were infidel occupiers in their holy land as had been the Russians when he was a young rebel soldier and like the Russians; the enemy. He had worked himself up from the dirt and owned a large property and employed many men. No daughter of his was going to shame the family.
One night as Walker and Behrukh strolled off base as many young couples did on a Saturday night, two motorcycles bee-lined towards them. It wasn’t uncommon for the locals to ride their imports by the base in a show of chicken. It made the guards nervous but there had not been any incident to date.
When the bikers came close, Walker thought it was just a few young guys testing their bravado with the American soldier. He stood his ground but noticed they were riding with guys on the back. This was unusual. When they roared closer, they threw canisters of water at the two lovers. Instinctively, Walker shielded Behrukh by throwing her to the ground and threw his arm up.
The “water” turned out to be sulfuric acid.
As both of them fell to the ground in agony, others came to their aid but the damage had been done. What had been done to Walker’s chiseled features was nearly more than anyone could bear. The skin on his face basically dissolved, taking his nose and lips with it. Behrukh fared better, as only her back was burned and healed with some scar tissue forming.
During many months of reconstructive surgery, Walker existed in a world of pain but he existed, he told himself. He learned that two of the guards shot and wounded two of the men who carried out the attack. They had been ranch hands who had worked for Behruhk’s father. None of these men were ever arrested or convicted of any crime, due to their standing with the local warlords who ran the politicians in town. Behrukh was punished by 50 lashes or some such he had heard and was told that she had gotten off easy, as most of these women were stoned. He never saw her again and couldn’t, he told himself.
It had been an extremely painful recovery. Being doused with acid was a horrific thing but it was the periods after the many skin grafts and settings that hurt just as bad if not worse. There were skin cancers that had to be removed due to the burns as well as necrotic tissue that made him wretch when the grafts did not take and the process had to begin all over again. Nearly as bad if not worse than the actual recuperation was the way old friends and family treated him. Strangers reacted no better. People on the street either gasped in horror upon sight of him or played the empathy card with him when they could never know his pain. The government in all of its infinite bureaucracy, tried to deny his claim as it did not happen on base or during a battle commencement. It finally relented when Walker hired an attorney and he received benefits and a lifelong disability pension. Upon his return, his mother burst into tears when he came home, but these were no tears of joy, he knew.
That had been over two years ago. Walker thought back on his experience and pushed further into the brush and came across a few deer in the clearing. They were large, magnificent bucks, probably out early in the morning mist, scavenging for forbs and browse. He would tie his prize up and raise it with a harness in the trees the way his father had taught him and keep the head as a trophy of his return home. He raised his Remington and sighted them in his scope. He tried to keep the scope on them but something was wrong. They poked their heads around nervously amidst the wild bramble.
Walker stared as best he could at the refined, delicate faces of the bucks. The rifle shook in his hands as tears welled in his eyes. He couldn’t do it. For the first time in his life he froze. He had seen enough war and bloodshed to last the rest of his life. Holding the weapon in his hand, he rose and let out an inhuman wail, enough to scatter the bucks back into the forest and a few birds from the surrounding trees. His voice echoed off of the ridges on high.
He chose from that day forward to keep the forest pure as it had kept him and became a vegan and naturalist and swore an oath that he would only live off of the land around him. Later on, he became a ranger to conserve and educate about the natural beauty around him and stop the encroachment of man into his forest.
There was nothing more satisfying for his spirit than for Walker than to sit beneath a blanket of stars with a fire crackling, sending up orange embers around him and just listen to the sounds of nature all about him. He could actually hear the stream flowing half a mile away. It was nature, the way God intended it, he would pontificate to those few friends he carefully chose to be around. There were no cars, no horns, no one to gawk at him and make him feel anything less than the man he already knew himself to be. No prejudice, no hate, no war, just wonderful, natural peace. It was quite a concept; he would smile and read his Thoreau and Jack London.
One year, he would become sick again from the war and the forest which he loved would soothe him in his dire days until the hour when the power of the ache in his bones became as meaningless in his being as the mist that laid low among the forest glen. When he died, he would be buried in the forest, per his wishes and every year his body and bones would break down just a little bit more until he became one with the roots and dirt and each spring ever after his spirit was born anew in the forest he had once loved.
As a Pushcart Prize nominee, Joseph Grant’s short stories have been published in over 230 literary reviews such as Byline, New Authors Journal, Underground Voices, Midwest Literary Magazine, Inwood Indiana Literary Review, Hack Writers, Six Sentences, Literary Mary, NexGenPulp, Is This Reality Zine, Darkest Before Dawn, strangeroad.com, FarAway Journal, Full of Crow, Heroin Love Songs, Bewildering Stories, Writing Raw, Unheard Magazine, Absent Willow Literary Review