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The Light Where Shadows End
By R.G. Cantalupo
Excerpt from The Light Where Shadows End, an unpublished memoir.
Days and then weeks, the light through the bamboo blinds casting bars of shadow as I lay.
West. My window faced west, the western sky, the place where the horizon ended and darkness dragged a train of stars and a moon when it passed.
I asked Peaches to keep my blinds open so that I could see the sparks and streams of firefights punctuated by the far-off rat-tat-tat of AKs and M-16s.
Peaches said the firefights were too far away to hear, that all we could hear from the hospital were the rumble of B-52s dropping bombs, an artillery battery from the edge of the city, that I was seeing firefights in my mind.
"No, I can hear them. Small patrols ambushed in the jungle, a platoon in deep shit, I hear everything."
"That's your imagination talking. You still wish you were there."
"With my platoon? No. I was done with the war before the war was done with me. No, what I hear is real. Ghosts. Live ghosts."
"You're a live ghost," she mocked.
"Yeah, I guess I am."
Maybe she was right. As I lay in my bed, reality was as fragmentary as my terror dreams. Past and present, inside and outside, the war I remembered and the war that droned on and on, coalesced into images I could not decipher as real or unreal.
Demerol, Peaches said, was the drug I was taking for brain pain. Demerol created hallucinations, sleeping and waking dreams where one scene shifted into another like jump-cuts without continuity or contextual connections.
In a Demerol world, there was no interior and exterior reality. There was merely the emotional context of the hallucination, of the scene played out in my brain.
But after awhile my world and the Demerol world seemed the same. Days slid into nights and nights drifted into bad dreams. Images drenched with fear, grief, love, hate, jump-cut from one to another. All was real, all, a dream.
The only certainty I knew was the bed where I lay, the sounds of nurses and doctors and wounded soldiers passing by, the hushed voices, moans, and wheels rolling past.
And Peaches, waking me in the morning with my breakfast and my meds. Peaches smiling, asking me how I felt that morning, if I was ready to have my bandages changed, her soft, warm fingers against my lips as she placed an imaginary bullet in my mouth, as she slid the scissors under the tape and cut—then ripped the thirteen dried gauze bandages off my multiple shrapnel wounds to prevent infection while I gritted through sharp, excruciating, torturous pain.
I was fucked up, but I would survive. I would get better. I would return home.
But I didn't know what getting better meant.
Would I be able to move my left arm or would it just remain limp at my side?
What did my face look like? What did my body look like under the gauze?
I didn't ask for a mirror. I didn't want the revelation. Not then. Not any time soon. I looked at the deep, angry gouges of my open wounds when Peaches peeled the gauze off, and I hated what I saw.
This wasn't me. This wasn't who I remembered.
I was an athlete. I loved to play football, baseball, to box, to swim. I was a wrestler in college before I got drafted.
I would get better, but no, I wouldn't wrestle again, not with a limp left arm, not with a broken skull filled in with bone cartilage.
I'd awakened from brain surgery new, with a new unlived life, but I didn't know who I was. My wife, my mother, friends were waiting for my return, but something more than shrapnel had been removed from my brain.
The I that made me I had been extracted along with the shrapnel in my brain. I woke from the surgery blank, the only emotional connection to the past began shortly before and after the mortar explosion. There were no faces in my dreams, not faces from home anyway, not faces I recognized as my own.
As I lay in the unlit room staring up at the blank ceiling sky, I could not imagine a single face, not Janice's, not my mother's, no one's.
If a face emerged from the darkness, it was dead: Lonnie's face, Devil's, Baby San's. Vietnamese faces. Faces from the village of Trang Bang. Faces with gone eyes and dead stares. Faces without mouths. Faces on heads without bodies. Faces floating down a black river without a name.
Beyond my hospital window in Saigon, the war went on. In the dark, the flickering shadows cast by flares parachuting down, the whompf, whompf, whompf of mortars and artillery, the staccato arguments between AKs and M16s, the droning rumble of the B-52s carpet-bombing the Earth went on and on.
But I could not see my face, my body's silhouette patrolling among the images I saw in my night terrors. There were only shadows in the flat, grey plaster ceiling, only the phantasmagoria of war.
And I wasn't there.
I was a shadow among shadows, a silhouette flat as a pop-up target on the rifle range at Fort Ord.
I was the shadow where light ended, the shadow beyond the light.
Years later, I would realize I would always remain that shadow, and the light of "The World" would never quite reach me the way I once believed and imagined.
R. G. Cantalupo's (Ross Canton) work has been published in over a hundred literary journals throughout the United States, Canada, and England. His award-winning Vietnam War memoir "The Light Where Shadows End" was serialized in the literary journal "War, Literature and the Arts". His interview about his VVAW experience was recently published in Time Life's The Vietnam Wars. He was awarded three purple hearts and a bronze star with a combat V during his tour in 1968-69 with the 25th Infantry Division.