My Grandson’s Feet
My Army soldier son-in-law sent my daughter a short instant message on Facebook from Kandahar, Afghanistan one night, about how he had just seen a soldier’s feet blown off at the ankles in Afghanistan when the guy stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My son-in-law messaged that he didn’t remember hearing the soldier scream, but that he had seen blood splattered everywhere in the pattern of flames. The injured soldier was from his platoon, a guy he’d often done night patrols with outside the Army base. They were friends.
My son-in-law sent that message from halfway around the world to the small apartment at Fort Lewis, Washington, where my daughter was holed up, pregnant and waiting for him to return. By the time she opened the message, and read it aloud to me as I sat by her side, he was already logged off.
In fact, according to the instant message, my son-in-law was the one who recovered one of the guy’s feet, the right foot, I believe, still plumped into its size-10 Army boot, about 25 yards away from where the IED had detonated. My son-in-law had rushed that foot back, mangled veins and main artery still gushing a bit of blood through the ripped tissue where the guy’s ankle had been.
My son-in-law carried that foot in the boot all the way to the hospital in a tank, and delivered it to the medic on duty so they could try to put the guy’s foot back on to his leg. He never saw the guy again. He heard that the guy had been sent back home to South Carolina after they sewed his foot back on, that he’d had an honorable discharge. He couldn’t stop thinking of how the guy’s severed legs kept gushing blood, even without their feet attached, close to where the ankle bones had been; couldn’t stop seeing all of that life-giving blood going to waste before medics tied tourniquets around what remained of his ankles, and also at the top of each thigh.
Then, there was the matter of the ridiculous size 10 shoe tag, sticking up out of the shoes, the left one, I believe it was, without a drop of blood on it. My son-in-law dreamed about it every night, and he kept thinking about it, every day, while on missions, while on guard duty, while instant messaging my daughter. She told me that he always messaged her about it, how he couldn’t stop dwelling on that shoe.
While my son-in-law was in Afghanistan, plagued by the image of that foot still tied in its Army boot, in his nightmares, and all day, every day, thinking of that foot he had been assigned by his commanding officer to go find, and bring back, my daughter and I spent the summer picking wild raspberries the color of ripe flames from thorn-throated bushes along the banks of a beautiful creek that flowed all the way from Ft. Lewis to an old Nisqually Indian village site on the shore of Puget Sound.
It wasn’t easy to pry my daughter away from her laptop, because she was always online, waiting for a message from my son-in-law in Kandahar. She was certain that if she wasn’t there to chat with him every time he messaged, he would fly into a suicidal tailspin.
But once I got her outdoors, she would spend hours walking through the forest along the creek as her belly burgeoned beneath her maternity yoga pants and picked up the breeze from the Puget Sound with a movement all their own, a detour in the geography of bodies and life and impending birth and missing limbs somewhere on the other side of the world. She’d run her hands through plump geographies of raspberries and gather fistfuls of the tiny fruits, their juices oozing into the palms of her hands and her fingers. I’d rip raspberries from the bushes, too, rather angrily, some to eat on the spot and others to drop into a giant zip lock bag and take back to her apartment for an evening snack, sprinkled across yogurt, with a toss of walnuts or pecans, for extra protein.
Massive wildfires ripped through the eastern part of the Washington that summer, fueled by years of drought and beetle-bark invasions. And we knew from my son-in-law’s constant stream of instant messages that fires erupted maniacally, daily, hourly, momentarily from the artillery of shells and tanks, across the Afghani landscape. Fires borne from weapons tore villages and children and soldiers apart in Kandahar, but my daughter and I were safe.
We were safe. We were close to the rain forest, where fires wouldn’t be able to take hold, even if they did start. We were safe on the military base, where every entering vehicle was checked for IED’s, every visitor’s ID scanned every time they entered or left the base. We didn’t have to worry about a soldier’s missing foot, the lonely leg tissue dripping with blood, lost without its mate, and doomed to a lifetime of longing and remembering.
In the forever shadow of Mt. Rainier, a dormant volcano perennially capped with snow, the baby, a boy, kept flipping up and down, and the doctors were never sure if he was going to be ready for birth in a head down or breech position.
The month of August droned on and on, and the drastic tides of the far-inland waters of the Puget Sound rose and receded morning and night, rippling outwards in their journey to join the sea, leaving mud suckles in their wake, then pouring radically back in, five, ten, twenty, thirty feet high, scattering seagulls and fishermen.
I loved to place my hands on my daughter’s bowling ball belly as it swelled out, a little more day by day. And we waited. We waited like embers beneath the ashes of a campfire on a long cold night, waited for the sun to rise and the wind to stir and we waited for the first sign of crackling flame. Waited for the first sign of movement, of warmth, of danger. Waited for the ebb and flow of instant messages from Kandahar, waited for bones and flesh to knit and make their way, whole and new, into the world again.
We grimaced simultaneously, our faces contorting like angry, hot coals, when a nurse’s assistant bluntly asked my daughter, “was this pregnancy planned?” at her 32-week sonogram. We weathered nightmares, and I dreamed of tiny toes, all lined up perfectly in little pink newborn rows. The baby’s little feet seemed to keep kicking off from the walls of his placental world, as if he never wanted to touch the ground, but wanted to keep floating in his amniotic universe for good and never leave the womb.
I watched during her 38-week pregnancy ultrasound as the baby kicked off again and again from the inside walls of my daughter’s uterus, his two perfectly-formed, tiny little feet fluttering like the fins of baby seals through a deep sea of amniotic fluid.
“I hope his daddy comes home soon,” smiled the Army medic doctor. “And I’m sure he’ll be back long before Mt. Rainier erupts again!”
My daughter exploded into tears, her face crumpling in on itself. She hadn’t received an instant message from my son-in-law in three days.
I reached for her huge belly, streaked with red stretch marks, hoping to touch a foot.
Ruth Nolan is the author of the poetry chapbook Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line Press 2016). Her prose writing and/or poetry has been published in Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; KCET Artbound, Los Angeles; Lumen; Women’s Studies Quarterly; News from Native California; Sierra Club Desert Report; The Desert Sun/USA Today; New Writing California – Heyday Books, 2011; Desert Magazine; Inlandia Literary Journeys and in the Joshua Tree National Park-based short film, Escape to Reality: 24 hrs @ 24 fps, produced by the California Museum of Photography. Her short story, “Palimpsest,” was published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press 2016) and received an Honorable Mention in Sequestrum Magazine’s 2016 Editor’s Reprint contest. She is the editor of No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009,) and serves on the advisory committee for Poets and Writers West, California. A former wildland firefighter in the Western U.S., Ruth holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside, and is professor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert in Palm Springs, CA. Visit her blog at http://ruthnolan.blogspot.com. Selected by Karolyn Gehrig.
Image copyright Sujal Parikh via Flickr Creative Commons.