The Sad Saga of the War Vet
by Dorianne Emmerton
As a child I stumped around on three legs, as a young man I staggered on two, and now that I am middle-aged, I hop around on one.
I lost one leg in the war. I am a war vet. Or rather, I was.
What this means: When the Cossacks and the Visigoths and other assorted forms of barbarians ride their tall horses into war, twirling maces overhead and ululating intimidation, their enemies are frightened and lose courage and fail to win the battle: this happens if the enemy’s horses are smaller, their maces slower, their vocalizations less voluble. Either way, one side or the other incurs damage. There are casualties and injuries to both men and horses.
If it is a casualty, there is nothing to be done but leave the carcasses for the vultures. Earth to earth, dust to dust, from mother’s womb to the gullet of a giant bird.
If it is an injury, the doctors treat the men, and I treat the horses. This is what I mean when I say I am a war vet.
If a horse whinnies I can help it. If a horse blows its breath out so its lips flap and flutter, then the situation is dire, but there is hope. If a horse moans soft and low, the best I can do is help death to come with a minimum of waiting and pain.
The word “wait” is a lot like the word “pain”: The A and the I stretched on the rack between two consonants; the inevitability of both being a large part of one’s life.
It is not always horses. These days there are dogs trained to sniff out the smell of Weapons of Mass Destruction. They fail so often I wonder if WMDs even have a scent.
Notice that the word “fail” is a lot like “wait” and “pain.”
Also pigeons. Carrier pigeons are not extinct. That is a lie you have been told for national security (do not ask which nation). Carrier pigeons have been repurposed to carry bombs instead of letters. Many pigeons die from early detonations, but that is merely collateral damage. There are no funerals for pigeons, and so there is nowhere for protests claiming that war pigeons died as God’s comeuppance for the existence of the gay pigeons who live off human scraps in the cities.
When I was a child I liked to balance on my middle leg and spin around and around. It felt very good, but then I grew fur all over my body and went blind in one eye. The blindness meant I could never become a doctor, so I became a vet instead. As a young man I left my middle leg alone.
After I had been at war a while, my middle leg ceased to exist at all. It simply shrivelled away. I suspect that the generals ordered salt peter put in the food, but I didn’t make a fuss. I didn’t have any use for the damned thing anyway.
Eventually I became a man with only one leg.
This is how I lost my left leg:
I cradled a dying horse’s head in my arms. The horse and I were lying on a battlefield littered with discarded limbs and weapons. Occasionally a spear flew into the ground near us. We were not quite in danger. The battle had moved to the other side of the hill, so we were relatively safe. “Safe” was my uncle’s name, and he was leading the battalions of good guys. The bad guys thought they were good guys themselves, but I was my uncle’s nephew, so I knew up from down. (Up is the direction the spears travel right after being thrown; down is the direction they travel as they come near me.)
I hummed a lullaby to my moribund patient. It was all I had, as my stock of morphine was depleted. I cried tears which were licked from my face by a large but faltering equine tongue. The sensation was so soothing and my exhaustion so complete that I fell asleep. It had been a long campaign.
When I woke up, the horse was dead and a coyote was gnawing through its back left leg. This was disrespectful to the memory of the horse and to all horses everywhere. I got up to scare the coyote off, but the damage had been done. He tore the leg free, tendons hanging loose from the stump end of the thigh, and ran away.
I, of course, gave chase.
The coyote led me off the plains and through thickets where nettles stung my exposed flesh. I was wearing only a loincloth, as that was the height of battle fashion at the time (I do realize I am dating myself, but I did admit to being middle-aged). Nevertheless, I stayed strong and continued the pursuit. The coyote never put much distance between us, but I never gained any ground, either. For an eternity or two we ran in circles around a pyramid. As we ran I could see history happening in a blur around me, but I did not give up. Finally the coyote made a run for the desert. I saw him, though. With an immense effort I broke free from the circling and followed him.
The beast knew what he was doing. He led me into the Gulf War – the second one, I think – and over an improvised explosive device, which robbed me of my leg. I had been trained to look for bombs falling from the sky, especially wherever there was a telltale trace of pigeon poop, but I did not expect the ground underneath me to explode.
The coyote laughed at me before he ran away. I could hear his laughter even through the din of artillery.
This experience changed my outlook on war. War had always been a provider for me: it provided purpose and excitement and remuneration. But now I became a defector. My uncle never forgave me, and to this day we are estranged. Now I live in the anonymity of the city.
I am no longer very mobile, so I sit all day on the rooftop of the tenement that houses my apartment. There are many pigeons, and I am teaching them to fetch me groceries.
Dorianne Emmerton reviews plays for Mooney On Theatre, and is a host on the University of Toronto’s radio station (CIUT) Sex City show, as well writing strange little fictions. She has short stories published in places like: Little Bird Stories Volume II (eBook), Zhush Redux, TOK 6: Writing the New Toronto, Friend. Follow Text., and a personal essay forthcoming in A Family By Any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships (April 2014). Her short play “Obscuring Jude” was produced as part of Gay Play Day 2013. You can follow her on twitter where she goes by @headonist. You can find more information, including links to work that has been published online, at her website www.dorianneemmerton.com.