Saturday 20 November 2010

BOUNDARIES by Donnie Cox


It’s like a jungle, except it’s up in the clouds and there’s this fog, like rain, except it’s not raining. Everything is wet and tangled and the angles of vision are slightly warped. Walking point in the woods, alongside the trail, I can hear sounds that come from somewhere in the past.

Ghosts moaning in heartbreaking harmony. Triple-canopy darkness closes around me like a body bag. From the corner of my eye, I catch flashes of shifting shadows that freeze in place whenever I turn my head to stare. The
crouching beast is hungry tonight, and I can feel it, close by...

When Ben Helman opens his eyes, the traffic light is green and the person in the car behind him is sitting on the horn. When Ben glances in the rear-view mirror, he catches his own miserable reflection and quickly slides further down in the seat. But it’s too late. The image has already registered in his brain. He waves an apology to the world and drives slowly through the intersection.

How long was he gone this time? Ben is disconnected--adrift in a netherworld of old times and new drugs. He knows he has to shake this thing--find something tangible to lock his mind on.

What exactly is a nervous breakdown anyway? How do you get over it? Is it possible to stay this way forever? What day is it? Must be Friday. It’s beginning to cloud up. Maybe, it’ll rain later. Something about the rain has always made him feel safe. On patrol in Vietnam, he had been invisible in the rain. That was more than forty years ago, but Ben remembers more about the sixties than he does about things that happened last week.

Everything he knows is falling away.

When Ben gets home, he goes into the kitchen. The shades are drawn. A single lamp is lit on the table. He fills the teakettle with water and puts it on the stove. He has no appetite, but maybe some coffee will lift him out of this hole.

Ben has let things slide. “Squalid” might be the word to describe his living quarters. He’s gone past the point of ordinary caretaking: housekeeping, basic hygiene, regular eating habits, sleeping, all things of the past.

When the phone rings in the bedroom, Ben makes no move to answer it. He doesn’t even look in the direction of the sound. To him, a ringing phone means exactly nothing. He lights a cigarette and moves the whistling kettle off the burner. He takes a topless jar of instant coffee from the cabinet, dumps a little into a cup, and pours in some water. He grabs an overloaded ashtray off the counter and sits down at the table.

Ben is worried, certain that one day soon, he will wander into a realm of incoherence from which he will not return.

Nights are the worst. That’s when the voices come. They hover around the bed whispering in his ear, angry and accusatory. They want to know why he has waited so long to pay a debt that’s long past due. Over and over they chant the same names, a mournful roll call of souls.

He hates the night because there is no rest, hates the day because it moves toward night.

Icy fingers are starting to pull at Ben’s shirt-tail. He must get away from this place.

Ben stands at the end of his driveway and looks in both directions. He decides to head for the woods. The road is empty. Dead leaves blow in swirls across the asphalt. He sets out along the highway under a cloud-filtered sun.

A quarter mile down, he leaves the blacktop, crosses over a drainage ditch, and onto a narrow trail that leads into the woods.

He walks for a half-hour until he comes to a dry creek bed. This is the spot where he usually turns for home, but today, Ben cannot will himself to start back toward that “house of waiting.”

He pushes on, losing track of time. Eventually, he comes upon a clearing divided by a barbed-wire fence. The fence runs the length of the clearing and disappears into the tree line. There’s a sign tacked to a rotting post that reads: “Cross at Your Own Risk.”

In the distance, Ben can see a narrow river he’s never seen before. Something about this newly discovered river fills him with an excitement he hasn’t experienced for many years--a glimpse of something from the past.

Ignoring the warning sign, he pushes down the top strand of wire and steps over to the other side.

Ben walks along the edge of the river until he comes to a place where he can
see the rocky bottom. He steps in and wades across.

As soon as he reaches the other side, the wind picks up and it begins to rain. With every step, he notices another dramatic change in the terrain. The trail begins to lead uphill. The short grass gives way to tangled masses of elephant grass. The foliage becomes lush, a deeper shade of green. The trees start to take on an exotic, tropical look. They grow closer together so that they overlap and form a canopy that blocks most of the light.

What is it about this place that seems so familiar? Everything. The look. The smell. The heavy air that’s almost impossible to take into his lungs.

Ben feels more alive than he has in years, adrenaline rushing through his body--every muscle taut--every nerve on edge.

And then he knows, Dong Ap Bia, "the mountain of the crouching beast," a mythical spot in the jungle-covered highlands along the Laotian border of Vietnam. In the summer of 1969, a whole platoon had walked in--Ben was the only one to come out.

A shiver tracks his spine. It’s right here, the unbroken line that cuts between nightmare and reality. Everything the same as it was…

I am walking point, about a hundred meters in front of the rest of the platoon, when behind me, all hell breaks loose, trip flares, machine guns, AK-47s, RPGs. The jungle is lit up like midday. I can see the men trying desperately to find cover, disoriented, crazy and running directly into sheets of machine gun fire. I watch them drop like unstrung puppets...dead before they hit the ground. I should go back and join the fight, but I know it would be suicide. I turn and start to run. I run and I don’t look back. I run as fast and as far as I can. I run until I drop, out of breath, exhausted. Then I push myself to my feet and run some more…

Now, Ben Helman is back in the land of ancient legends and lethal apparitions. The ultimate truth seen only in dreams. And there in front of him, covered in coral vine, an ominous stone Buddha encircled by skulls that have been polished to a shine by monsoon rains. He feels a horror tempered by a curious joy, and knows the hour he has waited for has finally arrived redemption that is at once poetic and cruel.

Knowing that death is near, Ben thinks only of his sweet revenge against life. The arrogant doctors, “experts of the self,” trying to find the perfect box for his broken parts. The weekly “encounter groups”, monumental exercises in futility. The loneliness, unable to love anything or anyone, including himself. The emptiness that has surrounded him for the last forty years.

He is triumphant at last, here in this remote country where his soul has lingered, a place that exists apart from mundane, everyday life. He has returned to a world that exists outside normal boundaries and he is ready to
pay the price.

Ben does not see the shooter. He does not hear the rifle that fires the bullet that bores into his chest. Sergeant Ben Helman is driven backwards into a sitting position against the base of a tree. Enshrouded by the wind-driven rain, he drops his head to his chest, and does not lift it again.

DB Cox is a blues musician/writer from South Carolina. He can often be found
in the early-morning hours bent over a Fender Stratocaster guitar in
roadhouses, honky tonks, and juke joints throughout the south. His poems and
short stories have been published extensively in the small press in the US
and abroad. He has published five books of poetry. A new collection of short
stories called “Unaccustomed Mercy” will be published in 2011.


  1. DB, how do I always stumble across a story of yours when I'm not expecting it? Great as always, I'm looking forward to Unaccustomed Mercies, too. I really can't wait to get a hold of it.

    Much respect,
    Chris Deal

  2. That was awesome. It took me right there and kept me there right until the end.

  3. Really evocative and emotive, Donnie. You totally sucked me into Ben's disordered mind. Inspiring writing.

  4. I know this may be a little outside the usual fare here at thrills-kills-n-chills--so, thanks to everyone who took the time to read this story and comment.

  5. Awesome work, DB. And no worries about it 'fitting in' here, it does just the trick for me.