Alex moves to Jackson, California to work the Argonaut mine the day it collapses on all those people, and Alex feels the earth move when it happens. The man in the office says there will be work later, surely there will be work, but Alex needs food now. He used most of his money getting here, so he slips into his cousin’s room, who is one of the men trapped and surely dead below the ground, and he takes his rifle and a blanket and some water, and he walks out of town and into the woodland surrounding the town.
In this forest, he keeps seeing soldiers out of the corners of his eyes. He keeps feeling the ground moving underneath him as though mines are collapsing every moment. He wakes up the next morning, and spends two or three minutes trying to understand if this is still the war or if he was in the mine. A rifle lies next to him, but he is not wearing a uniform so he takes the rifle and holds it to himself as though it is a woman or the blanket he would clasp when he was very young, and he heard the devil outside his door.
He is still a little confused about where he is, but thinking that the war is probably over, when two men with red hats and rifles step into his field of view. He raises his rifle and aims at the man in the lead. They are creeping along slowly, quietly. Following something.
Alex remembers the men he brought down walking along the Danube. Three of them, and their rifles were slung on their backs, but they earned him a medal. He remembers the first one he shot across a wide field and under a tree. Alex could not believe that he was dead. He thought the man must have been pretending, and he checked the body after the battle. He remembers two other men, and he cannot remember why or where he killed them. They must have been the enemy.
These men are someone’s enemy, the enemy of whomever they are stalking, but he doesn’t know if they are his or not. He just can’t remember that or anything or maybe he was in the mine too, and this is a purgatory or forgetting.
Whatever it is, Alex lays down his gun next to him. If these men with their weapons come to him, he will surrender. If they shoot, he will not shoot back. Let the enemy fire. Let the earth shake. He decides that the war, for him at least, is over.
John Brantingham is the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and his work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and in Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has authored eleven books of poetry and fiction including Crossing the High Sierra and California Continuum: Volume One. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.