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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Ma always said that my father hadn’t been a real soldier. He’d been at the Battle of the Bulge but he was just a guy with a stretcher, fetching the wounded and the dying. He killed himself when I was seventeen and the following year I joined the army and I became a real soldier.
I went to Vietnam just as the French armies were pulling out and heading to Algeria. They went knowing what it means to be defeated and determined not to let it happen again. Even in Paris, the Algerians protesting the war were rounded up and thrown into the river.
I went to Paris with my wife when we were young.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, and I thought about bodies washing up on the banks of the Seine. After Paris we went to Spain and saw a bullfight because my wife thought it would be exciting, but she covered her face with her hands and moaned softly, “Oh, no, no, no!”
A man patted my shoulder, nodded to my wife, and said in English that foreigners weren’t used to the bullfights. He told us that the bulls were eaten after they were killed.
“Eating must be, killing must be,” he said. “And the bulls know it’s better to die fighting.”
After the bullfight we went to the big museum in Madrid and saw Francisco Goya’s paintings. There was one called Saturn Devouring his Son. I read in our guidebook that Saturn was Zeus’s father, that to prevent his children from becoming more powerful than him, he ate them. In the painting, the father sits the dark, his limbs twisted like a creature that crawls instead of walks. His fingers are ripping into the back of a perfect human body, decapitated and bloody. But if you look at his eyes, at just his eyes, you can see he’s afraid.
Goya painted war before you could watch it all day on TV. Right now they’re showing the protests in North Africa. If I was a young man in Egypt I’d be burning cars and waving flags. I was like that as a kid. I was in a gang. Not like these drug dealers you get today. We were all right. We’d just go around and beat the crap out of people. But I wouldn’t say I was bad growing up. I mean, I grew up, which is more than some folks can say. And I liked the projects, you know. I understood the projects. Sometimes they talk about the projects on TV and I guess it’s a different place now. I wonder how they’d show the projects and the war zones if there were no cameras and all the reporters had to go into the field with a canvas and some paint. Goya sketched women fighting and dying. He painted that young man with his arms raised and his mouth open. Things they don’t show on TV anymore.
I watch TV a lot these days. Usually, it’s the 24-hour news cycle but I like those programs about animals too. I know a lot about animals now. There are fifty different kinds of kangaroos and male platypuses have venomous stingers on their feet. Pigs are as intelligent as three-year-old children. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and they wage wars against one another. They have strategies and weapons and no real reason for it, just like our wars. Emus cannot walk backwards.
I look away from the television and my wife is standing on the stairs, holding the phone against her chest. I can tell from her face that I’ve been talking to myself again. What did I say this time? Something about the bullfight? That night the girl was a raging bull and she died fighting. I don’t know what I was. I can’t imagine in her black, shining eyes what I was. It would have been all right, I think, if I never had a daughter. My wife looks away, presses the phone against her ear, and goes upstairs.
She’s talking to our daughter about the protests in North Africa, about what is going to happen now. Of course my daughter is watching. She’ll be happy to see them tearing down old regimes and puppet governments. Overthrowing old gods and destroying their pyramids. But I know how it goes, how the persecuted become the persecutors. My wife’s voice drops to a whisper and I know they’re talking about me. Sometimes I hear my wife saying that after all these years the memories and the drinking finally caught up to me, but that’s just what she needs to tell herself. She needs to say that I am sick and that Paris was beautiful.
But the truth is that sometimes chimpanzees eat their babies. Sometimes wolves fight to the death for the right to piss on a certain stretch of Arctic land. Sometimes a man will tie a girl to a table and sometimes he will slit her throat. And there will always be the chimpanzees and the wolves and the men who stand by and watch.
As I turn off the TV, a final image of angry protestors flashes on the screen. Who knows what they will be in the moment of fear and defeat when power is theirs to lose. They will be too afraid to be human. I think that’s true of everyone, except my daughter, who is undefeatable. She looked at me with such disgust and asked if I believed in anything anymore.
“Yes,” I should have said. “You.”
You, you, you. I should have said.
I sit in the dark and feel my back flatten and horns erupt from my skull. Muscles bulging, nostrils flaring, and hooves beating the ground, because sometimes we need to tell ourselves that it’s better to die fighting.
M.C. Williams is from Ossining, New York and currently lives and writes in Madrid.