Contents

Birkensnake 1 cover

Birkensnake 1

Parts of the Wider Pacific

Joanna Howard

I.

On the boat, an aerial attack. A routine patrol expended. A failure to zigzag, the captain is relieved of command. The fracture in his arm is set, anonymously, by a woman in white.

The infirmary is harangued, and examinations are between curtains on casters, dividing and shaping a great open space below the curve of the Quonset. She directs him from behind the movable screen.

It’s just a simple fracture. The men awaiting orders are bound for trouble. His second commander is landed in the brig, for disorder, for clocking a flyer. The captain arrives in a sling to make bail.

The base is for officers and spies. The block of houses, which overlook the sea, an encampment, a temporary quartering. The captain shares his rooms with an unusual spy, a carp, short-sighted, and slight. Berobed, on the couch of the captain, a newspaper across his eyes. Two colas in glass. A room in blocks, the low stiff squares of the furniture, the square of the kitchen beyond the doorframe. The captain fills the frame. The arm now out of plaster, it hangs in naked space, below the severed sleeve of his uniform. The shape of the cola bottle in his fresh hand, a ham hand, a vice grip.

II.

A party is in the hills, above the piers, the docks, the ships at rest. There are no rooms in the house, a circular wall around a tropical garden. Its arc declines to the sea. Vegetated slopes, thickened, and holding everything aloft, root-bound. His head is above the heads of the others. Now in white dress mess jacket. He casts out the swatch of pineapple from his drink.

A woman in white, the low ledge of the wall along the slope to the beach, above the distant docks. A gap in her teeth. He fails to notice her. They have both been raised in the military. From former families, the fragments of that word, the shards who align themselves. She takes a hard tack. She throws out the swatch of pineapple from her drink, the tall smoky glass, and a beverage with its own horizon line.

III.

Days are passing. The nurse invites the captain for steaks. The approach to her quarters is by a long back stair, and board terracing. In the lot below, officers await their nurses. The captain arrives by car. The encounter confirms his suspicions. Surrounding him, the periphery of men who are not quite up to the standard. Among them his son, an ensign.

A dinner by light of kerosene, and a candle in the coffee can, pierced, flanged and reflective. She recounts a former attachment. They smoke; they share a whiskey. His current problem is one of location. Dry-docked.

It’s a good life unless you weaken. The captain recounts. He married into something civilian, and shady, which provided every destroying advantage. A commissioned marriage. A simple severance.

She imagines he was something as an ensign. Or to say, she imagines he was something, in the past, something to look at it. She imagines the past.

To open him up, an out-cropping, a torso. That inside is a mechanism, or a molten core. In short-shorts. In suntan. In an ever expanding chest. From the beach, she can race him to the float, in a sleek fitted suit. Hip ties and top toggles.

The nurses are shipping tomorrow. She awaits him in his quarters. Does he want to leave it at that? Her ambush is succinct and calculated. We can now move beyond the front room, toward the square of the bed, and the frame he is filling. She removes her shoes.

IV.

The captain will be court-martialed or promoted. A hero is made in timing. A General mentions the mission: a group of unsecured islands in a botched arrangement. Thick-witted props are running the action. The captain announces a plan to segment, to slice, the islands. Operation Apple Pie.

The papers arrive at the supper for brass. He may construct his ideal crew: the unusual spy, the sinister second. The principal gentlemen are soon reunited in a reef of command.

A hospital ship will follow the convoy. On arrival, the nurses are greeted by garlands. In dinks, they disband for the far island. And the sailors are finally shipping. Everyone making way to the next location.

On the far island, he finds her in the infirmary, her hair in a cap. They will only have time, if they make it.

A parcel drop. The first case explodes on touching the ground. The plane affects a second passage. Cylinders, dispersed across the beach, trail variegated silks. Sailors collect the scattered arms.

V.

The islands are in a muddle, the broadcast has said as much. She makes up her face with care. The sailors again are shipping. She will see him off at the dock. The low, gray shape moves forward in the water. The bowline and spring are cast. The men coil them down. Every fertile tide, a tendency. Or, she has miscalculated the calumnious day.

Tropical storms decline the slopes. She flies along the unobstructed road, a wreck of surface, past the flooded commons. From the top of the cliff, roots enlace the decline. Still the sea lies before her and the rocky beach below. Now is the time to control this fact and make of it a creature. She roots herself.

Somewhere, at a great distance, an indication of battle. The entourage is engaged. They begin the staggered attack, and three boats, now struck, erupt. A curve of smoke extends the white curve of each wake in the dark water.

This expensive movement. The captain will lose the following in the initial maneuver: a commander, the spy, a son, his leg below the knee. He garners only the memory of being burnt somewhat and being aware of it, one part of him face-to-fire. He passes for a time into darkness.

The dawn surprises him. He speaks through the voice pipe.