War
Anne Elliott

The table. The bookshelf, with lone dictionary. The lamp, old gooseneck. Concrete floor slanted severely; daybed propped up with stones on one end. Windows facing a stand of fall-turning trees. Walls white and bare, and an easy chair. I sit, in the dusk, in the quiet, hollow room, waiting for poems. The room is far too big. It is the inside of a guitar I have forgotten how to play.

* * *

Supper is at 6 p.m., in the residence hall. Some bring wine to share. Some pray silently before picking up forks. This is The South, Virginia, where pitchers of iced tea cool brows and jumpstart brains. I pour myself a glass and try to find my appetite. The woman beside me introduces herself, Sara, a sculptor from California.

“Iím Ben, Iím a poet, or I used to be.”

“Youíre from England?” She smiles at my accent.

“Originally, yes. Iím more of a New Yorker now,” I say, and she gives me a look like an apology.

“It must be strange, being here, especially now, in this quiet place.”

“Yes,” I reply, “the sirens are gone.”

* * *

My phone has no reception in my bedroom or studio. I take a walk, in the morning, hold out the plastic thing, my divining rod, wait for the tiny antenna display to grow bars. I discover clarity in the middle of a field. Lean against a big yellow wheel of hay to call home.

“Baby, where are you, Iíve been worried.”

“Iím sorry, V, thereís no reception here. Iím in the middle of a pasture.”

“With cows?”

“No. Iím leaning on hay.” Itís prickly.

Cowboy.” Virgil laughs, and I can see his mouth, next to his phone, mate of my phone, its twin.

* * *

Nights, just after dinner, I stand in the center of the field; hold my phone up to the purple sky, wait for it to vibrate with text. Honest couplets and haiku, from Virgilís new work computer:

our cafeteria
is full of firemen
(can I have one?)

bandwidth low
spirits lower
secretaries crying

big plume of black smoke
this thing is still burning

dog misses u
(me too)


The only poems come to me from the Virginia sky, from Virgil, from his eyes. His black almond eyes, the ones I long to kiss. I see him covered in dust, like when it happened, arriving home, finally, his suit and lungs and mouth filled with charred computers, asphalt, bones. Papers still flying in the smoky air over Brooklyn Heights. Crying with relief, I take him into my arms. V, I was so sure you were gone.

* * *

We pick up lunchboxes, each painted with bright acrylic strokes. Mine, Studio W1, has Adam and Eve and an apple. I think of Brigitte, a German artist here. She showed me a drawing, twin towers, Adam and Eve, filled with text from Genesis. The Big Apple, she calls it. The moment innocence quits, the gardenís faults become obvious and palpable.

Inside the lunchbox, another apple, a real one, which I save on my windowsill for later. A ham and cheese sandwich on perfect whole wheat bread. A tiny cup of pasta salad. A homemade sugar cookie, in a waxed paper bag.

I think of him, I canít stop. Now heís in his cafeteria, overlooking the hole, with the dusty, haunted firemen, with the girls from his temporary office, talking about the fragile database they nearly lost in the fire. He tells me about it, every night in the field; I wish I understood. Restoring from backup, onto tiny computers, and I look at my tiny, waiting computer on the tilted table, wish I had backup, or some means of restoring the thing I came here to do, which feels ridiculous now, and I can only eat my sandwich and fall asleep on the daybed, propped up by rocks, the window light warm, the faint, lush piano chords from the composerís studio nearby.

* * *

Night, in my bedroom, bags still opened, waiting to be unpacked, I lie naked in bed and hold my cock, lonely for its twin, think of our twin towers under Brooklyn sheets. Virgilís honey skin, his dimpled ass, his balls I love to shave in the candlelight of the bathroom. His hairless slim belly against my aging bloat. The dog warm on my feet, her tail beating against my leg.

I hear the composer showering in the bathroom we share, between our rooms. I spoke to him at dinner. He loves poetry, is setting Rimbaud to music. Rimbaud, and I get his meaning, we are of the same tribe, and I listen to the water on his body and realize I did not hear the click of him locking the door between us.

My hand moves and blood moves and Virgil disappears, and I am thinking of the man in the shower, whose piano chords haunt my afternoon dreams, his broad pale back under the water, and no poems come but I do, into my hand and the borrowed sheet. And shame, and I lie awake in my sticky mess, and I should never have come here.

* * *

Ladybird beetles are infiltrating my studio, escaping the fall chill. They creep through the cracks around the door, collect like baby basketballs in the corners of the windows. I name one: Sylvia. Another: Emily. Emily crawls, delicate, orange creature on my finger. I ask her for a poem, she must have one to spare. She lifts her antennae, questions me, then flies up to the window to join her sleepy sisters.

Next to the door, a plaque where previous fellows, writers, have signed their names. I pull a pen from my pocket, and under the others, some famous, I write Bennett Campbell. The only two words I write all day.

* * *

I take a walk, to the nearby college, to use the library. Iím thinking Inferno, been years since I read it, sure to be in the stacks.

A timid doe peeks at me between orange and yellow leaves. The road hard and empty beneath my sneakers. And I come upon a construction site, the opened earth impossibly red, Southern dirt, the excavated hole a bright vermilion, like fire. Waiting concrete culverts collected, like gray corpses, for the men to bury them.

It is a womenís college. The library is full of women, some casual and braless. I look at their young female bodies with relief. No shame, no hunger, only curiosity, and a weird longing for Emily, the ladybug I entertained on my finger, stingy with her verse, but Iíll forgive her when I return.

* * *

At dinner, a fork against a glass and everyone listens. Itís Sara, the sculptor; she will have an open studio tonight. I have an urge to impress them, these stranger artists, wish I had a good reason to clink my glass with a fork. Iím not nobody, am I? Iím somebody, Virgil knows. Emily, the ladybug, knows, though she wonít share.

I will go. I have nothing better to do. I have no poems to write. I will call Virgil, then go to the open studio, drink wine, forget how little I have to say.

* * *

Sara works in felt, makes inverse portraits of people by wrapping them in the fiber. “Itís not pure felt,” she explains, while we drink wine and look at her work on the table, or pinned to the wall. Sheís mixing plaster with wool and rag in a large bucket, chalky dust all over her shoes and jeans. On the table, a cup, clear contour of an ample breast inside. On the wall, an inverse belly, its navel sticking out like a nipple. Fragments of bodies, inside out, skins: a shoulder, an ear, a foot. I pour myself another glass of chardonnay, feel it fill my skin with cool relief. “I have a volunteer tonight, so you can see the process.” The composer. He smiles, sits, lays his hands on the table like a piano. The hands are large, big enough for the lush chords that cross the courtyard in the afternoons. Sara applies the fiber mixture over his greased fingernails and wrists. It is dusty gray, like Virgilís suit that day, full of particles of unknown origin. Her hands are covered in it too, sticky and sensuous, like mud, and I wish hers were my hands, spreading it between the fingers of the composer. He laughs at the odd sensation, his eyes looking right into mine.

* * *

That night I wait in bed, naked, listening. Crickets rubbing legs to wings, laughter in the TV room downstairs. And the sound of water, in the bathroom next to mine, the sound I have been waiting for. I sigh into the pillow, my skin empty, my head spinning with wine. The water continues, for a long time, like a dare, and finally I canít hold my curiosity any more. I stand up, try the door to the bathroom.

It is unlocked. Inside, through the smoky wet air, he is waiting for me, soapy cock in his hand, bits of felt and plaster on the floor of the shower. I donít speak, I hurtle forward, as if pushed, to his waiting mouth.

“I need to be fucked,” he says, his vowels long and Southern. “I am so lonely here.”

I love the coarse honesty of his admission, pure American, to be fucked, to push away loneliness. I pull my fingers through his watery red hair, kiss his piano hands, the vermilion fur of his chest, like Southern earth. Itís what I have wanted, but my throat fills with bile, and my body wonít cooperate, a wave of self-loathing through my chest and balls. I close my eyes and see Virgil, insistent, dusty, exhausted, looking me in the eye. I pull away.

“This is wrong. Iím so sorry. Iím married. I canít.”

His countenance fills with naked anger. He turns, takes a towel into his room, and clicks the lock behind him. I close my door too, crawl sopping wet and cold under the covers.

* * *

Emily and Sylvia have friends, thousands of them, and not cute anymore. I wake from a nap and they are all over my sun-warmed studio, on my blanket, in my hair, dotting all four walls like ladybug-patterned paper. I stand up and shake out the blanket. I am still wobbly and hung over. I can feel them crawling under my pants. I see them all over the plaque of famous and not-famous names, on the lone dictionary, on my powerless computer, creeping between the lettered keys, dotting the dark screen in mockery.

* * *

At dinner, I ask Sara if she will make my portrait. The felt reminds me of something, I tell her, the ash all over Virgilís suit and skin. She listens intently.

“That must have been frightening, waiting for him to come home.”

“I have never been more frightened.”

“You miss him.”

I nod. “Itís strange, no one is talking about it here. In New York, everyoneís talking about it all the time. Itís all we talk about.”

“The towers, you mean?”

“Yeah. And where we were that day, and who we knew inside. Everyone knows someone inside.”

The composer is sitting at another table, eating and laughing, not looking this way. “I have ladybirds all over my studio,” I say. “I canít work.”

Ladybirds?”

“Ladybugs. Theyíre everywhere. Millions. I want to kill them.”

No way.” She thinks I am joking. “Not ladybugs. You canít kill them. Itís bad luck.”

* * *

Virgil asks me how my work is going. I donít lie. I tell the truth, there is no work, and nothing is going, and I wish I never came here. I want to confess the real truth, how I kissed a Southern composer with beautiful hands and we were both naked and what a horrible husband I am. I am sitting in the middle of the field, midnight, the sky dotted with lights, the crescent moon, beautiful, but I am only sick for home. “I miss you,” is all I can say. “I donít think I can last another two weeks.”

“Itíll go so fast, B.”

“I know. How is the database? How are the firemen?”

“The firemen arenít coming much anymore. I think they hate seeing us with all our laptops and Hugo Boss suits and shit. And there are tourists all over the streets. Can you believe? Itís a damn tourist attraction already, and they havenít even put the fire out.”

“I wish I was there.” I imagine him in the bed, dog curled next to him for warmth.

“Oh, no you donít. You earned this.”

“There are ladybugs all over my studio. A swarm of them. Like the plagues of Egypt.”

He laughs.

“Seriously, I want to kill them.”

“So kill them. Get a can of Raid. Itís your studio, not theirs.”

Iím not so sure, but at least he knows Iím not joking.

* * *

Sara applies Vaseline to my cheeks and eyelids. She will make a portrait of my face, like a death mask. Then the gray mixture against my skin, muddy and warm. She warns me that the plaster will heat up. Drinking straws in my nostrils, and I focus on my breath. She covers my sinning, wordless mouth, my cheeks, then my eyes, and I am blind. I feel her long hair, falling soft against my bare arms. I can hear everything now, in full volume, in the dark, Saraís breath, the squishing material, the composerís piano wafting in through the open window.

“Mind if I put on some music?”

“Mmm mhm.”

I hear her putting a CD in the player, clicking it shut. Joni Mitchell, her mountain dulcimer, straightforward and simple open tuning, her high, honest soprano. “Mmmm,” I say, unable to move my mouth.

“You like Joni?”

“Mmm hmm.” I do like Joni; I like anyone who can drown out the drifting piano. Sheís another expat, like me, choosing American life and American instruments, trying to adopt the simplicity of this place, its frankness of expression, its innocence. I feel the mask going hot and stiff on my face, making permanent this American moment. I feel tears pushing against the hardness over my eyes.

* * *

Night, in my studio, it is much cooler. The ladybirds have collected in high clumps, huddled for warmth, easy targets. I spray them liberally with the pungent chemicals, watch them panic, then drop to the floor, dead poets, short lives.

After sweeping the corpses out the door, I sit and turn on the computer in the dark. My hands click on the keys, falling over themselves in their impatience:

Fuck ladybirds. Or ladybugs, or whatever the hell they call them here. Fuck Emily, that stingy rhyming bitch, fuck Sylvia, American whiner. Fuck this place with its stupid slanted floor, fuck the bed, fuck the bookshelf, fuck the table, fuck the window. Fuck the famous writers on that plaque over there. Fuck the piano chords I canít get away from and fuck iced tea and The South and smart people clinking their glass at dinner and fuck art. Fuck mobile phones that only work in the middle of a fucking field, fuck the field, fuck the hay, fuck the red dirt under me, fuck the stars over me, fuck the clean air.

Fuck those fuckers in those fucking planes, fuck them for trying to kill my Virgil, and those fucking arrogant towers, good riddance, fuck them too. And fuck Virgil for writing cleaner poetry than me in a fucking mobile phone, and fuck him for seeing what I canít. Fuck my American husband, fuck him for surviving, fuck him for making me wait, fuck him for being so rational, fuck him for letting me come here, no, fuck him for making me come here, fuck our fucking home I miss so much, fuck time.

And fuck me. Fuck me especially. For this bad American rant and its lazy American vocabulary, and for killing fucking ladybugs and nearly fucking a composer, and for not fucking the composer when he needed to be fucked, and for not writing a fucking word, and for leaving the fucking dog, and for leaving the man I love alone to clean up the fucking mess.




Aside from the fact that Iím not a semi-adulterous gay Englishman, “War” has autobiographical roots. I spent two weeks in October 2001 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I had to share my studio with a swarm of ladybugs. At first they were cute, but then I ended up killing them to save my own sanity. Watching them fall and die, I got flashbacks to watching people fall from the twin towers, where I was one of thousands of up-close witnesses. It got me thinking about mass killing in general, and how even peaceful people can be moved to kill. Meanwhile, I was missing New York badly, exchanging e-mail with my Wall Street colleagues as they dealt with the aftermath of the attacks, and feeling guilt over the luxuries of survival and art.

Return to Archive