The Mortar’s Whistle
Around a makeshift grill, soldiers’ facesturn into red crescents. Only the jawlineor the slightest shift of rifle barrels catchesfirelight, betrays men camouflaged outside its glow.
Stolen mess-hall chicken cooks on a metal drum.The bird skin, unlike the human kind,takes its own sweet time browning over flame.
“My wife,” says one. “My boy,” says another,pouring a mix of gi spice we call gunpowder.Pepper cracks in red coals and flashes skyward.
A klaxon sounds and two newbies drop face down.We watch the speed with which they falland remain standing, hurl f-bombs at the sky.
We turn silent when the whistle passes.Then we turn the meat, because
if tonight’s our last supper,damn if we’re going to let it burn. [End Page 638]
When a convoy pulls inside the wire,a soldier buys grape Gatoradestill cold from the refrigerated truck,and holds it to his steaming face.
Another carries a bottle to the chaplainwho’s lining through his notes. He wipessweat from his head and stares at the ductpumping lukewarm air beneath chapel walls,once a hangar and yesterday a gym.
Soldiers drape white tablecloth over metalplates, and the priest pours the drinkinto a makeshift flagon. Another handturns on the tape of organ music.That’s his cue. Almost forty faces stare down,or straight ahead, or into space.They’ve worn their cleanest uniformsand wiped dust from molded rifle stocks,the barrels all pointed safely toward the back.“They need something to believe,” he thinks.A hundred twenty degrees fades,if only for an hour. Purple cools the ad hoc chalice.A soldier sips and sweetness washes sandfrom the dry recesses of his mouth. [End Page 639]
Dwight A. Gray is a graduate student at Texas A&M–Central Texas and an mfa candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters. His poetry can be found in Grey Sparrow Journal, Appalachian Heritage, and the Kentucky Review, among other periodicals.