I fought my way deeper, the reeds well above head height. The sun was hot, but I kept going. I remembered why I recognised the area; we had made a path through here with the kids a few years back, between my first and second (final) tour. We used to go out for whole days then, when we had no responsibilities other than ourselves. They had loved running up and down the passage stomping the dried out cuttings. We each had a stick, walking like forgotten hermits with brown backs and toothy grins. I tucked flowers behind ears, tied weeds in hair. I listened to laughter and random yelling. We were alive.
I ploughed deeper, much further than on that carefree summer day. The environment got darker, innocence dissipated with each step. It was impossible to see what the tangled reeds held as the water deepened underfoot. I continued with hesitant feet, probing without conviction. The water, now halfway up my shins, was black and strangely warm, smelling of kerosene and decay. I could hear vehicles shifting rock in the quarry, what must have been a mile away. A small victory for the relentless clockwork effort of Man vs. Nature. I walked doubled over, straining with every step, my spine bent with a pathetic inability to stand up straight, to stand proud.
The previous night felt far away. I remembered arriving at the house and sitting outside, unable to leave the car. I half-remember taking down the number plates of the surrounding cars in suspicion of the wife I had walked out on. Anxiety is a cruel fate, both driving and freezing at all the wrong times. I had been drinking from a bottle as I watched the lights go out downstairs and on upstairs. My breathing had been noticeably audible, a chesty wheezing on each outward breath. I had been seated in my car, shivering with cold or something else, until the house was left in darkness. It was then that I was overcome with an intense understanding of my pathetic loitering, my inability to be loved. I needed something familiar. I needed to move.
I had woken up damp with morning dew, surrounded by nothing and no one, with a throat that tasted like fire or smoke. I stood and laced my boots and drank from a small stream that was green with algae or pond weed and smelled strangely sweet. This did not ease my parched mouth, and I regretted it instantly. I knew the land around me was familiar, but it took me a while to fully appreciate where I was. I must have abandoned the car and hiked out into the hinterland in darkness, feeling my way with some unknown or forgotten sense or muscle memory from all those years previous. Finding the main river had seemed important, although I could not have told why. I had walked for an hour or two before realising where I was. I walked through a valley of dunes and came out at the familiar reed beds that flanked the river. How I wish I could now find the string to lead me backwards out of my labyrinthine reasoning. I went on a journey, sat in that car, and by the end, it made sense. I can’t describe it any other way. That’s all I can say. The outcome was masked at first, but now I see it. My journey from despair to oblivion.
Now I stood in amongst the darting warblers with scummy foam at my feet and barely memorable night time trek through an unlit wilderness. We tried to pretend at first. I arrived home and we followed the script. My mother and wife prepared excessive dinners. We took long walks, hand in hand. I tucked my kids in and night and read them Roald Dahl. In bed, when seeing I wouldn’t or couldn’t close my eyes, she rubbed my neck and kissed my throat. This I did not deserve. They were still out there, and while I didn’t want to go back, I had no right to pretend I needed my family’s rehabilitation and care. Their effort and sacrifice grew by the day. How could I eat when they couldn’t? How could I sleep? I stood on my green lawn and thought of sand. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t enjoy my return. I moved out. Denied contact. I couldn’t live.
I was up to my waist, and I had to pump my legs to continue forward. The bank of the river must have been close. I kept low, dodging nonexistent eyes. The adrenaline flowed, and I saw sense once more. I needed to be tired. I needed to do something physically strenuous, something tough that my scarred body would deal with. A challenge that I could overcome to prove I was capable of winning. I kept hearing them call. We had walked to this spot summers past, that’s how I knew it. The mud at my feet did not like letting go. I had come home and pretended to be happy. I heard them calling. They were all calling. I kept going and going, moving with practiced efficiency. I was sweating and my legs were burning from the inside. I needed to prove I was still strong. My children were calling and my wife was calling and my buddies were calling. My children were crying and my wife was crying and my buddies were dying. I was moving. I had to keep moving.