Marlantes: Under the Water

“I needed desperately to be accepted back in. I think I ended up assuming almost unconsciously that I’d done something wrong to have received all this rejection. To be sure, I had been engaged in dirty business. Somebody (usually the man) empties the garbage and turns the compost; but when he’s done he comes back in the house, he washes his hands, and someone says thank you. War is society’s dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults.

What I needed upon returning but didn’t know it was a bath. What I needed was for Marianne to sit down with me in a tub of water and run her hands over my body and squeeze out the wrong feelings and confusion, soothe the pain inside and out, and rub the skin back to life. I needed her to dutch rub my skull with soap until the tears came, and I needed her to dry the tears and laugh with me and cry with me and bring my body back from the dead.

That body had suffered. It was covered with scars from jungle rot. It’d had dysentery, diarrhea, and possibly a mild case of malaria. It had gone without fresh food for months at a time. It had lived on the knife-edge of fear, constantly jerked from an aching need for sleep with all the cruel refinement of the best secret police torturer. It had pumped adrenaline until it had become addicted to it. There were scars where hot metal had gone in, searing and surprising in its pain, and scars where a corpsman had dug most of it out. There were bits of metal still in it, some pushing against the skin, itching to get out. The eyeballs were scarred where tiny bits of hand-grenade had embedded themselves. The inner ears rang with a constant high-pitched whine that ceased only in sleep, when the nightmares started.

That body was shut down against pain as far as I could get it shut. Shut down to where it would not feel a thing, while my mind was still 7,000 miles away, unattached, floating, watching. I needed a woman to get me back on the earth, down in the water, under the water, get my body to feel again. To sluff off old skin, old scars, old scabs, to come again into her world, the world that I’d left and which sometimes I think I’ve never returned to.”

– Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War


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