Little Bird

originally published in Black Warrior Review

For weeks last summer, the rain fell hard, and Eddie, Sam, Marco and I sometimes retreated to one of the Cold War family bunkers that we had requisitioned.

The little room was damp-dry and well-stocked with MREs that we’d stolen from other bomb shelters or that I had gotten as rewards from my father, whom everyone calls Sir. A feast of dehydrated fruits, soups, potted meats, and sweets with names like chocolate flavored cake food and spiced apple dessert. Sir said the apple stuff would give us the squirts. There were stacks of single-serving toilet paper, dental cleaning pads, and waterless hand cleaner.

We had also stocked our underground fort with ropes, blankets, comics, a radio, two flare guns, and old Halloween candy from the commissary. I had labeled and categorized everything on the concrete shelves of the family pantry. The boys said it was because I am girl, but that’s not why. A soldier needs to have order, says Sir.

I had been trying to teach Eddie how to play chess, but Marco and Sam were more interested in Miss October and how she looked like a Spanish teacher we’d had last year in sixth grade.

“Her tits are way too big,” said Marco. 

I crossed my arms over my own small breasts and told him that they could learn something if their minds weren’t littered with filth. A soldier keeps his mind and body clean and focused.

“You’re just jealous because your tits are smaller than Eddie’s,” Marco said. 

Eddie looked at me and crossed his arms. Then I said, “Prove it.” That’s when it began.

Prove it. This was always my challenge from Sir, so I made it my challenge to them. Maybe that’s why they ended up following me everywhere. I wouldn’t let the boys get by with boasts or “accusations of unworthiness.” That’s what Sir called them. If they said they could spit across the road, I said, “Prove it.” If one of them said he could jump out of a tree and land on his feet, I made him prove it. Sam had ended up with a twisted ankle that way. If they said they could beat any girl in arm wrestling, “Prove it.”

After I beat all three of them in arm wrestling—one after the other even—I tell Sir. He says he is proud of me, but when I say, “It was easy. They’re all wimps,” he puts me on KP duty.

You can’t prove your strength if you are fighting cowards.

I didn’t think this time was any different until Marco asked, “What? You gonna show us your tits?”

I wished I hadn’t said what I had said. I couldn’t take it back, but I didn’t know what would disappoint Sir more. I thought about what he would say. Maybe that our bodies are just things or maybe that a soldier always finishes what he starts. 

Sir taught me to answer with a question and make their answer your tool, so that’s what I did. “What are you gonna do?” I asked. “Show us your things?”

They talked quietly, asking one another if they were brave enough to pull down their pants in front of each other, let alone me. Sam shrugged his shoulders. 

Then Eddie asked, “Do I have to take off my shirt?” I hadn’t seen Eddie with his shirt off, even though it clung to his body like a lumpy sausage when he got out of the pool. Eddie had very little discipline, but he was obedient. Loyalty makes a soldier’s strength your strength.

“We have to show her our dicks, fatass,” said Marco. 

“Eddie’s never even seen his own dick,” added Sam. Sam who had drawn men’s privates on every notebook he owned.

I told the boys to shut up and leave Eddie alone. I assured Eddie it would be okay, and I wanted to tell him what Sir would say, but he wouldn’t understand. “It’ll just be for a second,” I told him. You can do anything for one second, and if you can do it for one, you can do it for two and three. Like holding out telephone books or putting your feet in ice water.

They’re called stress positions, Sir tells me, handing me the photos from his collection one by one. They can hold still sometimes for hours, he says of the hairy men with bags on their heads. It’s the one thing he admires about them.

Marco said a second wasn’t long enough to compare and that we’d need at least a minute. 

I shut him down. “Thirty seconds,” I said. “Eddie’s timing.” That was always his duty. I was the captain like Sir. Sam was the sergeant major like his dad, Marco the sergeant like his dad, who wasn’t even American. Eddie didn’t have a rank. His dad was a warrant officer, and the boys didn’t consider that part of the army. Eddie didn’t seem to mind. Eddie was weak.

I laid out the rules. The boys had to have rules. They’d have to stand against the far wall behind one of the low bunks. Eddie and I would take off our shirts with our backs to them and turn around at the same time. They’d have thirty seconds to get a good look to see whose breasts were bigger. “And then Eddie and I get to judge which one of your little pricks is the biggest,” I said. I had heard that word in the commissary, but that was the first time I had ever said it aloud. I dare not curse in front of Sir. Profanity is the language of the weak. 

I could tell by Marco’s glance at the others that he planned on going AWOL after he saw his prize, so I altered the rules. “So that you don’t take off, we better tie you to the bunk,” I said. I know about knots and duct tape, but they didn’t know I knew. You have to know more than the enemy, always.

Marco said I wasn’t tying him anywhere, and Sam agreed. I could have ended it there, and I almost did, but when I started moving towards the ladder, Marco said, “You better untie us after.” I knew what he wanted, and he was willing to shame himself to get it. Want is weakness. When you know what your enemy wants, you can use that to your advantage.

The boys are going camping, and I want to go, too. I ask Sir, and he says no. I beg. Sir says I can go if I clean the house and wash the car for a month. The camping trip wasn’t that fun.

I made Marco and Sam put their hands behind their backs with their palms together. I showed Eddie how to use the duct tape to bind Marco’s wrists and hands. “You have to tape high enough so he can’t slip his hands under his butt,” I explained. 

Sir points out a man tied to a cot. He says it’s called the rainbow position because their bodies bend backwards like a rainbow. 

When Marco complained that it hurt, I told him if he’d rather, he could go back to looking at his stupid magazine. I gave him another out. He could have just said okay, but he shut up.

Eddie bound Sam’s wrists, probably not as tightly as he was supposed to, and then took care of their ankles. Then I ran a rope through the springs of the bunk to tie their wrists to their ankles. It wasn’t the rainbow position but close. “You’ll be fine as long as you don’t try to get up,” I warned. If they had tried to get up, they would have fallen face first onto the ground. I moved the two folding chairs out of the way so they wouldn’t cut their faces. You must avoid cuts and abrasions; leave no mark.

Sam said that for all they had to go through, they should get to see me longer. I got mad. “How about twenty seconds?” I said and told him to shut up. I had to focus on a spot on the wall to calm down. 

I told Eddie to get his watch ready. I told him he couldn’t look at me, just at his watch. Eddie didn’t need to see me. 

“Get on with it,” said Marco. A sergeant ordering a captain. And Marco’s dad wasn’t even from here. Sir had told me that I shouldn’t fraternize with him. 

I pulled my shirt off first and tensed my muscles to stop the shivering. When I looked around, Sam and Marco were smiling even though they were tied up. My mouth felt sticky. I almost put my shirt back on and went up the ladder, but instead I counted breaths. One, two, three—“Get on with it.” 

I looked over at Eddie and nodded to let him know it was okay. He struggled to get his shirt over his head. I wanted to help him, but I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for him, not me.

Eddie was tattooed with stretch marks, long red whelps that ran across his sides and back. He looked like he had been whipped like the men in Sir’s pictures. 

I unhooked my bra. 

I nudged Eddie, and we both turned around. Eddie began to move his hands up to guard himself from view, but I reached over and took one of his hands in mine. To comfort him.  I knew what Sir would say, but I did it anyway. We stood in solidarity, ready for inspection. The beep of Eddie’s watch told the judges the competition had begun.

As they stared at my body, I reminded myself that I was in charge. In combat, a soldier has to always be in command of his body and mind. He decides whether the enemy can hit him. He must be aware of his surroundings at all times. He can’t be distracted by his emotions. No empathy. The enemy cannot get inside his head. His body is not his mind, but his mind controls his body. 

Sir shows me pictures of Shaolin monks, balancing on mountain peaks, bent backwards like bridges over streams. I like these pictures more than the other ones.

I had just controlled my shaking when Eddie called time. He immediately turned and began retrieving his shirt from the floor. When he bent over, his belly bunched up.

I picked up my shirt and bra but did not put them back on. Instead, I flung them over my shoulder and took a couple of steps to stand in front of my judges. Confidence conquers cowardice. “So, what’s the call?” I asked, leaning in so my breasts were nearly touching Marco’s brown face. A face so much like ones Sir had shown me.

Sir keeps the photos in a stack on the table and deals them like Old Maid cards. The men are skinny. The ones without bags on their heads look scared. 

A Muslim is afraid of nudity. Remove his clothes, and he will feel shame. You can control him with his shame. But one must not be ashamed of one’s body.

I could tell they were waiting for me to cover myself up, to put them out of their misery, but I didn’t. I crossed my arms under my breasts so they plumped up. Then I whispered something to Marco that made him cough and wriggle. 

The men cannot cover themselves because they are holding buckets of water. 

A Muslim is especially ashamed of his genitals. He keeps them hidden because he cannot control them. You can take a picture of his genitals and show them to other Muslims, and you can break him.

“Your turn,” I said, letting my clothes slip off my shoulder. Then I bent down and yanked Marco’s pants down to his ankles. The shaking was returning, so I steadied my breath. Marco’s underpants did nothing to hide his excitement. I told Eddie to do the honors. He hesitated but followed orders.

How little pubic hair Marco had. 

Sir shows me a picture of a woman holding a leash. At the end of the leash is a man lying on the ground. He is very hairy. Sir asks me what I think. I tell him the man looks like an animal. Exactly, says Sir. You can’t think of them as people. They aren’t like us. If they were—

Sam broke the silence. “What are you doing?” he asked, trying to lean away from me. I told him not to worry. “Stand down, Sergeant Major.” An officer does not tolerate dissention in the ranks.

 “Cut us loose,” Marco attempted to order, but it came out more like a weak plea. As long as the mind is strong, the body cannot be weak. Focus is the key. 

Sir tells me that is the look of humiliation. He lines the pictures up: the ones of the men in a line like elephants, the ones with their arms spread out, the ones of their faces being pressed together.

If you humiliate a man, you show him who he really is. A man is only as strong as his weakest moment. One thing they can’t stand is homosexuality. It is an unforgivable offense. 

“Kiss,” I said.

“Fuck you,” said Marco. 

Eddie started for the ladder, but I put my hand out to stop him. He obeyed. 

“Let us go,” Marco said with more anger than fear. Anger leads to rage. Rage can make you think you’re in control. You must remain calm and know that you are in control. Marco needed a lesson in fear.

I walked over to the concrete pantry and pulled down a flare gun. “This is called a Verey,” I explained, holding the red pistol. 

While not designed to function as a weapon, says Sir, this same model was used to take down a German airplane during World War I. Fired at this range, it will burrow into your body and light you on fire from the inside out.

I aimed the flare gun at Marco’s penis, and it flopped over as if on command, releasing a stream of pee. Fear had returned. Fear is weakness. 

I reminded him of his order: “Kiss the sergeant major.” 

Most people don’t know this, says Sir, but strength lies not in disobeying but in taking command of the order. 

If ordered to do something that you don’t want to do, show your strength with proud obedience.

In one of the photos in Sir’s collection, they form a pyramid like cheerleaders. But Sir says they are weak. He says he can see it in their sloppy formation. These men have their heads covered. It doesn’t look like a pyramid though. Just a pile. The man behind them, a good guy, Sir says, is giving a thumbs up and smiling. I ask Sir why he’s smiling. Sir says, “Wouldn’t you be?”

I let myself focus too long on that image, and Eddie took the pistol. 

He cut them loose and gave the gun to Marco.

I just stood there as they put their pants on. Marco said something I didn’t hear. 

He and Sam climbed up the ladder. I could tell Eddie was looking at me. Then he was gone. He followed them despite what they had done to him. How could he be so obedient to those who treated him that way?

Alone in the shelter, I listened to the rain. A unit was running drills nearby. Their call and response was comforting. It was the one about the little yellow bird on the windowsill. 

The chessboard was still sitting out, so I returned it to its box and put it back on the shelf. When I did, the rest of the supplies looked out of place. One shelf at a time, I removed everything and put it back. I pulled the other flare gun out of the box. It seemed lighter. I held it out and gripped it. Firm but not too tight.

A man cannot take anything from you that you do not give him willingly, Soldier. 

When I reached the top of the ladder, I saw boots. The boys stood with their fathers. Eddie was absent. 

Sir stood as he does for inspection, and I checked to make sure my shirt was tucked in. 

Marco and Sam had told their dads their version, and Sir repeated it. I had made them take their pants off. I had tied them to the cots. I had pointed a gun at them. Nothing about me and Eddie. Nothing about Eddie at all. 

“What about it, Soldier?” he asked me. 

I remained silent. Silence is the best weapon a captured soldier can wield. 

Sir called the sergeant and the sergeant major over. They spoke in whispers. “They’re just kids,” I heard Sir tell them. Sam and Marco kept their heads down, but I didn’t want to look at them anyway.

That guard, the woman, is in another picture where she is pointing at the naked men and giving a thumbs up. Sir sees me looking away and he tells me I need to be brave. I ask him why. “Because if they had their way, this would be you in these photos.” 

Sir dismissed his men, and Sam and Marco followed their fathers. He told me it was over, and I knew he meant more than just what had happened. He said I was not allowed to engage with the boys any more. Then he took me to get ice cream.

Eddie and I are sitting at the kitchen table eating popsicles, and I am showing him Sir’s pictures. Eddie tells me it’s disgusting.

“I know,” I say. “They have no self-respect.”

Sir comes home and scoops all the pictures back into the box. He says they’re not for kids to look at. I don’t say anything.

When Eddie leaves, Sir asks me why I hang around a loser like him. 

I tell him Eddie’s a good guy. “Loyal,” I say, using Sir’s word.

“He’s no soldier,” says Sir, “Not like you.”

Eddie wasn’t a soldier. And he wasn’t like me.


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