Where Death Lives

by: Art Rosch

From high above the battlefield, a salient truth is revealed amongst the horrors of war….


I was dead. The last thing I heard was the high-pitched whine of a mortar shell that smacked into the beach about ten yards to my left, between me and the empty Higgins boats floating like toys in the surf. The black sand erupted all around me and I felt something rip through my helmet, tearing into my flesh as it threw me forward onto my face. For a solitary moment it was dark and quiet there in the sands. I had charged forward into terror, and now it was over.

The sweet and blessed darkness seemed to go on forever. I needed the rest. Why would I want to return to Iwo Jima? Why would I want to be anywhere near this monstrous war?

First there was utter confusion as the light began to seep back in. Where was I?  What was happening? Then I righted myself as if I had been thrown into a roaring surf. I knew which way was up. I knew in which direction I had to go. I knew exactly what I had to do.

My body lay with half its face buried in the sand.  I could see one eye.  It was still open but nothing moved. The iris no longer reacted to the changing light.  The muscles were utterly still.  That used to be me!  And now, it’s…what is it?  It’s not me.  I won’t be living and moving inside those muscles and sinews, not any more.  A piece of shrapnel had sliced open the helmet and pierced the body’s skull.

I had died fast, at least there was that. One second I was a lieutenant in the Marines. The next, I was above the beach, floating, watching the battle unfold. My pathetic little carbine had been flung barrel first into the sand. It now stood canted at an angle, marking my grave.

Well, Sam, here you are. You’re dead. You got forty feet up Iwo’s black sand before a shell splinter popped your head open.

I realized this was a crucial moment. This was my Samuel Podolski crisis. A consciousness still existed that was ME. I knew I was dead. I had prepared myself for this moment. When I was a teenager I had thought about becoming a priest or a monk. I had read all kinds of books. I had imagined my death thousands of times. I was curious, not morbid. I was just a kid.

Then the war came and changed everything. I became a lieutenant in the United States Marines. Instead of leading souls to God, I led men into combat. Above all things, I knew I had to get this right. I had to die right. I was like a bell that had been struck and must ring true.

Then a force grabbed me and lifted me into the air until I hovered about a thousand feet above the beach. I could see everything. Shell bursts, tracers, fire from ships, fire from Marines, fire from enemy bunkers. Deadly projectiles flew from dugouts and log-covered rat-holes. I saw the scrambling dots of Marines along the landing zones. They were still falling out of the Higgins boats. Some of them didn’t even get into the surf. They were just frozen on the edge with their arms dangling. Oh, dear God! Such carnage!

The sea was paved with ships. The tiny island of Iwo Jima was a heap of brown, black, red and orange, the colors of erupting sand  wreathed with fire. It was a rock with a couple of airfields, some scrub brush, piles of torn up branches, and a five hundred foot rise they called Mount Suribachi. Artillery barrels poked from camouflaged emplacements. A flash of light, a puff of smoke and the barrel disappeared in its recoil. The shells exploded all up and down the beach. Return gunfire ricocheted all around the enemy gun emplacements, slamming into the rocks where the guns had vanished. Still, all was silent.

My last living thought had been about my guys, the men in my company. Thorne, Willis, Zelazny, Frier. I had been looking back over my shoulder when the shell hit. I saw Sergeant Poston slogging up the sandy slope, his arm wind-milling to wave the troops forward. His face was a mask of murderous rage and terror, his mouth was gaping wide and his tongue was thrust out but he was still going, he was running as fast as he could and waving his squad forward. The deep sand made the act of running nearly futile. The heat was fierce. There were no clouds in the sky, just smoke and flying debris.

Now I could move freely through all this chaos. I could think about an exact place on the beach and be there instantly. I found Sergeant Poston. He had brought four other Marines into a little rise of ground where their eyes could just peer over the barrels of their rifles to return fire at the seemingly invisible Japanese soldiers.

One of Poston’s guys took a bullet right through the forehead. He was in my company. Franks. Shelby Franks. He was a good kid. A country boy who dropped out of high school to join the Marines. Now he was dead. He had passed from life to death in an instant.

I watched intently.  I saw a misty form coalesce over the boy’s body and I came to realize it was his spirit. It was nearly transparent but it was him, Shelby Franks. His face was frozen in an expression of terror and confusion. Then, I heard the first sound since I had died. I heard Franks screaming. His spirit-form, his ghost, whatever it’s called, was running back and forth howling “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

A wave of calm descended through me like a blessed mist. It was warm and comforting, like a mother’s embrace. It brought me knowledge. As I watched the poor kid screaming, running back and forth yelling for his mother, I knew that I was here to help. I didn’t know why or how I could help, I just knew I could.

I floated next to Franks’ ghost and put my hand on his wraithlike shoulder. It wasn’t like touching flesh. It was like feeling cotton.

“Shelby,” I said, as a strange voice drifted from my mouth, a voice more feminine than my own. “Shelby,” I said, “everything’s okay. You’ll be alright.”

The boy stopped his indignant dance and looked at me with frightened innocence.

“Mom?” he asked, his voice swollen with hope.

“No, son, I’m not your mom. I’m Lieutenant Podolski, and everything is going to be okay.”

He pointed at his body lying prone and still, with its face pressed into the dirt. The hands were still fixed to the rifle’s stock and trigger. “But I’m dead!” he wailed with a terror that made his voice sound like a piece of fabric slowly being torn.

“I know, I know.” I touched his shoulder again, and it seemed as though some of my calm flowed into his shadowy being. “You’re a Marine, son. Those are the breaks. You did your duty and fought bravely. That’s all anyone can ask.”

Shelby’s phantasmal form trembled and turned away from me. “I can’t be dead! No! I can’t!”

He floated back towards his body and began to dig at it like a dog boring for a bone. Fruitlessly, he attempted to reinstate his ghostly essence back inside his remains. The dead body was rejecting him. He looked back at me panic-stricken, and then hastily scuttled up beside me. “Mommy,” he said, “I think I’m hurt real bad. I need your help.” He burrowed his head into my chest and embraced me.  

“Shelby Franks,” I said gently, “I am Lieutenant Podolski. I am not your mother. You just died in battle on the beach at Iwo Jima. It’s best that you accept this so you can move on.”

He recoiled from me, floating backwards. “You’re the devil!” he screamed. “You’ve come to take me to Hell!” He turned and attempted to flee yet was unable to move. His form, instead, was swiftly transforming. Initially, he embodied the essence of a newborn infant, then a toddler, a young boy, a teenager, and finally into a Marine at war. Accepting his fate, Private Franks became still, overwhelmed by an infinite sadness, “I am dead, right? I won’t be going home. But, I am still like this!” He gestured with his fingers to indicate his ghostliness. “I think I’ll be going to Heaven. I was a good son. I wasn’t perfect, but I went to church. I helped my mom on the farm after my dad died. I was a good kid.”

“I know you’ll be going to a good place,“ I told him, as genuinely as possible. I didn’t know where anyone was going. I didn’t know where I was going. I had a sense that the realm of Death may be a bit more complicated than simply Heaven and Hell.

“Private Franks!” I barked, reasserting my officer’s authority. “You’re a Marine! Square yourself away! You still have duties to perform.” Private Franks straightened himself and saluted. “Sir, yes sir!” he cried.

“Go and find other marines who have died. Just be calm and comfort them, and tell them the truth as you see it. This is your new assignment.”

“Sir, yes sir!” he bellowed with newfound resolve, and again he saluted. We looked around us, at the battlefield, which was still wreathed in an eerie silence. There were ghosts rising from bodies in all directions. A great wail slowly broke through the silence. It was made of the various bawls of agony.

“Mommy, mama, mom, mother, help me.” The sad tender music of mother-longing filled the battlefield. All these boys were reaching for their greatest of comforters. Other cries rose from the slope. “Oh lord Jesus, help me. Christ, oh Christ! Dear god dear god I’m so scared.”

The shape of the world suddenly changed. An amphitheatre was forming, the walls of the beach curved upward, the ocean arched overhead, the hard rock of the island’s interior, the bulk of the mountain, all of it became a great bowl. Inside this bowl the spirits of the dead ran in all directions, bumping into one another. I stayed where I was, at the center of the bowl.

“Lieutenant? Lieutenant?” A voice rang out, and a delicate hand fell upon my shoulder. I recognized Corporal Williams.  

“Yes, Corporal,” I responded. The corporal did not forget his salute. I returned it. When I had done so he relaxed and took position at my side.

“We’re dead, ain’t we, sir?” Williams bluntly asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Shit!” the corporal cursed. Then he looked sheepish. “Maybe I shouldn’t be cursing in this place…whatever this is. At least it’s goddam quiet. Aw shit, I did it again.”

I tapped him gently on the chest. “I don’t think you’ll be judged for a few curse words, corporal.” With this, Williams relaxed. “Guess not. Bigger things are happening, huh?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “There are more important things right now than a few curse words.”

The two of us sat together taking in the battlefield before us. The bloodbath was devastating. Spirits of lost soldiers were drawn to us in various conditions of confusion and denial. I simply told the truth. We were dead. I didn’t know what would happen next. But I told them it would be okay. I took my time with each soldier, calming and reassuring each one as best I could. I was being moved by a greater force, a force that used me as if I were a healer making rounds. It carried me wherever I was needed.

Colonel Waterford refused to believe he was dead. I found his body covered by a tarp while his spirit still barked orders at his junior officers. “Get those men off the beach! Where’s Kline? He should have suppressed fire from that fucking mountain!”

None of his company could hear him, and this was further aggravating the Colonel. He reached impulsively for the forty-five strapped to his hip but his hand came up with an amorphous object instead, something that looked like a gun but wasn’t. It slipped through his fingers as the Colonel cursed with frustration.

I approached and executed my best salute. “Sir!” I said. “Lieutenant Podolski reporting with an urgent message. Sir!”

“Well, what is it?” shouted the Colonel.

“Sir. You are dead, sir,” I said candidly while showing him his body under the tarp. Even then, he refused to accept the truth. He looked around for an MP. “Someone arrest this idiot!” he bellowed.

No one heard his command. I began to see cracks in his composure. He carefully smoothed them over and continued howling orders. It took me a long time to settle him.  Finally the reality began to sink in.

“Who left that corpse here?” He pointed to his own body. “Somebody take it away for fuck’s sake!”

There was nothing more I could do.

When the spirits of the first Japanese soldiers began to drift into our expanding circle, many marines instinctively reached for weapons. There were no weapons. And when they tried to fight with their hands, it was impossible to grip their ghostly adversaries. Next to me, the spirit of Corporal Williams watched studiously, “Aw fuck it.  Look at ‘em. They’re just kids, like our guys. Just kids who got killed fighting for their country.  What a waste!” He went on, and his next statement endeared him to me completely.

“You know,” he said, “from this vantage point, war looks like the stupidest most moronic thing in the whole fuckin’ world.”

I noticed that in the sky above the huge amphitheater of war there were hordes of spirits. They were tumbling about, all in a confused mass. Light spirits with wings of gold reached for the rising souls of the young soldiers. Dark spirits with black fangs tripped them, wrestled with them.

More and more soldiers came to join our mass of spirits. Japanese and Americans sat quietly speaking. Language was no impediment. They all understood one another. From the far reaches of the sky above I saw an orb of light that was brighter than a trillion suns. It was burning with impassioned ferocity, yet it did not blind or sear. It was simply light, and it caused everything to be what it was. It took no sides.

Finally, the hordes of battling spirits drifted down through the warming light. Each one chose a soldier and extended its wings, or claws, grasping the souls. The angels lifted their spoils towards the light. Holes opened beneath the hooves of the demons. They carried their assigned souls down into the earth’s crust. Gradually, the pairs of spirits disappeared.

The battle was ending. Flame throwers were mopping up as the bowl of the island grew transparent. I could see inside Mount Suribachi with its many caves and tunnels.  Charred Japanese bodies lay stiffened in grotesque postures. Blackened bones of lunging hands pushed into the air. They would stay buried there for a long time.

The shape of the island had been changing from that of a bowl to one of a flat plain, an endless desert with but a few pebbles to mark off the distance to the horizon. A ragged line of Japanese soldiers were huddled together, tiny and far away. Near to me, a fortress stood, with walls that extended into the sky. It was a monstrous battlement, with ten thousand flags waving. It bristled with guns and spears, arrows and vats of boiling oil.

I knew what would happen. I knew because it was as logical as fate. There was no caprice, no irony to it. Only a terrible dignity. The Japanese stood proudly, waving their curved swords. A man stood among them, taller, more proud, more dignified. He was the general, Kuribayashi. He seemed to be miles away but I could hear his words and thoughts. His soldiers looked to him with great love and devotion. He must have been talking to his men, though something more intimate in his diction told me he was speaking to his family, to his son.

“My life is but a lantern, glowing in the wind,” he professed. Those were his last words.

The soldiers charged the huge fortress. In response, the colossal garrison emitted a mammoth, glowing projectile which struck the oncoming soldiers and vaporized them instantly.

The battle was over. I was all but alone. Here and there, I could see the living scattered about, few in number and becoming more tenuous as the ghosts became more real. The spirits from the final charge were taken by their own Kami, their Shinto gods. A great Samurai spirit came to escort the general to his destiny.

I sat quietly. The Supreme Light, that light as powerful as a trillion suns, the light that did not burn but healed, drew near. As it did so, there coalesced yet another form, another being. It was dressed in ordinary civilian clothes. It walked deliberately towards me, and soon, I could see it plainly.

The being was so much like me, yet somehow different. It was both male and female and radiated peace.

“Samuel,” it said, “you’re ready. You’ve done well. It’s time to go.”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s time to go.”

I allowed the being to absorb me in its embrace. I felt more complete than I had ever imagined possible. This being’s familiarity set me at ease. It was something I could call soul, or spirit, or any of a thousand names.

It rose into the sky carrying me towards the light of a trillion suns.

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