I

9 771753 070008

SCOTT LAMBRIDIS

raided?" I take my glasses off and roll my comic into a wand and shake it at Minks.

"I don't know. It's not the song. It's her song. Leave me alone;' he says, and then he's back to the muttering, staring at the corner of the wooden bunker where we stacked the cots no longer needed. "She's here;' I can make out. "She's here, washing us:'

"Quit looking over there, you fuck, and answer the question or your cot'll be there next:' says Pliny, shaking the aluminum frame again. Minks rubs the bony caps of his knees and smooths his red hair. He looks at the cots again, then puts his helmet on. His shirt is too big and with the wobbly helmet he looks even lankier.

"How many of them were all cleaned up?" says Minks, staring right at me, but pointing at the stack of cots in the corner. His eyes look like whiteout with a big fat period jabbed in the center. "Do you know? Their gear. Their clothes. Were they clean? Look at the buttons on his vest;' says Minks, now pointing to Pliny. "They've been cleaned:' Minks never looks directly at anyone else but me. I don't know what the fuck to say. We've been out here off-base for three weeks now, holding our position with one half-working radio while we wait for someone somewhere to sign some documents so we can get reinforcements and a real mission. Not a fucking thread of anyone's shit is clean.

"Why they.always let in the crazy ones?" says Biggs, gearing up. That catch phrase of his is getting tiresome. "Come on grunts, Jesus says the day is young. Let's try to keep it that way:' Biggs is short and black and strong. He carries a photo of himself around in a white and gold suit with a purple handkerchief and a bushy white beard. He wanted to be a pastor, but his uncle ran the congregation and wouldn't let Biggs in unless he quit running drugs. But damned if he'd do that. He lies back down, then flicks the top of his ballpoint and goes back to writing letters to a daughter who died in the womb. I steal the pen from his hand, but he grabs it back quick as a quiver as always. Pliny tries to do the same thing, but Biggs punches him in the gut. Since the lieutenant bit it, Biggs has been in charge. Pliny yells "Goddammit," and Biggs punches him again. Then the sirens go off, shrieking in a minor third while the whizzing bullets make it a major chord.

It's night again and there's one less cot and one week less to wait for home. The bunker is silent save for Minks's snoring, but I'm hearing his song in my head. B minor. My chest feels inflated. My stomach twists. A week of lima beans and goat stock with beets, purple and green. It held its color in Pliny's exposed stomach after he was shot. Minks never ate with us. What sustained him? What would his insides look like? He barely slept, yet had boundless energy. I don't want to sleep. I just want to listen. I lean up and look out the window. Twenty yards away, there's a woman with long dark hair wrapped in gray cloth and I see her holding a bucket by the handle just before she drops below the horizon down the back of the hill. Another superstitious old woman from the village. She's gone before I can move. It's still again. So still.

I must have dozed off. Minks's drawn face is right above me and his breath stinks. He's whispering and I want to shout but Biggs'll kick my ass. "It's her, man. It's her song. She's here, around us. The washer woman. She smells of lye and potash and she knows. Can you smell her?"

"Puck you, Minks, get out of my face:'

"Listen to me. Don't wash. Don't wash anything. Nothing. Or, or maybe wash everything, every day. Keep it clean. Shit, I don't know. I don't know:' He turns away, brow pinched, and goes back

to his cot. I can't sleep.

Minks is gone before I wake .. The day is slow and the others are playing tetherball with the inflated pig stomach they tied to a string ten yards up the siren's pole. I'm too tired to leave the bunker. I finish the comic I've read fifty times. I take Minks's book and start flipping through. He's got a chapter dog-eared. It's titled 'Washer Woman. There's some music notation and translated lyrics, along with a note about it being the traditional song from which the myth originated. I hum the melody. Same one I hear at night. On the facing page there's a drawing of a swarthy woman with long black hair waist deep in water, naked and covered in blood, holding a metal chestplate. The caption says 'Washing the armor of warriors before they die in battle'. I flip the page to the story's loose translation:

A villager washes her new husband's blood-stained armor in the river the night before he leaves for battle. He looks angry but it's too late to stop her. Never mind, he says. Never mind. He kisses her beneath her tearing eye, taking the saltwater away. He tells her a second kiss will be on her lips when he returns, but he never returns. Only an officer's armor glints like that in the sun, she hears the other soldiers say. They talk of the bearded man with long white hair who had glued white tufts to his chestplate before soaking it with her husband's blood. Vengeful, she sneaks away to the enemy's camp. She searches through windows and steals the armor of the man they described. She sings as she washes it in the river, her husband's blood united with his ashes, then returns the armor. The next day, the soldiers bring home the dead white-

'l haired man, but in the enemy's camp, there is talk of a woman. As .. if in a dream, someone says, by the river, naked, covered in blood, washing the armor and kissing the air as if a ghost was kissing her back, and singing a refrain over and over. She's trying to find her lost lover, some say. Others say it's revenge, and every bloodied armor holds her lover's own. Warnings fall from lips. She is death's servant, marking the next. They stop burning the bodies and the warnings drift down to the woman's camp. A messenger coming to warn her hears her singing and runs away. The villagers drown her that night, but she is in the river still.

I close the book and go seek sunshine. The bunker's dim and humid, but outside there's a breeze under the heat. Back home,

it's autumn in November. I string a hammock out back between a lone tree and the bunker's roof where the eastern hill dips down and leads to the water. I take a nap.

I hear a rustling and open an eye. Minks is coming up the hill, a hundred yards away from me, kicking the gravel and holding something in his oversized vest. He doesn't see me. No one's ever out behind the bunker here. I slide out of the hammock and it

bunches back up and looks as thin as a clothesline. I creep around the side of the bunker. 'Twenty yards away, he leans against the tree, his body obscured to anyone else but me. He puts his foot up on a boulder and pulls a glass bottle out from his vest, filled with white liquid, and starts to drink.

"Minks:'

He jumps and liquid splashes on the boulder. I lunge for the bottle, but he's quick and I miss. He stares at me with a milk mustache. I grab for it again and he doesn't stop me. I flick it and it dings in C sharp.

"So when'd you become a thief?"

"What?"

"Well, either you stole it or you've got yourself a little girlfriend down there giving you presents. So either tell me when'd you be-

WASHER WOMAN

come a thief, or when'd you start seeing her?"

"No, no. It's ... No, it's not that:'

"No, then what is it?" I take a drink but spit it out. "Ugh, goat

milk. Shoulda figured:' ,

"Don't. Don't waste it. Please:'

"All right, here. Just tell me where you got it:' "A woman. In the village. She has goats:'

"Yeah, they all have goats, so what?" I'm feeling impatient. Ifhe's getting goat milk, I could be getting something too. Something better than goat milk. "They're the enemy; man, what the fuck are you doing down there?" I'm trying not to shout.

"Shh, it's OK, it's nothing. Just a woman. She lost her family I think. I saw her when I went out walking by the river a few weeks ago. All the other women yell and spit when they see us, but she was alone and quiet, untangling her hair with a wet stone and washing out a leather milk sack. She saw me, but she didn't run. She just kept washing the sack:' Minks says they don't talk. He helps her milk her goats and she gives him some. She wasn't the prettiest thing in the world, but who'd want to worry about the prettiest girl in the world here. Good for him.

Sometime in the night Minks started singing again. I'm pretending to read my Spiderman comic again, the issue where Peter Parker's boss is freaking out because he's an expectant father and Spiderman's aunt coaches him on what to do. My wife gave it to me before we left. She knew that I wasn't going to take a real baby book with me. But I might've. I've read this issue fifty times but I'm not reading it now. I can't help but cry a bit listening to Minks's voice. A shadow passes over the window. I lean up, trying not to make the cot chatter on the floor. I can't see any movement. I look to each side but see nothing. I arch out for a b~1ter view but feel the cot's frame lift and I lean back down.

In the morning Minks is muttering again and we're all a little touchy. His greasy hair is an unmoving hood of orange and his eyes are darting across one of his old letters as dawn breaks through the bullet holes in the walls. I'm waiting for the first shaft to hit Biggs's eye. Light never hits the ceiling, but I'm watching it move across the walls as the stink of sweat grows. The shaft hits Biggs's eye and he jumps out of bed, lunges at Minks and slices his pen down the letter Minks is reading, tearing it in half just to show that he hasn't slept and he's pissed. Minks just gets up and heads to the door.

"Where you think you're going, lanky?" says Biggs to Minks.

"Down to that little chickadee of yours? Jesus sees everywhere. He sees you going down to the village. Down there with the enemy. They're going to shoot you, lanky. One less wounded for us to deal with later. I don't mind that. What I'm wondering is if they're watching you too. I don't like those Irish keys you sing, Minks . . The Lord Jesus never sung in no Irish keys, but I 'ain't so dumb that I don't notice you sing em every time you get back from a date with your little chickadee. They're watching you, Minks. Even if you think she ain't, them leaders is. And they think we weak now. So you better get your Jesus-loving ass .back in here;' says Biggs, putting his pen behind his ear.

The next few days, I watch for Minks. I'm not sure what to do, . but I watch him, waiting for him to slip off down to the village. Looking for a milk mustache. Whenever. he's muttering I just read my comic book again and again, whispering the words to drown out any of his talk of cleanliness or the washer woman. In the comic, Aunt May talks about formula and pasteurized milk being less than half the nutritional value of natural milk from

the breast. I haven't eaten the soup they feed us in a few days. My stomach's been getting worse. I want to taste the milk.

The underside of the tin holding my maps is dusty and mirrored, and when I look at it, I don't remember my hair being so coarse, or having gray strands. I sleep with my gun now. I hum Minks's song in my head whenever it's silent, hoping maybe ifI just repeat it over and over in my mind, I won't hear it come from him.

o river, take these tears back home

To the seas mouth where my love waits for me For my lips hold a kiss that won't come

o river, take this blood back home

To join its body burned to ash and tallow Soon the dead and the dying will be one

That night.'the motherfucker sang. He sang and I gripped my comic book to my chest, crumpling it, repeating the pregnancy instructions in it over and over. I couldn't interrupt him. Biggs just slept like a fucking stone. One of my tears blurred the comic page. I'm still sobbing when I wake back up to Biggs's voice.

"Minks is gone and it's his shift. Keep an eye out. I'm running perimeter;' and he slaps my belly. I swear I hear a hollow thud in

G flat like an out of tune timpani. '

"Darnmit, Biggs;' I say, but he's out the door. I'm looking my gear over, rifling through for dirt or stains. What about Biggs? I didn't see. I must.have left the bunker, returned, and left again fifty times before the sun was high in the sky. Once I heard the bray of a goat and followed it over the hill, but it stopped and the footprints were all jumbled; boot, sandal, bare foot. Back inside, Minks is in the corner by the stack of cots, facing the wall. The sound of aluminum tapping makes my heart thump and for a moment I wonder if she's in here with us. I see his chest inflate and hear the stacked cots shudder every time he inhale'S:

"How the hell did you get in here? What is that? Is that from her?" He jerks his head towards me and in the shadow I can only see those whiteout eyes of his and the milk bottle. He's scared of me. I almost laugh and I wonder what my own eyes look like to him.

"1. I had to. I'm starving. And she's ... She's not well:' I look him over and he's wet and covered in flecks of dust.

"Who is she, Minks?" I grab the bottle from him and chug the whole thing down. My hand is shaking and it's all I can do not to spill. My stomach feels like a cooling layer of plastic is being poured over it. "Why the fuck do you still go down there? Goddammit, they're spying on us:'

"No, no, she's not. They're not. We weren't even by the village.

We were down by the river. She was washing milk stains off some clothing:' Who knows ifhe's right? Knowing gets left behind after being out here foea few weeks and Minks is just the last one to find that out. "I was there when we killed her family, Frank. Maybe she's taken us as her new one:'

"Ah, fuck," I say, tossing the bottle back into his chest. Maybe she's not scared of him and it's just one and one is two and it's just the people math of the scared and lonely .

An explosion shudders the bunker. Biggs slams the door open, the torn green fabric on his shoulder revealing blood below.

"Come on sissies. Jesus says the day is young, and we've got some killing to do;' shouts Biggs as shrapnel pelts the bunker. Raid sirens. Screams of the villagers in the distance between each

\

SCOTT LAMBRIDIS

blaring call. Something hard hits my elbow. Then a vest flies at . me. Minks is throwing his gear in the middle of the room. He's pushing himself against the wall, as far away from his gear as he can get. He starts pulling his shirt over his head. Biggs yells. "Minks, what the fuck are you doing? If you don't get your gear on now, Jesus is going to fuck you up himself. Frank, pin him down, this ain't the time:'

"No, no, no, I'm not going:' says Minks. His voice is muffled by the wet tunic halfway over his head. I grab and yank it back down. I hear heavy stomps on the concrete as Biggs runs over and drags him to the floor and sits on his chest.

"She cleaned me. She goddamm washed everything:' shouts Minks.

"You fell in the fucking river, man, chill out:' I shout. I'm trying to pull his head back through his shirt's hole but it's soggy and dragging against his hair. Biggs has already got Minks's vest over each of Minks's arms. I yank the shirt hard and Minks's head pops through. He yelps as his hair pulls out with the fabric. Biggs is there with the helmet. He slams it on Minks's head and tugs the strap shut. Minks is struggling, but Biggs is up again and pointing the gun at Minks's face.

"Get up, you're no fucking cleaner than any of the rest of us:' "No man, that was after. When I woke, it was clean. Everything was clean:'

Biggs slams him in the face with the back of his gun, spraying blood from Minks's nose. "Well, you ain't clean now, so get up:' and Minks does.

The world goes nasty, somewhere between fast and slow, but not quite in-between. The washer woman's melody turns in my head ,~. and each explosion and scream is just a harmony. 1 crouch and ~ run and bullets zing past like sixteenth notes. ~

When I carry Minks back, all doped up on morphine, his shirt ~ is ripped open and his blood pours onto my pants. I lay him on ~ . the gurney outside the camp. :

"I knew:' he says, "I knew. The washer woman. She washed my ~

armor and now I'm dying:' ~

"Quiet Minks, save if' I press on his belly, but the bleeding ~

won't abate. Milk dribbles out with the blood. :

"You have to know, man. She's cleaning you for death. Your clothes:'

"Minks, what did I just fucking say? Shut the fuck up:' Minks starts singing and! can't stop him.

A village girl runs up.a face off right. She points to the blood trail. She pulls on Minks in my arms. I let her pull us, but don't let go. She urges me forward and 1 follow. Minks continues singing as we walk down the hill to the river. At the edge of the river, she smiles, pushing her hand along his hairline, smoothing it down. She starts humming with him, harmonizing in E minor, the key of our war. I put Minks down and just listen, watching his blood drain into the water with or without pressure from my hand. I don't know how he can have any left. They stop singing.

"We were sweeping the houses close to the perimeter. You re'member:' says Minks, wincing. "That first night we got here. The men got feisty and we put them down. We killed her husband and eldest child. She was here, cleaning their clothes. She says she visits the river to pay her respects, but I know I'm right. She cleaned my gear while we slept:' His white eyes become yellow and she covers them with her hand. I take him back before she

can wash him off. If it's her, I have to kill her, but I can't take her

out here. Not now, but soon.

I'm awake all night, going through Minks's things now that his cot is against the wall. Reinforcements are getting here tomorrow, but word is that the villages are uniting for an offensive. I read Minks's letters and they say nothing. I read the Celtic song but I can't hear the key. Or else I can sound it out aloud, but can't feel the rhythm. I put the book down and stare at my boots, covered in river mud. I open my comic and in the inside cover, I write 'Molly, either I'll die tomorrow or she will. Either I'll be there for you or I won't. Either way, I love you: I dream of the future. I dream of returning home from a normal job. Of entering the house and seeing my child's clean diaper, and feeling my heart shatter. I picture the Washer Woman, black haired and swarthy, coated in the blood' of warriors, The image is easy. I try to hear the song. If only I could remember the melody, the rhythm, and the words together, then it would transport me through time, repeating like a song stuck in your head, but I can't recall all three at once, so I am only here, and now. I wake up to Biggs punching me in the gut. I can't yell because his hand is covering my mouth.

"Shut your trap:' he says. "You freakin' all the newbies out with all your singing:' and then he crawls back to his cot.

They'll know soon enough. She washes the soldiers' clothes. We hold for her the kiss that won't come, and every day, we die. I look down at my boots and the river mud has been washed away.

Born and raised in New York, Scott Lambridis earned a degree in neurobiology from UVa - which he promptly abandoned for a creative career. Before moving to San Francisco he spent his evenings crafting stories into music, artwork, and macabre multimedia books as founder of Omnibucket.com. Now, he designs digital media by day while focusing on fiction at night (and hosting creative writing workshops at 826 Valencia).

The story wa§, inspired by Dave Senecal's painting, reproduced here. You can see more of Dave's art at senecal.deviantart.com, his epilogue.net gallery and elsewhere, including our sister magazine Interzone.