“We should go forth on the shortest of walks, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.”
The wind was light, betraying the gravity of the surrounding mortar and cement that was peppered with gunshot wounds. These marks, punctures that never bled, never healed, had been my home for several months. Scourged to the arid desert of Afghanistan, where there existed a vacuum of empathy for the dead, I, along, with the rest of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, was sent to rid the world of a terror that had no foreseeable end. This terror, bathed in the blood of innocents, bathed in the blood of a civilization whose institutions were founded on life, on liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, had represented an evil more clear and wrong and real than any I’d seen before. To my young mind, these were, unquestionably, The Bad Guys. So, with shifty eyes and a round in the chamber, we took the embassy at the heart of their capital, dismissing the heat of the late summer and driving on. We took it and held it between our foaming teeth, filed down to daggers by training and the eagerness of youth.
We held it. And days passed.
And months passed. And the climate of both Earth and man changed.
And in this one place, on this one night, I changed as well.
I was walking between the retaining wall of the embassy and another wall set up to confuse aggressors. We were told that beyond the retaining wall and immediately across the street was another compound that still held potential Al Qaeda. They may even likely be guarding it.
For lust or love, we accepted this without question. The Bad Guys were right next door. Any day now… Any fucking day now… The cold had approached through a thunderhead, and in its wake the sky had scattered the land with falling snowflakes, like the ashes of a dying autumn. This ivory blanket, still in the making, gave an eerie silence to the moment, the minnows of sound being caught in small icy nets and gobbled up into the ether.
The snow from earlier in the week had melted and encased the leafless branches of an overhanging tree, giving it an almost personified form; making it seem like a monster out to rend me with talons sharper than my Ka-bar. Even so, what sweet music was made when their fingers collided? When frozen gem touched frozen gem?
I went through the mantra of what I should do if I saw them. One of the Bad Guys. “Kill.” “Kill.” “Kill.” And why not? They’d kill me if they could…
But how? How would you kill them in this scenario? How would you kill them in another one? What about another one? And the one after that?
It didn’t matter. So long as I killed them.
But this wasn’t the case.
In this one place, at this one time, completely alone and in deafening silence save for the wind in the trees… In this one place at this one time the man across the street, the haji I would have casually shot in the face just moments before, began playing a homemade flute.
And the moment’s recognition met with my conscious transformation. It was a beauty I couldn’t have imagined to pray for. The flute danced along the melody of the wind through the branches, accompanied by the sweet chimes of the trees playing their crystalline cymbals like a belly dancer in slow motion. All the while, the snowflakes melted on the muzzle of my loaded gun, precious and fleeting as a passing thought.
I felt in a way I never would have otherwise, caught like sound in the snow. Freezing and frozen. And then I left.
Two years later I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. and, having saved enough money to begin again as a regular citizen, I tried to start over. Soaked in horror but needing to smile, I tried to start over.
I had no debts. My will was made before I ever left America. No affairs needed tending (at least those I had the ability to attend to). I was a free man.
And so, without knowing it, I took one of Thoreau’s walks. And I wept.