Fred is an arsonist—and, Fred is not an arsonist. Let me explain: Fred has thought of fire, its power and grace, for a long time. Perhaps since he was a child. He often watched fires, mesmerized... [+]
"You're in New England," the man in front of me said with a British accent, so my mind—which I knew was not running completely clearly—assumed he meant that we both were in a new version of England, post Brexit, post capitalism, post-combustible engine. Something like that.
"New England," I said to myself, considering the phrase. It sounded familiar, but how could the new already sound as though it were from the past? I was still leaning against the tree I had been against since gaining consciousness. Was this New England an ever-changing phenomenon, like some product repackaged—a mere shift in color and shape and texture, but essentially the same? I looked at the man bent over me and saw a stethoscope around his neck. I thought, General hospital—which somehow made sense, though I wasn't sure why.
Beyond the man and his stethoscope was a field with patches of fire and people rushing back and forth. Beneath them were other bodies, like mine, lying on the ground. A battlefield, it seemed. Okay, I thought. The general hospital must be for, well, generals. A special hospital for generals.
Yes. Things were beginning to make sense.
I thought it best to stay in the present, to think through what I had perceived since I woke up, and what was immediately around me. I realized then that I had thought general hospital before I saw that we were in a battlefield. So, perhaps I was a general, or needed to get a general to the hospital. But this I couldn't be sure. From the look and feel of my body, perhaps I needed to go to a hospital. I knew I was in some sort of shock, too much to really know how hurt I was.
I looked down at my clothes—brown corduroy pants and a button-down shirt, ripped and stained with what looked like blood and grease. Not a soldier's outfit, I thought. But then I thought again: this is new England. The army might be different—the uniforms and methods of fighting all new. I looked up at the man with the telescope—I mean stethoscope—and he seemed to be looking down at me with compassion. He was not the enemy, then, unless of course, the enemy was new as well, and part of their tactics was to appear friendly to the disoriented. Don't give out information, I told myself. Just in case.
It was then by coincidence—or perhaps not—that the man with the scope, asked me, "Do you know your name?"
I smiled, shook my head. I had figured out to remain silent just in time! Although, upon reflection, I realized that I had simply told him the truth. I didn't know my name or anything about my past. Was it alright that I had not lied? What if the new enemy dropped bombs that caused amnesia and this was the field in which they were testing it out? On us. On me. And I had just given him the answer he wanted.
But how would he know I was telling the truth? I could have been lying, which is as good as a lie.
I smiled again at that and looked past him, though he hovered close, as if to block my view. There were no guns anywhere. Not on the people who ran around, not on the ground or by the fallen. A whole new war then, in this new England.
"Can you talk at all?" the man asked.
"I'm not sure," I said, and then realized that I had. My first thought when hearing my own voice, which I had no memory of, was, Why don't I sound British, like he does? Did only the new British get to keep the accent? Or am I a stranger? There were getting to be too many questions. I had to start sorting them out.
"Am I a general?" I asked after deciding to ask.
The man laughed—too instantaneously to fake. Okay, then, I'm not a general; something far from it. I laughed with him, as though I'd meant the joke, as though I knew it would be funny to him. See how many wits I had about me? I adjusted my back against the tree. The bark was digging into my spine—and when I did, I noticed my hands were dark with soil. All this time, while I was thinking, my hands had been softly digging at the dirt on either side of me, as though they were seeking something to hold on to, as though a handle or a rope would appear just below the surface and I'd be able to grab on and prevent myself from floating away.
I looked at my dirty white hands. They were like two wounded birds trying to burrow into the dirt. Even though they were dark now, I knew they were white, that I was white. I'd known it even before I looked at them. I knew I was male, too, even without looking. How had these parts of me made it through whatever trauma I had passed through but not other parts, like my name, where I lived, or what I was doing before I passed out?
I was not a general, but this was a war, a battlefield, a battlefield without guns. And we were in England and somehow it was new, if what the man said was true.
I decided to go back over everything again, and an interesting pattern appeared: What popped into my head randomly seemed to predict reality better than my own reasoning. I had thought general and then saw that I was in fact on a battlefield. I had thought of this as a new battlefield, and then discovered that in fact, there were no guns. Then I recalled accidentally calling what the man had around his neck a telescope. Perhaps that was not an accident at all. I don't mean to say that I was confused about what I saw: I knew that what was around his neck was a stethoscope, but maybe my subconscious mind, which I was sure had the answer to everything, had slipped that word in as a clue. I looked up at the sky, which was bright blue dots between the swaying leaves of the oak tree I leaned against.
"Yes," the man said. "You came from there, you fell, but you survived."
"From the tree?" I said. I looked back at him just long enough to see him smile again.
"From the sky," he said. "You were in a plane and it fell."
Fell, I wondered, or was it shot down? In either case I was right: the telescope had pointed me to the sky, where I had come from.
"How do you feel?" the man asked, but I was busy figuring two things out: how would a plane fall on such a clear day, unless it was shot, and if it had been shot down, was he or his people the ones responsible? And, how could I trick my subconscious mind into telling me more, because it seemed to offer me information I could trust more than the man before me.
"Where is the general?" I asked.
He laughed again, but this time I did not laugh with him. Was he trying to trick me?
"There is no general," he said.
If he was telling the truth, then this new form of war, fought in this new England was so foreign to me, I had no hope of ever understanding it. Hopefully, if I was a soldier, or a pilot, or whatever, the new rules of war would still let me recover—leave the service with an honorable discharge.
I looked down then and saw the blood seeping through the fabric of my shirt, just above my chest. I reached up my dirty hand and touched it. Honorable discharge, I thought as I felt the sticky substance. Is this what it means?
"We're getting someone for you," the man said. "Be patient."
"You mean, be a patient," I said.
He smiled weakly. Something was breaking inside him it seemed. Perhaps he was tired, holding up the charade.
"At general hospital," I added, just to make sure he understood that I knew what was going on.
"Actually, Concord Memorial is the closest," he said.
"Like the plane," I said. It was all coming together: In the past, the Concord was a plane of the future, but it had died, had not come into the future after all. Concord Memorial must be where the plane was being taken. Unless—a frightening thought swept past me: what if I was the plane! And I only saw myself as a human. What if he was not a doctor but a mechanic? The man had said I had fallen.
But no, a plane cannot have amnesia, a plane cannot be male and white. It cannot bleed, can it?
Who knew? I mean, we were in a new England, in a different future, one in which hospitals were named after dead planes and battles were fought without guns or generals.
It was too much to figure out, and I needed so badly a new clue. I tried to clear my head. Think of nothing, I instructed. And then I thought of nothing, which seemed more frightening than the chaos in front of me. And from the cellars of my mind, a question leaped out.
"Will I die?" I asked.
The man looked away. "We will all die," he said, "at some point."
"Will you kill me?"
He looked at me closely then in silence. "I'm not sure," he said, "if that's a question or a request. Either way, the answer is no."
I felt simultaneously sorrow and relief. I shifted my back again and realized that it was not the tree that was pressing into my spine. There was something inside me. I felt a pain, the first I'd felt since waking. I thought the word body, then the word fuselage for some reason. The body of the plane.
I was not a plane, but a part of the plane was in my body.
I leaned my head against the tree. I understood, even with my eyes closed, that I was resting in two planes: the vertical, in which the fuselage of my body lay, and the horizontal, where my legs rested. But I could not run from this scene, from myself or my situation. The battle was inside me.
I had fallen. To a new place, and new land, a new England. Everything was plane and general. The stethoscope listened within, the telescope gazed far out. I could hear the thin beat of my heart and I could see the vast constellations above.
It was then that I understood that I had not understood the scope of things at all. Yes, I did not know my name, but I did not need to know it. I was on a new plane, one in which I would not need it. And the man before me—enemy or friend—was here, alive, and had stayed with me, even in this battle. These were the facts I had missed.
"Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome." He took one of my hands, though caked with dirt.
There was only one thing left I wanted to know. "What is your name?" I asked, as, against the night of my eyelids, the stars brightened.