All Stories, General Fiction

Caught Wearing the Rags of War by Tom Sheehan

The day’d gone over hill, but light still remained, cut with a gray edge, catching rice paddy corners. In battle’s blue brilliance they’d become comrades, friends, Walko and Williamson and Sheehan, at night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River in August of ‘51 in Korea. Three men clad in rags of war. Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were earned, hungers absolved, ponderous God talked to. Above silence, that God’s weighty as clouds, elusive as windy soot, yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth in rituals old as labor itself, men clad in rags of war. Such August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth, fires hardpan, does not die before dawn, makes strangers in one’s selves, those caught wearing rags of war. They’d been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush of tracer nights and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer cooled by bloody waters where brothers roam, warriors come to that place by fantastic voyages, by generations of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm bodies, dropped in the spawning, fruiting womb of America, caught wearing rags of war.

Walko, reincarnated Central European, the land lovers who scatter grain seed, bones like logs, wrists strong as axle trees, fair and blue-eyed, a prankster, a ventriloquist who talked off mountainsides, rumormonger for fun, heart of the hunter, hide of the herd, apt killer caught wearing rags of war.


Williamson, faceless in the night, black set on black, only teeth like high piano keys, eyes that captured stars, fine nose got from Rome through rape or slave bed generations back, cornerback tough, graceful as ballet dancer (Walko’s opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a woman’s touched, or one’s fitful child caught in fever clutch, came sperm-tossed across cold Atlantic, an elder Virginia-bound bound in chains, the Congo Kid come home, the Congo Kid, alas, alas, caught wearing rags of war.

Sheehan, reluctant at trigger-pull, dreamer, told deep lies with dramatic ease, entertainer who wore inward a sum of ghosts forever from the cairns had fled; heard myths and the promises in earth and words of songs he knew he never knew, carried scars vaguely known as his own, shared his self with saint and sinner, proved pregnable to body force, but caught wearing rags of war.

Walko: We lost the farm. They stole it. My father loved fields, sweating. He watched grass grow by starlight, the moon slice new leaves. The mill’s where he worked, in the crucible, drawing on green vapor, right in the heat of it, the miserable heat. My mother said he started dying the first day. It wasn’t the heat or green vapor did it, just going off to the mill, grassless, tight in. The system took him. He wanted to help. It took him, killed him a little each day, just smothered him. I kill easy. Memory does it. I was born for this, to wear these rags. The system gives, then takes away. I’ll never go piecemeal like my father. These rags I’m caught in are my last home.

Williamson: Know why I’m here’ I’m from North Ca’lina, sixteen and big, wear size fifteen shoes and my town drafted me ‘stead of a white boy. Chaplain says he git me home. Shit! Be dead before then. Used to hunt home, had to eat what was fun runnin’ down. Brother shot my sister and a white boy in the woods. Caught ’em skinnin’ it up against a tree, run home, give me his gun.  Momma cries about ’em all night. Can’t remember their faces. Feel his gun in my hands, smooth, squirrel’s left eye never too far for it. Them men back home know how I shoot, send me here, put these rags on me. Two wrongs!  I’m goin’ to fix it at home. They don’t think I’m coming back, They be nervous when I get back, me and that gun my brother give me, and my rags of war.

Sheehan: Stories are my food. I live and lust on them. Spirits abound in the family, indelible eidolons; the O’Siodhachain, the O’Sheehaughn carved a myth. I wear scars in my soul, know their music, songs’ words, strangers that are not strangers: Muse Devon abides with me, moves in the blood and bag of my heart, whispers tonight: Corimin’s in my root cell, oh bright beauty of what has come upon me, chariot of cheer, carriage of Cork where the graves are, where my visit found the root of the root cell—Johnny Igoe, ten, running before the famine taking brothers and sisters, lay father down; sick in the hold of ghostly ship I’ve seen from Cork’s coast, in the hold heard myths and music he’d spell all his life, remembering hunger, being alone, brothers and sisters and father gone and mother praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror of hers last touching his face. Pendalcon’s grace comes on all of us at the end.

Johnny Igoe came alone at ten and made his way across newest Columbia, got my mother who got me and told me when I came twelve that one day Columbia would need my hand. “Columbia,” tonight I say, “I’m here with my hands and with my rags of war.”

I came home alone. They’re all my comrade brothers: Williamson, Walko, Devon,  Corimin. Pendalcon. Oh, God is my brother. I am a brother to all those caught in their rags of war.

Thunderous rain kills, freezing snow fights its way through fragmentation’s dance. Its umbrella spread is June’s egregious death. You’re a single target, like a sniper’s aim when a thirty ought-six brings beastly heat. You don’t know who dies, or when, though a medal shines where it tore its way through, one prime shot at one’s chest from so far away it doesn’t appear to count. All the statistics don’t have a single heart-beat.


Tom Sheehan

Medals of Honour  [Public domain]

3 thoughts on “Caught Wearing the Rags of War by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Korean War often referred to as “The Forgotten War.” If not for the TV show MASH few would know that it ever happened. Remembrance is deserved. The participants are now mainly in their late 8Os and into their 90s. They should be remembered. They deserve it.


  2. Mmmm. Really sumptuous prose here. I’ve just come back from this part of the world, and the descriptions really rang true to me. ‘Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain cool silences were earned’. One of many delightful phrases. Great title too.


  3. Hi Tom,
    What a line to finish with!
    ‘All the statistics don’t have a heartbeat.’
    Something that should always be considered.


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