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*This story first appeared in The Antigonish Review - Volume 52, Number 210 - Summer 2022

 

Donn and the Mourning Moon

By Brandon Nadeau

The Forest. 1995-Nov-07. Prince George, British Columbia. 1805 hours.

Mom taught me the stories of our people, from the moon goddess, whose light enchanted the night, to the banshee, whose scream was an omen of death. She practiced the paganism and witchcraft she’d learned from Nana, who’d long since gone to be with Donn—Lord of the Dead.

Mom was a good witch, but nobody understood that, so they punished her for being different. Beyond witchery, though, she was ordinary. She sewed, baked, drank tea.

Here’s the thing: she lived with schizophrenia, so the real and mythical mingled on occasion. She’d ramble on about a magical cauldron, battle shapeshifters in the form of neighbours, advise strangers to beware of Balor—the one-eyed demon king. I’d claw through mobs and beg mom to come home. Just a kid. Sometimes she didn’t recognize me. One time she thought I was my father.

“Rapist!” She poked my little chest. “You abandoned our son!” My body imploded. Contorted. Ribs curled inward and clawed my organs. My spine spun, tangled up my intestines.

“Liam, Bastard Son of a Witch!” a voice behind me said. The crowd erupted with laughter and jeers that stabbed like pitchforks.

I ran to the forest to die, and not for the last time.

The Foreboding. 2007-Sep-25. Edmonton, Alberta. 1642 hours.

Canada’s oil capital slid across the taxi’s back window. Its highway signs confirmed I’d left Afghanistan, but my clenched jaw and chest pain implied I’d brought it with me. I’d been mentally mangled by six months of shifting from monotony to mayhem at a moment’s notice. Unprovoked bouts of suffocation caused me to gasp without warning.

 

Always on edge, I’d jump at the slightest sound, jerk when torn from a flashback. The cabbie squirmed upfront like a hostage at gunpoint—he hadn’t spoken since we left the base. Only his playlist of Persian melodies vibrated between us.

In my window view, autumn—a time when wonderful things die, whether we like it or not. The clichés of its beauty are true, of course: pumpkins on porches, migrating geese, steam from cups of coffee carried off with the breeze. The fucking leaves. Edmonton had it all that day. 

I scrutinized every fighting-age male we passed.

Downtown smelled of exotic cuisine, sewage, and car exhaust. City workers filled potholes at half the rate they appeared. Yuppies ignored homeless folks who looked unsure of their own existence. The cab’s brakes shrieked at the sight of my building: cracked glass, rotten wood, broken bricks. Landlord hadn’t fixed a damn thing.  

 

“Forty-eight-fifty-five,” the cabbie said. His eyes fled when they met mine in the rear-view.  “You ok, brother?” he asked the steering wheel.

I sighed, scanned the sidewalk for landmines.

He brushed invisible dust off the dashboard. “I’ve worked the base awhile, driven others with eyes like yours.”

“Enchanting blue?”

He faced me. “You watch the news?”  

I shrugged, shook my head, almost imperceptibly.

“Some of you guys, man—when you get back—well, sometimes…you hurt yourselves.”  

I grabbed my rucksack with damp hands, passed him a bill, and waived off the change.

“Anyone waiting for you?” He jabbed his beard at my building.

“Thanks for the ride.”

The crisp air bit my neck on the cracked path to my apartment complex. I jiggled my key in the door.

“Brother!” the cabbie called. I winced, turned. He said, “You belong in this world.”

That considerate prick. His words hit like a sniper round to the chest plate. I managed a nod.

My innards churned as I entered my suite. My roommate left a note: “Welcome home, Dumbass. Gone to Winnipeg. Beer in fridge.” I ripped open the fridge door. A case of Kokanee glowed under flickering light. Breathless, I tore into the box, cracked a can with shaking hands. Cold beer passed quivering lips. Chest loosened, hands steadied, mind cleared.

Betrayal. 2007-Sep-26. Edmonton, Alberta. 1808 hours.

“Why’re you such a pussy?” Fiona said while she kicked my ass at Mortal Kombat. “Seriously, I mean, Mohsin's a pussy of the first order.”

Mohsin glanced over, one eyebrow raised.

“But you, my friend,” Fiona’s character grabbed mine, tore him in half, and tossed the pieces, “you are the supreme pussy overlord.”

“Dude!” Mohsin said. “That was bad. You embarrassed? Should be.”

Fiona and Mohsin deployed to Afghanistan before me. She was a tank commander; he was her gunner. We’d been tight for years. We sat on my duct-taped sofa and stacked empties into a castle on the coffee table—as was our custom.

Fiona leaned in with a playful grin. “Best two of three?” Her pixie haircut suited her mischievous nature.

“You’re a whore,” I heard myself say. I stared at my character’s severed torso.

“Very creative.” She pulled away. “Don’t be such a sore—”

“Don’t be such a whore. How ‘bout that? Everyone knows that’s why you got promoted.”

“Dude,” Mohsin said, “what’s your problem?”

“Your people,” I said, “they’re ruining the world.”

They both looked at me like I’d torn out my own eyeball.

“Liam…” Fiona faltered. “What—”

“He should’ve stayed in Trashcanistan with his camel-fucking cousins.” I stood, so did Mohsin—his hand on my throat before my legs were straight.

“No!” Fiona shot up, locked his free arm.

He was twice my size. Three times as tough. Didn’t need both arms to crush me. He studied my face like a map of treacherous terrain. Fiona’s eyes darted between us. A police siren chased the breeze through an open window.

Mohsin’s hand lowered from my throat to my chest as he forced a grinding breath through his Adam’s apple. “How could you…” he looked away, struggled to swallow, pushed off my chest, and took off.

“You too,” I held the door for Fiona, gestured towards the hallway.

“It’s hard coming home, Liam. There’re people—”

“I hate you.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said. “I forgive you.”

I closed the door between us.

Blood Moon. 2007-Aug-28. Kandahar, Afghanistan. 2315 hours.

Ijan was alone when it happened. I wasn’t far off. Close enough to be deafened by the boom. His wide, unblinking eyes met mine as I entered the interpreter’s quarters. A frozen hand clenched my spine; his liberated legs and pelvis were splayed in the rubble like a broken mannequin. 

He tried to speak but only gurgled. I knew the word he mouthed: "Maamaan" means "mother" in Farsi—one of the first words he’d taught me. I traced his gaze through the rocket-punctured roof and out to the stars. When I looked back, he was dead.

Nothing I could do.

Mother. 2007-Mar-04. Prince George, British Columbia. 1235 hours.

“I’ll be on the frontlines,” I said to mom. “Won’t be able to call much.”

Mom’s house was a 1970’s time capsule. Orange, brown, yellow, beige. All-present wood paneling. Nana’s antique dishes glimmered behind the glass of an ornate china cabinet.

“Good soup?” Mom said. Her hair was ashy-white like rabbit fur in February. When did that happen? I wondered.

“You make the best soup, mom.” It was canned tomato. “Should I call you on—.”

“How’s Fiona? You dating yet?”

“Just friends.”

“Oh, Liam, I really like her.” She hunched forward, picked at a chip in her cup.

I craned over, caught her eye from below. “Maybe you should date her.”

Her eyebrow danced the way it did when she held in laughter.

Mom raised me on her own, never dated. Had some fun, no doubt, but didn’t bring it home. Didn’t trust anyone, she said. Just me. Sometimes she cried on the corduroy sofa: curled up, face down, nearly silent. A “Crazy Bitch” sign appeared on the front lawn. Another boss fired her for getting overwhelmed. A new friend ditched her for being “weird.”

 

Other times, when the world ripped her open, she’d polish Nana’s china. “I want my mom,” she’d say, wiping her tears from the floral-patterned cups and saucers. Her tiny body shook to the rhythm of her sobs.

Still, most of our time together was pleasant enough. She’d sip tea and ask about me. I’d eat soup and try to be honest. We’d play Scrabble—sometimes she’d let me win. I’d write stories in the kitchen while she sewed quilts in the craft room. The sewing machine went: Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

A Type of Grieving. 2007-Nov-23. Edmonton, Alberta. 2346 hours.

“Do me a favour, sweetheart,” I told a gigantic biker that bumped me with his potbelly, “watch where you put that gut.” He had a skull tattooed on his throat and a jagged scar from brow to chin. I stood outside a nameless tavern on the northeast side—alone. No Mohsin nearby to save me; he gave up on me after my third-second chance.

“Buddy, don’t act tough,” the biker said, pulling a soggy cigar from his lips.

“Buddy, don’t smoke while pregnant.”

His first punch only grazed me; the second must’ve connected, I thought, as I regained vision from my seat on the concrete.

“I think you’re lost,” he said as I stood and teetered to steady myself.

“Yup.” I side-kicked his bike to the pavement.

He shot at me like a missile. That’s all I remember.

Combat. 2007-Sep-14. Kandahar, Afghanistan. 1330 hours.

I screamed in vain. Muted by impenetrable silence. A dream? Ijan was in my arms. Impossible. His blood looked orange beneath a spotlight that punctured an otherwise black void. A distant, high-pitched tone approached like an ocean wave and crashed into my consciousness: “O’Dwyer! You ok? We hit an IED!” Captain Brown’s voice crackled over the tank’s intercom.

I had all my body parts. “Yeah.”

“It’s an ambush,” the captain explained over the rat-a-tat-tat of rapid gunshots. “Tango-One’s laying down suppressing fire. Get out, prep the tank for recovery.”   

“Yes, Sir.” I grabbed my rifle, dismounted the tank. My knees buckled when I saw the damage: the IED chewed us up like a can opener.

Tango-One’s machine gun stopped. Jammed? The Taliban responded with an RPG. It whistled like a kettle as it flew between an Afghan soldier and me. We locked eyes. A hailstorm of bullets made us dive behind my tank.

I spat. Rubbed sand from my eyes. The Afghan convulsed face down. I grabbed his flak jacket. Flipped him over. His silent, guttural laughter looked like painful sobbing. I fell back and joined him. The perverse euphoria of combat. We’d never met before, nor would we again, but I loved him, and he loved me.

The Triple Goddess. 2005-Dec-23. Prince George, British Columbia. 1807 hours.

“The moon is a feminine deity,” mom said to Fiona. “She shares our cycles.”

“Cycles already, mom?” I hung up Fiona’s coat.

“Not just our monthly cycles,” mom said, “the cycles of our lives, too.”

“Does Aunt Shannon still steal your fabric?” I said, “I can’t believe—”

“You know the Triple Goddess?” mom said. Fiona shook her head, shot me a glance.  “Well, the new moon’s the Maiden.” Mom squeezed Fiona’s forearm. “She’s wild and courageous—like you.” Fiona beamed. “The full moon’s the Mother, like me, a time of fertility, maturity, and sexuali—”

“The waning moon’s the Crone,” I said, “when a woman becomes wise, isn’t ‘onomatopoeia’ such a funny word? Who’s hungry?”

Mom messed up my hair. “I can take a hint.”

Fiona laughed. I loved them.

The Wrath of Balor. 2007-Nov-24. Prince George, British Columbia. 1705 hours.

I woke up in an Edmonton alley covered in blood, garbage, and probably piss. That biker messed me up. My face looked like the discarded parts of a slaughtered goat; I couldn’t open one eye. I drove home to mom, eight hours through the Rockies, nothing else made sense.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

“Aunt Shannon doesn’t have her own sewing machine yet?” I asked mom. Her hand shook as she struggled to open my tomato soup. The kettle simmered on the stove. “Mom, it’s jammed, let me.”

Her skin was pale, clammy. What happened? I wouldn’t know, I didn’t call from overseas, not once, hadn’t even called since I got back.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

“Mom…please.” I grabbed the can.

“No.” She tightened her grip.

“Let go!” The kettle started boiling.

“No!” The kettle started screaming.

RAT-A-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!

“What the hell? You crazy bitch!” The can slipped from my hands as I jerked it free. Cold soup covered my disfigured face. Mom stumbled back and smashed against the china cabinet. A cascade of dishes fell with her to the floor.

 

“Liam, help!”

I moved towards her, “Oh, God, Mom!”

She gasped. “Who are you?” Her face warped into a gnarled knot. “My son will kill you if you hurt me!”

“What? Mom…it’s m—"

“Go away, you monster! You don’t belong here!”

I ran.

Ijan. 2007-Aug-28. Kandahar, Afghanistan. 1857 hours.

“We do not have the Scrabble,” Ijan said. “We play panjagh, maamaan is the best.” His close-cut beard disagreed with his delicate features.

“Panjagh?” I said.

“Stone-throwing game, very old, I will teach you.” We sat at the midpoint of a small mountain. He faced me with his back to the poppy fields and mud huts in the village below.

“Does maamaan ever let you win?”

“Never.” We laughed.

“When’ll you see her again?”

“Next month.” He placed his hand on his heart. “Ramadan.”

“Ramadan’s in September?”

“Different each year, Liam.” He rolled his eyes. “Lunar calendar, I told you before.”

“Right. How do you celebrate?”

His chest doubled in size. “For one month, we pray and fast and give to the poor people.”

“Party animals.”

“What? No. That comes after. Eid Al-Fitr is the party.” 

“What’s that?”

“We feast!” He shot up with his arms in the air, then called down to the valley: “Maamaan makes shor-nakhod and sweets!”  

“Must be good.” I glanced back over each shoulder. 

“Maamaan’s cakes are the best.” He sat beside me. “Will I see you tonight?”

“Yeah, eleven.”

“Do not be late. You are always late.”

“I won’t.”

“Good.” He placed his hand on mine.

A mosque in the village began its call to prayer. The sky turned orange. The sun slipped away.

The Mourning Moon. 2007-Nov-24. Prince George, British Columbia. 1837 hours.

I ran through the crystal-white woods. Snow crunched underfoot, defiling the sacred silence of the dark. An inferno burned in my lungs, fueled by frozen air; it radiated pain with every laboured inhalation. I ran harder.

I’d torn off my shirt so the forest could flog my body. Salt from my tears persecuted my wounds. I collapsed. A train horn wailed in the distance. My breath rose past the judging eyes of crows on crooked branches.

I didn’t deserve that cabbie's compassion, I thought, nor Mohsin’s mercy, Fiona’s forgiveness. No. I belonged with Ijan in the Afghan dust, but I’d settle for the house of Donn.

The Mourning Moon is the last full moon before the winter solstice. Mom says, “It's a time to grieve and unburden our souls, to embrace the cycle and make way for new life.”

That night I’d die in the light of the mother goddess, and not for the last time.

THE END

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