Michael Henson

The Soldier Pierced by a Faerie


            The soldier was dozing the miles away in the last, seemingly endless leg of his journey home when he felt a child pass through him like a spear.

            He had the back of the Greyhound to himself with the restroom wall at his back. He could finally stretch out. He could watch out the window as the miles rolled by. He could see the cloud-entangled moon, the lights of the houses near the road, the star-like lights of the houses on the dark hills. This relieved the cramped, claustrophobic anxiety he had suffered when the bus was full and he was pressed between a big-shouldered trucker to his right and a big-bellied short-order cook to his left.

            Cook and trucker each wanted to talk away the hours and they each had questions and they each had opinions so they fired question and opinion back and forth across him.

            “So, they flew you halfway across the world,” said the trucker. “Then they dropped you off on the wrong side of the country. And then they just put you on a bus?”

            “That’s the Army for you,” said the cook.

            The situation was more complicated than that but, yes that was the Army, they all agreed. But the trucker and the cook still managed to argue. There was no harm in them, but still, it was agony to hear them argue. It was agony to be pressed in with no room to move, no way to see around him.

            Finally, the trucker got off at one stop and the cook got off at the next. The soldier could stretch himself out now; he could breathe.

            The day wore on and the night wore on and the miles rolled by and the bus gradually emptied. Now only half a dozen passengers remained, scattered right and left, front to back through the bus. For a time, there had been talkers among them. But as the hours wound down and the miles unspooled, some of the talkers had talked themselves out and others had reached the end of their particular journey. And now, the sun having set on an early winter night, the passengers still on the bus had settled, each of them, into sleep or some other silence.

            The only sound now was the deep, Tibetan thrumming of the motor and the whine of the tires on the road.

            The soldier was coming from the war on the other side of the world where his sleeping time and his waking time had long been inverted and he had tried to stay awake while it was still day and to sleep now that it was night. But he had been too long at waking and watching at any new sound, so each time the bus stopped for each small town, he woke and watched –who got on, who got off, and what they carried.

            So here they were, at another small town. Two old farmers who had boarded in the last city got off; two more farmers got on. There was a shuffling of gear under the bus as the crew unloaded two bags and loaded two more. The new farmers settled into their seats and talked low to one another. Outside, in front of the station, the farmers who had gotten off stood with their bags at their sides, shaking hands with someone come to greet them. The soldier felt a tingle of envy. These farmers were almost home. In a short time, they would be sitting with their families. They could take off their boots; they could drink their coffee at their own kitchen tables.

            At the next town, a man and a woman got off and a man and a woman got on. A new crew loaded and unloaded a new set of bags. The new man and woman were both short and dark, muscular and stoic. Guatemalan, the soldier guessed, or Honduran. They sat on opposite sides and whispered to one another across the aisle.

            It would be early morning when he reached home and it was not likely he would get any sleep after that. Everyone would want to greet him; everyone would want to see him and do for him. His wife would want to talk; his children would want to play. It would be a long time before he could close his eyes again. So he punched his pack into pillow shape and settled against it.

            The little sleep he had gotten so far had been fitful, haunted, and disturbing, fraught with dreams in which he wanted to scream but had no voice; he wanted to move, but his arms and legs had turned to wood. So in the time he slept he had gained no rest. And he was gaining no rest now. He fidgeted into different positions, trying to find a way to let sleep capture him. Finally, hopelessly restless, he sat up and let the bus run down the hours and the miles to his home. He watched the lights from the distant farmhouses and the nearer lights of the all-night truck stops, islands of light in the darkness. The wide pastures gradually gave way to hills of second-growth timber and hills with abandoned tipples tucked among them. Over the next hours, the hills themselves grew steeper and more damaged and the patches of timber alternated with strip mine banks and strip malls and liquor stores. Above them all, the moon ran in and out of big, billowed clouds fat with snow.

            At about an hour from his home, the bus slowed to pass through a little crossroads town and he sat up to see. There was the little crossroads store –abandoned now—w here once his father had taken him and the men talked guns and dogs. And there was the little church –abandoned now—where his mother once took him and old women with papery hands prayed over him.

            Lights flared in the windows of a few of the houses. First shift miners, he thought, getting ready for work.

            Almost home, he thought. Almost home.

            The notion comforted him and, for the moment, relieved his anxieties. His head grew heavy. He leaned against the glass as if it were a breast; a contentedness flowed down the plains of his nerves, and he fell into a deep, dreamless, utterly restful sleep.

            For how long? Moment, only moments, for suddenly he felt a sharp thump in the middle of his back, a whack like that of someone using the hammer of his fist.

            Big mistake, he thought, big mistake to turn your back.

            Instantly, he made the calculation that this would not incapacitate him. Instantly and with the near-autonomic responsiveness he had learned in the desert, he turned, he reached for his weapon.

            But he had no weapon. And there was no one behind.

            Before he could make another calculation and before he could turn to look again, he felt he had been entered heart and lung.

            He felt no pain, and yet it was as if he had been run through with a blade or a bullet—the thump at his back, the sense of invasion and displacement.

            Please God, he thought, don’t let it be a bullet.

            He had seen men get shot, men of the enemy, men in his own unit. He had seen the little tent of cloth and flesh thrown up in the instant a bullet emerged. Ffftt, he had seen it. Ffftt, ffftt, ffttt.

And here it was, that little pluck of displacement as a lance-like form emerged from a point just to the left of his breastbone.

            The tent of his shirt collapsed and suddenly, as if it had been the most natural thing in the world, a full-formed girl-child stood in the aisle in front of him.

            He thought, What am I seeing? Who is this? What is this? What? . . . he wanted to speak. But his lungs, his voice, it was as if they had been captured. All the breath had been blown out of him.

            This isn’t real, he thought. This is some sort of PTSD craziness and I  . . . 

            She had come through him like a knife or a bullet, and yet he felt no pain and there was no sign of a wound. He touched himself in the place where she had passed through him and felt no breach in the skin, not even a wrinkle in the cloth of his shirt. Only a tingle in his breastbone and a flutter in his heart.

            He blinked; he shook his head, but the child was still there.

            An apparition, he decided. A ghost. A fairy, as in the books his parents had read him as a child. And yet, here she stood. And breathed. And held him in her sly gaze with all the solidity of a real child. She looked to be a little older than his sons. She was dusted, like his sons, with freckles across her cheeks and along the bridge of her nose. She was barefoot, dressed in a little white slip, slender, pale, with red hair and pale green eyes. She looked him straight in the eye in the deliberate manner of a child and smiled a little sly smile. Even in the dim running lights of the bus, he could see the down of her lip and he could see the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed. He could have reached out his hand, though he did not dare; he could have brushed back the hair that fell across her eye.

            Not a word, she seemed to say. Don’t say a word.

            He could not have spoken had he tried. He could breathe again, but barely. She held him a moment more in her sly gaze, then tilted her chin, turned, and danced forward to the front of the bus. She glanced back twice, maybe three times, made a half-dozen leaps and twirls, and paused next to the driver in a ballerina pose. 

            Then, in a blink, she was gone.

            As if she had never been.

            The other passengers continued to doze as he had been dozing. They were all folded into their seats, propped against each other or leaning against their backpacks for pillows.

            What just happened? he wondered. What did I just see?

            The Guatemalan woman near the front of the bus raised her head. She looked right, then left, then looked to the rear of the bus. For a moment, her eyes met his, but quickly she looked away.

            Had she seen the girl? He didn’t dare come forward to ask.

            The man across the aisle from the woman leaned toward her and spoke. Then he rose from his seat, stood in the aisle, and leaned down to speak to her again. They both looked back to the rear of the bus and whispered to each other. Then the man started down the aisle toward where the soldier sat.

            He wondered, do they know? Had they seen her? Is he coming to speak to me about her? The man seemed to be looking straight at him and him alone. But at the last moment, he passed the soldier with a nod and opened the restroom door.

            The soldier listened as the man took care of his business. He finished, flushed, and came out the door. He gave the soldier another nod and returned to his seat at the front of the bus.


            By the time the bus reached the soldier’s home town, the snow had started to fall. The town was bigger now than when he was a child; the mountains that had once crowded up on the town had been pared back and in their place were a strip mall and a trailer park and a new high school laid out on the newly flattened land. They passed the older places, the cemetery and the grade school and the little churches each with a Christmas scene out front.  Christmas lights were strung on all the stores and most of the houses. The bus station in his little town was just a couple benches in a corner of someone’s store downtown.  And here was his father in front of the store, waiting to pick him up. His mother, his wife, his children were all waiting at home, the children still sleeping. He and his father shook hands and waited for the driver to open the luggage bay and set the bags on the sidewalk.

            As soon as he saw the first bag, his father reached for it.

            “I got it, Dad,” the soldier said.

            His father had been broken in the mines when he was young. He had gone off to college and come back home a teacher, but even now he walked with a limp. In spite of the limp, his father hoisted the first bag onto his shoulder and slung it into the bed of his truck. The soldier loaded the other bag into the truck and his father brushed the snow from the windshield and they drove off through the silent streets of the town and out into the country.

            “And how was the trip?” his father asked.

            Neither his father nor his mother had wanted him to go for a soldier. His mother was a teacher too and they would have liked to see him become a teacher like his sister and his brother before him. But as soon as he was able, he bucked them and signed up with the Army. And for ten years now, the Army had taken him to the far places of the world. And for the past two years, he had been to the war in villages where the houses were the color of sand and he had patrolled their narrow Arabic alleys and so he had done things and seen things that they would never understand. And then, with just a short time to visit, the Army had dropped him off on the wrong side of the country and set him on this strange, cross-country bus trip where he had tried to set his sleep right but had dreamed and not-dreamed and was still unsettled. And finally, there had been this girl who had erupted from him on the bus.

            How could he tell his father about any of this?

            Fine, he told him. The trip was long, but it was fine.

            So glad to see you, his father told him. He told him news of this, news of that. Good news of the children, terrible news of the neighbors. Such weather we’ve been having, his father said. How long will they let you stay this time?


            Not long, it turned out. Not long at all. Not nearly long enough. A month and some change, though it felt even shorter. 

            The snow continued through the morning and by mid-day, the hills were covered in snow as far as anyone could see. But the coal trucks passed six to the hour in both directions and, by the second day, coal dust peppered the heaps of snow banked on either side by the plows from the county. 

            They lived five miles out from town at a point where the highway crested at the top of the ridge –his father and mother in a little frame house, the soldier and his wife and the boys in a double-wide next door. The ridge extended beyond them in both directions in a line that had once run unbroken for miles and miles but was now curtailed on either side by strip mines.

            The snow continued through the morning and by mid-day, the hills were covered in snow as far as anyone could see. But the coal trucks passed six to the hour in both directions and, by the second day, coal dust peppered the heaps of snow banked on either side by the plows from the county.

            But the weather stayed cold and so the snow did not go away. He and the boys built a snow man and a snow fort he and his wife took the boys on long hikes into the hills.

            The strip miners were working less than a mile away, close enough that they could hear the dynamite blasts and they could sometimes feel the tremors of the blasts in the floor of the double-wide and he feared that the sound of the blast and the tremors from the blast might bring the war back to him.

            But that did not happen. The war stayed in its distant place on the other side of the world.

            His sleep was no longer haunted.

            The girl-child did not appear again for several days, long enough that he thought he was done with her, that perhaps he had merely imagined her, that perhaps she was a product of the stress of travel, or of his disordered sleep and now he was rested and life was almost normal, so he could imagine that her piercing and appearance had never even happened. A dream, he thought. Just a strange dream.

            But after seven days, at high noon, there she was, just across the road, barefoot and bare-shouldered in the cold, standing in the slushed gravel of the shoulder of the road with a coal truck bearing down. If she did not move, the truck would crush her.

            No! he thought and “No!” he shouted as if she had been a real child. His every muscle was charged and he took two running steps toward the road. But too late. The tires of the coal truck threw up a screen of blackened slush. He imagined the small girl crushed beneath the black wheels of the truck. He imagined the blood of the girl in the slush and gravel of the side of the road and the rag of her body flung out on the black pavement.

            But the truck rolled on and where was the child? Smiling at him from the blackened snowbank on the other side of the road.

            He stopped, mid-stride, and from the momentum, toppled. He fell face-down in the snow, propped himself up, and stared.

            His wife called, “Are you all right? Danny, are you all right?”


            His wife, his poor wife: when he married her, she had been just a girl, as he had been just a boy. And now she looked at him with that look that you use when you realize this person that you thought you knew is really a stranger. He could end all that if only he could tell her of this thing he had seen and, now, continued to see.

            “Jenny,” he tried to tell her one night after the boys were asleep and they lay in bed together. “I seen something . . .”

            He could tell she wanted to hear. She was tired. She had to get the boys up in the morning for school; she had to get herself ready for work. But still she pushed herself up from her pillow to hear.

            “I seen . . .” But he could not find the words. The words were right there in front of him in a disordered pile, but he could not command them. And before he could get them into order, she fell back onto her pillow asleep.


            After that, he saw the girl again and again, at the counter in the hardware, at the grocery store, at the restaurant in town. He saw her in the bedroom looking over his sleeping sons or, in the daytime, hovering near them as they played with their new Christmas toys. But she was always at a distance, in the far corner of the room or swinging from the branch of a tree. If he was in the yard, she was over on the porch. If he was on the porch, she was in the window of his parent’s house next door.

            He had set up his weights in a little shed between the houses. He liked to work out in the sun where, even in cold weather, he could feel the heat of the sun across his shoulders and he could see the mist lifting off the distant ridges.

            So there he was, with this legs straining under the bar across his shoulders. And there was his mother, pinning up laundry to a line stretched across the yard, And there was the girl-child in the window, watching in the clear light of morning from a window in his mother’s house.

            He set down the weights and crossed over to where his mother was singing to herself as she worked.

            “Ma,” he said. “Do you see that?” He nodded toward the window where the girl was watching.

            His mother turned and, of course, there was nothing to see. “What is it, honey?” his mother asked.

            “Ma,” he said. “What do you know about ghosts?”

            She looked at him through a squint. She had a clothes pin between her teeth and she closed one eye and levelled the other at him as if to ponder what he asked.

            “Just what the old folks used to say,” she said. “Nothing more than that.”

            After that, his mother looked at him through a squint, and, since he knew that his parents always talked, he saw that his father always leaned into his limping side when he watched him, as if he were watching to see what strange thing might come next.


            On the ninth day, he went for a run alone along the ridge. About half a mile out, the girl showed up on the path ahead of him, skipping along the trail until they reached the point where the strippers had blown the corners off the ridge. She glanced back at him, then jumped off the edge and disappeared.  He clambered up among the broken boulders and pushed aside the struggling oak sprouts that grew up from the splits. Then he looked down into the overburden.

            And there she was, skipping among the gravel and the naked clay, fifty feet below.

            He could call out to her now. There was no one around to hear, no one to think him crazy.

            “Who are you?” he called.

            He called a loud as he could. She merely raised her head into the wind and smiled. Had she heard him? He would have called again –Who are you? What are you? What do you want from me?—But she stopped, suddenly, in mid-skip. Slowly, as if she were made of sand, she disappeared.


            The day came and he was packed and ready. It was early morning, still dark. His father waited in the truck to take him back down to the station. There was no point in waking the boys, so he stood beside their beds for a moment and watched them as they slept.

            From his wife, one last kiss, one last embrace. He could feet the lines of her waist beneath her nightgown. He could smell her hair. And oh, it was hard to leave her once again. But his father stood by the truck with his keys ajangle. It was time to go.

            At the station, he and his father shook hands, though neither one could look the other in the eye. “When will we see you again?” his father asked.

            “Soon,” he said. “I hope.” There was no way he could know. There seemed to be no end to the war and they both knew there was no way he could know.

            There were six or eight passengers on the bus and some of them he knew. He could have sat among them; they could have lightened the hours with some talk. But he went straight to the back seat, set himself with his back to the restroom wall, and he waited as the driver got himself into his seat and made ready.

            His father was still on the sidewalk as the bus pulled away. He waved, but he knew his father could not see him for the lights of the station on the tinted glass. His father stared blindly toward the windows of the bus and the soldier watched him grow smaller as the bus pulled away and smaller and smaller yet until the bus went around a curve and the soldier could not see his father at all.

            They left behind the town, the strip mall, the trailer park, the golf course at the edge of town, the cemetery, the patch of cedars, the farms and the cabins.

            Then the soldier shifted. He braced his feet to either side, set his elbows to his knees so that he had a view to the front of the bus, and he waited.

            By the time the bus reached the little crossroads town with the closed-down store and the closed-down church, the girl showed herself again, as he knew she would, right beside the driver, as if she had just mounted the steps. She was still barefoot and bare-shouldered, still in her little white slip. She looked the driver up and down, then started walking down the aisle, turning to look at each of the passengers as she passed. About halfway down, two men were talking with each other across the aisle and one of them leaned into the aisle to make his point. As the girl came walking down the aisle, she passed through him as if he were no more than a vapor. The man scratched his head and looked puzzled for a moment, then went on with his argument.

            The girl came within three or four seats of the soldier and stopped, though she did not look his way. A pothole in the road shook the bus and she swayed with it to keep her balance.

            She was utterly a child and she was utterly something else.

            “Now,” he said in an almost-whisper. “Tell me who you are.”

            She did not even glance his way, but the flicker of a smile crossed her face.

            “Who are you?” he said again.

            Again, the flicker. “Who are you?” he said. “What are you? What do you want?”

            The flicker of a smile seemed now to be a smirk.

            Damn you, he thought. “Dammit, who are you? What are you?” He stood. “God damn you, are you here to haunt me? What do you want from me?”

            Standing, he felt he had grown a foot taller. His hands seemed to have grown large as hams. He felt he could reach down, grab the girl, and break her in half.

            Her eyes grew enormous with fear, with shock. She backed up a half-step and put up a hand.

            And then she disappeared.

            As if she never had been.

            He stood, half in the aisle, half-crouched from his seat. The bus hit another pothole and he swayed out of his stance and had to catch himself against a seat back.

            The two men who had been talking were now looking at him. The one who had been brushed by the girl asked, “You all right there, buddy?”

            He held to the seat back for balance a moment more. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m all right.”

            He eased himself back down into his seat and the men went back to what they had been arguing.

            The lights of the houses went ticking by, but the soldier stared at the palms of his hands. It was as if they were not his own hands, but those of a stranger grafted somehow into the place where his own had been. The men up front no longer stared –it would not be right to stare—but he knew they looked back at him every few minutes to see if he would erupt again and he knew that when someone asked them how was their trip, they would have a story about him. But he continued to study his hands that seemed now to be those of a stranger. When he finally looked up, the red sun had risen over the broken hills.


Michael Henson is author of four books of fiction and four of poetry. His most recent work is The Dead Singing (poems, 2016) from Mongrel Empire Press. His collection, The Way the World Is: the Maggie Boylan Stories, won the Brighthorse Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2015 by Brighthorse Books. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in many publications.


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