A young man had traveled a long way to a red door in the countryside of California. Facing the door with the fenceless posts of the lawn behind him, he paused. He was a young man with no particular extravagances about him with the exception of fire red hair and a strain that appeared to be all over his body, as if carrying a heavy load.
He knocked four times.
He heard the wood floorboards moan behind the blood red door. It creaked like arthritic joints as it opened.
"Hello," she said.
The old woman frowned.
"Sorry, I was expecting someone else. Does Charles Murmur live here?" He shifted his weight to his other leg.
"He's not here."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I must have the wrong house."
"No, you don't. He went out. Should be back soon. Would you like to wait?"
"Yes. You wouldn't mind?"
"He'll be back soon." Her eyes softened.
He walked down a hallway plastered with frames. Family photos, vacation photos, paintings and portraits. All of them in gaudy gold frames. He followed the woman into the living room and sat down facing a wall covered in nothing.
"I'll be right back."
He sat looking about the room. Everything placed perfectly. She returned with a glass of water and saw his eyes dance.
"Strange decoration?" She looked at the bare walls then to him. She handed him the water.
"Different than the hallway."
"Charlie has his ideas about spaces and rooms. 'Each one should have a different flavor,' he says."
"It feels peaceful."
"He's been looking for peace some time." She looked to the floor. "Why do you want to talk to my husband, Mr...?"
The man breathed deeply and looked at her. As he opened his mouth a door slammed in the house.
From down a hall, "You know what Jim said? That bastard. He said it'd cost two grand to replace the tranny." The sound of boots on wood floor. A jacket being hung. "He had the nerve to tell me it was my fault! Can you believe that?" The loud and resonant voice boomed through the house. "I'm not giving him a dime." Charles Murmur entered the living room. The man stood up.
"Oh, hun, you didn't tell me we had anyone." If Charles Murmur was embarrassed the young man didn't see it. He put his hand out to shake.
"I'm Jack Bellefont. It's nice to meet you." Charles grabbed Jack's hand and shook it.
"You the same, Jack." Charles Murmur wasn't a large man, but a man of presence. His voice moved through the floor as he spoke. His face was heavy. His whole body looked heavy. Like he had earned every inch of it. As if he fought God for a little bit more here and there when his mold was cast.
"I'll let you two talk." Mrs. Murmur stood from her chair, kissed her husband on his cheek, and threw love at him with her eyes. She turned and left the room.
The two men stood and looked at each other.
"Let's sit." Charles Murmur said.
They sat across from each other and breathed slowly.
"What can I do for you Jack?"
"I'm here to ask you about my father."
He nodded his head in thought, staring at the blank wall. "I can't think of any Bellefonts I know. What was his first name?"
"His name wasn't Bellefont. His name was John Mazalot."
Charles looked the young man in the eyes.
"Mazalot? You're John Mazalot's son?"
"Yes, sir. I am."
"I've been trying to forget that name for a long time." He seemed to get heavier with each breath.
"I wanted to ask you about the ..."
"Yes. The war."
Charles eased back in his chair and looked at the son of a man he once felt to be a brother. "What do you want to know about John Mazalot?"
The young man leaned forward to get as close as he could to the truth sitting in front of him. "Everything everyone else wouldn't tell me."
Charles nodded his head. The wind picked up outside. He looked to the chaos of the world surrounding him and felt the pain of many years ago. Pain that had been long ago healed. Jack Bellefont split the scar with an axe and the pain came rushing once more. This man had come into his life and like a hurricane, tore down rebuilt houses. Desecrated forests planted primordial.
"Where do I start? Do you know what he did? Why do you want to know?" Charles shook his head to try and get the thoughts and words out.
Jack didn't hesitate. "I know a little about when he was at the base. That he disappeared. What else?" he asked.
"Son," Charles paused, "I'm not sure you want to get into this. Sometimes it's best to leave dead men alone."
"Sir, with all respect, and I do mean respectfully, I need to know what I carry."
"To put it simply young man, cruelty." Charles said the word like it deserved a capital letter.
"To put it at length?" Jack Bellefont stared at the old man's hardened face.
"Jack, I can only give you one, because there is really only one to give."
"Thank you, Mr. Murmur."
Charles' face darkened and he began to speak differently, in the voice and tone and diction of a younger, more poetic man. He spoke every word as if carefully chosen and written beforehand.
* * *
Because you already know a bit about your dad, I'll be brief. He started a naïve boy trying to help the cause, and I saw him harden within months. Every time we went out in the shit, I'd shoot less and less and he'd kill more and more. A man who cried with me in solitude after his first murder, became a stranger.
The story no one else has told you is one that no one else can. Our last time together was routine. Go in the jungle, shoot and leave. Simple. Dangerous and unnecessary, as everything was, but simple. The company was Mazalot, myself, and a couple others. We'd hiked through the ropey vines and trees for about an hour when we came upon a village. None of us prepared for it. Base had been set up a couple weeks and nobody knew of a village anywhere near it. We walked into the clearing and there were maybe thirty grass huts. Kids running around. Parents washing clothes.
We walked covered in sweat and filth. The place was untouched, like a time capsule. Maybe they had no idea there was even a war going on. It felt like a nightmare. We walked down the dirt path and one by one the adults stopped what they were doing and watched us, frozen. It's like they saw the new horsemen of the apocalypse stroll into their village.
We had walked to the center and it was as if we were on stage. Every person waiting for judgment. Totally powerless and awaiting their verdict.
We stood. Hadn't said anything to each other since we entered the clearing. I think we were all trying to figure out what was happening. The village, the people, us, none of this was supposed to happen. Mazalot stepped in front of us and said something very loud in Vietnamese.
All of us stared.
"Mazalot, you speak Vietnamese?" I said.
He looked at me and said nothing. He turned to the people and pointed with his rifle towards the far side of the clearing. He yelled once more and fired into the air. Everyone in the village ran to the far side. A man tried for the jungle but Mazalot shot him dead.
"Mazalot, what are you doing?"
He looked again to me, then to the others.
"If you try to stop me, I'll kill you."
"Mazalot, put your rifle down. That is an order." The commander said.
John turned to him. He looked like he thought about it and slowly lowered his rifle from over his head then shot the commander through the chest. The others pulled their guns but he was as fast as the devil himself and shot all of them in an instant. I stood among my dead brothers, shaking. Mazalot looked at me and nodded. He walked towards the horrified village people like Atlas carrying the Earth. His shoulders sagged deep and his head rolled to the side. He reloaded his rifle and slowly walked towards them. Twenty feet seemed like the distance between here and the sun. I watched Death incarnate stroll towards execution and couldn't raise a finger to flip it off.
When he approached them he set his rifle down and leaned it on his leg. He took off his vest. He undid his bandolier, his belt, his long sleeve shirt. He appeared to lighten with every article removed, but still looked under an impossible weight. He stood bare chested with pants and boots. He picked up his gun again and said something loud in Vietnamese. The women started crying, the men held them, the children confused in knots of arms.
"John!" I yelled. He didn't move. I dropped my gun. I collected what little strength I had and walked.
He gave the men instructions in Vietnamese. They started to kneel in front of their families. Heads bowed. One stood and stared at him. John shot him first. Then he shot the kneeling men. Men begging for their life in a foreign tongue. One by one. Blood pollocked families and children wailing into the indifferent trees surrounding them. He killed them calmly.
"John, stop this!" I said to him, a few feet behind him.
"Charles," he said facing the women and children, "you don't understand."
He yelled something different in Vietnamese and the women looked at each other. They hesitated, so he shot one in the head and screamed it again into the sky. They cried and set their children down. Kids in the dirt.
"John, what the fuck are you doing? Leave them alone. This is enough."
"No, Charles. It isn't."
I crept behind him and hit him as hard as I could in the head. He took the blow and turned to face me.
"Charles," was the last word I remember as he struck me with his gun.
I woke to the cries of infants and toddlers hugging their dead mothers in the dirt. Infants searching for dead breasts beneath dirt and blood and tear-soiled clothes. John Mazalot, your father, was gone. His gun lay next to his gear in the dirt.
I found a cart and put the little ones in it. I pulled the cart for six hours through the jungle to the base, cutting branches and vines every two feet to get it through. Most of them had gone deaf from the gunshots so they wailed unceasing. John left them. He killed their families and left them.
* * *
Charles Murmur sat with his eyes closed trying dearly to hold back the tears waiting to flow through the dams of his eyelids. He put his face in his hands and wept.
Jack Bellefont sat in the chair across from him in a daze.
"I'm sorry son, it's embarrassing for an old man to cry."
"Sir, there's nothing to be embarrassed about."
Charles took a deep breath and wiped the tears off his reddened face. He regained his composure and leaned back in his chair.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that."
"I'm sorry you lived it." He nodded and stared at the ground between his feet.
Charles breathed heavily and released something from within himself. "Would you like a cup of anything?" Charles rose from his chair.
He walked down the cluttered hallway to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. Jack sat unmoving. Charles returned and set the glass on the table in front of Jack.
"I never heard what happened to him. I never looked. I felt a man like that would be better off to vanish from this Earth." Charles sat and once more became the old man Jack met when he arrived. "So, son, what was your real reason for coming here? Hearing horror stories about your father is one thing, but I sense purpose."
"I needed to know what's on me."
Charles thought about this and the silence thickened between them. "We are all capable of what your father did. In some ways it's probably easier to do what he did instead of face the terror of it at every moment. To face the fact that we do awful things to each other and we all know that it's so deeply horrific we can't understand. Your father let go. He killed his conscience and the repercussions led to evil. You being here today means you've already felt that. You knew what was in you."
Jack listened to each word carefully.
"So why did you really come here?" Charles asked.
Jack looked to Charles. "How do you live with that?" He said.
Charles sighed. "It's taken a long time to reconcile what your father did. I can't understand it. I've paved over that part of my life and where it cracked I pulled the weeds that grew between them. I suspect you are still breaking apart the old pavement."
"Building a new foundation." Charles smiled. "Jack, there is no fresh start. We are born into this place. Nothing is free, we all paid for some part of it in one way or another. You paid a lot for what you have. It's the curse your father gave to you."
Jack looked to Charles with eyes glazed. He drew in a deep breath and frowned his eyebrows.
"Mr. Murmur, are you familiar with the dybbuk?"
"The dybbuk, of Jewish mythology."
"I wouldn't know anything about that." Charles felt uncomfortable at the sudden shift.
"It's simple. The dybbuk is a malevolent soul of a deceased person who attaches themselves to another person until it can be released."
"Of sorts. But it has this unbearable weight upon the person it latches onto." Jack seemed to sink as he said it.
"How's it lifted?" Charles asked.
"Usually when the dybbuk accomplishes what it came back for." Jack's face intensified as he leaned closer to Charles. "Do you believe in such things, Mr. Murmur?"
Charles Murmur's chest tightened as a recollection of a forgotten thought came to him. "I wondered why he didn't shoot me that day. Maybe it was on account of us being friends. Or he thought I was dead. Maybe he wanted me to save those kids. To give them the chance."
"I think he knew he would kill everyone there eventually. In his life or the next." Jack's green eyes shifted to gilt. He looked at Charles like a wolf to a rabbit.
The old hardened man turned powerless in the face of a predator. Their eyes locked in silence.
"Mr. Murmur, I'm not going to hurt you. Dybbuks may be shaken in other ways. You are a good man. Thank you for telling me your story."
Jack stood and left the house. He walked to his car past the fenceless posts outside and opened the door. He looked to the house and met Charles's eyes standing behind the window. He sat down in the driver seat and closed the door.
Jack pulled a revolver from his belt and put it in his glovebox.
"Not him, father."
Charles stood watching Jack Bellefont through the window.
"What was all that about, Charles?" His wife asked with arms wreathing his neck.
"I'm glad to be rid of that man."
His wife smiled. "You look better for it."
They both looked out the window to the place where Jack Bellefont's car had sat. Charles felt the pain of his past lifted. He breathed and softened, the dybbuk released.