by David Coyle
Hazy beams of sunlight pass through the gaps of the window’s wooden shutters. Carolina stares blankly at her kitchen pantry shelves. Some yelling from outside snaps her out of her uninspired daze; she walks to the window to peer through the shutters. With arms outstretched, Daniele flies around the backyard making machine gun noises, shooting bullets at Nello who sits cross-legged on the ground, his chin in hands.
‘You’re sunk!’ Daniele cries, before folding in his wings when he sees his mother walking toward him.
‘Having fun, boys?’ Carolina asks.
Daniele nods, but Nello shakes his head.
‘I’m the ship so I’m not allowed to move,’ Nello says.
‘Ships can move, can’t they?’ Carolina asks.
‘Yeah, but he’s in port,’ Daniele explains.
‘Ah, well, I’ve got a job for you two, one where you both can help,’ Carolina says, giving Daniele a stern eye. ‘I need you to go to the river and catch something for dinner.’
Daniele frowns and kicks the dirt. ‘Does Nello have to come?’
‘Hey!’ Nello pipes up.
‘It’s too dangerous by yourselves,’ Carolina says.
‘No, it isn’t!’ Daniele protests.
‘I want you back by five o’clock,’ she says in that tone that makes them compliant. ‘Understood?’
The boys glare at each other before mumbling. ‘Yes, mum.’
‘And don’t go into the forest.’
Sepia hills glow in a hazel blur, broken only by tall pillars of green cypress. Two small fishing rods rest over Daniele’s shoulder as he walks through a field of dry grass, a small box of hooks and weights in his hand. He keeps a knife and a cigarette lighter in his pocket. A half-smoked cigarette sits behind his ear.
A few paces behind him, Nello carries a bucket of bait and struggles to keep up.
‘You know how you were saying in the war… who was the Nazi again?’
‘I’ve told you this a million times before, kid.’
‘Yeah, I know, but I can’t remember right now.’
‘You’ve got the memory of a fish.’
‘Just tell me!’
‘Alright, calm down, don’t cry.’
‘I’m not crying!’
Daniele stops walking and turns to face his brother. He takes the half-smoked cigarette out from behind his ear and lights it. He catches Nello’s judgmental stare.
‘If you want me to talk about the war,’ Daniele begins, a serious look appearing in his face. ‘I have to smoke, alright? It’s just the way things are. So don’t go crying to mum about it.’
Nello doesn’t say anything as Daniele exhales a plume of smoke.
‘So, the war,’ he says. ‘There was more than one Nazi, alright? The Germans were the Nazis, it was like their team name for the war. You with me?’
‘Oh,’ Nello says. ‘So, what were the other teams called?’
Daniele breathes out more smoke with a tired sigh.
‘Well, the Americans were the Yanks, the English were the Allies, the Russians were the Reds, the Japs were just the Japs, and the French were called the Frogs.’
‘That doesn’t sound very scary.’
‘So, what were we called?’
‘Lots of names,’ Daniele says. ‘Wops, Dagos, Eye-Ties, Guineas, Macaronis.’
‘Macaronis?’ Nello asks, feeling a little offended.
‘Better than being a lousy Frog or a dirty Red.’
‘What side were we on?’
‘The Nazis and the Japs were on our team, but only in World War Two. It was different teams in World War One.’
A faraway bird breaks an otherwise quiet, teeming heat.
‘Any more questions, kid?’
Nello thinks for a moment. ‘Is there going to be a World War Three?’
Daniele laughs, stubbing out his cigarette on the ground and placing it back behind his ear. He then gazes across the sweltering grass, as if seeing beyond the wavering horizon.
Pushing the slimy bait through the tip of his hook, Daniele swings his rod back before casting his line high into the air. He watches it soar for a moment before it plops down into the river.
‘Told you,’ he says as he hands the rod to Nello.
‘Dad did it better.’
‘Alright then, how many swear words do you know?’ Daniele asks.
Nello frowns darkly at the end of his line in the water in silence.
‘Just what I thought,’ Daniele says.
‘Well, what ones do you know? Seeing as you’re so old.’
‘Shut up! I got something!’ Daniele says, excitedly winding in his line. A clump of algae slowly lifts out of the river, making Nello laugh.
‘What kind of fish is that?’
Nello looks both a little stunned, confused, and offended, picking up his brother’s tone.
‘Alright, kid,’ Daniele says, taking the algae of his hook. ‘That’s the first one you need to know, the f-word, fuck. It’s just an angry word adults say. It’s pretty useful. Then there’s the s-word, shit. That just means poo. You say it when you make a mistake. Then there’s d-word, dick, it means penis.’
‘Dick?’ Nello says, his voice trembling slightly.
‘Yeah,’ Daniele says, putting fresh bait on his line before recasting it into the river. ‘Like you, you’re a dick.’
‘Shut up, you’re a dick!’
‘Exactly. Oh, and the b-word, bitch. It’s a mean word to call girls. I called mum a bitch once. She got really mad.’
‘Is there a word for every letter in the alphabet?’
‘I don’t know, maybe,’ Daniele says. ‘Focus on your line, kid.’
‘Don’t call me kid!’
‘Maybe we should go upstream?’ Daniele says, winding in yet another empty line.
Nello looks at Daniele with a dark frown. ‘The forest?’
‘Don’t tell me you’re scared!’
‘No! Of course not.’
‘Mum won’t find out.’
‘I know, but…’
‘It’s just… well, we have to be back by five, remember?’
‘We’ll walk fast,’ Daniele says, winding in the rest of his line.
The brothers walk in silence along the riverbank towards the looming green and black of the forest. Nello almost trips on the uneven stones underfoot as he carries the bucket of bait. Daniele keeps his eyes on the forest ahead. The trees above begin to cut out the sky and the sunlight, making the river’s smooth current colder and darker. Nello watches blackbirds fly overhead.
Around a fifth or sixth bend, now surrounded by the blackened wood, they arrive at a raised bank above the river; twisted roots snarl along the forest floor to meet the rock, covered in moss.
Daniele turns to Nello. ‘Should we stop here?’
Nello nods quickly and places the bucket at his feet.
‘You’re not scared, are you? You’re pretty quiet.’
‘No,’ Nello says, holding his rod tightly. ‘Just hungry.’
‘Well, hurry up and catch something then.’
‘I’m trying! You can’t be doing the bait and stuff right.’
‘Whatever, I’m doing it just like dad did.’
‘Well, why aren’t we catching anything?’ Nello asks.
Daniele winds in his line, revealing a bare silver hook stripped of bait.
‘Let’s go upstream more,’ Daniele says, reeling in the rest of his line.
Nello stares intently at the end of his line where it meets the river. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘Don’t tell me you’re a Frog.’
‘We’ve never been this far before.’
‘Ha! You’re such a Frog!’
‘Fine!’ Nello says, angrily winding in his line.
Scrambling bush and forest run up both sides of the riverbank. Nearly all the light and warmth from the sun has gone behind the thick cover of wood and leaves. Climbing over a large tree root, Daniele and Nello soon find themselves overlooking a slight cliff under which the river swirls into a small pool several feet below.
‘This looks like a good spot,’ Daniele says.
Nello doesn’t answer.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Daniele asks.
Nello’s eyes are fixed upstream, over Daniele’s shoulder. Daniele turns around to see what has captured Nello’s gaze: a dark mouth into the earth, the black entrance to cave in the side of the hill above the riverbank. Daniele turns to Nello with excited eyes. Nello shakes his head.
The dim light of the forest vanishes entirely just a few feet from the cave’s entrance. The air inside is cold, almost whispering. Daniele flicks his cigarette lighter into life, illuminating some of the damp cave walls in a wavering orange light.
‘I wonder if anyone else has ever found this place?’ he wonders aloud.
Nello doesn’t want to think about it.
‘You’re not going to find any fish in here,’ he says.
‘For once, would you just stop being a little kid?’ Daniele says, creeping forward into the cave. Nello looks over his shoulder at the forest and the river, which now seem bright and welcoming by comparison. Daniele keeps inching forward. Not wanting to be left alone, Nello follows Daniele into the enveloping darkness.
The light from the forest soon becomes nothing more than a faint and shrinking window behind them, surrounded by the swelling blackened air. Daniele turns to grin again at Nello, who winces at the sight of Daniele’s maniacal looking face in the lighter’s dancing yellow flame; they begin to see their breath in its glow.
After a hundred or so paces, they arrive at what appears to be the end of the cave.
‘See?’ Daniele says. ‘Nothing bad happened and now we know what’s here.’
‘Great, let’s go.’
‘This is a lesson for you, kid.’
‘A lesson in what?’
‘How to be a man.’
‘You’re not a man.’
‘Hold on…’ Daniele then says with a sudden look of seriousness as he peers into the darkness behind Nello. ‘What’s that?’
‘Funny,’ Nello says. ‘I’m not that stupid.’
Daniele brushes Nello aside and crouches down, holding the lighter ahead of him to reveal a large wooden crate on the cave floor. There are big white letters painted on one of the wooden panels on the side of the crate:
U.S. A R M Y
‘What’s usarmy?’ Nello asks.
‘Here, hold this,’ Daniele says, thrusting the lighter into Nello’s hands.
Daniele approaches the crate and pushes off a loose wooden lid. He instantly becomes motionless. ‘Whoa.’
‘What is it?’ Nello asks, stepping forward with the lighter.
Daniele remains speechless.
Lying on his stomach, Daniele aims a M1 Garand rifle at his target: a small dead tree on the banks of the river, draped in a mouldy US Army jacket, an officer’s hat hanging from an upper branch. Wearing an oversized jacket himself, Daniele puffs on his cigarette as he rests the barrel of the rifle on a piece of wood. He peers through the cigarette smoke at the tree in the distance. Beside him are some ammunition cases, several bayonets, a Colt M1911 pistol, and a Browning .50 caliber machine gun. Two grenades bulge in his pockets. Nello watches on from nearby, his fingers firmly pressed into his ears.
Daniele holds his breath, closes his eyes, and pulls the M1’s trigger. A boom cracks violently through the woods. Birds escape above the canopy of leaves. The gun rocks back violently and the intense vibration rattles Daniele’s bones. Although giving himself a fright and making him spit out his cigarette, as well as completely missing his target, he turns to Nello with a wild grin. ‘That was awesome!’
At first shaken by the noise, Nello then begins to laugh.
‘What’s so funny?’ Daniele asks angrily.
‘You dropped it!’
Having aimed the machine gun at the tree, Daniele begins piling rocks from the river on top of it to weigh it down. With several heavy rocks in place, he tries shaking the barrel to see if it moves; it doesn’t budge.
‘This’ll work,’ he says to Nello, who seems unconvinced as he places his fingers back in his ears.
Lying down behind the gun, Daniele readies himself to fire. He lines up his shot and braces himself. Squeezing the trigger, the rapid booms stomp throughout the forest. A few stray bullets even tear through the uniformed tree, but while the gun doesn’t move, it still shakes all the bones in Daniele’s hand and he has to stop firing.
‘You hit him!’ Nello shouts.
‘It’s still no good,’ Daniele says with a pained look on his face and holding his trigger hand in the other. ‘It shakes too much when it fires.’
Daniele and Nello sit a few feet back from the machine gun, Nello once more with his fingers in his ears and Daniele now holding some fishing line in his hand. The fishing line trails along the stony ground of the riverbank, tied to the machine gun’s trigger.
‘Ready?’ Daniele asks.
Nello nods, already wincing. Daniele pulls back on the fishing line and unloads a belt of bullets at the uniformed tree. The sound is deafening; the woods are left shaking. The tree’s hat blows off and Daniele lets go of the line.
‘Whoa!’ he shouts, his chest pumping with adrenaline. ‘Am I a genius or what!’
Nello keeps his fingers in his ears in the deafening aftermath.
Tying the two grenades to the trunk of the bullet-ridden tree with more fishing line, Daniele, holding his knife in his teeth, then gives himself a generous amount of line back to a safe vantage point behind a large boulder where Nello is already hiding.
‘I told you to wear your helmet,’ Daniele says, stabbing his knife into a nearby log.
‘It’s too heavy,’ Nello says, holding the old metal helmet in his hands.
‘It’s an order.’
Nello reluctantly places the helmet on his head, his eyes almost disappearing under it, and places his fingers back in his ears.
‘Fire in the hole!’ Daniele then shouts, yanking on the fishing line. He quickly peeks over the boulder to make sure the pins have been pulled before ducking back down and bracing himself for the explosion. A few seconds pass. Then, thunder and lightning both suddenly appear in the heart of the forest, a wave of heat and collapsed air blasting outwards, obliterating the tree and tearing the jacket apart. It takes a few seconds for the debris to settle.
The boys both tremble: Daniele in excitement, Nello in terror.
‘Yes!’ Daniele shouts. ‘Do you want a turn?’
Nello shakes his head fervently.
‘Oh, c’mon, kid! Haven’t you learnt anything today?’
‘I’ve learnt that you’re crazy. And stop calling me kid!’
‘Don’t be such a wimp!’
Nello looks around desperately for an excuse. ‘Anyway, there’s no more. You just blew them both up!’
‘Well… what about the machine gun?’
‘There’s no more bullets.’
‘I’ll go see if there’s another belt. Wait here. That’s another order.’
Under the flicker of his cigarette lighter, Daniele returns to the crate at the back of the cave. Searching for more ammunition, he pushes aside another jacket, some trousers, and some dust-covered papers. He freezes once again, unable to believe his own eyes.
The shredded uniform dangles from another dead tree, its tattered arms blowing gently in a soft breeze. Breathing carefully, Daniele ties his last remaining stretch of spare fishing line around the large metal trigger of an M20 anti-tank bazooka. It sits under a large mound of rocks, loaded with a round, and aimed squarely at the new target. He finishes tying the line in a tight knot and follows it back to where Nello is sitting behind the boulder. His helmet is on firmly, the strap done up under his chin.
‘Ready?’ Daniele asks. Nello shakes his head and jams his fingers in his ears.
Daniele takes a deep breath before pulling hard on the fishing line, but nothing happens. He tries tugging on it again, but still nothing happens.
‘It must be jammed,’ he says, pulling on it as hard as he can. He peeks over the edge of the boulder and yanks on the line, noticing that he isn’t quite strong enough to pull the trigger back far enough.
‘I need you to help me’, he says.
‘Help me pull.’
Nello’s hands tremble as he reaches for the line.
‘Alright, pull on three,’ Daniele says. ‘One… two… three!’
Jerking the line back as hard as they can, they provide enough force to dislodge the bazooka from underneath the rocks. It slides backwards, but not until the barrel is pointed upwards does the trigger finally engage. The rocket shoots vertically into the air while the launcher itself kicks back and flips along the riverbank, cartwheeling into the water.
Motionless, Daniele and Nello look up at the rocket as it punctures through the leaves of the forest’s canopy. High above the trees, however, it begins to lose momentum. Slowly, the rocket decelerates until it briefly hangs in the air. Gravity then takes over and accelerates it back to the ground.
For a moment or two, Daniele and Nello simply watch as the rocket falls towards them. Then, they look to each other in terrified silence.
Aldo and Daniele sat by the river, rods baited and cast. Aldo had no hair, even his eyebrows were gone. They fished in silence, accompanied only by the sounds of the river and the insects of summer.
‘Look after your little brother, alright?’ Aldo said.
‘I mean it,’ Aldo said firmly. ‘Help him fish. Be nice to him. Don’t let him get into trouble. You’ve got to look after him. You’ll be the man of the house, remember.’
‘I know,’ Daniele said, before a tear fell down his cheek. ‘I’ll miss you, dad.’
Aldo put his arm around him and held him tight. ‘I’ll miss you too, buddy.’
Daniele stares at the falling rocket, frozen in fear. With guilt and regret, he looks to Nello who has gone as white as a ghost. Neither of them moves; the rocket hurtles towards them.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it rains down beside them, swallowed up by the river. For a moment, it looks as though it isn’t going to explode, but then a huge plume of white water suddenly erupts into the air.
Daniele and Nello are drenched in the downpour. They look around, not believing their eyes. Fish rain down all around them.
David Coyle is a writer from Wellington, New Zealand. He has published two books with Unsolicited Press and his third book will be released in December by Legacy Book Press. David has also written short stories, poetry, and short films. His website: www.davidcoyle.co.nz