War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

kit (from May Day)

Another installment of May Day, a fictional series of letters from a young woman to her lover serving as a Warrant Officer in Afghanistan. For a backgrounder on the project, click on the May Day icon at the right, or listen to the audio broadcast, writing May Day.

sms’ ankles, somewhere outside of Pamplona Spain, 2007

M,

two years ago today I started to walk. crossed the Pyrenees. seven weeks. one foot in front of the other. left right left. 850 kms. northern Spain eaten up. didn’t stop. except to eat. except to drink. except to sleep. under mulberry trees. listen to cicadas speak.

I thought by walk, I could wash. a lifetime of loss. I thought red dust, Rioja’s grape fields, the wedding of wildflowers—the meseta —would stop some sort of longing in me.

Camino. Santiago de Compostela. the long road. ancient sun at my back all the way.

I walked west. into my shadow. watched thousands pass. all of them in a hurry for salvation. of body. of mind. of spirit. or just to test. if they were still alive.

I watched them fall. the marathon runner from Paris who blew out his knees by week two. the professor from Guelph working on her Ph.D. who took a taxi across the Pyrenees, then a bus, because her feet had given up in just ten days. hadn’t calculated the extra weight she carried around her waist and in her pack. and the German journalist with gangrene toes who woke up everyone in the hostels as he rattled his stuff at 04:30. always in a hurry, a rush to the next etape. be first in line. wait three hours until the alberge’s opening time, just to find the best spot to sleep. just so he could wake up before dawn. annoy everyone else all over again. never see anything.

last night I showed J my slides. bent over laptop, I drank Rioja, he, G & T (“it’s almost summer,” he said. “why not?” I replied, “before long, you’ll be back in dry Afghanistan.”)

we laughed when I got to the pictures of the meseta and I told him how European hikers see it as a desert. get meseta panic for days before they reach it, then hop a bus because 250 kms of open sky. horizon. curved earth dotted only with tiny villages. is too much for them. 18 km stretches of nothing.

“that’s prairie, not desert,” says the farm boy, “and those fields are wheat and rye. not sand”

I show him pictures of storks. swallows. wild lavender, sage. olive groves. poppies. tell him about the camino breeze that comes along just when you’re about to give up. and the little yellow birds under bushes. that sing and sing. keep going. keep going.


meseta 2007/smsteele


I tell J that I fell in love with my kit somewhere around week three. when all around me had blisters and swollen feet, and sore backs from carrying wool and fleece, and I had only sore ankles until I started tying bandanas around them every morning before I set out. black one for left, red for right. every morning the same ritual.

and J says, “that’s funny. every day I always tie my army boots the same way. don’t know why. always left lace over right. right boot first. then a double knot that my grandpa taught me.”

and J tells me about how soldiers like to bitch about kit. especially boots. ballistics. you name it. and first thing they do when they get to KAF and see what other armies wear, is bitch and compare. not realizing the other guys are probably doing the same. not realizing the other guys would probably trade.

he tells me how soldiers tweak gear. just a bit. subtle enough so the CO won’t care. “it’s amazing S,” J says, “how many variations on a theme the rifle Coys. can riff with scarves and balaclavas, neck warmers, gloves, socks, you name it.”

I tell J about my little hiking ritual. “every morning I read a list of names. people asked me to pray for as I walked,” “and it’s weird. because I’m not religious and the people who asked me to pray for them and their loved ones aren’t religious, but it just happened. a few weeks before I left, people would quietly slip me little pieces of paper with names on them, little messages, ask me if I’d mind taking them to Compostela.”

“so after I set out, 6 a.m., I’d say to the sunrise hitting my back, ‘okay you guys, I’m really tired today, but I’m taking you with me. hold me up, help me get there. five four three two one, I hope everyone feels better soon. let’s go,’ I’d open the little purse I carried around my neck, soft leather, beaded, a friend had given me, take out names. one by one. read them out loud. 55 of them. each name, four long strides, I’d walk four more silently, then read again. got into a rhythm. by 40 or 41, it became a song of sorts. and when I got to Compostela, kissed the saint, I slipped those names into the jewelled folds of his cape. when the guard wasn’t looking!”

J looks at me amazed. I shrug my shoulders. pour us both another drink. we look at the pictures of the 84 year old hiker’s little cart parked outside a village bar. “ten kilometres a day, was what he walked. he was great that old French guy. and so was the blind woman. and the guy without legs. they made it all the way. didn’t bitch. didn’t complain. didn’t get someone else to carry their gear.”

and I showed him pics of the end of the road. Finisterre. where everyone burns their kit. their clothes, their boots, all of it. run into the water. rise at dawn. put white clothes on. everyone except me. I kept my kit. I was too in love with it. still wear my boots. even though they’re beginning to wear. “you should walk it some day J. clear your head after your next tour,” I said. he just shook his head, “I’m mechanized infantry.”

and when he asked me what I got from the long walk, I didn’t want to tell him. M it’s just for you to know. only you will understand. you who lives in the desert with your fighting men. who drops in and out of my life (like a wild honeybee in tans).

I thought I’d shed something along the way, along 850 kms of thought. a part of me. maybe understand why I never fit. it wasn’t until I clicked my walking stick into Galicia, through green and fog and cold stone villages, that it came to me. some strange peace. recognition. that longing—the heavy coat I’ve always worn— is who I am meant to be. that I’m okay. (just as you are okay). that it’s made me who I am. and that I didn’t need to be afraid anymore. of loneliness. of loss. of anything. and that what would be. would simply be.

so there it is, my little confession. now you know. why you and I, 1 + 1 = 1!

take care of yourself. take care of your men.
out there in the desert mon ami, my friend,

S


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled kit (from May Day). It was posted here on May 21, 2009.

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