The One-Armed Man in the Military Greatcoat

I talked with a young man in a military greatcoat. His right sleeve was pinned to the shoulder. He was rolling a cigarette one handed as I approached him. He offered me one. I don’t smoke, but I took it and put it in my dry lips. He lit it for me. I couldn’t follow how he managed that. He was holding a matchbox in his one hand, and then out came a match and his fingers struck it into flame. I bent to let him light the hand rolled cigarette for me. The yellow chamois tobacco pouch lay in his lap. He blew out the match and tossed it away smoking. Nearby us a Japanese girl was playing with a red ball. The man in the greatcoat said he’d picked her up in the Empty Lands. I asked what that was, and where. He said: It’s a barren place, mostly just grasses and low hills, but sometimes you see a broken tower, or even a dome that turns out to be a ruined astral observatory. I asked him what other creatures he had met there. He said: A blue eyed coyote. A big raven holding a red thread in its beak. A few white owls. And this little girl here. She was walking around dazed. I took her along with me although I didn’t know where I was heading. Eventually we reached a kind of ampitheater. We walked around it. There were old broken statues in niches. It was twilight, but it’s always twilight in the Empty Lands. I saw bats shooting overhead. Then I saw a shooting star. It was night. The starry sky was vast and it took my breath away. But it didn’t look real. It was different than the starry sky here on earth. I tried to find the constellations. Couldn’t. Where was the Big Dipper? Orion? Gone. In their place were other stars in other relationships.

I asked him where he’d lost the arm. He said: At the Somme. It was probably still there. In the mud. Maybe the rats ate it. He laughed. The little girl dashed to us and crawled onto his lap. I asked her name. The man in the greatcoat said he didn’t know; didn’t even know his own. I asked the little girl where her parents where. She said, In a car. In a car where? The girl’s eyes looked at me. Upside down, she said. Then she jumped from the lap and dashed off, her bare legs red from the cold. I sat down next to the man in the greatcoat. I asked: Do you feel anything strange is happening here? He laughed. Who knows? It was strange to see my arm lying in the mud. After that, nothing seemed strange.

I asked how he’d thought to come back. He drew in a hiss of air through his nostrils. Then laughed. Thought? Yes, I said, picking a shred of tobacco from my lips. He shook his head slowly. He bit his lower lip, released it. Then he said. I really don’t know. We walked around for what seemed like years. Then I saw a town. In the distance. There was a beach, a boardwalk, like Atlantic City. A big lit up ferris wheel. There were people, eating ice cream. They were strangely dressed. A man playing an accordion, with a monkey jumping around holding out a hat for coins. It felt like home. We walked into the ocean, the little girl and I. We stood there in the waves. It felt good. Clean. Cool. We were both laughing. When we came back we got on a small train. When we got out of the train, here we were.

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