Atonement

A short story by Claude Pigeon

He rarely came down from his woods cabin except to go to work or tend to life’s necessities.  His home was, even by Essex County standards, a ramshackle affair at the end of a gravel road at the end of a gravel road.  He was reclusive by nature, and the remoteness of his home suited him well.  It wasn’t that he disliked people; he just preferred to have minimal contact with them.

Cash was scarce in his life; his job at the sawmill didn’t pay much. What he earned he spent on his family. He had no indulgences for himself, except when his tax return arrived.  Then, he would call to make his appointment.   There was to be no follow up or coming back another time, so I scheduled an entire afternoon/evening for him.  Whatever we accomplished in that time would have to suffice.

That first time, he arrived in a beat up old Dodge pickup truck.  The wheel wells were all rusted out and the box had been replaced with a rough sawn wood bed with a pipe rail.   His chain saw and a container of gas were bungeed to the rail, a spare tire hung beneath.  As he pulled his lanky six foot three inch frame out of the tired old truck I could see nothing menacing about him.  That dangerous persona was from another time, another life…  He sat down in the antique barber chair and pulled a folded page from his pocket.  It was a picture of Velazquez’s depiction of the crucifixion.  He had carefully cut it from a book in the Bloomfield Town Library.  I traced off the basic forms from the picture and prepared a stencil.  After tying his stringy long hair out of the way, I applied the stencil and started the line work.  Over the strident drone of the tattoo gun, he carried on a nearly unbroken monologue.

Eight hours later, the limp and bloody body of Christ with his sobbing entourage hung permanently on Storm’s left shoulder.  In the interim period, I had heard many of his life stories.  There was the time the local police chief pulled a pistol after Storm had leveled a bar and knocked five or six people out.  Storm had taken the gun away, pistol whipped the chief with it, handcuffed him to the brass foot rail and drove away in his squad car.  I think that episode had earned him a stay at the county farm.  Initially I discarded his tall tales as some macho bravado, but later, eyewitness accounts corroborated his stories.

He was possessed by a deep and prevalent anger that simmered just below his consciousness and erupted when he drank too much whiskey.  Unfortunately, in his early years, drinking too much whiskey was his favorite pastime.

He hadn’t finished high school.  Being constantly in trouble kept him out of the classrooms and constantly in detention, so when he was old enough, he walked away and never returned.  Not long after, a minor skirmish with the law had him in front of a judge.  In those days, it was common for a judge to “suggest” the armed services as an alternate to the county farm, the thought being that “Uncle Sam’s army will make a man out of you”.  How you can take a troubled teenager with serious anger issues, give him a gun, send him to a foreign land to shoot foreign people and expect that he will come back “cured”? …but that is what they did back in that time!

Storm spoke lovingly about his step daughter.  She was so severely retarded she could not speak and had never learned to walk.  At 35, she weighed over 400 pounds and had a host of medical issues.  In spite of all the attendant difficulties, he was steadfastly committed to keeping her home and out of any institutions.  He compassionately shared in the endless efforts to change her diapers, keep her clean, fed and comfortable.  She squealed and grunted for attention and occasionally threw tantrums.  Storm and his wife patiently attended to her constant needs without complaint.  In the last year, they had finally been accepted for the respite program.  The program freed them for two or three days a week.  They walked in the woods and picked berries, planted a garden, went fishing, and for the first time in many years, they made love.

During the crucifixion of Christ, Storm also obliquely expressed guilt about things he had done… very horrible things that incessantly haunted him, yet he never elaborated.   Several times he said that God could never forgive him.  I didn’t want to pry so I didn’t ask.  I just let him ramble and let him take the conversation wherever he wanted it to go.  He kept coming back to his pervasive guilt and I sensed that he wanted to open the door but wasn’t sure he could trust me with his story.  I was very curious to know what he thought God could and couldn’t forgive but we ran out of time.  Before we knew it, the crucifixion was finished and varnished with a coat of Bacitracin. I was exhausted and our session was over.

Four seasons later, the sap was running and curls of sweet scented smoke rose from the sugar houses in the Connecticut River valley.  I was just starting to think about Storm again when he called to make an appointment for his annual rite.  When he arrived this time, he had a photo of Michelangelo’s painting of the archangel Michael, sword in hand, casting Satan from the heavens.

It was a challenging piece, the winged Michael, sword in hand stomping on the back of the prostate Satan, Storm clouds loomed and  robes flowed in the wind; it was a busy piece.  His story picked up where he had left off the previous year.  I began to realize that this was not idle conversation.  I was his confessor, an important part of his catharsis.  I was not simply his tattoo artist, but an integral part of the rite.  The tattoos were a visible sacrifice to provide ransom for his sins.  I was his witness.  His skin was his testament to the glory of God.  The pain was his penitence.   The tattoo was a sacrament.

He had always been a good shot and an excellent hunter.  He had learned to follow the tracks, where to look for his prey.  He could sit perfectly still for hours and let the wind tell him where to go.  Those skills suited him well when he got to Vietnam.  He shot well and he had an enthusiasm for the kill.  It was noticed by others.  He was conscripted into an informal and elite cadre of soldiers.  They were provided with maps and whatever intelligence was available and set off for long forays into the jungle.  The stated purpose was to locate and follow the enemy, to track their movements, to identify their support systems, weapons stores, food caches.

One day he had come across some fresh tracks, all boots, no slippers or bare feet… NVA regulars!  For a day and a half he followed them south to a swampy village in the delta.  By the time he got to the village, they were just leaving.  From the cover of the jungle, he watched them load up and leave.  He needed to stay put for at least two hours to allow a safe distance between them and the village that had just hosted them.  If they heard him, they would alter their plans.  As the sun was setting, he left the shadows and brazenly walked into the village.  There was much shouting and panic in a language he didn’t understand.  A toothless old woman stood in his path.  He gently moved her aside.  From the corner of his eye he saw a flash and a bullet whizzed harmlessly by several feet ahead.  He automatically and methodically returned fire; emptied his clip, replaced it and when that clip was empty, there were fourteen dead.  He gathered up the dead and dying and threw the bodies into the underground rice silos to poison the rice.  He dropped his two grenades into the weapons cache.  He set fire to the huts and shot at anyone that had taken refuge.  He never mentioned what the age and sex were of the dead or if any of them were armed… and I didn’t want to know.

Another time he had come upon a small patrol of poorly armed Cong.  They were young, inexperienced, malnourished and no match for him.   He caught them filling their canteens at the river edge. They were so completely surprised that they made no effort to reach for their guns or run… they should have.  They raised their hands in surrender.  They died in the jungle and disappeared without a trace.  Storm moved on.

As his stories unfolded, it became curiously apparent that he did not feel guilty about the killings.  He was a soldier in a time of war and he was good  at what he did.  His guilt stemmed from his lack of remorse and the fact that he had enjoyed the killing.  Duty is a noble thing and God understood that.  The zeal with which he pursued his duty… that was another matter.  He surely would burn in hell for that, but he had been just a kid himself and to him, they had been targets!

As he matured and gained a different perspective of life, he understood that THEY were just kids, and farmers, and helpless people who simply wanted to grow their rice and live their simple lives.  His pain and guilt swelled with the passing years.

As I darkened in the brooding storm clouds and allowed the brilliant shafts of holy Renaissance light to penetrate the battle scene, he realized that our session for the year was nearly done.   I took off my latex gloves and shook his hand.  He was already planning next year’s piece.  He wanted an expression of the Trinity and the Holy Ghost.  Suddenly, I realized that I was part of a plan.  The selections of artwork, the unfolding of his confession, were not at all random.  The scope of his plan left me awed by the complexity of his tortured psyche.  The crucifixion represented forgiveness for sins through the payment of a ransom.  He was asking for participation in God’s plan for forgiveness.   The Archangel’s eviction of Satan from heaven was Storm expunging the demons from his head.  The Holy Ghost is all knowing, through him, Storm was looking for understanding and enlightenment.

In a few months I would have a heart attack and in an effort to simplify my life I would close my studio and abandon that phase of my life.  I have not seen or heard from Storm.  I don’t know if his daughter is still alive and if he ever found the peace that was so elusive to him.  One thing that I am very sure of is that God has forgiven him.  He should now forgive himself.

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