Washer Woman Scott Lambridis
Time Commitment: 15 minutes
Originally Published In:
Black Static

Now he mutters, mostly. Except the nights when I hear him sing. All through the night. Sure, Minks became a nutjob long before he ever got here, but oh man, when he sings he pacifies the angels and drives the devils mad and sleepless. Before he was enlisted he taught mythology. Both him and his wife. So he’s familiar with fear. He should know better than anyone in the platoon, hell, anyone I’ve ever met, how easily it turns to superstition. They were high school sweethearts, him and his wife, in love with their own story, he’d said. When I stole the old letters he was reading one night I asked him where she was. “Cancer,” is all he said, and then he turned over in his cot. The aluminum frame holding the stretched green canvas made a clack-clack sound on the cement floor. I put the letters back and left him alone. The only other thing he ever reads is his old book of Celtic myths. He was probably that one high school teacher you remember later who actually liked his job for the right reasons. You know, the reasons you’re still trying to find.

“Why do you always sing before those fucking villagers hit us? You know something, you fuck? What the fuck do you know, you fuck?” says Pliny, shaking Mink’s cot and making it go clack-clack on the floor. Pliny’s from Boston. His dad owns a brewery. He has seven brothers and they’re all just as ugly as him. He’s the first to say what we’ve all been thinking.

“Hey Pliny, why don’t you shut your trap and quite cussing?” says Biggs. “You gonna scare Jesus away. Out here, the lord’s bags is already packed and ready. He don’t need no excuses.”

“No, Biggs, Pliny’s right. Might be an asshole, but he’s right. What’s the deal, Minks? How come every time you sing we get raided?” I take my glasses off and roll my comic into a wand and shake it at Minks.

“I don’t know. It’s not the song. It’s her song. Leave me alone,” he says, and then he’s back to the muttering, staring at the corner of the wooden bunker where we stacked the cots no longer needed. “She’s here,” I can make out. “She’s here, washing us.”

“Quit looking over there, you fuck, and answer the question or your cot’ll be there next,” says Pliny, shaking the aluminum frame again. Minks rubs the bony caps of his knees and smooths his red hair. He looks at the cots again, then puts his helmet on. His shirt is too big and with the wobbly helmet he looks even lankier.

“How many of them were all cleaned up?” says Minks, staring right at me, but pointing at the stack of cots in the corner. His eyes look like whiteout with a big fat period jabbed in the center. “Do you know? Their gear. Their clothes. Were they clean? Look at the buttons on his vest,” says Minks, now pointing to Pliny. “They’ve been cleaned.” Minks never looks directly at anyone else but me. I don’t know what the fuck to say. We’ve been out here off-base for three weeks now, holding our position with one half-working radio while we wait for someone somewhere to sign some documents so we can get reinforcements and a real mission. Not a fucking thread of anyone’s shit is clean.

“Why they always let in the crazy ones?” says Biggs, gearing up. That catch phrase of his is getting tiresome. “Come on grunts, Jesus says the day is young. Let’s try to keep it that way.” Biggs is short and black and strong. He carries a photo of himself around in a white and gold suit with a purple handkerchief and a bushy white beard. He wanted to be a pastor, but his uncle ran the congregation and wouldn’t let Biggs in unless he quit running drugs. But damned if he’d do that. He lies back down, then flicks the top of his ballpoint and goes back to writing letters to a daughter who died in the womb. I steal the pen from his hand, but he grabs it back quick as a quiver as always. Pliny tries to do the same thing, but Biggs punches him in the gut. Since the lieutenant bit it, Biggs has been in charge. Pliny yells “Goddamit,” and Biggs punches him again. Then the sirens go off, shrieking in a minor third while the whizzing bullets make it a major chord.

It’s night again and there’s one less cot and one week less to wait for home. The bunker is silent save for Minks’s snoring, but I’m hearing his song in my head. B minor. My chest feels inflated. My stomach twists. A week of lima beans and goat stock with beets, purple and green. It held its color in Pliny’s exposed stomach after he was shot. Minks never ate with us. What sustained him? What would his insides look like? He barely slept, yet had boundless energy. I don’t want to sleep. I just want to listen. I lean up and look out the window. Twenty yards away, there’s a woman with long dark hair wrapped in gray cloth and I see her holding a bucket by the handle just before she drops below the horizon down the back of the hill. Another superstitious old woman from the village. She’s gone before I can move. It’s still again. So still.

I must have dozed off. Minks’s drawn face is right above me and his breath stinks. He’s whispering and I want to shout but Biggs’ll kick my ass. “It’s her, man. It’s her song. She’s here, around us. The washer woman. She smells of lye and potash and she knows. Can you smell her?”

“Fuck you, Minks, get out of my face.”

“Listen to me. Don’t wash. Don’t wash anything. Nothing. Or, or maybe wash everything, every day. Keep it clean. Shit, I don’t know. I don’t know.” He turns away, brow pinched, and goes back to his cot. I can’t sleep.

Minks is gone before I wake. The day is slow and the others are playing tetherball with the inflated pig stomach they tied to a string ten yards up the siren’s pole. I’m too tired to leave the bunker. I finish the comic I’ve read fifty times. I take Minks’s book and start flipping through. He’s got a chapter dog-eared. It’s titled Washer Woman. There’s some music notation and translated lyrics, along with a note about it being the traditional song from which the myth originated. I hum the melody. Same one I hear at night. On the facing page there’s a drawing of a swarthy woman with long black hair waist deep in water, naked and covered in blood, holding a metal chestplate. The caption says “Washing the armor of warriors before they die in battle.” I flip the page to the story’s loose translation:

A villager washes her new husband’s blood-stained armor in the river the night before he leaves for battle. He looks angry but it’s too late to stop her. Nevermind, he says. Nevermind. He kisses her beneath her tearing eye, taking the saltwater away. He tells her a second kiss will be on her lips when he returns, but he never returns. Only an officer’s armor glints like that in the sun, she hears the other soldiers say. They talk of the bearded man with long white hair who had glued white tufts to his chestplate before soaking it with her husband’s blood. Vengeful, she sneaks away to the enemy’s camp. She searches through windows and steals the armor of the man they described. She sings as she washes it in the river, her husband’s blood united with his ashes, then returns the armor. The next day, the soldiers bring home the dead white-haired man, but in the enemy’s camp, there is talk of a woman. As if in a dream, someone says, by the river, naked, covered in blood, washing the armor and kissing the air as if a ghost was kissing her back, and singing a refrain over and over. She’s trying to find her lost lover, some say. Others say it’s revenge, and every bloodied armor holds her lover’s own. Warnings fall from lips. She is death’s servant, marking the next. They stop burning the bodies and the warnings drift down to the woman’s camp. A messenger coming to warn her hears her singing and runs away. The villagers drown her that night, but she is in the river still.

I close the book and go seek sunshine. The bunker’s dim and humid, but outside there’s a breeze under the heat. Back home, it’s autumn in November. I string a hammock out back between a lone tree and the bunker’s roof where the eastern hill dips down and leads to the water. I take a nap.

I hear a rustling and open an eye. Minks is coming up the hill, a hundred yards away from me, kicking the gravel and holding something in his oversized vest. He doesn’t see me. No one’s ever out behind the bunker here. I slide out of the hammock and it bunches back up and looks as thin as a clothesline. I creep around the side of the bunker. Twenty yards away, he leans against the tree, his body obscured to anyone else but me. He puts his foot up on a boulder and pulls a glass bottle out from his vest, filled with white liquid, and starts to drink.

“Minks.”

He jumps and liquid splashes on the boulder. I lunge for the bottle, but he’s quick and I miss. He stares at me with a milk mustache. I grab for it again and he doesn’t stop me. I flick it and it dings in C sharp.

“So when’d you become a thief?”

“What?”

“Well, either you stole it or you’ve got yourself a little girlfriend down there giving you presents. So either tell me when’d you become a thief, or when’d you start seeing her?”

“No, no. It’s. No, it’s not that.”

“No, then what is it?” I take a drink but spit it out. “Ugh, goat milk. Shoulda figured.”

“Don’t. Don’t waste it. Please.”

“All right, here. Just tell me where you got it.”

“A woman. In the village. She has goats.”

“Yeah, they all have goats, so what?” I’m feeling impatient. If he’s getting goat milk, I could be getting something too. Something better than goat milk. “They’re the enemy, man, what the fuck are you doing down there?” I’m trying not to shout.

“Shh, it’s ok, it’s nothing. Just a woman. She lost her family I think. I saw her when I went out walking by the river a few weeks ago. All the other women yell and spit when they see us, but she was alone and quiet, untangling her hair with a wet stone and washing out a leather milk sack. She saw me, but she didn’t run. She just kept washing the sack.” Minks says they don’t talk. He helps her milk her goats and she gives him some. She wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but who’d want to worry about the prettiest girl in the world here. Good for him.