By: Jeffrey Smith
We need to eat food to survive. My english teacher once told me this was a terrible way to start an essay. I disagree with him. It’s a wonderful way of showing how a well thought out action can still not be that smart. I think that makes me fragile. Why? I think fragility, at its core, is being vulnerable, or where what you are doing isn’t benefiting you (long run or at the moment). Also, I want to point out I don’t mean fragility in a negative way towards somebody but as a fact that exists. Everybody will have moments of fragility in their lives and everybody will have some aspect of themselves that will always be fragile. It’s in that fragility though, that we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves. “The Fugue” follows the story of Wild Turkey as he wakes up under a cement bridge and relives a confusing mesh of memories from his past. They bounce back and forth between his training in an American desert modeled after an Iraqi village, a real Iraq village where he is deployed and his time back home with his older brother (a priest) and his girlfriend Jeannie. Along the way, mental illnesses such as PTSD are strongly hinted at and the difference between Wild Turkeys memories and what actually happened gets more and more confusing. “The Fugue,” by Arna Bontemps Hemenway uses vivid imagery to develop the idea of the fragility that all humanity shares.
Wild Turkeys and Towheads instant reactions are part of what makes this story so appealing to me. During thanksgiving, Wild Turkey goes to catch his own turkey and ends up scaring them into the path of a truck, killing them all: “Wild Turkey had lain there in the ditch, shaking. In the concussive silence after the semi’s blasting passage” (106). Wild Turkey is a military man, the stereotypes associated with that is being strong and macho. Not the type of person to lie shaking in a ditch after the (brutal) death of turkeys. In the wake of the truck’s passage everything is silent, nobody is moving or making noise except for Wild Turkey, who is on the ground shaking. We see a broken and vulnerable man. Not in a way where Wild Turkey should have reacted differently. But, by how even those who are supposed to be the strongest out of us, can be shaken by certain situations. In a weirdly similar situation, Tow Head, a military companion of Wild Turkey goes out shooting with him. On that trip, they are shooting at clay targets until a flock of birds take off: “Tow Head is firing and firing, and firing, until Wild Turkey hears the small metallic clink of the ammunition cartridge going empty and there are no more birds in the air” (116). The juxtaposition of this image is what stands out to me the most. There is a huge auditory difference between the monstrously loud gun being fired repeatedly, compared to being able to hear the “small metallic clink” afterward. The “small metallic clink” is so weak and feeble compared to the powerful gun. Throughout the story, we see Wild Turkey deal with what we assume is PTSD, this is an assumption we can pass on to Tow Head as a possible explanation for his death: “this is six months before Tow Head… will use the replica rifle to shoot himself through his cheekbone” (117). The story is once again filled with gunfire when Tow Head shoots himself through his cheekbone, a messy and seemingly needlessly painful place. When I started this paragraph I said the parallels I see in the type of reaction were oddly similar. They are both instant, neither are thinking about what they are doing and none of their actions are helping themselves in any way.
The well thought out decisions that Wild Turkey takes can surprisingly be some of his worst throughout the story. After a mission aiming to capture a target goes wrong a member of Wild Turkeys team accidentally smashes in the head of an innocent woman:
“looking down at the naked girl with the ruined head, knows he can report it or not report it, but he can’t leave the body as it is. Not to be found, and photographed. Not to be seen. This is when he says it, when he raises his eyes to Frideal’s and the others. “Burn it,” he says”(119).
Wild Turkey standing over the dead, naked body of the girl produces this image where he has all the power. Her “ruined head” shows what his power has already accomplished and now he contemplates what to do next. The simple words “Burn it” is the answer to what he does with that power, denying her family, her friends and herself a dignified ending to her life. Subsequently, after he burns her body Wild Turkey begins to question the events leading up to her death: “Did he see Freidel wrestling with the girl- in what, an effort to restrain her? Did he hear him laughing?”(119). Freidel wrestling with the girl and laughing is significant because it’s an undeniable suggestion to rape. A grown soldier wrestling with a young defenceless girl in his charge leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Wild Turkey is questioning what happened but, he has already decided to brutally burn her in order to protect his team. But what if he has denied her a proper sendoff to aid a man who was abusing her. A disturbing thought to say the least and something that would undoubtedly eat away at Wild Turkeys mind.
Before military training really gets underway there is an initiation where the recruits, including Wild Turkey, who is prone to seizures, had to stay up all night keeping their hands four inches above the table: “How he looked, sitting there seizing, his hands the only part of him held perfectly still” (103). The image of Wild Turkeys entire body seizing shows us very quickly that something is wrong because seizures are a dangerous, life-threatening problem. Wild Turkey has no control over his seizing body which is contrasted with his hands that are “perfectly still”. The incredible willpower and both mental and physical pain that must go into control a seizing body part implies just how bad Wild Turkey wants and needs to be accepted in this group of the military. The thing is, seizures aren’t something that can be controlled and because Wild Turkeys fit come along with blackouts this story is relayed to us through a third party. After hearing the story Wild Turkey has his own thoughts about what happened at his initiation: “Wild Turkey will suspect the truthfulness of this, seeing as how he woke up in the wetness of the ditch outside the armoury building” (103). This image is particularly revealing because, after his fit during initiation, he wakes up without remembering anything in a wet ditch. This seemingly would represent his defeat after the initiation. But the previous story contradicts this, it says he succeeded. To me, it raises more questions than answers. How could the man going through a seizure control his hands (and his body enough to stay at the table) then, following that amazing feat, end up in a ditch remembering nothing. But, at the same time why would, his colleagues lie to him. Were they trying to protect him from what actually happened? I don’t have answers but I have a feeling of fragility from the situation, like out of everything that is happening nothing is working in anybody’s interest.
When I read the story “fragility” jumped out to me. But, when I set out to express those feelings I found all sorts of problems. I had this feeling, but the explanation for those feelings was difficult. In that struggle to find my words though, I hope I’ve found some understanding for what fragility is to me, is to Wild Turkey and what it might mean for all of us.
Bontemps, Arna “The Fugue.” The Best American Short Stories. Ed. Tc. Boyle. Boston Mariner Books, 2015. 100-120. Print.