by Louise Norlie
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Initially, the collection was a disappointment. I found pins, tags, leather scraps, and various moldy curiosities. I was disappointed that there was nothing of worth.
There were many more photographs in the chest than Bob or Will had ever shown me. They were taken in the Pacific islands, with a primitive camera. The pictures may not have been crystalline depictions even then, and after decades, only dim images remained, many of them meaningless shapes and shadows.
Photographs of places were almost indecipherable apart from the jagged outlines of what appeared to be the branches of tropical trees. Many images of people were only vaguely discernible, almost like the random swirls and patterns that gasoline makes in a puddle of water.
I could not believe my eyes when I came upon one larger, clearer photo of an entire group of men. In the left corner of the rectangular image, standing to the side of a cluster of soldiers, stood the individual glimpsed in the graveyard. From the man’s clothing to his posture, there was no doubt that this man was identical to the ghost I had seen.
On the back of the photo, written in a spidery script, was a list of names and dates. The dates varied over the period of the last half century. One date had recently been added next to Will’s name. It was the date of his death, inscribed in Bob’s handwriting. Apparently, Bob had been the last survivor.
One name was crossed out so thoroughly that the photograph was dented from behind. Upon examination, it was the name belonging to the mysterious stranger. I turned the chest inside out for any other clues.
The bottom of the box was lined with an old newspaper from the 1950s. It disintegrated in my hands. Beneath this, however, I found a small notebook, once belonging to Will. The pages were stained with grease. The journal must have been written in dangerous places and uncomfortable positions. Yet the contents were a revelation.
It happened when Will and Bob were together in the same squad. They had been at first a lucky group, for the most part staying clear of the front lines. They had not lost any men until Sergeant George Malvern took over. The men suspected him of insanity. He gave illogical commands and made obviously erroneous decisions. He caused deaths which could have been easily avoided. He prescribed punishments unwarranted considering the brutal conditions of day to day life. Also, the journal noted his propensity to chew a particularly strong variety of tobacco.
Survival in those conditions depended on being able to trust each other, and the men could not even trust their own leader. On a remote island, they were isolated from any recourse against him through the normal chain of command. The men privately mutinied. A pact was made that they must shoot the madman as soon as the Japanese were near enough plausibly to have attacked and done the deed. The men swore a lifetime of secrecy.
The journal did not note who fired the fatal shots, but Sergeant Malvern was shot from behind. It was a desperate act justified only by the desperate times, but from what I read in this journal, the men had no other choice.
So this was the secret that my uncles had kept. They never wanted me to know it while they lived. And they could have permanently prevented my discovery by destroying this journal.
From the storehouse of common knowledge of ghosts, many questions came to my mind. I had assumed ghosts appeared near the site where they died. Why then did this ghost appear thousands of miles away? Why did he haunt the soldiers? After all, they were not guilty of an act of malice. It was either kill or be killed.
It seemed that the Sergeant wanted to be remembered, not forgotten. He wanted something from me personally. I thought I was chosen to be his crusader, and wondered where to begin. I decided to research whatever traces of information could be obtained on him.
My internet war memorabilia trade was flourishing. I also had a website of my own. To this website, I posted several war photos from the old chest, including the photo of the men with their sergeant. I tried to use the capabilities of the computer to zoom in and enlarge the images, but they had deteriorated so completely that it was impossible to get any finer level of detail from the faded blurs.
I posed an open question to the world, asking whether anyone could tell me anything more about the Sergeant. The ghostly images were broadcast around the globe. I labeled him as Sergeant Malvern in blinking, bold font. Perhaps some relative or descendant of the Sergeant or of the other soldiers would contact me and provide more information.
I received no e-mail responses from my internet post, but just the same, the Sergeant seemed enlivened by whatever public notice he had received. I was not expecting to see him again, because I assumed that he would only appear at the funerals of the veterans, and they were now all deceased.
Outdoors at twilight on an early winter evening, he appeared to me in my yard, standing at a distance in the misty shade of trees, just far enough away for his face to be indistinct. He glowed from the reflection of the dying sunlight on the freshly fallen snow. I was overjoyed; I tried to approach him. I wanted to encourage him.
“Sergeant Malvern, I know who you are! I know what happened to you!” I called boldly. There was no response or recognition. I walked toward him. Instead of turning in retreat, this time he faded and disappeared. Behind him were the traces of the odor that has become all too familiar to me.
Following this episode, he began to appear more frequently, even inside my house. It was apparent that he must have some specific intent. As he does now, the Sergeant appeared only at night, when he could be more easily disguised. He very cleverly avoided making his face any more visible than in the old photograph.
At night in my study, peering into an adjacent room lit only by the residual light of my desk lamp, where the furniture was visible only as colorless shadows, I saw his outline, standing at attention. With the lights off as I attempted to sleep, I began to smell his tobacco. I tried keeping the lights lit, which seemed to work to a point, but as soon as I closed my eyes I could smell that smell, and feel him near. When I switched on the lamp and opened my eyes, there was never a visible trace.
His presence did not seem either malignant or benign. He just was there and had the quality of simply being. Writing this, I note a paradox; he, or it, was not real and could not be changed; he no longer existed, with the sole exception that he still had the ability to influence me.
I felt I had done something to provoke him. I impulsively removed his image from the internet. That did nothing. He was relentlessly present and unforgiving. If I had offended him, I was unable to take back what I had done and undo the past.
I next guessed that he wanted me to sell my World War II memorabilia. I auctioned off much of my collection at a loss. I briefly considered selling the contents of the chest, but disregarded this impulse because they were priceless to me as family heirlooms.
Now I fear there will be no one to whom they can be bequeathed. My only son is missing in Iraq, and as illogical as it might sound, I know that he, Sergeant Malvern, is responsible! His presence, once desirable, has turned into a horror.
But why torment me? Why take my son and my sanity? Do ghosts appear only when they want something? What revenge can he have on me, when the conspirators who murdered him, whether excusably or not, are dead? As far as I can ascertain, they lived to an old age, dying of natural causes. I know I will not. I fear that this winter will last forever and I will never see spring.
Out of desperation, I have burned the ancient journal, which was invaluable as a first hand description of the war in the Pacific. Foolishly, I have not even made a copy of the document that shed light on the event that had haunted Will and Bob for decades. I thought that destroying the last trace of evidence might rid me of his loathsome presence, but this was a futile act.
I, a civilian, am under the command of this mad Sergeant, who is issuing silent orders from beyond the grave. His insanity did not die with him. I do not understand what he wants me to do. I am constantly driven and goaded by unknowable demands. I proclaim it was not my fault. That does not seem to matter. His presence is forceful and commanding. He wants me to obey. But his wishes are inscrutable. I can do no right by him.
It is the dead of winter and the nights are long. The light of day is brief, ineffectual, and pale. My only solution is to remain forever awake, with all the lights on, cornered, with my back against the wall.
I cannot maintain that stance forever and despair of trying, because I am only human, and the fall of darkness, whether within me or around me, is inevitable.
Copyright © 2006 by Louise Norlie