It happens in the morning, usually. I am reading, or in the garden, or writing at a table outdoors, so lost in my own thoughts that at first it doesn’t register. Because it is unlike the other sounds of my day, for a long time I just didn’t have a place to put what I was hearing. It didn’t fit, which meant I couldn’t identify it. I’m lucky. My life is so supremely peaceful that I simply could not find room in my brain for volleys of gunfire.
It is not that I have never heard gunfire before but most of it has been in movies or news reports. During the Vietnam War I ate my dinner every night listening to the televised beat of helicopters over jungle, the staccato of automatic weapons. I hear hunters in the fall and I heard a shooting when I was staying in Oakland. But now I have the luxury of a psychic space of tranquility in my daily life that operates on different rules.
When I began to know what the sound was, I called the sheriff’s office. They told me I was hearing the Ithaca Police Department’s firing range two miles away. When I wondered why the Ithaca Police Department might think it was a good idea that the surrounding population grow accustomed to hearing gunfire, they offered to send an officer out to discuss it with me.
It happened again when Mark was visiting. I pointed to the sound. He listened. “Not more than four or five guys,” he said, helpfully. He would know.
“Imagine that multiplied ten times and gunships and B-52s …”
But that was just the point. I didn’t want to imagine that, not here, not close to my home.
I spend much of my time now imagining that sound multiplied. I am editing Mark’s writing about his two tours in Vietnam. He wrote during the 70s and then put the story away. We have gotten it out again. We want to finish the editing by the end of the summer, so we are working intensely. It is time.
My task goes beyond taking out extra words and deleting intensifiers (both of which I do, remorselessly). I edit in such a way that this story may be heard, which means I have to hear it first. I have to open myself to it, put myself in it. It happens in my imagination, which, arguably, is too vivid. Nevertheless I wonder if vivid imagination is what people who live in safe places owe to those who don’t.
I want the IPD to practice, just as I want helicopters to fly over my house searching for people in trouble in the gorge. Nevertheless. when I hear those sounds, my imagination takes over. I don’t see the scene from the point of view of the soldiers, the ones in the account I am editing, the ones the news reports were about. Instead, in an indelible instant, I am any woman in any town or village in any war whose garden is the only source of food for her family. She cares for an old woman who needs her help walking and a terrified baby stretching hands up toward her. When the assault comes, they run toward the only shelter they know, a house that becomes a firetrap. Their deaths, and the destruction of the home in which they, too, wanted tranquility, will be called “collateral damage.”