Those who read our dreams,
who speak by heaven's will,
declared, "The dead beneath the ground
are discontent—their anger grows
against the ones who killed them."
- Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
She's sitting, legs and fingers crossed, ankles touching beneath high-knitted kneesocks. Her eyes are open, alert—they take in all the chalk on the blackboard, all the president's empty-souled portraits. The teacher is lecturing, tracing a story of Greece and glory in the classroom's stale air. Amidst the scritch-scratching of the students' pencils, his voice strikes an uncertain note. A man come home from a long war fought far away, his wife waiting for him with a kiss and an axe. Something about the Agamemnon seems unpatriotic.
In forty-five minutes, the Glishom Academy girls will be darning socks for the soldiers, doing their part for war. Mary always says that she hopes hers go to Jimmy Stewart, but Becky Barnes has already given all she has to her country. So she listens, close as she can, to Mr. Mitchum's hesitant lecture, to the silver-tongued ghosts new-born in the back of her mind. Some things she can do without, like margarine or rubber. Some things she cannot.
Fire and dirt are home to him now, like the sticky-sweet scratch of gunpowder at the back of his throat. Then there are Toro's awful puns, smiling for the newsreels and slitting Nazi throats. They landed on a French beach yesterday, him and Steve and a bunch of scared Canadian boys, and the pebbles felt strange through his gloves. There's a puffy English general, too, in charge of the operation, and he barks his orders with a proper-sounding accent. But no one listens to him like they listen to Steve, who can turn frightened kids from Ottawa into men ready to die.
Now they're all back on the boat, Steve's lips a grim line, battle plans on his desk. Here's a man who knows how to lose the battle but win the war. But all Bucky can do is smile and offer a game of cards. He'd even lose on purpose if it would mean anything, but no one will take him up on his offer.
She knows her brother is dead before the movie begins, when the newsreel starts rolling and the smiling kid behind the mask has far too many freckles. The army never told her it was him, of course, but it was obvious if you knew James, and Becky's maybe the only one who did. She stuffs more popcorn in her mouth, holding the greasy bucket tight to her chest. No one asks her what is wrong, and Becky doesn't cry until after the movie ends and she is back in her dormitory, in the temple of her rough sheets and the dull grey light.
A few days later a man in uniform shows up at the college, and all the girls are calling her name. It's just like when her father died, the exact same words, the same pauses, the same unquiet hole in her stomach. Another bright young lad turned into a ribbon in the window, we appreciate your sacrifices for the war effort. The sergeant doesn't say anything about what Bucky was doing or mention how he died, just gives her a lump of metal and tells her that they're sorry for her loss.
"No, officer," she feels herself saying, "He wasn't mine to lose."
He doesn't know where he is, only that it can't be good, because there are strange tubes coming out of him and bandages around his belly. His left arm is gone too, but he doesn't know if he ever had a left arm.
Doesn't know if he ever—
And then his knuckles go a tighter white and he's punching the green-suited men as hard as he can, and he keeps going until the soldiers come in and grab him. There's a prickly feeling on his neck, and then everything is black.
After a while, everything is red.
Rebecca Barnes Proctor draws the white of napkin across her lap, covering the roses of her skirt. Ted has just gotten a promotion and he tells her every place he wants to go—how he'll buy her all the pretty hats at Woolworth's and send the kids to the best school in the state. "I'm a man who needs to be something," he says, "and that's why you married me."
She takes a sip of water, the cold freezing her lipstick in place. "Darling, we all need to be something."
"Becky, you don't have to play coy with me." He smiles, the easiest thing in the world. "I know you know what I mean." Then the waiter comes and Ted orders for both of them—steak for him, chicken for her, some of the whiskey they keep in barrels for decades, soaking up the taste of wood.
"I married you because I love you. That's all I need."
Awkwardly, he bends over the table to kiss her; and then his tie is hanging too close to the candle and she can feel the rough edges of his face. His mouth is warm and his ambitions are no greater than their sleepy Long Island town. These are cravings that she understands, glories she can grasp. With all the triumph of a homespun quilt, she closes her eyes and kisses him back.
He hadn't meant for anything to happen with Natalia. The pieces just fell together, clothes on the floor, hand in hand and lips on skin. She tells him that she was a ballerina, before Lyudmila stuffed her up with drugs and turned her into a soldier. While she talks he tries to trace the gaps in his memories across the small of her back. They don't come.
They find out eventually, of course, and it's back to the Red Room for her. Back to the cold embrace of his machines. The things he does for his country.
Karpov speaks to him in his sleep, through the water and through the glass. He has his orders, he always does. It never occurs to him that he can't remember his own name.
Ted doesn't understand why she loves Greek tragedies, and it's not something she can explain to him. Whenever he asks she just closes her eyes, mutters something about the war. He never asks about that.
She can't tell it herself, but when an ex-student of hers writes to say he's starring in a community college production in Queens, she takes a Sunday to ride the train up to the city. The place is littered with flyers and cigarettes: bring our troops home, make love not war. Becky doesn't belong here, not really, so she keeps her hands deep in her pockets. Her scarf hangs like a prayer, covering her mouth and flattening her hair.
Somewhere in the endless sea of bodies she thinks she sees a familiar face. He's only there for a moment, like fireworks before he disappears.
C'mon c'mon c'mon, and it's buzzing like tonic in his ears, a music he can't push out of his mind. Washington, D.C. where it all went wrong; but he's not there now, gone back to New York. It's a strange feeling, coming home, but he doesn't look like he's been gone too long. One nine seven three, and he's still twenty, the Krauts must have pulled a fast one on him.
Нет, no, it was the reds—he can't keep them straight anymore. He's fighting two different wars and collapsing underneath some strange arithmetic. Oh God, there it is again, the song in his skull. What would Karpov say? The things he does for his country.
All he knows is that he needs to get back to Steve, tell him—tell him what exactly? It only comes to him in pieces, through water and snow, he can't make it all out. There are bodies everywhere, his hands on a gun, did he really kill a senator? He doesn't want to think about it. Steve'll know what to do; there's a man who knows how to lose the battle and win the war.
New York, New York: the city smells like grease and wet cardboard, so many anonymous, buttoned-up faces, so many hearts beating, so many names he's forgotten, names he could trace with all the blood on his hands. The old ghosts are upon him now, heavy with age, Toro and fire and Fury. He doesn't know what they all mean, just that there's an itch where his left hand should be—trigger finger, hah ha ha—and that he can't sleep because he doesn't like the person he sees when he closes his eyes.
There are so many names in his darkness, he must belong to one of them. Зима, Зима, something, something. Goddamnit, he doesn't think in Russian. James? James.
No, that can't be right. No one ever calls him James.
She keeps her memories pinned to the wall, boarded-up and framed and pressed behind glass. They can't come at her, the way they are hung, and she can no longer make out the details. Mabel's wedding, Ted's big fishing trip up at Cape Cod twenty years ago, they all look the same from her favorite chair. Her eyesight is leaving her, her memory too, but she still knows all the pictures even if she can no longer make out their detail.
She keeps Bucky's medal next to a picture of her father at Camp Lehigh. Her grandchildren know not to ask her about it.
The phone rings and Jenny comes to tell that her someone's asking for Rebecca.
"He sounded young, kinda out of it. Weird. Gramma, d'you want me to take it? I can tell him to bug off."
"No, no. I need some excitement in my life."
She listens for exactly sixteen seconds before dropping the phone.
Fury gave him the address two months back, but Bucky didn't know what to do with it. There was too much time, he decided, too much time and snow and death, and he didn't have anything much he felt he could say.
But now things are different and James Buchanan Barnes is truly alive again, back in the newsreels, bruised and bloodied and real. After all his letters home were cut up by the censors, he decides she deserves a phone call, but he can't shake the feeling that deep-down she deserves more than that. Bucky wonders if she's forgotten him after all this time—that's ridiculous, he tells himself, you don't forget your big brother—but for fifty years, he had forgotten her.
He doesn't know what to say, it's awkward, Becky never understood him anyway. But he screws up his courage and holds his breath and punches the numbers without looking back.
"Hello, is Rebecca Proctor there?"
The voice that answers the phone is young and self-assured. "Hold on a sec, I'll get 'er."
Bucky lets out his breath and tries to smile like he used to. One more time, kid, just like we practiced.
"Hello? Is this Rebecca?" He doesn't wait for an answer. "It's me, James—it's Bucky."
She has been practicing at jacks the whole afternoon, picking them up- one, two, three. The rubber ball beats the pavement like a drum, a cadence, keeping the soldier's steps in line. Her knees are scratched from so much time outdoors without proper stockings and her hair is all a muss. Becky Barnes doesn't care.
At half past five, James shows, after roughing the other boys up some. He sees the jacks, his jacks, sprawled over the asphalt in front of his sister, and he doesn't know what to say. It isn't like her to take his things.
"So," he asks, "You been practicing?"
"Uh-huh. Since lunchtime." She doesn't look up.
He sits down next to her and grabs the ball, throws it up, catches it. "I didn't know girls played jacks."
"Uh-huh. But it's your favorite game." She presses her tongue against the inside of her cheek, smiles sideways in her best impression. "Well, I reckon somebody's gotta teach you how to lose."