John Bartle Quotes in The Yellow Birds
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head
The war tried to kill us in the spring. […] While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed. […] I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.
I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.
There were no bullets with my name on them, or with Murph’s, for that matter. There were no bombs made just for us. Any of them would have killed us just as they’d killed the owners of those names. We didn’t have a time laid out for us, or a place. […] I believe unswervingly that when Murph was killed, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed “To whom it may concern.” Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying.
A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around, astonished to be alive, his weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, “You made it, buddy, keep going,” but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that. It was not long before the others saw him too.
We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.
I felt an obligation to remember him correctly, because all remembrances are assignations of significance, and no one else would ever know what happened to him, perhaps not even me. I haven’t made any progress, really. When I try to get it right, I can’t. When I try to put it out of my mind, it only comes faster and with more force. No peace. So what. I’ve earned it.
But things happened the way they happened without regard to our desire for them to have happened another way. Despite an age-old instinct to provide an explanation more complex than that, something with a level of profundity and depth which would seem commensurate with the confusion I felt, it really was that simple.
I didn’t want to smile and say thanks. Didn’t want to pretend I’d done anything except survive.
I felt as if I’d somehow been returned to the singular safety of the womb, untouched and untouchable to the world outside her arms around my slouching neck. I was aware of all this, though I am not sure how. Yet when she said, “Oh, John, you’re home,” I did not believe her.
What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” Right.
[…] there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud […]
[…] a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain it but it’s just, like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose […]
[…] cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now […]
It’s impossible to identify the cause of anything, and I began to see the war as a big joke, for how cruel it was, for how desperately I wanted to measure the particulars of Murph’s new, strange behavior and trace it back to one moment, to one cause, to one thing I would not be guilty of.
We were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence. Each action was a page in an exercise book performed by rote. I didn’t care.
He wanted to choose. He wanted to want. He wanted to replace the dullness growing inside him with anything else. He wanted to decide what he would gather around his body, to refuse that which fell toward him by accident or chance and stayed in orbit like an accretion disk. He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.
It probably wouldn’t matter what our level of culpability was. I was guilty of something, that much was certain, that much I could feel on a cellular level.
Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated.