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FIC: A Handful of Dust

Title: A Handful of Dust
Fandom: M*A*S*H
Characters/Pairings: BJ, peripheral others.
Date Written: 2008
Summary: Shadows rise and shadows fall, and living in an illusion is nothing if not a waiting game.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for imagery.
Notes: Wow, I finally wrote something for my first fandom. After all these years, MASH is still the only thing I love that loves me back. Second-person, which I know is weird. It’s just how it wanted to be written.
Spoilers: All over the place, but the series is over 20 years old at this point. SORRY.



A day is just a day. You wake up, you’re alive, and the possibility exists that you’ll wake up and be alive tomorrow, too. A day you start out alive is a good day, a day you finish dead is a bad day, and everything in between in just a matter of degree.

You start out this day grumbling against fatigue and the cruelty of sunlight and the listless mutter of the camp limping back to life outside the tent, dragging footfalls and unenthused gossip and the distant clang of metal-on-metal as the earliest birds at the mess tent decide that the worm isn’t exactly what they wanted. Business as usual. Maybe you roll back over and try to get what extra sleep you can, or maybe the P.A. crackles to life, calling you out of the innocent retreat of your dreams and back into the slaughterhouse. Maybe you struggle upright, rubbing your eyes, and have a shot of paint stripper at this fine drinking hour of seven in the morning. Maybe you miss your daughter’s small hands, the way your wife smells after a shower, the feel of soft sun-fed grass pressing between your toes. Maybe you can’t take it today, maybe you can.

These things vary day to day, after all.

.o.

Maybe you look over at your tentmate’s empty cot and wonder where he’s gotten off to, a casual spark of curiosity or a gentle nudge of nervousness or a full-fledged panic, depending on how bad O.R. was the night before and when the last time was that shellfire came too close to the camp for comfort. How vivid the nightmares were, this time.

Maybe you find him in the mess, moaning out the same old jokes about the same old food that still manage to feel fresh by comparison, or in post-op checking on a delicate case, or singing horrible opera in the shower. Maybe you joke, and banter, and carefully cover over your worry- and listen to the distant gunfire, somewhere out there in the green, that reminds you that the morning may come when you don’t find him at all.

.o.

It goes the other way around too, of course. You’re in as much danger as anyone is. You can clown around all you want but you’re still three miles from the front lines, a ten minute drive from the place where all these chewed-up and dying bodies keep coming from, no end in sight. You’re in the Army, at least for now; you’re overseas during wartime. There’s no getting around that.

Still, you feel like you should be worried that you’re concerned for your safety in this place less because you love life and more because you can picture the fallout far too clearly in your mind, should you be lost. You can see Peg’s face as she reads the telegram, fingers curling in the paper until it rips, the light behind her eyes guttering and going out. Erin, at school in years to come, and the cruelty of children who don’t understand that she didn’t choose to not have a father.

You can see your best friend’s eyes above his mask, wild and frantic and worried at the shaking of his own hands as he works to put you back together, the silence in the wake of the anesthesiologist’s hesitant report that she’s lost your pulse. Hawkeye pulling himself up to straddle the table and try to pound the life back into your heart – the adrenaline and the I.V. bottles and the tears that taste like blood and the way that a body shudders on the table with every compression. He batters against your stillness for longer than would be considered reasonable for any other patient, and they let him, bless them and damn them both the same, because while you appreciate the sentiment, you’ve seen the hungry black waters sliding around just under Hawkeye’s skin and you know how easily they can pull him under and over and inside-out.

.o.

You suppose you should also be worried at how vivid and morbid your imagination’s gotten, but you just don’t have the energy anymore.

.o.

Midday is when the sun’s at its strongest. When the chill of oncoming winter starts threatening, vague and wispy but there in the air as plain as anything, you set up a chair outside the tent and sit staring out at the camp, charging yourself with whatever warmth is to be found for the long and cold night ahead. Assuming there’s no wounded, assuming there’s no disaster to drag you away, no metaphorical wake-up call from the war that changes everything in an instant. It gives you time to think.

It’s easy to close your eyes and pretend that you’re home; that the war’s over and everyone survived and your daughter remembers you and you visit Hawkeye in Maine more often than you promise to, and nothing has changed except that the gin is better and neither of you is wearing green. It’s easy to pretend that the camp is a lot further than a stone’s throw from the front, that the distant shelling is just a thunderstorm rolling in from the sea, that the lives you save stay saved instead of coming back broken into more pieces than the last time, too many pieces. You’re in a lawn chair in your bathrobe and sneakers and there’s the smell of alcohol and fresh laundry and sun-hit dust in the air. It’s easy to pretend that you’re safe.

What happens, though, when the illusion gets too convincing: exploding autoclaves and kerosene stoves, trips to the front followed by news of doctors on the casualty list(…and why does it matter, the doctor that did die was someone else’s best friend and all you care about was that he wasn’t yours, you selfish bastard…), an idiotic tentmate with a sidearm fetish, a dead transport in the middle of enemy territory, snipers and bombs and dirt-road hijackers, cover sought under a decaying roof while shells rain down…

So many ways a day can go critically wrong. Too many ways you’ve almost lost each other, but for chance and luck. You stare out at the compound and know that you can blame your watering eyes on the brilliance of the sun.

.o.

You wander through Post-op, taking stock of everyone’s recovery. Who’s in danger – who’s going back to the front – who’s going home. Who isn’t going home. That’s an easy one, just take a good look in your shaving mirror, and maybe it’s a multiple choice question and maybe there are a lot of right answers but that’s the only one that really matters, staring back at you from under layers of grime, eyes so hard and lost you barely recognize them anymore.

.o.

Patients pull guns sometimes, or grenades in that one case – when the pace gets frantic and it’s all the orderlies can do to get them the blood and antibiotics they need and their possessions aren’t being checked over as well. The prisoners you can almost expect it from- it’s the disgruntled Americans that surprise you. You figure you’re about as unhappy with your lot in this backwater chunk of southeast Asia as anyone could be, and you don’t go pulling guns on people. But then, these kids haven’t taken any oaths.

It’s usually Hawkeye they try it with, Hawkeye who ends up wrenching away the weapon- far too close to the business end for comfort. Every time it happens, you get a good, lingering taste of your heart, crawling up the back of your throat like bile.

You wait for the shot. You wait for the snipers and the mortars and the misplaced landmines, and you wait for the new horrors that war is so wonderful at inventing, new and improved ways to break your heart. A falsified call from Battalion Aid for help, maybe, with ambush and summary execution waiting in the bushes. Shells loaded with the same burning phosphorus you’ve been plucking from bullet wounds for how long, now? A scatter-blast, lighting the roofs of tents and bringing them down on their sleep-deprived, slow-to-react occupants, wrapping skin in canvas that burns and keeps burning. You already know the stench of flesh and muscle and hair and blood charring from the inside out, and you’ve heard Hawkeye screaming in the night more than once. The only things your talented imagination needs to fill in are the visuals. Maybe you’d survive or maybe he would; You doubt you both would in the same way you doubt you’d both die, because chaos and the cruelty of chance just adore the left-behind.

And it would start out as such a normal day, too – gin and chess and bad opera in the shower.

.o.

These are the cracks in the illusion, the shining chinks in the armor that insecurity and depression and primal, lizard-brain terror find with persistent and expert fingers. They slip in through these weak points, lodge deep inside where they can thrive and grow, bursting the fragile suture-line seams as they go- outgrowing their host with a violence that can make the shattered bodies you wade through every day seem like a surreal and disconnected picture show. What else but an overwhelming, systemic infection of dread and fear and uselessness could make you lash out at a friend and risk destroying the one precious thing you’ve found here- could make you fall so far? And what the hell is that foul, astringent gin that you run to at every turn, if not medicine?

You’ve become a silly, detached drunk tonight, and you giggle helplessly at the thought that it isn’t very good medicine, and why don’t they make penicillin for the soul, anyway? There’d be a market for it, especially in wartime but even back home; There are plenty of people in this world too lost to their shadows to find their own way out. But what kind of mold would they use for something like that? And you don’t want to put Sidney out of a job, after all.

You’re at a point where you can laugh at it now, and you aren’t entirely sure if that’s a good thing – healthy, sane, pushing back at the darkness by slumping inebriated and senseless against the front door it’s working to batter through – or something terrible.

What will Peg think, later, when you laugh at things that aren’t funny?

.o.

What will Hawkeye think now, if you don’t laugh at things that aren’t funny?

.o.

Sometimes, after the sun’s gone down and you’re sitting on your cot with the lamp on, and the shadows are twisting and spinning against the cloth walls as the wind breathes them in and out, you catch a glimpse of a truth you already know: ‘Later’ is a lie. There is only now, an endless string of nows, and maybe what you refer to as later will eventually become now, but then again, maybe not. Later is a possibility; not a guarantee, not a place to go visit, not a thing that exists.

Then you have another drink and try to forget that you ever remembered.

.o.

The forgetting, ignoring, playing up the illusion: You can call it a defense mechanism if you want, and usually you do. Sometimes you call it what it is, which is lying to yourself. There’s no such thing as doublethink, not really, so there’s always a part of you that sees the lie for what it is, a cold and logical and condemning piece of your mind that wants to pin it up like a dead butterfly and bring light to bear on it. Strip away the color and the appearances and see through the membrane to the fragile veins running just underneath; This one’s your wife and this one’s your daughter and this one’s your best friend, and that last one’s the largest and most vital right now, singing out blood and life, and why is that? But you have to kill the butterfly to examine it, destroy the thing you hoped to understand, leaving you to clutch at a disintegrating snapshot- because once something stops, it starts to go away. Uncertainty principle; Life moves too quickly.

Days move quickly too, piling in on top of one another, stacking up like cordwood. You’re not sure when you stopped counting them, a teetering woodpile of regrets, abandoned in the snow.

Each day starts out the same and most of them, so far, have ended the same. But a day, the period of wakefulness between ritualistic unconsciousness or the track of the cold, uncompromising sun through the sky, can become something completely different without the slightest warning. A day is just awareness of the waiting and the watching and the half-expecting- life suspended, frozen, in the moment before the bullet hits the bone.

You’re drunk and laughing and sloshing what’s left of your last drink around in its glass, and Hawkeye takes it from you before you can break it, sets it aside with a clink. Gives you a playful shove sideways onto your cot and drags a blanket over you, haphazard and twisted and probably running the wrong way, because your feet are awfully cold. You don’t even know whether you care, sniggering into your pillow with the mirthless hysteria of a man who’s just managed to sidestep the bullet- this time, this time.

.o.

There are stars in the Korean sky and while they don’t look the same as the ones back home, they’re just as brilliant and beautiful and prone to making you feel lost and small. This is why you avoid them, shuffling through the dark like a late night bar-crawler, hunched and ducking between streetlights that don’t exist except in your mind. You hide in your tent and drink until you pass out or you stay in Post-op until morning or you just don’t look up, because that spangled, inky field is there to remind you that there are some things that are forever, that are guaranteed a ‘later’, that rise and set through their days without fear. And Korea isn’t one of them, but neither is Hawkeye and neither is Peg, or Erin or Mill Valley or your oaths or chess and gin and bad opera in the shower.

And neither are you.

*
*

End notes:

Title is from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, 1922: “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

For the sake of preventing anachronism: The Uncertainty Principle was discovered in 1926. ‘Doublethink’ was coined in Orwell’s ‘1984’, published in 1949. Also loosely referenced was ‘The Wood-pile’ by Robert Frost, 1915.

The phrase “the moment before the bullet hits the bone” is, I think, from another source, but I cannot for the life of me remember where I heard it. Still, it bears mentioning – credit wherever it’s due.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamscapemusic
Aug. 24th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
I found you through the Watchmen kinkmeme and have loved your writing over there. So when I saw you'd written a MASH fic, I was really excited.

I really liked the repetition of "bad opera in the shower." I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's because it was such a Hawkeye thing to do and originally strictly funny without any deeper meaning to it. And you added deeper meaning when it became something that BJ could lose at any moment.

Anyway, yeah. I love this and the Zombieverse stories. I know I've reviewed at least some of them, sorry about the ones I haven't yet. Would you mind if I friended you? I'll wait til I'm done moving all my fic into this journal though, since I'm tending to do it in giant friends-page clogging chunks of doom that I won't subject anyone to.
etherati
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
Thank you! <3

Yeah - just about anything unique to someone you care about ends up carrying meaning. I'm glad you liked this, it was such a weird style experiment because of the second person pov, but I was happy with a lot of the imagery, especially near the end.

I have another mash-fic that's been in progress for a LONG time, but if there's any interest I may pull it out and finish it. It's probably my oldest fandom.

And yeah, friend away! <3


Edited at 2009-08-25 04:58 am (UTC)
dreamscapemusic
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
I would definitely be interested in another MASH fic. I have one that's been sitting uncompleted in an old journal for a couple years that I may try to finish up too. I didn't get into the fandom really until my late teens, but then just dove in headfirst, haha.
etherati
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah I've been watching it since I was probably six or so, which wasn't long after it originally went off the air haha.

I'll see what I can do about finishing it then. It's another introspection piece, but, I think, it goes a little deeper. I'll dig it up once all my WM obligations are discharged haha.
lampsh4de
Nov. 17th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
I was so happy when I saw your Doctor Who and Final Fantasy fanfics, but this is just awesome. Good M*A*S*H fics are so hard to come by, so I've only read a handful. I'm more of a Trapper fan, myself, but I love BJ and you've illustrated him and the mortality of their situation really well. It's tragic, and very true to the show.

MASH is one of my oldest fandoms, too. C: When I was a kid I thought it was funny, and as a teenager I re-watched most of it with a new perspective on the deeper, more serious aspects (and an appreciation for the slash potential).
etherati
Nov. 18th, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)
Wow, you're really diggin' deep here haha. :D

I still love mash for all the reasons you stated; it's so tragic and human, especially in the later seasons. I think that's why I prefer BJ; his run was a lot more flawed and human and less happy-go-lucky though the earlier seasons certainly had their moments('sometimes you hear the bullet' still kills me every time, god).

Someday I'll finish my huge 'is it slash or is it not slash YOU CAN'T TELL' mash fic that i started ages ago. :(
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )