David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz), 1986. Acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on composition board, 72 x 84 in. (170.2 x 200 cm). Collection of John P. Axelrod. Photograph by Ron Cowie

David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz), 1986. Acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on composition board, 72 x 84 in. (170.2 x 200 cm). Collection of John P. Axelrod. Photograph by Ron Cowie


Back from the War

by Natalie Teal McAllister

Our uncle had been born in the house and lived in its three rooms for the eight decades of his life, at first alone with his mother, the sort of woman who claimed wayward children and abandoned animals, and when she was gone, he endured by taking up the small tasks mothers do to breathe life into the corners of a home. We watched his grief settle into his bones and hide itself in the reaches of his joints. That grief became the tendons holding him together.

Each Sunday we visited, one of us would ask if he’d been taking his pills and he would answer by opening his arms and standing so the light from the window held him. He would say, “This is just like the time right after I got back from the WAR,” so that “WAR” bounced from the walls and the couches and landed on the cushions next to us. The children gathered beneath him, as if he ascended to a stage. We knew the story as we knew the hum and pulse of cicadas, the pulling in and out of our own breath.

The Time Right After [He] Got Back From the WAR had three scenes. We made checkmarks on our palms for each. He would say, “Let me tell you about the soldier who saw Germans in the cypress trees,” and we made a check, one. The children brought their knees to their chests, searched the dogwoods in the yard for hidden soldiers. Some nights the Germans returned on the wings of ravens, others they steered U-boats into the river, disembarked among the water moccasins.

He would say, “In the nights we could hear him calling out in the swamps,” and we made a check, two. One of us would call in from the kitchen, another would tap on the windows. We were the howlings in the forest, the voices that shivered the children. They pulled their knees closer.

The lost soldier became the swamp, the swamp lived inside the soldier. He was the cypress trees. He was the words breathed through the pine boughs. He was every child’s lost dog, every mother’s wayward baby, every husband lost at sea.

Our uncle would say, “When the soldier didn’t come home we found him in a lean-to, flat-glass eyes, a beard of moss and leaves. He was lost to us.” And we made a check, three. The children climbed his knees, clutched at the hem of his shirt and whispered, where is he now, where is he now.

But we knew where he was.

Our uncle held his hand over his heart and we watched his fingers dig into the thin fabric of his flannel, each of us counting the seconds until at last he inhaled and scooped the smallest of the children from the floor. Held tight that child who might never know the beard of moss and leaves once belonged to him.  

And one night when we left, the oldest of us said into the evening light that our uncle had never been to the war. He’d never been as far as West Virginia. The wind in the pines was the same wind that carried through the night he was born and every night since.

These were his last days, the sunny days, and when he stood before us, the shiny spots of his mother’s tombstone outside shot into our eyes as if through pinpricked paper, like we were watching an eclipse.


Published September 9th, 2018

Natalie Teal McAllister writes stories about dirt: the dirt under our fingernails, those stories from our childhood we can't escape, the land we came from that lives in the enamel of our teeth. Her fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, Midwestern Gothic, Flyway, and in the forthcoming issue of Longleaf Review, among others. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Kansas.   natalietealmcallister.com

From the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the exhibition, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, is on view through September 30, 2018: Beginning in the late 1970s, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self-taught, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes. Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. Queer and later diagnosed as HIV-positive, he became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers were dying due to government inaction.