“The Names of the Dead” by Sarah Reith

Every day, she searches the names of the dead. Today, they are underneath the second half of a front page article about the gains in Iraq. Yesterday, they were bunched together in platoons. Tomorrow, they will be the length of a honey-do list, and there are days when the announcement of them is longer than they are.

The names of the dead, in small block letters, like a quiet, solid voice. The phrase has a magisterial sound, like someone very old and ceremonial, or maybe just a formal foreigner: the brother of Nancy, the sister of Sam, the names of the dead, and the sorrows they bear.

She doesn’t count them. She only sees the shape of them, and the length of the page they consume. She scans their pictures with her eyes half averted. Sometimes, the only available photo is from middle school, and most of the time, it is very, very bad. His last name starts with an S. He is a reservist out of California. Usually, because it feels like cheating to actively search for his name, like eating dessert first or skimming to the end of a suspenseful chapter, she will start sedately at the beginning: Aaronson. Barclay. And their first names, always cherished, always intimate. She cannot see a soldier’s first name without thinking of his mother, of his wife, or of naked little babies. It’s like she has a purely internal structure for personal pronouns.

Sometimes, her gaze will race to the bottom; and some days, someone with a last name starting with a Y or a Z has been killed. And then, because it’s too late, she’s already started her grim dessert, she trawls through the letters to the top. She almost thinks she would be relieved to find his name there.

She can still find his parents’ home. It’s in her mind, but she can’t tell you where it is. She has to drive it, take the exit off a quiet highway where the creaking of the country insects sounds as dusty as the air, as dry and bright as unrelenting sunshine. She will know the exit when she sees it. She will know the row of rural PO boxes, and the stretch of anonymous trees. This grass, these sunburned hills, this orchard of delicate fruits. This low-lying house, and this old man with his thick Nordic accent. This old dog named after his wife, still living, who snores.

“Would you like his email address?” asked the old man, smirking. “Oh, no, that won’t be necessary,” she replied, in a starburst of something that felt elegant, and fierce. She was wearing black that day.

The names toll on and on. The women wail and men weep, the way that children do, unceremoniously, because there is no safe convention for the tears of men, no formal way for them to shed their tears, only their blood and their sweat and their lives. She struggles through the names of the dead. She missed a day, she missed a weekend. She missed a three day weekend once, and when she got home, none of her papers were there. She thinks her landlady threw them away, or her neighbor. She thinks they threw away her three days’ newspapers to make the burglars think that she was home. She thinks they saw her darkened windows, that they shook their heads. ‘She could have left the porch light on,’ she imagines them thinking, excitedly, the way people are when they see someone going down the same old road again.

It could be over now. There were two whole weeks, when she only got the Sunday paper, because she spent two hours every day, poring over every line of every article, every correction, every back-and-forth battle on the Op-Ed pages, and she realized that she wasn’t reading anything else, or writing, or watching a movie or seeing a play; that she barely looked up from the paper on her way to work each morning: to see the snowy egrets in their nightgowns, with their black, unblinking eyes.

It could be over now. It could be over, all of a sudden. He could be interred in dust and lead, his mother weeping and his dad’s old dog forlorn with human sadness. There could be a sudden silence, an extended version of the silence after accidents, when the screaming and the screech of brakes is stilled.

She wonders if that’s what it was like, if it happened at all: or if there was majesty and grace. She wonders if there were screams and oaths and prayers, if there was a silence that expanded and then, one split-second of acceptance and maybe even gratitude, for life and a few years of love.



Sarah Reith has previously published her literary work in  The Village Rambler, Poetry
Motel, The Hurricane Review
, and Ecotone.