War Babies

Black and white drawing of flower

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 3, "The Future is Now: Poisons, Spies, Terrorism in Our Back Yard." Find more from that issue here.

The moon had not yet crested the pines but strips of light already crawled across the corrugated tin of the farm house roof. Cass sat up in bed. She heard her grandparents moving through their rooms below, closing each Venetian blind. She waited for her mother to begin to shut those upstairs. She listened as her mother's steps hesitated in front of Aunt Violet's bedroom door.

Before Jake had come home from the Pacific, Aunt Violet's door was always open, moonlight slanting through her blinds. Cass lay back in bed. She remembered her aunt as a sprawl of cream satin striped by the moon into an expanse of white chenille spread. Violet was sprawled there now, stretching for her radio to change the station.Cass would like to have known which of the Saturday night beaux, if any, inspired that long and restless search for song. Through closed doors and the dark Cass saw that her aunt’s soft underarms were pock-marked pink from the pressure of the spread’s flower clusters. But any moment now Violet would rise, in obedience to the persistent rapping, and seal her door with a bath towel still heavy from daubing at her curls.

And only when Jake quieted down downstairs would Cass’s mother tiptoe in to bed.


It was just one month ago that Cass had watched her brother Josh scrape the cheap tin model tank along the airport runway. “Umpin, my Umpin, my Umpin, mine!” Josh crooned and stamped. The family’s laugh was communal but brief. A fatherless boy needs an uncle. They were worried about the plane.

Cass studied the thin white mark cut by the toy tank into the runway. The trail was not unlike those the night crawlers left on the garden walk.

Then it was time.

Uncle Jake hovered in the shadows of the plane’s entry, pulling back on a woman’s uniformed arm. Cass had never seen a woman in uniform before. She watched the jaunty cap and cherry red smile dip in and out of the metallic glare at the top of the steps. The woman was waiting for something. When a cloud overtook the sun, she nudged Jake towards the stairs, saying more to the family arrayed at the bottom than to him, “Lieutenant Hardison, the war is history. You are home.”

Lieutenant Hardison hurried down the steps, past his family and into the terminal. They reorganized and followed as quickly as grief and fear, old age and the children allowed. Inside, Jake loosed his tie and one wild whinny of laughter. He spun Joshua into the air and examined the model tank.

“Got another man in the family, yessir,” he said.

It was Violet who nudged Cass forward and, smiling at her brother, said, “This here’s Cassie, Jake. Don’t you recognize your niece?”


Do you think Jake was there when they got my Tate?” Cass’s mother had never called her husband anything more than Tate until the day the death notice arrived from the Marine Corps. Then he became “my Tate.” She pulled her rocker closer to the grandfather’s on the wide front porch, looked around her, and lowered her voice. “Do you think that’s what’s wrong, Daddy Hardison?”

 “Now, girl,” he said. “Some things best left unasked.”

“But you’ve thought of that too, haven’t you?”

“Yes, child.”

“Oh my God.”

“I guess we all have,” he said.

“And I think I’ve had it hard.”

“Well, I reckon you’ve had a right smart,” he said. “Raising Josh and Cass by yourself.”

“By myself?” The mother stilled her rocker. “Why I would never have made it through the first week if I hadn’t been here with you and Mother Hardison.”

“A right smart.” The old man took up the rocking. “A right smart of trouble. But we all have to do our parts.”

“I know that’s what happened,” the mother said. “Jake was there when they killed my —”

“No, child, we don’t know.”

“And he saw it happen,” she said. “I can see it in his eyes.” “No, child,” he said. “And besides, you’re looking at it wrong.” The old man stared out across the dusty fields. One gnarled forefinger began to tap on the arm of his chair, drubbing his phrases to the vacillations of the rocker. “Because it really wouldn’t matter.” His rocker squeaked. 

“If you were in that fox hole.” Tap. Thump. Squeak. “And the moon started rising. Big. Bright. So the Japs would be sure to see you in all that light. You would hear them creeping closer. Singing through the jungle. Carrying that knife. Would it matter?” Squeak. “Who you looked at.” Screech. “Whoever’s with you’d be your brother. When you saw those slanty eyes. Singing through that knife. Brother?” He slapped the arm of the chair. “Yep.” He stopped his rocker and stood. “Even old slanty eyes,” he nodded. “I think at the end you must know we’re all brothers.”

“Oh, Daddy Hardison,” she said. “I know. But sometimes when Jake starts that singing, I think I can’t go on.”

The old man squeezed her outstretched arm and turned to go.

“What’s a fox hole?” Cass asked from behind the pyracantha at the bottom of the steps.


Whatcha doing?” Uncle Jake’s berry brown toes had prodded the mound of moss Cass had brought up from the creek bed.

“Making a bed for my dolls,” Cass said, selecting a cold slab of moss and kneading the red clay from its underside. When it was in place, she traced for her uncle the outline of rooms made by the roots of the live oak. One patient blue eye watched from the jungle floor of shadows and shades that ravaged Jake’s face.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, following the line of Jake’s other eye to the clump of mosses, still jeweled from the night. “Something the matter?”

He said nothing.

“It works real well,” she reported, but she shifted her weight to shield another mound three feet behind, where the burnt umber of the failed transplants were tossed after pruning. 

“Well,” he said as he turned. “Dolls do need a bed.” 

She watched his lean jungle legs pick toward the creek where her random gashes oozed slick and red in its tufted banks. Then, brushing off her dolls, she headed for the porch where Granddaddy Hardison and her mother sat talking. 


These kids will be his salvation." The grandmother had finished shelling tomorrow's butter beans but still held a bouquet of green pods in one hand.

The mother stood in the door, buttoning the bottom of a fresh cotton duster. “Yes,” she said.

“Tate would be proud of that.”


“The wheels of the Lord grind small.” The old woman picked a worm-speckled bean from the colander.

“Finished?” The mother asked.

“When I sent the two of them out together,” the old woman answered, “I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d be satisfied just to get one of them back.”

The mother turned off the light and crossed the porch to the swing, glancing once at the drawn shades of the children’s bedroom above.

“And Joshua getting to be the spit image of Tate,” said the old woman.

“Cass too,” said the mother.

“Cass? She’s Ames through and through,” said Grandmother Hardison.

“She has her father’s mind.”

“Well, maybe. Law, that Tate. Bet he’s giving St. Pete a time with his infernal questions. Yep. We may get him back yet.” The old woman slapped the arm of her rocker twice, her sob cutting off the splatter of bean shells on the linoleum.

The mother leaned forward in her chair but ignored the shells. “Listen,” she said. “He’s starting. He’ll wake the children.”


Mamma!” Joshua sat up in bed. '

‘“Go back to sleep, Silly,” Cass mumbled.

“It’s only Uncle Jake.”

When the door opened, Cass smelled her mother’s bath powder and sank back into the feather bed. “We heard it,” she said.

“Mamma, Mamma, Mamma,” Joshua cried.

“It has something to do with the moon. I know that much.” Cass curled herself around her mother’s seat, which jiggled slightly as she rocked Joshua’s bed.

“Shhh. Don’t wake Josh any more than he already is,” her mother said.

Cass waited until her brother’s breaths smoothed across her uncle’s ragged wails: “Marine, you die.” Jake sang it over and over on moonlit nights. He chanted it in a high woman’s voice. Grandfather couldn’t stop him. No one could. They tried to keep the moonlight out, but they couldn’t stop him.

“And fox holes,” Cass whispered. She did not want to ask about the knife.

The mother’s pause made her case for no more questions. She took Cass’s hand. “Please, Baby,” she said. “All we can do about war is try to forget it. We have to forget it. Jake has to forget it. My Tate —” she stopped. “Your Daddy would want us to forget. Can’t you go back to sleep, Angel?” 

Cass smothered further into the “Evening in Paris” promise of her mother’s wrapper. “I like the bottle best,” she said.


 “The bottle. I like your perfume bottle better than the smell. Midnight blue and round like the moon,” Cass paused. “I don’t ever want to hate the moon, Mamma.”

“Cass. What am I going to do with you?”

“Give me the bottle when the perfume’s gone,”

Cass said. “It’s yours now. But please, Baby, try to sleep.” Cass waited to pair her breathing to Josh’s. She let the hand her mother held go slack. She could feel her mother’s legs tighten to lift slowly off the old mattress, without sound. Her mother would turn to straighten the covers, pulling them tight up to Cass’s chin, and kiss Josh and tiptoe to the door. There she would sometimes stand for min¬ utes, looking at them in the wedge of light from the stairs. It was the part Cass liked best. She would sometimes go to sleep then.

Tonight she heard the door close, but waited until the scent was gone to sit up. She did not want to sleep, she wanted to think.

“I have my daddy’s mind,” she said.


“Damn damn damn damn damn,” Violet had said. “Help!”

“It isn’t working?” Cass had tipped the squeeze bottle away from Violet’s head, stopping the flow of red.

“It’s staining the sink, dope. Look.”

They had watched as a few undissolved dye pellets hit the kitchen sink and began to soak into the cracks and worn places.

“You’ll have to get the bleach, quick!”

“But Jake’s in the pantry,” Cass said.

Jake stayed in the pantry when he was bad. The grandmother’s crockery was stacked on the kitchen table. They ate in the dining room around the mother’s Limoges, pushed to the middle and cov¬ ered with dish towels. Canning lined the upstairs hall. The pantry was the only room in the house without windows. The women cleaned on Jake’s good days.

“I paid two fifty for this!”

Cass hadn’t budged.

“It has to stay on five minutes. You want me to ruin a towel too?”

Cass had jumped from her perch on the drain board but hesitated at the pantry door.

“Of course,” Violet said. “I suppose if anybody around here worked but me we could just buy a new sink.”

“Daddy’s security pays for us.” Cass had gone through the door.

She could smell the newspapers. It had been the grandfather’s idea to take them daily: CHURCHILL THANKS ATOMIC BOMB FOR PEACE, DOOLITTLE WANTS SINGLE COM¬ MAND, MACARTHUR CITES SPIRITUAL GOALS OF OCCUPATION. No one ever saw Jake read them, but once when they had all been in the kitchen making fudge, the pantry door had rattled and a long crumpled column of newsprint had been poked through the crack at the bottom. “Home Boys Still Fighting,” it read. “The war continues for three Marines ambushed by Japanese stragglers in the jungle here today. . .”

She could smell the newspapers and she could smell Jake asleep, sweaty and sour and scared beneath the covers. She felt for the bleach.

At the door she had turned back to see. Only a patch of ankle showed. Sure enough, Jake slept with his head under the cover at the foot of the cot, his feet under the thin pillow, the subject of much family discussion at the table. She could have told them. She had slept that way herself while her grandfather was gone for three days to the cattle auction. It was to confuse burglars, prowlers, werewolves and now, she supposed, “old slanty eyes.” She could see how silly it was, child’s play. He looked like Joshua, damp and twisted in his covers. She had wanted to straighten them herself as Mother did. To hold his hand.

“Any time, Lady Astor.” Violet had dripped ping, ping, ping into a sauce pan from the stove. Cass looked at the patch of ankle and shut the door.

“Did you see his bayonet?” Violet had grinned sideways over the pan, red rivulets sluicing her face. He kept it, they said, under the covers.

Joshua fidgeted in bed. The hall light was out now though Jake still sang. Cass promised herself never to be afraid again. But when she slept the dream came.

“This is a fox hole,’’ said Granddaddy Ames. Tufts of red fur were caught in the sticker bushes around the hole. “Careful, Cassandra, watch your eyes. ”

I brushed my hair behind my ears and stooped and began to crawl. The stickers grabbed for me. I pulled my sweater tight. The stickers pulled at my hair. I tried to pick them out. It made my fingers bleed. I could hear Granddaddy Ames’s  boots trampling down the stickers at the entrance, but he could not reach me now. I wanted to turn back, but “Watch their eyes,”he had said. Ahead, they glowed. I crawled again until my head snapped back. The stickers held me tight. I couldn’t move. I watched their eyes. They got bigger and bigger and melted together. Then I could see the end of the den. There was a man lying in the shadows.

“Daddy?” I cried. He turned to face me but he had no eyes.


He smiled. It was my Daddy but he had no eyes. I could hear him breathing. It got real loud. The shadows at the end of his feet began to move. It was a woman. Like a woman from Japan. Her face was round and bright and she was singing. I couldn’t understand her words.

“What are you doing?”I screamed.

“She’s binding his feet, can’t you see?” It was Uncle Jake who answered. He was crouched in a comer under a sheet. The woman from Japan looked at Jake and smiled. He looked at her and his eyes went awful.

I looked at her. Her face was crumbling.

Then she was the moon, singing softly as she came towards me, “Marine, you die. Marine, you die.”


Cass sat up in bed. She felt a hand on the back of her neck. Don’t scream, don’t scream, she commanded herself. She burrowed under the covers. She caught her breath. She listened. She couldn’t hear it anymore. Jake was not singing. It was over. She hugged her hands to the back of her neck and cried. 

“I have my father’s mind,” she said. “My father’s mind.” She cried into the pillow.



Violet. be a doll and get me another cup of coffee." Jake had already pushed his half-full cup across the table. It knocked over Violet’s cigarette pack and clanked against her Coke bottle.

Violet pulled her duster around her and set the cigarette pack back on edge. Both mothers stood, but Cass had the cup. “Let me get it,” she said. “Please?”

Jake spoke only to the mothers. “Sit down, both of you. I want Lolly Gag to get it. All she does is lie around all day listening to that damn Jew music.”

“So now it’s my fault they had to close the bomb factory,” Violet said.

“It’s a damn good thing they don’t broadcast Tokyo Rose,” Jake said.

“Jake, we don’t use words like that at the table,” the grandmother said.

“Violet here would be her biggest fan,” Jake said.

“Or it’s the factory’s fault the war is over,” Violet said.

“Hour after hour, half dressed, and mooning over God knows who,” Jake said.

“Watch your language, son,” the grandmother said.

“Half the county,” Jake said.

“I mean, the war is over, isn’t it?” Violet said.

“Half the county,” Jake said. “Or what’s left of it. Oh, hell,” he said, jerking the cup from Cass’s hand. “I’ll get the damned stuff myself. I’ve had about all the hen company I can take for one morning.” He slammed from the room. 

Violet buffed a nail on the linen cloth.

“We’ll just have to teach the children to leave when he’s using words like that,” Grandmother Hardison said.

Violet patted a wild curl into place and pushed up from the table, one bare foot caressing the instep of the other.

“I think,” she said, “he’s getting better.”



I’m not allowed.” Cass faced the yellow legs under the single bulb in the hall.

That’s the same ankle, the same ankle, she reassured herself. I wanted to straighten his covers and hold his —.

“Oh, Violet won’t mind. Ain’t she on a date? She won’t be back for hours.”

“I’m supposed to be in bed.”

Joshua had bled too much when he had his ton¬ sils taken out. His mother had stayed with him in town for 10 days now. Cass had checked the almanac for the dates of the full moon the day her mother left for town and tonight had come to the top of the stairs to brace for it. She hoped to take comfort in her grandfather’s snores when Jake began his song. But nothing had happened. She had fallen asleep, curled on the two top stairs. 

“I have to go now.” She stood.

Jake leaned across her and pushed back the door to Violet’s room. The blinds were open. The room crawled with silver stripes. 

“I don’t want to go in there,” Cass said. 

“And Violet with the best radio in six counties, and how she got it everybody knows.” 

“I don’t,” Cass said. 

Jake’s hand reached for the radio. 

“If we can play her radio, we can shut her blinds.” Cass jerked the cord. 

Jake ripped the shades open again. They shuddered against the sill. The noise subsided to the dull claps of water under a dock. Jake’s hand went back to the radio. The stations rushed by in little rips of sound. He stopped.


Are the stars out tonight? 

He tuned it carefully. 

I don’t care if it’s cloudy or bright. 

He adjusted the volume. 

I only have eyes, it said, for you, dear. 

Jake stepped full frame into the light from the window. His torso was sliced into layers. His arms began to shake. He steadied one on the long frame. The blinds began to rattle, but he did not sing. 

Cass shifted slowly across the bed, trying to avoid the flower clusters of the spread. Impossible, she thought. They are everywhere. Maybe Violet will come in early. She listened for the clock. She watched the silver stripes snake down Jake’s body. She counted them. They dwindled. She tried to pinpoint exactly where the flower clusters were beginning to mark her. Impossible. Maybe Violet will come in early. She listened for the clock. Maybe I can leave anyway. 

The last razor’s edge of light slipped across Jake’s toes and was sucked with the moon beyond the room’s high frame dormer. It was dark. Jake clicked off the radio. The girl’s body snapped from the curl of a question against the high headboard, bedsprings slapping in protest: no, no, no. Impossible. 

He fumbled at Violet’s bureau. Cass smelled the tobacco, then heard and saw nothing until a match flickered at her side. 

“You can see good in the dark,” she said. She knew this was the only thing to say. It is what Violet would have said and he was always bumming Violet’s cigarettes. He laughed. The red coal bobbed in midair then plunged to her side as the whole mattress tilted and Jake stretched out beside her. 

“Training,” he said. “Nothing but training. But I’ll tell you what, doll. If you’ll come over here and be good, I’ll take you on a picnic tomorrow.” 



Baby! You scared me. What’re you doing here? I thought it was Jake on the prowl again. Instead of a big white sugar lump.” Violet snapped on the lamp. “You scared me.” She straightened the ashtray she had overturned. “You should have left a note on the door, saying — ‘Someone’s,’” she rumbled, “‘been sleeping in your—’” She lifted Cass’s chin. “Bed,” she said. “And crying too.” 

She cocked the lampshade to extend its light and dropped to a chair. “I shouldn’t have left you. He’s scared you half to death. That big baboon. Singing like a loon. Well, I don’t think he’s crazy. I just think he’s mean as hell.” She stood up. “I ought to go down there and run him through with his own bayonet. And start him up again?” She sat down. “Who am I kidding? And it’s my fault. I knew better than to leave you. That damned moon!” She fumbled in her purse for a cigarette. Two rolled stockings fell out. “Oooops! La!” she said. “De, da. Sorry, sugar lump. But don’t tell, hear? 

“You okay?” She reached automatically for the pack on the night stand, sat back, lit, drew, then leaned forward to eye the butts in the bowl. “Secrets. Secrets,” she said, but she held out the cigarette pack. “Want another?” 


Violet exhaled a slow steady stream and spoke across the plateau of white: “Look. I said I was sorry. We’re all crazy anyway. Don’t you know that yet? It’s the moon. Don’t I know it? I don’t like that boy atall.” She took another puff, this time with a funny face. “And he doesn’t like me,” she said. “Much. Not enough anyway. Not for long,” she said. “Look. If you’re going to sleep here tonight you’ve got to stop that sniveling. You’ll have me starting. Then where will we be? Sure you don’t want one?” 

“He —” Cass said. 

“He what?” 

“He says I have to go on a picnic with him tomor—” 

“Jake? He talked to you? Tonight? That’s a good sign. Listen. He’s nuts, sugar lump. You don’t have to go to the garden gate with him if you don’t want to.” 

“I don’t.” 

“That silly assed Jap should have finished his job.” She picked up one of the stockings from the floor and stopped. “Oh, baby, love, I —” She kneeled by the side of the bed. “Gee, I’m sorry, I—” “Violet, he—”

“He?” Violet said and flung the stocking out. “He. He. He. Can’t we forget about him for a while? Can’t we forget for a minute? War is hell? Hell, it’s all hell.” She was up now, dropping garments to the chair. “Just you stay out of it, babycakes. Just you stay good and out of it.” 

“I will.” 

“No, you won’t. Scoot over.” 

“You think you will, but you won’t. I thought I would,” Violet said. “But I don’t. I can see you don’t believe me. Good. Now scoot.” She snapped out the light. “No, that’s too far.” 

Under the tobacco Violet still smelled of starch. She wiggled. “Listen,” she said. “Sugar lump.” She took Cass’s hand. “I want to tell you.” She stopped. “I love you, sugar lump, and I want to tell you. I mean, that after a while, you begin to realize that they’re all like Jake. Hey, say! Relax. It’s not that bad. I mean, inside. Inside, they’re all like Jake. Raving and crying. And never that far away from Death, I think. You don’t understand, do you?” 

The bed shook but Cass couldn’t hear her. 

I don’t understand, babycakes. Anyway, that’s the way it is. I think. And,” she said, “we’re not much better. You don’t see that yet. Well. You see that I went off and left you tonight. You see that. No,” she said. “We’re not much better. Only sometimes. You’re not going to believe this but. . . . Sometimes? It’s not so bad. Do you believe that?” She stopped. “You still with me?” she said. “Sleepy?” she said. “Me either. But we will be in the morning.” She flopped over. Only, after a while she was back, face propped on her forearm studying her niece. 

“So Jake’s given us the shakes,” she said. “Poor Jake thinks there’s Japs out there.” She poked Cass in the belly. “Do you think they’re gonna get us? Huh?” She tickled her in the ribs. 

“Stop it, Vi, I—”

Ma-line, you die,” Violet sang. 

“Vi!” Cass said. 

Latrine, shit fly!” 

Cass giggled. 

Violet caught her. “You see what I mean?” she said. Cass felt her aunt catch her breath. “You do see that, doncha, dope?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Well,” Violet said. “You will.” 



No, I don't want to go," Cass said and pried at the scab of an old mosquito bite. "I can't.” 

The mother fed the steaming sheet into the wringer. “We can’t always have what we want,” she said. 

Cass had the scab.  

“We’d have a fine life if we could.” The mother kept the steaming lump moving between both hands and, when the other end jerked free, slapped the sheet into the pail. “It’s high time you learned we all have to do our part,” she said. “And, anyways, since when don’t you like picnics, girl?” 

“We could wait till we can take Joshua. It’s not fair with him still sick.” 

“Your brother’s going to be in bed for at least a week more,” her mother said. “And what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” 

“Yes,” Cass said. “It will.” 

Her mother had one more sheet. 

“It will, it will, it will.” Cass said. 

The mother dried her hands. “Cassie?” Water continued to spill from the press, then to ooze and finally to splat monotonously into the dull wash water. 

“I can’t,” Cass said. 

“‘Can’t never could do anything,’” her mother said and turned back for the load. “I hope,” she pressed a thin apron end against the seepage from the steaming bucket, “that you’re not going to go and get sick on me too.” 

“She’d better be sick,” Grandfather Hardison said from an upstairs window where he sat fanning Joshua. “If she’s going to continue lolling around my porch while her mother does all the work.”

The girl stood. The swing nudged her forward a step. A welt of warm purple trembled on her thigh.

“Now what?” Her mother put down the wash. “You’ve sat there and picked at that bite until you’re bleeding and will have to go inside and wash up before you can help me. I don’t want your fly specks all over my clean sheets.” The screen door clapped twice behind her. 


The mother returned to the screen once. 

“And Cass, please don’t let Uncle Jake hear you say you don’t want to go. Trust me?” she said. “He’s a sick man, Cass. And someday you’ll understand.” 

“That’s what Violet said too, but she said I wouldn’t have to go.” “Violet’s a light-headed, irresponsible fool.” 

“A light-headed, irresponsible, over-sexed fool,” Grandfather Hardison said and lowered the shade. 

Cass transferred the smudge of red to her hand, carefully, conserving it. Then she returned to the swing and sat, where, in time to the clicks of her mother’s wooden pins on the clothesline, she tatooed herself in blood. 

But when she had finished, she went inside and washed off.