Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am
by Rina Sclove
Liana isn’t quite sure what to do with herself when the commander holds the gun out in front of her. She knows what she’s supposed to do — take it, lie on the mat, do the practice drill like they’d gone over. Hand on the barrel, finger away from the trigger, elbows tucked.
She knows what to do with her body. But what to do with herself — of that she isn’t so sure.
Body over mind, she tells herself. It is only her second day of basic training but she is a soldier nonetheless, all thick skin, locked jaw and “yes ma’am.”
The commander holds out a gun and Liana takes it, the metal sharp and cold in her palm. Like ice, but heavier, the kind of weight that she knows she isn’t meant to hold. Her hands carry it nonetheless — she is a soldier, after all — and somehow she makes it to the mat, lies down with legs spread apart, propped up on her elbows. When the time comes she lifts the gun, waiting for commands.
She had expected it to be different, somehow, as if accepting orders would feel more grave if she had a killing machine in her hands. She’d had nightmares about if for the full week after she was given the draft notice, envisioned her hands bloody with a stain she couldn’t remove, metal dragging her deep down into the earth, straight through the crust and into its burning core.
It is her body that she was chosen for, sturdy and strong, everything a soldier’s is meant to be. Her mind had also played a part — she’d gotten good grades in school and had always followed instructions perfectly. Nobody, though, had asked about her heart. She thinks of how she cried into her pillow for that bitter week and knows that it was a mistake, that they would have found something too soft to not be crushed within the grasp of army-greens.
She is just as much blood as she is bone and muscle, kindness in the way that is iron. This is something she knows, seeped from her heart to her mind, all the way to her palms, steady as they hold the cold steel of the gun. It comes as a surprise, then, that when the commander barks at her to load she feels nothing.
It’s because it’s an empty cartridge, she tells herself, pushes it in and ignores the way she knows it isn’t true.
The commander keeps shouting orders and Liana keeps following them to the letter. It is because she is a soldier, she tells herself. It is because the gun is empty.
Only it isn’t. Her arms have started to ache with the weight of it, unyielding metal turning her limbs into lead. How could it be empty if she felt it so sharply, if her arms were not screaming for all of the ways in which it is full?
The commander gives the order to shoot, and Liana is sure that this is the one that will make her feel something. She will cry, shake, scream, gasp for air, anything to let the world know that her skin might be iron but kindness is blood, all heat, bubbling as it melts the steel facade. That there are things that are stronger than her hands, and this, this will be the proof of it.
Only it doesn’t, not yet, and oh god what if I never –
No. She is a soldier, but she is kind, and she can be both. She has to be.
The target is shaped like a person. She isn’t meant to be aiming for anything, only getting a feel for how to shoot, but she can’t take her eyes off of it. It looks small, Liana thinks, though maybe it’s just the distance. At any rate, it should make her sick to shoot at it, should make her feel something, anything.
In the end, it doesn’t even make her hesitate.
She pulls the trigger, shoots the gun, feels the kickback make her entire body tremble. The gun is empty, the person metal, but this is still real, and she doesn’t know what to make of that.
Afterwards, the commander gives her notes on her form and she listens with a soldier’s ears, attentive and unyielding. So it is only when she is dismissed to sit with the others that she realizes that the kickback was the only thing she’d felt, that when her body shook it was only at one kind of impact.
Bea is crying, Veronica is staring wide-eyed at her palms, and Mich and Jo are whispering frantically over the guns lying in their laps. They are soldiers, all of them, and good people. Shooting at something doesn’t make you less of one. There is a war, after all, and a country full of other good people to defend.
Still, though. She’s supposed to feel something when she does it, and Liana can’t help but wonder what is so wrong with her that she can’t.
She has a soldier’s body, she’s always known that. But it is only when she looks to her arms and realizes that they are no longer struggling with the weight of the gun that she wonders if she has a soldier’s heart, too.
Had they looked at it after all? Did they examine it during her physical, peek into its caverns and crevices, feel it beat and decide that it was just as metal as the rest of her? Or was it the opposite? Had she forgotten in all of the chaos that soft things cannot be crushed, only molded, that they will fit any uniform so long as they’re put in it?
Kindness, steel, a gun in her palms — which will be stronger, when it matters? Will she?
Liana thinks of a target-shaped person, of an icy burden she can no longer feel beating in her chest and loosens her grip on the gun, finally registering the way the metal had bitten into her skin.
She doesn’t know if she has a soldier’s heart. Doesn’t even know what it would mean if she did. Still, she shudders as she casts her eyes towards the open sky, lips moving somewhere between a prayer and a promise as she begs for a good one.
Rina Sclove is currently a junior in high school at Princeton Day School. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her parents, two sisters, and beloved fish, Algae-Won Kenobi. She has previously had work published in Canvas Literary Journal and Adelaide Literary Magazine and hopes to become an author someday!