DIVING IN THE MOON
© Cooper Braun
Once upon a time, a young soldier returned to the shores of America from the jungles of Vietnam. In the city where he found himself discharged, he had no friends and no family. And he found that the people there did not like his kind. Women on the street would spit on his uniform as he walked past. The children dressed in rainbows turned away. And he spent many long nights in the county jail for bloodying a man who had called him a “baby killer” as they sat drinking.He began to spiral down. He sat with the old men in the park who mumbled to themselves, passing back and forth that bottle of wine. And soon enough he joined them. He found a place beneath a little bridge where he made his home. But it was not sleep he often found there, for when the night wrapped itself around him, with the dark came the green, and the jungle pressing close. The hum of the bullets around his ears and the screams of the dying worked their way up his throat and out his lips, until he sat shivering in the darkness.
As Christmas came on he found himself walking the paths of the park, smoking, trying to keep himself awake each night. Not wanting to return to dreams. Until one night, beneath the light of a full moon, he came to a crossroads by a little unfrozen pool. He looked down into the water and the man he saw reflected back up at him in the moonlight was not a man he recognized. His clothes were worn, his boots ragged, his hair and beard had grown in, and around his eyes was a heaviness. For he had done his duty in the jungle, he had done it well. But the things he had done weighed heavy on his heart and in his soul and around his eyes.As he stood, smoking cigarette after cigarette, he heard the crunch of snow behind him and he turned to see a well dressed man in an immaculate suit and a long green wool coat, slicked back black hair, and eyes that sparkled in the moonlight like a cat’s. The stranger drew close, “Can I bum a cigarette?”
The soldier tapped one out and handed it to the man, but as he took it seemed that the end began to smolder of its own accord. “You know, I can always smell a desperate man.”
The soldier met those sparkling eyes, “I always figured folk only met the devil in fairy tales. And if I was gonna meet him, it would have been back in ‘Nam’.”
And the Devil, for it was truly the Devil himself, smiled “Well then, let us pretend this is a fairy tale, and I shall offer you the kind of deal that devils offer soldiers in fairy tales.”
“What, for my immortal soul. You’ll get it soon enough.”
“No, no, nothing so trite . . . my cup runneth over with the souls of soldiers filled with blood and murder and hatred. No! I have had enough of that, for now. Let us make this more interesting . . . you look cold. Take my coat. Wear my coat for seven years. And in that time do not wash your hands or face. Do not cut your hair or beard. Do not trim your nails. And if, in all that time, you do not suffer some ‘accident’ as it were, well then I will clean you up and I shall see you satisfied for all the days of your life. And… in answer to the question you are about to ask, if there is anything you need in all that time you have but to reach into pockets of my coat and it shall be yours.”
The soldier looked down at his clothes, at the dirt beneath his nails, at his ragged boots. He took the coat and put it around his shoulders. It was heavy and it was warm. He reached down into its pockets. And when removed his hands, in one was a crisp ten dollar bill, and in the other was a bottle of wine. He slipped them back into the coat, reached out his hand, and shook the Devil’s finely manicured fingers. “I will be seeing you around.” The Devil waved and disappeared into the darkness.
The soldier soon found that the Devil’s words were true. For though he did not try to pull the coat from off his shoulders, he found he could not even lift it. And though the snow and the rain fell on him the dirt would not wash away. But, the Devil was as good as his word. For when he reached his hands down into the pockets of the coat, it was whatever he sought that was there. Whether it was money, or food, or wine. So he set about doing that which did his money harm. He ate at the finest restaurants. He drank the finest wine. He slept at the finest hotels. He kept the finest “company”. But soon, the Devil’s words began to tell, for the coat grew stained with dirt and snow. With oil and dust and sweat. And a smell that closed the doors of the hotels and the restaurants. And soon enough the “company” was not so fine.
As the year passed and the second drew on he found himself sitting with the children dressed in rainbows. Reaching deep into his pockets, pulling out little squares of paper on which were liquid dreams. And the acid took him long and far away, but always he returned. Always he came back. And always sleep finally pushed its way into his mind. And when it did, the green pressed close around him. The “whoomph, whoomph, whoomph” of the helicopter rotors. The ping of the bullets off the jungle leaves. And the screams of the dying that resounded out from underneath the bridge he again began to call home.
As the second year passed and the third grew on the children dressed in rainbows could not stand him. His screams and his smell driving them away. So he returned to the old men, and the bottles of wine, which he pulled out of his pockets, they paid his way for a long time. But the old men too, finely, turned away their faces. They could not stand the smell of him, for he had grown hulking. His beard and hair tangled and thick with grease and dirt. When the summer and the coat grew unbearable, he would plunge himself into the stream that ran beneath his bridge. But when he emerged, dripping with water, the dirt would not wash away.
As that third year drew on, and the forth, he found a solitude that wrapped itself closer than the coat around his shoulders. He turned to drink, seeking oblivion in the wine. But it was many nights he woke from the blackness, vomiting it out. Looking down into the water, the man he saw looking back
horrified him. The vomit was caked in his matted beard and his hands shook. He had grown monstrous. He looked down at the green coat and he spat out the wine. He spat out the Devil’s name and he swore he would not drink again lest the Devil win. And it was many, many, long nights he
spent shivering and shaking for wont of the wine. But when it had passed, it was replaced with a quiet that ate at his soul.
The solitude drawing around him, now almost unbearable. He spent these nights looking down into water, wondering if perhaps there was not a better place to sleep. Reaching down deep into the pocket of the coat, finding the Colt .45. Biting into the metal with his teeth. And he fought many long nights with that trigger. And many was the night he cursed the Devil’s name. And the Devil’s coat. But he did not give in.
The years drew on, the fifth Christmas that had come and gone and the snow lay heavy around his bridge, one night the soldier returned from his rambles in the park to see a man standing by his bridge. A man looking down into the unfrozen water. Whose hunched shoulders and vacant eyes showed him a despair he knew so well. At the crunch of his feet in the snow, the man turned but did not startle at the monstrous sight before him, so lost was he in his own thoughts. The soldier dug out a cigarette, lighting it, “Smoke?”
The man took it with trembling hands. And with the smoke out came his story. His life had been good. He had a lovely wife. Three amazing daughters, one in high school, two in college. They owned a little bed and breakfast. Things were perfect. But then his wife had grown ill. The bills had piled one on the other. The money grew short. They had to mortgage the business. The girls had returned from school to help them. And then, the bills piled higher still until he had begun to borrow money from the wrong people. And then, just before Christmas his wife had died. And it was as hollow a Christmas as he had ever known. And now those men in dark suits were threatening not only him, but his daughters as well. And he did not know what to do. The water it looked inviting, and maybe the life insurance it would pay for everything, and see the mob settled.
The soldier began to laugh. A rusty, hollow, unused laugh that came grating up out of his throat. The man stood back. The soldier raised his hands, and like a magician he began to count out the money from his pockets, “You just tell me when!” The man’s eyes grew big, thinking it was a joke. And then wider still realizing it was not. Then the tears began to flow. And with the tears his eyes grew clear. He saw the hulking stinking man before him, but he also saw the cardboard and ragged blankets, the little stove, the space under the bridge that the soldier called home. “You, you live here?”
“Well, as I said, I own a bed and breakfast. We don’t have many guests right now.
Please, please come. There is no way I can pay this back, but please let do something
And though the soldier protested, the man took him by the arm and led him from the park. They got into his car and they drove down beautiful streets until they came to a little two-story brick building that seemed to sag beneath the weight of the winter. They went in the back door where the man’s three daughters sat at the table wondering where their father was.
And they smiled to see him, but then their faces changed seeing what followed after him. The soldier pushed his way in through the door. Leaving behind him a track of mud, and proceeded by a smell that hit them like a living thing. The youngest screamed and ran from the room. The eldest stood, and when the silence had held too long she looked at her father, “This, this is the kind of customer you bring us now. Is that what it has come to?” and she stormed from the room.
But it was the middle daughter that saw her father pull the money from his pockets and stammering, trying to explain, that however unlikely, this man was their strange savior. She went to the stove and ladled them up each a bowl of soup. When the soldier had eaten he laid down in a bed for the first time in many long years. And though the sheets were soft and the blankets warm he found the green pressing in around him. He felt the jungle leaves stroke his cheeks. The stink of napalm burning his nose. The screams of children rending their way out of his throat till he sat shivering in the darkness. And he heard the whispered voices in the hallway outside. He put his back to the wall, and he stayed awake all that night by force of will. When morning came none of the four would meet his eyes at breakfast. When they were done he called his host outside, “My friend, for all my money can do for you my screams they will destroy your business quicker than all of that. I will go.”
“No. Please, please there has to be something I can do for you.” He looked around the yard. “I know it’s insulting, but we have a little shed. I can clean it out. I have extra beds and a little stove. I can make you a little house. Please let me repay you in some way.” The soldier agreed. The man was as good as his word. He cleaned out the shed and made for the soldier a comfortable little home there.
But the man’s three daughters were not so fond of the arrangement. The youngest, when her fear had subsided, turned to scorn. Telling her friends at school that she had “A freak show living in her shed,”and how “Now father is keeping bears.” The eldest refused to even acknowledge the soldier’s presence, speaking beyond him and when she needed something she would speak to her father of “The guest in the shed. If you could tell him this or that.”
It was the middle daughter, the cook of the family, who brought him his meals each morning and evening. And there was one day as he sat leaning against his shed smoking, after setting down his food she looked at him, “Can I, can I bum a cigarette, I’m all out?”
He tapped one out and handed it to her and she lit it with a silver lighter. She stepped into the smoke and he realized that there his smell was not so overwhelming. She looked him up and down, “So, tell me your story?”
And they began to talk. As their cigarettes grew short, their stories grew long. And as it happens in fairy tales, day after day, week after week, they sat and they smoked and they talked late into the night. They talked of the past and of the future. And when he told her of his time in the jungle, she did not turn away.
Winter turned into spring, the grass grew green, and the dandelions began to show their heads. There was a day when the soldier went to his host. He pressed into the man’s hand a paper bag, “All last night I counted out money and there is enough in here to see your business flourish and your daughters sent back to school. I will go.”
And though the man protested, “No. I see what I am doing to your family and your business. I will go. Thank you. Thank you for what you have given me.” He went to collect his few things, but as he did the middle daughter stood and watched him for a long time, “Who, who am I going to bum cigarettes off of now?”
“I know how much your sisters hate me. I have a place in the park, I’ve lived there long enough, and no, you can’t see it. But there’s a bench nearby where I like to sit. Come and visit. We’ll sit. We’ll talk. We’ll smoke. It’ll be like here.”
She said she would. And before he left she pressed into his hand that silver lighter that she told him had been her mother’s. He slipped it into the pocket of his coat and he was off.
The stories began to spread once more how that bridge was haunted. That beneath it lived a monster. A creature from whom a stench rolled, and when its nails grew long it rent them on the concrete pilings to break them short. And the screams of its victims could be heard each night. But during the days he would sit on his bench. Many days that summer the girl came and they sat and they talked. And that fall, when she returned to college, on weekends, and some weekdays, she would come and as it happens in fairy tales, their friendship grew close. As Christmas drew near there was a day when he pressed into her hand a stack of bills, “These are for you. Really they are
for your sisters. Buy them what they most want. Buy them what they most desire, and when they love it, only then tell them that it came from me.” She told him later how her sisters had screamed learning of their dirty, stinking, Santa Claus. And together they laughed.
January passed, and one day in February as he sat on his bench, the snow falling around him, it was not his friend that came, but her older sister. Who looked him up and down in the snow, and then with scorn dripping from her voice said those words that had become their special greeting, “Can I bum a smoke?” He tapped one out, lighting it with that silver lighter, and her face grew hard seeing her mother’s lighter in his hands.
With the smoke out came her words so full scorn, “You’re ruining her you know! She won’t even look at other boys at school. Our little sister has begun to say, to anyone who will listen, It’s not men she likes, she likes animals, she likes bears. Please! For her sake, as much as yours, leave her be.”
She stormed off into the white. The soldier ran his hands over his greasy matted hair. He made his way back to his bridge. He looked down at the stream, covered in ice, and began to pound it with his firsts, till the blood and the dirt and ice mingled. And it was many days before he returned to the bench. When he did, in a plastic bag he found an envelope and single sheet of paper, on which was written a single line, “Where are you?” He dug into his pocket, drew out a pen, and beneath it wrote, “I have to go away, but I will see you again.” He folded it and left it there. And he did not return to that bench for many weeks.
That seventh year was as hard as any that had come before. The cold and the solitude wrapped their arms around him again. Sleepless nights looking down into water. The stream, the gun, and the wine they called his name. He fought them as best he could. As December came on he found himself, each night, walking the paths of the park. Until one night, beneath the light of the moon, at that same crossroads, before that same unfrozen pool he found him, immaculately dressed with slicked back black hair. His eyes sparkling in the darkness, smoking up at the moon. “Well, aren’t you a sight.”
“You said that when this was done you would clean me up.”
“So I did. Well then, come along.” The Devil led him out of the park, to where sat a beautiful new Cadillac. He opened the door, pushed the soldier in, and then got behind the wheel. They drove to the finest hotel in the city. There they entered to the screams of the staff but the Devil merely waved his hand, “He is with me.” And there was quiet. They rode the elevator to the very top floor where the Devil produced the key to the penthouse and in they went.
The soldier stood stunned in the light and the warmth and the sumptuous beauty around him. The Devil stepped up behind and, as if he was brushing away cobwebs, he slipped that coat from off the soldier’s shoulders. The soldier staggered, the weight gone. The Devil sat the soldier down and with a pair of silver scissors he cut his hair high and tight, his beard close, leaving matted hunks of greasy dreadlocks strewn around the carpet, uncaring. Then, with a pearl handled shaving razor, he shaved him as smooth as he had ever been before. The Devil gestured to the washroom, “I can help you if you like, but I imagine you will want to do the deed yourself.”
The soldier made his way to the shower, peeling away the rotting hunks of clothing that had been beneath his coat. And whether or not it was the fine cleaning products provided by the hotel or the Devil’s magic I cannot tell you, but that water washed away the dirt and the grime and the grease leaving his skin as clean as it had ever been.
When he returned from his shower, there was no sign of the hair and the dirt. The Devil stood by the door with that old green coat over his shoulder, “Our deal is done. The pockets of that suit on the bed will serve you as well as those of my coat, though I think you will find it an easier jacket to take from off your shoulders. The keys to the Cadillac are on the nightstand. And you may stay as long as you like.” Before he could go the soldier drew close and reached into the pocket of the coat. He drew out that silver lighter. He realized he had no pockets for the first time in so long, and set in on the nightstand. “You took a lot in seven years. You don’t get this as well. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” With that the Devil turned and left the room. The soldier crawled into bed and there he slept deeper and darker than he had it seven long years. When day broke, be put on that new suit. He put the keys and the lighter into his pockets. He rode the elevator all the way down and the hotel staff were happy to wait upon this handsome, obviously rich, young man. He ate a fine breakfast. Then he got behind the wheel of that Cadillac and all that day he drove up and down the streets of the city. Until, as night drew on, the roads became familiar. He parked before a two story brick bed and breakfast, bedecked in greenery and lights in anticipation of Christmas. It did not seem to sag as much as he remembered.
He went in the door, and behind the counter stood the proprietor’s eldest daughter. She smiled to see the handsome young man before her. He asked for dinner and a room and she was happy to oblige. He sat and ate, waited on by her youngest sister who flirted with him. He saw them twitter in the corner, casting glances over their shoulders at him. When he was done, he slipped out the back door and there, leaning against the shed, smoking up at the stars was his friend. At the sound of his feet in the snow she turned. She did not recognize the young man before here. He drew close. “Can I bum a cigarette, I am all out.” She tapped one out, handing it to him, but her lips tightened seeing the lighter he used to light it. He snapped it closed, and handed it to her, “This is yours.”
She took it, looked at this man. Looking past the smooth cheeks, the clean shave, at those eyes whose lines she knew and heaviness she recognized and tears sprang into her own. She took him in her arms and he stiffened. It was the first time in so long that he had been touched with kindness. But he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. When their embrace had finished, he went down on his knee there in the snow. He reached deep into the pocket of his jacket and when he found what he sought he drew it out and in his hand was a golden ring. “Please. You saw a man where other people saw a beast. You did not flinch at the stories I told you. I love you. Please, please be my wife.” And as it happens in fairy tales, and sometimes even in real life, she said, “Yes!”
When they went inside her father wept, embracing the young man, learning who he was. And the soldier smiled inwardly at the tight lines around her sister’s eyes and the smiles they tried to force. The wedding was planned and it was beautiful. A day in summer when the grass shown green in the light of the setting sun, that family and all their friends exited the church, and there they took the soldier and the girl’s hands, shaking them, wishing them long and prosperous lives.
But through that crowd there came a man. A man in an immaculate suit, with slicked back black hair, and eyes that sparkled in the dying sunlight. The Devil took the soldier’s hand and wished him a long and joyous life. But the soldier drew the Devil close, “I thought our deal was done!”
“Oh yes, our deal is done, but you may be seeing me yet.”The Devil smiled and disappeared into the crowd.
And when the soldier’s new bride turned to him, “Who, who was that?”
He could just shake his head. “Someone I hope you never have to meet.”
Cooper’s story was based on “Bearskin” by the Brothers Grimm
Cooper Braun was raised by granola eating coyotes in Boulder Colorado and grew up without a television. He started his performance career as an actor (what do you do with a BA in Theater?) and in 2013 rekindled his childhood love for live storytelling. Cooper competed in the story slam at the National Storytelling Festival in 2015 and 2016. While an accomplished slam teller, Cooper’s first love is traditional tales. Cooper’s stories remind adults that folk and fairy tales are not just for children. He performs and produces regularly in Colorado. Cooper makes up one half of the storytelling duo Stories with Spirit.