Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “Destroyer”


Walking far afield from the burning-down world he knew, he dreamed not of the bomb, but of meadows of flowers of bright reds and sunlight golds. He dreamt of building a home away from machines of death.

All at once, the sparrows tumbled, the first, then another and another, a rain of feathers and bone. Oppenheimer turned and looked about him, a spiral of birds at his feet.

No longer could he see in stars anything but burning. He walked down streets, buildings tumbling, streets opening up and swallowing people, the red flash of a terrible bloom, then smoke, smoke, smoke, then the blotting out of the sun.

At night, he tells her the world is not full of monsters. He holds her and inside his closed-shut eyes he sees the cloud of red against the night. He thinks of white overshoes worn to prevent fallout sticking to him. He sees the bodies of the animal dead. He dreams of making tea from his kitchen, looking out the window to a world where the bomb has not rendered inert the voice of quiet.

One sparrow flitted on the ground. One sparrow surviving the mass sky-falling. Oppenheimer knelt and watched the bird as it jumped here and there on one good leg, a broken wing fanned out and useless slapping the ground.

I nightly am frightened by noise of this world, he wrote her. He tried to tell her of the wind-worn man he’d become, the hush of the after-explosion. The land gone blank, as if a filmstrip had cut and a screen gone dark. Kneeling at the sparrow, he whispered the words he would write her:

The world is only a memory of what it could have been. I see the wave of fire in my dreams and I place my hands inside the wall of flame. I cannot paint you a picture of a wasteland. I cannot tell you what is like to disappear.

The sparrow slowed and wound around itself. Oppenheimer scooped it up in his palms. He walked with the bird through the ring of dead.

He walked away and put his lips to the sparrow. He imagined her in the morning light, cutting a peach. He imagined her dress and hair blown about by wind. He imagined her asking if he could imagine a future without her and he knew he’d say, I don’t want to think of any place where I might not find you. Oppenheimer cupped his hands around the sparrow and waited. He walked toward home, listing in his head all the words he could think of that meant to fall down.