The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Charlie Bennett
He walked up the cracked, dirty sidewalk, slowly approaching the door to knock with hesitant deliberation. Visiting Sam’s widow and daughter was the most important thing to him after the war, but his nerve was failing in a different way than it ever threatened to in battle.
He last saw Sam with his mouth agape to the sky as if to release his soul to heaven, or to let the final agony and resistance to death escape, his supine corpse savagely ripped open by the cold science of ballistics. He knew the worst to suffer was the little girl in the picture Sam kept in the inner pocket of his frock coat. Sam had told him to make sure he was buried with it. They’d had to retreat. He couldn’t be sure that had happened. He didn’t like to think about that. He knew Sam’s little girl’s suffering for her daddy’s killing in that field would stretch the decades. She was eight years old which had to be about the worst time to lose a daddy.
At night the real munitions of the war still came to him, the mud, the mosquitoes, flies, blood, decay, maggots, fear, dreaded disease, the enfilade of despair. He never spoke of the plangent cries of the barely living, those soon to die, some screaming for water, others, the young ones, calling for their mothers. Those men continued to die in perpetuity, their pleas continuing to echo, at night, in his mind.
She answered the door and confirmed she was Sara. He revealed his identity and she hugged him with tears welling, assuring him that her husband mentioned him, always fondly, in his letters that made it home from the fields of the war.
“I called him Sam,” he softly told her. “I can’t tell you why. It just seemed to suit him and so he was always Sam to me.” He looked down at his wide-brimmed felt hat he’d removed upon entering the house.
“Mother, may I go outside to play?” A young girl he recognized from the photograph Sam carried had come around the corner and into the room. She had grown but still looked like herself.
“Oh, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t realize we had company,” she said in her small, tender voice.
“Now you must be little Clara,” he said. “I knew your father and let me tell you, he loved you so much he just about burst when he spoke of you.” He smiled at the girl and nervously rotated the hat’s brim between the fingers of both hands, his eyes bright and wide.
The little girl gave a sad smile and looked to her mother.
“Yes, Clara, you may go outside but stay close to the house dear.”
“Thank you, Mother. And nice to meet you Sir. And thank you for telling me that about Daddy.” She timidly glanced at him and then back to her mother before heading for the door.
“You’re welcome dear. And it was my pleasure to finally meet the apple of your daddy’s eye.”
After she’d gone out he watched her through the window briefly before speaking again.
“I didn’t want to say too much in front of the child, but I want you to know, and you may see fit to tell her, her Daddy always carried her picture in the inner pocket of his coat and was buried with it. That picture was his most-treasured possession. He’d have given up his rifle before he’d have given up that photograph.”
True, he didn’t know for certain that he’d been buried with the photograph, but it was most likely he had.
“Yes, that was his greatest fear when he left, that she would have to grow up without him,” she said. “I think we both just knew he wouldn’t be coming home. This life has become harder to bear than I ever dreamed it could be.”
She walked over to a desk and pulled a folded paper from a drawer.
“This is the letter they sent me advising of his death,” she said, offering him the letter after carefully unfolding it.
He read the letter quietly and was disappointed at a lie their commanding officer had felt compelled to tell. He’d written that Sam’s last words were that he was proud to have died for the cause. But he’d seen Sam killed by an artillery blast that brought death quickly and decidedly. There was no time for last words. Now he felt the need to lie himself, to stamp out this propaganda, to give some comfort to Sam’s widow and daughter.
“Ma’am, I don’t know why our commanding officer felt the need to lie about Sam’s last words. Maybe he thought you’d feel better knowing he believed in the cause he gave his life for, which as you know, he did, but I was right beside Sam when he was killed. He only lived for a matter of seconds after the blast struck him. That part of the letter was accurate. But the only last words he spoke were your name and your daughter’s name. Then he was gone. The only reason I could hear him was because the blast knocked me to the ground beside him. My head was right beside his. That’s the only reason I could hear him over the blasts and yelling. He said ‘Sara, Clara…’ in a strained voice and then he was gone Ma’am. He did not suffer long.”
He handed the letter back to her. She wept and took the letter from his hand, placing it back in its safe place in the desk drawer.
“You have to understand Ma’am, the officers felt responsible for their men, and when they lost men, they felt a responsibility to lessen the suffering of the families in any way they could. I guess this prompted some of them to take liberties in how they characterized the deaths. There was a desire to describe the deaths with a sense of honor. But, you know, that just wasn’t necessary. Nothing could ever bestow more honor on those men than they earned for themselves. They gave their lives for us all, for our country.”
He got up from the wooden chair she’d pointed him to when he entered the house. “I’m sorry Ma’am,” he said, his voice trembling. “I can scarcely talk of those men without becoming overwhelmed. I must take leave of you now. Please know Sam cared for you both, deeply.”
He did not turn back to her and exited the house, ashamed of his emotions.
She looked out the window and watched him walk down the sidewalk toward town, her eyes flooded, bleary. The war would never end for them. Never end.
Back in town, in his bed in the boarding house, he awoke in the night’s stifling hot air with the echoes of the guttural death moans of men and animals alike mixed with the chirring of insects, waiting for the birds of morning to begin whistling again, the booming artillery having ended, the smoke of the war having dissipated into history. Love, never ending.
He slept late into the next morning which was fine. The saloon around the corner from the boarding house didn’t open until the early afternoon. He spent the next three days drinking whiskey and walking around the little town, trying to envision the stories Sam had told him about his childhood. Then he retreated into the wilderness, whistling the sad songs of camp. The eternal melodies of night. He could always hear the other boys, especially Sam, softly whistling along, making the ground pass more quickly.
#TheUnreal #Fiction #ShortStories #CreativeWriting #Literature #Love #War #Death #History #Wartime #Patriotism
Visit our shop and subscribe. Sponsor us. Submit and become a contributor. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.