Welcome to Fifth Minnesota Fiction!
Update 1-26-15: Ladies and gentlemen, the show is coming to an end. For all of you who have read, supported, and encouraged this blog and my writing--thank you. While many of these stories have already been previously published in book form, I am about to join the 21st century and publish in electronic reader format. As such, this blog will vanish into the ether March 1st. Thank you all, I hope you have enjoyed my meager offerings.
This is a blog dedicated to the essence of what my experience doing Civil War living history is all about--telling a good story. In the case of the Co. A, Fifth Minnesota, we strive to tell the stories of history--everyday lives caught up in the turmoils of strife and change. Our purpose, is to give room for some of those stories to grow, and find an end for themselves. The process of good Living History is much the same as that used to write a story, the difference is that with the written word it is the reader that acts it out in their head. With Living History, the participants take those great narratives and give them life themselves in action and word.
Here those stories we have begun can go on. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do writing them! A word of warning though--be patient with me. Posts may be spread out a bit (I write these whenever real life allows) but something new is almost always cooking; it simply may take time to get them served up at the table.
A. Wade Jones
Sunday, October 18, 2009
In the light of early morning, the four men blended into the shadows of the road which were bent over with drooping oaks bare in the late November landscape. They walked with a sense of comfort with one another which was obvious and observable; used to each others presence the way that brothers are. A deep bond, but almost at an unconscious level amongst them. Their clothes were worn but in good order, mended with hands that had learned by experience the wisdom of tight, even stitches. They walked with a pace that seemed relaxed, but which showed instead an understanding for making long distances in as fast a time as possible--but which would still allow a man to have the energy upon arrival to deal with what they found at journey’s end. This too, was a hard learned skill. They went with only their most basic necessities, arms
and the tools of their conflict stored to await their return to muster at Fort Snelling. Each man, a
fountain of energy they would not have had in camp. These were souls set free, released for a time from the burdens and cares of life lived to its fullest. They talked only in quiet tones as they went, each man listening to the sounds of a country they knew and loved. A country which was truly home, and reminded them in every gnarled tree and rise of ground of the memories of days thought lost to them, but found again.
“How far do you think it is?”, asked the eldest of the four.
“Only three more miles from the station to where his place is, as I recall. Then another five on for me.” , replied the young fellow with the muttonchops on the end.
“I’ll go with you all to see him,’” spoke the fellow next to muttonchops,”but then after that I’ll take the south pike and head home. It might be 7 miles but I’ll cherish every inch. Seems a lifetime since any of us walked these roads.”
They nodded in agreement, the fourth fellow seemingly happy to listen and not join in. Everyone must have understood, since no one felt the need after that to say much at all. It was their first furlough in nearly two years of being in the Army, and each man felt a curious mix of emotions. It had never felt so long since they had left as it did now that they were home, and each feared what they might find after almost two years. For now though, each concentrated on where they
“It’s good to see you boys, I’ll say it truly is.”, beamed an older but solid Daniel Dills. His beard was more full then last they had seen him, and shot through with white and grey. He was filled out, the shape of an older man whom had gone through deprivation and returned to health at the loving hands of hearth and home. He embraced each of the men who had come to see him with a real warmth and affection, and brought them inside to introduce them to all. His son Charles Henry jumped up, and greeted each with a wave, having arrived the day before them. His uncle was not here now, having gone home to his own family. Daniel’s wife, Rebecca Ann, was immediately busy making the men comfortable and attending to their thirst. Each thanked her, and begged her not to make such a fuss. It being still so early in the day, they were offered breakfast which everyone accepted with relish. Mrs. Dills, despite their best attempts to put her off, proved more than a match for all fo them. No one left the table capable of eating another bite. Wandering outside, they offered to assist with chores. It felt good, to each of them, to set themselves to such normal tasks. Daniel Dills sat nearby as the men bent their backs to stacking cord wood near the smokehouse. The few leaves left in the trees rustled restlessly above them, and Dills prodded them with questions of the war and men in the regiment. They answered, out of a sense of obligation to an old friend, but they did not linger on the subject--these were no longer the wide eyed boys who had enlisted thinking of nothing but gallant charges, and the stirring snap of the snare drum. Gallant charges were truly dashes across a space of ear splitting noise, searing pain, nerves so afire they made stomachs lurch. Such actions left pards wounded; lacking limbs, or blinded, or dead. They had grown in their two years away; learned how to overcome endless boredom, monotony and stupidity. These were soldiers, and soldiers--real soldiers, the common everyday man in uniform--have a quiet way about themselves when they have seen the true face of war. Dills understood their restraint, and remembering some part of himself that had been tucked away with his resumption of life at home, he ceased to ask after such things. They spent the time quietly, as the autumn sun burned hazy in the sky.
Daniel, with his wife at his shoulder smiling, bade goodbye to them. He shook each hand, slapped their backs as though he were sending his own boys off into the world for the first time, and watched them wander on down the road. The sun had climbed further, and the cool of the morning was pierced only slightly.
“Ain’t it funny,” remarked Honan scratching at his muttonchops, “feels cold here don’t it? Got used to the heat down there.”
Johnson, Stephenson, and Collis, walked along in step without even meaning too. Habit ruled them, the practice of two years away from home. They came to a fork in the road, and the group halted. Stephenson shook hands with the others, and in his usual quiet manner bid goodbye.
“See you boys when we regroup then--assuming I don’t get too used to living the good life at home again and forget.”, said Stephenson, smiling over his shoulder as he took the South Pike. They watched him briefly as he made his way, then together they continued on.
He wanted to run, to sprint the seven miles over rolling hills and a small stream he realized he had forgotten the name of. Silas Stephenson was not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, but all the same he had a heart and it was fully ahead of him only seven miles distant. He had left it there, centered upon what mattered most to him in the world--His wife, and their farm. He had joined the Army as a patriot true, but the greater reason was to earn the money to help make up for the two bad harvests before the war had broken out. Stephenson had studiously sent the lion
share of his pay as a sergeant home all this time, and slowly but surely things had improved. He came around a bend in the road, and began to pass fields which showed neglect and inattention. He felt he must know the owner, but couldn’t place it for the run down state of it’s upkeep. He came even with the short winding lane which led to the house and suddenly knew where he was. The Marley’s were a near neighbor to his own property, only a little over four miles from his
front porch. He didn’t know the Marley’s all that well, but they were social people who had shown and given hospitality in the past. Stephenson knew that John Marley and his three sons had all joined the 2nd Minnesota near the start of the war, as their leaving had been big news in the area. Stephenson had even come by once or twice himself in neighborly duty before joining the Army to help with the work. John’s wife, and two grown daughters had been left to tend the place when they mustered in. Now, looking up at the house, looking a little weather worn and sad, Silas Stephenson wondered what had become of them. His curiosity overcame him, and he turned and went up towards the house. With each step he realized how over empty, and lifeless the house seemed--how truly over run with old browning weeds and fallen leaves the yard was. Coming to the door, he noted that it was not latched shut, and that the drawn curtains were being assisted with obscuring the view within by a thick cake of dust on the glass itself. Suddenly feeling a sense of foreboding, Stephenson stepped back from the door and looked around. The sense of mystery and abandonment radiated from the place, made all the worse by the look that life had simply stopped abruptly here. Tools leaned against the garden fence as though set down recently, only their weathered and rusted appearance suggesting otherwise. The wind blew a moment, and the clinking of chains from an ox collar nearby drew his gaze. Stephenson regained his courage and pushed open the door lightly. It creaked inward, throwing light into the dusty room within. He called out in case someone was inside, but his voice only faded away on the wind. He pulled open a curtain, tossing a cloud of dust into the feeble light which penetrated into the room. Everything looked as though the Marley’s had been here, and simply left. There were no clues within, only a perfectly ordered house left to decay quietly. A painting of a woman watched Stephenson with the dead eyes of age, but she gave up no secrets as to what had befallen these people. It was though they had been there, and then--simply were not. He wandered around the back of the house, and discovered for himself some sense of the story, though it almost filled him with all the more dread for the common place quality of it. Mrs. Marley was buried in the back yard, her tiny head stone giving nothing more than her name and the title “Mother”. Slightly overgrown and scattered with leaves from a nearby oak, it seemed a very sad end for someone Stephenson remembered as warm and kind. Nearby, the graves of John Marley and two of the three sons who had gone away with him helped make further clear the sorrowful tale he had stumbled upon. He turned, and made his way back to the road, a funny sense of dread making his footfalls fast and purposeful. He glanced back once, almost expecting to see someone there watching--but there was no one. He went on quickly for home, leaving behind the grey ghost of the Marley farmstead, which stood silently in the cool autumn air like some great monument to the cost and sacrifice of war. He would never speak of the experience, but ever after Stephenson would never pass that place in the road without observing a moment of silence.
When he came at last to his own home, his wife Mary caught sight of him before he had even passed through the gate and ran into his embrace. They just stared at one another for a long while, before finally wandering arm in arm to their home.
An hour more and the day was nearing noon, when they crested a hill and looked down over long rows of furrowed land recently harvested to a tidy farm of modest size. Honan let out a great sigh at the sight of it, and smiled at his friends.
“I never loved the work of it, but right now this farm is the finest sight I seen in a long while.”, he said in almost a reverent hush. Honan sprang back to life a moment later and started down the hill. He pointed to the plume of smoke from the chimney and said excitedly, “I bet Mother is making something worth the walk for dinner!”. The others followed without much coaxing, but had gotten hardly any distance before a man came out of a barn looked there way. He stood briefly, before shouting something they could not quite catch and running to the house. Honan’s pace quickened before them, so that when a gaggle of people spilled out he nearly ran headlong into them. Lost to sight, Honan was devoured by the group, and as they approached they were all speaking at once.
“His family alright,” remarked Collis as they approached, “listen to that noise! It’s Honan speaking his mind, only five times multiplied!”
“Yeah, apple don’t fall too far from the tree, do it?”, he said, smiling.
Collis and Johnson halted themselves a short distance away, for fear of being absorbed into the wild fracas that was the Honan family reunion. Before long, they were remembered, and Honan came out of the group to introduce them. His father, a big burly man who’s face was red and his eyes tearing, shook both of their hands profusely and thanked them for bringing his son home to them. Honan’s mother insisted they come in for dinner, and ushered them forcibly within. His sisters smiled and blushed at them mostly, but stayed out of the way. The food was good, and plentiful as was the conversation. Honan’s brother was well, fighting with a regiment from Illinois. Not long though, and Collis and Johnson spoke their goodbyes as they were eager to get on to their own homes. Honan walked with them a short ways.
“I hope you boys have fast feet going home then,” Honan said, embracing each and shaking their hands, “and we’ll see each other again.”
His friends turned, and made their way on. Collis turned once and waved, before the two men walked around a bend and out of Honan’s view. He nearly skipped going back over the road towards the house, and did his best to kick every stone he passed. Honan felt a sense of loss at watching his pards go, but at the same time was so overjoyed to be home that he dismissed that little touch of anxiety for a passing sensation.
Honan woke in a cold sweat, jolted awake by the sound of gunfire. He stumbled down the stairs, past his mother who looked up in alarm and directly outside. Out in the distance, on the edge of the fields across from the house two men where retrieving dog and grouse from the woods. Simply hunting, as some did--as he himself had from time to time. He realized his heart was pounding, and he was sweating. His mother was in the doorway behind him, looking puzzled.
“Well, good morning to you too. I expected you would sleep hard, but you must have not seen that nightshirt I set by for you, James. Slept in your clothes!”, chuckled his mother with a warmth to her tone. Honan said nothing at first, but made himself calm his breathing. He felt anxious, and told himself that having come back from the war it was only natural to be a little sensitive--to require time to get used to being home.
“Not used to being home yet Ma,” he answered her at last with a wan smile, “but I expect it won’t be long.”
His mother smiled, but he could tell she saw through his show of calm. All the same, she allowed it to pass without comment, and beckoned him within for his breakfast. When he finished, he relinquished his uniform to his mother’s ministrations and changed into his old clothes. They didn’t fit as well anymore, and for the first time he realized just how changed he was. He fit his bracers as best he could, but he was swimming in his old work trousers. His father laughed, and gave him a length of twine to cinch them up a bit so they didn’t fall off of him. It thought it would feel good to do those things he had years before despised so fully, and Honan found that prospect of work agreed with him well. The arrival of some neighbors, all of them bent on seeing and talking to the ‘young lad returned from war’, delayed their labors awhile. James Honan did his best as his hand as shaken, back slapped and every conceivable thought and question put to him.
“Well, he looks a hard case now, doesn’t he? Army life made you strong as strap iron now I bet, eh boy?”, asked Mr Hainey, a round man who owned a mercantile in Bancroft. Honan only nodded and smiled. Mrs. Kewatt went on and on regarding his bravery, and patriotism. Mr. Auden from down the lane wanted to know how long he thought the war might last yet, given that--as he said--”you have a prime row seat boy, right up where all of it is truly happening!”.
Mr. and Mrs. Wolf only smiled and nodded politely, but their lovely daughter Charity asked, “How many of those wicked traitors do you suppose you have put down?”. Honan blinked, a funny sensation of being trapped amongst this wall of well meaning neighbors and their questions.
“What do you mean, Miss Wolf?”, he asked, trying to resist the anger that her question seemed to unleash. Anger with no purpose, and which came from nowhere.
Miss Wolf smiled; she should have been lovely but she seemed repugnant now to Honan. To the others gathered, this pretty young woman with her pert little nose and flowing blonde curls was a pleasure.
“Oh Mr. Honan, I mean simply how many rebels you have killed?”, she said with a coy tone.
Honan frowned, and feeling as though his anger and anxiousness would get the better of him answered quietly, “I’m not sure Miss Wolf. If you will excuse me.”
The assembled group murmured, but his mother explained that his journey had been hard and that he wasn’t feeling well. This seemed to satisfy them all, and no one bothered further. His father watched him retreat into the barn, where Honan stayed until their guests departed.
The remainder of the day Honan and his father spent repairing fences, and the floor in the granary. He could have passed on it all, as everyone was eager to let him rest if he wished, but Honan wanted to work. No one argued the point after the events of the morning. By early evening, they were nearly finished and took a rest. Sitting on the stoop of the entrance, Honan happily accepted the late supper his mother had brought them. His father, swung his legs as he sat atop a barrel within the building, watching his son quietly. James Honan could feel his fathers eyes, and a rising sense of anxiety. It was too quiet, too little going on. He wished Rose, or O’Malley, or even Roth--whom he cared little for--would come around the corner. He missed his friends, more than he realized. He was just so used to them being around, and their absence and the dull quality of life here was grinding on him. He tried to shake it off, but the feeling resisted him. He jumped when his father spoke.
“Your mother is worried about you, boy.”, he said in a quiet tone. Regaining himself, Honan responded.
“I don’t think Ma has ever stopped being worried about any of us Pa.” His father chuckled and clucked his tongue.
“You’re probably right about that son, and that’s certain. But I think you know what I mean. It’s hard for you here, isn’t it?”
James Honan felt a surge of annoyance, and without meaning to he shouted in response, “Well, what if it is! All those people this morning asking questions, and girl wanting to know....THAT!”
His father said nothing, but watched as his son got up and started pacing. James Honan paced furiously for a moment, before sitting back down with a great sigh. He wrapped his arms about himself, and stared at his feet. His father came out, and sat next to him without a word, reaching into his coat pocket and drawing out his old battered pipe. In a few moments, a cloud of pipe smoke drifted about them lazily. His father puffed twice, and exhaled--then passed the pipe to
his son. This startled Honan briefly, having never happened before, but he took the pipe a drew from it quietly. When he had done so, and blown smoke before him, he passed the pipe back again and looked at his father. His father looked back, and then put and arm around him.
“You been through things James,” said his father quietly, clearing his throat, “and it’s gonna take you time to figure it for yourself.”. He stood up, and puffing his pipe wandered back towards the house, leaving his son to his thoughts.
“I still don’t like it,” grumbled his mother as she sat with her sewing, “leaving him out there in that state! John Patrick Honan, if I didn’t care for you as deeply as I do...”
“I’d be lost,”, interrupted his father with a smile, “and a shell of a man.” His mother smiled and shook her head at him. Seeing his advantage, John Honan pressed on. “He’s like you Mary, strong willed but sensible when the kettle’s on. We can’t expect him to go from where he’s been to home and act as nothing’s happened.”.
His mother nodded. “He’s grown and then some,” she said with eyes welling into tears, “but you know how I worry for him.” Her husband rose from his seat and kissed her sweetly upon the forehead, smiling into her eyes. At that very moment, the door opened and in strode James. His father stood up, and his mother rose and took her son into her arms. Looking up over his mothers shoulder, James Honan smiled tearfully at his father. It was good to be home.
Whittled down to only two of them, Collis and Johnson strode side by side. They had only left Honan on the road an hour or so, but missed him already.
“That boy, he takes to me like a son sometimes. I bet he’s pining for me even as we speak.”, boasted Johnson. Collis nearly split his jaw with laughter.
“Johnson, you are so full of hot wind that sometimes I think if I held my coat open at the right moment you could blow me all the way to Washington. What horse spittle that is! Him to you? Go on then, it’s the other way about!”
Johnson looked embarrassed and chuckled. He took his poor whittled pipe out of his coat and soon left in his wake the impression of a locomotive puffing along the line.
“You’re right though,” he admitted at last, “that boy showed me about when I was a fresh face yet in the company. Saved me more than once like as not.”.
It wasn’t long before the road came to a gentle fork, going left and right, and here they stopped. The two men, not overly friendly, never the less embraced as brothers would–and then solemnly bid one another goodbye. Each took their road, yelling encouragements to one another as the spit of land grew wider between them and at last neither could hear the other. The day was moving into evening, but neither man would allow himself now to be halted until he reached home.
By the time Johnson came within sight of his home, it had passed dark and the temperature had dropped. The light of the moon was shrouded by repressive clouds, and a half frozen rain began to fall with heavy wet splashes about him. He pulled his greatcoat tighter about himself and was thankful he had kept the garment, unlike so many of his fellows who had discarded them along the humid roads during their many marches in the South. As he approached the fence which ran around the larger of the two pastures, his dogs began to bark in challenge to his presence. A light
shone in the darkness from where a door opened in the house, and a silhouette was briefly seen moving onto the porch. The dogs continued to bark, when Louis Johnson heard a voice call out sharply, “Who’s there on such a night? Declare yourself, and spritely!”.
Johnson recognized the voice as his father in law, and shouted happily, “It’s Louis! It’s me Herman, it’s Louis Johnson come home!”. There was a pause, and then his father in law shouted, “Anya! Anya, Louis is home!”. And then another person came out with lantern in hand, and now Johnson could see clearly in the light cast from the lamp, his father in law with shotgun in hand and his dear wife Anya as well. He broke into a run and met Anya in the yard before the house, taking her up into his arms and squeezing her as she laughed and cried and kissed him. His father in law shook his hand, and warmly welcomed him home. That night, he held and kissed his sleeping child, three year old Anna, who had grown into a beauty in his two years away. As the slushy rain slowed and left a clear, cold night, Louis Johnson knew only warmth. As he drifted off to sleep, his child in one arm and wife in the other, Johnson felt this couldn’t have been better.
The next day Johnson slept late, and woke with his little daughter Anna studying his face. She smiled cautiously when he opened his eyes.
“Mother says you are My father.”, said the child inquisitively.
Johnson felt a twinge of guilt and sorrow, realizing that Anna couldn’t be expected to remember him. He’d gone away when she was a year and half, and she had aged since then. It was a lifetime, he realized. He really didn’t know her anymore than she could know him.
“That’s right, but I went away to be a soldier almost two years ago, so you may not remember me.”, he responded at last. The child, little eyes of deep and introspective blue, sat absorbed in his face.
“I was so small then,” the little girl said, “but I’m glad you are home.”
Johnson reached out to her, and received a nice embrace. Anna hopped down from the bed and scurried across the floor and out the door. Louis went to find his clothing, and found it tucked some of it tucked away in a trunk. He was puzzled that he could only find some old work clothes, but they seemed to fit well enough. He came into the main room, but found only Anna seated there eating her breakfast at the table. Food was set out for him as well, but there was no sign of his wife or father in law. He sat down next to his daughter, and examined what was there for him. Some cheese, bread, butter and porridge with milk. He frowned, but began to eat.
“Where’s your mother?”, he asked for the little girl.
“She’s working.”, came the reply.
“Working where?”, asked Johnson, taking a spoonful of porridge.
“The animals, father.”, Anna said as though his question was the silliest she’d ever heard, “And when I’m done, I gotta go out and get the eggs and feed the chickuns”.
Johnson smiled at his daughter and her pronunciation. He took a bite of cheese and chewed quietly. Soon Anna got up and put her dishes in the dry sink and went out of the room. She came back shortly dressed, wearing her boots. As she made for the door, her father called out to her.
“So, what should I do with myself?”, he asked her with an air of humor. The little girl stopped, and looked at him with an uncertain look.
“I don’t think you have a job her Father. You weren’t here when Momma taught me about the chickuns.”, she said as she went out the door and closed it upon him with a small snap of the latch.
Louis Johnson tried not to let what his daughter had said rattle him, though it fed into a rising sense of being out of place that was bubbling within him. Putting it out of his mind, he went out to do chores just as he had always done before the war. He went first to see that the stalls had been mucked out, but found his wife just finishing them. She smiled and gave him a kiss, and set off to some other task without further word. He went next to feed the cow, but found the feed bucket was not where he kept it. Indeed, the whole granary was rearranged. Finally after looking for 15 minutes for what he needed, he went to find his wife.
“Where’s the feed bucket?”, he asked hotly.
She gave him a frown.
“Just inside the cow shed, and there’s no need to be cross with me.”
Louis nodded, apologized and went for the bucket. Why on earth it was there, and not where it belonged, he couldn’t fathom. But upon finding the bucket at last, he also discovered that the cow had already been given her feed. His father in law was mending a fence in the pasture nearby, so Louis wandered over to be of some help. The older man nodded to him, and the two worked quietly. They split two new rails, and placed them as needed. When they had finished, Johnson gathered up the maul and wedges and went to return them where they had always been kept--only to have his father in law lay a hand on him to halt his going.
“Not the granary anymore Louis, the barn.”, he said.
Johnson blinked, and looked at his father in law.
“The barn. Why there?”
“Anya felt it was closer, she had me move a lot of stuff around. I was sceptical at first, but I gotta say it makes..”
Louis Johnson turned and went on to the barn. What was happening here, why did it bother him so that his wife had made some changes. Why had she felt the need, was what thought came to him. This was his farm, he had worked it, why was his way not enough for her? His father in law caught up with him, and opened the barn door for him.
“She done a good job with you not here, Louis. Make sure you take note of that. I wasn’t sure she could do it, but she done shown sensible.”, said the older man, watching Johnson from the doorwar of the barn. Louis felt tired, frustrated, and out of place. He said nothing, but elected instead to go back to the house. He crossed paths with his wife, she was carrying a basket of root vegetables out to where the cellar was to store them away for the season. He felt himself angry with her, just for being so busy and industrious. He felt at odds with himself, strange to be upset that she had acclimated to farming so well in his absence. That thought triggered his frustration
“So, where are my clothes then? I looked all over this morning!”, he groused.
Not even stopping, she answered quietly over her shoulder, “Drying. They’d been put up so long I thought they could use a wash. You can check them if you like, should be dry soon.”
He didn’t go to see to his clothes. Instead, Louis went for a walk to clear his head.
The next morning it was the same. He woke late, which angered him. He used to be the first awake every day--but now--out of practice and with no morning call to roll him out of bed as in camp, he woke alone. He went out into the main room, his breakfast set upon his table awaiting him. He felt sick, and pushed the porridge away from himself without touching it. Louis Johnson sat still, his mind troubled. He looked about the house he had built, and realized with a start that
he did not know it any longer. He was a stranger in his own home, to his own child. He rose from the table, trying to recall how the house used to look and realized with panic he couldn’t. Clearing his dishes, he wandered outside to do chores. If anything could make him feel he was home, it was going back to his work here on his farm. Sure, his wife had moved things about in the home. Women do that, he told himself. His daughter had been so young when he went away, surely this accounted for her strangeness to him. The sun was dusky and blurred in the cool autumn sky, and a hush was on the horizon. He found his wife coming out of the granary carrying the axe.
“Oh, Louis! Did you find your breakfast?”, she asked as she brushed past him and set up a block of wood to be split. He stood for a moment, and watched her deftly split the block, then replace it and continue on. By the third block of wood, she gave him a look and said as she swung, “What’s the matter?”.
“Nothing truly, I just was hoping for a good meal this morning like you always make.”, Johnson said sitting down on a nearby stump.
She looked at him and held the axe in place briefly before swinging through and splitting the wood with a crunch. As she stooped and put another log in place, she said in a matter of fact tone, “It’s been almost two years Louis, things change.”.
Louis stood up and chuckled. “So I’m away from you all this time and you think that means I’m different?”
Anya buried the axe into the stump savagely and strode towards him as she had never seen before. The look of anger and frustration in her eyes changing her features so as he hardly knew her. “No! No, Louis, you’re not different–but I am.”.
He looked at her and smiled, trying desperately to understand what had happened here. What could have gotten into the woman he thought he knew like a book. “But, you’re still My Anya..”, he began before she cut him off.
“In many ways I am, but Louis, I’m my own too. Did you just think life would hold up here while you were gone away from us? Did you think you’d come back here to the same woman you left alone to run our farm and raise our baby?”, she said breathing a little hard, hands on her hips in fists. Louis sat back on the stump, feeling like the world was reeling and pitching beneath him. Her words stung, and even as he felt the desire to argue he heard the truth between his pride. He said nothing, but she seemed ready to fill the void--the words sounded with a heavy thud upon him and represented thoughts long contemplated and rehearsed. Words which clearly were not new to her lips, but which seared his ears with the power of them.
“Some things just can’t survive so much time–can’t you make yourself understand that? Oh God Louis, how many times I died of loneliness and despair while you were so far away–how many times I wanted to write you and beg you to come home! But then, one day I simply accepted that I could do this all on my own. My father, he resisted that idea then, said a woman couldn’t do what a man could. I showed him, and a hundred other nay-sayers aside.”
She put her hands to her head, and turned and paced away from him in silence for a few minutes. He didn’t know what to say, still uncertain of what this explosion meant and how to reckon it with the woman whom last night seemed the same little wife he’d left behind. She looked at him, and came and knelt before him, taking his hands in hers. Her eyes were wide and teary, but the strength he had seen a moment before did not vanish. She was Anya, but more, much more. He found his voice at last, and creaked softly.
“What are you saying to me Anya Johnson?”
“War changes not only the men who fight Louis,” she said with a firmness he admired, “but the women and children too. There’s many of us what were left behind to tend, who have come into our own at last. You all have been away so long, that we’ve been made to discover our own way, and many have discovered how good it feels to make that way. We won’t be just wives any more Louis, the war has seen to printing their names in the papers alongside with the others lost to battle. We’ve found our place, and it’s not where we’ve always been told it to be. Do you understand? Do you understand what must be, when you come home to many of us now?”
He stood up and looked down at her, shaking his head.
“The world is gone upside down. This is my farm, and you are my wife, and that has not changed!”, he said with a nearly uncontrolled rage in his voice. He felt betrayed, angry, but deep within he felt shame. How could she have changed so much, his sweet Anya sounding like some radical telling him that things were different. Telling him in his own yard that he would have to accept her independence from him, that she could be more than a wife and mother! So she had run the farm all this time, and well too, but had he not taught her to do so? He stormed away from her and went into the barn, where he kicked a barrel and paced the floor for a bit until her came to rest against the wall. He sat there fuming for some time before he realized how nothing in this barn was how he had ever placed it. He hardly recognized the interior, so full of other things and organized differently. Suddenly, he felt as though all fight in him evaporated, and he fell to his knees and began to sob. A wave of emotion washed over him; he felt furious, then terrified, and hopeless. Through it all, he felt the shame of having left his wife and child so long alone, and worse that perhaps they no longer needed him. He felt lost, and try as he might he could not feel bitter towards his wife. He became so overwhelmed that he vomited, and then curled up in a corner covered in straw. Things would be different, he realized, they were different. The door creaked, and in came little Anna looking curious. When she saw her father, she came and sat beside him in the straw, and took his hand best she could with her tiny hands.
“Are you sad because you miss the war, Father?”, she asked quietly.
He looked at her with tearful eyes and only shook his head. He feared he would burst into tears if he spoke. The little girl, all eyes and long curls, hugged his arm tight.
“It’ll be okay Father, you’re home now.”
He nodded, and her mother came to the door. She looked at him with weeping eyes, and he smiled at her.
When the sun set that day, and the coolness of night closed in around the farm, Louis Johnson sat reading stories to his daughter. His wife Anya made their supper, as she always had. When He said grace that evening, he thanked God for his family and for letting him come home. He asked the Lord for strength and patience, and a willingness to accept the changes to come.
At the window, the small boy stood watching. He had done so off and on, with regularity that spoke to the importance of this action to the boy better than any words could explain. Outside, the sky was growing hazy, and the evening clouds were settling into place. The boy knew that soon he wouldn’t be able to see well enough down the dirt lane, from the top of the hill to the stone wall and white painted wooden gate beyond. He knew that another day was nearly used up, another day that his father had not returned. His mother always watched him with sad eyes from her chair near the sewing table. The boy had tried to explain to his mother that watching so, for the time after supper until dusk, made him feel that his father wasn’t quite so far away. Wasn’t fighting in this war he didn’t really understand. He had almost come to believe that this ritual kept his father from harm, and therefore to miss a day would likely prove poor for his father. Mother never understood. No matter how many times he tried to explain the logic of it.
Darkness obscured the gate, and then the lane, and Henry Collis knew it was time to go and sit with his mother. Henry was the youngest, being six and a half, and therefore he was mothers companion. She needed someone to watch after her these days; and all of the Collis children knew it. Father had been reluctant to join, but she had encouraged him. Henry always wondered why, since it so obviously left her so sad. Still, the Collis children–Thomas (14), Rachel (12), Betty (9), and Henry had pitched in. They had pulled their weight, so that even Grandmother Sauders (Mother’s mother) seemed more approving than normal. Grandmother Sauders was piecing a quilt together near the fire, with her same old sour look she always seemed to carry. Henry went and sat with his mother, and pulled her arm about him.
“Not today mother”, whispered Henry leaning his head against his mothers arm, “father didn’t come today. But I’ll watch tomorrow, and we’ll see.”
His mother said nothing, and stroked his hair. His father, whom Mr. Hall at the general store called “Martin” or just “Mr. Collis” but was simply father as far as Henry was concerned. He had been away with the 5th infantry battalion almost two years. Henry had to try very hard to recall his fathers face, since he had left when Henry was still so little. His father wrote often though, even if sometimes it took months before they arrived or several letters came at once. The letters always made everyone feel better after a major battle, because while the papers would print a list of the dead, wounded and missing–they also often ended such articles with the phrase “..and of those unknown or unaccounted for by miscount and inability to identify the remains there are quite a number.”. When fathers letters would come, his mother would compare the date father listed on his letter to the fate of the battle reported in the paper. “Thank goodness Martin dates his correspondence!’, Grandmother Sauders once said, “or we might have given him up to dead long before now!”.
The problem was now, that there had been a report of losses in the Minnesota Pioneer–but they had not received a letter from him yet to settle their minds one way or the other. As such, Henry felt that his vigil at the window was all the more important. Thomas came in, and hung up his coat. He gave Henry a glance and came over and kisses mother’s forehead.
“Barn’s all closed up mother. Everything settled and snug.” Mother looked up at Thomas and smiled as she patted his cheek.
“You’re a good boy. Go on now to bed, and take Henry up. Give your Grandmother a kiss before you go, I’ll be up promptly to say goodnight.”
There was a time when Thomas would fuss at being spoken too so, but not of late. They all knew mother needed them. It showed on her, and this waiting to know how father was didn’t help. The two boys made a show of what affection they could to their Grandmother, and went up to the loft above. When they had, their mother went to the window herself. She stood quietly looking at the growing dusk beyond and sighed. She did not want to believe what she had heard, but day by day with no letter made her fear sink deeper into her resolve to hold out hope. Her mother could read her thoughts, as always.
“You will have to tell them eventually, Susanna,” her mother said softly, “You know this cannot go on, day after day. Letting that boy watch for a man who is dead...”
“I know mother, I know,” Susanna Collis interjected, “I suppose I’m having a hard time accepting it myself.”
Her mother set aside her quilt, and came to put a hand upon her daughters shoulder. Susanna reached up and put her own hand over her mothers.
“I don’t like it any more than you child,” said her mother softly, “but there’s no reason Mr. Hall would say such a thing unless it was true. He told you himself, that he had it from one of those soldiers who knew Martin.”
The moment came back to Susanna deftly, and with a cold tingling in her fingertips. Mr. Hall, who had been an officer in Martin’s company but resigned and came home to his store, standing there looking so miserable. How when she’d asked him his purpose he had tried to tell her as gently as one could tell a wife, and mother to young children such a thing.
“I have it on good account Mrs. Collis.,” Mr Hall had stammered as he spoke, looking pale and uncomfortable, “ I wish I could say I don’t believe the man, but he says he’d pretty certain it was your husband who he saw fall in the engagement. It’s possible, he was wrong, things are often so confused there you understand, but I think that if you don’t hear from him soon Mrs. Collis, it’s likely true.”
Mrs. Collis put her other hand on the cool window pane, and closed her eyes. It had been so long since he had written, not like him at all. She knew some of her grief beyond simply his loss was that she had pushed him so hard to enlist. The memory flooded into her like the warmth of summer sunshine, making her almost feel she could hear his voice again.
“But my love, though I love my country–you’ll forgive me if I find I love you and the children so much more dearly. I couldn’t bare to be away from you all so long as enlistment would require.”
Susanna gave him a look of stern determination. “Martin Collis, you must! Think of your sons, and of me! Our country Martin, the country our children will live in! Surely, you see why you are needed!”
He had given in, as he often did to make her happy. She wished then she could take it all back, and have kept him there. How long this war had dragged on already–that summer he was gone when the frontier was alive with terror and the unthinkable. Now, the fourth year of war dragged on and the fury and fire of patriotism wore thin. People were tired, the country tired. Too many sons, husbands, brothers were buried far away or bleaching in the sun of states not of their birth. She felt so thin, transparent–as though her very soul was worn and ragged. She said it to herself once, “Martin is dead”; but always she thought she heard him answer her–“I’m not.”.
“They told me you were my love.”
“They are mistaken,” his voice said to her heart, “I’ll be with you again.”
“I want to believe,” she answered, “but I am afraid to trust that hope.”
There was a thump upstairs, and the children started to shout and laugh. Her mother grumbled, “What are they into now?”, bringing Susanna out of her dream of her husband. Her hand slid from the glass, and moved up to brush tears from her eyes.
“Stop that noise this instant!”, shouted her mother up the stairwell, but instead the laughter and ruckus increased. Anger at everything but her children flared up in Susanna Collis then, and having no other outlet she stormed up the stairs intent on speaking harshly to her disobedient brood. She mad it to the top the stairs and halted with a gasp, her heart pounding for fear that what greeted her was only the workings of her tormented soul. Sitting on the floor, piled high with his laughing, smiling teary-eyed children, was her husband. The window was open in the eaves, and the top of the hay loft ladder was just visible in the evening air beyond. She flew to him, her mother coming up the stairs and crying out in astonishment. The family sat like that for some time into the evening together, like a living knot of hearts entwined. Outside, another day had ended without Martin Collis coming through the gate and up the lane to his door. Yet all the same, six and half year old Henry Collis thought that was just fine.