“You want Henry to come out and help you George?” called Alice from the house where he suspected she had been watching him.
“No Alice,” George said shaking his head. “I can handle the fence.” He wanted to do this himself--partially because he knew he could and part because he felt enough like a stranger here after being away for two years as it was. Henry, who was a robust and strong boy of seven, remembered his father certainly--but he was hardly the boy of five he had been when George had marched away with the 5th. George had left a shy and fairly quiet little boy that winter of 1862; he had come home to a grown, adventurous and gregarious joke- and riddle-telling young man. George found it very hard to relate to Henry, and though he didn’t consciously try to avoid the boy, he found extended time with him alone only served to remind just how much had changed in the time he had been away at war. Resuming his work on the fence, George replaced the board that Alice had said the rabbits had been gnawing, and hammered the nails in place. He found himself wondering how so many boards had become loose on the fence to begin with, but put it from his mind since the work had to be done regardless. He went to his bucket of stones that Henry had collected for him and selected a good one to work down along the fence line to discourage critters trying to burrow under, and came up from his labor to Henry sitting watching him from the stump. He considered this boy, who had once been the little child he knew, for a moment before resuming his work.
“You’re quiet on your feet Henry--I’m impressed.” George said with genuine feelings of pride and a gentle pang of unease at the surprise.
“Was you that taught me, Pa--hunting after ruffed grouse with Uncle Charlie,” smiled the boy.
“You were so small then--,” said George with a smile as the memories came flooding back. It was the October before their world turned upside-down, and Alice had pressed four year old Henry on him so she might better tend to their daughters Lucy and Harriet. Ever the pair for trouble, the girls (seven and eleven respectively) had somehow disturbed a nest of hornets in the barn and been stung several times each. They would be fine, but were in need of some days rest. George looked at Henry, who climbed from his stump and proceeded to hand him another stone. Thinking of his girls brought a cold stone of feelings deep within him back to his awareness, for it was that December that both girls would catch a fever and pass on. He felt the feelings well up within him a moment, and succeeded in stuffing them back down by spending a little more time than need be in placing the stone.
“I remember that Uncle Charlie came up with a good use for me that day,” said Henry, taking up a board and passing it on to his father as he simply inserted himself into the chore of mending the fence. George smiled, and laughed. At first little Henry had cost them a pair of birds by simply being a typical four year old boy out on an adventure--but soon his Uncle had set him to flushing the birds for them on purpose.George shook his head as Henry held the cast off plank of scrap lumber in place so he could fix it.
“Yes, well, it’s a good thing for both of us that your mother never found out about that--or we’d damn well have hell to pay!” responded George with a chuckle, before realizing that his son was staring at him with an expression of horror and bemusement in equal parts.
“What?” George asked, oblivious.
“You cuss pretty good now Pa--I’m impressed!”
George frowned and shook his head. Embarrassed by the slip, he simply pushed on with the fence. Silence fell between them for a few moments before Henry suddenly started to giggle.
“The look on your face just then Pa--when you realized what you said. I got to thinking about how Mother would wash out your mouth if she heard you and it struck me as funny.” George smiled at his son, thinking about how much he reminded him of his own brother, Charlie.
“Soldiering changes a man Henry. I’ve had to watch my words sometimes since I’ve been home--but I’m glad that they tickled you so.”
When they had nearly finished their work, the pair sat back against the fence for a rest. Alice came along with something to drink for them both, and departed with a look of supreme satisfaction upon her face. George watched her go, and wondered sharply if he was doing right by her. His thoughts were interrupted by the touch of Henry’s finger on his right forearm, as he traced a long scar just visible where his shirt sleeves had been rolled up.
“What’s it like Pa?” the boy asked without looking up from the scar on his arm. “What’s the war like?”
“It’s not easy to explain, Henry.” Alice had asked him the same question when he had laid beside her that first night he had been home, in the bed where their children had been conceived and brought into the world. She had asked hesitantly, in a place that smelled of home--and a life which had begun to feel like a work of fiction he had simply invented to survive being a soldier. Yet that, too, was not the whole story he realized, as he thought of the men who lived and sometimes had died shoulder to shoulder with him. Henry was looking him in the eye, the intensity of a seven year old boy’s need to understand clear in his face. He needed to know the man who had once been his father but who had changed, since last they sat side by side. George swallowed hard, and took a breath; he realized for the first time that his son faced the same uncertainty that he himself had, when face-to-face with the man who had marched away two years before.
His voice cracked a little. “It’s scary sometimes Henry, I won’t lie to you.”
“Uncle Charlie used to make it sound like an adventure in his letters, remember, Pa?” George nodded, and smiled as he thought of his brother. Charlie had joined right off with the first call, but had encouraged him to stay with his family. George still recalled vividly how splendid Charlie looked, even if the battalion didn’t have the Union blue when they first marched away. He survived Bull Run, and indeed his every letter made the entire experience of being a soldier sound glamorous. He was killed at Antietam, not long before George joined himself--perhaps that had been the reason. Henry licked his lips, and the tenacity of his mother showed clearly in his drive to have the truth from his father. “It’s not an adventure though, truly, is it Pa?”
“It’s not, Henry. I think Uncle Charlie used to write what he did to spare us from the truth of his experiences.”
“Still,” added Henry poking his father gently in the side, “It can’t be all bad--you cuss real well now!” George laughed, and made Henry promise he wouldn’t tell his mother about that. The boy promised that he wouldn’t, and George took him at his word.
They talked in quiet tones, and George fed the curiosity of his son’s need to understand this other part of his father--but he always held back more than he told. Some things George simply did not wish to relive by speaking of them; others he thought would be impossible to even begin to put into words. They resumed their work, speaking on in quiet tones, and by early evening the kitchen garden fence had been mended--and George Scarrow no longer looked at his son and saw a stranger. They gathered up the tools and Henry helped his father store them away in the granary. Alice was calling them to supper, when Henry stopped his father and hugged him fiercely. For a moment George simply stood there as his son embraced him, but at last he wrapped his arms about the boy in return. After a moment Henry let loose and stepped away, but smiled and looked back at him.
“I understand why you are going back Pa--at least I think I do.”
George blinked, and studied his son a moment. “You do?”
Henry nodded with a serious look in his eye and then smiled before heading to the house for supper. George watched his son for a moment before following after him quietly. He ran his rough finger-tips along the fence as he made his way to the house, the scent of dinner beckoning him with a fragrance that made his belly growl. He caught sight of Alice through the window, and felt his heart skip a beat. When he came into the house, he took her into his arms and kissed her. Into her ear he whispered how beautiful she was, and how fortunate he was to be so blessed with a woman of such strength and grace. They spent that meal together in warm smiles and loving words-- and later standing together on the little hill where Lucy and Harriet lay looking over the small farm that had been their home.
He could hear the bats in the eaves of the house chirping as the furry creatures roused themselves to hunt insects by starlight, and the sound was bitter-sweet. He knew that he had two weeks left of his furlough before he would have to head back to Snelling to sign his new enlistment papers. How long would he be away this time? Would this war ever come to an end? He had to go back, he owed it to Sully, Potter and the rest. He knew none of the others would fail to re-enlist so there was really no question of what he must do as well.
“Having trouble sleeping, George?” said Alice quietly beside him in the darkness.
“Thinking. Did I wake you?”
“No. I was just thinking about today. I don’t want you to go back--”
“Alice, we’ve been through this--”
“But I accept that you feel you must--” she interjected, “--so I will be strong, and not stand in your way.”
He reached out and took her hand in his own, and brought it to his lips. She rolled over to look him in the eye, the moonlight falling gently across her face. For a moment his heart was close to overflowing as he looked at her--this woman who had given so much for him. She had given birth to four beautiful children, only to lose the first at birth and two more of sickness. She had stood strong and cared for both the farm and their remaining child during his absence, and was prepared to do so again. He kissed her gently on the lips, and whispered his love as frankly as ever he had spoken in his life. She held his face in her hands, her blue eyes searching his.
“I have a confession George--I broke out the planks on the kitchen garden fence.” He blinked twice, seeing the real guilt on her face and started to laugh. She looked surprised a moment before playfully smacking him and telling him to be quiet. When he had found his composure he asked why she had felt the need to do such a thing. “I could see you and Henry needed something to do together, so that you might start talking.”
He smiled. “Well, you were right.”
“The pair of you are as alike as peas in a pod--”
“Thank you Alice.” She stopped as he spoke, and smiled triumphantly. She kissed him then and they snuggled close together. The moonlight shone down through the window, as the bats took wing from the eves of the house. In his portion of the loft, Henry smiled to himself and rolled to his side under the quilt.