Short Fiction - Baby's Arms
The morning was bleak. The farmhouse lay in shadow, creeping dawn slipping through the windows to touch the tired wooden furniture. Outside the sun shone cold with late autumn light, a washed out blue with hints of gold.
Elizabeth picked through her gilt hair, running her fingers over the knots and undoing them distractedly. Nothing could tempt her back to reality, not the weak coffee in her hand or the chirrup of the lonely robin outside. All she could think of was the news the Frenchman had delivered: the war was finished, and Edward was coming home.
Four years ago, almost to the day, Edward had enlisted. Ever since Elizabeth had lived in fear of his death. She’d spent those years fretting, letting the worry gnaw her insides as she suffered in silence. Now the war was over her emotions overtook. The past few days she had thought on him, only sleeping or eating when her mother coxed her.
“Beth?” said a voice. It was her mother, Maggie, arriving in a nightgown, “Have you been here all night? Honestly pet, I told you to go to bed.”
Elizabeth did not reply.
Maggie sat in the chair across from her, and muttered, “Oh, Beth....” With a soft touch she pried the silted coffee cup from her daughter's fingers and placed it on the table. “He'll be fine you know. Any day now and he'll be back, along with the other boys of this generous parish.”
“Not all of them...” Elizabeth replied, her voice cracking.
Her mother smiled, her lips pursed flat, “Beth, you can't expect everything to turn out perfect. Wars rarely are kind.”
“And what if he’s not to return?”
“He’s survived this long-” Maggie said. Elizabeth's face coiled and her mother hopped over to comfort her, “There-there. I think it’s time for you to get some rest.”
Scooping an arm around Elizabeth's shoulder she led her upstairs.
With her daughter hushed, Maggie returned. She tided away the cold cup and studied the chair her daughter had occupied. With a long sigh she buried her head in her hands and breathed deep. She understood Beth's unhappiness, having been through the similar worry herself during the last war. Everything will be alright, she told herself, yet in her heart she wasn't so sure.
Maggie kneaded dough between her fingers. It was just past lunch and Elizabeth was still sleeping. Maggie was making an apple pie for when she woke up. It would be a nice gesture, a homely thing to make her feel at rights.
Click, the garden gate went. Maggie, attuned to the sound, snapped up her head and glanced through the kitchen window. At first she saw a ghost in the garden; a bedraggled, washed out figure with no expression and dark sunken eyes, but then she clocked the boy her daughter loved. It was Edward. He looked far less humorous than she remembered, his entire form reflecting a reduced demeanor, the life sucked out of him. In one hand he carried a knapsack, a medal dangling forgotten in his fingers. The other arm was strung up around his neck. He wore his uniform, or what remained of it, and a jacket to shield him from the cold. Stubble peppered his chin, and his hair was stringy and unwashed. He was bowed too, like the world had put stones on his back and buckled him down.
Maggie stopped kneading and pushed the dough away, wiping her floury fingers on her apron. She was afraid to let her eyes slip from the window in case Edward disappeared, nothing more than a fragment of her imagination. It had been tough for her as well, watching her daughter collapse inside herself as she had done. She wanted to believe he had returned, but found it difficult to consider the reality, more so, the trouble it brought with it. He would not attune back to normal life well. She had seen the same war fatigue with her own husband, and the memory of it drove fear through her heart and made her still as a stone. Edward caught her eye and nodded, breaking her rigidity. No matter what anxiety she felt, she had to welcome him in. She strode from the kitchen and opened the front door.
Step by awkward step the soldier made his way up the garden path. When he arrived Maggie spread her arms, inviting, and said, “My boy, you have returned.”
She hugged him, but he did not return the gesture. Instead he flinched. She ignored his jitters and held strong.
“Sick with worry, we were,” she muttered, more to herself than to him, “Sick to the bones.”
He pulled away, saying, “I was told to come here.”
“I suppose you were,” she replied, eyeing him up and down, ”Your mother went peacefully. She did not suffer.”
“I heard the news. It is good she felt no pain.”
“We loved her very much.”
“I'm sure you did. May I come inside, Richard told me you were holding my keys.”
“Yes, of-course,” Maggie replied, letting Edward by.
He stepped into the house, non-responsive, and Maggie felt an unsettled chill as his shadow washed over her. He turned to the kitchen and dropped his bags on the table.
“Is Elizabeth here?” he asked; that was odd, he usually called her 'Lizzy'.
“Yes, but she's resting. Her worrying has hindered her sleep. I put her to bed this morning.”
“I see,” he replied, and his gaze stretched a thousand yards.
A minute’s silence clung to them. Maggie prodded her dough. Finally she broke the quiet, “Beth’ll be happy to know you’ve returned… I'll wake her-”
“Don't,” Edward barked, then he softened, “You were getting my keys?”
“Yes. Sorry, it's just I'm pleased to see you... Beth can greet you tomorrow,” she moved to the kitchen draws. While searching, she asked in a tentative tone: “For what did you win the medal, bravery-?”
Quiet again, save for the rustle of Maggie's hand through the draws. She found the key and withdrew it. “Here we go,” she said, and brought it to Edward's waiting hand. In passing over the key she brushed his skin; it was cold. He withdrew, stuffing the key into the knapsack’s front pocket.
“Thank you,” he said, and stood, making for the door.
“You’re sure you don’t want to see Beth?”
“But she's been worried- It'd do her the world of good to know you're alright-”
“I'm not alright,” he said, and was out the door, fast leaving.
Maggie hovered, not sure if she should follow.
“Mum...?” Elizabeth said. She was standing on the stairs, her face flushed from sleep, “I heard noise. Was somebody here?”
“Yes, it was Edward. He's just left.”
“Why didn't you wake me?”
“He asked me not to.”
Elizabeth frowned, hurried down the stairs and dashed out.
“You're in your nighty...!” Maggie protested, but it was too late, her daughter was beyond the gate.
Maggie didn't follow; there was no chance of her catching the pair. Instead she stood in the doorway and grumbled. The way Edward acted had unsettled her.
Elizabeth strode down the lane, wincing as stones caught between her toes. “Edward,” she called. She could see him marching. He did not turn. “Edward!”
A cart passed, trundling in the other direction. The farmer sitting atop the haystack eyed Elizabeth as though she were one of the girls from the tavern. Suddenly she felt under dressed, and stopped walking. Edward continued on, not turning. She didn't call him again; it was obvious he wasn't going to return. She idled in the road, then, as he fell from sight, she returned home.
Elizabeth dressed, and left with a quick kiss from her mother. Right away she headed to Edward's, and rapped on his front door. There was no response, so she rounded to the garden entrance and knocked there too. Why is he ignoring me? She thought hotly, and rapped louder. It was to no avail; nobody was coming to welcome her, if indeed there was anybody to answer at-all.
Just as she was about to leave a shape caught her eye through one of the windows and she pressed her face against the glass, cupping her hands to see.
“Edward, are you there? It's me, Lizzy…”
Is that a face in the shadows? She thought. The house had inherited a ghostly air since Edward’s mother had passed, and it haunted her now. Small chills shivered up her spine. She threw off the sensation. She was seeing things, that was all.
She peered at the dusty room for a minute, then heaved a sigh and stood away from the glass. A new melancholy enveloped her, this one strung with misunderstanding.
Rounding the front of the house she peeped at its heights. No window stood open, and there was no life beyond the glass. Had her mother made a mistake, was Edward really back? Could the man she’d seen earlier just have been another wayward soldier? She couldn’t be sure, and there was no way of knowing, at-least not now. She turned and walked away.
Ten paces along the road and there came a click from behind. She stopped, her heart thudding, and spun on the spot. Edward's house door stood open, and he was there. He'd changed out of his uniform and had had a wash, yet upon seeing his face Elizabeth shuddered with same shock her mother had. What did the war do to you? She thought, her heart skipping a beat.
She took a step towards him, and then another, and another, and then ran. Tears flushed her eyes and she herd herself shouting, “You, it's you! You're back!”
Her arms wrapped around him. He winced, taking the strain. After several seconds she pulled away and gave him a good thwack, “Why didn't you wake me?! Why not?! I wanted to see you!”
Edward took her blows without so much as a flicker of emotion. Sensing a wrongness Elizabeth took a step back and wiped her eyes, asking, “What's the matter?”
Her lover was removed, he spoke no words and yet his eyes told the story.
After a muteness, he muttered, “I didn't think it was wise to see you so soon.”
“Not to see me? Why ever not? Don't you remember when you left? Don't you remember how much I love you-?”
“Then why? WHY?!” she shouted, almost screamed, the last word.
“I've seen a lot. I need... time.”
“You need time? What about me? Time is all I've had these past years! Time to worry. Time to fear. Time to let the terrible, worst of thoughts sink in. Not once did I get a reply to my letters- I only knew where you were when I heard from Mary’s brother. If you weren't in the same regiment I would’ve have nothing-!”
She raised her hand, ready to strike him again, but his unflinching nature made her stop. Something about it scared her. She took another step backwards, trying to take him all in. He watched her through cold eyes, not the sunny ones she remembered. Again she felt chill and thought, What did the war take from us? Tears formed in her eyes. She swept them away.
Edward was shaking his head, looking down at the ground, “I couldn't write. Not there, not in that place.”
If it were possible his face had drained of more colour.
Elizabeth moved to touch him but he pulled away, his face drawn, his eyes wet also.
“Please...” she whispered. She couldn't stand to see him so downcast.
“I killed people...” he stuttered, “I killed people and they landed me with a medal for it. Not for saving men, but for killing them.”
“You did what you had to.”
“I pulled five men from a bombed out building, dragged a French girl from a river... but they gave me the medal for killing others, not for the good.”
“You knew the war was vicious, even before you signed up. You told me yourself.”
“Not like that. That wasn't a war, it was a damn massacre.”
“It was for us, to keep our country safe-”
“By killing other men?!”
“-By stopping other men from killing us.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
Elizabeth clutched for him but he pushed away again. She reached out, over and over, until he relented, letting her in. He wept, and she felt him, his skeletal frame shivering beneath her touch.
“We were supposed to be helping…” he choked.
“And you did... you came home, you brought yourself back to me.”
He reached out his uninjured arm and clutched her too. That way they stayed until the chill became too much, then the pair retired inside, glad to have the other and still be alive.
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