Authors: Sarita Mandanna
He’d accepted the journal without comment when Obadaiah had handed it to him that morning, stuffing it into a pocket of his overalls with a casualness that had belied his shock. A journal. His silent, reclusive father who had not once spoken of any of the war years had actually kept a
all the while he’d been in France. Jim had carried it about with him all day, reaching now and again to touch its cover as if to reassure himself of its presence.
He’d been burning with questions, but the pain in Obadaiah’s face as he’d turned around from the mirror stayed him. They’d stood in silence for a moment.
‘You got the look of your pappy ’bout you.’ Obadaiah gestured vaguely. ‘The eyes . . .’ He tried to smile, but once again, it was a poor attempt and he looked away, through the open window where the gnarled old apple tree stood framed against the barn.
‘Maybe I could show you around the orchard?’ Jim offered.
A brief hesitation, and Obadaiah nodded. ‘Always was goin’ on ’bout Reds and McIntoshes, he was . . .’
They paused in the dooryard while he lit up a cigarette and Jim saw the slight tremor in his hands. ‘How did you—’ he began again, but before he could say anything further, young Jimmy came tearing down the slope towards them.
He’d been dispatched to the barn under protest – ‘But we have a visitor! Someone who knew Grandpa!’ – and now, chores finally done, he came galloping towards this intriguing stranger.
‘You knew my grandpa!’
‘I sure did.’ Obadaiah pulled on his cigarette, grateful for its comfort. ‘From a long time ago.’
‘How long ago?’
‘Years ago. With him being ’bout the age your pappy is now.’
Jimmy frowned in puzzlement, trying to reconcile the memories he had of the Major, limping and bent, with the image of a much younger man. ‘Did Grandpa have any hair back then?’
A tired gleam of amusement stole into Obadaiah’s eyes. ‘Plenty hair, the same colour as yours, and blue eyes the same as well. Although,’ he added solemnly, ‘he didn’t talk nearly as much as you.’
‘Yes, well, he has his mother’s genes,’ Jim said dryly, reaching out to ruffle young Jimmy’s hair.
Jimmy kept up his guileless barrage of questions all through their walk around the orchard. Jim watched the older man, the way Obadaiah seemed to lower his guard around the boy reminding him with a pang of the Major, the way the air of fragility about him seemed to dissipate as he talked with the child. Once or twice, he even threw back his head and laughed out loud. Ellie called out that dinner was ready, and they turned back towards the house.
She had brought out the good china and even arranged a bunch of roses in a glass jar.
‘This look mighty fine,’ Obadaiah said quietly.
Suddenly self-conscious, Ellie fiddled with the gingham tablecloth, smoothing a non-existent crease. She moved the platter on which the roast rested, a tiny quarter-inch to the side, the better for the light to fall on its beautifully burnished front. ‘It’s just simple fare.’
‘Simple fare, it suit simple folks just fine.’ A sudden twinkle in his eye. ‘Folks such as me, same as folks like you.’
Ellie went beet red with embarrassment, all the way to her roots. ‘So you overheard me then, earlier. Well, what would you have me do—’ she began, bristling, and Obadaiah grinned, holding up a placatory palm.
‘I’m just having some fun, Miss.’ He sat down at the table. ‘All this look powerful fine. James, he was always goin’ on ’bout your apple pie, he was.’
‘Was he now?’ Ellie smiled with pleasure. ‘The Major was fond of my cooking.’ She hesitated. ‘And call me Ellie, do.’
‘Did Grandpa go on about me too?’ Jimmy wanted to know, still confused by the timelines of the past.
‘Well, it was still early days for that.’ Obadaiah pointed a fork at Jim. ‘He talked ’bout your pappy though.’
Jim looked up sharply, blue eyes round with surprise. ‘He did?’
‘Carried a picture ’bout with him all the time. No more than kneehigh to a duck you were, and your hair falling in your eyes.’
Jim nodded impassively, but there was a strange lump in his throat. He continued to eat, keenly aware all the while of the journal in his pocket, of its rectangular bulk, resting solid and comforting against his frame.
‘Maybe it weren’t nobody’s fault,’ Obadaiah said slowly. His eyes followed the last swoop of a barn swallow as it headed to roost, a dark, arcing arrow in the dusk. ‘Not James’, not mine, not anybody’s.
C’est la guerre
Jim and he sat on the porch, watching as the first stars began to light the sky. Behind them, the house lay quiet and peaceful. Young Jimmy had gone to bed, cheered by the prospect of Obadaiah staying with them a few days. Ellie had railroaded all of Obadaiah’s earlier protests.
‘I’m setting up one of the spare rooms,’ she’d announced and Jim nodded in agreement.
‘Damn fool thing to do, to come all this way only to leave so soon,’ he pointed out, and Obadaiah had finally capitulated, amused and still a little taken aback by the similarities between Yankee James and his son.
He drew a deep breath, taking in the balmy scents of summer bloom and freshly mown hay. ‘
,’ James used to call them, and somehow Obadaiah had known, even in the filth of the trenches, he’d known just what his friend had meant, picturing in his own mind the pleasant scents of ripening apples, of mulched earth and warm animal hide. Grief filled him again, disorienting in its force, and Obadaiah looked down at his hands.
C’est la guerre
,’ he repeated haltingly. ‘We known, of course we did, James and I. It was just the war, the ’no count, devil-spawn war, swallowin’ both men and boys the same.’
A breeze sifted through the sugarbush, stirring the tops of the trees.
‘But maybe I should start at the beginnin’. Way back, at the very start. The summer of 1914, before the war, even. A golden light upon Paris and her streets filled with song.’
The moon rose, gliding over hill and copse. Obadaiah did most of the talking, Jim interjecting only occasionally with a question. The older man paused now and again to light a fresh cigarette, the ashtray balanced on the railing filling steadily with stubs as the hours went on. At first his speech was rusty, the syllables disjointed, guttural, but soon they began to meld together, in a cadence both story and song, flowing in unfamiliar, deeply affecting rhythms into the night.
Jim felt the gooseflesh rise along his arms, events from twentyfive years ago unfolding frame by frame before his eyes.
Here, his father, a young man so filled with purpose and idealism at the onset of the war. The rough camaraderie of the Legion, the unlikely friendship forged between these two men from such vastly differing backgrounds. The blue uniforms, the
, marking a field of wooden crosses, the painfully swollen feet after yet another marathon march. The welcome heat of a bonfire at the night’s halt, its flames leaping against the ancient stone façade of the abbey where they’d camped. A crate handed out in welcome by the monks of the order; bottles popped open with alacrity, and his father’s voice, commenting dryly on the virtues of fine champagne consumed under the stars.
The tip of Obadaiah’s cigarette was an orange phosphorescence in the dark. The presence of the two men sitting there in the porch was cautiously assessed and deemed safe, and the scrabble and scratch of small night creatures resumed in the grass and the woodpile. Obadaiah continued his soliloquy all the while, speaking-singing this paean to his friend, an ode to his truest brother. Jim heard the roar of motorcycles, felt the dust of the roads in his lungs. A row of ancient poplars along the banks of a canal, set afire after a shelling; water the colour of molten metal, and the look upon his father’s face as the trees shrivelled and burned, toppling one after the other into the quietly flowing stream.
Obadaiah talked on, painting pictures with his words. The rich, musical timbre of his narrative filling in the gaps of all these years, bridging the man the Major had once been to the shell he was reduced to in the end.
Jim saw himself, tied irrevocably to his father. As the Major had in turn been to his, backwards through the years, a long, unbroken line of Stonebridges, with an identical love for these purpled hills, for apple trees in bloom, for the tinge of snowmelt in the Connecticut, and walls of rambling stone.
He saw the invisible spiderweb of threads that joined them all, the myriad ways, subtle and overt, that the experiences and choices of the past shaped the present. Like the spathes of a plant, the older encasing the younger, a multitude of generations tucked one inside the other, beneath the quiet earth.
He thought of his uncle Bill, whose name Jim still carried in his own, his untimely passing permanently altering the course of the Major’s life when it was he who signed up for the war instead of his older brother. He began to realise too, for the first time, just how much he was his father’s son. Not merely bearing his name or born with the same blue Stonebridge eyes, but a deeper mirroring that had been shaped by the Major’s silences, by the cold withdrawals that had been the only way his father had known to cope with his pain.
Jim felt the jagged edges of the Major’s guilt, all the festering rot from the war. He saw a young French boy, the shelled and smoking village. His father calculating the odds, the naked fear in his face, Obadaiah racing alongside, calling frantically for Henri to stop, turn around, stop, goddammit,
it ain’t safe
His father again, that winter of 1933. The wonder in his face as he held his grandson for the very first time, hugging the baby close.
Obadaiah’s voice lapsed into silence. They sat there, lost in their thoughts as they looked out on to the moonlit orchard.
C’est la guerre
,’ Obadaiah repeated slowly, leaning forward to stub out his cigarette. ‘It was the war, the madness of it. Just the knowin’ though, it wasn’t ’nuff. It wasn’t goin’ to bring the kid back, it wasn’t going to right all the wrongs. Maybe it was our wrong too. The kid, he had no business being there in the first place after all.’
He drew a shaky breath. ‘Afterwards, maybe there been other ways, but I done the only thing I knew. I ain’t never spoken of that day to nobody, not until now, and I ain’t never spoken another word to James. Wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t mine, but it broken us in two all the same, what happened to the kid. The silence, that been our punishment.
‘That shellin’ of the chateau, I gotten caught bad in the blast. Landed me in the hospital for months. James, he sent me letters. I ain’t never opened a single one and I ain’t never replied, and them letters, they stopped. April 1917, America finally entered the war, while I still been recoverin’. When I gotten discharged, I learn that James, he transferred over to one of the Yank regiments newly arrived in France. Me, myself, I stayed on with the Legion.’
He paused, lost in the past. ‘He gone and left a package for me before he left. The first and last time I ever gotten a package, in all the years of the war, and it was from Yankee James. ‘My name written real neat on top, and the whole thing tied with string. In it, I find two things: the rabbit foot gris-gris I once given him for luck, and his journal, the one he always scribblin’ in.’
Obadaiah went to bed at last, but sleep was the furthest thing from Jim’s mind. He sat in the Major’s armchair, the old leather journal in his hands. He held it tenderly, as if the unexpected gift were valu able beyond measure. He ran his thumb over his father’s name again, picturing him bent over it in the cold, waterlogged trenches.
‘Always was scribblin’ in it,’ Obadaiah had said. ‘Said it was for the novel what he was goin’ to write, after the war.’
He never did, thought Jim, not a novel, recalling with a pang all the articles the Major had repeatedly sent to the
. The novel had never come.
He looked at the journal, imagining his father’s face, the set blankness of it as he prepares to leave the Legion. He’s readying a package; in it, the good luck charm that he’d once been gifted. He doesn’t deserve it, is unworthy of any sort of good fortune, not after what happened to Henri. He feels wholly responsible: the boy was under their care. He knew the odds, knew exactly what he should have done, and yet, when it mattered the most, he froze.
Much as it has hurt him, he understands the silence. There is too much that has happened between him and Obadaiah, too much that they have endured. The silence is their penance, lying heavy between them, a gravestone marked with the dead.
He picks up his journal, his constant companion ever since he enroled at the start of the war. Page after page is filled with his writing, a meticulous account, an attempt to remember, through the mindless slaughter, just why he and so many like him signed up, an effort to make sense of the insanity of this war. He holds the journal in his hands, his heart heavy now with knowing.
There is no making sense of any of it. For him, for so many like him, there never will be an ‘after the war’. There is only this: the bottomless hunger of the beast and their obeisance to its roar.
Filled with sudden revulsion, he tosses the journal aside. His eye has been troubling him; it starts to twitch again and he cups a palm over it, willing it to subside. He places the gris-gris in an empty tin of tobacco, then he turns to the journal again. Somewhere deep down, perhaps he isn’t willing to accept that all of this has been in vain. It seems inconceivable to him, the notion, but a minuscule part of him still wants desperately to believe.
Picking up the journal, he slowly places it in the package. He fastens the package with string.
, he writes on the top, addressing it to his friend.
He sits there a long while, holding the package in his hands. A thin rain starts to fall. He sits in silence, listening to the sound of the rain against the corrugated elephant-iron roof. He tries to discern a pattern, make out some sense of order in its staccato beat, a hint of some larger, greater meaning, but there is none. It is only rain. He rises painfully to his feet. There is nothing more to say, nothing more to do but leave.