Wildflowers: part 7
The day John and Alex went back into the forest was soaked in a steaming heat. However, it was cooler in the dark of the trees. Freed from the harassment of the sun, both men gave themselves over to the burden of silence. Like stones on their shoulders, the silence made crooked their backs and scuffled their feet. All they could do was put one foot in front of the other, neither dreaming, nor reasoning with their stirring thoughts. Their eyes open only to see.
There was an understanding about the two men, knowing that if they got far enough away from the moral lines they judge from, and if an unwilling hand could be steadied, a man could leave the forest alone that day.
Since he was old enough to understand the concept of time, John thought of an hour as a perfect circle. Sixty minutes was an innate feeling of perfection. He never understood it, but walking through the woods that afternoon it was all he could try to understand, as he counted the moments passing. The old veteran, the wounded dog he was, had only once felt this way before, while held in the bloody gaze of war.
Alex was from a place in the world where cities and towns teetered on the top of coal mines. On a clear day’s view, he could see the petrified mouth of a dead mine from his boyhood window. All the young people would gather at the mouth of the mine to feel its cool breath on hot summer days. The older people wouldn’t dare approach it if not to shoe the kids away, because they believed the rumors that so many men died in its caverns.
He could only think of that view from his mother’s window as we watched John stumble ahead of him.
Both men were waiting for an undefined moment in the dark between impulse and instinct, where even ghosts won’t go. Only one of them had to stop and look at the other to know when they’ve arrived at such a place.
On the first day of spring Marla went down to the creek to do her laundry again, and Alex wandered off to find her.
This time he didn’t worry about startling her.
He said, without notice of the day itself.
She said, filling buckets for her clothes.
It’s the first day of spring.
I didn’t know that. It’s a relief to know winter is over.
I started reading that book you left in the kitchen the other day. I hope you don’t mind.
Of course not, do you like it?
Yes, I particularly like the story of the painter who had lost the will to live, so his wife took up painting. She painted nothing but portraits of him dying, and they were so beautiful and honest, and became so well received she surpassed him, succeeding where he had failed.
I know that story. I’ve read it several times.
What’s your favorite?
Maybe that one, or maybe the one about the Princess and the Prince. Have you read it yet?
No, not yet.
May I spoil it?
Yes, I hate surprises.
Marla never looked up from kneading her laundry as she told the story.
…the Prince and Princess had perfect lives, just like the fairy tales. Everything was well thought of up to, but not including the Princes’ right leg.
Why not his right leg?
Are you sure you’d like me to spoil it?
Alex pulled a pack of cigarettes from his inside pocket, and lit one. He didn’t offer Marla any.
Fine, the poor Prince walked with a painful limp from a terrible accident he had as a child, and it broke the Princess’ heart to know that no matter how much she loved her husband, she would never understand his pain. The Princess, wanting to prove her love for him, had one of her maids break her leg, so that she too would walk with a limp for the rest of her life.
Alex took a long thoughtful pull from his cigarette while he watched Marla.
What do you think of that story?
Why do you care?
Because I want to understand you. I just want someone to talk to other than myself. I’m growing mad with boredom.
Marla was growing tired of Alex. He had been making visits with her more frequently, and she felt him inching closer towards indulging his temptations. She decided in that instant to test his intentions, to find out if he really wanted what he was after.
Do you want me to answer that question you asked the last time you found me here?
You asked me if I still loved my husband.
Marla sat down on some nearby rocks.
Do you have a cigarette?
No, we smoked the last pack two weeks ago.
What about the one in your hand?
I can’t give it to you.
Because I’d be breaking a promise to a friend.
Marla picked up a small stick and scratched thoughtlessly in the sand. Alex sat down beside her, draped his arm across her back, and gently pulled her towards him. She was close enough for him to smell her. He thought of the many nights he wondered what that smell might be. He reached his hand to her hair, and felt it slide through his fingers. Through the silk of her hair he found the soft pale skin of her neck, and uncovered it to the sun’s gaze. A small freckle peeked out from behind her silver chain.
She didn’t recognize herself in his touch, one lost to John so long ago. It wasn’t John’s fault, such things get lost in love over time, but they are always missed, those obsessive touches from desperate lovers.
She knew she could have anything she wanted from Alex in that moment, and though she refused to act on it, it was enough to make her smile.
Her grin lasted for only a moment as she stared into her scribbles in the sand. She felt his lips against her neck, and hesitated before standing.
I don’t like how brazen you are with me.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.
Marla straightened herself and picked up her buckets to leave.
I just want a friend. Your husband is no conversation, and talking to myself is getting maddening. I just want to talk to someone about……everything.
We’re all lonely.
Yes, but you get to whisper to someone in the night. I hear you, sometimes I even press my ear against the wall to feel for a moment like you’re talking to me.
I want to say this politely, because I’m not offended by your actions. But I think you need to leave here, and find a better place.
I can’t go back out there. I don’t know what will find me.
She saw a real fear in his eyes, which prompted her to loosen her grip from the buckets.
John recognized the look in Marla’s eyes, one’s own reflection of fear looking back at him. He knew in that instant she was vulnerable.
I haven’t had the chance to tell anyone what happened to me yet. If you’re really going to send me back out into the unknown, where the war will surely find me, at least let me tell my story to one person.
I don’t want to know who you are; just tell me, did you see pain, and suffering, and death?
Did you do things you never imagined doing?
I did things I’m ashamed of, and I did them with hate in my heart. To kill with such hatred is so satisfying it could almost be mistaken for love.
Such is war.
You know nothing of war.
Marla put her buckets down, and reached into Alex’s inside pocket to pull out his cigarettes. She lit herself one, and meandered over to the creek.
I’m sorry for your loneliness. I’m sorry for your pain, and I’m sorry those things led you to believe I could be something for you. If we were in Paris you’d want me no more than any other man stealing glances at me.
That’s not true.
Yes it is. When was the last time you looked someone in the eye that wasn’t me?
I just want a friend.
You have my friendship, but you want more.
And so do you. That’s why you want me to stay.
I want you to stay because you keep us alive.
And why can’t I be more?
Because I decide if you should get more, and want like yours is dangerous in a place like this.
Alex contorted his mouth to hide his welling disappointment. Marla made sure not to look at him as she hoisted her buckets and started up the path.
Love is a burden.
She said to herself.
Sometimes it’s as light as a feather, and sometimes it’s so heavy it could break your back.
John and Alex’s clothes stuck to their sweaty bodies, and their rifles were getting heavy. They had marched through the woods for miles, getting lost briefly, and forced to communicate with each other to find their way back. The sun was just starting to lean back and get comfortable in the west, when they finally stopped.
Alex drank from his canteen with both hands to hide their trembling. John leaned on his rifle and waited.
Did you know your parents, Alex?
Only my mother.
Were you close to her?
No, I didn’t see her much.
Both of my parents raised me. I watched them as I grew from a child into a man. My whole understanding of the world came from my observations of their lives. But I never saw them in pain, or scared, or broken. When I first experienced war, it made me wish I had seen my parents more intimately, so I might have a better understanding of the death around me. But there is nothing they could have done to prepare me for it.
Such is war.
Have you ever killed someone?
You can justify it, but you will never understand it. It’s like a bad dream you could never wake up from.
Alex felt the cold breath of the mine brush against his cheeks, and raised his rifle.
How do you justify this, Alex?
War comes in many forms. No one is spared from its conflicts.
John dropped his rifle to the ground and raised his hands.
I will not run.
The men studied each others features. Alex noticed the scare above John’s eye. John noticed the vacancy in Alex’s eyes.
Why do you let me do this?
Alex said, as John inched closer.
War comes in many forms. It can’t be outrun.
He closed his eyes, and in a breathless silence, carefully squeezed the trigger. He heard John’s body fall before the echo of the gun shot had finished spreading through the forest.
He tilted his head upwards and opened his eyes, in a refusal to look at the body. Its presence was felt sprawled unnaturally on the forest bed. It killed everything within its reach.
Alex turned and stumbled for several yards, then collapsed.
continued in part 8…