Wednesday, March 9, 2011

2011 R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest -- First Prize in Fiction

The Soldier
by Erika Salmon, Tahlequah

I was four years old and Maggie thirteen when we made the journey together from Paddington Station. It was July of 1940. Since we went to our grandparents’ country estate in Kent nearly a year after the Blitz, from that point on most of my childhood memories are pleasant. Along with the Anderson shelter, the constant worries about air raids were left behind in London, and life settled. We attended the small school a mile from the house. The first few weeks, I woke up every night crying for home and mum. I sniffled into my pillow until Maggie came to comfort me. It was five more years before, in May of 1945, we returned home.

While Maggie and I have had our disagreements, we agree on one thing without a shadow of a doubt: that what changed our lives most during the war was not being evacuated—we were fortunate to stay with our grandparents, not strangers. It was not the air raids. Unlike countless other families, our father came back to a still standing home after the war. It was not the rationing. The farm produced plenty. It was not even living without our parents for a large part of our childhoods. Whatever else from my youth is lost from my memory, I will never forget February 23, 1942, a turning point in my life.

I sat crisscross in the grass, leaning forward with my elbows on the porch. At nine years old, I knew what eavesdropping was. In my opinion, this didn’t qualify at all.

Neil, one of the soldiers camping in my Gran’s sitting room, sat quietly beside my sister. Maggie’s wool sweater was caught on the splintery back of the bench. My legs itched. The grass poked my legs between my darned socks and skirt. I tried not to scratch.

“Maggie?” said Neil.

I looked up at the back of Neil’s head.

“There’s something I’ve got to show you.” I tried to picture his expression.

I thought Maggie wasn’t going to answer, she was quiet for so long. Then she spoke softly.

“It’s the pictures, isn’t it?” Maggie asked.

I looked up again and saw him nod. I heard the crinkle of paper.

“It might frighten you,” Neil paused, “but it’s true.”

Maggie swallowed.

“These and who knows how many other people lived it, or are living it.”

I heard a shaky breath from Maggie. Who’s living what?

Neil leaned back, and the bench creaked. “It’s all a hundred time worse than anything I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “I thought being a medic, I’d seen everything.”

“This morning,” there was a small catch in Maggie’s voice, “we stopped by the news agent as usual. I picked up that copy,” she pointed at the rolled up magazine in his hand. “Gran picked one up too, and before I’d turned the front page, she told me to put it down. It’s the article, and the pictures. I just know it.” She sniffed.

Neil pulled a small scarf from his army blouse pocket and put it in Maggie’s hand. “Thank you.” Her nose was slightly stopped up, so it sounded more like, “Dankyoo.” She blew her nose. “I hear talk here and there at the green grocer’s and from some of the older girls at work, but never from my mum or my aunt in their letters. Gran never talks about it. Nor does Granddad, especially because of Frances, I think.”

Me? What didn’t Granddad want me to know?

“Your family cares so much,” Neil sighed, “but I don’t think you can live in this era not knowing what a few people’s hatred is doing to millions. When I saw these photographs and read the article, I realized what happens when people become proud, and when they start to see others as inferior. This is what people are capable of.” He shook the magazine lightly.

Capable of what?

“Men like Hitler and Mussolini,” Neil said, “let those ideas grow and grow.

A breeze cut through the yard, and I tugged my jumper closer.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. These pictures left me speechless,” Neil unrolled the magazine.

Maggie gripped the scarf so tight her knuckles whitened. “I should...I should know. I’m old enough.” I stretched my neck and caught a glance before Maggie leaned to look and blocked my view. It was an issue of LIFE magazine with a picture of soldiers marching across the cover.

Again I was tempted to come out of hiding, so I could see what all this was about. If Maggie was old enough, so was I. I started to get up, when Maggie took in a sharp breath and turned her head away. I froze. She turned to look again, covering her mouth with one hand and squinting. Like what I did when I watched Grandad clean a fish but was afraid to look. Maggie shook her head and gave a muffled moan. She turned away with her hand still clamped over her mouth and whimpered, shaking her head.

I sank down. Maybe I didn’t want to see it anymore.

“Ay, Maggie,” Neil said softly. He tucked away the magazine and put an arm around Maggie’s small, trembling shoulders. “Ay.”

I curled up small so he wouldn’t see me, but he wasn’t looking where I was. I leaned my head against the porch and watched them from below.

Maggie was still shaking, so he put his other arm around too. She pressed her face into his sleeve the way I cried on Gran’s shoulder. I didn’t know what had upset her. I hoped Neil would fix it. But he didn’t say it would be all right.

I watched a cloud disappear over the house, listening to the quiet.

“Bad isn’t it?” Neil asked.

“I won’t be able to get those pictures out of my mind. Just looking at them is undignified. I-I don’t want to believe it’s real.”

“Some don’t.”

Sloshing water and the clink of Gran’s blue willow china rang through the kitchen window. That was the only sound for a while. I pulled my knees up to my chest and waited. An engine rumbled to life in the front lawn. It must’ve been one of the army jeeps.

“I guess things like this are why my lot are in this war.”

“You’re all so brave.” Maggie’s voice, though quiet, had lost its shakiness.

Neil took his beret from the bench and hung it on his knee. “To give one person his life back, someone else has to risk his. You leave a life behind, a family behind. Everybody does in war.”

I nudged the fallen nut with my shoeless toe as I thought about it. The nut traveled in circles in front of me.

Maggie breathed deeply, “Who did you leave behind?”

“Friends, though I’ve made new ones. Parents. You can’t get new parents.”

I thought about Mum and Aunt. Of course I remembered them. Yet lately they seemed more like the mum and aunt of a friend or from a story, not my own family.

“Do you ever wonder what you’d be doing if you weren’t fighting in the war?”

“Oh, I’d still be working on my mum and dad’s farm in Somerset.”

I’d never been to Somerset.

“They must miss you. How long’s it been since you’ve seen your mum and dad?”

My dad’d tucked me in before he left. That night was so far back in the past.

“Nearly…two years,” Neil said.

“They must be proud. It’s silly,” Maggie chuckled, “but sometimes I ask myself if I would go or stay if I were asked to join. My parents sent me as far from it as they could.”

I tried to imagine Maggie in Dad’s uniform.

“Actually, they weren’t so keen on me going,” Neil fidgeted. “They would’ve kept me home till I was eighteen if I…um, hadn’t...”

“Hadn’t what?”

I held my breath.

Maggie sounded puzzled. “Hang on. I thought minimum age is eighteen.”

I considered leaving, but even the giant crunch of leaves underfoot in my imagination were too loud. Besides, there was a large window looking out from the parlor where the soldiers were staying, and someone would tell.

“I lied. To the recruiters, about my age. And to my parents, about minimum age,” he sighed.

Maggie looked at him. He moved his beret to his other knee. Suddenly, his uniform was too wrinkly for his taste, and he patted out the creases and straightened his collar.

“How old were you?” Maggie smiled a little.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he hunched down, and I had to strain to catch his words, “but legally, I couldn’t have signed up until this past June.”

They stared at each other for a long time. Then Maggie fell back and let out a breath through pursed lips. Neil put a finger to his lips.

“I’m ashamed about lying,” he sighed and leaned forward, elbows on his spread knees, “but I’m not sorry to be here. I’m these blokes’ only medical help, and I have been for a while.”

“Sixteen and in the army. Had you any medical schooling before you joined?”

Neil curved his fingers and thumb in a zero. “Little, aside from helping my dad, who’s a veterinarian. I joined as a stretcher-bearer but sort of had to pick up the medic job.”

Maggie sighed, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know. But I’m glad to be here now.”

“Now I’m not sure if that was really brave or really stupid.” She propped her elbow on the seat back and leaned her face on her fist. “Two years too young with no training. Pretty brave and really stupid.”

“Oy, cheers,” Neil said. “I get the hint.” He stood, boots echoing in the porch. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Goodbye.”

I caught myself before I laughed.

Maggie sat up. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that.”

I rolled my eyes. She always took a while to catch on.

“Oh, it’s all right. You can admit it’s a bother having me here.” He was grinning as he turned to go.

“Wait!” Maggie grabbed his coat sleeve. “Believe me, Neil.” She shook his arm. “I don’t want you to leave. Don’t.”

Neil bent to pick up his fallen hat, and when he looked up at her wrinkled brows and the tear track down her cheek, he sank down to eye level with her. I think all three of us forgot to breathe.

It is then that my sister’s and my version of the story diverge. According to her, I ruined a moment by gasping. Of course, I did no such thing. But from that point on, our views cannot be reconciled. At seven years of age, I had my own idea of what Maggie and Neil’s future would be. If things had gone my way, Neil never would have left. At the very least, they would have reunited after the war and married. I didn’t mind the thought of being an aunt soon after that.

Although they never married each other or anyone else, I knew from the ever-increasing tower of letters and the always stocked folder of pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes in my sister’s room that there was no one either cared more for. Maggie sometimes received two letters a week from him when the postal system was up and running properly again. We both cried when Neil left to go back to Somerset after the war. He told the truth to his parents, at last, and rather belatedly asked their forgiveness. He worked on the farm a year until his parents moved to a suburb of London. Then he went on to be a horse doctor and a part-time traffic conductor there, so he could be near his mother, who had as great a claim on him as my sister. Maggie and I were reunited to our own parents though neither of us lived near them. Maggie traveled Europe, devoting her life to caring for survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Though a picture may not procure a thousand words, it can inspire a life’s work.

As for me, it is a longstanding joke within our family that, because I couldn’t stand the part about Maggie not marrying a soldier, I did it instead. On my twenty-first birthday, I had my wedding in my Gran and Grandad’s Kent country estate I remember so well. My mother and aunt both cried when my father, home safe from the war, gave me in marriage to a veteran soldier, a paratrooper whose gentleness outweighed his soldier’s build and matched his quiet deep voice. He often told me how much it meant to him that I understood the human capacity for evil and the soldier’s conviction to fight against it. I cannot take the credit for knowing that one person’s freedom is purchased by another’s freedom, or even life. It is to an underage, untrained medic whose story I should not have heard that I owe my thanks.


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