The man was laid out, well scrubbed, in a faded, worn uniform. He had the sad fate of being an unknown – a soldier found without any type of identification. Unconscious and with a body full of shrapnel, he stayed in a battle site hospital over-night, only to die the next morning. Like all soldiers, he was given a plain burial – a preacher to say a few words and white cross to mark his resting spot. He had no coffin – only a grim tomb of crushing earth.
There were only three there in attendance – a preacher, a nurse, and a soldier. All of them had bowed heads, their demeanors steady and quiet. Their minds, however, were far from silent.
He looks so peaceful, Luciene reflected. He reminds me so much of Etienne…he has that same sad smile. Etienne…Mon Dieu, I hope you're all right.
The unblemished happiness of Luciene's youth was gone. The horrors of war had blistered her heart, and it had yet to callous. Somehow, though, she managed to put on a brave face, for the sake of the cause, her family, and Etienne.
Luciene twisted the slim band on her finger – a cheap engagement ring that Etienne bought her in haste.
Wait until this is over, 'Ciene,he promised. We'll have a little house, with chickens and a garden.
The promise was so hope-filled, so golden three years ago, when Etienne left. Now, six months after his capture, Luciene was beginning to lose hope. How long could he stay a prisoner before they decided enough was enough?
Etienne, what are those Germans doing to you? Probably torturing, beating, and starving you, all because they can. Etienne, if only you could return to me. If only this war would stop. If only everything would go away. Just you and me, back home. I can't stand this war much longer, Etienne. It's killed off everyone we know – two of my brothers, your brother Raoul, some of our best friends…
Come back to me, Etienne.
Luciene struggled to keep her tears down as the preacher continued with the rites.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…" the Reverend Blakely droned on. Truth be told, his heart wasn't in it today. The sight of the young man, just barely in his twenties, reminded him too much of his son. The youth had a tall, just – finished frame, a sign of newly accomplished adulthood. Just like Donny.
The Reverend, though middle aged, was prematurely gray, the war taking its toll on him. The lines on his face revealed all of his experiences – his staid, boarding school childhood, his widowhood, and the worrisome nights of the past three years.
I only pray that I never have to see Donny like this, the Reverend sighed inwardly. Of course, if he waited, we would have avoided this altogether. The follies of our youth will catch up to us in the end.
The Reverend had convinced himself that it was no use trying to get his son back. The second England declared war three years ago, Donny bolted to the draft offices, determined to be the first in line. However, there was a hitch – Donny was only seventeen, still a year too young to serve.
It's only a year, Father. I'm as good as grown up now, Donny persisted.
A lot can happen in a year – the war could end by then and we could avoid this troublesome mess.The Reverend countered. Wouldn't you rather that, than die an early death that could have been avoided?
I'd rather die a short, adventure-filled life than live a long, boring one…like you.
What I do is for God, Donny. What you are doing is heathenish – fighting some war because you think it'll be fun.
Heathenish – always belittling me, aren't you?
That's not what I meant –
No? It sure did sound like it.
Donny, you're blowing what I said out of proportion –
I am? Father, you're making this a bigger deal than it needs to be –
And you're deriding it! You're illegally joining the army, being sent over inland to fight God knows what –
I turn eighteen in eight months, Father. As far as I'm concerned, I'm as good as an adult. I'm leaving for training on Friday; there's no more to discuss.
There's everything to discuss, Donny, the Reverend sighed as he closed the book of Rites. My only child…my son…my only reminder of Helen. I can't keep this silence anymore, he broke down. Somewhere, he might be in the same position as this soldier. What type of father am I to disown my son at a time like this?
The Reverend quickly brushed away the tears collecting at the corner of his eyes.
I wish we could have done this for Louie, Ned swallowed as he grasped the moist soil in his hand. The soldier was only a couple years younger than Louie, his face line-free and carefree, like a child's. Louie, though, had already begun to show signs of early age when he died-some gray curls, a few lines gently racing across his forehead, a slight stoop to his once high-held shoulders.
It had been only a few weeks since Louie, Ned's twin brother, died; only a few months after America had finally joined the war. They were both twenty-two, fresh out of college and in need of work. Ned was eager to sign up, but Louie had to be coerced.
You're the brave one, Ned. I'm just the thinker, always dreaming and never doing, Louie would always say.
If only I had never pushed you into battle, Louie. Maybe this would have ended differently – why was I so insistent that it was going to be what you dreamed of? Knights in armor, soldiers fighting valiantly, chivalry alive once again. How childish of me…how childish of both of us to believe such things. Those things are left in the past – we can't get them back. They'll stay there, rooted in history.
How naïve we all were, Louie. And because of that, you're dead… God, Louie, why did I do that? Why did I have to be so stupid as to rope you into the war when you weren't ready? That day in the woods….I should have been more careful, should have watched over you, told you to be aware of surprise attacks…. It's all my fault, Louie. I'm sorry. How could you ever forgive me?
Ned emitted a soft sob as he began to shovel dirt on the body.
The sky was a pewter gray, mournful but without tears. The three attendants quickly and quietly buried the soldier. He rested in a French field, under a tree with bowing branches. But as the last of the dirt was packed down, the nurse knelt on the moist ground, palmed a sharp rock, and scratched into the marker, Etienne.
"Etienne? But the soldier was American, Miss," the Reverend said.
"I know – but 'e must 'ave a name – so 'e will be rememberred," the nurse replied, in a thick French accent.
The two men stood, gazing at the somber woman for a moment, before the soldier knelt beside her and silently took the rock from her. In jagged letters, he wrote Louis beside the first name.
"I think he deserves a middle name," the soldier quietly added. "It's only proper."
The nurse smiled, tears staining her pale cheeks. The Reverend lowered his eyes and pursed his lips, before following suite and adding Donald Blakely to the cross.
"There," the Reverend finished. "He has a nice, proper grave now."
They knelt in silence for a while, gazing at the cramped, varied names. Three different names for three different pains.
The sky opened up and began to join the three mourners in weeping. As the sky's crying grew more intense, they snatched up their belongings and bade farewell to Etienne Louis Donald Blakely.