We’re set to deploy tomorrow, and for the first time, I’m scared. This is not the first time I have gone to war, but never have I left so tender a child in the arms of so beloved a mother. I know I will not die, but war is frightening enough in itself, leaving aside the specter of one’s personal death. Individual mortality is not the point. To be wounded, to be captured, to see men cut down all around you or languishing in the hospital, despairing of ever returning to normal life: I have seen it all before. Only the technology of death and salvation changes - the motives and outcomes have been the same since the dawn of time.
He put down his pen. While he wanted to tell her of his past failures, his real fears - Perkins in the Revolution, Sullivan in the Civil War, his own experience with shell shock in the Great War - it had been hard enough to get her to believe the truth at all, if she even really did. Perhaps because he got the timing wrong yet again. Twenty wives, four hundred forty-eight courtships and mistresses, none of them had quite believed him at first, or ever.
She walked into his office, trembling at her audacity. “Miss Lily Rae Brown, sir - Lionel Brown’s daughter,” Maggie announced.
The pang in his heart was unlike any he had ever felt - certainly not like his feelings for Maggie’s mother, true though they had been. Perhaps it was because he had never felt such things for a colored woman before, but that did not seem it at all. Poor justification for uncertainty. He went over her part in the case - her testimony - mechanically, only a fraction of his mind alert to the task at hand. He was surprised and gratified to see that she not only accepted but reciprocated his jocular manner after the first meeting. She had not her mother’s wariness of the wealthy white lawyer.
The conclusion of the case satisfactory, Lionel invited him to dine with the family. John tried to avoid making eyes at Lily all night, in the presence of her parents, but she appeared to have the same trouble. When she came to his office late the next day, and closeted in his inner chamber they kissed, it seemed a necessary act, the culmination of years of waiting, though he had known her only a few short weeks. Maggie was unimpressed. “My mother is dead and gone; you can do what you like.” But he thought he detected a whiff of “but with a colored girl!” in her tone.
He started to frequent the nightclubs and theatres of Harlem after that; she would sometimes get away to come downtown and meet at the office, or the Hardwick, or occasionally at one of his restaurants.
“I have a secret,” he told her one late afternoon in his office.
“A secret other than me?” she asked, disbelieving, assuming he was making one of his jokes.
“Maggie is my daughter.”
Lily just laughed at that. “I know better than to listen to you, John.”
“No, it’s true. I married her mother in 1890.”
“And I suppose you know that awful Arab poet personally.”
“Khayyam was Persian, and he died long before I was born. I’m serious. I was born Johannes van der Zee, in Amsterdam. I was a soldier in the colonial days, when Manhattan was taken by the Dutch. I nearly died to prevent an attack on a group of women - one of them was a shaman, who gave me what is turning out to seem like eternal life as a gift for saving her. But when I meet my one true love, I will turn mortal again, have a normal life with her, and finally die happy.”
She looked at him as if he were crazy, kissed him anyway, and agreed to meet him the next day at the Hardwick.
Truth as seduction.
He tore the letter in half and set light to the fragments with a borrowed Zippo. If she was the one, he could die tomorrow. And that he had even written the letter at all shook him to the core - he had doubted what two years ago had seemed so certain, that of course she was the one. Was it absence? Was it the return to the familiar patterns of Army life? Doubt had crept in and he hadn’t even realized it. Was it habit, after all? One who had not feared death for so long perhaps would not fear it now, even if it was imminent. But now he read it as doubt, not forgetfulness, and it could only be doubt now that he had latched onto it.
What to write instead? Details would have to be censored and would be meaningless in any case. The lower ranking officers were even subject to the censor's pen now - the projected deployment was terribly important. But what did military minutia matter to a young mother on the homefront? Omar was two years old, now. How much more of his son’s life would he miss? If the war dragged on, and Lily was not the one, it would be obvious to her, and to her family, once it was over. They were married, but had it been under false pretenses? And yet the possibility she might not take him back burned hotter than his parting from Claire, his abandonment of Theresa, even Bobby’s death. Was it better to live or to die? If he died, the parting would have been meaningless. If he lived, the relationship would have been nothing. No, not nothing. Theresa had been a mistake, a necessity born of the culture of a hundred years ago, when love and happiness were not ingredients in a marriage but the product of years of living side by side. Lily was love, pure and unadulterated. Love in spite of society, love in spite of the law in so many places, love directly from the heart.
He took up a new sheet of paper.
I miss you more than I can say. We may be moving soon, though the generals say this frequently and it has not yet happened. War never changes, really, though waiting in a rainy English spring, well-supplied in official comforts (we officers do rather well when waiting to be deployed), is far better than waiting in the desolate winter of Valley Forge. Unlike my comrades, I do not fear death. If it comes, it will be a blessing on us. I would rather have you and Omar by my side, to grow old with you, watch our son grow up, but if I must die in this war, I will not be sorry, for it will mean that finding you was the best act of my life. But how I hope I can come home to you, uninjured, alive and whole, to find our way together. For I love you unlike any woman I have ever loved - no woman I have ever known has been as brave, as humorous, or as intelligent as you, and none have ever struck me to the heart the moment our eyes locked. I refuse to believe that my true love must love the Rubaiyat as I do - true love must be the interlocking of souls, and how can a perfect copy fit together? Like the pieces of a puzzle, there must be gaps to be filled on both sides, making a perfect whole of two flawed people. There are far more gaps on my side than on yours, and I pray that I will come home so that we can be a real family at last.
I dream of your soft brown skin, your dark eyes, your white teeth laughing at me. How I wish I could reach across the ocean and caress you one last time before we venture out into the unknown. I have been at war too many times before, and no war is quite like its predecessor. Technology unleashes such horrors that man must seem consistently more cruel, while in reality he is simply as trapped in the past as he ever was. We can no more fight the last war again than we can return to a world without telephones and elevators. But though I have been through war so many times before, I will never be used to it, and never have I left something so precious behind me. I pray that you and Omar are doing well, and how I hope I may come home to you.
Not a word of Sullivan. Not a word of the Great War. Not a word of the many ways in which it was possible this hope could not happen. Just love. He put the unsealed envelope in the tray with the others awaiting the censor’s pen. In the end, just another of the many last letters home he had written, none of which proved to be final at all.
Fiction ~ Home