Today is the 11th day of the 11th month. At 11 am I will do what I always do on this day. Close my eyes and remember them. The ones that went away, and the ones that waited for them. This story is for them.
There used to be a field that blew red in the breeze. It greeted her every morning as she rose and pulled apart the lace curtains – the ones that broke the light into a million tiny beacons. They still blew red, but only in her dreams. The pain in her chest was the same colour as the field.
‘Nana,’ she tried to shut out the voices. ‘Nana, we’re all here.’ Lucy was her favourite. Of course you shouldn’t have favourites, and she hoped the others never knew it. But it couldn’t be helped. Lucy had his eyes. Chocolate, deep and warm and syrupy. Those eyes had tormented her from the moment he and his men had arrived in the village.
‘We have to make them leave,’ the town’s council had said. It made no difference. Her future was clear in those chocolate eyes. He’d tried to make her see sense, as he called it. They could never be.
‘Nana, it’s me, Lucy. Nana?’ She loved that girl but good Lord she needed to be quiet. She had to remember something, before it was too late.
What was it? Something he had said to her. The soldiers kept pushing him away. Mama had held her so tight. That surprised her. It did not matter how hard she pushed, then pulled, she couldn’t get Mama to let her go. The soldiers kept pushing him. Pushing him toward the truck.
They loaded all of them in the back. She’d wondered if she’d gone deaf – the silence was so loud. No. As they pushed him into the truck, he’d turned one last time.
‘I’ll be back for you,’ his words bounced across the stony street toward her. ‘I’ll be back.’
Her growing belly brought shame her father yelled. Mama had just raised her eyebrows at him, a smile curling her lips. With that her father was silenced. When her time came close she’d stayed in her room. Watching the field, hoping for just one red bloom. But they were gone, burnt away, as were most of the fields around the village.
‘That will teach you,’ the soldiers had laughed as they lit the fields. She’d watched red burning red from her window. ‘You’re lucky we don’t burn down your house for protecting them.”
Still she stayed in her room. The soldiers must not know. And when the child came she bit down hard, making her lips and tongue bleed so that she would remain silent. They put it about the village that her heart was bad. That made her smile. Her heart was broken, sharp pieces piercing her every waking moment, sometimes even her dreams.
At the same time her heart beat against her ribs every time those syrupy chocolate eyes looked up at her as he latched on to her breast.
‘Do you feel it baby, feel the beating,’ she asked him, smiling. His tiny fists balled up and beat in time with her heart as he pummelled her breast. Each time she felt the milk release and flow into his mouth a small piece of peace flowed back into her and settled inside. Slowly it built a wall she could lean on for support.
The war was over.
The years were full.
The days were long, the nights longer.
The boy was raised to become a man.
The son made her a grandmother, seven times. She wondered if he had no self control. Number seven was Lucy. Lucy with the syrupy warm chocolate eyes.
In time she buried her mother and father. The son buried his wife.
Some days her bones ached after just an hour in the garden. Every year she planted the red blooms.
‘Nana,’ Lucy’s voice was faint and her touch grew lighter as her granddaughter stroked her hand. She opened her eyes. Syrupy warm chocolate eyes stared back at her.
‘I told you,’ the voice was as deep as the eyes in his unlined face, ‘I’d come back for you,’ he said holding out one red poppy to her.
For The Fallen
by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
For more on the history of this poem, and the debate over the word condemn/contemn in stanza four see Ode Of Remembrance.
I hate war – everything about it makes me ill. But sometimes the fight is important. And I thank those brave enough to fight for the rest of us.