By Melinda Williams
“He’ll come home,” my mother said. She nodded her head. She whispered it again. “He’ll come home…”
“He has no choice, Lilly. Too much work to be done for him not to come back. He’s got to.” My father patted mother’s shoulder and went outside to start chopping wood to warm the house. I stopped in the hallway and watched them from the shadows. I already had my bag in my hand. I heard the screen door slam open and slowly creak its way back closed.
“Already got too much to worry about, what with Beth sick in bed most days. Daisy coughing up a storm. And what in the world will we ever do with Emma…” My mother’s voice continued on softly as she started heating the water. It was one of her greatest wishes in life, that my sister Emma would know how to keep a house the way she could. The task was a difficult one. Emma often daydreamed. Sometimes we couldn’t even find her. Only I knew why.
I stepped into the kitchen and tried to step lightly as to not startle her.
My mother turned and saw me when I cleared my throat. “Gabriel. Good morning. I’ve, well, I’ve just now started fixing some coffee. You’ll need some, won’t you…” Almost everything my mother said trailed off in this way. Sentences were rarely finished because the work to be done was never finished. My own tired eyes stung and I blinked.
It was the year 1776 and I’d done what every boy my age wanted to do once they became a man. I turned 18 and signed up. I sure felt like I was still a boy, no matter how grown up it had felt to pick up the pen and write my name down.
I stood in line, nervous, and waited my turn. Once I got up to the front I squared my shoulders, set my jaw and did what was expected of me. In shaky and unclear writing that would have had my mother cringing, I wrote Gabriel Tanner down in black ink. The choice was made. I couldn’t take it back. Not a minute later, right beside mine was the name Ephram Lee, which made me feel better at the time. We would protect one another, I thought, keep each other safe.
“’Bout time you caught up to me,” Ephram said and shook the top of my head with his hand. He was a few weeks older but had waited for my age to catch up with his to do this. We were like brothers.
As we walked away Ephram took off his hat, shook it out, and put it back on over his curly hair. He was always tan, always had longer hair. I kept my light hair short and my skin burned easily. We didn‘t look alike but somehow, growing up, people got us confused. Maybe it was the way we moved or the way we talked. Our words were always very different, though. I watched him while he kept his eyes on the road in front of us.
“I mostly just want to be a hero,” Ephram told me. “Come back here, get some respect.”
“It’s not about us, Ephram,” I felt the need to remind him. He may have been older but his ideals were often far from selfless. “It’s about the country. It’s about being a Patriot.”
“Well, either way, it would be nice to come home a hero. Just think of all that the world would offer us.” We were walking home and he kept pulling at thin tree branches, picking at the bunches of leaves, kicking dried up brush in our path. Ever since we were kids he had a kind of restless energy. His words were animated and his eyes shined with excitement. Once he looked at me I kept mine down on the road in front of us.
“You have to see something awful in order to become a hero, Ephram.”
I knew he wanted to get away from White Plains. I was content with what I called home, whether it be the field or the actual structure of the house my father built. Ephram’s house was smaller and his family was poor. They lived on the same hillside as us but were always wanting. Ephram was an only child. I was the oldest of four. That gave my family six extra helping hands, but also made for three more mouths to feed. I don’t know how or why, but my family never did without a meal. Ephram rarely had all three meals in a day. There were times when I saw the resentment in his eyes. Heard the bitterness in his words.
When I arrived back at the house the day we signed up I could see Emma had been crying. Ephram’s dad stopped him on our way back and already, he was out chopping wood. It was probably a good thing, because if Ephram had walked in by my side Emma would have completely lost it.
“Don’t be sad for me,” I told her. She was only a year younger and we’d grown up together, too.
“I’ll miss you both,” Emma told me before turning way from me and back to the food she was preparing. Her shoulders shook but she controlled her crying. I already knew she would miss Ephram. My entire family would. His parents would miss me, too. He and I truly lived on the field in between our two homes. It was where we played and fought and spent our time growing up.
As I stood in the kitchen and drank my last home brewed coffee I thought of the day before. So much had changed in such a short period of time. My two youngest sisters had held on to me and cried at the thought of me leaving. I’d be gone before they awoke. I woke up this morning to a different life and I knew I wouldn’t be waking up safe in bed again for a long, long time. Before making it to the kitchen I entered their rooms without my boots on and kissed their small foreheads. I would miss them just as much as they would miss me.
My mother sounded eerily calm. “Shall I go wake Emma? She wanted to say goodbye…” At the words, my heart pounded and my palms grew sweaty. I couldn’t face her; my closest sister.
“No.” I shook my head. “Let her sleep.” She needed it.
“Come back home, Gabriel,” my mother told me as we said goodbye. She kept from weeping. She gave me one short embrace and kissed my cheek.
“I’ll come back home.” I was entirely confident in what I said. I was a survivor. I had Tanner blood in me. Every grandparent, aunt and uncle had lived a long healthy life. I’d help win the war and even come home with something to my name, just as Ephram wished for.
Ephram and I were to meet outside by the tallest pine outlining the field. Regardless of coming home a hero, I’d known enough to be certain that the fight we were headed toward was a good one. I’d heard our fathers speak of freedom. I’d never been to England and couldn’t fathom the thought of someone sitting on a throne. I could, however, imagine a home where there was no more fear and anticipation. All we wanted to do was farm in peace and keep what we earned, which wasn’t much to begin with. Still, I couldn’t help but fear. The war I fought in my own head raged on stronger than the one I was about to go join. Ephram was more energetic than I’d ever seen him.
“Remind me again why we only have one son?”
To that, my mother looked over at my father, Ephram Sr., and sighed. The sun had yet to rise. I was in the next room starting the fire to keep the house warm. They must have known I could hear them but it didn’t matter. Our family wasn’t one to take precaution of feelings. We were truthful, even when that meant saying something unpleasant. I remained crouched down, listening intently.
“Because two of them died after they were born. One of them died in me. We should be thankful to have one. Ephram is brave.” She paused and continued through the silence, “He’s strong. He’ll come home.”
“Our record on keeping kids alive isn’t so good, Gale,” he said before going outside for the day’s work. It was the first time I didn’t join him.
I walked the small distance from the fireplace and into the kitchen to stand beside my mother.
“Don’t worry,” I said, touching her back. “This is one kid who won’t die.”
“I can only pray, son.” She said, turning to the pot of oats she’d made for breakfast. I only had a few minutes before walking outside and onto the grass.
Ever since I signed up I smiled even when I knew she’d be looking at me. She wanted me to be sad for this day. My parents didn’t want a son to die in battle. I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear, thinking of how I’d come back and make them proud. I wanted my mother to see me brave. I could save another man, perhaps. Kill fifty redcoats on my own. How hard could it be? No way winning this war would be harder than chopping wood every day since before I could remember, carrying hay across a field, or pulling the weight meant for a horse in the heat of the day.
Though I was glad to be given the opportunity, finally, to prove myself, I was too tired to do much thinking. I’d spent all night with my eyes staring at the ceiling above my bed. My eyes watered not from crying, but with the healing tired eyes must put effort into. Few days ago all I wanted was to prove to everyone in this town I was made of something. I wasn’t afraid.
I just hadn’t planned on having a reason to stay. But I had one now. All my life, and we chose this week. Of all weeks.
When I woke up this morning my older brother was already gone. I thought I’d wake in time to say goodbye. I was angry at my mother for letting me sleep. I was even more angry at Gabriel. How could he? He and I were best friends. We’d spent our entire lives being almost inseparable. I needed to have a chance to speak with him. I wanted to tell him everything before he left. But suddenly it was too late. Time passed and in the moment of blissful ignorance that is dreaming, I lost my chance. Now I could only wait until he returned home, for I would not be able to write a letter that did justice to my thoughts.
“Emma, come help me peel potatoes…”
I was glad to have the interruption. I would need to keep myself busy working. Otherwise I’d be far too busy worrying.
My eyes were glazed over, staring out the window in front of me at the pines out on the field. All my life I’d spent running through those pines. Chasing Gabriel. Gabriel chasing me. Ephram joining in when he could get away from the chores that forever kept him apart from us in more ways than one. Now it was only Gabriel and Ephram…walking away through those same trees while I slept in my bed, safe and sound and dreaming of a different life.
I had only the coat my mother sent with me to keep me warm. I couldn’t help but wish I could go back. Back home. Back in time. I tried and failed to imagine what it was like to sit inside by a warm fire rather than sitting on the ground with frozen fingers. I was surprised how certain memories faded so quickly. I wasn’t sure what colors were on the quilt my mother made me; the one left behind on my bed. There was no longer a definite shape to the rocking chair beside the fireplace in my memory. Even my father sitting on it was but a shadow of what I could once recall. Out here we had no chairs. We rarely had fire. This coat was my only source of warmth. A blanket would be heavenly.
Despite myself, I could only remember growing up with Ephram by my side.
We’d just gotten word that tomorrow morning we may run into the British.
I bit my tongue when Ephram was around. He hardly noticed my chilled silence. He spoke with a smile as if nothing was wrong with the situation we found ourselves in.
“Can’t wait to see how many we can kill. I wonder if it’ll be like my dreams, with them as close as what I imagine. No, maybe they’ll be further… I don’t know.”
I kept my eyes down, unable to accept his smile, and mumbled, “I imagine we’ll find out sooner than we’d like, Ephram.”
He opened the small booklet I noticed him keeping in his breast pocket. Opened and closed it and seconds later sliding it back into its place. The motion was automatic. I’d been noticing the habit for weeks now. I shook my head and rubbed my hands together.
Ephram ignored my comment. Instead he sat back and breathed into his hands.
“Can’t believe that for once I’m actually wishing there was wood to chop!” He laughed. A few men around us looked up. Laughter was rare. Ephram confused everyone with his behavior, including me. I kept waiting for him to tell me the truth. Patience was a virtue and lately, I’d been more virtuous than ever before. And as for the war, I was no longer afraid. Since Ephram and I walked away from our homes my fear had subsided. When another war begins, the other seems non-existent.
I found myself with an excited nervousness at the thought of battle. I imagined the dusk that would make the scene dark and cool with dew. I could already hear the thunder, the cracks of it that sounded with each and every pull of a trigger. I saw the light that would come with each blast. In war, storms came this way, with the thunder and lightning as a simultaneous pair. My war would be a silent one. It would be hidden by the darkness of the morning and the shouts of soldiers fighting on a field.
We marched on through the night, cold and unsure of what lie ahead. Ephram grew quiet. It took him the longest of all the men to realize that his was the only voice to be heard. Hours later and we stopped in a thick patch of trees. We marched on. We stopped again.
It took me a few more miles to realize where we were.
Gabriel and I used to play soldiers. I’d grab the largest stick I could and he would try to find something, anything, to use as a shield. When it was time to trade Gabriel would chose his own weapon and make it something light and sharp. One time he even poked me by accident and it punctured my skin, causing my shirt to stain with blood. The battle wound was impressive. He felt awful.
Occasionally Emma would want to join us. She would put on one of Gabriel’s hats and come to play with both hands out, her fingers in the form of guns.
“I just shot you. You’re dead!” She told me once.
“Girls can’t even play this! I’m not dead, you are.” I shoved her to the ground and she ran home crying. Gabriel didn’t want her hanging around, either, but he did warn me to never push his sister again.
Eventually she stopped playing soldier and started playing nurse. If I fell to the ground, claiming my leg was shot, she’d rush over and pretend to bandage me up. She patted Gabriel’s forehead. Somehow, she got us to lie down on the grass and listen as she sang, which she told us was the only truthful way to play soldiers.
“Soldiers always get hurt,” she said. “They always get sung to, too. Now lie still. Or it’ll hurt more.”
We weren’t older than seven when I was afraid for the first time in my life. We’d allowed hiding in our battle, which was a new thing. I hid so well, Gabriel never found me.
“Ephram!” I heard Gabriel and Emma both shouting off in the distance. Their voices grew softer and I grew more smug because of my cleverness. That was until it grew dark. Then I actually was scared no one would ever find me. I had traveled so far into the woods. I can still remember the panic surging through my body. The gasps of air I breathed in roughly as I cried and cried and walked through the night, sure that I would never make it home. I called their names. Emma and Gabriel. Finally I heard Gabriel in the distance.
“Ephram!” He was calling my name. Once I heard him I didn’t want to yell back. If I did, he might hear the quiver in my voice and know I was crying.
“Ephram!” I could tell which way his voice was coming from. I ran toward it. I saw his lamp in the distance.
“You really hid well,” Gabriel told me once we found each other. I wiped my nose and eyes and still said nothing. I didn’t trust myself. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and thank him for not giving up on me. At the time I felt I would have died, had it not been for Gabriel. We walked toward our houses and there was Emma, too, waiting for us.
“Soldiers can freeze at night,” she told me. “Let me warm you up so you don’t lose any fingers.” Emma grabbed my hand and I didn’t protest. She rubbed my hands in between hers, looking down with intention. “That’ll do. Now don’t get lost again.”
“I wasn’t lost!” I shouted and ran home, leaving Gabriel and Emma in the darkness.
“Come here, kids, come here…”
My mother led my sisters away and I followed behind. They crawled into their bed and I watched from the doorway as my mother tucked them in and pulled the covers up tightly.
Prayer was automatic; a ritual for every night. Daisy and Beth took turns and they never forgot to pray for Gabriel.
Beth, the youngest, began tonight.
“Lord,” she said, “watch over Gabriel. I- I know he’ll do a good job. But even strong soldiers must feel lost sometimes. I wish he were home. God, please let him find his way home, even if it has to take a while. Thank you for his letter. I liked hearing about the pretty sunset he saw. Amen.”
My mother covered her mouth with her hand and I put the back of my head against the door frame, holding back tears. Beth whispered again. “Oh ya! And bless mommy, daddy, Daisy, Emma and me. But especially Gabriel. Amen.” Daisy laughed at hearing her own name and the girls gave kisses and my mother met me at the door.
“Girls, don‘t be afraid if you hear a storm tonight. It‘s just the thunder…”
I wondered how it was so easy for my mother to lie. She had always taught me to tell the truth, but a lie was permissible in this case. She didn‘t have to tell me why.
“We’ll go on down now…it‘s time…”
My mother stood at the front door now and I watched on from the window seat across the room. Hours passed. We waited and waited. It was dark, but morning approached sowly. My father’s boots were soft against the floorboards and the door opened and closed with hardly a whisper. I knew without looking that he had his rifle. I knew he was out on the porch, just in case.
The three of us silently watched what was before us. Down on the field, just behind the trees lining the bottom of the hill, was the war. One of many, many battles. The men were there. No one had fired a shot but they were there, waiting, biding their time. My heart yearned to know if my loved ones were down there, too. Was Gabriel there? Was he alive? And Ephram…the thought of death took my breath from my throat. My forehead pressed against the glass and I closed my eyes. I kept thinking I saw them. Each silhouette looked like Gabriel. Every man was Ephram.
I couldn’t sit there and wonder. My heart raced, but I knew what I had to do. I stood up and covered my face. If my mother noticed me leave, she would only think I was retreating to my room. She would believe that I couldn’t stand watching. The truth was, I couldn’t stand watching from such a far distance. I had on my night dress, which wouldn’t do at all. Not in this cold weather. I walked barefoot to the hall closet and pulled out my father’s long coat. Then I slipped my feet into his boots and grabbed his dark brown hat. I was gone out of the house in moments. Out the back door, around the back yard and shed, and out of sight of my father who was keeping guard. I hid behind each tree I passed, stopped and breathed. I could feel my heart beating in my neck. My fingers were frozen but I kept moving. I kept walking down the hill, thankful that the fresh snow made for soft steps rather than crunchy, as it often is with the morning frost.
I was closer to the field than I had planned. That’s when the thunder and lightning began.
“My home,” I nodded up the hill, through the pines and toward the old wooden house we could barely make out in the distance. Another soldier, Tommy, stood beside me while we waited. He nodded his head in understanding. You see, every man wished he were home. No man wished home to be that close. It was the having it near and not being able to be there that made the longing worse. I knew my family was watching; knew my dad would be on the porch. Knew Emma was most likely alone. I knew that no matter what, my mother was proud.
The first shot fell upon us. I heard the shouting. I felt the men marching toward us. The morning was still dark and dawn was breaking over the field. We were still silhouettes. I could hear my own breathing, almost hear my own heart beat all through my chest and up into my neck. I still had time. I needed the noise and chaos as much as I needed the shadows.
I saw Ephram. He was trying to find me. I knew he’d be making sure I knew where we were. Our homes were just up the hill. We were just in front of mine; his was further down the field.
My neck ached from looking over my shoulder. My small house might be looked over in the night, but I grew up there and knew every tree and every curve of the field. Of course I knew exactly where it was, and we hadn’t reached it yet. Instead we were almost straight in front of Gabriel’s house. I tried to imagine what his family might be doing. What Emma might be doing. I knew my parents would be in bed, unable to move or speak, and still in the silence until the noise of war began. Yet my mother would be lying there, proud with what she knew lay beyond the home. Gabriel’s family would most likely be watching. His mother wouldn’t be able to look away. And Emma…surely, she would be watching, too.
It was still too dark to see the outline of my own small house, but the shadows were coming and with the slowly rising sun I knew I’d see it soon.
Adrenaline began to surge through me when I saw that Ephram was close by. I could see the curve of his shoulders and the way he stood there, observing the area. He was being patient with this battle. He wouldn’t rush into anything. I wanted to run away but I was trapped there with legs that would not move. Eyes that refused to blink.
A mind that would always remember.
An Ephram who took his time with me, too. Why either of us waited, I now wondered. I could hardly believe that the Ephram I grew to know was the same that I grew up with. At one point in time I resented his confidence and proud stance in life. I thought he was too far gone and would never be humble. But I was wrong about him. Ephram turned out to be a strong man; a man who could take care of a woman he loved. Gabriel was always wrong about him, too.
“He’s a great friend, but a no good soldier. He’ll get himself killed with the arrogance he has. I’ll go. I’ll keep him safe.”
“You don’t think he’d even make a good husband?” I asked my brother. At the time I had no thought of Ephram as my husband. I was simply curious.
And now, as I held onto the branch in front of my face and the freezing wind whipped the hair around my neck and across my cheeks, I wished Ephram and I could run away together. The dream of running to him, telling him to come with me, and rubbing his cold hands was too much. I watched with tears that threatened to turn to snowflakes, a man who could be a husband. A man who would be mine, should he return home safely. I shuddered, but not from the shivering in my bones. I shuddered from the way my heart beat watching him. He pulled on his neck, looking up at our homes so often. I wondered if he was thinking about me. I wondered if a small part of him could sense my presence so close.
Then I saw Gabriel.
My first instinct was to save Ephram. I’d been saving him all our lives. I saved him from being lost in the woods. I wanted to save him by coming and joining the Militia with him, knowing that he shouldn’t go without me. He’d get himself killed. Even as a young boy I had the inclination that I would someday save him from a man angered by Ephram loving a girl he shouldn’t. I knew I’d have to. I could see it. What I was blinded to was the man I’d have to save him from. I hadn’t expected it to be myself.
I had my chance, there in the field. In the midst of the first cry of battle and the terror surrounding us.
Because I came across Ephram with her. I heard him kiss Emma. I encountered more than I ever wished to. It was obvious all along wasn’t it? She always warmed his hands up first.
It was the night before we left. Now, so long ago. I heard voices coming from the shed out behind our home. It was my job to kick out anyone who might have stumbled in drunk or homeless. I stood outside the shed, listening to make sure I’d be safe in entering. Then I never did enter.
“You’ll be leaving tomorrow. Why did you have to sign up so soon? Both of you?” I heard my dear sister ask. I almost fell over when I heard the voice which responded.
“It’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s expected. What would people think if I hadn’t-”
“I don’t care what people think.”
“You can’t understand. It’s not as if you and I have the same expectations.”
“You don’t have to be a hero,” she said, parroting what she had heard me say about Ephram so many times. “I just wish that you and my brother hadn’t written your names down at all.”
“I know. But it’s a war. It’s always been a war.”
After a short pause Emma said, “Why did it take you so long to tell me?”
“I didn’t know it. I’m sorry to say it, but I honestly didn’t feel this way until recently. You were the girl we didn’t want playing in our shadows. The pest. Now? Oh, Emma, now you are the only one I want. You are the one I want to live my life for.”
Great, powerful words. The only problem was, I’d heard that before. Ephram had said the same thing to Amy. To Becky. To Carol. Trying to win over my sister in the same fashion was too much.
Ephram continued, “We’ve been able to spend so much time together. It’s all I could have asked for…”
All those times we couldn’t find her.
Emma must have thought his words genuine and unique. For she was speechless. The silence was filled and I was glad I hadn’t found a way to look inside. I didn’t want to see.
“Ephram…” I could hear Emma cry.
“I love you.”
I don’t know if Emma said it in return. She could have said it too softly for me to hear.
Then I did hear what she said.
“It hurts. Ephram… don’t…” She cried out but this time it sounded as if she were in pain. The anger I felt toward them both, but especially Ephram, shot through me and I was rendered helpless. I couldn’t save anyone.
How could he? What he was doing then, and what he‘s doing now…I should be able to defend my sister. But I heard her words, too. She’d been sneaking out to see him. Behind my back, both of them.
When I heard more than I could stand, I wanted to get away, and get away fast. Once I found my legs again I ran. I ran into the woods, trying to get myself as lost as Ephram was when we were so young. I felt like a coward. But that night, walking back toward the house alone, I came up with my plan. I figured I could do something. I could defend my sister the way I was too shocked to do that night.
Now, on the field, my thigh ached from where I was shot weeks ago. I could hide my pain from everyone, even myself. I’d even laughed with Ephram from the morning we left until today, pretending for the greater good of my own personal war, that we were still best friends. Instead of the pain or the memory of that night when I heard his attack on my sister, I kept my mind on other things. But I always kept my eye on Ephram. I knew his habits and the way he was. I knew he’d stay out of this battle for as long as he could. He’d wait and cower until a moment came for him to be the hero like he’d always wanted. Which meant I had to be ready at all times, too.
I found him in the hazy dark morning. I made my way toward him and before I was close, Ephram turned around to find me. His eyes searched and I shouted his name, but there was no way he could hear me. For a long moment I watched him, fumbled through the crowd to get to him, and I saw the look of the boy who was lost in the woods. The muscles in his face were tight with worry, then relaxed as soon as his eyes found mine. We held eye contact for what felt like an entire minute. I shouted his name again, the same moment he shouted mine. Our mouths opened, moved, but the sound didn’t register. I saw dirt fly up in front of him. I saw someone fall out of the corner of my eye. When he looked away it was to turn his gaze toward our home. The realization that he might be thinking of my little sister only gave me more enthusiasm for what I had to do.
Before the battle began a younger soldier with blond hair and an upturned nose looked to me and asked, “What day is it?” He was shaking.
I knew exactly what day it was, for I had been counting the days spent apart from Emma.
“I need to date my letter to my mother. I need to put a date on it. I- I need a pen…” He looked at me, the men and boys surrounding him and each one looked away out of courtesy. I looked away, too. Any man should be given space when a weak moment falls upon him. This boy needed us to look toward something else. I hadn’t seen Gabriel all morning, but I figured he was close enough. I wasn’t worried.
I didn’t think it was possible for time to pass so quickly. Before any of us knew it, we were about to embark upon battle. It was my moment. I could shine. My adrenaline surged. I smiled to myself. I knew I would not be able to stay out of the thick of battle for much longer, which was fine.
Until a man fell beside me. Blood splattered on my cheek and the man grunted as he slumped onto my shoulder before falling onto his face in the grass. I frantically looked for Gabriel again. I couldn’t find him.
“I need a pen,” I could hear someone yell over and over. “I need a pen!” Suddenly the voice was silent. But so many grew louder, making it impossible for me to hear my own shouting. The morning was still too dark to see clearly.
I knew I was still shouting Gabriel’s name, and then I finally saw him. He was making his way toward me. We’d save someone together. I could do that- share my glory with him. As long as Emma knew I’d done something worth being proud of, I’d be okay. I touched my pocket and imagined her face. Gabriel was almost close enough to hear. I turned to look at our home. Men ran past me, someone bumped into me, and I saw a shadow of Emma, there behind a tree. I wanted so badly for it to be her. It wasn’t the first mirage I’d seen in war. I watched for too long. I kept my eyes up the hill.
Then I felt the pain surge through my own stomach. Down, below my rib cage, and at first I thought it to be a bullet. When I looked down I saw the bayonet sticking out the front of me. Watched it pass through me further with wonder. It was sharp and red. Dark red. I choked, and the world moved slowly around me. I looked up to the house again. Again, I imagined Emma sitting at the window looking down and seeing me, too. I was afraid for myself, but also afraid for Gabriel. If they could get me, they could get him. If I couldn’t be a hero, there was no way he could be one.
In an instant I thought of Emma. The last night we spent together. I touched her jaw with my fingers and she kissed me…every part of me. She was delicate. I had to learn, as I was prepared to do with such a girl, someone I truly loved, to be patient and gentle. We held onto one another. We promised marriage.
Emma’s face left my head when I saw Gabriel again. I saw his lips move, but I couldn’t hear a sound. His hand was under my head and the further I fell into him, the further the metal stuck out of my chest.
Then he fell, too. Without Gabriel’s support I landed on my side, eyes closed and hearing the noise grow faint around me. Something strong fell over me and I opened my eyes one last time. There in front of me was Gabriel’s face. His eyes bore right into mine. The hole in his head was the reddest thing on the whole field.
I watched from behind the tree as the battle grew and grew. I saw men fall, I saw blood all around, making the snow red and pink and purple with the thickness of it. I watched as Gabriel, with a look I couldn’t recognize, made his way toward Ephram with his bayonet held in front of him. I knew it was Gabriel, even though I couldn’t make out his face. The morning was still too dark, for not much time had passed. Though it felt like a lifetime.
I will never know if I was truly close enough to hear their words. I may have imagined it out of my own guilt, knowing that I had kept something so important from Gabriel, my best friend and brother.
“You should have left her alone,” he said through gritted teeth.
I watched as he shoved his bayonet into Ephram. Watched Ephram’s shoulder crumble and fall. Watched his feet move, and then grow still in a moment as he fell to his side. I watched as Gabriel held him for a moment, with the tortured look of realization in his eyes.
I watched a Redcoat aim toward Gabriel. I may have called out. Again, I will never know.
I saw the boys die. I stood helpless, unable to be their nurse, the one to help save their lives. I saw my love, my brother and best friend, die. I watched as the man I wanted to marry died as well. I would never speak of what I saw that night.
Both families sat in church. We all wore black.
“Mr. Tanner, I’m so sorry about Gabriel. We loved him.” My father nodded his head and remained silent.
“Mr. Lee, Ephram was quite a boy. Quite a boy.” The man who would never be my father-in-law nodded his head in silence.
“Lilly?” Ephram’s mother asked my mother as she sat beside us both.
I watched as women looked wearily at one another through their black veils made of lace.
“At least they died as heroes.”
My mother agreed. “Yes.”