I was so busy last night, and then couldn’t sleep. if I ever decide to submit this (if I ever get a chance to finish it) I’ll pull it down from here, of course.
But for now, I think I’ll post it up. I’m feeling brave.
Where I’ve Been – Part 2
the firelight danced in her eyes as she mended the edge of a shirt for her father. He had torn it on the woodpile, and since it was a favorite shirt, she was glad to do it for him. Across from her, he sat, fingers pointed together, staring into the fire, lips pursed.
“Dad, what’s bugging you? Is this about Barley coming home?”
Chris Wooler was an imposing man. He was tall, shaggy bearded, and if you were to meet him fresh, you would say he was Paul Bunyan’s twin. But the softness and kindness in his face made you think perhaps he was nothing but a gentle giant. And now, in front of the fire, he simply looked like Father Time, contemplating the vastness of the future, one pop of the coals in the firebed at a time.
“Partly, I guess. He’s been gone ten years, Nes.” He said, then sighed. “perhaps I am overly suspicious, but its very strange.”
Nessa tilted her head and put her mending down. She got up, stepped into the kitchen, and grabbed the kettle to hang. When she returned, she handed her father two chipped tea mugs with some chamomile flowers pressed into the bottom, and a pot of honey. She had been reading his mind again, and he was grateful.
“Set this beside you, I’ll make tea.”
He nodded, and smiled quietly up at his daughter. She was twenty-six this year. Time to find her a husband, he thought, and then let the thought die. There were few men available here, most of her generation’s boys having left their walled town. Barley was the first to return, ten years on from his departure. For some boys it had been well over fifteen and no return had happened. Chris was worried it was a foreboding, but everyone else was jubilant. He just couldn’t shake the awful feeling he got when he had heard Barley identify himself, back at the gates.
“Thank you.” He said, finally, and his daughter patted him on the arm before hanging the kettle on a hook over the fire to boil the water. She was such a good girl, always kind, always helping.
“Mom and Harriet should be home soon.” Nessa said offhand, and picked her mending back up, her straight blonde hair falling in a curtain over he face. She brushed it back with an annoying growl, and Chris was again reminded of passing time, watching her work her tiny stitches into his shirt-tail, just as she had since she was old enough to hold a needle, her tiny fingers growing into long, slender ones, her stitches, crude and lumpy, into even and smooth. The clock on the wall ticked, the fire popped again, and a neighbour’s dog barked. Peace was descending on the Wooler house, and he was glad for it this evening.
He watched his eldest daughter with happiness. Her high cheekbones and cat-like poise belied the warm, rough and tumble girl she really was, and her large blue eyes hid a massive intelligence that Chris sometimes felt was wasted in such a small town. If not for the world, she would have been a doctor, or a researcher, or a nuclear physicist. Often he would tell God just what he thought of the state of things, and how disappointed he was not to be able to show his daughters the world, give them the education and experiences they deserved.
But he reminded himself that safety was here, behind the big timber gates, and that was far more important than being a nuclear physicist, and God perhaps had given him a gift in being able to shelter his family this way. He wondered idly if Nuclear power still even existed, his mind wandering.
As they had since the afternoon, his thoughts revolved back to the Bensons. Maury was beside himself with joy, his son returned to him before his old age had crept too far into his bones. He had wept openly as they arrived back in town, people coming out of their houses and gardens to see who it was had arrived, drawn by Maury’s and Turner’s shouts. Jessica had fled to the stables with their horse as soon as she could, the cacaphony of the crowd too much for her.
Jessica barely knew her brother, but Chris thought perhaps now she might come out of her shell more, part of her family restored. It had been hard on her to lose her mother so young, then her brother, and she had grown up inside herself, preferring to be the onlooker, quietly partaking, but never initiating. Everyone always assumed the boys who left as gone, and hope for their returned would dwindle every year. Chris had talked many nights with Maury about how affected Jessica had been, and the grief Maury had for the outcome in his children’s lives.
But… Barley was back, and likely full of stories about what was happening out there, ready to share his knowledge of the world to better the community. If he stayed. That was what was troubling him. He’d seen the tattoos, and hoped they weren’t some mark of a prison, or worse, initiation rites from a gang he was hoping to evade by hiding here. The Barley he had known was soft-spoken, quiet, and imaginative. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone fight or kill another man, but he was a follower. His Nessa usually in the lead, he reflected.
Chris reminded himself, as he had done many times, that this world did crazy things to people, and the tattoos, wiry muscles, and ratty clothing on his friend’s only son were a testament to it, so he could not think to know the man who stood where the boy once was.
The kettle began to whistle slowly, and Nessa got up and grabbed the oven mitt off the mantel. She carefully lifted the kettle off of the hook, and put it on the hearth to cool for a moment. As she did so, she leveled her eyes at her father.
“Well, Barley will be able to tell us what has happened, won’t he? Maybe it will be safe to send parties out for supplies with his updates on our world. It would be nice to have new cloth, or even find a merchant again. Its been a long time.”
“Perhaps, but let’s not get our hopes up on that, Nes.” He warned her. “We’ll let him tell us at council tomorrow. I intend to have him explain himself. I just can’t help but feel there is more to this homecoming than meets the eye.”
“Oh Dad, give him a couple of days! he’s been gone ten years! Likely he had to really travel hard to get here before snow. Can he not rest first?” She blurted out, her cheeks reddening the moment the words left her lips.
Chris blinked at his normally agreeable daughter’s outburst. Of course she would defend him. Barley had been her best friend when he had left, and it had devastated her. She must be as worried, happy, and curious as the rest of them, even more so, perhaps even a bit angry at hime for suddenly returning. She hadn’t been to see him this evening with her mother and sister, and he assumed it was because she likely preferred to wait and see him once he had rested. .
He ran a hand down his face, and scratched his chin through his beard. Perhaps she was right.
“Yes, you are right. I’ll see what the rest of council thinks. They may be as eager as I to find out why he is home though.”
Nessa shook her head, a look of frustration on her face. “Is it not enough that he is home? Why must the elders be so suspicious of visiters, especially one of our own?”
“Because, Nessa, we must protect our way of life, our safety, and our health.” He replied, reciting verbatim what he always said when the questions were asked. Turthfully, he asked himself the same thing many times.
Nessa sighed dramatically, conceding to her father, and poured hot water into the teacups from the kettle, steam lifting to colour her cheeks once again. The tiny flowers bobbed to the surface of the cup, the water turning a light, refreshing straw colour. Chris swirled them in his cup, the tendrils of colour arcing in a circle, and he sighed.
“I understand, Nessa, truly I do. It is a wonderful thing he is home. But as an Elder, I must do my job first. You understand this, right?”
Nessa pressed her forehead to her father’s, and they smiled at one another. “I do Dad. I do. Thank you. I am just glad he’s home. I’ve missed him.”
Chris nodded and ran a finger down his daughter’s cheek, sensing the unrest in her. Of course she would be nervous and tense, despite the happiness she may have with his return. Often people had said that they thought Nessa and Barley were a match, and marriage had been talked about in adult circles. He had never seen it until he witnessed the reaction Barley’s departure had brought up in his daughter.
That was another aspect to his suspicion, he supposed. That young man had a lot to answer for, breaking his daughter’s heart, as he did.
As she stood up and made her way back to her own seat, the front door creaked open, and the bustle of his wife and youngest daughter entered the house. He turned in unison with Nessa to greet them as they entered the livingroom, and he settled further into his chair to hear their news.
Nessa sat at the big bay window in her room, watching the moon, tears silently coursing down her cheeks, her Bible in one hand, the back of her other wet from rubbing the tears away from her cheeks.
Ten years. Ten years he had been gone. She had watched him step down from the Benson’s big plow horse, the crown of his sandy-blonde hair just visible above her withers, and Nessa’s breath had caught. When Jessica had led the horse on, Barley stood before her.
But yet he didn’t. In his eyes, the sparkle was gone, replaced with hardness, and a scar down one cheek. His father’s massive jacket hung off him, the bare chest peeking out between the lapels rippled, but thin. His clothes were rags held together by sinew, rope, and a silvery substance she couldn’t place. The only thing in good shape was his rucksack. His hawk nose, always slightly crooked, was a jagged peak between his hollowed cheeks.
He had turned, seen her, and had taken one step towards her, his lips forming her name. But that had never reached her ears, as he was swept up into the fanfare, his father jubilantly declaring that God had brought his son home.
Nessa had let them go, and turned back into the kitchen to her baking, her hands shaking, and her insides in turmoil. She did as she always did when upset. She reasoned herself back to calmness, counting in her head, and knew that when the time was right, she would see Barley. But what she would say, or do, was another matter entirely.
Her sister had insisted she go with them that evening, but she had declined, afraid to go, afraid of her reaction in a crowd of visiters sure to be there, hanging on his every word, wanting to know just what the last ten years had been for him.
Her sister’s careful description of him had exhausted her, and after her cup of tea, she had begged off tired, kissed her mother goodnight, took her mending upstairs to her room, and closed the door. She pretended she hadn’t seen her mother’s worried glance, or her sister’s raised eyebrow. Let them wonder.
She had been only sixteen when he had told her he was leaving, the hardness in his young face evidence of the grief he felt over his mother. She had tried to reason with him, begged him not to go, but he had pushed her hands away from his shirt, looked her in the eye and ground out “I have to Nessa. I have to.”
With that, he had walked out of her life, and she had grieved him as if he had died. She had told no one, not even him, how she had felt for Barley, how in love her young heart had been for his soft doe-brown eyes, his mop of sandy-blonde unruly hair, his gangly but muscular arms, his laughter and friendship. She had sketched him not a month before his mother had died, his eyes laughing, a piece of timothy stuck out of his mouth, and it was all she’d had of him for the last ten years. It sat in a frame, buried under her wool socks in her dresser. On cold nights when the moon was high that first winter he was gone, she’d pull it out and think of him, praying he was safe, praying he had found his adventure.
So much emotion had been riding on what had been a ghost, that eventually, Nessa had stopped taking the picture out, had stopped thinking of him, praying for him. He was gone, and she let him go as best she could, letting his memory remain as a fond childhood story.
But here were the wounds, the grief torn fresh. She’d seen him, and her heart reverberated with the feelings she thought long forgotten. The pent up and stored longing had erupted, the pressure bursting through like a fissure in a dam.
She set her Bible down on the ledge, and rubbed her face with both hands. It was time for sleep. She had plenty to do tomorrow, and she was hoping she would get to visit with Barley before he faced the Council. She wanted to see if he really was the young boy she knew, or if the world had changed him into a different man, unknown to her.
And to ask him the question that she wasn’t sure she wanted an answer to, just yet.
Why had he come home?
Barley excused himself from the house after the majority of the guests had gone. He needed some air. After spending some months outdoors, the insides of his father’s house was a bit cloying, and he needed a walk to clear his head.
He knew he was going to be mobbed when he returned, but he hadn’t been prepared for the knowledge that he was the first to actually make it back. It had stunned him to learn that none of the other boys before him, or since, had returned. He’d served with many of them, all wanting someday to go home again, to live normal lives after what they had seen on the outside. They’d joked that it was if they were Amish, and their Rumspringa was at an end but they couldn’t go home. Truly, they’d only ever read about Amish people in the library, the joke being they had no real idea on what it would be like.
That was months before the battles had been over, and there was months of toxic rain, mud, and bioweapons left to endure. Months of agonizing screams, whines of drone ships, and exhausted, endless marching, constantly looking over your shoulder for heat-rounds, and slapping at mosquitos.
As he walked up the gravel street, visions of his childhood swam up in front of him, as they had since he’d rung the bell at the gates. It was hard, being here, and easy, all in the same breath. He’d passed the post office, the pharmacy, the old movie theatre and the grocery with a sense of familiarity that was utterly foreign. Nothing had been the same in ten years, and to have such recognition of his surroundings so quickly made him anxious and jumpy.
He turned the corner and realized he was on Nessa’s street. He stopped at the corner, his boots crunching dried leaves under them, loud in the silent air of early night. He looked down the row of colonial homes, knowing full well how lucky these people were to have solid foundations and windows, food and shelter, and he hung his head. He’d left all this security, seeking the world, and he’d found it. But as he looked back up, and his eye caught a small pinprick of light in the upper window of Nessa’s home, he knew that he’d also left the world behind when he walked out the gates ten years before.
She had been crying so hard when he had come to say goodbye, that she’d been hicupping, her eyes so red and swollen, knees gathered under her chin on the front porch bench, her sister Harriet beside her patting her head and looking worried. Quisita, held as high up as her ten-year-old frame would let her, had told him, her arms crossed and her face brittle with anger that Nessa didn’t want to see him, that he’d best just go. He’d caught her eyes right before he turned from the front gate, and the sadness and emotion swirling in their cornflower blue depths had made him step back, turn, and almost run. It was too soon to feel, and he wanted to just stop feeling, stop caring. He wanted to stop grieving for a mother who would never come home.
But instead of his mother occupying his thoughts in the long months that followed, her eyes had crept into his dreams, and then, the rest of her had followed. Her laugh, her air of authority as she tutored him in his English, the way her hand fit into his when they would run towards the grocery when the strawberry wagon would come in. The feel of her hair tickling his nose when she hung upside down from the big oak tree in her yard, and he stood under her.
The light was her room, he knew it by heart. Was she still awake? He desperately wanted to march down the street, and pitch a pebble towards the glass, anxiously waiting for her face to appear in the pane, her finger to her lips. How many nights had they crept out and watched the stars on the roof of the blacksmith? He’d lost count when he’d tried to remember.
He was so afraid she would simply turn from him, the hurt he’d caused too great to forgive. It stilled his steps as he realized he was halfway to her house, and an inner battle waged. Would she rebuff him? Would she run to him, like he hoped she would? to smell the chamomile in her hair, bask in the beam of her wide smile had been in his dreams for so long, they were part of him now. Even after ten years, her face was still in his mind, crisp and clear as day.
He looked down at his borrowed clothes, his father’s pants hanging from him, the voluminous sweater sagging at his hips. he felt his overly-long hair touch his cheekbones. He was not exactly presentable, was he? He felt like a scarecrow, suddenly brought to animation and set forth with herky-jerky first steps, flapping and much too frail to last. The rich stew shoveled into him at dinner rolled in his stomach, his body not used to such stout fare, and he pulled at the front of the sweater. it would not take long to fill it out again, he knew, but his ribs and his jutting cheekbones were suddenly glaring in his perception.
A pebble rested near the tip of his boot, and he picked it up. The flint sparkled in the moonlight, and he looked up again to the pinprick of light, mere steps away, and he lost the inner battle. He lobbed it up at her window, heard the rattle as it made its mark, and held his breath.