September 6, 2013 by The Citron Review
by Alan Stewart Carl
After bringing Jane, my mother-in-law, home from the VFW, she led me into what she liked to call her studio. It was really just a sewing closet, so cluttered that there was no place to put my purse. I thought she wanted to show me a quilt she was making for the kids. Instead, on her worktable, there were five swords arranged in the pattern of a star, their hilts affixed to a shield of what looked like tin.
A symbol of courage, she said.
Swords? I said.
She ran a finger along one of the silvered blades and said she had bought them from an online auction. The swords were all that remained from Union officers killed in Civil War battles. Spotsylvania, she said, tapping the blade. Then she pointed at the other four and named Chancellorsville and Cold Harbor and Seven Pines and Cedar Creek. Her husband’s war had included the Tet Offensive, I knew; but I couldn’t name anything else. Few can name anything from my husband’s war, either.
They must have cost a lot, I said.
They’re for Sam.
For when he gets back, she said, the words coming out quick and combative. Sam—my husband, Jane’s son—was on his second deployment and we hadn’t had an email from him or anyone else in fifteen days. I’d almost declined to leave the kids with a babysitter that night. In case a knock came at the door.
Did you know he played General Grant in the fourth grade? Jane said. And in the seventh, he was Eisenhower. You’d think you could find medals for a costume. But not back then. I had to buy scraps of tin and a soldering iron.
I imagined Jane in that workshop, sweating beneath safety goggles. That’s how I got these together, Jane said of the swords. Then she pointed at me and said I was lucky. I had a husband to help me figure that stuff out.
I nodded and looked away, focusing on the nearest shelf with its mason jars of tacks and pipe cleaners. In my bedroom, there was a jar of eagle buttons and rifle balls extracted from fields in Virginia. Sam had purchased a bag of them long ago, but it wasn’t until he’d returned from his first deployment that he’d begun pausing and staring at those corroded bits of metal, his eyes so intense they looked mean. When I’d asked him what he was thinking, all he’d said was: History. The word spoken as if it were a calamity. As if he were angered that everything that happens calcifies behind us. Days piling up with the bodies.
Take a photo, Jane said, backing away from the swords. Show him what we made.
Sure, she said. Tell him the kids helped.
He’ll love seeing it when he gets back to base.
He’s fine, she said, stepping towards me. Her voice sounded threatening but her hands were held in supplication. Palms up. Hoping.
I pulled out my phone and took a picture and attached it to an email. Then I typed a message and told Sam that his mother and our kids had made the display. For you, I wrote. For when you get home.
I hit send and Jane and I stared at the phone, my email account refreshing but nothing new appearing in the inbox. At the VFW that night, they’d had a ceremony to honor the recent death of the last American World War I veteran. In attendance were local widows who had been married to other World War I vets. They had been younger than their husbands, but I couldn’t help but think how easily we accept that particular ordering of life. Who goes. Who remains.
I put the phone into my purse and told Jane I needed to get home and relieve the babysitter. She shook her head as if she thought there was something I could do to change this. But I know she understood. I mean, what else can we do but head forward? Letting it all pile up behind us. Clinging to the courage to answer the door.
Alan Stewart Carl lives in San Antonio, where he writes fiction, poetry, nonfiction and the occasional ad campaign. Once in a while, he updates AlanStewartCarl.com.