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The Letter

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Dear Mrs. Marguerite Blake,

     I am writing to inform you of how your son died

     Will paused, staring at his cramped writing.  It didn't sound right.  Too heartless.

     He scratched out the first line and tried again.

Dear Mrs. Marguerite Blake,

     I am writing to inform you of how your son died   I am Lance Corporal William Schofield, and I served with your son, Tom, for many months.  It is for him that I am writing to tell you about his untimely passing

     No.  That wasn't right either. He couldn't just tell her that in the first paragraph, could he?

     He scratched that out, too.

Dear Mrs. Marguerite Blake,

     I am writing to inform you about how your son died  I am Lance Corporal William Schofield, and I served with your son, Tom, for many months.  It is for him that I am writing to tell you about his untimely passing  My name is William Schofield.  I am writing to you on behalf of one I love

     Will pursed his lips.  Too direct.

     He crossed it out.  He went to try again, but as he stared down at the paper, he realized the whole first paragraph was just a blotted out mess.

     He sighed.  He crumpled the paper up and tossed it into the small waste basket beside his desk.  He opened a drawer and grabbed another sheet.  The crinkling of paper filled the otherwise silent room and echoed around the otherwise empty house.

     His sister had taken the girls out for the day.  Will was grateful.  He suspected she knew he needed peace and quiet for several hours.  Knew there was something he needed to do that they just wouldn't understand.

     He started once again.

Dear Mrs. Marguerite Blake,

     I write to you at the behest of your son, Thomas, a friend of mine, who asked me to pass on a message for him.  

     Yes, that sounded better.  Not perfect, but better.

I think I am correct in assuming that you have already received news of Tom's passing from the Army, and received his medal.  It was in saving me that he earned it, and I owe you an explanation, both for how Tom received it and why he died.  I also owe you an apology for writing this so late; part of it was a few incapacitating injuries, but if I am forced to be honest, it was mostly me stalling putting what I can remember into words.  I have not told anyone the full story of what happened to Tom, and I do not know how to, although I will do my best.  There are some things I feel I must explain so I can truly relay his message to you.  I am sorry if my explanation is a little long.

     The first paragraph came to him once he got the first sentence.  He tried not to stop.  He was afraid that if he stopped he wouldn't know how to start again.

     I suppose I should start with myself; my name is William Schofield.  It is quite possible that Tom mentioned me in one of his letters.  If not, it is understandable.  We were not exactly close friends for much of the time we served together.  I am not exactly the sociable type - and Tom was nothing if not talkative - and we did not always see eye to eye.  But you should know that of all the other men in our regiment, it was Tom whom I found myself talking to the most.  We would eat our meals together, walk together, work together, live together.  And although I would not call us good friends, we were about as close as two people so unalike in personality could reasonably be expected to become during a war.
     I am not overly fond of reminiscing of home or recalling stories from before the war, but Tom always talked more than enough for the both of us.  Not a day would go by without him telling me about some fond memory he had of him and Joseph, or some story from his childhood involving Myrtle that ended with both of them out in the dirt.  I admit I lived somewhat vicariously through his stories; his love for you and Joseph so palpable it made me long for my own family.  I do not mean that in a negative way, but rather as a tribute to his personality.  Getting even me to laugh takes a truly extraordinary character, which Tom was - more than anyone I know.
     I found myself caring for him not just as a fellow soldier, but as one would a younger brother.

     That was a lie.  He and Tom had loved each other far more than just brothers would.  But he couldn't tell her that.

     Will took a breath.  Closed his eyes for a beat.

     It hurt.  It hurt to be talking about him like this.

     Tom was selected for a mission by our Sergeant at the request of General Erinmore.  He chose me to accompany him, both of us assuming at the time that we were being sent to collect food or fetch supplies from back up the line.  What we were actually tasked with was much different.

     Will swallowed.  It didn't feel right to be putting it into words, but he couldn't stop.  He had promised Tom.

     The Germans along our stretch of the Western Front had withdrawn to a more stronger, fortified line several miles behind the previous front line.  It was strategic; not only that, but they had cut our telegraph lines, and we were incapable of contacting the Devonshire regiment.  The Devons did not realize it was strategic, and assumed that they had the Germans on the run, when in fact they were walking into a trap.  Top Brass had no way of communicating this information to them.  So they came to the Eighth, looking for someone to act as a signalman and deliver a message to call off the attack, which was to take place at dawn the next day.  Tom was an easy pick; his older brother was in the Devons, he was young, he was determined, and he could not be deterred because of the horrors of war, not having seen them yet.  I just happened to be the one he chose to tag along with him.
     And so the two of us were sent with instructions to deliver a letter to Colonel Mackenzie of the Second over large stretches of no-man's-land and enemy territory.  At first I tried to convince him to wait until nightfall, but he could not be swayed.  He was determined to get to his brother.

     We should have waited, Will thinks bitterly, Tom would still be here if we had waited.

     But he was always the more persuasive and confident of the two of us, and so I followed his lead, albeit reluctantly.

     Will paused.  Did that sound like he was blaming Tom?  That isn't how he wanted to come off.  If anything, he blamed himself for not putting his foot down and insisting they wait.

     He scratched it out.  Hopefully Mrs. Blake wouldn't think too much on it.

     But he was always the more persuasive and confident of the two of us, and so I followed his lead, albeit reluctantly.  Nothing much happened until we reached the old German line.  It was completely abandoned.  And not just abandoned; the Germans had purposefully destroyed parts of the trenches so the only remaining path out was through an underground dug-out that connected to a mineshaft.
     We made it fairly far in before everything went wrong.

     Too dramatic.

     We made it fairly far in before everything went wrong.  We did not stop to wonder if that single path would have problems of its own.  But of course it did.  There was a tripwire in one of the rooms, and we startled a rat into running into it.  The whole dug-out collapsed on us; on me, especially.
     Tom saved my life.  I was buried beneath several feet of rubble, and he dug me out, even as the dug-out started caving in.  He pulled me to my feet and led me out when I was blinded by the dust and on the verge of death.  He did not do it because it was heroic.  He did not do it because he thought it was the right thing to do.  He did it because he could not leave someone to die alone when he could do something.  I suppose that is the best way I can describe him.  Tom was a man who could not leave someone behind if he had a choice.  He was overwhelmingly loyal.  In that regard, he was a better man than me.

     He frowned.

In that regard, He was a better man than me.
     After the German line, we continued and stumbled upon an old farmhouse that had been abandoned rather recently.  Not far away, there was a dogfight between two British planes and a German plane.  The German plane got shot down, and crashed into the barn, catching fire.  The pilot was still alive.  Tom, being as compassionate as always, helped him out of the cockpit.  I suggested we kill him to end his pain, but Tom insisted we give him water and aid.  The pilot was not entirely lucid; I do not think he realized we were trying to help him.
     War...is not clear.  You would think that there are definite enemies and allies, but there are not.  Everyone looks so similar that it is nigh on impossible to tell who is on what side.  But what makes it so horrible is not the fact that you are forced to hurt others for a cause you have no stake in nor understanding of.  The worst thing about war is every single soldier has a life.  Every single man out there in the trenches just wants to go home.  They are not there because they think they are going to be hailed as heroes and saviors of their country.  Many of them are so young that they do not realize what they are fighting for.  All they know is that their country has told them it is an honorable thing to do.  Not one soldier on the German or British side wants to keep fighting.  I do not want to keep fighting.  I have seen it in the eyes of my fellow soldiers.  I have seen it in the eyes of those I have killed.  But I must keep fighting, because I am told to.
     And I hate it.  We all do.
     Tom was naive.  He was young.  He had not killed anyone yet.  He was compassionate and did not want to fight any more than I or any other man, but he had not seen how the command to keep fighting was so instilled into those hardened by war that it could transcend compassion.  I left him alone for thirty seconds, and I should have known better.  I should have been there to protect him.

     Will was shaking.  His penmanship was growing sloppier.

     If you truly wish to know how Tom passed, then I will recount it to you as I remember it.  But if you do not think your heart can bear such knowledge, as mine barely can, you can skip reading the next paragraph.  I will not mention the details of it anywhere else.

     His heart clenched in his chest.

I am sorry if it is too blunt.  I cannot get myself to phrase it any other way, such is the curse of war.

     It sounded like an excuse.

I am sorry if it is too blunt.  I cannot get myself to phrase it any other way, such is the curse of war.  I know my words are not eloquent.  I cannot make sense of much of what happened, and my writing is not much better, and for that I am truly sorry.
     
     He couldn't start describing it just yet.  He...he needed to explain more.

     He was stalling and he knew it.

There is no correct way to write about the death of someone.  I only hope my recollection brings you peace rather than more pain.  You do not have to read this.  But I feel I must at least write it.  I do not want Tom to be forgotten.

     Will felt cold.  Like he did in the river.

     I went to get water from the pump.  Tom stayed with the pilot.  It was not thirty feet away, and I had only just finished filling my helmet when I heard him scream.

     He clenched his jaw.  He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.

I turned and saw Tom staggering back, clutching his stomach.  The pilot had stabbed him.  I immediately shot him, and ran to Tom.  He collapsed.  At first, I was hopeful that he could regain his feet and we could limp to the nearest aid post.  But the wound was too deep.  I tried to force him to his feet, but it hurt him too much.  I tried to carry him, but I was too weak, too tired.  I tried to drag him, but it only caused him more pain.

     He bit his lip to stop it from quivering too much.  He blinked the dampness in his eyes away fiercely.

He was losing a lot of blood.  I couldn't stem the flow.  He was slipping in and out of lucidity.  He wasn't thinking clearly and he was too tired to try.  He told me he would catch up, and that he just needed a break.  I tried to get him to remember his brother, and the mission, but he was growing weaker.  He did not remember getting stabbed, and he was failing to remember where he was.  He was in pain, but I think he was barely aware of it.  He went into shock.  I think he knew he was not going to make it from the moment I failed to carry him.  He asked me if he was dying.

     Will felt a tear trickle down his cheek.  He hastily wiped it away.  More came.

I told him he was.  He did not seem terribly upset.  Just sad.

     Will gasped.  He was crying.  His hands were shaking so badly.  His handwriting was barely legible.

     He couldn't stop writing.  He had to keep going.

He wanted me to take the picture of him and you and Joseph out of his wallet, and I did, and he held it to his chest.  He asked that I write to you.  He wanted me to tell you that he was not in any pain, and that he loved you both very much.

    That wasn't all that he had said.  Will felt his blood run cold at the memory of Tom chanting I love you, I love, you, I'm so sorry over and over again, his bloody fingers intertwining with his one last time, cold and slick.

There was something else he wanted to say, but he could not get himself to say it through the pain and the shock and the numbness.

     Will stared at the last line through blurred eyes.  It was too cruel to say that, surely.  But it was true.  He had promised Tom, and he needed to write the truth down somewhere so that it would never be forgotten.

     He kept it in and continued writing, even as his tears fell onto the paper and he choked back his sobs and his heart ached and he dearly wished for this pain, this torture to be over.

He told me to finish the mission, to save his brother.  He told me to look for Joseph when I got there; just like him, a little bit older.  He begged me to tell him I knew the way.  I told him I did.  He passed peacefully with his head in my arms, knowing that I would continue on.

     He should take a break.  He should put the pen down and stop crying and cursing himself for his own stupidity and Tom's death and the deaths of all of those who died before he could get to the Second whose names he would never know, but he couldn't.  He would never be able to pick it back up again.

     I did not leave his side.  I was with him until his last breath.  I took his rings and dog tag and left him by the pond at the farmhouse.  I could did not give him a proper burial.  I wanted to, so badly, but I did not think I had the time.  I did not think I would finish the mission if I stayed for much longer, even though it would have barely taken any time at all and I should have buried him and I am so, so sorry.  I had to save Joseph and the rest of the Devons.  I had to fulfill Tom's last wish, the wish he had died for.
     I would not have completed it without him.  If it had been just me, I would not have made it.  If it had been anybody else other than Tom, I would not have cared enough.  But it was Tom.  I got to the Devons and delivered the message and the attack was called off.  Sixteen-hundred men saved from certain death.  I went and found Joseph.  I told him about Tom and gave him his rings and tag.
     For whatever it is worth, I want you to know that Tom did not die for nothing.  His death was not senseless and was not just another one among millions.

     That wasn't true.  Any death in a war was a senseless one, and Tom's was the most senseless of them all.  How could he even say that, when he knew that every time he had ever killed someone it was for no reason?  It was another excuse.

     Will was disgusted with himself.

     For whatever it is worth, I want you to know that Tom did not die for nothing.  His death was not senseless and was not just another death among millions.  He was too young.  He did not understand.  At times I wish I was the one who died.  I certainly deserve it more after the things I have done.  It is in the nature of war to be cruel and pointless and unfair.  Many who die deserve life, and many who live deserve death.
     I want to make it very clear that I do not blame Tom or anybody else for his death.  The blame lies solely with me. for which my regret is undying.  It is not Tom's fault that he could be so kind and caring and light-hearted in a war zone.  Indeed, such should be seen as a great strength.  But kindness will be taken advantage of, no matter how admirable it is.  I had a moral obligation, as the older and more experienced man, to make sure he knew that kindness would get him nowhere, and to make sure his naivety did not get the best of him.  I failed.  Know that there is no one more ashamed of this than myself.  I know that the excuse of "for the greater good" is pointless.  No one should have to die to save someone else.  One life can not be traded for another, no matter how many people that sacrifice saves.  I do not regret the fact that I saved those sixteen-hundred men.  But I do regret that Tom died for something that no one should have had to.
     I know that my words will never do him justice.  All I can offer you is the knowledge that Tom was beloved by many, in the hopes it will put your mind and soul at ease.
     I remember Tom fondly.  He had a pure, unadulterated love for all the good things in life.  He cracked jokes in the face of the most horrendous things a man can ever bear witness to.  He could bring a smile to anyone's face.  His love for you and Joseph was so strong it gave him the strength to go to the very limits of his capabilities and still push onwards.  That was who he was.  A man who did all the good he could in all the ways he could.  I am blessed to have met him.

Yours,
William Schofield

     He flung the pen away from him and heaved in a shaking breath.  It was done.  The living hell was over.

     Part of him wondered if it was a disservice to Tom, to what he had promised him and to his character, to not mention the fact that they had been lovers.  That the knowledge of what they had meant to each other was to remain forever locked away like a dirty secret, when it was far from ugly.  Their love had been the most pure, beautiful thing Will had ever experienced.

     But he could never tell anyone.  The world could never know.

     He forced himself to reread it.

     He hated it.

     The tear tracks on his face dried.  The beating of his heart slowed.  He heard his sister and nieces come home.

     He folded the six-page letter up and put it in an envelope, sealing it with wax.

     He hated it.

     But he wasn't going to write it again.

     He couldn't.