Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
Wilfred Owen, Insensibility
Schofield watches the gunnery flickering in the gray air and hears the rifles’ stifling rattles. He oversees the line of soldier moving under a sea of commands, shifting ever and ever and ever. He sits there, feeling the grumbling gear of unmoving limbs under the green grass and looks. He shouts something like a command; the tail of ever moving snake moves ever and ever and ever.
“No,” he says. No one is looking at him.
Quick, quick. Schofield ducks his head and holds his breath and moves.
“Thank you,” is what he hears. Schofield sees civilians clothing in nunnery colours and believes them when they say it’s for mourning. They smile, tell him that it’s glad that it is finally over. Schofield moves his gaze away from their crisp, sun-dozed smile and his hands make a beeline for the old lapel-pin of his uniform, caressing the dusty-old metal, reminiscent of another war.
“I am not a hero,” he says. He looks away when they twitch in sympathy. You’re too humble, dear boy. Think about all who suffered…
The bitterness lies in the eyes, Schofield knows, so he refrains from lifting his gaze. Odd: he once strangled a boy to death, stared into his dark-mudded eyes bloody, snapped his throat, but can’t look at a concerned mother in the face of a half-finished tragedy.
“It’s not for me to tell,” he says. He does not tell them that it’s not theirs to gurgle, neither. He speaks some time more with a mother of a dead son of a foreign battalion, a boy he had only known during training. He shan’t tell his mother that. A fair boy of eighteen, he remembers, and did not have a lot of mates. He wonders if he ought to compare him to David, this time, or is Christ the better ordeal. He munches over the thought with a biscuit that tastes like ash.
He sits very still when her broiler hissed. He tilts his head back, startled, thinking it was the gas. She asks him if anything’s wrong. He shook his head, blows the tea cold.
The hissing continues far off like the dull rumor of some other war. She takes no notice. Schofield fills the silence with stories of heroics. He compares the boy to the David of Masaccio, young and unafraid, and holds his breath when she embraces him with ash-smelling sleeves of the industrial world. He wonders if she made the shells that shredded her son to pieces, and finally feels, for once, that he has found a friend among the guileless.
“Thank you,” she says when he finishes his tea. Everything tastes like ash. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
Schofield stares over the white-weened window over her kitchen and sees the singing folks without hearing. He supposes that it will always feel like that when someone thanks him, the inadequacy of trying to understand another language, the distance of another country. He spreads his palm on his knees, considering what he is right now: a confused preacher, an unguided priest, an accomplished soldier in a world after war. He has forgotten before; he can’t know now. He only remembers and remembers and remembers.
Schofield ducks his head. He hopes that it looks like a bow. She kisses his forehead with a fierceness that once made him cross a broken canal bridge. He breathes; under water, it has felt like plunging.
“Thanks for the tea,” he says. She lets him go.
Schofield watches Blake pace. At every jolt, he comes at him with his forth-corrupting lungs, bleeding where the wound has been.
“You bleed too,” Blake reminds him. He jabs a finger at his forehead, but never touches him. His nails are dirty with mud and blood. “You have bled where no wounds were.”
“I am not,” he repeats, he thinks, for the second time that day, “a tragic hero.”
Blake just paces. In some smothering dreams Schofield let him pace. In another he had the courage to throw away his medals down the Thames. In others he watches the green gas rises to the deep heap, where men are charging asleep, marching blind. He sees all, and in all his dreams, Blake is pacing in circles.
His fingers wake and flutter. He sat up on the bed. His wife looks at him; she has a white-cover book on her right hand, her left on his hair. But he takes no notice; Schofield is surprised by the blind-cord across the window sill, the solid-wooded ground of their house; the Persian rug. She closes her book, but he suspects that she isn’t reading anyway.
“It’s morning,” she says. She presents him the blue sky, the blurring image of children chasing after street dogs. She holds water to his mouth, and he drinks. There is no time to ask he knows not what. They kiss, and Schofield thinks of the blunt bullet-leads that long to nuzzle his neck while he runs and runs and runs and he finally ducks his head.
His wife gets off the bed, says the breakfast is ready, and turns to wake up the children. He dares not ask if it was them that he saw at the window, pattering over dogs.
“Lieutenant,” he greets next time he sees the Blake outside of dreams. They shook hands and sit down in a quiet corner of Rules. They shared niceties and spoke ghastly of beef rations during the war. Blake looked old, but that is because he never thinks that Blake would grow old. The Blake of his dreams is left pristine, untouched and unframed, and in that thought he supposes that Blake that died is the lucky one.
“He is,” Blake says when Schofield manages to say something of the kind. His wearied face uptight, its resonated sorrow so real that Schofield feels something tangible swells in his heart for the first time since the war.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Blake shakes his head; their meals forgotten. “I never said how grateful I was. What you did for us. For him.”
Shame and anger brewed somewhere in the back of his mind, but he felt too alive to let them rage. “They are worth it,” he simply says. He watches Blake’s bright eyes and lets out with trembling hands, “these men are worth your tears, Lieutenant. We are not worth their merriment.”
Blake’s shoulders are stiff, but a smile stretches his face and the slight wrinkles around his eyes. “He made me laugh a lot. Our mother too. He had odd stories, didn’t he? Did he tell you some?”
Schofield acquiesces. Blake looks relieved and begins to talk of memories.
Schofield watches him. He doesn’t tell that he remembers as well, although differently; he remembers cherry blossoms and warm blood soaking his clothes wet. Blake talks of childhood and Mayflowers. They talk and talk, and nothing happens. No stakes, no risks, no dire time limits. They talk in circles: Blake’s gratitude for Schofield, Schofield’s gratitude for his brother, Blake’s gratitude for what Schofield did for his brother; his gratitude for him. They talk the same way Blake paces in his dreams.
“He is a hero,” Blake ends up saying. Schofield doesn’t correct him on the tense; his heart is too flushed, too quick, and it beats alive to the slow drags of remembrance.
“I think,” he says quietly, only when they part, “that I understand now. The urge to call them heroes.”
Blake looks at him, his heels previously half-turned, his profile suddenly young and fearless; the grown-up David of Michelangelo. Blake raises his arms; a military salute, and goes home, Schofield presumes, of Mayflowers and cherry blossoms.
Schofield watches Blake pace. He stands before the waterfall that he once plunged in. Écoust-Saint-Mein’s church-bells chime; it sounded like mockery at the time. The clattering of guns is more welcoming; it greets him, it is familiar. It walks up to him like a friend; it is the shape of his dreams. He closes his eyes, but he knows that Blake is always pacing.
It can be a cemetery here, he gathers. In his mind or in the real Écoust-Saint-Mein, the empty fields of solemn black. It can be for everything and everyone. It feels like home.
“I want to go home,” Blake says as Schofield opens his eyes. Their gaze meet; they are bright like his brother’s, he thinks, the same thought he had today.
“I can’t help you with that,” he says.
The pacing doesn’t stop, but Blake looks at him. People always look, but the Blake in his dreams is young and fierce. He is the personification of a war Schofield wishes to return to. “Oh, bullocks. Of course you know. Why would I be here, then?”
The grass is fresh beneath him. If he looks up, he will see the red-bourbon sky and the threat of bombs. “I don’t know.”
He paces around him like snake, and the imagery sits unwell with him long after the dream is over. He hears Blake laugh. “C’mon mate,” he says, “remember? And in twenty years they all came back. In twenty years or more…”
Schofield wakes and throws up in the sink without waking his wife. He watches the swirl of water mixing with rations of beef and spends the night pacing on the large Persian rug. He paces in circles.
“You’re reading,” his wife says after the children have gone to sleep. She peaks at the title. “It’s an odd choice,” she comments with a yawn. She goes to sleep beside him, her hair whispering over his naked arm. He reads:
And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
Schofield reads the poem once, twice. He hums it to himself, and dozing to sleep, he remembers the fire-gazed infant in the arms of a girl, the mute songs over glazed windows. They sailed away; the poem begins. They went to sea in a Sieve. A circle, if nothing else, at the pace of a dead friend, circling and circling and circling and can never be home.
Blake doesn’t pace in his memories like he does in dreams. Blake of the distant past only looks dead and prissy. When his face isn’t ash-like, it speaks. When Schofield doesn’t sleep, when he doesn’t dream, he sees Blake, sitting and seething curses to some higher authority. He hasn’t cursed god yet, but in war god was a Field Marshal that orders you to fuck off, a General that tells you to go over the Hindenburg line; god is every single time Schofield sees through the mud and glances at the snake curling around itself, hissing its unending curse.
Schofield hears Blake talk. He sees the healthy bloom on Blake’s cheek, the hallmark of youth, and the whiteness of teeth. This is a memory renewed and replenished; this is a war that Schofield can return to.
Sunlight streams through. The light is so bright that it hides Blake’s face for a while. The bright plight of the uniform, the worn-out lapels tightening around the wrist are his last thought before his wife says, “what a beautiful day, isn’t it, Will?”
The sun is in his eyes. She must have let the windows open. She has a charming smile, and the cold winter air seeps through his bones. She talks about her work today, how uneventful everything was, and some games she played with the children while he was reminiscing away, memorizing whatever that is left of the war; the residues swept-over ashes of overdue fires.
“It is,” he says. It seems to satisfy her, though the ridge between her brows does not lessen. The ridges between her eyes are something that he is grateful of, a mark of the time he wasn’t there to foresee when he went to war. It is the sign of that she lives outside of him. It has never been harder to distinguish cause and causation; whether he caused war or war caused him. Her wrinkles remind him of time; away from him and his little problems.
For the voyage is dark and the voyage is long.
Schofield stares at the sun through the glass mirror of their bedroom chamber until dawn strikes. When night arrives in a throttling, tiring stride and the sun moves away, Schofield stares at the blank celling; his wife’s hair a pool of dark stripes, reminding him of black lines of soldiers facing a wall of another. In his dreams, they stare at each other’s gray faces and, with confusion and pity, stutter steel bullets into strides of hell-bent helmets, sun dawning on each and every single one of their faces.
For the voyage is dark and the voyage is long.
Far and few, far and few…
Schofield wakes up to the blank celling. He wishes he’d wake up to streaks of blood, to the cold confines of dug-out with a candle, scrambling for warmth with a withering candle shining golden. He misses war the same way he misses Blake. A part of him simply misses home.
“I don’t know how,” he says to Blake, to the celling. “I really don’t know.”
Beside him, his wife snores softly. Trying to embrace her without waking her up, he wraps his arms gently around her frame, rocking her gently. The warmth is felt through the clothes, through the naked skin, but not so much perceived. He shivers and remembers, as he dozes back to dreams, that the candle shining a guttering gold was warmer than the sodding sun.
“The war,” comes Blake’s reply, softness shimmering beneath his tone, “is not everything. You’ll have to leave it behind some day, Will.”
Their lunch at Rules has become some sort of unspoken agreement. Schofield hates to think it as a truce, since they weren’t enemies, but it felt like it. The conflict in him isn’t Blake’s, but he soothes it, makes it a tender bruise instead a gasping wound. The only moment he feels at peace with himself is when Blake’s voice rings true a memory he pretended to forget. In a sense he will always be indebted to the Blakes, be it this one or the bloodied one in his dreams, bleeding a dry circle around him, pacing and pacing.
“Said the unmarried man,” Schofield mutters. He is feeling rather defensive, and something else too, though he doesn’t know yet.
Blake frowns. “I have told you about Mother,” his lips pursed an indelicate way, “the trees—”
“—need tending,” supplies Schofield. He apologized. “I did not mean to be rude,” he says.
Blake looks at him. His stare wavers under the candlelight. “Do you want to go?” he asks at last, when the slow, dusty piano of the place tunes out an etude. The music enchants him; he leans, his body reacting to the sound. The piano behind Blake plays on.
“I likely would, if you would elaborate.”
“My place,” Blake says. “My mother wants to see you.”
Blake’s gray suit jacket glistens; the light sweet on his face, painting him bright. The shadow lurches, the beginning of Blake beckoning him in his dreams. It’s admitting defeat, but it’s a long time since he excepted any play in victory. The medal sitting in the dining table is covered with bills and papers. He is glad that he could not see it; he fears that he might have the courage to duck it down the Thames, or worse, flush it down the loo.
“Is this Thursday alright?” He asks.
For the voyage is dark and the voyage is long.
Far and few, far and few.
But Blake is there. When he nods, he seems to know.
“I would like,” Schofield says, “to tend the trees.”
And they went to sea in a Sieve.