I close my eyes and they are there again. They stand there amidst the noise and the carnage and they plead with me voicelessly. The faces and voices that have haunted my dreams. Dreams that do not end.
I open my eyes and they are gone. I look around, not sure of where I am, but then I realize that I am far from the battlefield, far from those desperate eyes.
Suddenly, I remember where I am. The hill before me is the same as it was when I played on it as I grew up, and home should be on the other side of it. I am home. Finally, I am home.
I stop as I reach the crest of the hill, and look down at the town. For some reason, it seems smaller than it was when I left six months ago. Was it only six months? It seems a lifetime ago.
I walk along the hillside, looking for some sign, something that will allow me to believe that I am really home. Suddenly, I realize which tree I am standing under. I look up at the branches, counting them as they go higher. There, it is still there. My mind drifts back to that sunny afternoon, not two years ago, when, on a dare, I climbed the tree to carve my initials, and Bronya’s, surrounded by a heart.
Bronya. My heart leaps at the thought of her. Now I know. I am home, and will soon be with Bronya again. I break into a run down the hill.
As I draw closer to the town, I can see children playing, running around in some game. I should know these children, yet I cannot put names to these faces.
The children run around, oblivious to me. They cry out to each other, calling for help, screaming out of the pain they feel. No one can go to help them. The healers run to see if they are injured, but it is not a physical hurt that causes them to cry. It is the battle that has raged around their village, the fighting that has disrupted their innocent lives. It is the sight of their parents killed, murdered by soldiers who saw them as some threat. It is the sight of their parents’ bodies, lying face down in the mud.
And we cannot help. Our commanders give brief orders to march on, to get back into formations. So we can move quicker down the road that leads us towards battle. Towards our destinies.
A shout wakes me from my daydreaming. “It’s Tomas! He’s come home!”
I blink, and it is not crying children before me. They are laughing and playing, knocking things over as they try to catch each other.
The cry comes again. “It’s Tomas! He’s come home!”
I am quickly surrounded by laughing and cheering friends and relatives. They are happy, rejoicing that I have returned from the wars safe and sound. Festivities are planned. Everyone insists that I come to them for dinner. Everyone wants to be happy that at least one soldier has come home safely.
I am practically dragged to the tavern. Drinks are bought and are practically thrown down my throat.
The taste of the hastily made tea burns my throat, but it is all there is to drink, all we can prepare on this march towards the enemy. One of the others throws me a half loaf of bread with some meat sticking out from it. I eat as quickly as possible, wanting to finish before we are ordered back into this long march.
A hand lands on my shoulder. I jump, thinking the order to resume marching has been given.
“Tomas! Does Bronya know you’re home yet?”
It is Bronya’s father. He shoves another mug in my hand, and hugs me.
All, of course, want to hear stories, what I’ve seen, where I’ve been. But how can I tell them of the things I’ve seen? What the faces of ten year old girls look like after they have been raped by a dozen men. What it smells like when people are herded like cattle into huts, which are then set alight. What the air over a battlefield tastes like when so many men lie dead or dying in the blood soaked mud.
It is some time before I can get myself away from the crowd. I hurry down the streets, ignoring the calls of those who are seeing me for the first time. When I reach the house, I stop and knock on the door.
Bronya opens it.
She cries out, and hugs me. I hug her back, almost choking her with my embrace. I put her back down, and follow her into the house.
The house has been looted thoroughly by those who have preceded me. The furniture is smashed to bits, and anything of real worth has been taken. Something glittering catches my eye from the bottom of the pile. It turns out to be a child’s bauble, forgotten in the inhabitants’ haste to leave, to get out of town before the soldiers arrived. Before I can look further, the captain calls. We must move on before nightfall.
We return to the trail. We move silently, each of us deep in our own thoughts of the remains of the farm we have just passed. Thoughts of what if it was our home. I look behind me, to see the long line of weary soldiers marching on, and the supply wagons behind us. I stumble over some stone in the road.
Bronya helps me back up. She apologizes for the mess in the house. She was not expecting me, of course, and she has been keeping up her work as a seamstress in my absence. She pushes the basket of cloth from out of the way.
I am speechless. Weeks of dreaming of this moment have not prepared me for it.
Bronya rushes around, putting food on the table. The first taste of her stew, seasoned as she knows I like it, erases the memories of trail food from my mind. While I eat, Bronya has my pack open, and busies herself with unpacking it. She glares at me when she sees the state of my clothes. I explain that we didn’t have a laundress with us, but she just sighs.
She smiles when she finds the sack of money. I must admit, it is enough to see us through at least a year. The captain was kind with us when the company was discharged, and I had tried to save as much as possible on the trip home.
Suddenly, she leaps at me, knocking the spoon from my hand as she begins to cover my face with kisses. I can do little but smile smugly. She must have found the bolt of silk I bought for her on the road.
I have barely finished my meal when a hammering comes at the door. “Tomas! Come out and join us! Let us get a look at you!”
It is my younger brothers. I look sheepishly at Bronya, and she waves me out the door.
“Go and be the great war hero to them. As if I could stop you.”
I smile, give her a quick kiss and join my brothers outside.
I know that it has not been that long, yet they look older to me. Seff’s chin is covered with fine down and Markus seems to have grown a head taller since I have seen them last.
They want to hear stories of what I have done as well. “How many men did you kill?” “How much did you bring back?” “What have you seen?” “What battles did you participate in?”
I hold my hands up to try and stop the questions. “Let me answer one at a time. I can’t answer them all at once. ‘Specially if I can’t hear them all.”
They grin, and stop to let me speak. Suddenly, something falls on me from behind.
I whip around, my sword ready. Before me stands a soldier, the markings on his dusty armor showing him to be an enemy. He charges, and I parry his thrust. My mouth is suddenly too dry to call for any of my companions to help me, and so I must fight on alone.
He is better than I am, and I must give up ground, moving farther and farther into the back of the ruined building, trying hard not to trip over any of the rubble that covers the floor.
My first judgment is wrong. He is not a little better than I, he is a lot better. I find myself swinging wildly, dodging his blade as best I can.
Then, the worst happens — I trip over something on the floor. I look up at his smirk, as he is about to bring his sword down through me, when a strange look comes over his face. He suddenly groans, and falls at my feet. I look up and see Samir wiping the blood off his sword. He then reaches down and helps me to my feet.
“I guess you owe me one, right?” he asks.
I grin, but before I can answer, we come under a hail of arrows from somewhere up ahead. We duck and take cover, yelling out for the rest of the company to come and help us find where these archers are hidden.
“Tomas, is something wrong? Why the yelling? It’s just Barak.”
I blink and look at my youngest brother, who now lies on his back from where I threw him. I apologize, and help him to his feet. He laughs and says he deserved it, jumping on me like that.
I sit with them for a while, telling them of battles and of the places I’ve been. I try to keep the gory details from them. They listen to me with their mouths hanging open, memorizing my every words.
Suddenly, Bronya sticks her head out of the window. “Time to go home, boys. Tomas will be here in the morning, and I’m sure that you have to be up early for chores. And Tomas must be tired. Let’s let him get some sleep.”
The boys wish us goodnight, and disappear into the darkness.
Inside, Bronya takes me by the hand and leads us to our bedroom. She dances away from my embrace, insisting I wash off the travel dust before she’ll allow me near her.
When I return to the bedroom, she is already undressed and under the covers. I smile, remembering her modesty, and remove my smallclothes in order to join her under the thick goose down quilt.
She reaches to me, the tatters of her shift revealing her body beneath. The burns on her arms must pain her greatly, yet she does not cry out. I yell for the healers to help her, but before they can come, the crash of battle reaches my ears, and a shout to abandon what we’re doing, and to join in the fight. I leave the woman where she lies, and rush to find my companions.
“Tomas, what’s wrong?”
Bronya’s question hangs in the air between us. I look down, suddenly realizing I am no longer in bed.
I rejoin her on the bed. She reaches for me again, yet I do not feel I can grow warm again in her arms.
And the next day is worse. The images of the places I’ve been, the horrors I’ve seen seem to blend in with the faces of those I live amongst. I see the wounded as I walk through the marketplace. I hear the cries of the children as I sit in the tavern with my neighbors.
And I see and hear the wounded women as I lay next to Bronya. I feel that I have somehow let her down, that it is somehow my own fault that I cannot bring myself to touch her. She does not understand. And I cannot find the words to explain it to her.
And so I live my life haunted by the demons of a war that is over. I hope and pray that they’ll leave me and I cling to the thought that tomorrow will bring release, that I’ll be able to go back to the life I’d had before. I only hope that I do not wait in vain.