Today’s guest author is Jaycee, with an exquisite reflection. Thank you for sharing this story, Jaycee.
(Image Credit: The Saturday Paper)
I have a war story . . .well, not actually about war itself, but about how it broke and remade a life. It is a true story and was told to me by Darcy C., an old farmer who lived on the farm next to us (in my first marriage) in the hills. He was one of those generations of farmers whose family had been in the district since its inception. A dry old stick who knew everything that went on in the district, he was taken to telling a yarn or two when he had nothing else to do or it was raining. I was always a keen listener.
Of course, Darcy told me the main parts of the incident and I picked up bits and pieces elsewhere in the district. You have to be a bit canny when making inquiries of this nature – the locals don’t like giving anything away. It’s a bit like fly-fishing for trout – you have to know how to search the shadows.
It went like this.
Pray for me my sweet,
Lest I forget to pray myself,
For God is a distant star . . .”
The small casement window of the dining room of the old house lay slightly ajar so that the gentle afternoon breeze just lifted the cotton lace edged curtain and it brushed against the glass fronted china cabinet next to the window. A crystal-glass wind chime tinkled sweetly as the breeze chinked its pieces together, making little pin-pricks of sound. On top of the cabinet stood three objects, two of which were framed photographs and one ceramic figurine of a young lady with a basket of flowers over her left arm. One of the photos in a gilt-edged frame showed a young snapshot of the just recently deceased Herbert Griegs with his new bride, Mary-Ann. Herbert is dressed in his army uniform. They both appear very, very happy. The other photo is of a young family, about the same age as Herbert and Mary-Ann. There is also a small child in the photograph. The man is also in a uniform, but it is the uniform of the Fascist army of Italy. The young family, too, appear very happy. All these people, with the exception, perhaps, of the child are now deceased. Herbert and the wife of the Italian soldier died of old age. Mary-Ann and the Italian soldier died in the Second World War.
Here is their story.
Herbert Griegs and Mary-Ann were married in the local church at the small country town where they were raised and intended to live after the war. They did not doubt that Herbert would return from the war: it just seemed impossible that he would not. There was so much life ahead, the promise of a fine full life on the farm.
Herbert was already in the army when they married. He had joined up some months before so he had finished his basic training and was on leave. He expected to be posted to barracks in the eastern states awaiting orders to go overseas to active service. They had been married a week and three days when Herbert’s orders came through. He kissed his new wife goodbye reluctantly and travelled with a large number of soldiers away to New South Wales.
In the days of the Second World War, in many country places in Australia, soldiers were billeted on farms in the countryside. If there was a shearing shed on the property, the army would staff it with a cook and kitchen helpers and put a hundred or so soldiers there under canvas. Such an event happened at Mary-Ann and Herbert’s farm, two or three months after Herbert had been shipped off to New South Wales. Soldiers from all parts of the state were camped there.
This was a very unsettling time for Mary-Ann, for she missed her husband terribly, and in the course of fate, whether it was similarity in looks, sympathy toward their fate or simply the uniform, Mary-Ann one day was seduced by one of the soldiers. Why? Well, who knows? It could have been for a number of reasons or desires but for whatever reason she did, Mary-Ann was the most shocked, and fell to despair when she found she was pregnant to the soldier who had by now long gone away.
Mary-Ann became so desperate that she somehow, some way, found the address of a place in the city that would, for a price, do abortions. Mary-Ann paid the money and was attended by the anonymous people. But the operation was a failure. She hemorrhaged badly and it couldn’t be stopped. She died in the room of a house in the back-street of the inner-city. During the night her body was removed and left propped against a tree in one of the parklands that surround the city.
Herbert received the news with horror and disbelief. Impossible! How could she be dead? She was alive and healthy six months ago, she was smiling still in his memory, she was laughing just out of reach on the slopes of the field-daisy covered hills behind their farm-house when he chased her up the slopes and laughing, pulled her down on the yellow and green carpet and there amongst the miles and miles of open countryside under a soft sky they made love.
“No! It couldn’t be so, No!”
The letter from his brother didn’t tell of the circumstances of Mary-Ann’s death, and he didn’t find out till he returned home for the funeral on compassionate leave. But still he was so shocked that even the sordid details didn’t seem to sink in. How? How? he kept asking himself and he would sit for hours at his brother’s kitchen table and sometimes look as if he were about to ask a question but then would close his mouth in silence and look deeply into his cup of tea. He mechanically went through the ritual of the funeral and stumbled from the graveside in silence. It was in silence also that he returned to the barracks in the East to be shipped off overseas to the war in Africa.
On the crossing to the front he searched again and again through all the details in his mind that he knew of the tragedy. He started to hate Mary-Ann. He stood her before him in daydreams and called her “whore”, “slut”, “betrayer”, and any other names that he thought he could hurt her memory with, but at the end of it all he called her “love” and wept for the sadness of it.
Then he started to hate the soldier who had seduced her. He looked around at the noisy men about him and tried in his heart to pick the types that would seduce “a lonely sympathetic woman”. Several times he fought fights with braggarts who told lurid tales of their “conquests” before they left home. He had to be dragged off one fight before he killed the man. Fortunately none of these fights reached the ears of the high ranking officers; it was just the “locking of horns” amongst the men, the release of tension before the approaching theatre of war.
The first action Herbert’s battalion was to see was the assault on Bardia in Libya. By now Herbert’s hatred was directed toward the enemy out front and there was no more eager soul for battle in the battalion. He was in a state of silent desperation. He silently nurtured the philosophy of “kill or be killed”; it didn’t matter to him at all. What was there home now? What was there here? Who was he fighting for? It just didn’t seem to matter anymore. He just wanted to throw himself into the teeth of war with a seething vengeance. He wanted to kill, if only himself, he wanted to kill! At zero hour the artillery barrage began. Herbert was humming and whistling nervously. Then the barrage lifted and the first wave of infantry attacked behind the engineers who blew the wire with Bangalore torpedoes. Herbert was rushing, running into the acrid fumes amid the fires and shooting. He shot at a few fast moving shadowy figures near a guard post. The horizon jumped and jerked with the flashes from the Italian artillery. He ran past a truck destroyed by their own barrage – wild orange flames swept around the cabin of the truck from the burning tyres, the flames lashed and licked at the metal like the wet tongue of a huge animal. His temper was almost uncontrollable as he rounded the corner of supply building of the post. An Italian soldier suddenly stepped out of a doorway just ahead of him with his hands on the verge of raising in surrender. He didn’t get the chance. Herbert shot at point blank range and the soldier fell in front of him. He rushed up and plunged his bayoneted rifle into the man’s chest. The soldier gasped. “Ah Dio Boia!, Dio Boia!” he cried and Herbert too yelled out amid the wild weird racket of battle all around him. It seemed as if a demon had escaped from the depths of his soul and he cried out for the release of it all while the filthy smoke from the burning machinery engulfed the entire battle scene and he fell to his knees beside the body of the dying soldier. Herbert felt his chest constricted and his breath laboured in short gasps as he knelt there with his hand on the Italian soldier’s chest.
He became aware of some words spoken near his ear. It was the dying soldier. At first Herbert was shocked, open mouthed, he lifted his rifle to strike the soldier again till he realized the man was no threat and that he was saying over and over again, “Non e colpa tua, non e colpa tua.” The soldier’s hand moved slowly, falteringly up to his chest pocket, then quivering fell to his side. He was dead.
Herbert jumped to his feet and stood staring down at the first man he had killed. He was about to rush off when he was drawn, compulsively to reach into the dead soldier’s breast pocket. He did this quickly as if repulsed at the thought that he could be looting a dead body. He quickly put his hand in and pulled out a leather folder. He thrust it quickly into his own pocket and scrambled off to the battle further ahead in the mist of dawn and fire.
Herbert did survive the war and he did go back to the farm amongst the gently sloping hills of the hinterland. But he did not go to the grave of his wife in the grounds of the little church on the edge of the town. He could not face her name on a tombstone and he could not say her name for a long, long time.
His farm was suffering from lack of care and he himself moved about under an oppressive cloud of lethargy and listlessness till his friends and neighbours all felt it was only a matter of time till he broke down or cracked up. Herbert could feel himself being slowly drowned by his despair and was aware that he would have to do something to get his life back on track soon or he would go under. A friend of his from the district who had gone to the African war with him had returned and gone into a ministry with the church. Herbert drove to the city one day to speak with him of a certain matter that was troubling him. He was shown to the minister’s room and left to knock on the door.
“Come in,” a voice called from inside. “Why, hello Herb!” The minister smiled and rose from his chair.
“Here, come over here and sit down. Cup of tea? Good, good,” – he poured a cup from a pot. “Just had one myself – I’m afraid this isn’t the army now, nothing stronger,” and he laughed.
“Ta, thanks, Brian – no, it’ll do fine.” Herbert spoke quietly.
After the cup of tea was placed in front of him Herbert started to sugar and stir the drink with slow solemnity. The minister settled back into his chair and gazed quizzically at his old friend.
“You don’t look too cheerful, Herb,” he spoke.
“Well, no, no, I’m not much fun to be with these days.”
“Is it the memories of the war?” the minister asked.
“That . . . and Mary-Ann,” Herb answered.
“Hmm, I think I can sense that . . . but what precisely is the trouble with Mary-Ann?” The minister queried.
“I haven’t been able to go to her grave since I’ve been back,” Herbert spoke softly. A silence fell between them.
“You remember Bardia?”
“Do I?” the minister replied. “Scared the pants off me.” He snorted “Glad it’s gone. Why?”
“Brian,” began Herbert, “Brian . . . I killed a man there . . .”
The minister squinted his eyes a little. There was something more in this, he felt. He replied with a stock answer:
“Well . . . we all killed there. Many of our side were killed also.”
“No,” Herbert spoke slowly and carefully. “I murdered a man there . . . an Italian soldier. He was about to surrender, I see that now, but . . . but I was full of hate, full of Mary-Ann . . . I didn’t give him a chance. I killed him out of my own hatred – I killed a man.” Herbert dropped his head in shame.
The minister raised his eyebrows at the problem he saw before him, but then, he was thinking, who didn’t kill in hate of some kind, did people kill for love? We were all full of hatred when we went there, otherwise we’d have stayed home and raised families! The minister spoke these thoughts and moved to quieten his friend’s fears, and because he spoke with the sincerity and honesty of friend to friend, he could see it sinking in. An inspiration came upon him:
“Have you told this to Mary-Ann?”
“What? But it’s too late now – she’s dead, Brian, dead and gone.”
“Dead maybe, Herbert . . . but not gone, surely.”
Herbert raised his head to gaze steadily upon his friend.
“Why don’t you go down there Herb, go down and visit the grave? It won’t hurt, and who knows, you may feel some sort of response to your worries. It certainly couldn’t really do any harm.”
It seemed a strange thing to do, to go down and consult the dead. He was a little apprehensive and also a little scared, so clutching a small bouquet of field daisies that he and Mary-Ann had lain in those days so long ago, Herbert walked through the whitened cemetery gates on a grey-clouded, winters day. He stopped before the white marble gravestone that read:
Loved wife of Herbert Greigs
Died Oct. 4. 1940
Herbert stood before the grave, feeling lonely, not knowing what to think, what to say. So he just stood with his hands clasped in front with the small bouquet held upside down in his fingers. He thought over the happy days, the early days, the sad days in numbness and the war days in pain. The picture of the dying soldier came into his memory, the man’s life fading from the brutal attack of the bayonet.
“Dio Boia, Dio Boia!” the man had cried, the words now clear in Herbert’s mind. And then the final fatalistic sighing of the dying soldier:
“Non e colpa tua . . . Non e colpa tua.”
Herbert never could understand what the soldier meant by those words, even when he heard them translated, surely it was HIS fault the soldier died. HE was the one doing the killing! He repeated the words now to himself and the repetitive tone seemed to bring clarity to his thoughts till suddenly, as if illuminated by light, he understood the juxtaposition of their lives – Mary-Ann, the soldier’s, his own – and he suddenly realized why Mary-Ann had risked her life and destroyed the unborn child, her child, for whoever the father, it was still her child. But she destroyed her child and lost her life, not out of self-protection, but rather for a greater prize to her – Herbert’s love. She died for love of him . . .
“Oh God,” he cried at the realisation, “Oh God! oh God! oh God!” and he fell to his knees in front of the grave and the meaning of the soldier’s last words fell into place and he sobbed the same words to his wife:
“It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault! It’s not your fault!” he wept, falling down on his knees with his face clasped in his hands, he wept, and so as his tears were falling to the earth, so was his soul descending down, down, till he felt he could ‘touch’ the soul of his beloved. And now he understood – the unborn child she sacrificed to Herbert to save her love, and the Italian soldier he sacrificed to Mary-Ann to show his love. “Pity the killed, pity the killers, pity us all, God pity us all !” he wept to her. A light rain misted over the small graveyard, beside the church on the edge of the town. The bouquet of daisies had slipped from his hands and lay softly on the flat polished gravestone, its yellow and green glowing brightly against the wet, white marble.
Herbert Griegs came back from that time of despair and started farming again. He never married again and spent his years in service to the local community and the church. The wallet he took from the dead soldier that night contained, beside other things, a photograph of a young family – the soldier, his wife and a young child. This photograph he put in a gilded frame matching the one of his own marriage and stood them side by side on top of the china cabinet in the dining room of the farm house. These people are now all gone and soon, but for this, I feel, will be forgotten.
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)