GOING HOME FROM THE HUNDRED
If war took a man even a short
distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of his returning to it were
Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire
he tells the blacksmith, with a fair creek and blackberries. The white
skeleton of a lightning-struck pine on a knoll. —With an
owl’s roost? asks the blacksmith, glancing up from the hoof, his
singed eyebrows a single snarl across his blackened forehead. —Yes,
nods the young man, eager. A horned owl. You know it? —Many a
one, says the blacksmith. And the stream is called…?
man frowns, shifts his weight off his bad leg. There’s only one of
them, he says. The blacksmith, who chews his lip as he maneuvers
the steaming iron to the hoof, taps it smartly with his hammer—Just
Creek then. And the river it runs into?
knoll, far off a river’s sheen scythes silver through a meadow. —Let
me guess, says the blacksmith. Deer River? Trout River? If it’s
“Deer River” in the hills, it could be “Trout River” by the time it gets
to the flats. Or Green River, perhaps? The young man mutters
Perhaps. The blacksmith shakes his head, but then he yells quite
merrily, —Ma. An old woman, bent over her twig broom, brushing
the dirt yard behind them, lifts her head and hobbles over. Ma’s pa
was a tinker, says the blacksmith. Ma, how many Green Rivers in
Her grin is
missing teeth. —As many as the fingers of your hands, she says to
the young man, then reaches to open his left hand and cackles. More.
He is missing two and a half fingers. —War, I reckon?
He doesn’t contradict her. How many winters were you gone? He
scratches his dirty beard. Since I was almost a boy, he says.
Now I’m looking for home. ---Oh, la. She does a tiny
shuffling dance. And the name of your village? ---It’s but a
hamlet, explains the blacksmith. No name. — ‘Course not,
she says in delight. A church? A priest? Not likely. What
direction did you travel to the front?
way, he points back
south, and every which way. I think we came through around
here. His hand makes a circle and then motions vaguely westward.
Three hamlets between here and that cloud’s shadow, says the old
woman. The young man eyes the cloud, figuring how many hours’ walk.
—My mother’s Blondie, he says. You know a Blondie? —Do I
know a Blondie? she asks her son, who has set down the chestnut’s
leg and is shifting him around. Ask him if she’s flaxen or
dirty-headed, short or tall, plump or scrawny, pocked or smooth. There’s
a Blondie in every other household hereabouts. And you’re called?
The young man fidgets. —Will’s son. He already knows the
blacksmith is also Will. —Who’s winning the war? asks the
blacksmith. —Who’s fighting? asks his mother and cackles again.
The young man shrugs. —I have a sister Rose, he offers. The old
woman winks and prods the blacksmith’s elbow. He curses mildly. —Not
Rosa? she says. Not Roz? There’s a Roslyn in the next
farmhouse, young and a widow. The blacksmith clucks his tongue.
—Widows and their itches.
The cloud’s shadow has
almost reached them. A sheep blats from a field. The dog that
announced the young man’s arrival is still yapping. The horse violently
nods his head, flips a fly away with his tail, whinnies. A tail hair
flies through the air, lands on the hot coals of the blacksmith’s fire
and the air fills with its stink.
as well stick around,
says the blacksmith, lifting a new horseshoe with his tongs. —Might’s
well, says the chestnut, turning his head to eye the young man.
Bluebells in the meadow, fillies in the field. Two people in the village
who can read and write, besides the priest. You could send a
letter home, not that anyone could deliver it. He snorts derisively.
Or read it, if it got there. Besides, who can remember where one was
man sighs. In the distance he hears a half-familiar bird hollering.
His ma would know what it was. He doesn’t ask these three. Anyway,
it’s as good a direction as any other.
Face red in firelight, soft rose of a breast, crickets speaking the
language of home.