Greta

Greta

She rummaged through grease-coated bins of ancient tools and junk — things far older than her and certainly useless. She had no particular outcome in mind; Greta wasn’t looking for anything. But the most spectacular things always seem to happen when we aren’t looking. 

The old tool shed on the back of the farm sat adjacent to an old red barn on an old dusty plot of land. Nothing grew on that farm — at least as long as Greta had been alive — which was exactly nine-years and forty-two days. She learned to count using her birthdays and the old calendar that was left in the kitchen when Ma died three years earlier. On that day, Greta was six-years-old plus one hundred days. She knew three years had passed, but she didn’t know that the days moved with the years, so as far as she was concerned her birthday always landed on a Monday. And that was fine – a good way to start that week, she thought. 

No one came when Ma died, because no one knew who Ma was. Only Greta. No one knew Greta belonged to Ma, or that Ma even had a daughter. When she did pass away, over under the clothes line while hanging delicates one morning, Greta spent two hours trying to wake Ma from her deep slumber and then covered Ma in the sheets from the basket. That night Greta heard, from her bedroom window in her sleepless house, a strange screeching hiss that she never heard before. 

She tried her best to visit Ma and sit near her until the rot set in. Ma smelled awful for weeks, but luckily she died towards the beginning of autumn, and the snow and thaw reduced Ma to a pile of bones that Greta took and buried in a shallow grave next to the old oak tree. Greta didn’t cry moving Ma’s bones, but she did cry out in frustration when the hole took longer to dig than her seven-year, eight-day-old arms could handle. Into the night and under the guidance of a full moon, Greta used Ma’s gardening spade. There she heard that unmistakable hissing, screeching sound. She wielded Ma’s spade like a weapon and stood in fear. 

“Who’s there?” she cried out. 

Who

Greta couldn’t see through the cover of night. The screech rang out again and there, up in the old oak tree, Greta saw the culprit. A barn owl, illuminated by silver moonlight, spied on Greta from the safety of its branch. Greta lowered the spade. 

“This isn’t easy, you know,” she said. “The ground is still hard.” 

The owl screeched once again and flew off. Greta tried to watch the owl until it was absorbed by the evening. She returned to her little grave, settled with a shallow plot, and buried Ma. 

Later that evening, near the wood burning stove, Greta warmed her little hands. The winter would have been unbearable if Ma didn’t spend the whole year before piling wood and kindling, and canning fruits and vegetables, drying meat, and storing grain. More than they’d ever need, Greta reminded Ma. Ma only smiled and coughed some into a napkin before stashing it in her apron. Greta thought to herself, at least now she had enough to get by, and that summer before Ma died, she learned to build a fire. Ma showed her. 

“Here,” Ma said weakly. “Put the kindling here. Strike a match like this, but be careful of your fingers. Don’t put too much wood in because the fire needs to breathe.” 

“The fire breathes?” 

“Everything in nature breathes if you listen carefully.” 

Greta struck her first fire on her sixth birthday. Now that she was almost ten, Greta noticed the wood pile was low. The basement full of jars was sparse. The stove crackled and Greta boiled water for Ma’s tea leaves and while she waited she chewed on the last of her dried meat. A screech was heard outside. She removed the pot of water and walked along the old cottage floor to the back door where, in the old oak tree, the barn owl sat. Under its claw and pinned to the tree branch was a dead rabbit. 

“I would love some rabbit stew,” she mumbled. Greta returned inside. 

The next day, struck with boredom, Greta set out for the old tool shed. Her usual routine for the last three years was to wash her face with the well water, eat porridge off the stove, and walk around the perimeter of the property. It was marked with heavy, ancient stones on each corner and in some spots Greta came to low, broken stone walls. She stayed within them, in the safety of the property, close enough to Ma, and memorized the landscape. Greta learned to count even more; She made it to one hundred steps, one hundred times, plus eighty-two. And, every so often, Greta laid her head on the dead, golden-brown land and listened for breathing. 

Dissatisfied in the silence she came to expect, Greta changed her routine and walked to the old tool shed. The door was open and hung off the hinges, ready to collapse into the earth. It swung lazy and heavy in the late spring wind as the metal creaked and bellowed for Greta to enter. She carefully stepped into the musty room; everything looked coated in a thin film of black — not quite dust, decay, or dirt. It looked like an old memory, mostly forgotten. Greta took a deep breath in the clean outdoors and stepped carefully up into the shed. The darkness engulfed her and she disappeared inside. 

The interior of the shed seemed far smaller than Greta thought. Whether it was the row of too-high tool benches, the low-hanging hooks that swung delicately from the ceiling in her presence, or the mess of old dirty bins filled to their brims with junk — Greta made sure to tread carefully. Ma told her. 

“Don’t cut yourself on anything rusty, now. Stay out of that shed.” 

The words floated around Greta and wrapped her in caution. Ma was gone, and Greta was bored, and the land wasn’t breathing. Greta crouched down in front of the first box and picked it apart. She pulled old tools with manual cranks, hammers — a wrench. Nothing of note. But again, Greta wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Elbow-deep in the second bin, Greta heard the screech of her elusive friend. In the corner of the room, in plain sight (how could she have missed it?), the owl sat perched in a corner. Shrouded in the cover and safety of blackened windows; The owl must have lived in the shed. Greta was probably a bother. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just bored.” 

The owl made a low sound not unlike a coo and settled in, as if to let Greta know it didn’t mind. She watched it as it blinked in a slow and hypnotic rhythm. It made Greta sleepy, but she continued her search for nothing. Greta picked a few more items before she found the thing she wasn’t looking for. From the bottom of the bin she pulled out an old key. Greta held it high and far from her face to marvel at it before giving it a hard shine on her pants. Ma would have lost her mind at that, she thought. 

“I wonder what you belong to,” she said. Greta’s owl friend screeched, frightening her. It dismounted from its perch and left the tool shed. 

“Wait!” Greta stumbled out, shocked into the daylight, to see the owl disappear into the old barn.

She followed as fast as her legs would allow and stepped into the cavernous space. Greta’s shoes scratched along the dirt floor and she marveled at the size and emptiness of it all. A shell, as if she were inside Ma’s ribs. The air was filled with the stench of mothballs and decay, like everything else on the land. With the key clenched tightly in her hand, Greta craned her head back and searched the rafters for her white and gold friend. A flutter led Greta’s eyes to the back corner of the barn, where the barn owl sat on top of a rusted, dead tractor. Behind the owl she noticed a gentle glow, like sunrise, although there were no windows. A thrum-thrumming filled her ears but it wasn’t her own heart. 

The owl let out a gentle screech and flew behind the tractor. Greta ran to catch it and peeked behind the machine. The owl was gone, but she found the source of the glow — a small door, not much larger than her. The thrum-thrumming grew louder when Greta looked at the key in her hand and back to the door where a small lock hung. She carefully placed the key in and turned it to the left. The lock opened with a clunk, and the door breathed open. 

The King Tree

The king tree blossoms over

his deep rough scars

and under eternity –

Beauty that will collapse slowly

at the hand of gravity 

and the endless blues of god.

Fruit to bear and tumble down 

to rot, a mess that feeds the mother –

His offerings will leave him bare

and gray.

But he will never stop,

even with rushing river below

that licks his roots patiently,

loving,

a constant chime of the inevitable.

The king tree continues to bear his fruit. 

He drops in symphony,

bright red-orange hue,

delicately to death.

Continue on and pay no mind to the river –

the river always wins.

Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

Holidays

I had a dream about my mom last night. We watched old home movies on VHS tapes and put up a Christmas tree. It reminded me of my grandfather’s house and the too-large colored bulbs that hung in the covered porch. I found an old story I wrote that talked about my mental health and the importance of string lights.

I put up the tree for the warm light of an endless morning it gives off once it’s plugged in. All of the more attractive baubles hang in front to capture the eyes of whoever may grace my front door. From Black friday until January first, my gawdy beacon of holiday cheer stands in proud, statuesque perpetuity, all in the name of tradition. 

I welcome in the musty smells of forgotten decorations while “A Very Merry Christmas Vol.2” plays over my Bluetooth record player. I put my kettle on the stove and the smell of hot metal and boiling water transports me to my grandparents’ kitchen, where Nan and Pop fashion either Lipton tea of Foldger’s instant coffee. I, in my own kitchen, opt for a French Press with coarse ground Costa Rican blend from the local fair trade coffee shop near my house. I sit at my table while my coffee steeps, one foot in a past life that I sometimes struggle to recognize as one I lived. I hope the smells linger — the warm Christmas lights stay lit — and the memories don’t elude me again. 

Short of leaving my Christmas tree up year-round, I hang string lights tastefully around my condo to tether myself to a positive childhood moment. Growing up, my mom would spend an entire day expertly fluffing up the tree and stringing lights in between drags of her cigarette and gulps of blush-colored Franzia boxed wine, of course. She never let my brother and me string the lights for the fear of one or both of us fucking it up, but somehow he and I worked out other systems of placing ornaments — the same ones — each year. We would be furious if the other touched one of our respective balls, as if a rift would split all space and time and pull us through into nothingness for messing up the order — as if there was ever order in our house. 

And yet, in my condo kitchen over my French Press, I question if those memories are entirely true and honest with me. How authentic are the moments I hold onto? How true to the timeline are my childhood recollections? The flashbacks are more reliable when they tie into the memories of things like scents and feelings rather than cognitive pieces stitched together over various decades — little baubles I put at the front of my mind to distract from the garbage in the back. But even if those fond times aren’t entirely accurate, I hold them tight and keep them treading above the deep black-green of trauma in the form of booze and bibles. 

My spiritual advisor told me in order to achieve certain enlightenments — and pull myself from certain doom following years and years of horrible events — I had to lean into the things that once brought me joy as a child, because that little girl was starved for almost thirty years. He told me she needed to be nurtured and loved and forgiven. I realized then, around maybe my fourth move in the pursuit of anti-homelessness, that I left her for dead in an attempt to preserve my present state.

But my present state sucked. 

I was just so over the night terrors and the memories of my mom, wide-eyed and clawing for either God — or more time — that when I left the creek house for the very last time, I left my inner child in the front room watching me drive off as the walls consumed her. My mindset at the time was, in order to move on from that Past I had to either kill or abandon it all. Like an old diary, I bound the pages of my past life in layers of duct tape before throwing it in the trash, or hiding it in a drawer long enough to forget what I wrote. I tried so hard to snuff out bad memories and abandon all in a dark house where the walls scream so loud I couldn’t sleep towards the end. But the inner me — that little girl — knew just where to find me. Late at night, alone in a new house, crying for my mom, hugging our family dog — she’d creep up the stairs and watch me from the doorway and tell me to cry harder, to cannonball into the feelings I had in order to clean myself out. I hated her for it. 

But now I sit across from her and drink my coffee while she feeds on the lingering memories of a warm creek house kitchen that I didn’t know I missed until I was reminded. I could have gone the route of my mom and drank myself into oblivion while maintaining a shell of stubbornness so thick that only Death himself — and liver failure — could make me see straight. My inner child and I are proud of that — not losing ourselves under the sails, and alternatively not leaning entirely on an invisible higher power. Instead, I believe in my own abilities, and hold onto memories that made me.

Rule of Three’s

There are three more work days left until I start this new chapter in the second, third of my life. I’m getting on a plane and spending ten days at Maharishi International University to study with the David Lynch MFA in Screenwriting program, and eventually earn my MFA. It’s a low-residency, two-year situation, and I haven’t cried about it yet. In fact, I’ve felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of calm and expectation like yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for and it’s something I’ve always had, I just needed it to materialize. I say I’m nervous to a lot of people and it isn’t about the course itself, but nervous that I can prove to myself that I’m worthy of the things I’ve spent so many years desiring and working towards.

Just nine years ago I was home from college after graduation with the want to apply to Oxford University again after my study abroad success. I wanted to be a professor more than anything, before I wanted to be a writer full-time, before I thought I could be a career author – before I could write a full-length book in a month – I wanted to sit in front of a room full of students and help them navigate their passions in the literary world. When I was still in my first semester of my freshman year I switched my major to English from marketing. Macroeconomics, selling things, trends – it wasn’t for me. I agreed to pursue it when my parents told me, “that’s where the money is.” I just couldn’t do it, though. I called my mom and told her I switched my major to English because I loved it and it’s what I always wanted to pursue. “Where’s the money in it?” She wasn’t even mad that I switched majors – she was upset that I might go after a field where I wouldn’t be lucrative. I didn’t care, though. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents but there was a piece of me deep down in my core that didn’t want to disappoint myself, and she was a bit louder than my head. So I signed up for more English courses, and by my sophomore year, I decided to dabble in two classes back to back with the same professor in the same classroom. English was easy, I thought, but nothing prepared me for critical literary theory.

I was so confused about the philosophical connections of writing and the literary world, that I got a D on my first paper. My professor, who also happened to be my academic advisor, pulled me aside and instead of chastising my work she asked me what I didn’t understand. She asked if I needed help and if I was alright. I started to sob in the hallway, unable to give her a reason for the crying or my work. She told me to go over the material again, slower, and re-write the paper. When I did, I got an A. I am still unsure to this day if she did it out of pity or if I really improved to such an extent, but she definitely saw into my distractions, distractions that I wasn’t even aware of yet.

Next month marks ten years without my mom walking this earth. I have effectively survived a third of my life without her, and when I was sobbing in front of Dr. Smith outside of her husband’s office in the library I was sobbing for a woman who I didn’t know wasn’t going to survive long enough to watch me graduate college. At the time of those classes sophomore year, my mom was drinking more and more, and I was only getting these snippets of concern and drama from the immediate members of my family. I was three states away without any real way to know what was going on, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how she was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t control a thing. When Dr. Smith stopped me, she saw how much I was hurting, because crying over a D paper in college is laughable to me at this rate; I’ve been turned down by dozens of literary agents and it barely fazes me anymore. But a D paper in college with an alcoholic mom who was ready to snap at any moment felt soul crushing. I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to hurt herself, and I for some reason put that burden on my own two shoulders. Dr. Smith never asked about my home life, not right away at least, but she encouraged me to focus on the material in school, and try my best, and eventually I grew to love critical literary theory, so much so that it was my senior thesis and something I now use in a lot of my readings and writings. Dr. Smith showed me the kaleidoscope that exists in the world of writing and for that I’m forever grateful. It wasn’t just words on paper, it was why’s on paper, and how’s. I don’t speak to her much anymore, but I do speak to another professor regularly who passes on my messages and well-wishes to her and her husband. She pulled me from some sort of internal perdition I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t know if she was ever aware of the truths, but she just did what she did, and I survived.

The most unforgettable thing Dr. Smith told me after my mom died was, “You know, when I met you, you were very prickly.” She went on to tell me how she didn’t mean it in an offensive way, but I was walking around with so much hurt and sadness that I walked like I had thorns all around me to protect me from everyone and everything that could cause harm. But at the same time, those thorns kept out those who could cause good. We were sitting in her living room eating lunch, something she normally reserved for her graduate students, but for whatever reason, Dr. Smith and I became very close and I looked up to her a lot for my inspirations and aspirations as a writer. She helped me get into Oxford University for their study abroad program, and she fanned the flame that would become my passion in writing.

Of course, I didn’t end up going back to Oxford to become a professor. My dad was against me leaving again and projected a lot of his unresolved grief on my life choices during the first couple of years following my mom’s death. That made me resent him, for a long time, and I never told him I resented him for telling me I couldn’t go back. But I have come to believe that everything happens for a reason and now, almost ten years later, I see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I wanted the Master’s and the Doctorate because I wanted not only the titles, but to gift the passion Dr. Smith showed me to other students. I saw the light in writing and where it could lead, but instead, with no other graduate school back-up plans, I turned into a dark place, and had dark thoughts, and wanted to be gone. Maybe not dead, maybe not alive either, but where would I go if I couldn’t go back to school?

I went in. Instead of dying, I wrote. I wrote when I was angry. I wrote a lot of nasty, harsh things about people, about myself, about my dead mom. I journaled and threw every emotion I had into Microsoft Word for weeks until one day I stopped mid-sentence and realized I just wasn’t angry anymore. I didn’t know what I felt, but it wasn’t anger. All of the anger was saved on my laptop. Writing saved my life. It felt as if I cleared away years of garbage, as if a hoard was removed and all that was left were the bones of the house and a dirty floor. Thus began my internal reno project.

I continued to write. Hundreds of poems, tons of short stories, dozens of book ideas, two crappy, ranting memoirs, and blog posts. So many blog posts. Only in the last three years can I say that, with writing, I’ve effectively pulled myself from the darkest places in my mind. I spent seven years wandering on hot coals and through the dense fog of my emotions trying to resolve the unspoken scenes of my past, and only within the last three – truthfully – can I say I am looking towards the sun again. And in just the last two years, I’ve written three books, I’ve turned thirty, and I’ve survived a third of my life without my mom here. In three work days, I’ll be on a plane.

Decay of the Farm

Old Man Jack’s yellow recliner sat at the entrance of the red barn on the back of the property. Like Jack, the recliner was also very old, with fabric pilled and pulled along the back and arms from years of lingering in the elements. I was often tempted to call him “Uncle Jack,” because I had an Uncle Jack, but my parents were adamant to never call him that. He never has been, and never will be. It was well enough, I figured, since he always threatened to feed our barn kittens rat poison for letting them climb all over his yellow recliner.

It always smelled a certain way in the barn, like almond liquor and oil. I didn’t know what almond liquor was at the time, but when I first smelled Amaretto it brought me to the belly of our barn where the monstrous tractor sat dormant, its keys in the ignition. The floor was strewn with kitty litter and saw dust to absorb the oil, and I dragged my sandals along the cement and felt the scrape of time. More often than I was probably permitted, I climbed the tractor with slipper little hands and dusty shoes, bits of gravel and litter raining from my feet to the ground beneath me. The seat was high and hard; The vinyl was cracked and decaying like everything else in the barn. I touched the keys as they tempted me to hear the motor and smell the oil, and take the tractor from the time capsule – but I was instructed to never touch it, so I let it continue to rot.

One day, Old Man Jack just stopped sitting in the recliner at the entrance to the barn. My parents forbade me from claiming the chair as my own due to filth, and no one wanted to touch it, so it stayed. And as I grew older, the memory of Old Man Jack faded; we never talked about him. I couldn’t recall if he ever truly was the sentry of our barn, or simply a ghost that vanished as I lost my innocence.

The recliner remained as a symbol of someone or something I knew. It went to the barn kittens – now cats – who worked the fabric down to springs and bone – and like many other things – the recliner eventually made its way to the local landfill. The barn cats were sad to see it go, but they were young and had so much more to discover. They were born in a hole behind the barn. Six babies in total – all different colors – to a sleek black mother that vanished shortly after they were born. She could have been scared away by over-excited farm kids who knew nothing of space and everything of soft, plush, kitten desires. Or, more likely, she could have been killed by a fox – an unfortunate truth of farm life.

When the mother didn’t return, the kittens were moved to the chicken coop – a small, offspring of the barn. I recalled seeing chickens once bursting out of the wooden latched door, full of life and enthusiasm. But, like Old Man Jack, the memory became a dream and I couldn’t remember if the chickens were real or just more ghosts of the barn. We plugged up the egg chute – evidence that chickens did exist one time – and kept the kittens warm. I waited under the maple tree next to the coop everyday for weeks until one finally chose me. She was black, fluffy, and mean. She was a perfect hunter, and like the other cats, remained feral to the farm. Eventually, four went away to family and friends, but two – mine and my brother’s gray short hair – remained the new keepers of the barn.

We were forbidden from entering the second shed, the one directly across from the chicken coop. It wasn’t locked up, like the recliner wasn’t hidden away, and like the keys never left the tractor, but our temptation was tested at the easy wooden latch that kept the door closed. Eventually, our curiosity overtook us on an unsupervised afternoon when the kittens were no longer kittens, and we entered the space. It smelled like oil and old blood. Two work benches sat on opposite ends, one for repairing, and one for destroying. One side held tools and the other had blackened metal hooks that hung from chains on the ceiling. The shed was cold and the air was heavy, full of iron and death. I felt, as a young child, that things were killed and skinned, flayed and cut, but not a way conducive with nature. Not for survival or sustenance, but for entertainment. Evil. The space was dirty, but it felt dirty – filth in its bones and stains behind the walls. I feared touching anything, so we put the wooden latch back. We never talked about it again, and shot out the windows with a bb gun.

The barn never changed much. It stood past the edge of our grass in perpetuity, beyond a treacherous sea of gravel and rocks – something designed and intended to deter barefoot children of summer. But we grew immune with calluses and strong will – and determination to witness the slow decay of our farm and the life that came after. I often stood in its open mouth, breathing vapors of rat poison and dust, risking my health without knowing any better. In the winter the barn stayed closed, but it watched our house from afar, and peered in through our kitchen window long after we fell asleep and until the thaw of Spring. Then, we’d return to the tire swing outside and watch barn swallows use the broken window to make their nests and feed their young in the rafters above the tractor.

My Darling Wife

My Darling Wife

May 10,1945

My Darling Wife;

Again I will make an attempt to write a letter that is more than a jumble of words, yet I fell I will fail for my thoughts are confused and I’m afraid to arrange them in an ordinary fashion lest I wake and find my looking glass made of steel. My darling, I’m happy – happy beyond words of expression yet the slightest  glance at my face would prove to you that which I am incapable to express otherwise. Believe me then doll when I [say] an old Army saying, “I never had so good.”

My health is good and the only medical treatment i’ll need is to have my teeth fixed. All other ailments are well taken care of by my diet. In approximately two weeks I’ll be home with you…the thought of home doll gives me the shivers of joy and I feel my patience is at last giving out. I love you doll, I want you doll, and I need you doll to make my happiness complete. I’m hoping that our 2nd anniversary will see us on our 2nd honeymoon. 

Today I cleaned up and once again feel like an American soldier ; my friends say I look like one too which makes me proud and happy. The food I’m getting is excellent, and in many cases the best I’ve eaten since July 30, 1943 (Damned if that makes sense but you know what I mean). I believe I’d better wind this up, I can no more write now than I can cry.

Please inform me of the condition at home. I would like Eleanor to phone, telegraph, cablephone, or send by pigeon all details of Arthur as soon as I hit the States. 

That’s all for tonight doll, I’ll see you in our dreams.

I love you.

Love,

Ha 

X

From the Safety of France

From the Safety of France

May 9, 1945

Wednesday

My Darling Wife;

I have so much to say that it’s difficult to organize the facts and compose a letter, bear with me while I make a feeble attempt.

At present I’m staying in a RAMP ____ in Epinal, France where I soon expect to be de-loused and issued a completely new uniform for the filthy ____ clothes I am now wearing. I’ve already had my fill of chow and think Uncle Sam [ranks] the highest along that line. In fact, the food is too rich, for everyone of us men has been or is now sick. That Jerry diet of insipid cattle feed mush played hell with our insides, our teeth, our gums both coming and going. That is, of course, when Jerry decided to feed us. 

As I mentioned before, I had my long awaited fill, and it was supplied by our first line troops, whom I esteem greatly both for valor and cooking. The meal I devoured was fried chicken, potatoes, peas, gravy, pears, bread, butter, and coffee. For seconds, I had more bread, butter, and coffee. Then, I managed to get into the kitchen for thirds and had more bread, butter, a steak sandwich, and a bowl of pear juice. That snack filled the cavity that grew out of my prisoner days in the woods and for supper I ravenously downed 2 courses but held up on the third. 

…my sugar dumpling, my sweet, my honey…I am anxiously waiting to eat you up.

Love Ha

The Allied Powers won. World War 2 was over. Harold didn’t know how relieved he would be to hear nothing but French spoken around him. The village he stayed in was converted into a Red Cross checkpoint, where many (former) prisoners of war were processed. For his first order of business, Harold – along with the other men – was instructed to strip down and receive a bath. 

“Alright, son, I’m going to need you to remove all your clothes.” 

After spending the last two years relieving himself in front of thousands, Harold had no problem discarding the awful, dirty, ragged prison clothes for the last time. He could see the scrutiny on the medic’s face as he removed each article of clothing. The process was slow, for Harold was weak and exhausted from almost three weeks of trudging through the German countryside. The medic was patient as Harold held onto a table and slowly removed the last of his clothing. He stood there, bare and cold, while he waited to be looked over. 

Each turn showed a new mark of his previous struggles. His back and arm healed from the plane crash two years earlier, but the lack of medical supplies in the camp left him with a deep scar diagonally across his back just under the shoulder blades. When touched, Harold flinched – parts of it were still tender. His arm healed much better, as did the sores Harold developed from sharing his bunk. The rest of his body was covered in small scars from typical life in a prison camp. There were marks from the bed bugs around his neck where the collar of his shirt rested; white lines ran across the tops of his hands and the fronts of his legs. 

The examiner looked at Harold’s eyes, weighed him, and checked his teeth. Years of improper nutrition left Harold with cavities, some missing teeth, and swollen gums. 

“We’ll get this all fixed up for you once you’re back in the states, no worries.” The medic smiled at Harold. He knew it was genuine and thanked him. “Now if you’ll just get on the scale for me, son.” 

Harold stepped on the scale. In two years he lost almost 50 pounds. He felt his heart sink a little; the number before him was serious concrete evidence of what he endured. He felt himself get emotional and tucked his head down. The medic noticed and put a hand on his shoulder,

“Don’t you worry now, son. We’ll fatten you up no problem. Plenty of cooks outside waiting to feed you. Let’s get you showered and into some new clothes and then fed.” 

The delousing process proved itself to be incredibly rough and unpleasant, but the warm water Harold used afterwards felt like he washed away decades instead of a couple of years. He got a decent shave, put on new clothing, and headed out to the makeshift mess hall for food. The allure of smells that came from the open door were enough to make him drool, and he was greeted by uproarious banter coming from long tables as men talked among themselves and swapped stories of the last few years. 

The Freedom Bells

Harold woke up in the chilly April haze to shouting, followed by two rapid gunshots. A man from a different prisoner group made an escape attempt in the pre-dawn hours. He was found out and shot without question, without a chance to surrender to the armed guards. It was an unfortunate case, Harold knew, but at the same time he felt unphased by the sounds, by the death. He felt hollow, and that scared him. The gunshots themselves didn’t even frighten him, no more than the barking dogs, the biting cold, the hunger; hunger was more of a companion than any other single person he encountered in camp over the course of two years. His emptiness was only satiated by the thought of returning home to Loretta and his family. As he imagined her, waiting for him at Jamaica Station, he touched his hand to the letters he kept in his breast pocket. It was a miracle that they survived as long as they did especially with the infrequency that they were received by him. Harold sat up in the dark, surrounded by the other piles of men carefully separated in groups of three, then groups of several dozen, then groups of several hundred. All gathered up and divided once again like a deck of cards – he just wanted to be home. 

The prisoners were rounded and ordered to continue on their journey. Harold grabbed the food that was left from the night before, and the other men took packs and kindling wood to start another fire later on in the evening. It began to rain several hours into the march and the men were ordered to take shelter under a tree line or in a nearby barn. They dispersed without order to escape the downpour. One man, trampled and injured, lay face-down in the mud; his other two companions hurried over to him to help him up.

“What? Suddenly the lot of ya are savages? All it took was a little rain?” The man hollered at the passing soldiers as he lifted the injured soldier from the ground. 

Harold walked on with caution after witnessing the scene. There was limited space for so many men to find shelter. The men scattered without rhyme or reason, and to avoid any more chaos Harold walked to the far side of a barn where he found an overturned carriage used to transport hay bales. He threw the food underneath it and crawled on his hands and knees through the mud to escape the rain. His two companions found shelter under a large tree about twenty feet away. The slow drumming of rain fell at once on the wooden carriage and Harold felt himself slowly drift off to sleep. He woke up to more yelling. It was nothing unusual – guards attacking out of bounds prisoners. Especially out in the open, he knew there were no rules. Something was different, though, Harold soon realized. The yelling was in English. He heard men yelling in English and he heard the sounds of engines. Harold peered out from under his carriage and saw the prisoners standing around in no particular order, and just beyond them he saw American soldiers – clean cut and free. This is it, he thought to himself. Harold felt his blood pressure rise in excitement and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. He crawled out from under the carriage as fast as he could – as if he might have been forgotten by the soldiers. It took 18 days, but the 13th armored division closed in on the men in the death march. They overtook and captured the SS who ordered the 4,000 prisoners to walk to their deaths. On May 3rd, Harold was liberated from German control. Transportation was arranged and Harold – along with the countless other American captives – was transported to France where he planned to gorge himself on food, receive medical attention, and finally wrote his girl to tell her he was coming home. 

Ich Haben Nadel

There were whispers that the prisoners were destined for Braunau, to get as far away from Russian forces as possible. They followed the Danube River, unable to stop unless it was to sleep for an hour or two. 4,000 or so men split off into groups of up to 300 men, and within those groups they delegated themselves to parties of three or four – one to gather wood, one to gather food, one to guard the food, and so on. As they passed through fields and private farm lands, food gatherers such as Harold would pull root vegetables straight from the ground, wipe the dirt off, and eat them raw. Turnips, potatoes, carrots – whatever they could find was more of a delicacy than the slop that was served by the Jerry’s back in Stalag XVII-B. Harold bit hard into a carrot, his teeth aching from two years of no toothbrush, and thought how grateful he was to never have just hot water for breakfast – or boiled cabbage for dinner, or muddied black coffee – again. He continued onward, marching through mud and fields; he imagined he was marching home to Loretta. He envisioned the cottage on the water, the smell of salt carried on a warm breeze. The thoughts took him back to his early days at Keesler Air Force Base and the muddy Mississippi. It seemed like forever ago to him. He wouldn’t have to write her letters telling her everything was fine before going to bed with hunger pains. He wouldn’t have to tell her that he was in good spirits after seeing innocent men shot dead before him. He’d never have to kill – or watch someone be killed – again. Even with the freezing nights in German territory beating down on his head and face each night, Harold continued to think of her. He would pull into Jamaica Station and this time she’d be there, waiting for him. Her hair would be curled and her lipstick would be a bright shade of pink. She’d have her tea length dress on that he liked, and she’d be so excited to see him that she would consider running onto the train herself, because she just couldn’t wait any longer. Then, that night, he’d lay next to her in bed, and he would do that every night for the rest of his life. He never wanted to be away from her again. 

Austrian women impatiently lingered in their yards and watched these poor, broken souls wander past their homes. Their faces were those of longing and concern as they witnessed the procession. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts – all waited and looked on at the prisoners as if they might have found their own sons in the lines. The men were thin and weak, but knew if they stopped they would be hit, or have a dog sicked on them, or maybe even be shot by an SS. The guards were extremely tense and constantly on the lookout for Allied forces. Harold and the others knew the war was ending, but they were all beaten down and cold and no one had weapons to fight back. A woman stood closer and closer to the men and, when the SS weren’t looking, reached into the bosom of her apron and threw what Harold immediately recognized as bread at his feet. Bread! Fresh bread for him to have! He quickly scooped up the piece and devoured it. As he looked back he saw the other women continue to do this for the rest of the men, breaking off bits of bread that they kept concealed in their garments and tossing them to the men like they were a line of ducks. 

He felt tired. The group was broken off into only a couple hundred and they had to have walked for what Harold thought to be seven or eight days already. There were casualties among the prisoners and he figured that was the plan of the Germans all along – to walk the men to death. He thought to himself that must mean the Germans were going to lose the war, which at least for the Allies was something to look forward to. The wandering felt aimless, although they kept hearing a goal of Braunau as the endpoint of their alleged journey. 

Harold walked up to a farm where he saw livestock wandering around within a small fenced area. Tempting, he wondered for a moment, but it would be far too much effort to acquire, kill, and eat an animal. A young girl – Polish he thought – broke his train of thought when she appeared out of a chicken coop. She was the first young woman he had seen in at least two years. She was beautiful and thin, her hair braided behind her head and her apron full of eggs. Her face was young and her eyes looked bright but frightened – what did Harold look like to her? He hadn’t seen his own face in months, he remembered. All the walking and wandering through mud and dirt must have made a mess of him. He quickly looked at his hands for an assessment and noticed his dirty, broken fingernails, bloodied knuckles, and realized that’s probably what the rest of him looked like as well. He cautiously took a step towards her and she took an invigorated one back. He extended his hands in a kind way to try and show he meant no harm. She tilted her head at him and looked at his open, dirty palms. She asked him a question in German, but he didn’t understand most of it. He heard “American,” and, “prisoner.” Harold just knew he wanted one of the eggs in her apron. 

Just then, he remembered the sewing needle he pocketed from the British Red Cross when he had scurvy. He dug around in his trousers and produced it. Harold pointed at her apron and said, “Egg?” The girl, less fear in her eyes, tilted her head to the side. He extended the needle between his thumb and forefinger. Somewhere in his brain, Harold tried to recall his mother’s words when she made and fixed all the children’s clothing.

“Ich…” he tried. “Ich haben… nadel?” The girl lit up and smiled. He said it right! “Ich haben nadel!” Harold excitedly said it again and took another step towards her. He offered her the needle. The young girl took the needle in her hand. Her hands were so soft and clean, he noticed – and gentle. He pointed at her apron pocket full of eggs.  

“Hühnerei?” The girl then reached into her apron and pulled out a hen’s egg. It was the most perfect thing he’d ever seen. It rested delicately in her palm, small enough for her to cover it completely if she were to close her hand. Polished from the fabric in her apron, Harold could have sworn it shined. She handed it to him and he carefully took it as if he was handling a newborn baby. “Danke, danke.” The girl smiled and Harold turned around to make his way back to his men.  

The other two were anxiously waiting near a small fire, some root vegetables spread out near their feet. 

“Well, how was it? What did you find, Red?” Harold smiled and said nothing. He only reached into his shirt pocket and produced the egg – the egg. The men gasped in amazement. “We’ll eat like kings tonight!” They looked around nervously to make sure none of the other groups saw the bounty Harold brought back. All the prisoners ate since the opening of XVII-B were canned foods, boiled potatoes and cabbage – nothing close to an egg. They sat in the cold, huddled around their small fire and split a raw hen’s egg three ways. It was the best meal Harold had in two years. It was a meal of freedom.