There are a few left who still remember the war. They speak of faint, childhood recollections – images harbored in their minds of their fathers, setting sail across the dark expanse for the unknown shore. They are proud of their ancestors, and rightly so. Those men were heroes. Now many years later, their children gather to speak of those glory days, when men were bold enough to risk life and limb for what burned in their blood. There are a few left who still remember the war; but of those who fought in it, only one remains. Nate Foster was twelve when the first shot was fired. I know, because I have heard his story told in his own voice.
___ ___ ___
In the warm months, when the days are long and the nights short, I take the roundabout way home. Miller’s Pass weaves itself away from town, meandering about the farmlands before it tumbles back into my own neighborhood. The path is quiet and still and carries me off in its freedom. Though I am much too old for such folly, I often slip off my shoes and tie their laces over my shoulder, sinking my sore toes into the cool, dark earth. I am weary in the evenings, after teaching all day in the musty schoolhouse. The path brings me strength – in its solitude and freshness, yes; yet what I love most about Miller’s Pass is the way it solemnly slips alongside the Foster gate, for it is there I find my courage again.
I pass the farmhouse while Nathan is still settled on the porch. He sits here in the evenings, resting from his work in the fields. He sits in silence, taking in the sun’s last breaths in his faded rocking chair (the one that used to be his father’s). He always has a glass of lemonade in hand, and one on the table beside him, poured up for me. He knows I will come; he is waiting for me. He greets me and beckons me to join him (“the sky is lovely tonight,” he says).
The gate is always left unlatched, so I swing it open and take my place on the porch steps, placing my shoes and my books beside me. These stoops have been worn smooth by the generations of children who have piled upon them, begging the ancient man for a story. In these evenings, I am no longer a schoolteacher, for I am one of them, a child myself – my feet bare, my legs stretched along the step’s length, and my head rested against the railing. I hold my lemonade and I hold my breath. For I am awaiting the story.
The silence is as warm and comforting as the night air, and my companion’s thought are lost among the rows of corn. That is well, for I know that it is from those stalks that his story rises. When he begins, it is as if he is speaking only to himself, yet I know he means me to listen. As the last embers gild the far fields, he tells me his story – the same story he always shares in exactly the same way. It is not that he forgets, nor that he doubts my memory. He knows that it is this story that he must tell and that I must hear once again.
He tells of a morning when he was twelve, when his father woke him before dawn and led him out into the dark, up to the solitary ridge that frames their family’s lands. I study the ridge intently as he begins his story. I often think I can catch a glimpse of the boy and his father at the crest, taking in the cadence of the earth below, the fields and the farmhouse. “This is our Given, son,” Nate’s father told him. “The sacred rhythm of our livelihood. And we must give our lives to defending it.” He knelt down, took up a handful of soil, and pressed it into the boy’s open palms. “Today I must leave to defend this on a foreign shore. You must stay and defend it here. Remember what I have taught you. Fight hard. And never forget what you are fighting for – our small and blessed Given.” With that, the father embraced his son and turned down the path towards the west. I often think I can see him – Nate, as a young boy – alone on the brink of the world, his palms full of soil. I blink, and the boy is gone, replaced by the man who sits beside me.
Nathan tells me of the battle. He tells of the long years – of the hard years. He tells of his mother and of the weariness they shared. He tells of the fight, and the days when he didn’t think he could fight anymore. He tells of how heavy the plow was and how light the rains when they needed them most. Three years after his father left was when the first drought came. “I thought we had lost everything,” he says, and a smile tugs at his worn face. “As if the weather could harm our Given. But I learned.”
And he did learn. He learned what battle is – hands bleeding with the thorns of the garden, back aching with the press of the plow. He mended the farmhouse after the storms came and strengthened it for the next. He learned the rise and fall of the seasons – those of the field and those of the soul. He planted, tended, reaped, ate. “When I left the fields in the afternoon, I left a small bit of myself behind, buried in the soil I tilled,” he says. And I believe it. I believe it because I see the way his eyes are drawn to the corn, as if they share a secret together. He gave of himself into those furrows.
And every evening, after the work was through, he climbed the ridge and praised the Almighty for the Given. Every evening that his father was gone. Every evening for seven years.
“I was working the eastern field when he came up the path,” he says. “He never said anything. He just leaned his rifle against the fence, took up the hoe, and fell in step beside me. We finished the plot that way – just silent, listening to the breath and step of the other.” That night, they embraced for the first time in seven years. They wept, they praised the Almighty, and they returned to the ridge – together. Nathan’s father knelt down and took up a handful of soil. “When he pressed it into my palms, it held a weight that it hadn’t those many years before,” Nathan says.
I study the ridge as he speaks. I often think I can catch a glimpse of the two on the ridge, taking in their Given, the sacred rhythm of their livelihood. But now, I do not see a boy with his father. I see two men.
I realize that Nathan is no longer telling his story – he has shared what he must say and what I must hear. Dusk has settled upon the farmhouse. I set my empty lemonade glass on the table and gather myself up from his steps. He grasps my hand in his wrinkled, leathery palm. He looks into my eyes, and I thank him for the story. He thanks me (for what, I shall never know), and I squeeze his hand and step down from the porch. I pick up my shoes and my books, for I now remembered the story and remembered my courage.
___ ___ ___
It is like this every day that I teach in the warm months. On Saturdays, when school is out, I often see Nathan at Graham’s General Store, supplying the weekly needs. The store is crowded on the weekend, as it is a gathering place for the townsfolk. They slouch on the steps and talk of many things; but mostly, they talk of the War, of their fathers, and of those glory days. Nathan does not rebuke their folly. He swings his groceries over his shoulder and heads back home. It is harvest season, and the fields are waiting.