Mr. Doyer led me by my elbow and said, “Let the other guys get that stuff later. You look like you need a shot of something strong. Now, tell me how your face ran into a meat cleaver.”
“Aaw, I just tripped.” The glib answer rolled off my tongue, but my cheeks were still raw from yesterday shelling.
“What you boys went through here was no small feat,” Doyer said with concern. Too exhausted to joke, I asked, “Where do we go from here?”
Doyer smiled. “Are you speaking philosophically or literally?’ He lit the cigarette I didn’t want, shoved it between my lips, and pushed me into motion. “Either way, I’d say the only way to go is forward.”
Father Stuart’s brogue pulls my mind back to the Easter evening’s sermon. “Lads, the cold, the hunger, the sickness, and the fatigue ye have suffered has changed ye into men. Tis a tough way to become a man, fighting the crusades of others. It’s the ordinary man, trapped between earth and hell, who wins the war. And, while we can’t choose when we die, let our death be worth our lives.”
In front of the gathering lies a field of wounded men, their tortured eyes holding tough questions for God. I think of those who didn’t make it and wonder why I was spared.
“But let God open yer eyes to the beauty that refuses to surrender.” With a sweeping arc, the priest encompasses everything within the hills and valleys. Silver-tipped fruit pigeons swoop in for an evening’s meal, cooing gently. Perfumed, yellow-fringed flowers rustle with the leaves. “Ye know that long after yer gone, this valley will be here. And the children of this country will walk in yer path. But yer struggle will not be theirs. God will hand them their own burdens.
Hopefully, the seed of peace will have been nourished by yer blood, and life’s beauty will lighten their load.” With that, the priest steps down from the altar to the injured. As he moves among them, he finishes the sermon with, “Let the war wait! Let us rejoice in life today! And tomorrow, give the Japs a good kick in the ass. In the name of God. Amen.”
Watching Father Stuart bless the boys as he meanders through the network of litters, I realize I’ll smell the stench of Maggot Hill for the rest of my life. Water will always taste better because I know its value. Nothing will be insurmountable, because I landed on my feet—okay, my face—when I thought it was the end. But it was only another beginning.
Finally, the tears break loose as my mind sees Collin’s grave and what I said to him as I knelt by it for my final farewell. “Oh, little buddy, I wish you could’ve waited one more day.”
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