Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Dead Soldier's Wife

The annual Honour festival had been held in her village ever since she could remember. When she was a very little girl, there had been a big war (which she didn't really remember), and from then on every year, year after year, the hilltop fair would commemorate the bravery of their only village hero, the martyr, R. Hearst. Like all other children of the village, she would wait eagerly for the fair, where dolls, and sweets, and trinkets would be sold. In the colourful rush of swings and hawkers and holidays, the blood of war was forgotten. A quick customary prayer, an even quicker speech extolling the virtues of the great yet young Captain R. Hearst, who had laid his life down for his country, and the fair would be thrown open. The drummers would beat their drums loudly, the trumpeters would play their horns loudly, as if to drown any sombre remains of the fair's grim origins. At the end of three days of feasting and fun, Emily would return happily to her village at the foot of the hills, a doll in one hand, candy in another, and R. Hearst's grave would wait again for a year to pass.    

Years, fairs, and Emily's childhood slowly passed by. There were newer children now, newer visitors, newer stalls - much bigger. The celebrations during the Honour festival continued, but Emily began to be drawn to something else. Suddenly, the opening sermon, praising the good Captain R. Hearst, sounded sweeter than the fair songs to Emily's ears. For the first time in her life, 16-year-old Emily visited the grave of the brave R. Hearst. Beneath the mounds of customary flowers, lay a simple stone grave, with a simple epitaph engraved on it:

Capt. R. Hearst
(1889 - 1911)
That brave, beautiful man,
who died for us 

The music was louder than ever, but Emily just stood and stared. The pastor smiled at her indulgently (for people rarely revisited the reason for the Honour festival) and then left to join the others. The inscription was  dusty. She stepped up on the grave and dusted that ornate faded gold lettering with her hand. That was when they first touched. Her sisters came calling, and whisked her away to the fair, but a part of her heart secretly stayed behind.

From that day, Emily's feet were drawn to the hilltop, where amidst ash-brown leaves, lay the brave and beautiful R. Hearst. At first, she carried little wildflowers, to pay his grave homage. But the leaves and the dust and the cobwebs bothered her, bothered the grave, so she carried a little broom along on her daily visits. The villagers thought it odd that the blacksmith's youngest daughter should go up alone to the hilltop everyday, and odder still that she should carry a broom along! But they just laughed and said nothing. What else could it be, but a little eccentricity? But there was more; something they would later call morbid and sordid. But there was more; it was probably love.

Had a curious soul followed Emily up the hill on any of those many days, he would have seen her either sitting solemnly, looking down at the village, or sweeping the grave fervently, or lying on her grave - her smooth, warm cheek against the smooth, cold stone, or talking to the tombstone, or smiling or crying. If he went closer, he would have heard her address the tomb of R. Hearst as 'Darling'. He would have heard her musing loudly what the R in R. Hearst stood for - Roger? Robert? Renee? Raphael? or Richard? He would have heard her impassioned voice and seen her adoring eyes. And if he could go close to her heart, he would discover a strange, terrifying desire that was taking shape therein. But no one was privy to the desires of the village blacksmith's youngest and prettiest daughter, and Emily went about the world, her heart full of a dangerous kind of love. Almost a year rolled by.

The Honour festival's opening sermons had always spoken about the virtues of R. Hearst, but had never spoken about R. Hearst. He was a traveller, who turned soldier, who fought in a war, and who died protecting their village. No one knew from where he had come, and where he would have gone. No one knew who he was, and how he came there. No one, but the pastor, knew. R. Hearst, the stranger, had come to the village church one snowy night, spoke little about himself, thanked the pastor in the morning, and left to join the battalion. Emily saw this in a vision one night, and knocked hard at the pastor's door the next morning. She demanded to know everything there was to be known about Capt. R. Hearst, the soldier who had died for this village, and in whose memory the Honour festival was held each year. 

The pastor recounted that cold night from years ago, painting from his mind's eye a picture of Capt R. Hearst. A young man, not more than twenty and five, with broad shoulders, and bright eyes. He called himself R. Hearst. Dressed simply, in the manner of common country folks, the man had yet a noble countenance. He had the most brilliant blue eyes, that would not be dulled by the night's cruel cold. Food there was none, so he ate only the meager bread and wine, that the pastor could offer him from the church's cellar, yet his voice was deep with gratitude. He was a single man, carrying no burdens upon his being, save for the love of his motherland. He slept little that night, but was fresh of appearance, when he awoke. He finally bid the pastor goodbye, with what the pastor thought, was a mild tear in his eye. He had no riches nor horses, and the last he remembered of the living R. Hearst was a handsome figure walking down the village road on a wintry dawn, receding into the horizon. The next the pastor saw Capt. R. Hearst, he was in military finery, a neat bullet hole on his heart, and a proud, dead face inside the coffin. He had performed the last rites.

Emily had smiled through most of the story, 'seeing' for the first time the man whose image she had long sought. But by the end of the pastor's narration, she broke into a uncontrollable spate of tears. The pastor knew at once that it had more to do than with his story-telling prowess. He remembered suddenly that he had a picture of him, that the young, dead captain's sister had given to him, when she had come looking for her brother, and found him gone. She had never come back. He almost gave Emily the picture - for what would better pacify her? - but decided against it when he thought he heard the words 'My love' between her muffled cries. Emily left, and the pastor prayed. He prayed, for the first time, that the Lord God may take away from someone what they so desired. He prayed that Emily wouldn't come back, but he knew she would.

She did return; the following Thursday - two days before the Honour festival. Her eyes seemed red from crying, but they were now bright with resolve. She waited until the villagers left after the sermon, and then approached the pastor. She held a neat, large bundle under her arms. A bundle that was big enough to contain a wedding dress. The pastor knew he was about to enter an argument, he would not win. So he listened to her patiently. He told her it could not be done, but she looked at him with imploring eyes. There was no other way she would have it. What would her parents say? What would the villagers say? She only shook her head. The only other recourse would be to join Mr. R. Hearst in his grave, she said simply. The pastor agreed to hold the wedding on Sunday - at the Honour festival.

The villagers assembled in hoards again. The fair ground was set. The stalls were set. There were toys and trinkets. But there were no colours. The villagers didn't know if they were going for a wedding or a mourning. Some wore white. Some wore black. They had talked and talked and raged and begged and threatened, but the will of the blacksmith's daughter was unbending. The choice was simple, she said: A wedding or a funeral.

The sombre father of the bride walked her down the aisle that led to the grave. The sombre bridesmaids stood still. The parishioners sat grim. The service began. The rings were exchanged. She put her own ring on her wedding finger, and hung her husband's ring by a simple chain on his tomb's cross. She kissed the familiar stone stab again, for the first time before others, when the pastor asked the bride to be kissed. She smiled when he asked for the vows to be said. She said he would be by his side while her life lasted, and then forever together with him when she finally died. The pastor gave her a wedding gift - her husband's picture. She wept for joy. The guests cheered hesitantly, their hearts heavy. She said she was happy - the happiest she had ever been. She asked the fair to be continued, for she was now the hostess. Now, the guests cheered heartily.

She brought her other things. Her lone broom now had company. A house grew around these things. The grave became his shrine - their home. Years passed. Her love grew. Capt. R. Hearst, whom she now called Roger, lay silently by her side in the night, as in the day. She passed on, united finally with her one true love. A life from the past, and a life from the present converged, till history acknowledged them as one.     

Today, when the Honour festival is celebrated, there still are dolls, and sweets, and trinkets. There are swings and hawkers and holidays. There are celebrations and venerations. But the festival starts around not one graves but two. No one suspects that there ever was just one grave. The older-looking grave belongs to one Capt. R. Hearst, and the second grave says,

Mrs. Emily R. Hearst
(1908 - 1940)
That beautiful, brave woman,
who lived and died for him




the mind behind the mindless lampoons said...

A very special reason why I like this piece. That apart, very..very well written...

KP said...

Oh my god... that was an excellent narration.. loved it every bit..! Some how any girl can connect to it, a girl who has dreamt of falling in love for a hero from the stories she has heard.. excellent.. (again)

Anonymous said...

Beautifully weaved and details are superb. loved reading it. thanks so much

Urmi Chanda Vaz said...

@the mind: I'd really like to know what that special reason is. That apart, thank you very... very much!

@KP and @iambeingme Thank you!

Nikhil said...

Beautiful, poignant, heartbreaking in a lot of ways. Of course you did well to place the story in an age when one could say for certain such love existed. Such people lived. This is how they loved. Where does one see such love, such loyalty, servility & faith exist? Loved it for the narrative, for the tautness, for not diverging away, like i do most of your stories. Now that needs no telling again, or does it? :)

Judge Whisky said...

The beginning of the story reminded me of the attitude most westerners have toward pagan cum christian festivals such as christmas and easter. They quickly forget the meaning of the holiday and get on with having a good time.
As I read on, I was captivated by the story, and taken back to when life was simpler in many ways but people had a hard time understanding or accepting other people's choices.
I also drew a parallel with our time, in that we can actually nurture feelings for a person we have never met and will probably never meet.
It is their stories that matter. And you, Urmi, write excellent stories.

Urmi Chanda Vaz said...

@Nikhil: I like to think ideal loves exist. We may not know them, see them, or not recognise them when we see them, but there has to be some, somewhere.

@Judge: Just goes to show, Josh, how much attention you paid to the story. Thank you so much. It means a lot of a writer to be appreciated by a reader - you'd know that.

Uday Mane said...

Ok, so firstly I am completely blown over by the look of the blog. Its suave and funky. Secondly, I cant figure if the concept is too romantic or too scary. Falling in love so deeply with a dead person is new to me. I am not a good judge or a critic but I blown to pieces with this story. Absolutely amazing.

Sameera Khan said...

People dont realize there are all kinds of love. And why can't one love a dead man? I love you for writing this. Heck! I love you, period. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness !! I am so lost now,, this is love ,, and you gave it such beautiful words ... thank you for writing this !

Asma said...

Only if I could be like the dead soldier's wife, be able to love like that, and not expect anything back in return, unconditional , sans expectations, pure love.

Beautiful story telling Urmi. Thank you for sharing. Love.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury said...

Nice one..well written