I stopped at the top of the hill and looked down at the green and yellow valley below. Fields of wheat and orchards of apples and pears occupied the fertile land, smattered with houses and barns. The growing season neared its end, and even a few of the wheat fields had been harvested. I knew every house and the occupants therein as well as the back of my own hand. The setting sun shone down on my face, warming me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The sweet smell of sunflowers, fruit, and wheat filled my nostrils, causing my mouth to turn up into a smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled, or the last time my body didn’t ache from cold air. Sweat ran down my back from the walking, and it felt good, and comforting, because it didn’t freeze instantly. A light breeze cooled my face and jostled my vest.
"It’s good to be home" I said.
I stood alone, but I wanted to hear my voice out loud. I wanted to know that I hadn’t died in the past two years and I stood on the verge of returning home, to my farm and most important, to my wife, Hannah. I thought about her face, as I did every day I rotted in the prison camp, digging mass graves through frozen earth, but this time I knew for sure I would see her again.
With that thought I walked down the hill toward the farming community that I called home before I joined the Cygnaran Army almost three years ago.
I reached the bottom of the hill and I saw Tom McGraw guiding a plow pulled by a steamjack through his plot of land. I stopped and watched him work, longing to feel fresh plowed earth beneath my feet and fresh turned earth.
Tom turned his head, saw me, and ordered the steamjack to stop. He let the plow fall and he walked towards me. He studied and scrutinized me, a confused recognition on his face.
"I would swear I was looking at a ghost if I didn’t know any better," he said. "We thought you were dead."
"I was for two years," I said.
"It’s good to see you again, Bill" he said.
He held his hand out and I clasped it hard, the physical contact reassuring me that I did stand here, in the valley of my home, alive and well.
"It’s good to be home, Tom," I said. "I’m looking forward to guiding a plow again."
"Well, we could use you around here," he said. "The army’s been taking most of crop for the troops, so any little bit would help."
"I’ll get to that soon enough," I said. "Mostly, I want to see Hannah. She’s the only thing that kept me going all these years."
His face crinkled up into a queer expression, as if I had blasphemed against Morrow himself.
"Let’s go inside for some cider," he said. "There’s some things you should know before going home."
Something inside of me knew that I wouldn’t like the cider, but I knew I should follow him. Time in a prison camp gave you the ability to just accept some things, no matter how terrible, and if I had to wait another hour or two before seeing my beloved Hannah, then so be it.
We walked down the road to his house and entered the kitchen. I took a seat at the worn oak table while Tom poured us two glasses of cider. He brought them to the table and took a seat across from me. I remembered many conversations with Tom before I left for the war. He never showed emotion. In fact, his greeting to me a few minutes earlier didn’t surprise me. He only gave you a handshake and hello, other than that he only cared about the facts. I think he became that way when his wife and children died of yellow fever. I had been just a boy then, but even I knew he took their deaths hard, and that made him hard, as if the fear of loving someone again scared him.
I took a long gulp of the cider. The cool liquid poured down my throat, but the taste didn’t reduce my fear of what Tom had to tell me.
"We thought you were dead," he said. "The lists came through every week, and one week your name was on it, about a year after you left."
I looked him in the eye.
"Well, you can see that was a mistake," I said. "Here I am, sitting at your table, drinking your cider."
"I know that, but it’s not that simple. You see, Hannah thought you were dead. We had a funeral for you, the whole valley showed up. Hannah wept like an infant for you. She loved you almost more than life itself, I’m sure that she still loves you."
My face flashed anger and I banged the table with my open palm.
"Of course she loves me, I’m her husband!"
Tom raised his hands to calm me down.
"Yes you are, but you see, we thought you were dead. And things have changed in the past two years."
I studied his face but the blank expression gave no clues as to what he eluded to.
"Well, just get on with it," I said. "I’ve been digging holes in solid frozen ground for two years, I can hear whatever it is you have to say."
He took a deep breath and a drink of cider, and I waited.
"Well, since you were ‘officially’ dead, Hannah moved on with her life."
"What does that mean?"
He took another pause.
"She’s got a new husband."
I sat stunned, unable to speak. I studied the oak table, the lines of the grain, the worn edges where countless arms rested. My Hannah, the love of my life, the reason for surviving the unbearable conditions of prison in a frozen, desolate wasteland, had turned her back on me, on us, on our marriage.
"Who?" I said.
I couldn’t look Tom in the eye.
"Ranor Targo, from the next valley over."
I felt as if a Khador boot connected with my gut.
"I know him," I said. "He had carnal designs on Hannah since we were young."
Another minute of silence passed before Tom spoke again.
"He waited the appropriate mourning period, then he courted Hannah. They’ve been married for six months now."
I snorted in derision.
"The ‘appropriate’ mourning period, what does that mean?"
"We thought you were dead, Bill. She didn’t just run out and marry somebody the first day she found out. But she couldn’t just die a spinster, either. She’s a young, beautiful woman."
"She’s a whore!"
I slammed my hands on the table again.
"Calm down, Bill. She’s not a whore. You should have seen the way she cried over you. You would have thought it was child that died."
I wept. I wept out loud. I had no shame in front of Tom, or anybody, at that moment.
"I should have just stayed at that prison camp. I should have starved myself to death, or succumbed to the cold.
Everyday in that hellhole was better than this day."
Tears flowed down my face and my shoulders heaved with my sobs.
"I’m sorry, Bill. If we had known you weren’t really dead then I know she would have waited for you."
"What should I do now?" I said.
"Sleep on it. Everything looks better in the morning. You can stay here tonight. Then tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do."
I realized then that the last rays of sunlight streamed in through the windows. A fatigue washed over me and my whole body ached.
"OK," I said. "I’ll stay here. Thanks Tom, you’re a good friend."
We stood up and he showed me to a bedroom on the second floor. I flopped on the bed and sleep overtook me the instant my head hit the pillow.
I woke later that night with a start. I couldn’t remember if the events of the day had been a dream or if I truly had escaped from Khador. After a minute or two everything became clear. I had indeed come home and found out that my wife had thought me dead and married another man. I stood and washed my face in the cool water in the basin beside the bed. I walked to the window and opened it, letting in the cool air. It felt good, cool but not cold. Then, for an instant, I missed the cold. I fell asleep in my clothes so I didn’t need to dress. I opened my small rucksack, pulled out the skinning knife I picked up on the way home, and fastened it to my belt. Then I made my way down the stairs and out the door, without making a sound, not waking Tom.
The stars shone enough to provide light for movement, yet darkness still obscured my movement. Like a wraith I glided down the road towards my home, and my wife.
I reached the door of my house and I took three deep breaths to calm my nerves. I opened the door and entered the house. I recognized my furniture and the smell of my house hit me. But another smell permeated the house, the smell of an intruder, an imposter. I crept up the stairs to the master bedroom and moved in like a shadow.
In my bed lay two people. Hannah, my lovely Hannah, her golden hair spilled down her shoulders. Next to her Ranor Targo lay in my bed. I drew my knife from its sheath and watched the blade flash in the moonlight. I stepped to the side of the bed next to Ranor and stared down at him.
He lay on his back, his breath deep and rhythmic, with the blanket pulled up to his waist, his chest bare, and Hannah’s arm draped across his chest as she lay on her side. I glared at them both, the anger welling up inside of me at the thought of their union. The thought of another man lying with my wife brought bile up from my gut and into my mouth.
I looked at the knife again and waved it back and forth, tightening my grip on the handle. I brought the knife close to his throat and whispered to myself.
"So you think you can steal my wife, my home, my farm, my life. I will show you that I am a man."
I turned my gaze to Hannah and noticed something odd about her appearance. She seemed . . . puffy. She had always been a slender woman, so the excess fat in her face did not suit her at all. I stood up tall and looked her over more carefully, and then the realization came upon me. She had gained weight from the child in her belly. Her abdomen extended out like a pumpkin underneath her nightgown.
I took a step back.
A child! They are going to have a child!
Hannah and I did not have children. I left for war before she became pregnant. And now, with another man, a child grew in her womb.
I turned my head back and forth, confused, and then I looked at the knife in my hand. An acceptance came to me then, much like the acceptance of my fate in the camp. I sheathed the knife and tiptoed out of the room, down the stairs, and back into the night.
I walked back to Tom’s house and entered as quietly as I had left earlier. I gathered my belongings and left once again, for the last time. I walked down the road, past my house, and towards the city where the recruiting office resided.
"It’s best that we didn’t have children before I left," I said.