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The Flower That Opens
It wasn’t even as if he could distinguish the particular gun shot. Not by ear alone, that is. The bullet slammed into his chest, ripping through the cotton of his shirt. The impact knocked him down and the man toppled backwards onto the grass.
Blue sky stretched cloudless, in every direction overhead. An eternity of blue. The sound of shots was muffled now. He supposed he must be dazed. He couldn’t even hear the shouts of his commander anymore. There must be others around him. Men running by. For a second there was a flicker of green uniform to his left. A soldier, but whose? Not that it mattered now. It was a fine day. Truly it was a shame he would die.
He would die. It struck him them. Piercing pain stabbed into his chest. Agonizingly he dragged one hand to his side, attempting vainly to push himself up with the other from where he lay sprawled. His fingers touched dampness, and searing pain shot through him again. Blood stained his hands. He managed, trembling to bring them to eye level. Red. Red. Crimson.
Death. It was curious. He sagged back to the ground. He’d seen many men die these last few months. The war had taken the lives of stalwarts and cowards. Some had screamed. They had writhed, clutched at limbs that weren’t there anymore, mere bloody stumps pustulating and diseased. There had been others too. Ones who seemed at peace. They’d look into your eyes as the color drained from their faces, the last vestiges of life ebbing away. They’d speak of God, or home, or even make a joke. Which am I?
He didn’thave the energy to fight. Yet he wasn’t ready to give up the ghost. There must be something. A boot pounded next to his head. He turned his head although his neck resisted, like twisting a rusty door handle. Perhaps rigor mortis was making a head start on paralyzing what would soon be his corpse.
It took a moment for his eyes to focus. The grass was still green here, if trampled. And in the grass, like a pearl on green velvet, was a flower. He stared. Desperately now he reached. Never had a foot taken so far to cross. His fingers stretched towards the blossom, its white head with three petals hung down, like a dog shamed into a corner for peeing on the carpet. It was a snowdrop.(iFlorist)
He remembered a story. After the Fall, when humanity was banished from the Garden, Eve sat weeping in a field. Snow was falling about her, adding to the woman’s misery. An angel came to comfort her and while they spoke, a snowflake fell unto the angel’s upturned hands. He breathed on it before letting it fall to the ground where it grew into the first snowdrop. So hope was born.(D'Cruz)
Hope. What a curious idea. His finger brushed the flower. He stroked the petal, smearing a trail of brilliant red. Where was Hope now? He felt nothing. There was no hope, no despair, no interest. He felt only the bitter bite where the bullet lodged. His snowdrop, his Hope, where was she now?
“Not in the time of pleasure
Hope doth set her bow;
But in the sky of sorrow,
Over the vale of woe.”(Cheney)
Who had written that? It was some old poem, he recalled. How fitting he supposed, the vale was woeful, but the sky, he reflected, was azure. If Hope was indeed an archer she had missed her mark this time. A swell of bitterness suffused him. Now he would die, and he would never see his Hope again.
Hope should have been one of the demons inside Pandora’s box. “'Tis Hope is the most Hopeless thing of all.”(Cowley) The gods of Greece had given man a gift and never imagining the harm that gods might wreak, Pandora’s box was opened. Out soared the daimones and spirits whom Zeus had trapped: “ills (kakoi) and hard toil (ponoi) and heavy sickness (nosoi).” Only Elips, the daimone of hope remained in the jar.(Theoi Greek Mythology)
He could almost see them. The spirits, malicious plagues, screamed across the crystal blue sky. For was that not war? Each bullet, even the one festering in his gut, was a mark of this. For what was hope? Its purpose to allay the misery beset upon man by their very gods? Hope was like a soap bubble on a cloudy day, no more tangible than the daimones wreaking havoc as terrifying demons. Demons were nothing when compared to humanity.
Would that hope had not cursed man to believe, he’d never have been here. He would have been at home. He’d read Erwin Canham’s report, “It is an act of citizenship to add that disillusion is not enough, that constructive thinking, hope and faith must soon emerge and be blended in a plan for the future.”(Canham 1) And two years later Japanese fighter planes had struck at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. A plan for the future had been forged that day. He’d been enlisted the year before, in the nation’s first ever peacetime draft. He’d kissed Angela goodbye and then there had been nothing of her but the letters and once, a pressed snowdrop blossom...
“Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.” (Campbell)
God, but he missed her. His view grew hazy and a tear slid down his cheek. It would never be enough to wipe the grime and blood from his face. He missed Angela and he missed Hope.
His daughter. Angela had named her, and he hadn’t objected. The day of her birth Angela’s father had read from the Bible. The old man had sat in their old rocking chair, the antique one he’d given them the day of their marriage. For once he hadn’t been chewing the tobacco leaf he was so fond of and the silence where the suck and guttural spitting would have been lent him a reverential air the man never could have attained otherwise.
The Bible on his lap was nearly as old and dog-eared as the man himself. The pages creaked rather than rustled when he opened the book. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”(Romans 8:24-25) It wasn’t twenty minutes later that Angela’s contractions started again, this time for good. That day his daughter had been born.
She was beautiful. Small, pudgy, a gory shade of red, she’d taken his breath away. He’d knelt beside the bed, afraid to touch her, terrified of those tiny hands. Angela’s father was reading again, once the midwife had let them back in the room. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,”(1 Corinthians 15:19) he’d quoted. It hadn’t seemed the most appropriate verse, but in this moment nothing could be less than perfect.
Angela met his eyes. She was haggard and there were dark circles under her eyes and a slight cut where she had bit her lip. He had never seen anything more beautiful, his wife and his child. She’d said something, but her voice was too low and husky for him to hear. He leaned closer, reaching one tremulous hand to caress the matted brown strands of her hair and push them behind her ear. “Hope,” she breathed again. “Her name is Hope, my little Nadia.”(Cresswell)
“People hope for the future or for their loved ones,”(Connor Rust) Angela explained to him. Baby Hope drooled quietly in her arms, deep infantile eyes focused beyond anything in the living space of their three room flat. “People hope when they have nothing left to hold onto.”(Connor Rust) You have me, he’d protested. She smiled and stretched out a hand to stroke his cheek. “No,” she whispered, “I have everything.” Baby Hope had begun to gurgle then and his beautiful wife turned away.
It was Angela too who had later told him about the language of flowers. From that day on it had been his solemn duty to bring his tiny daughter her bouquet of snowdrops whenever a vender sold them. “...if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter, than the gloom of despair.”(Thomas Jefferson) It was simple, a flower for a smile.
Then war had come and now he would never have Hope again.
In an instant rage pulsed through him, elevating him above the agony of his wound and the terror of the battlefield. How dare they? “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”(Thomas Jefferson) What lies. They had armed young men for naught but that. “Not wars alone need to be fought, peace must be waged and won too.”(Canham 1) They hoped for the chance to fight, like school boys eager to send new tin soldiers into the fray. Hope was a word used to justify the meanest of wishes and desires.(Webster's New World Thesaurus)
“All for our vantage. Then in God's name, march:
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.”(Richard the III Act V Scene II)
He had no hope. The battlefield was fading. “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?”(Job 13:15) He would have sworn if that had been possible. It was not. The fury died beside the words caught in his throat. He was choking. Choking on life, drowning in death. “Hopeless is having no where to go and nothing to do.”(James Ferentchak) Then he was hopeless, unable to move, with nothing to occupy his remaining seconds but the empty sky above.
Who would care for Hope? Where would Angela turn to? The world was nothing but an evanescent dream now. He recalled the snowdrop again and wondered where it was. Had it fallen by now? Crushed beneath some iron boot, or perhaps under the body of a man, who just like him was dying? Or perhaps he had died already, that other soldier. Maybe it was him alone. It could have been hours. Or decades. His body might have long ago been removed and only his spirit was trapped here, imagining it still had a body. Hoping that this was not the end. “Hope is the dream of a waking man.”(Aristotle) The dead had no need for hope or other fictions.
“Yet half I hear the parting spirit sigh,
It is a dread and awful thing to die!”(Campbell)
Yet it was not so terrible. He strained to recall what it had been like, living. He was still alive, but the memory of life was even now fading. What, he pondered, was next?
Angela’s father spoke of h*ll and d*mnation. Angela spoke of heaven and redemption. The atheists believed in nothing. But life wasn’t a choice either. Was this the moment to abandon hope or to find it? The choice hardly mattered. He was beyond any “To hope is generally for things out of your control.”(James Ferentchak)
His lovely little girl. He must give her up now. Her sweet blue eyes, just like her mother’s, would never look into his again. If there was a heaven, then that’s where he would see her again.
There was nothing now. His breath was difficult, each shallow gasp took a lifetime to reach his lungs and an eternity to slide back out. It was growing dark, but not in the way of evening into night. He could no longer feel his side. His whole body was numb, so much dead flesh. He couldn’t close his eyes, though he wished he could. It would be better than these creeping shadows.
He would not be afraid.
He would hope. In what? He did not know. In Angela perhaps, in his daughter. Not in the war, he did not owe them that. Perhaps in God. It was enough in theses last moments simply to hope.
His thoughts were sliding away. It was not so terrible, once you got past the dying. Being dead, he felt sure was an acceptable solution. It was the ultimate one. He was not so alone. Everyone traveled this dark path. The skies had closed for every man and woman and creature to have lived before him as it would for all those living now and those who were not part of the world yet.
There was lightness in him. It was as though he had been tied down, but suddenly the chains had all been pulled away, one by one. “This was reality ... this sense of clear outlines, of purpose of lightness, of hope.”(Rand 88).
In a few hour’s time the battle was finished. It had been a small thing, a melee really. The bodies of men were strewn haphazardly over what had been a unblemished rolling pasture. Now the grass was uprooted and there were deep gouges in the earth where carts had been rolled. The sod was mangled by horses’ hooves and soldier’s boots.
Not all areas were affected. There was a slight rise that was still a verdant green. Spotting the grassy incline were white flowers. Their heads hung down as if each delicate flower carried a great weight on its stem. A breeze plucked at the petals and for an instant one was blown upwards, nearly vertical to face the sun.
Several years would pass, but one day a young woman would be found in the pasture. Cows had long since reclaimed the lea, but they kept out of her way. She came to the crest of the grassy outcrop and paused. She knelt to the ground and picked up something from the grass.
The woman held the snowdrop to her nose and breathed in its sweet scent. “Lord,” she said, startling a nearby bovine which mooed in disgruntlement, “save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.”(Mark Twain) Then Hope carefully tied the flower onto the strap of her bag and after another hour, she left.
“You can’t help hoping.”(Nelly West)