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Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
We turned right at the fork. The rusty, rotting sign told us we were headed for Athy. I didn’t really want to go home. Back to Athy, alive, but without a single story. Aaron, I told myself sternly, you should be happy. You’ve been in the war, isn’t that what you wanted? Well, yes, but when I’d signed up for the army, I’d imagined coming home covered in glory, with tales of slaughtering enemies, being the only one in my regiment to come through unscathed: hero stuff. That’s what I had told by little brother, Abram, would happen. I had not imagined guarding the camp, the women and animals, while everyone else was at battle. I didn’t have a single scar to show off. I had not seen, never mind killed, one enemy.
We stopped in a village, one of those so small it didn’t have a name. Chickens roamed the dirt road that ran straight through town. Some of us had to shove them out of our way. Three of the men lived here, and one of the fallen men had. We unloaded the box from the cart carrying corpses. A woman stepped out from the gathering crowd. She had good-quality clothes, but they were patched and falling apart, like she hadn’t been paying attention to them. Her red hair stood out around her head in a fiery halo. Her face had a haggard, tire look.
“Peter, Paul, Michael.” She acknowledged the three native soldiers. “But where is Johnny?” they all looked away, refusing to meet her probing gaze. Paul wiped his eyes. A three- or four-year-old child peeped out from behind her mother’s skirts. The woman’s voice rose to a hysterical note. “Where is my Johnny?” she demanded of all of us.
Finally, Peter pointed to the light wooden coffin. With an anguished cry, she rushed to kneel by it. She reached out a hand to remove the lid.
The commander stopped her. “Ma’am, your husband had many injuries. I t is not a sight for a child. It’s not a sight for anyone, for that matter,” he added in a lower tone.
The woman nodded, trying to seem calm. She turned to search the crowd. I caught a glimpse of the tears streaming down her face. “Sarah,” she asked another woman, “would you take Jiana back to the house?”
Sarah nodded. As she came and took the child by the hand, she made no attempt to hide her wet cheeks. After they had disappeared, the woman turned back to the coffin. With a trembling hand, she removed the lid. I saw a shock of copper-colored hair, many shades lighter than her own. She smoothed back a lock of the limp hair.
“You had me convinced,” she whispered. “The night before you left, you told me, ‘Mary, you’re worrying for nothing. I’m going to be fine. Nothing will happen.’ You had me completely convinced.” Mary’s voice rose a notch. “Where are your reassurances now, Johnny? You went off with your gun on your shoulder, marching to the beat of the drums. I let you, sure that you would come marching home again. The beat of the drums haunt me. I can always hear them, taking you away from me. Now look at you.
“Where are those big, blue eyes, the ones that convinced me to marry you? Those beautiful eyes, which stole my heart. How was I to know that when you glanced back at me, that was the last time I’d see them? You left me and Jiana, and now I hardly know you! I can hardly recognize you!
“And your legs,” her voice rose another notch, “Those strong legs that ran across the summer meadow to sweep me off my feet. The sun shining brightly and us without a care in the world. When you ran off to carry that gun, your running, carrying, dancing days were over!”
Tears had pricked my eyes and were now flowing freely.
She continued, almost shouting now. “With those guns and drums and—and drums and guns!” she sobbed. “You marched off. You left me and Jiana with a bunch of empty promises! How will you fulfill them now, Johnny? How will you rethatch the roof and take Jiana to Tara? Johnny, I don’t even know you anymore! You’re gone!” She collapsed over the coffin, her whole body shaking with the strength of her sobs. Her fiery hair fanned out across the two of them. As Peter stepped up to comfort her, the commander signaled for us to march forward. There wasn’t a dry eye in the street, not even the commander’s.
I hadn’t ever considered this part of war before. I hadn’t thought of the hundreds of families that would be in mourning. What if that had been my body in the coffin, with my mother sobbing over it? What if I wasn’t marching home, but in the cart?
And what about the other side? What of those families who never knew the fate of their loved ones? Never knew if they had died, or were still alive as prisoners. Who would there be to comfort them? How many widows like Mary were there? How many were there who were grieving for husbands and brothers, fathers and sons?
Why did we do this? Why did we go marching to kill each other? Was it for power? Territory? What kind of reasons were those? Did we put so many people through this, for power? All of a sudden, I hated battle, and everything that went with it.
As we moved out of the village, I made the commitment in my heart to never again go to war.