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On a still Saturday afternoon in late October, I lay in the rowboat on the river, drowning in friendly sunshine and blissful as the birds that sang above me. I had the afternoon to myself since Saturday was a half-day in school. The river flowed by our property, some three miles back from the road. It flows there still. Another batch of schoolboys whiles away its afternoons on the river now, unaware of how ancient its hobby is.
But even then I knew that I was not exactly like the other boys. I was more serious in both work and play: I worked efficiently and relaxed totally. Unlike some of my friends downstream a little way, I had no pretense of fishing or racing. I was simply basking. Now I realize that it was a mark of my maturity, a maturity of which I had no idea. I was still a child in my own eyes. Perhaps I would not have told anyone that basking was one of my hobbies, but it was, and I could admit the fact to myself.
I thought of many things in the syrupy sunlight of that afternoon. I thought of my studies and how irritable my French teacher was. I thought of the cattails that decorated the side of the river, and how well their sere beauty suited the brilliant sugar maples that flourished on the banks. I thought of my friend David Black and how his four brothers of fighting age were staying home from the war. Pacifism was rare and generally frowned upon in our small town, and my own brother Charles had left for France months ago. I thought that Charles might have preferred to stay behind.
I thought of Charles, off in France, and how he had given me his boat to use while he was gone.
“It’s nothing fancy,” he had said, as we stood by the dock and looked at it, “but it’s good for a little fun. I like most to just go out and lie in it, and think about things, or think about nothing.” He had never spoken to me about his thoughts before. I listened in amazement. “I wish I could stay. I’m not afraid to die, but I’m afraid of the horror of battle. I’m so afraid.” He sighed and looked lovingly at the river and the boat and all his dear things. A tear glimmered in his eye, and he did not attempt to wipe it away.
I understood his fear. Thinking about a battle, the people deformed by tear gas and mangled by tanks, left me weak-kneed. Thinking about Charles in the midst of that hellish chaos horrified me. Would I ever know him as the same man again? What if he came back deformed or limbless? What if he were so scarred by what he had seen that he became like some of the men in my town who had come back after being injured? I couldn’t stand the heartache if Charles had night terrors or was distrustful or irritable.
That day when Charles had confided his fears to me was the only time I could ever remember having an emotional conversation with him. I was eleven, and he was twenty-two. He had always been more like a grown-up than a fellow child to me. But I had seen him cry that night, and now I loved him twice as much. I had sympathy for him now.
I basked for two hours or so that afternoon, then docked the boat and walked up to the house. I trekked through the bronze, orange, crimson, and gold of the forest, with the dark spruce trees a solemn backdrop to the magnificent fall show. It seemed as if the conifers disapproved of their frivolous deciduous cousins’ extravagance in color.
When I was some two hundred yards from the house my sister Emilia, two years my junior, came running down from the house to meet me. Her sun-bronzed face was ashen today.
“Gareth! We got a telegram,” she burst out breathlessly, “Charles. He’s dead.”
No night terrors now, no irritable, shell-shocked brother. He had met his fear.
They never found Charles’s body. There was no closure. He could be alive still today, forgetful of his past, perhaps, and remembering nothing except what happened after his injury in battle. One day we were planning his future at the university, and the next, he was a memory, something we talked about as if it were thousands of years in the past.
I went into our modest, comfortable farmhouse. My family were scattered about the house, distracted and distraught. My mother sat at the kitchen table and did not greet me when I came in. Emilia spent all afternoon on the swing in the backyard. I could hear my father weeping in his bedroom. Alexander was at school. Did he know yet? I wondered.
David Black came over at four. He had not heard the news. When he rang the bell, I opened the door and put a finger to my mouth.
“Charles,” I whispered. “ We just got a telegram that he’s dead.”
“Oh.” David stood awkwardly on the front stoop. “I guess I’d better go. I’m sorry.” He climbed onto his bike and pedaled away. Perhaps it was for the best. Would my family understand that it was not out of cowardice that David’s four brothers were safe at home while Charles was probably lying in an unmarked grave near the Somme? Would they let me welcome David into the house as my friend while his family was happy and whole?
I realized that day, as I stood at the open door contemplating how life would be without Charles’s presence, that I was grown up. I was thinking seriously about death. Was not that a sign of maturity? I was not angry at David, and I was worried my family would be. Could it be that I had grown up without realizing it?
How could I show my parents that I was grown up? I knew they still considered me a child--I had done the same until this afternoon. I walked back into the house, pondering these things.
My mother had moved from her seat in the kitchen. Now she sat in one of the living room wing chairs, absently gazing at our most recent photograph of Charles.
“We must have a funeral,” she said, more to herself than to me. “We must have a funeral as soon as possible.”
“Mother,” I said, gathering my new-found adult courage, “Could we have David to the funeral?”
“David? David Black?”
“Yes. He knew Charles--and so did his brothers.”
“His brothers are safe.”
“But it’s not their fault.” My mother leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
“Yes, you’re more reasonable than I am, Gareth. Of course the Blacks will come.”
I climbed the stairs, pleased with my success. It seemed just like something Charles would have done, something levelheaded and noble. I will always remember that day as the day of my first grief, and yet I cannot hate it, for that is the day that brought me into the adult world.