Our village escaped the war. We heard skirmishes nearby, at the edge of the woods. That was all.
After each engagement, tired soldiers wafted into the square like dried leaves piling up against the steps of the church. In the end, the wind blew most of them away, leaving but a few caught in the crevices. Some soldiers now farm on the eastern side of the village. They married local girls.
A small village, perhaps sixty stone and wood cottages, a square with a church, some shops and a tavern. Paths wander out to fields of wheat and barley.
After peace was declared, Josef returned to his cottage at the south end of the village where the dirt road narrows. He seemed taller, perhaps the pride of victory. His command had been in the vanguard on the northern line. Erectness imparted even greater intensity to the tiny dark eyes drilled into his round hairless head.
We would see him in his garden early in the morning. He grew potatoes, onions, carrots and beets, the plants squared up like squads in tight formation according to height. He then went into his cottage and changed from work clothes and boots to a tailored wool suit and cape and set out in the direction of the church. In all weathers, he walked to the church cemetery to visit the grave of his wife and child. At the base of the tombstone he tended a small bed of purple iris. In winter, he refreshed them from the hot house beside his cottage. The women she had been near to said purple was the color she most detested. One night, he complained bitterly to the tavern owner about his wife’s inability to produce an heir. She could not carry a child to term. She and her son died in the last attempt. She, immediately; he, after four days.
After pausing at the grave, he entered the small church and sat with bowed head in the last pew. In keeping with the spirit of our religion the interior of the church was plain. Clear glass, not stained, white washed walls. The only ostentatious articles were four gold candlesticks Josef brought back from the war, found, he claimed, in a ruined chapel whose roof and walls had caved in.
After church, he stopped at the tavern, his aquavit ready on the corner of the bar. He threw it back and nodded as he tossed coins on the counter. Other than this daily encounter, he talked to no one. The horrors he witnessed silenced him. The last days of the war, we heard, were particularly brutal.
Following his return from the war, from time to time a black lacquered carriage with curtained windows crept into the village and stopped outside his cottage. Josef climbed in the barouche carrying a small leather case. He was away for three days or so. We heard the regime was compiling a history of the war and surmised they required his testimony about the dispute over estates on the northern frontier.
Someone from the village caught sight of him in the capital once. They saw him stride into the Stat Banka office. We were told he spent three hours in the bank and emerged with a rare smile. Fleeting, it turned out, as his next appointment was with a doctor. From there, he fled with a grimace. The day he returned to the village, Josef pushed open the tavern door after sundown, sat at a table in the corner, ordered a bottle of whiskey, sipped slowly, dram by dram, emptied the bottle, mumbled a thousand hectares, but no cure, and stumbled into the night.
* * *
Some three years after the end of the war, a man--tall, fair-haired, typical of our northern provinces, beak for a nose--walked into the tavern. He set his satchel at the door and ordered a beer. He had three, then asked where he could find Josef. The owner pointed him toward the cottage. As an egret might, the young man strode disjointedly along the muddy road.
Only a few people saw or heard what happened next. The tall fair-haired man knocked on the cottage door and shoved Josef aside on the way in. A half hour later, loud voices thundered through the walls, followed by a crash of metal. The door opened abruptly, and the man tumbled onto the ground. Josef came through the door brandishing a sword. It is mine. I will never give it up, not one hectare. The tall fair-haired man jumped to his feet and sneered down at Josef, You stole it.
Josef watched the man run into the field where a rider with a second horse emerged from a copse of beech trees. They mounted quickly and galloped north.
Josef did not volunteer any information about his visitor, nor did we ask. The following morning, he resumed his daily routine. Those he passed remarked that he looked wan and had developed a slight stoop. The tavern owner claimed Josef murmured something about his heart.
At the end of the summer, a new school teacher arrived in the village. Margariet graduated from the Academy in the capital. According to her references, she ranked second in her class and might have stayed in the city. She expressed a preference, however, for a village school in the south of the country.
She boarded with the elderly couple who lived next door to Josef. They’d had a large family and after the war they moved on. With the extra room they were happy to have someone young in the house. Margariet might be useful if they needed things done. They spoke of that to others but did not lower her rent.
Margariet was a lively girl with a fair complexion, sparkly green eyes and blonde hair. We also noted that she had shapely legs, which we caught a glimpse of as she rode through the countryside. Some remarked that she bore a passing resemblance to the person who had held the horse for the fair-haired man. It may have been only the color of her hair, or the stillness with which she sat in the saddle, even at gallop. Normally we are leery of the light complexioned people from the north, but her cheerfulness, immediate connection with the children, and subsequent friendship with Josef allayed our concerns.
Behind the suspicions of northerners is a history where our country was jammed together by a greater empire that had a fondness for geographical boundaries, not ethnic differences. There had been centuries of religious strife between the northern Catholics and southern Protestants.
When the school year began, Margariet went to school in a plain gray school teacher dress, distinguished only by its white collar, her hair in a bun. It was at the same time Josef left his cottage to walk to the cemetery. The first morning they kept to opposite sides of the road, oblivious to each other. But soon, the distance between them diminished, until the day greetings were exchanged. At the end of the second week, we noticed that Josef left his cottage a few minutes early to wait for her.
We couldn’t fathom what they had to talk about. He was at least thirty-five years older. He’d enlisted in the army at sixteen, rose rapidly to the rank of colonel and retired when his parents died. But at the outbreak of the war, everyone with military experience was mobilized to defend the motherland.
Margariet grew up in the capital. She said her parents taught physics and chemistry at the university, though we heard another story later. At harvest time, Josef brought potatoes or carrots or beets for the school teacher every morning. One Saturday in late fall we saw two bodies bent like hoops in his garden, one tall, one short. She was helping him clear his plot to fallow over the winter. In time, we concluded they’d discovered the commonality of two lonely souls. He, from his experiences in the war. She, from the absence of nearby kin.
Christmas Eve, Josef drove Margariet and the elderly couple to church in his sleigh and joined them at their cottage for supper the next day. The next morning, she took a train for the capital to visit her parents.
In January, with its short days and cold nights, darkness hid Margariet and Josef as they walked to their destinations in the morning and when she returned from school in the evening. We were not able to follow their trajectories, though no one had cause to believe they had altered. A change became apparent as the days grew longer. A change kept quiet by the elderly couple where she initially lodged. A change to which the school children had been oblivious.
In his pride, Josef accompanied the pregnant Margariet on extended walks along the river and in the fields, greeting everyone as they passed. Baby Stefan, fair like his mother, was born on a Monday in August. Josef rushed to the tavern to buy drinks for the villagers.
A month later, he hurried a lawyer from the nearby town. To include Stefan in his will, we supposed. By law, Margariet could not hold title to land. Aside from the cottage and several hectares around the village, no one knew the extent of his holdings, but we all speculated about greater wealth—land in other parts of the country. He was very comfortable since he returned from the war, clearly better off than before. His clothes were woolen and made in the capital, and he had new stables built for his horses.
* * *
Some months passed. One evening, as the light crawled into the horizon, a horse galloped through the center of the village spraying the newly fallen snow against the cottages. Excited by the disturbance, a few of us ran behind. The rider halted at Josef’s cottage. A tall cloaked man dismounted and threw back his hood. It was the fair-haired man who had been here a year or so earlier. Josef peered out from a crack in the door, opened it, shivering from the cold, and came out, Margariet behind him with baby Stefan swaddled in her arms. She walked deliberately to the horseman then turned to face Josef, “Josef, this is Stefan’s father.” Her voice conveyed a calm finality.
Josef’s face twisted and reddened to the color of beets. For a moment he remained motionless, then ran at Margariet. Four steps from her, he clutched his chest, opened his eyes and his mouth gaped in terror. He fell. He crawled on his knees, collapsed, clawed the earth, dragged himself toward her. Bloodied fingers stained the snow.
We picked him up and carried him to his bed. The mayor dispatched a young boy to the nearby town for a doctor. Hours later he arrived. After a brief examination, the doctor said there was nothing to be done.
Before Josef was laid in the ground, Margariet, the fair-haired man and their son rode north out of the village, carrying with them baby Stefan and his inheritance from his true grandfather’s estate.
When a new regime took power ten years after these events the National Archives were opened and some of the war time operations were revealed. The villages of the minority people in the north had been pillaged during the second winter of the six-year war, not by the enemy, as we had been told, but by our own army. Ostensibly, to prevent them from aiding the enemy.
A collection of Townsend Walker’s short stories, 3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies was published by Deeds Publishing, 2018. Winner of: Book Excellence Award,Eyelands Award, Silver Feathered Quill Award; and Pinnacle Award. A novella, La Ronde was published by Truth Serum Press in 2015. Many short stories are published in literary journals and anthologies.