War Widow Audio Edition – Let Me Tell You a Story
She was a war widow. A war widow by the lake. It’s the only place she would see him. It was the only place she would see anybody. The rest of the time, she shut herself up in her little house behind a door that opened so rarely the hinges never squeaked.
The sun silhouetted her as she stood on the dock. He could see her form backlit in her dress. You couldn’t describe how she looked. All you could do was look at her and thank God for every moment that she stood there. Only His hand could paint such a picture.
She knew this, of course. That’s why she stood there longer than she should have, pretending she was alone when she knew he was looking at her. She could stop time for any man and knew he would stay in that hour for a lifetime.
It must have been like that for Mitch. That’s what everybody assumed anyway. Even if nobody talked about it these days.
The man remembered to feel ashamed as he watched Mitch’s wife standing on the dock, but like all men, he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t make himself stop. It would have been easier to stop breathing than it would have been to stop watching Mitch’s wife.
Especially since she had invited him. He was early, of course. And he wondered if she knew that. He wondered if she knew he was standing there, watching her silhouette backlit by the sun streaming through her dress.
Of course she did.
He stood a while longer anyway and imagined what her expression would be when she saw him. She would tuck in her chin, smile and laugh self-consciously, as if he had caught her off guard. She would reach out with her hand, touch his arm and bat her eyes. “Hello,” she would say, expecting him to take her hand and kiss it.
With these images parading through his mind, he walked up to the dock, gently cleared his throat and watched her turn towards him.
He stopped walking.
Her face was twisted in agony. Her mouth turned down in a drooping frown. Her forehead was creased with wrinkles. Tears were streaming down her cheek.
He looked at her for a moment, wishing he could turn away and leave her to her misery, but she was staring at him now and he knew she wanted him to see her this way. He shuddered a little and felt the urge to take a step back.
She showed him the piece of paper clutched in her fist. “Mitch.”
“What about Mitch?” He didn’t know what else to say.
Mitch was a hometown hero. Everybody cheered and crowded bars, stores and schools with stories of his exploits in the Pacific. When he died, the whole town was silent for twenty-four hours straight. People had caught each others’ eyes walking down the street, nodded solemnly and passed each other by without a word.
This is why men never went any further than watching her stand on the dock. Even when she invited them to come visit her. Even if she had invited them inside, which she never did, they would have never dared to step through that door.
Nobody knew that the man standing there now was the only one who had been inside her house. The secret of their encounter was a burden he carried around town like a log on his shoulder, sure that everybody could see it. Either they did not see it or they were extremely polite about it. He never knew which.
All he could have said was, “All we did was drink tea and talk about Mitch.” Which was true. But he knew nobody would believe that. So it was better to think they didn’t know at all. He couldn’t bear the thought of being The Man who took advantage of Mitch’s widow. He would be drummed out of town. He would have to walk to the next town with his pockets empty and a knife in his heart he could never remove. All just because he was keeping a promise.
“I wanted you to know why,” she said.
“Why it couldn’t ever be anything more than tea.” She held the crumpled paper out to him. “Maybe we shouldn’t have even gone that far.”
“Why, did you want more?” he asked.
She hung her head, still holding out the piece of paper. “Just read it,” she said.
He took the paper from her hand, slanted it towards the fading light of the setting sun.
This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. You should know that everyone here knows you’re a hero. The 4Fs sweep the streets and clean the lamp posts. They say it’s to make sure the town is always ready for when you come home. Everyone here is so proud of you.
I am, too. So very proud.
But I’m lonely. And I don’t know if – I’ve met somebody. But it’s not like that. He keeps me company. I get so lonely sometimes. It’s not a longing. It’s a dark cavern where I feel like I’m suffocating and can’t get out. It’s not always like that. But sometimes. Nothing like what you have to face every day, I know. And I feel weak and ashamed for that.
I don’t know if it will go any further than just keeping me company. I want you to know that no matter what happens, I’ll be here waiting for you. We all will. And whoever came to the house while you were gone will go home and never come back.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. You have enough of a burden without this. But I think it’s better than lying to you.
Please forgive me.
The man closed his eyes, let out a sigh and handed the letter back to her. Then he opened his eyes, a puzzled look on his face. “A copy?”
She took the letter and put up her hand to visor the sun. “I’ll always be waiting on this dock,” she said. “Waiting for Mitch to come home and row me across the lake to that little sandy shore over there. We would take a picnic – more of an excuse than anything else. He would wander through the trees, picking little white flowers. Then he would bring them back and tuck them into my hair.”
The man didn’t know what to say to that. He made a mental note to let the rest of the town know that the little beach on the other side of the lake was off limits. It was sacred ground now, a graveyard for dreams.
She turned to face him, her figure carved from light still seeping through her dress. “I’ll always be waiting here,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”
The man held her gaze for a moment. Of course he understood. But life marched on in the wake of war. “I understand. You need time.” He wasn’t sure if he should say the next part. He wasn’t ready, even as he heard himself say it. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
She shook her head, her bosom heaving with a deep breath. “No, you don’t understand. I will always be waiting.”
“Because I never sent it.”
The man closed his eyes, a wince of pain tight in his cheeks. “He wouldn’t want you to spend the rest of your life alone. He went over there so the rest of us would live in a better world.”
“That’s not the point,” she said.
“Then what is it?”
“I refused to be one of those women who gives into her loneliness and betrays her husband without him ever knowing. When they come home, it isn’t the same. Those women are always looking over their shoulder, wondering when the truth will catch up to them. They can never look at their husbands the same way again. There is always that thin window with a curtain hiding their secret. So I was honest about my betrayal. I don’t know if it’s any better, but we would have a chance to mend. There would be a chance to repent and forgive. A secret shown in the light is no longer a secret. It’s just a betrayal.”
She looked back across the lake. “But I never sent the letter. So now I do have a secret. One that he can never know or forgive.”
She turned back to him one last time. “But there is still penance. So I will wait on this dock forever, waiting until it’s my time to go where he has gone. Wherever that is. And hope there will be forgiveness there.”
The man wanted to tell her that Mitch would understand. That he would be the first to tell her to move on, to find happiness, to live her life. Not to just stop and wait for a destiny that nobody actually understood. What if there was just nothing afterwards? Wouldn’t that be a waste? These were questions he could never ask out loud, of course.
But he could see it in her eyes. Her pride demanded that she stand right where she was. Standing on the dock and waiting was the pinnacle of her honor.
What she didn’t know was that the man, one of those 4Fs who swept the streets and cleaned the lamp posts, the very man that she was talking about in her letter – that very man had heard Mitch’s last words the night before he went to war. Mitch was stone-cold sober and the man could tell by the look on his face that Mitch had meant what he said.
“If something happens to me, take care of her. Give her whatever she needs. Anything. Give her a life.”
But he couldn’t do that with her standing on the dock forever, waiting for a hero that would never return.
Then, he smiled, because he knew there was something he could do now. Something more important than sweeping streets and cleaning lamp posts. He could keep a promise.
“Alright then,” he said. “Stand there for as long as you need. I will wait for you. For as long as it takes. Even if it means forever.”
He knew then that there would be no other. Their fates were intertwined now. And he saw, for just a moment, the blackened entrance to that cavern that she would never leave.
Then, he turned around and walked down the road towards home.
©2023 Michael J Lawrence
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