Summary: I’d like to thank another writer, dbird, for sharing the existence of a web site, which purports to be the cure for writer’s block, called “Write or Die.” This story came out of one of the timed exercises on that site.
Word Count: 1750
It was a gorgeous day. The sky overhead was a bright blue, the same bright blue as the eyes of the beloved son now lying in the closed pine box resting on the ground before his grave, newly dug. His bereaved father and two brothers — one older, the other younger — stand together in a semi-circle around the foot of the coffin, each lost in his own thoughts . . . .
The father saw this son once more as a baby, barely three hours old, lying in the arms of his mother, his belly full of the milk from her generous breast, sleeping peacefully under the watchful gaze of a pair of bright blue eyes the same color as his own. He saw again the man into which the babe had grown, as he had been the very last time he laid eyes upon him, standing every bit as tall and big as the mountains surrounding his beloved home. Those bright blue eyes sparkled with the sheer joy of simply being alive, and his lips have parted to reveal that warm hearted, gap-toothed smile of his.
“What I wouldn’t give to see those eyes, that smile once again,” the grief-stricken father silently lamented, his heart breaking anew. Or hear his big son’s laughter, louder than the roar of a waterfall, and very contagious.
A parade of images passed before the father’s eyes . . . .
. . . that great big, gentle son of his sitting up all night out in the barn, waiting for a mare to foal … tending to the needs of a sick horse … binding up the broken wing of a song bird … and gently tending to a litter of frightened, starving barn kittens, a few days old, after their mother had been killed by a neighbor’s dog . . . .
. . . the boy, always big for his age, seated at the dining room table working out a difficult arithmetic problem, with his older brother looking on, giving him guidance … lying in bed, with his face buried deep into his down pillow, weeping in secret after having spent a long day enduring the merciless, sometimes cruel teasing of his peers because of his large size … and he saw that big boy of his, this time through the eyes of his much younger brother, gazing with adoration and gratitude into the face of his hero, who had just put to flight a group of older, bigger boys who took a great, sadistic delight in picking on children much younger and smaller . . . .
. . . that same big, strong, gentle man standing over the grave of a young woman who had been the love of his life, who had returned his love measure for measure, with his head bowed, weeping openly, without shame . . . .
The pictures, images and memories that now belonged to the past, faded and dissolved under a flood of new tears, as the father wondered yet again how a man could possibly endure such agonizing pain, and still live.
The older brother stood a little apart from his father and youngest brother, his broken heart consumed with guilt. “I’m sorry, Inger,” he whispered, unaware that he had spoken out loud, “I’m … so … very sorry . . . .”
He was a boy once again, all of six years old, standing next to his father, staring at the rough hewn cross marking the final resting place of the woman who had not so long ago taken him into her heart, loving him every bit as much as the son who had issued forth from her own body. The other men, women, and children who had traveled with them from St. Louis had quietly returned to their wagons to allow a shocked, grief-stricken husband and his two sons a few private moments to say good-bye.
He left his father’s side and walked over to the cross, whose shadow fell upon the freshly turned earth covering the lifeless body of one Inger Borgstrom Cartwright the way a jagged, angry scar oft times indelibly marks the site of a wound that has gone very deep. He knelt down before that cross and gently placed the handful of wild field flowers, freshly picked and now half wilted, before its base.
“Mama, I promise you…I’ll look after Hoss for you,” he solemnly promised with tears streaming down his face once again, “and I’ll look after PA, too.”
“I failed you, Mama,” the elder brother wept bitterly, “and I failed Hoss, too. Had I been there . . . Dear God, if . . . if ONLY I had been there…”
The youngest brother, his face white as a sheet, fixed his emerald green eyes upon the simple, rough hewn pine box holding the earthy remains of the man who had been to him big brother, hero, and best friend in the whole wide world. He felt as if he had dropped down into the tunnel of a very long, narrow, deep well. The golden sunlight shimmering on the deep blue water of the lake behind him, the cool, gentle breezes wafting through the canopy of tree branches high over head, the warmth of his father standing right beside him, seemed very far distant.
The events of that horrible last day once again unfolded, playing themselves out upon the inward eyes of heart, mind, and soul with brutal crystal clarity. It began like any other day, with the family gathered together for breakfast, laughing and joking with each other amid Hop Sing’s terse admonitions to “eat NOW, while it’s still hot,” and working out their plans for the day. There was nothing, not even the slightest inkling, of the tragedy soon to unfold.
Squeezing his eyes tight shut against his surroundings, blotting out the sad — and in his mind — accusing faces of his father and eldest brother, he watched the events unfold for what had to be the millionth time, desperately searching for something…anything that would exonerate him, but much to his grief and despair, found nothing. He held his older brother clasped tight in his arms, and watched as the light, the sparkle, and life in those great big blue eyes dimmed and within minutes faded altogether, numb with shock, horror, and utter disbelief.
If he could but have one wish, it would be to change places with Hoss. “MY fault,” he silently, angrily castigated himself. “It’s all MY fault. If ONLY…if I hadn’t… Hoss would still be alive.” By all rights, HE was the one who should be in that pine box lying between the open grave and white marble that marked the resting place of his own mother, now many years dead.
The father and his two remaining sons watched as their foreman, Hank Carlson, and a half dozen big men set themselves to the task of lowering the coffin containing the remains of the young man who had worked along side them, who had many times over earned their admiration and respect, who had in many ways been to them more of a friend than the son of the man for whom they worked. After their task was complete and the grave filled in and smoothed over, their boss shook each man’s hand and, with gratitude, offered a simple, “thank you.”
For a time, the three men remained, lost in their own thoughts, and grief.
“Pa?” the youngest ventured hesitantly. He closed his eyes, sickened by the terrible burden of guilt now crushing his heart, unable to bear seeing the reproach, the anger that must surely be in his father’s face and eyes. “Pa,” he half sobbed, “I … I’m sorry, I . . . . “
“Joe … and you, too Adam … what happened was an ACCIDENT…and there was nothing… absolutely nothing…ANY of us could have done to prevent … to prevent what happened.”
There was no reproach in their father’s voice, no anger. Only love, infinite patience, and perhaps the edge of a desperate prayer that his two remaining sons would finally hear what he had said to them countless times since their brother’s sudden, tragic, untimely demise, and finally take it to heart.
“Your brother…and my son… you know as well as I do that he… that h-his heart was bigger than all outdoors,” their father continued, his voice tremulous. “He’d give a man in need the v-very shirt off his back. Joe… son… he gave his life to save yours because…because he loved you so much, he wanted you to live, no matter what the cost. And, Adam. . . .”
The eldest looked up expectantly, though he made no verbal reply.
“…as I recall, HE was the one who suggested taking your place that day because… because he loved YOU, and…and he knew how important that meeting was f-for you.”
“I…” the eldest gasped, then quickly looked away, wiping his eyes against the heel of his hand.
“I… I d-don’t think he’d m-mind us grieving, but at the same time, I-I know he’d expect the three of us to f-find healing…to reach the day when we c-can finally remember him with a smile … even laughter.”
“I’m sorry. For all the stuff I said.”
“I’m sorry, too, Joe. I h-had no right to blame you.”
The two younger men embraced fiercely, and clung to one another as if for dear life.
“Come on, boys,” their father said at length, placing a gentle hand on each son’s shoulder. There was the bare hint of a smile amid the older man’s tears, the first since that day. “It’ll be dark soon. We need to be getting on home.”
From his place in the deepest of deep shadows, a big, strong, and gentle man, with eyes the same deep blue as the sky, watched the father and his two sons as they turned and left the grave of their beloved son and brother. A big gapped-toothed smile illumined his face, and he slowly nodded his head with approval.
“Yep,” he mused softly, his thoughts and words gently stirring the breezes in and among the tall pine trees from whence this beautiful, much loved home of his had taken her name. “Yep … everything’s gonna be all right.”