All Hallow’s Eve
by Terry Pierce, October 2008
The soldier stood in the chill of the evening, waiting for him to arrive, knowing he’d appear. He showed up year after year, just as the harvest moon levitated full and low in the October sky. He’d come silent and alone out of the mist, having traveled some unfathomable distance, from some unknown place. Things would be no different on this anniversary.
It was getting harder to understand why he made these appearances just as the light began fading into yesterday. Nothing would change. It never did. The gulf separating them had been in place for decades now, a chasm growing narrower in the intervening years, but one that remained an indelible line. And no matter how many times he crossed these hills, no matter how many times he traversed the windswept fields, his visitations never brought him peace.
The skeletal leaves shivered and sighed, lamenting their thinning ranks. The cool, dreary weeks would soon give way to the onslaught of winter. Leaning against the cold, stone obelisk at his back, the soldier thought of another autumn, a distant season long past. A time when they’d been young, young and full of vigor, and the whole of life had stretched before them full of promise and possibility until they’d come to this foreign place. Fighting for ideals, then victory, then simply each other, many – far too many – had been torn apart.
This hallowed ground, embracing so many lost, was irrefutable proof of that.
How would he look this time? A dark silhouette still shrouded in shadows of what seemed now like ancient history? His face ghastly with empty eyes that had seen too much? His skin pale, his unsubstantial form marred by violent assaults, his hands empty, never having reached for only he knew what?
Or maybe he’d appear the way he once had. With a careless smile, his stance confident, his posture relaxed. His eyes bright and clear and sparked with intelligence. He’d possessed an uncanny wisdom and been a natural warrior, not seeking war, but determined to triumph over it. And he’d inspired that same determination in his comrades, so much so that some had actually left these desolate places, victorious.
But he’d fallen victim to the war in its latter months. A casualty of its ravenous appetite for discarded souls, he’d finally succumbed. Remembered by few, separated from most, he’d been haunting this same isolated ground ever since. And only providence knew when his torment would end, when he’d be released, when he’d no longer walk as a harbinger of the violent follies of men.
He appeared suddenly, a pallid wraith in the vaporous distance. Barely visible at first, he took on density, dimension, as he moved slowly, almost imperceptibly across the barren landscape. Clad in a shabby uniform, his piteous form twisted and deformed, he was still recognizable in spite of it. And although it seemed impossible that anyone like him could truly exist, he continued to draw inexorably near.
He finally came in close and faced the monument, his cloudy eyes seeking out its weathered plaque inscribed with the words, ‘To the Valiant Men of the 361st Infantry Division, the Monschau Corridor, October 1944 – Peace Belongs to the Honored Dead’. Leaning forward, his fragile bones creaking, his gnarled and trembling hands reaching out, he laid an offering of flowers at the obelisk’s base. Then straightening up painfully, he forced back his frail shoulders, and a tear tracking its way down his scarred and wrinkled face, he delivered a solemn salute.
The soldier in front of the monument stood ramrod straight, squared his shoulders, and snapped up his arm to return the elderly veteran’s salute just before, fading back into repose, he vanished.