Friday, June 6, 2014

The Child In Uniform (A Short Story)

The Child In Uniform
The ticking of the clock seemed to stabilize the sheer enormity of the silence in the house; to give it order. To Adam, it was like a general, issuing orders. Marching soldiers. Rumbling drums. The whistle of the teapot was a mortar-shell. His thoughts were out of place, here, and he knew that he may as well have been a fish in the desert. He was a soldier. Yet, he very much wanted to not have to think like one any longer.
For a while, he was grateful only to escape the cannonball sounds of horse’s hooves on the street, only to find that they were slowly returning in militant regiments.  
“I remember my husband acting similarly, when he came back from the war against the Gaeling Throne.” Adam looked up from tea that was going cold and hands too rough for his tidy clothes. Lady Rosa was smiling at him, across the table, in that way of hers. The wrinkles beside her eyes were lined up like ranks, all pulling together to make that smile, like sailors trying to drag a ship onto shore.
He had to recycle her statement in his mind to understand it, before he frowned. “I am sorry, My Lady. I must be awful company.”
She shook her head—slightly, for nothing she did was drastic—and she sipped from her teacup again, before setting it down. “The silence of contemplation is to me as sweet a sanctitude as the joy of conversation. And you have much indeed to contemplate, Adam.”
He nodded a bit at this, and took another drink. A smile found him. “Your tea is very good,” he allowed.
She raised her eyebrows. “I had begun to wonder if you were going to drink any of it. I am glad that you decided to indulge me. And yes, I suppose after what you are used to, it would taste splendid. My husband used to tell stories of straining his coffee through old stockings.”
The smile that had found him out made itself fully at home, now. “Nothing quite that dramatic, my lady.”
“No,” she mirrored his expression, but hers was so much brighter, her teeth so much whiter. She had been giving that smile for years, many times a day, practicing and polishing. She was a professional. Adam was still a novice in training. And now, without his beard, his smile felt strange and exposed. Vulnerable. He had not yet gotten used to his own dimples.
“I thought about you often, while I was away,” he said after another few moments of silence. “About the Hall and the lawns. About all the time I spent here. Of course, the house was louder in my daydreams, and the streets quieter. Like it used to be.”
She enjoyed his sentiment immensely, by the glow in her eyes, and she turned, to eye the house. “Yes, it has been quiet. I can no longer afford to keep the house filled. I have thought, of course, about simply having the maids live here, just for the pleasure of their company. But they all have families to return to, of course.”
“I am sorry, My Lady,” he said quietly.
She waved it off. Then, for the briefest moment, a look of annoyed humor entered those marvelously auburn eyes as her thoughts changed. “Of course… once Emilia returns, you will see that not all of the house is doomed to eternal silence. She does more than her fair share to hold the quiet at bay; while, I suppose, I do little for myself.”
“Emilia,” he smiled, nodding fondly. “She must have grown so much since I was here last. She was a child, then.”
“So were you,” Lady Rosa reminded him. “But you were a child in uniform and she was a child still playing with dolls.”
“And here I am still a child in uniform,” he stated. “Does she still play with dolls?”
“Young men, mostly,” Lady Rosa rolled her eyes towards the roof. “And you should see some of the rabble that follow her home, now and then. Gracious, if her father was here...” She chuckled mildly at the thought, before changing the attention. “Can I get you something to eat? My cook, dear sweet Lila, got married two months ago, and while she doesn’t grace us with her presence—for which I am quite sorry—she does keep our larders filled. Scones? Cakes?”
Adam shook his head. “No, thank you, My Lady.”
“Well I shall help myself, then, if you don’t mind,” she added as she rose from the table and swept into the kitchen. That was how she always moved, Adam thought to himself, and how she always had. She didn’t walk; she swept about. She glided in her long skirts, never bobbing. A lady surely never bobbed. Soldiers bobbed. They swayed and swaggered, with loud steps. She was silent. “I find that a small dose of sugar in the afternoon does set me on a better course by evening,” she declared.  
Adam’s smile returned. “I do remember your propensity for chocolate, My Lady.”
“And I remember your propensity for stealing my chocolate,” she replied.
Humor filled his distracted eyes. “I always assumed that you knew I had taken it. I wondered that you never brought it up.”
“You needed it more than I, at the time,” said she. “Joy is deserved of the youth. Although now, mind you,” she narrowed her eyes at him as she worked, “I guard my chocolate with such ferocity that I doubt even your weathered eyes have seen, on the other side of the River.”
His laugh, so unused in its sound, so stiff and inflexible, was still a joy to the rafters and the unlit chandelier. As the lady returned and sat pleasantly across from him, he turned his gaze out to the large front window. White sunlight was waltzing in, spilled from the cracks in the dusted gray clouds, and he could see, from there, the careful white fence and bright green lawns. He had played there, once, before the uniform.
“I thought of Emilia, too, while I was gone,” he said quietly. “I often wondered what kind of woman she would become.”
“I still wonder,” said the lady with dampened skepticism, always tainted with her good nature, as she drank again. She pursed her lips for a few moments before speaking again. “And what about Laurena? Do you think of her, as well?”
Adam’s smile did not disappear; but it seemed uncertain. It was there because he had not taken it down yet, not because he wanted it there. It was a leaning painting. He looked out the window for a while more, then took up his tea again. “Only when I can’t help it.”
“Have you heard anything from her?” Lady Rosa inquired delicately.
He shook his head. “Nothing from her. But I have a friend, in Avor, who said that he saw her with a man, a month ago. She has a child.”
The lady said nothing, but she had that look in her eyes that he recognized, from his childhood; it was the look she gave when she knew that he had stolen the chocolates, but did not say. It was the look that said that she already knew, and was only acting like this was news. It was a look she wore frequently.
“Yes, well,” she finally said, “Avor is a ways off. At least you won’t run into her. I imagine that would be an unpleasantly awkward sort of reunion.” Her eyes were apologetic.
Adam said nothing. Soon, his tea was gone, and the cup was on the table. Small talk held little joy to him, and Lady Rosa had no objections to his quiet demeanor. The clock marched on, in the next room. The smell of tea and scones and upside-down-herbs hanging in the pantry were pleasant to the soldier, and the gentle humming of the woman calming. He could not be angry, here. Of course, there was little to be angry about any more.
In description, the pain he felt was rather like the pain felt by a man who had been stung by a huge hornet. Eventually, the agony went away, but the barb remained, hanging in his arm. Whenever the name of Laurena was mentioned, someone struck it. The barb jerked, and the wound hurt again.
But here, the pain was so subtle, he hardly noticed. Not in Elbraum House.
Somewhere, in the rear corridor at the end of the kitchen, a door slammed, as though some hurricane wind was set to rip it from its hinges. Lady Rosa did not turn to face it; instead, she met Adam’s eyes and smiled tiredly, managing the words, “Brace yourself.”
Emilia stormed into the house, her muddy boots stomping the innocent tiles to death. Her face was furiously red when she came around the corner and into the kitchen, hair plastered to her face from rain or tears, either way messier than it was supposed to be and had been that morning. There was mud on the hem of her bright dress. “Mother,” she declared in a heavy, decisive tone, much too loud for the old house, and even the commanding clock to stand up to. “I have decided.”
“Decided what, Dear?” Replied the mother, without looking up. 
“I have grown entirely exhausted of wretched human emotions. In fact, I have come to believe them to be entirely worthless and troublesome. They only on very rare occasions bring about anything worth bringing about, and most frequently they do the opposite. Furthermore, I do believe them to be constricting, disabling and counterproductive. In short, they are of no use to me any longer, as I refuse to be exasperated, bullied, or made a fool of by them ever again. Indeed, emotions are the foulest, vilest, most repulsive and devilest of all devils, and I shall have no part of them.” 
As though this was of no surprise whatsoever, the mother spoke. “You’ve had your heart broken by that boy again, haven’t you?”
Emilia’s anger was gone, and instantly replaced by a display of drama so intense that Adam was sure only a talented few could muster at will, as she threw herself into a chair and draped herself over the table like a limp towel.
“Thomas, wasn’t it?” Lady Rosa asked with skewed eyebrows.
“Jacque,” she sobbed. “Oh, mother, why does it hurt? Oh please, just let me die.” Her whimpers continued as she buried her face in her arms. Adam, completely overlooked, stayed where he was, as though he was one of the oversized paintings hung in the gallery.
The mother patted her on the back of the head, speaking in the same tone as always. “Alright, I shall. But first some nice tea, and you can get cleaned up, and I can introduce you to an old friend who is visiting from the east. And then, if you still want to die, you may have my blessing.” 
“Oh thank you mother,” she beamed. “You truly are a saint.” 
“Yes dear,” Rosa said calmly. And then, without hesitating, she gestured across the table. “You remember Adam, surely?” She asked.
Emilia looked up. For a moment, in her tear-glowing eyes, there was no sign of recognition. And then, after several long blinks, sheer terror filled them. She looked from Adam’s hard eyebrows to his soft smile, to his uniform and the medals on his chest, the sword ceremoniously included at his side.
She stood up so abruptly that her chair nearly fell over behind her. “Mother!” She squealed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She seemed to have completely forgotten any prior offense that had ever been done her, in light of this new betrayal, as she darted out of the room as quickly as she could. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She repeated. “I am not ready for company! Have you seen what I’m wearing?”
Lady Rosa replied in a sigh that she pointed down the hall. “I told you that Adam was coming this morning.”
“But not that Adam!” She replied from the top of a stairs. “And not in uniform!”
Adam’s smile returned, real and thorough. Lady Rosa was smiling back at him. “You may find that she has not much changed,” she said.
Adam shook his head. “Nothing changes here,” he said, which could just as well have been replaced by “I would like to stay here.” But he didn’t say that. The sound of marching died, and was replaced by the sound of a clock. There were no more mortars whistling on the oven or cannonballs trotting by outside. He was happy, and as close to home as he had been in eight years. He forgot the River, and the terrible Shadow of that Wall.
There was joy in the silence. Contentedness in the small packages of breaths.
He was a child in uniform. And this was the place he had stolen chocolate from. There were memories, so long stuffed into his pockets, which he could polish to brightness again.