Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Bird in the House


"Ewen told me about the about the last war, once. He hardly ever talked about it, but this once he told me about seeing the horses in the mud, actually going under, you know? And the way their eyes looked when they realised they weren't going to get out. Ever seen horses' eyes when they're afraid, I mean really berserk with fear, like in a bush-fire? Ewen said a guy tended to concentrate on the horses because he didn't dare think what was happening to the men. Including himself..."

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Chris left Shallow Creek some months after the war began, and joined the Army. After his basic training, he was sent to England. We did not hear from him until about a year later, when a letter arrived for me.

Six months later my mother heard from Aunt Tess. Chris had been sent home from England and discharged from the Army, because of a mental breakdown. He was now in the provincial mental hospital and they did not know how long he would have to remained there. He had been violent, before, but now he was not violent. He was, the doctors had told his mother, passive.

Violent. I could not associate the word with Chris, who had been so much the reverse. I could not bear to consider what anguish must have catapulted him into that even greater anguish. But the way he was now seemed almost worse. How might he be? Sitting quite still wearing the hospital's grey dressing-gown, the animation gone from his face?

My mother cared about him a great deal, but her immediate thought was not for him.

"When I think of you, going up to Shallow Creek that time," she said, "and going out camping with, and what might have happened - "

I, also, was thinking of what might have happened. But we were not thinking of the same thing. For the first time I recognized, at least a little, the dimensions of his need to talk that night. He must have understood perfectly well how impossible it would be, with a thirteen-year-old. But there was no one else. All his life's choices had grown narrower and narrower. He had been forced to return to the alien lake of home, and when finally he saw a means of getting away, it could only be into a turmoil which appalled him and which he dreaded even more than he knew. I had listened to his words, but I had not really heard them, not until now. It would not have made much difference to what happened, but I wished it were not too late to let him know.

"Have you heard anything recently?" I asked, ashamed hat I had not asked sooner.

She glanced up at me. "Just the same. It's always the same. They don't think there will be much improvement."

Then she turned away. "He always used to seem so - hopeful. Even when there was really nothing to be hopeful about. that's what I find so strange. He seemed hopeful, didn't you think?"

"Maybe it wasn't hope," I said.

"How do you mean?"

I wasn't certain myself. I was thinking of all the schemes he'd had, the ones that couldn't possibly have worked, the unreal solutions to which he'd clung because there were not others, the brave and useless strokes of fantasy against a depression that was both the world's and his own.

"I don't know," I said. "I just think things were always more difficult for him than he let on, that's all. Remember the letter? Well - what it said was that they could force his body to march and even to kill, but what they didn't know was that he'd fooled them. He didn't live inside it any more."

"Oh Vanessa - " my mother said. "You must have suspected right then."

"Yes, but - "

I could not go on, could not say that the letter seemed only the final heartbreaking extension of that way he'd always had of distancing himself form the absolute unbearability of battle.

- Margaret Laurence

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