This post is part of the April A-Z Blogging Challenge, wherein participants blog throughout the month according to the letters of the alphabet. For more on the challenge, click here.
Note: If anyone wondered, I tagged the blog as having adult content due to a few factors: one, strong language; two, the possibility that excerpts I post may have graphic descriptions of sex or violence and therefore unappealing to some readers. Never fear, though, I’ll be sure to warn y’all if a post of that nature comes up! In the meantime, feel free to read on!
Note: The excerpt with this post has some relatively minor swearing and description of war. It’s also a long read.
Cheers and happy ABC’ing,
Remembrance is an important thing when you’re dealing with ghosts. Not a single one of the ghosts Darcy meets in H(A)UNTED is content with their lot in (after)life, and being the ambitious girl she is, she aims to help them all. Dead people, it turns out, can be really lonely. Who knew? Despite her line of work, Darcy freely admits to wearing her heart on her sleeve. Every ghost she meets breaks her heart a little, even the ones who frustrate her, like Jack Breault. Case in point, the following snippet, which takes place when Darcy first visits the town’s cenotaph, its memorial to the soldiers it’s lost in the conflicts of the twentieth century.
Like all monuments to the dead, it has a certain gravity about it, as if it knows its purpose and bears a solemn respect for it. My first instinct is to bow my head in recognition of the sacrifice honoured here, and I do, peeking up at the cenotaph as I bring my head back up, following its shape upwards. The bottom octagonal plinth is concrete, the monument itself made of an unrecognizable stone that resembles some of the area houses I’ve seen and rises up, bearing the plaques with the names of the dead. The shelf of stone atop that bears the names of battles: looking directly up, I can see “2nd BATTLE, YPRES,” to the left, “FESTUBERT,” and to the right, the simply chilling “THE SOMME.” Another shelf of rock above that, and then the cross spears up to the sky as though to make an entrance to heaven on its own if need be for the soldiers it commemorates: tall and straight, the top a cross with a sphere at its centre and a ring surrounding it in the Celtic style I recognize from many of my own family’s graves.
I don’t intend to read the names of the dead yet, worried after my reaction on the bridge of what I might find. Instead I walk slowly up the path, Noah’s presence slipping further and further from my radar the closer I get to the cenotaph. Once I’m facing it, I read the information on the plaque directly in front of me but not the names.
The top of this plaque has a scarred spot of white on the bronze, as though something was there but knocked off. A glance at the almost-alike one next to it reveals a badge that I can’t quite read. I squint, not wanting to climb onto the cenotaph itself, but not able to read it. I’m just deciding I can live with guilt for knowledge’s sake when Noah speaks quietly behind me.
“’They fought for freedom and honour.’”
That pauses me. I nod and move on, studying the plaque. At the top left is the date: 1914. Top right: 1918. And in the middle, in capitals: “To the glory of God and in memory of the men of Kincardine County who gave their lives in the Great War.”
I look to the bottom next, seeing a familiar line of verse I remember reading at Remembrance Day ceremonies in school:
THEY SHALL GROW NOT OLD, AS WE THAT ARE LEFT GROW OLD.
AGE SHALL NOT WEARY THEM, NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN.
AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN, AND IN THE MORNING
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.
My throat tightens, because despite the signs of wear, it’s obvious the town does still remember them: yes, there’s grass sprouting through the bricks in the walkway, and yes the plaques have been damaged, but that walkway is lined with blooming flowers, and the plaques still shine, letting the names of loved ones be found with ease.
My eyes drop to the bottom, where the message is reinforced in three languages:
I REMEMBER, it says first, then a Scottish thistle divides it from the next message that I can at least identify as Scottish Gaelic, if not read myself.
HA CUIMHICH AGAIM, say the words that precede a fleur-de-lys and the final words:
JE ME SOUVIENS.
Under the centre message, which I find touching despite having no idea how to pronounce it, is a maple leaf. The town’s heritage is represented before you even look at the names, which, I realize with a fluttery nervousness I’m not used to, it’s time for me to do.
Scrolling torches divide the lists; on the second plaque, for World War Two, one torch breaks off abruptly, like the badge on the first plaque. I wonder if it’s the wear of time and weather or vandals. At the latter thought, my fists curl, and just as quickly, reflexively relax.
The men (and, yes, women) remembered here—they’ve seen enough fighting.
At first, I only skim the names, catching the odd one here and there—Stanley Fraser, Alexander MacDonald, Angus A. McDougald—and doing a rough count. I estimate there are over a hundred and fifty names, and given what the population of the town must have been at the time, that’s significant. Then again, at the time Canada was still part of the British Empire, but… I’ve heard stories since childhood of how the Scots and Irish have rarely been given reason to enjoy the role the Brits played in our histories. So, all these Scottish and Irish names, lives laid down—it means something.
Of course, not all the names are Celtic in origin. Some of them are distinctly English—I see more than one Smith—and some are just as clearly French, like Denis Poirier. Even though many French Canadians saw the conflict as Britain’s war and not theirs to get involved in, others felt the need to defend France. Still other names are a mix of two cultures, like the name that jumps out at me when I finally start to read the names, one at a time, opening myself up to it.
I expect to have to read the entire list with a heavy heart before anything jumps out at me. But I’m not even through the B’s when it hits me and I’m sunk—
Screams again, ringing in your ears until you don’t know what’s what. Artillery or the dying, who’s to know? Then the shell hits and explodes and you do know but wish you didn’t because now you know which screams are the dying and there are more of them all the time. You can’t help them and you can’t guarantee you won’t end up the same way. All you can do is huddle low, trusting your life to a metal helmet about as sturdy as your old lunch pail from back home, and hurry across no man’s land into what they pretended was glory, if you survived the glimpse of hell without losing your wits.
“It was later called a victory, not that I was alive to celebrate.”
No ghost has ever snuck up on me. Startled, I spin and look around the cenotaph and there he is, slowly walking around it. He wears everyman’s clothes, a shirt and trousers, suspenders, a cap. His hair is neatly combed, his face clean-shaven. He looks both innocently young and brokenly ancient.
I’m still stuck somewhere in the glimpse of hell that preceded his arrival, the screams, the mud, the sheer bloody pain of dying. After a couple of seconds, I blink stupidly and gaze up at the name I last read, half-expecting another descent into war.
JACK H. BREAULT
Technicalities and Trivialities: I don’t own the poem quoted here; it’s an excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” and all copyright goes to the appropriate places. As well, if it interests you, the cenotaph Darcy describes is a copy of the one found in my hometown, pictured here.