David shifts in his chair and hides behind the Brattleboro Reformer. “I just need some time.”

“But I want to understand. I want to help. It’s been five months, but you resist me at every turn.”

David rises and stands over me, his fists balled. “You can’t understand. You weren’t there. You fucking weren’t there! In one day twenty thousand soldiers were killed in battles around the world. It was a fucking horror movie.” He wads up the newspaper and slams out the door.

Nightmares

I never knew what would trigger the nightmares—a smell, a noise. David would throw off the covers screaming, horrified by some vision he saw. The first time I tried to wake him, he lashed out at me as if fighting a German soldier and belted me out of the bed. When I hit the floor, I thought I’d broken my arm, but it was just bruised. I was stunned, couldn’t comprehend what had happened.

“Do you want a divorce?” I finally got up my nerve to ask one Sunday as we were walking to church. It seemed a safe time to broach the subject. Surely, he wouldn’t explode in public. I was wrong.

“No, I don’t want a divorce!” He stops on the sidewalk in front of the rectory. “I just want some peace and quiet and an end to your fucking nagging. Don’t you get it? Men were killed right in front of me. I dragged their bloody bodies out of the trenches, tried to save them as they suffered. Sometimes I wish I’d died with them!” He shoves me away and I stumble off the high sidewalk and fall into the street.

The worst part was that Mrs. Stopper, the pastor’s wife, and her three daughters, dressed to the nines, were just coming down the rectory’s front walk. They stopped with shocked faces, turned around, and hurried back inside.

Once home, David apologized, wept on his knees like a character from a novel, holding me around the waist, begging me to forgive him, and I would have, but the assaults got worse. A slap here, a punch there. He was always angry. If not at me, at the mailman for leaving someone else’s mail in our box, or the stock boy at the grocer for omitting an item he wanted, or his old-maid aunt, his last living relative, who called to check on him once every few days.

Three weeks after the scene in the street, David had another dream and began to scream in the middle of the night.

“No! Stop! Stop!” By this time, I’d moved to the adjoining room, but afraid the neighbors would hear, I hurried to his bed to wake him. This was a mistake.

“No! You fucking Kraut!” Believing me to be an enemy soldier, my husband grabs me around the neck. I can’t breathe, can’t fight him off. I yank his thick beard, tear at his hands. We roll off the bed, crash to the floor, and the impact brings him around just before I pass out. Tears streaming down our faces, we lay there panting.

“This can’t go on,” David groans. “One of these nights I’ll kill you.” He crawls to the chest of drawers and pulls out a pistol wrapped in a pair of army underwear. “Here, you must sleep with this revolver under your pillow. If I come for you in the night, shoot me. . . . Don’t threaten! Shoot me. Do you understand? If you plead with me, I won’t stop.”

“David! I couldn’t!”

“You have to. I’m out of control.” He sits back on the bed and starts pulling on his clothes, first his pants, then his shirt. Forgets the boxers.

“I’ll take you to a veteran’s hospital! They must have a unit for ex-officers with bad dreams and outbursts. I’ve read about it in the paper. Thousands, maybe millions of men who saw combat have readjustment problems. They call it shell shock.”

“Never! I worked in such loony bins during training. I’d be shipped to an overcrowded asylum with the rest of the whacked-out soldiers, labeled crazy, maybe even given hydrotherapy or insulin-shock treatments. You know what those places are like, men strapped in straitjackets, in padded rooms.” He’s tying his boots, and as I reach for him, he pushes me away. “I’d rather die!”

A month later, he stole his gun back from under my pillow and put a bullet through his brain down by the Connecticut River, right where we had once danced in the moonlight. His prediction was right. He would never see me get wrinkled and old.

15

Messenger

The sun, like a giant orange, is just coming over the mountains when I wake with a bladder so full I really have to get to the outhouse. I rise and go out into a cool morning with the promise of a beautiful day, but the rumble of a truck barreling up Wild Rose Road lifts me out my reverie.

Now who could this be? I look down at my worn housedress and bare feet, then back at the vehicle pulling up at the fence, a beat-up open hack driven by a wisp of a boy, not more than fourteen.

“I’m Chester Mink. Mrs. Wade says come quick. It’s a disaster,” he hollers, then adds as an afterthought, “ma’am.”

I figure there must be some mistake. He’s probably looking for the midwife. “You have the wrong house. Patience Murphy doesn’t live here anymore. She’s Mrs. Hester now, the vet’s wife, and they live on the other side of Spruce Mountain.”

“I know that,” he responds, looking frustrated. “I been there once already and no one’s home. Mrs. Wade said to fetch you. She says come quick!”

My first reaction is to make an excuse. I’m not used to these urgent demands. It may be okay for Patience and Daniel to rush, rush, rush, but I have enough to cope with just getting through the day. I haven’t even had a cup of tea, and what will I do with Dr. Blum?

“Please, ma’am! It’s an emergency.” He jumps out of the vehicle and comes up to the porch, a thin awkward lad wearing denims that are too short, and his eyes are big in his very white face. I glance at my wristwatch. It’s seven fifteen.

Trapped

Thirty minutes later, we cross the bridge over the Hope and speed down Main. Chester hasn’t said a word and is concentrating so hard on just keeping the old truck on the road that I dare not ask any questions. Dr. Blum just bounces up and down, loosely rocking between the driver and me, holding my leather nurse’s bag.

We turn at Sycamore, and pull up in front of an immaculate two-story brick home right behind the Saved by Faith Baptist Church. As I hop out of the truck carrying my medical bag and run toward the house, I hear crying—“Eiiiiiiiiiii! Eiiiiiiiiii!”—long screams and raised voices. There must have been a terrible accident.

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