Fiction · 07/05/2017

Life, Redacted

This is a kind of love story. The kind of love when the world is war.

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Nineteen and restless, she waited for news. Her sweetheart, Albert, fighting over there. Somewhere outside France.

The flowers bloomed anyway.

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Before the day withered, she gathered eggs. Pale and brown. As varied as skin.

She cradled them as one might hold a newborn, turned then over and over, trying to find reason in specks as though they were the night sky.

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All over, fingers pushed needles, working wool into watch caps for the heads of those they loved. She took her darning needle to an egg and pressed — top, then bottom. Placed mouth to shell, as though sharing a secret, until the insides fell away and only the shell remained.

The shape of a promise. Light as a wish.

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There were shortages. Here and abroad. She’d given up nylons. Gone without sugar and lard. Cancelled dances and stargazing and lovelonging.

The talk, everywhere, of sacrifice and duty.

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Waiting is a kind of vow. A hedge against regret. A love you can’t swallow.

In his letters, Albert, complained of eating powered eggs.

All because of the horrors of the human heart. A wonder how it could fill love. Or with hate. How some parceled out poison in bombs and bullets. While she spun loneliness into jealousy.

Those French girls. So desperate for saviors.

She stabbed the yolk and watched it bleed.

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An egg is a kind of dream. A dream shaped like the future.

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Those first few she painted — pink, yellow, blue — with no more ambition than a child’s Easter. In time she added lace scavenged from dresses no reason to wear. Plucked buttons from gloves to glue against faces. Cut flowers and birds from wasted wrapping paper.

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Sometimes, when her thoughts turned to Albert, she worked the egg too tightly. Her lap, then, shell shattered.

How fragile things were.

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They wrote, sometimes, of life after war. Happiness implied. Of togetherness. Of future. Daydreaming a life with paper and pen.

A letter is a kind of hope. A whisper across an ocean.

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At night she pretended sleep, her parents’ voices drifting over her like down.

Her father saying something about eggshells and witches.

What is there to believe anymore? His newspaper snapped with precision. It’s wasteful. The Dutch are eating flowerbulbs and our daughter dresses eggs.

It gives her something to do. Besides, she saves the insides and serves them at breakfast.

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She washed every dish. Milled soap and canned beans. Killing day after day. The mailbox, empty. A dark and dusty yawn.

She pulled wash from the line. The sky so blue it could break a heart.

She wondered if there any sky left where Albert was.

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The envelopes with red and blue edges slowed. Postmarked Netherlands. Then Budapest.

She ran her fingers across the paper, feeling the inkswoops where he’d lingered with force. Read and reread. Parsing words as though eggwhites dropped in water. Each smudge. Each mark of the censor.

Those holes: casualties. Things that might have been.

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A letter is a candle in the dark. A kiss in search of a cheek.

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The upholsterer down the road lent her tools to chisel windows into skins. Fashion doors with little gold latches. Behind them: snowy villages, caged birds, field and flower.

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She went to church and said the creed. World without end. Amen.

She tried to believe. But the radio squawked every night. Of bombings in Rome. Whole cities blasted to brick. Raids in Italy.

Scorched earth, all that remained.

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In the paper, faces starched with courage. Names of boys she’d never say again.

Bodies in Life sprawled on Buna beach. She marked the spot on the map above her bed.

As many marks as stars above.

Death, near but far. Everywhere and nowhere.

Those poor people, everyone said.

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Envelopes with no addresses, no stamps appeared. Filled with rhinestones and baubles. Left by neighbors who knew about filling time.

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She visited the counter at Fine’s where Shirley sold rouge for brave faces. Shirley waited too. Waited for her Walter.

Waiting’s just another way of disappearing, Shirley said, ringing up lipstick.

They went to the movies. Ate popcorn to weigh themselves down.

The whole town filled with absence.

It felt wrong, the darkness falling around her like a hug. She couldn’t stop thinking about Albert. The shows they’d seen.

Halfway through, she left.

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The days shortened. Leaves drifted from trees. Spiders began their weaving. The moon shone still. Full yellow. Like God’s face of forgetfulness.

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And then, suddenly, a rash of lovenotes, sagging with memory: did she remember their first date?

Those summer nights, thick with magnolia, spent along the riverfront?

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Hard to live a memory.

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She stood before the mirror clasping her hands. Holding her mouth just so. Practicing what they might talk about. If he came back. When.

Those who returned had a dark thread running beneath the skin. The mark of war. Barbed wire to guard the heart.

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She had heard the talk at the upholsterer’s shop. From men with deep voices and strong coffee — the war wounded — who spoke horrible things. The bodies of women and children. Things her father did not read from his newspaper.

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She dreamt of great chasms and dirtstained bodies. Thin and naked. Corded like firewood.

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Curious eggs made their way to her — turkey, duck, swan. She began to think of them as postcards. Fragile greetings from the unknown. A way to say: you are not alone.

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Walter Peters returned home. Stood in First Baptist with shrapnel in his leg. A strange look in his eye. Something worse than fear. Shirley with her bouquet next to him. As faint as a moon in the day sky. Thin as a prayer.

She gave them a goose egg for good luck. Butterflies lifting from the face. Wings as fragile as love.

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Hard to remember his face. His voice. The weight of his hands.

She could not say these things.

He had seen bodies. Did God-knew-what. Changed in ways she wouldn’t understand.

She did not know how to say: take care of yourself. Come back.

War had taken all her words.

Instead, she wanted to send a talisman Albert could press against his heart when night came.

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They celebrated her birthday quietly. Without cake. The upholsterer bringing an emu egg, brilliant and green.

A kind man, her father said.

Only so many ways to wait, her mother said.

She blushed, embarrassed such an egg should exist.

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She dreamt of fire. Of flames raining down. Splattering orange on her dress. On her hair. Of SS soldiers pushing her to the flamelicked floor. Mouths on her neck. Hands pushing skirts.

No screams sound when mouths become black squares.

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Her spine tightened with winter. She listened for carwheels against gravel. Held her breath as long as she could. Storing it. Her body forgetting how to be.

Under the limb lace of pecan trees the hens continued to lay.

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And then she pulled an egg with no insides to splatter against dish. And she knew. Knew before the car crunch. Knew before knuckles knocked.

An egg is a kind of omen. And this, the worst kind of love story — the kind that ends.

In the candlelight, she held the box of Albert’s letters and a pair of shears and thought of sacrifice. Years and years. She read each letter, memorized the swirl of his hand. All that will not be.

Into that green shell she chipped a jagged window. A ring she did not have. Instead she placed her tears — freshly cried — and the plans they’d made. The house and children they might have had. Together. Gone, now.

With creaking scissors, she cut and cut until words piled into her lap, tiny slivers drifting like ash.

Young, still, the ladies in the kitchen said. She will find another.

She puddled glue into the saucer used for saving yolks. Like a milkbath for a lost language. A love lost.

Steady of hand, she held each fleck between tweezers she used to make her silly mirages, papering over the green, pebbled skin. Layer and layer. Dreams. Memories. Hopes from afar. Strengthened with the drying glue. Like a vow that could never break.

Over her shoulder, night lightened into dawn. Blue to lavender then pink with sunbreak.

Finished, she placed it on the mantle where her wedding portrait might have gone.

There it sat. Ugly and misshapen.

The shape of a heart.

A furious fist.

A grenade before exploding.

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She climbed the stairs. To bed. Tired from so much war effort.

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Marsha McSpadden lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she teaches English composition and creative writing at the University of Alabama. In between football seasons, she writes. Work has appeared in Slice, SmokeLong, matchbook and The Conium Review among others.