THE WHITE RIBBON
© 2009 - David Campbell
Winner, 2009 ‘Bryan Kelleher Literary Award’, Australian Unity, South Melbourne Victoria.
“It’s quiet now…so still, my dear; the dogs are restless, though.
I think a storm is very near, they somehow always know.”
He knocks his pipe against the hearth and rubs his aching head.
“I think I’ll have a nice hot bath before I go to bed.”
He hears a sound outside the door, a whimper in the night,
and limps across the old stone floor towards the fading light.
The dog is there, sprawled on its side; he hears its laboured breath
and knows his mate, so long his pride, is very close to death.
“G’day old friend.” He settles back against the hand-sawn logs,
and says a prayer for One-Eyed Jack, the king of all his dogs.
He reaches out and runs his hand along Jack’s heaving flanks.
“The pain will go, please understand…for that I must give thanks.”
Beyond the red gums by the creek a blaze of red on high
becomes a pink and orange streak as sunset lights the sky.
He smiles. “It’s one of ours, my love, remember how we sat
that night when sunset flamed above, and talked of this and that.
I saw you at the local dance, the Town and Country Ball,
and didn’t give myself a chance of meeting you at all.
And yet you came and said hello, I felt I walked on air;
you held my hand and seemed to know the things that we could share.
You smelled of musk, I can’t forget; that perfume haunts me still,
and though it’s decades since we met, I know it always will.”
He feels the dog stir at his feet and senses in its pain
the final moments of retreat, a battle fought in vain.
“Don’t wait around, please go, old friend, you should be on your way;
it comes to all of us, the end…and you have had your day.
I’d like to help to set you free, to do what I should do,
but I’m a coward, don’t you see, it must be up to you.”
Despite himself, the word is there, the source of all his shame;
it hovers in the still night air with memories of blame.
For now it all comes flooding back, the years just fall away,
and she is standing on the track, like it was yesterday.
She’s in that dress, as white as milk, and nestling in her hair
the matching ribbon, purest silk, he’d given her to wear.
But something’s wrong, her eyes so blue now shine with angry tears:
“You don’t mean that…say it’s not true. I can’t believe my ears!”
He gasps in shock and reaches out; she knocks away his hand,
and then he pleads, now sick with doubt: “Please try to understand…
I simply don’t believe in war, I’ve really thought it through,
and killing men, whatever for, is something I can’t do.”
But as he speaks he knows he’s lost, and yet his voice goes on,
refusing to accept the cost, to say that hope has gone.
“I’ve bought some land…for you and I…out there past Ten Mile Creek;
it’s where we always said we’d buy, the future we would seek.
I want to build a home for us, the timber’s fine out there.
I never thought you’d make a fuss…it’s more than I can bear!”
He hears her voice, as cold as ice, a tone he’s never heard,
and now he has to pay the price, struck down by each harsh word.
“I see the truth, it’s very clear…I don’t care what you thought…
you’re just a coward, full of fear, and not the man I sought.
I thought I loved you; I was wrong. If you won’t go and fight
then you and I just don’t belong…it simply isn’t right!”
She stares a moment, then she turns, a gesture of disgust;
the fury in her eyes still burns, and down there in the dust
he sees the ribbon, white as snow, contemptuously tossed.
While he just stands to watch her go and mourn for all he’s lost.
And now he sits, as dreams unfold, outside the house he built,
and feels again that hurt of old, the agony of guilt.
“You didn’t stop, or turn around, or give me any chance;
you walked away without a sound, without a backward glance.
How could you simply leave behind the love that we had shared?
And how could I have been so blind, completely unprepared?
I thought you knew and understood the way I looked at life,
would welcome that, and think it good, and say you’d be my wife.
But I was wrong, to my regret, it seems the die was cast,
and fate decreed the night we met our love could never last.”
He wipes away a silent tear, then feels a sudden chill;
beneath his hand, so very near, old Jack is lying still.
“Well done, my friend, you knew the way, you sensed your time was nigh;
you called me here to sit and pray, to say my last goodbye.
I only wish we all could choose when it was time to go,
that very moment when we lose the hopes we cherish so.
I guess we’re all of afraid of death; we cling to what might be…
the dream that drives each daily breath, a future we can see.”
As sunset casts a final gleam he sighs and slowly stands,
then from his pocket takes the dream and holds it in his hands.
The band of silk is soft to touch, it soothes his fingertips.
He says “I miss you dear, so much,” and lifts it to his lips.
Her smiling face is all he sees as twilight turns to dusk,
and from afar, borne on the breeze, there’s just a hint of musk.