Return of a Stranger

© Catherine Lee

Winner, 2022 The Silver Quill – Serious Section and Overall, Toodyay, West Australia.

He described the sensation of nervous elation preparing to march off to war,
with the coo-ees and cheers somewhat quelling the fears, plus the freedom their fighting was for.
He’d signed on for his nation with no hesitation, his mates alongside him as well—
with his typical grin, all misgivings within he endeavoured to smoothly dispel.
He was brave to enlist, and we kids caught the gist of the serious issue at hand,
all agog with a sense of excitement yet tense with the ominous threat to our land.
But he winked at my brother, “Take care of your mother - and this little larrikin too,”
as he tousled my hair with a mock warning glare and without any further ado,
after poignant embraces considered our faces, instructed us all to be calm—
then with hearts proudly swelling, our eyes blurred and welling, we waved Dad goodbye from the farm.

It was daunting without him, but hearing about him we knew things were much worse for him—
though his letters were muted and quite convoluted, could tell his surroundings were grim.
So we struggled through drought, got the sheep safely out when the flooding came hot on its trail,
striving hard to maintain the embattled terrain, leaving out any negative tale,
and we kept the farm going, determined on showing our dad we were doing our best,
kept our letters upbeat through each bitter defeat and the challenges close to our chest.
We were bent on defending his life’s work, intending to please him with all we’d achieved—
to protect and uphold it, ensure we controlled it and justified all he believed.
So we harvested, mended, drove cattle, extended, ensured the stock came to no harm,
fighting body and soul to accomplish our goal - but we all felt his loss to the farm.

Meanwhile far from us all, Dad had answered the call to face horrors we couldn’t conceive—
no escaping the threats of guns, bombs, bayonets—ghastly nightmare with no sure reprieve.
Not quite trusting their fitness for evil they’d witness, entangled in visions obscene,
in appalling conditions their failing munitions brought capture they hadn’t foreseen.
Later laying down tracks they were breaking their backs for their enemies cunning and cruel,
made to march to the thrum of an ominous drum - an inflexible, meaningless rule.
Dad could feel his pulse quicken, his spirit grown stricken as comrades were tortured and fell,
yet was forced to observe till they’d broken his nerve with that brutal, unspeakable hell.
Every day brought new dread as they piled up the dead and no words could prevent or disarm,
so his hopelessness grew for he saw it was true he might never return to the farm.

Though he somehow survived he has never revived from the sickening sorrow and shame,
and our planned celebration, expected elation, was rather subdued when he came.
For the soldier in pain who stepped down from the train was a man we did not recognise—
a pale shadow, a ghost, but what frightened us most was the emptiness there in his eyes,
not a sign of the sparkle, just wretched debacle of all he had been in the past—
missing arm, clothing tattered, his substance now shattered despite being safe home at last.
Yes, he made an attempt for our sakes to pre-empt any questions we might have in store,
but although he’d returned to the homestead he’d yearned for, he wasn’t the same any more.
He would startle in fear, looking wild, it was clear that for this there was no healing balm.
He had left us with vigour, returned a mere figure—a stranger came home to the farm.

On this subject Dad’s silent, with everything violent now trapped in his wandering mind,
and as time passes by he’s just waiting to die, praying only to leave it behind.
No apparent conception of seasons’ inception, continuous work of the years,
he reclines blankly staring, gaze vacant or glaring as sanity fast disappears.
I’m made fully aware of this depth of despair through his journals of anguished remorse,
which so sadly reveal how his lengthy ordeal has deprived him of mental resource.
It is tough to envision the ruthless derision, dire punishments, torment and grief,
the enforced deprivation, intense subjugation, restrictions defying belief,
or the tragic residual of each individual who suffered each gruelling campaign,
with ineffable hatred that never abated engraved on their souls to remain.

Yet a single reaction and brief interaction comes suddenly once every year,
to salute the parade as the bugle is played and the last able soldiers appear.
With emotion apparent and pleasure transparent, determined to rise to his feet,
he will pause to reflect and accept the respect of those gathered, while gripping his seat.
It is then that the sights which still haunt him at nights will be briefly wiped out by his pride,
while his comrades are rendered esteem they’ve engendered and named in a meaningful tide.
Then ignoring affliction, the warmth of conviction illumines his weathered old face
as with fond recollection and valued connection he grasps truth he cannot erase—
buried deep in the embers of all he remembers, eclipsing his anguished regrets
lies belief in their essence, perpetual presence—a nation that never forgets.

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