Soldier’s Return


There he was, standing on the sound, hard Vermont gravel, instead of the southern mud where, it seemed to him, he had been slogging ever since he had left home. The train rumbled on. The twilight was deepening. Through it he caught, for the first time, the home smells, the resinous fragrance from the Wyman pines across the tracks, the hemlock odors from the lot to his left as he walked forward, carrying his little bag. On his right was the swamp. Springtime had wakened the frogs—the peepers were out, shrilling in their high, sweet treble as he went by.

When speaking of this, he never told me that he shed some tears there, but I always did at that point when I heard the story.

Just beyond the swamp, the Brick Farm House comes into view. To his surprise, it was all dark. Not a candle lighted in it. Wondering a little, but thinking that perhaps they were at the back of the house, he stepped forward faster and faster. On the old bridge over the Battenkill, he stopped a moment and leaned on the railing to look down at the black water below and to listen to the faint stealthy rustle the river makes where the water is deep. This hail been one of his favorite swimming holes. He lifted his head and looked around him, divining the darkness of the mountains against the darkening sky. He used to say, “Not a light was to be seen. Not a sound. How black, and grand, and lonely it looked.”

The little girl listening saw and heard more vividly than ever in her life the raucous, loud, never-silenced, swearing and shouting of men’s voices, and the incessant rumbling of artillery caisson wheels and army wagons—saw the smoky flames from bivouac fires which had always glared around the Vermont farm boy in his war years.

He turned into the patli that led up to the farm house. A dog lay on the porch—yes, just like Ulysses’ dog, only Sandy didn’t think of that, I suppose. And like Ulysses’ dog when he heard the familiar step and the familiar voice, he raised himself up on his lorepaws and thumped his tail on the porch floor. At this point there was a knot in the throat of the listening little girl.

But when Sandy opened the door, for of course that Vermont door was not locked—not a soul there. He was in the kitchen, the heart of the home life, ft smelled of burning birch bark, of soap, of creosote in the chimney, of geraniums on the window sill, of cookies in the pantry.

“No, it is not possible,” he said to himself. “This must be a dream.” He would wake in a moment, he thought, and smell burnt gunpowder and men sweating in heavy wool uniforms. These were dream smells.

Sandy couldn’t imagine where everybody had gone. This was a very different home-coming from what he had imagined. He walked around, calling. No one answered. Then he thought he would go on up the road to the barn. After all, the burn was his particular workshop, for he took care of the cows.

He left his flat little bag in the living room of the farmhouse and walked up the road. The barn was black, of course. Feeling more than ever that he was sleepwalking, he lifted the heavy wooden latch and let himself into the warm blackness, filled with barn odors. The fragrance of hay, the pungent living odor of well-kept cows. But without as much smell of manure as he remembered. He could hear the cows munching in the darkness and moving around a little, so he knew that the barn was still full of life. He wondered if the lantern hung on its usual peg. He felt his way along the barn wall until he came to the peg. Yes, there the lantern was. Of course. Why should it be changed? Nothing was ever changed. He lighted the candle which stood inside it, hung it back on the peg, and looked around him.

How clean the barn was! He did not know that the entire farm family had turned out to clean it and to brush the cows down, as part of his welcome home. But, as he looked, he thought, “I haven’t seen a hospital all during the war as clean as this barn.” The cows munching away on their hay, turning their eyes shining in the light of the candle, looked at him without surprise.

He took off his soldier’s cap with its hard visor, loosened his military tunic, and drew a long, deep breath. He must be dreaming.

The cows stood still in their places but on the other side of the barn a shadow moved. A gray cat came boldly across the floor. A young cat. But Sandy thought, “Must be one of Old Fighter’s kittens. Those black markings are the same.” The cat came up to him, rubbing against his leg and waving his tail. To Sandy he spoke familiar language. “He’s asking for some milk,” he thought, the dream-like feeling deepening. “I’m probably sound asleep back in camp,” he thought.

But he stooped down and stroked the furry back which arched itself under his hand. “All right, kitty,” he said aloud, “we’ll get some milk.” The three-legged stool stood where it always had, a milking pail near it. He drew the stool up to the nearest cow and began to milk.

He dug his head into the cow’s warm, hairy flank, his fingers closed around the yielding, soft, firm tissue of the teats. The streams of milk began to thrum down into the pail. His hands, his big, strong soldier’s hands, hardened by carrying arms, seemed scarcely under his control, seemed to act of themselves as they began masterfully to press the teats with the familiar gesture he was proud of doing well. Now it seemed to him he had not been away at all. It was everything that had passed that was the dream—the nightmare.