This assignment…I had a difficult time with it at first. I was a part of NCFCA for a year and a half a few years ago, so I have some experience with speech-writing, but for some reason I couldn’t figure out where to start, even, on this assignment. Part of the problem was that none of my characters are the speech-giving type and I couldn’t think of a plausible reason for any of them to give a speech. So finally I cheated a little bit and had Ethan speak over a friend’s grave in North Africa…my defense is that it seemed like the least cheesy option and gave me an opportunity to develop Ethan’s character, which hitherto has been seen only in snatches from Elinor’s flashbacks and letters, and even I am not quite sure what he’s supposed to be like. The format might need a little explanation just to begin with…the first part in italics is not the speech, it’s just something that Ethan scribbled before he had to attend the burial. The “speech” does come eventually, although actually (since I was cheating anyway =D) the focus for this is meant to be the internal turmoil, not the speech itself. And the speech was my least favorite part of this…
He died today.
I knew it was coming. I knew it when I saw him take the bullet two days ago. I knew it when I felt his blood on my arms as I carried him out of the bush and I knew it when I left him in the tent with the medic. But I expected to feel it more than I do, now it has actually come. He was so young, so boyish.
After that first skirmish I didn’t think I could carry on in a hellish place like this, filled with so much death, so much horror. But now my fear is that I have grown too used to it. Because no matter how hard I try, I can’t feel grief over his death. Or any of the fellows’, for that matter.
Sometimes I wonder if they are the lucky ones. They go from this pain to that glory and we…we continue on and on and if ever we do live through this, we will never be the same. We never can. I know.
There are some scars that are too deep to heal – some emotions that we lost somewhere in this place. Will I ever be able to feel again?
They asked me to speak at his burial because the chaplain died last month and because I am the sergeant and because they say I was his closest friend. I used to think I was. But if I was, why are there no tears? Why is there no pain at the thought that I will never see him again? Sometimes I wish that Elinor was here to help me talk it through, to help me remember what it was like before all of this. I miss her so much!
And then sometimes it scares me. What if…
A familiar, weather-beaten voice stopped the pen in its thin black tracks. “Sergeant! You coming?”
“Won’t be a minute, Peters.” Half-ashamed of the panicked scrawl in his hand, Ethan leaned his head back against the earthy side of the foxhole, listening to the dull thud of bombs and machine guns reverberate through the ground and into his very soul. The pen went on blindly, haltingly.
God, I don’t know what to say. They are more lost than I am…tell me what to tell them.
And then he opened his hand slowly. The wind snatched at the scrap of paper and carried it away, across the trenches and the wide expanse of no man’s land.
It was just a small group that huddled around the hole in the ground. Just seven; the others had patrol duty. But the real hole was in these seven hearts and they looked to their sergeant for something to fill it. Ethan looked around at their faces, at the hungry eyes that glowed through the dirt and paint and sweat. No men on earth were tougher than these. Yet here they stood, broken. He sent up a final, silent prayer, cleared his throat too loudly, and waded blindly into the hole.
“Sometimes…” he began, heavily. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember just why we are here. We give and give, and for what? For six feet of ground, and a few words, if there is anyone left to say them.” No, no…where is the encouragement in that? God, show me what to say!
“Sometimes, when the bullets are falling like rain and it seems like the sound of shooting drowns out even the voice of God, I want to know why I am here. It was so clear when we started, but somehow it was so easy to forget…and so hard to remember. Evans…Evans never forgot. He knew why he was here.” Ethan paused, fingering a precious little packet in his pocket and struggling against the tremor that suddenly broke through the charred shell around his heart. “I was with him when he died. He asked me to find his kid sister after the war and give her a letter from him and tell her from him that…that he died so that she could grow up clean and strong and pure. He never doubted. He never questioned. That is why he was here.
“That’s why we are all here. Because back home there are hundreds of thousands of kid sisters who will grow up clean and strong and pure. Because back home there is a generation of children who will speak English, not German. Because back home there are wives and sweethearts and mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers and we will not let Jerry touch them. We’ve all of us given so much…years and tears and blood. Evans gave more. He gave life itself. He knew what he was fighting for, and he reminded us all of it, but now that he is gone we must remind each other. We must never forget.”
The wind blew hollowly over the group.
“God helping us, we will never forget.” Unsure of what he had just said and what it meant and what to say next, Ethan bowed his head. And as they prayed there in the dusk over an unlonely grave, the tears came at last.
The tears came at last.