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Memorial Day Bonus Story: Stranger, tell…


August 1, 2016 by Lyn

Memorial Day (last Monday of May), Year Four

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι

There was no need to tell anyone where they were going; Regine and Mike could read a calendar as well as they could. Before the dawn rose Monday morning, Luke and Doug slipped out of the school, and onto the highway. Luke drove, wordlessly, staring into the horizon. Doug, lost in his own reverie, didn’t interrupt. There was nothing they needed to say to each other today.

By mid-morning, they had reached their destination. The sky was grey, a storm threatening in the distance, but the air here was still and quiet. Regimented rows of white gravestones, each with their fresh US flag, stretched out into the distance.

They moved down between rows, past the new graves, the bright white of those passed in recent memory, past the older ones, growing greyer and less smooth as they moved further back; each one a name, an abbreviated title, a birth and death date, not often that far apart. Most were strangers; some were not. Some they had led, trained, fought alongside, in American wars or the shadow wars their people fought. More than a couple they had watched die. All had been soldiers, warriors, brave men and women who had stood between their country, their people, their families, and the wolves at the gate.

At the top of the hill, amidst the long lines of tombs, stood a squat, simple monument, hewn out of white marble. Carved into it was an excerpt from one of the few poems Doug had ever bothered to learn:


Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,


“And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?

There were flowers on the monument, new and old. Someone still remembered; many someones, from the neatly-tended lawn and the fresh flags. It was, Doug guessed, what you could do. Trim the grass around their graves. Put a new flag in every year. Leave flowers, to show you’d been thinking of them. To show yourself you hadn’t forgotten them, even if they never, really, left your mind. And to say thank you.

Luke had moved off to one side of the monument, to say what he needed to say and lay his own flowers. Doug set his – irises and day lilies, a riot of sunset colors – on the marble, where they seemed defiantly alive and bright.

“Thank you,” he murmured. Not just to those he’d fought beside, but to all of the endless rows of white graves. “Thank you for standing up for all of us.” More than that was needed; their deaths, their silent tombstones, demanded it. “I won’t let you down.”

It always seemed inadequate. It always led to the very clear thought that he was here, alive, and they were there, dead. That they had died so that he could stand here, so that he could teach naïve, malicious teenagers how to, in many cases, become the next generation of soldiers, send them out to become, in too many cases (one was too many), another row of white tombstones. Heroes, every one of them. “Ride well,” he whispered, the only blessing he knew.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Late into the night, he stared at the ceiling, thinking of his young soldiers, and the war he would be sending them to, and those he had already sent into that fray.


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