Fall was waving goodbye. Crunchy leaves showcasing hues of orange and brown filled the woods and unattended lawns. Light snow began dusting the grounds covering all signs of green earth except for a few holdout evergreen trees and bushes. The sounds of wayward wildlife and whistling hunters ushered in the Christmas holiday, the season of giving as well as the time of making way for unrelenting changes.
“The passing of time but not enough for you Bernard,” Mary Louise muttered as her youngest finished his breakfast.
“Ma, I’m ten years old now.”
“I know, but I still don’t want you to go.”
“It ain’t like I’m going far away. Whatcha scared of?”
“Mostly the older boys.”
“They won’t look after you the way your daddy and I always do.”
“Aaah Ma. You treat me like I’m still a baby.”
“That’s because you still are at least to me!”
“Billy is 13, and he won’t let nothin happen to me.”
“Billy is my oldest and you’re my baby.
“You mean, youngest.”
He tried to understand his Ma’s feelings. He was quiet for a while gazing out the kitchen windows. What he saw was the tall field grass signaling that the farming crop season was over. From where he stood, he could make out the silhouette of Billy and two other boys near Billy’s age. They were pulling a small wagon load of wood. They wanted to make sure they could feign off the cold. Oh, how he wished he could be right there with them. Weeks earlier he’d heard Billy and his friends discussing all they’d need for their trip. The list was short: firewood, matches, a few blankets, water, and sandwiches. From what he could tell, they wouldn’t be that far from home. How could he convince his Ma that she could almost see him while they hunted?
“Huh?” She answered without turning away from the kitchen sink.
“I bet if Dad were here, the answer would be yes. It’s not just Billy and his friends, you know, Mr. Trainor, Lonnie’s Dad, will be out there too.”
“That’s nice. So Why do you think Mr. Trainor is going?”
“To make sure the boys are safe and to guide them through gun safety among other things I reckon.”
“What other things?”
“Well Ma for one thing when you get your prey, I mean turkey,” you have to dress the meat right away so that it doesn’t spoil.”
“Doesn’t spoil.” She corrected.
“Yeah. It doesn’t spoil. They have to pull the feathers off the dead bird right?”
“Yes. That’s only part of the process, Bernard.”
“What else is there to do? Eat it?” He asked in total innocence.
Mary Louise gave out a hearty laugh, shook her head and gave Bernard a peck on the forehead. No. There’s still more to the process but we can talk about that later.
She’d high hopes that her husband would be home in time for Christmas. She’d not expressed that to the boys. She didn’t want to get their hopes up, so she kept the secret close to her heart. Afghanistan was light-years away, and at any moment his leave home could be revoked. She’d communicated with him via Skype, and could see the sliver of a cliff in the background surrounded by a large body of water, maybe a river or ocean, but he would not confirm or deny that his unit’s mission included being surrounded by a lot of water and mountains. He was the Command Chief of a small technology unit, but she felt that serving and the head of the technology unit was only a part of his operation. He would only give her bits and pieces of information perhaps to make her feel that he was safe. Common sense guided her thinking, however. How could anyone be safe when at any moment the outbreak of gunfire or a bomb could render a good soldier silent. This was his second tour of duty, and she’d experienced him guiding troops through the rough terrain of the cliffs and mountainous regions.
“The potatoes are boiling over.”
Turning around to clean up the messy spill, she could see the boys heading back towards the house. “They’re back, Bernard.” But the response was that of the back screen door slamming. “Whack!”
As she ran to the porch, she heard the boys laughing and shouting. “Look at our big fat turkey and a bonus rabbit.” One of them yelled. Mr. Trainor had made his way to the porch. “I wanted to get the boys back home ahead of the storm which comes before daybreak but I wanted to err on the side of caution.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry Mary Louise. I showed them how to hunt. Now I’ll show them how to clean their kill.”
She was not as worried about picking the feathers and dressing both the bird and the rabbit as she was about her husband of 15 years showing up in time for Christmas. This year would be the second Christmas missed if he didn’t make this one. It wasn’t easy explaining his absence to the boys the first time, and she certainly didn’t want to repeat the heartbreak of his absence. To smooth things over, she’d planned a scrupulous dinner. They could play board games or strike up a football game with the neighbor boys afterward. All of this might, she hoped, work to keep their minds off their Dad’s absence. Perhaps Mr. & Mrs. Trainor and their boys would be their special guest. She knew that it was the spur of the moment invitation but would ask anyway.
With all that she had to keep up with, she didn’t want to forget Bernard’s needs. He’s growing up, and there’s no denying that but he has to understand that things happen when they’re supposed to and not before. There is an order to life that she and his dad wanted to honor. How do you communicate that to a child? They only know a small part of life’s puzzle. Somehow she had to convenience him that she in no way wanted to keep him a little boy, no mother wants that for her child. The act of waiting for a child is always in conflict with a parent’s timeline of moving to the next step. Or is it?
“Knock, knock. What time is dinner?” She heard a welcomed familiar voice from behind her say.
“I knew you wouldn’t miss another Christmas.”