by Baloney Bill
A post civil war story about a soldier coming home, determined to make it by Christmas.
A Candle In the Window
For days he'd been walking, ever since the war had ended and the Union army had mustered him out. He stopped only to eat and sleep and headed steadily towards home as the crow flies. Three days back, the weather had turned bitterly cold, much colder than it had been, and yet he continued walking north as if to embrace the bitter cold. These recent days he seemed always to be walking into a fierce wind coming at him persistently as if he were battling Old-Man-Winter himself. Yesterday, a few fat flakes of snow darted around in the wind, but today snow came with a vengance, heavy, driving snow like a constant, numbing slap in the face. The point had come now where even though there was still a bit of late afternoon daylight, he could scarcely see.
He'd passed up the chance to stay at Fred MacNeil's mill. Over a cup of weak but hot coffee by the potbellied stove, the old man had offered him shelter for the night. Tempting though it was (Lord, he was weary!), he was so close to his own place, to Annie and the baby, and it was Christmas Eve, and he'd promised himself he would be home for Christmas. Sure, that promise had been made before this storm, but he'd envisioned this homecoming for two years now, and suddenly even one more night away from home just wouldn't do.
Back at MacNeil's, when the old man stepped out to look after his livestock, Lawrence read Annie's letter again, that neatly written page in the worn and dirty envelope which he had now folded and unfolded so many times that it was about to come apart into pieces. And after reading it this time, he knew he would decline MacNeil's hospitality and press on all the way home tonight. The old man tried to talk sense into him, saying this wasn't a storm to fool with, but then again, the old man hadn't read the letter, had he? Annie had written:
My Dear Lawrence,
I'll leave a candle in the window for you until you come back home safely to me. Little
Samuel talks so much now, always just jabbering away, and now he will toddle from the chair
to me at the stove on his chubby feet, and he hardly falls much anymore. I have told him all
about his brave father who was off fighting the war and who is on his way home now.
Lawrence, sometimes, I swear, he looks as if he understands, though how could he?
I long so for you to finally meet your son. I see so much of you in him. I swear I might have
gone mad without his dear and simple company.
The last reading had been enough. He tucked the letter away in his breast pocket and then bundled up as well as he could. He shrugged back into his greatcoat and put on his muffler, hat and gloves, all of which were still wet despite being hung by the fire. He started off again.
That had been only an hour or so ago. Now, with the storm raging and he so far from shelter, he was second-guessing himself. He thought back to the crackling fire at MacNeil's and at this point would give anything for a place on the floor there out of the cold, wind, and snow. Too late for any of that now, now he was halfway between home and the mill, as far forward as it was back. He trudged on, his feet numb and soaking wet, the worn soles of his boots soaked through. He could scarcely see. He kept his head down, concentrating simply on moving one foot ahead of the other, determined to just keep forcing the next foot forward. He tried to motivate himself with the idea that every step he accomplished was one step closer to home, to Annie and the baby. It came to him suddenly that if he should stop, he would go right to sleep, and if he went to sleep, he would surely freeze to death. The thought had come out of the blue, startling him and giving him renewed purpose. He hadn't survived the war just to die of stupidity a half mile from home.
Now, full dark, the night bore down hard and heavy with relentless snow, and Lawrence forced a picture in his mind of tomorrow morning. The new day would bring Christmas, and the sun might even come out by then, full and bright and sparkling on the new snow. In his mind's eye, he and Annie would hold their baby by the window and point out to him the beauty of this snow. The same snow that tonight threatened his very life. How could one thing by its nature be both terrible and beautiful? And how often had his life been threatened since he left home? But all that, he knew, would be in the past tomorrow. Tomorrow they would all look out on the new day, on a new beginning.
He stopped to be sure of his bearings, squinting through the pelting snow towards where the cabin must be. Must be. He should be close enough now to see it. He even looked for anything like a light, thinking of that candle in the window, that light of hope and welcome and home. He figured it was just Annie's figure of speech, she just meant she would be so ready to welcome him. There was certainly no light to be seen. There was only more of the same -- darkness and snow. He drew a deep breath and plunged forward, plodding through the deepening drifts, pushing through with slow, determined steps, head down, knowing he must be close. Must be.
And then, minutes later, he looked up again towards his idea of where the cabin must stand, and for a moment, thought he saw a flicker of light. Despite the blinding cold of snow blowing on his frozen beard and into his squinting eyes, he could swear he saw a tiny flicker of light. He walked on, a little faster now, a little more hopeful, then stopped again and trained his eyes on what was, yes was, a vague dot of light, and he saw that it was real. As he headed doggedly closer and closer, the outline of the cabin took on a vague and shadowy shape, barely visible through the snow. And the flicker of light started to take shape, too, a small yellow shape, a flicker of shape through a window, their home's window. And he came closer yet, saw how the heat from that tiny flame had melted a circle within the frosty pain of glass, and he seemed to actually feel that heat right away, feel it in his frozen fingers and toes, feel it to his very core.
He had arrived in time for Christmas as he had promised himself, and she really had kept a light burning for him as she said she would. He reached the cabin, guided by that small but steadfast candlelight, laid his hand on the latch, and was, at last, safely home.