I returned from the war in Europe. It was over. Yet strangely, the numbness that accompanied me through the hardest times still lingered. The blankness of emotion that was in some ways a shield against the insanity still enveloped me.
Only in my dreams did an unsettling feeling arise, a drowning sensation that woke me from my sleep. A dream that always ended the same, trapped in a tank like a fish, staring out into a room distorted by the glass that held me, prisoner.
I traveled home without a feeling of purpose. Rather, an internal drive like a homing-pigeon tugged at me.
I looked out from the bus window. Numb from the horror of war, I thought.
Shell-shocked, that’s what they called it.
The view from the window of the bus resembled the landscape of the French countryside I traveled through from northern France. And though some soldiers laughed freely, there were others that stared out of their window in quiet contemplation. I was neither of those.
I placed my hand upon the pane of glass. It filled me with a terror that I could not explain except to say that it resembled my dreams.
In my small town, I departed the bus. A friendly-faced man reading a newspaper looked up with a smile, “Ian.”
He folded the paper under his arm and stood straight from the car he leaned against. The side of the car read “TAXI,” in large letters.
“Well, isn’t it a pleasure, boy,” Said he, as he walked closer.
I smiled, more as a reflex than from friendship. I know him, I thought, if it was only the smile which told me so. He grabbed my bag and placed it in the rear seat and then opened the passenger door. I only knew to sit, but nothing else.
“Boy, they’ll be happy to see you.” He said after the doors shut. We drove away through what I knew to be familiar streets, but with the rememberance of a postcard.
“We got a new clock there in front of the bank,” He said as he took a toothpick from his mouth and pointed. The convex windshield distorted the objects as they passed by its furthest edge. A sickening feeling stirred in me.
“Your mother will be overjoyed.”
Mother, yes, my mother, I remember now.
For the first time in two years, I smiled, then looked at the driver, “Yes, my mother.” Then, back through the windshield where my smile faded.
We stopped in front of a home, “This one’s on me Ian, I doubt you’re loaded with cash.”
“Yeah, right, thanks, uh…”
I stepped from the car as the driver, whom I could not place a name, pulled my duffle bag from the rear seat and dropped it on the curb.
He tipped his hat and there was a moment of silence, “Well, it’s good you’re back. Ya look a little tired,” He said with a smirk. “I suppose I’ll see ya around.” With that, he sat in the car and drove away.
I stood near the street and gazed up the pathway to the house. Again, this home and street of my childhood provided no memory.
I grew up in this house. This is where I lived.
A sudden fear rose in me, suffocating, drowning. I closed my eyes to stop nausea that lumped below my throat.
Something bad happened, tied, screams, splashing caustic water.
I struggled to breathe as I felt pushed below the surface of a murky tank of evil-smelly liquid.
My eyes sprung open. My heart raced as I felt something of an animal’s instinct to flee, yet there was that drive to move forward. I knew this to be my truth, the purpose of my journey.
It’s my imagination, I told myself.
I approached the home. The quiet street, the trees, the gardens, all the colors were as I imagined, but only at the moment, I saw them. A breeze blew past with a faint sense of familiarity, of knowing what it was, but without memory. Zombie-like, I stepped forward with an emptiness, tired and numb.
In front of the home, I stopped. The house was picturesque as if unspoiled by the world that had pulled itself apart.
Two years of fighting in a war, what did it do to me?
For a moment, I pictured a boy that cheerfully waved goodbye to a family so many years before. When exactly that was, I was unsure. Something blurred the faces, their bodies were formless.
I took a deep breath and stepped up to the front entrance. As if outside of my body, I watched my hand rise and knock upon the door. A tingle of anticipation quivered through me with a notion of the old wooden door creaking. I closed my eyes and imagined the exact time it took for the door to open. I waited, and there was a call from inside the home, “Coming.”
A woman opened the door, flowery dressed and bosomy, gray-haired and scarfed, with a kind smile and wearing glasses.
Had things changed?
Our eyes met. And though I could see the regret in her face, I knew it was because of the pain in mine.
She stepped back and pulled the door wider. Her head tilted sideways with an encouraging grin.
I dropped my bag inside the door as I entered, but felt nothing as the woman embraced me. I followed her direction, and she closed the door behind me, “Oh dear, you’ve lost it, tsk, tsk,” she sucked her teeth. “Your skin is lifeless, and your eyes have sunken. You look near death, my son.”
“Mother?” I questioned.
“Yes, my boy, you still remember a bit.”
I looked at her, straining to make a connection.
“Oh, you’ve nearly lost it. We’ll just have to get you that joy back. Oh, I’m so happy you’re home. I’ll make you something to eat, my dear. Just come in and relax.”
She pulled me by the arm and lead me to a sitting room.
“That war is over, it’s over.” She demanded.
My eyes became teary. The sound of her voice, the aroma of the home, all meant something, but what?
“Mother,” I repeated with certainty.
“Oh, my dear boy, yes?” she asked with a coo in her voice.
I stood silently, satisfied that she answered.
With her hands on her hips, she shook her head, “You must have finished that bottle I sent you long ago. Just relax, no worries now, I’ll have you back to your old self in no time.”
She scampered to the kitchen. Her hefty hips rumbled under her flowery dress. She muttered unintelligible sentences that included names I had once heard, “The Taylor’s sold their house and that Conners girl was asking about you since her brother Tom returned home.” She continued about uncles and cousins that I could make no connection between.
I replied short and cordial, “Oh, ok.”
“I’ll be down in the cellar,” she called out.
“Ok, sure,” I answered as her steps faded into an underground space I faintly remembered. I followed the circumference of the room with my eyes and reacquainted myself with the furniture and photos. I stepped near the mantel. Above a fireplace that showed no sign of use. A picture of two men and a boy caught my attention. I put my finger to the boy’s face.
It’s me. Yes, they must be my father and uncle.
Next to this photo was another, and then another, sequentially older. The black and white photographs provided an impulse of memories but seemed superficial.
Bungling movements in the cellar space below grabbed my attention. I walked to a doorway in the kitchen and called down, “Mother. Do you need help?”
“No, no, I’ll be right up. Stay up there. Just take your things to your room. I’ll just be a few minutes.”
I stepped back through the house that led me to a small hallway with many closed doors. I turned the handle on the first. It creaked open to reveal a boy’s room.
This is my bedroom.
In the doorway, I stopped to look, then walked in. I dropped my bag on the floor and looked around the room to see a baseball, a model boat, some books on a desk, and a bed that was neat and unused.
The old days, the old ways, the joy, yes, joy. I remember that word.
I sat on the bed and stared at the neatly placed things about the room, the ball, the bat, the boat. Each item had a story I could not remember, but there was an impulse to remember.
Why are these things important to me?
I held the boat and looked upon it. It was a child’s toy. That was all. I set it down and looked at each object with the same emptiness.
“Oh, Ian darling? Help me set the table.” My mother called.
I stood and walked back through the house, remembering the boat. I wiped my brow, blinking and dazed, then put two plates on the table from a stack she handed me.
“Better set two more. Your father will be home soon and your uncle George might stop by.”
Yes, my Father, why didn’t I ask earlier?
I remembered the picture on the mantel.
“I can’t wait. How is dad?”
“Oh, he’s just fine. He hasn’t changed a bit.”
“Oh, joy!” I said aloud.
Mother turned with a bright smile. “Yes, you remember now, son, the joy. Here, sit, have some soup, and feel the joy come back.”
I sat. In front of me, she placed a bowl of soup and a spoon.
“Now when you’re done, don’t forget to drink the broth, drink it all down like a good boy.”
I held the spoon I felt I had held countless times before. The curve of the neck and shaft fit into my hand with body memory. I submerged it into the murky broth and lifted a spoonful to my lips, with closed eyes. I could smell a briny sour aroma waft up into my face before I sipped. The taste was unique yet familiar. It was singular in dimension, yet salty, meaty, and ambiguously decayed. My first instinct was to choke it off. I opened my eyes only to see my mother patiently waiting for me to swallow.
“That’s it, take it all down.”
Her request drove me forward. In her guiding moments, I had another and another spoonful until I was tipping the bowl for its last drops.
I sat the bowl down with a clack, “Oh, I’m full. That was wonderful… The joy.” I said as I held my hand over my belly.
“Yes, yes, that’s right. Now, why don’t you lay down and I’ll call you when everyone gets here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled, then stood.
My numbness retreated as I walked back to the bedroom. There I sat on the bed before laying down and picked up the boat. I held it close to my face with curiosity. Deep inside the ship’s deck, I could visualize myself with others as if I was there, all of us together aboard a boat. Each one of us going about tasks. Casting lines, steering, and hoisting sails.
Yes, I remember it now.
I set the model down as a queer smile grew upon my face. I lay back and fell into a grand slumber the moment my head sunk into the pillow. I dreamt a twilight night of dreams. For once in years, my thoughts were not those of drowning but of hopes and desires.
I awoke and sat up cheerful, alert, and optimistic. The light from the window had shifted. I knew a considerable time had passed.
What dreams, I thought as I placed my hands over my abdomen with fingers locked. I looked around the room at the things of my childhood and smiled at the bountiful memories they brought. Then, stood and walked to the bedroom door. Beyond, I heard the gleeful laughs and conversations of many people. I pushed the door open and ahead of me were my father and uncle from the photo. Children danced and ran about.
“Come here, my boy! Come here and give your dad a hug!” A barrel-chested man sang with a baritone voice.
Eagerly I hurried to him and indulged my father’s whim and received not just one hug, but another from my uncle as well. All felt warm from the gaiety of the moment. My mother commented on the spirit of it, “Oh, it’s back in you again. It’s back.”
Everyone beamed with happiness and told stories of family splendor. I looked into my mother’s face. She was as happy and young as I had ever remembered her. I now recalled her radiance and everlasting beauty, the same as when I was a young boy. Everyone sang in harmony, “oh the joy, oh, the joy.”
My father exited the basement with champagne bottles. Glasses were poured for all, even the young ones had a taste. My mother ladled soup into bowls around the dining room table and everyone sat sipping the soup and then stood drinking champagne and still others danced about.
So filled with merriment, I spun off into the kitchen where I found my champagne glass empty. I turned to look for a bottle and then entered the cellar where I remembered father had brought them up. I could not recall the way, but carefully I made my descent down the dark steps. A cool wet breeze blew from the rear and I followed the earthy moist ventilation. I fumbled for a light switch and recalled a dangling string with a cap on its end, a light that hung from the center of the cellar’s one large room.
Upstairs, the festivities carried over into the space below. The lumbering steps of my family resounded and the words of “Oh the joy,” were ever-present like a chant.
I found the string and tugged it. The flash of light was blinding, and I covered my eyes. As I slowly opened my fingers, my eyes adjusted. Oddly, I could not adjust my sight to what stood before me. At the back of the room, gargantuan pickle jars lined the wall.
Electrified with fear, I shrieked. A paroxysm similar to looking out of the taxi window, but ten times greater, overwhelmed me. As horrifying as it was, I could not look away. From inside the jars looking out were tortured faces floating within the murky brine; ghoulish expressions bent in the glass’s curvature.
What kind of monstrous thing is this? It can’t be real.
Slowly, the faces looked familiar. My legs weakened, and I turned away when I realized these were the faces of everyone I loved. My father, my mother, my uncle, and cousins, and worst of all myself, all stared back at me. Many had open mouths that held a drowning scream and the one like me floated with hands clawing at the glass. Strangely, the figures appeared younger and dressed in clothing from an earlier time.
I held my hands out in front of my face to question my existence.
If my parents are here… then who is up there, and who am I?
I spun from dizziness and struggled to stand.
My ears rang as my heart pounded in a panic. I turned completely away in disbelief. In doing so, I saw my mother and father standing before me at the bottom of the steps in solidarity, hand in hand.
“You weren’t supposed to see this yet,” my mother said in her sweet voice. “This is the joy. This is all of their happiness and life bottled up, preserved in jars that will keep us alive and happy for many years to come,” she glanced at my father, then looked down at their hands that embraced, “You don’t need to trouble yourself with this right now. We’ll tell you everything when the time is right.”
Slowly, they stepped toward me. I was torn between them nearing me or walking back against the jars. I froze and closed my eyes. Then, with nowhere to go, my legs folded, and I slowly crouched to the floor, quivering with fear. As I held my breath, they cradled me in a smothering hug and lifted me up.
“Everything is going to be fine, son,” my father said confidently as his strong hands urged me to stand, “Let’s go back upstairs.”
They steered me toward the steps, and my mother’s calm voice spoke words of encouragement. Again, I felt numb, not from emptiness, but with the truth, with the completeness of everything which finally made sense. We climbed up the stairs as my mother’s warm hand led the way. My father grabbed two bottles of champagne and something of a calm normalness happened between us. Above, we reentered the dining room. There, I was once again surrounded by what I believed to be my loving family. The young cousins continued to play, and I pretended to play along as best I could. We toasted to life and everyone around me reveled in the moment’s joy and slowly I resigned to the idea that I was one of them, whatever that was.