The biting wind scoured my cheeks as I approached the Jackson stead. I could recognize its grey slatted walls and lofty brick chimney from any other house in Queenston. A great glow of warmth, laughter, and light radiated from within. I had been to the house many times, each time bearing a wide smile and bouts of good cheer. But this time was different. The war was finally over, and the Jacksons had generously invited the whole town to their home to celebrate. There would be many people there including those whom I had fought alongside in the war, but then there would be others. Others such as the Gilbert family.
I gazed at the home, a lighthouse among the static, muted surroundings. I prudently adjusted my hat and rehearsed in my head exactly what I would have to recite to the ingenuous Gilbert family when and if I saw them. As I limped to the door, I felt my stomach retch with uneasiness and heave with discomfort. The door opened as soon as I stood before it and there was Mildred Jackson.
“Oh, Jeremy! You’re home at last! Please come in,” she exclaimed with a sweet, inviting smile. I stepped inside and was immediately faced with the joyous notes of the banjo along with pairs of people, young and old, dancing and singing to “When Wild War’s Deadly Blast.” Men and women stood in flocks gabbling to each other while the others spun around in pairs in the centre of the room. Even the fireplace was dancing, as it cast a warm glow on its surroundings.
“Thank you so very much for having me,” I declared, producing a half-hearted smile in return.
“It is so great to have you and the others come home at last. Please, let me take your coat.” I swallowed hard and swiftly handed it over. She motioned me up to the gathering of people standing on the outskirts of the dance spectacle.
“I’ll be there in just a moment, Jeremy. Please go and meet some of the others— they’ve all been waiting to see you.” With this, she turned and hurried off into the other room. I hobbled up to the landing where some comrades from my regiment stood, ignoring the grinding pain in my calf.
There was an immediate joyful cry of my name as I entered the crowd and what seemed like hundreds of people came up and gave me robust, secure embraces. I felt a real swell of cheer in my heart as I saw many of those who were on the battlefield as well as a few I hadn’t seen since before the war. It was as if I was truly home again, yet the shivers of perturbation still rattled my stomach.
“Jeremy! How are you?” exclaimed James Cray, a good friend from my corps who had come back early and had a limp stub of an arm to show for it.
“Not too shabby, I must say. The leg still acts up from time to time, but I’m getting used to it. But where are my manners? How have you been adjusting?”
“It’s taking a bit of work to get used to, but I reckon I’m doing okay. Have learnt to chop wood just like I could before the war. But man, everyone had to trudge through this god-awful tussle since 1812, all so we have the right to say that we are still British up here. One thing is for sure, America won’t be coming back anytime soon after we put them in their place.”
“And here is Jeremy, you remember him, don’t you?” I whirled around to see Mildred standing next to a slender boy. My heart froze as I saw his face.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” chimed James with a whole-hearted grin, “the dance floor could use a bit of my presence.” With that, he departed, and I turned to face the child.
“Why, hello there, chap.” I remarked with a tepid grin on my face and an outstretched hand, “and you must be…?”
“John—John Gilbert,” he said, receiving my palm, “you fought with my father, Henry, didn’t you?”
My throat clenched and the familiar retching in my stomach returned.
“Yes, boy, he was truly a brave man, your father was. A real sharpshooter. Could hit a squirrel from a good half a mile away. You should be very proud of him.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about my father. I just wish I got to meet him. I heard how he was once injured—shot, bleeding and everything—but he still led a group of men to cross a river to safety. And he didn’t even wince once—,” he continued.
I reckoned that the story wasn’t true as I had been by Henry’s side until the day he died and didn’t remember it ever occurring. Still, I carried along.
“I’m sure he did that, and quite a few other brave things as well. He was a very good friend to me, and I will always miss him as I’m sure you, your mother, and siblings do as well.” “Speaking of which, my mother, she wanted to speak with you. I’ll call her over.” The boy took off and I heard the little soles of his polished, brown boots go clip-clopping on the boarded floor. With each thud, a tornado of anxiety built up in my chest. My stomach exploded into thousands of ripples that travelled to my throat. I felt my clasped hands start to slip and become clammy. My breaths came in stuttering, shaky rasps and my heart throbbed with a prominent and defined rap. My bad knee took on a life of its own and spasmed uncontrollably. Alas, my time spent in anxiety was only about to start, and as I stood there dumbly, I was immediately met by a familiar voice coming from behind me.
“Jeremy! How lovely to see you again,” said Emmeline Gilbert, her steady voice laced with fatigue. I examined her facial features closely. She looked the same as she always had but all the sharply defined features of her youth seemed sullen and faded. Her eyes echoed with grief and mourning. She wore a simple pleated dress that swept the floor, and a wide bonnet was perched upon her raven head. Her entire attire was as black as pitch.
“Emm, how are you? It has been so long.” I responded, directing my gaze downwards.
“My heart fills with joy that we can be here together again after so long and after so much tribulation,” she sighed. “My only wish is that Henry could still be here with us.” Her voice trembled as she spoke.
I continued with hesitation, “I’m sure if he was here, he would be very proud of your strength and courage and how much you are doing for your children. Henry was a dear comrade of mine; he was truly a man amongst men. He spent many nights telling me about how when he came home, he would tell you all about the adventures he had. He also said, if he couldn’t make it, for me to tell you that he loves his family more than anything and would—until the day he died,” I stuttered.
“Oh, Jeremy, please, do tell me what happened to him. The death notice was the last we ever heard and… and it would be an honor to tell my children how he died in battle,” urged Emmeline, moving closer.
It was at this point I knew I had no other choice and lie after lie spewed from my mouth.
“Henry was killed in the battle of New Orleans. It was a brutal battle for us. Even though we outnumbered the Americans by about 15,000 to 5,000, we still retreated with about fifty casualties on the American’s side and around 360 on our si—”
“And Henry?” she murmured.
“I was beside him the entire time except when sudden gunshots were coming from behind, I lost track of my surroundings and I only realized he had gone after the battle was over. I’m… I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” I finished.
“No, Jeremy. It is because of your service to this country that many more lives have been saved,” she asserted, looking up, the stability in her voice returning. “I’m glad to know that at least Henry’s sacrifice was not in vain. All of us owe you a great deal.”
Not in vain, not in vain. The familiar swelling in my throat returned and I knew that I couldn’t listen to it anymore.
“Thank you, Emm. That means a lot. If you don’t mind excusing me, I need to speak with Mr. Cray for a second.” I turned my face away, ready to leave.
“Of course, Jeremy,” she said softly.
With that, I whipped around and stepped off the ledge. I tried to grasp my surroundings, but the silhouettes of people wavered in and out of my vision like trees in the fog. Suddenly, I saw him. His pleading eyes were only matched in size by darkened half-moons that were beneath them. Every minute feature on his face, from his unblinking eyes to his rippling forehead, were highlighted in the bright daylight. His twisted, grimacing face stared back at me with the intensity of a rabid dog. A single man approached him in a blood-red jacket and pulled out a crisp handkerchief from his side-pocket. He turned and blindfolded Henry’s eyes, which looked at me for the last time. This time, they were blank. No, you can’t do this, you can’t do this. My grip on the trigger loosened. “Ready, aim, and…”
I saw the furniture coming to light and the outlines of faces slowly returning to my view. I recognized that the music had stopped, and everyone was standing, staring at me.
“Hun, are you alright?” asked an elderly woman whose face was very close yet unclear. “You were screaming an awful lot.”
Half in a daze and senseless, I muttered, “Yes, I think I better go home… and rest.” The music resumed, and I could hear once again the merry shoes of dancing take the floor.
Guilt started welling up in my stomach and my eyes widened again. The room once again started losing its shape. No, this can’t happen again. I can’t keep having these flashes. Keep calm, take a deep breath. It was already too late. I could feel myself slipping, glimpses of blood spilling onto the grass flashing rapidly in my mind. I need to go, I need to go. I marched up to the coat rack, snatched my jacket, and bolted out the door, closing it with a resonating bang!
At this point, I felt myself in the unfortunate presence of torrential rain, yet I didn’t care. The dark, grey clouds were not only in the sky, but also churning in my stomach. Everything in the distance seemed a ghostly dark silhouette. I listened closely to the song and cheer inside to see if it had ceased at my hasty departure, but it continued. With that acknowledgement, I ran. I ran as far as my eyes could see. I felt my breath speed up and my legs throb but still, I ran. I ran all the way across the lane, over the fence, up the hill, and straight into my house, my head a thunderstorm of emotions. I slammed the door shut and without removing my shoes, collapsed into the aged leather chair in the corner of the room, my chest heaving up and down.
They won’t ever know, I thought, unable to control myself. They will forever be blind to the truth. Nobody will ever see his darting, frightened eyes, and nobody will ever know that I didn’t pull the trigger, as if that changes anything now. He might have run away at the contempt of war, he may have been a coward, he might have been a deserter, but they captured him, and they brought him back, and they killed him. And I saw his frightened eyes, and I looked into his pleading face, except there was no mercy for him. I was his comrade, yet at that moment, I was his enemy. And all he’ll ever know was that I was in the firing squad that was supposed to kill him. Kill him. But I never pulled the trigger, a thing he’ll never know. And now all his bloody family knows is that he was a bloody war hero. They’ll never know that he was a deserter; they’ll never see his pleading face and his crazy staring eyes that melted into helplessness before me. They’ll never hear the shots as they pealed out and echoed in the forest. And they’ll never see his body crumple into a heap of British red uniform, and they’ll never see his blood trickle out from the corner of his mouth and onto the dead grass and red-soiled dirt which would soon become a part of him. British blood drawn by a British bullet. British blood drawn by a British bullet. No, they’ll never know, they’ll never know the truth.