ASHA STOOD watching the horizon, toes hanging over the edge of the dock, squinting into the light as if she could see him on the deck of the distant ship, her body leaning so far out that but for the wind coming off the bay, she would plunge into the frigid ocean. There were others nearby, behind her on the dock, below on the beach, watching from the distant hillside behind them and from the windows of homes and the ramparts of the fortress atop the hill. Mothers weeping; younger brothers and sisters clutching the dresses of their mothers; stoic older men with rigid steel faces, displaying strength but inwardly full of turmoil; and there were those like Asha, betrothed young women watching the men they were supposed to love and cherish disappear beyond the distance that loving and cherishing could travel. It was war, and every able body had been summoned, and every able body was now falling off the side of the world.
The sails of the ship, brilliant white when they set out, were burning pink now as the sun began to set and doubtful streaks of red slowly permeated the hopeful blue of the clear evening sky. The men were the first to turn back to the village, the crimson horizon a stark reminder that the loss of the land’s strongest and best had not stopped the earth’s turning. There would be work to be done still, fields to be plowed, crops to be harvested, clothes to be washed and mended, tools to be repaired, and more of it to go around now that all the young men were off to fight a battle from which they might not return. The married women turned back next, many still having late suppers to cook for tired and confused children whose fathers and brothers had just sailed into oblivion. The women, too, would need to be strong, as many of the duties of maintaining the home and land would now fall to them. The young girls, the unmarried, wistful romantic ones, stayed last, refusing to leave until the bright pink sails had faded to deep blue and were sinking off the edge of the earth. Even they, as the sun and the ship seemed to dance away behind the horizon at exactly the same time, began to feel a chill from the bay wind and, clutching each other sadly, shuffled back to town to assist with what duties they could find.
All except for Asha. Lingering long after all the others had departed, she sat on the edge of the dock, her bare legs swinging off the end, watching still the waves of the bay, imagining each one of them bringing back her beloved. She was not hopeless; in fact, she believed more than anyone in the village that her betrothed would return, even if no one else did. She believed, had to believe, was compelled to by oath and love, was forced to by the emptiness in her heart.
She believed because he had promised her, and that was enough reason for hope.
DOWN THE BLADE swung, biting mere centimeters into the packed earth. Asha dropped the hoe in frustration and wiped the sweat from her eyes with her forearm. David had always made it look so easy, smiling and consorting with the other men while he worked, all the while his capable muscles would exact their vengeance on the land. The earth he must conquer, and he always did, handily, mightily. It was not so when it came time to plant, however; at such times it was his gentleness, that gentleness about him which she loved more than anything, and not his force that won the day. He was quite adept in the fields, delicately pruning his garden in just the right way, gingerly working his way around thorns and thistles. His crops always yielded plentifully, and his fruit was large and succulent. David was so skillful that he generally produced more than enough to share with everyone around him, which he did gleefully.
In his absence, Asha was attempting to work the same field for his family, since his father too had sailed off to war. He had not yet seen fifty summers, and working outside had left him lean and in good condition. David’s mother Martha was occupied with caring for her younger children, and her garden would likely suffer greatly were she not able to receive aid. Asha’s younger brothers, ten and twelve in age, would see to the garden of her family, so she was free to assist David’s mother. But though she had gladly volunteered to do so (before even being asked, in fact), after her first week at the work she was already immensely behind schedule, and feared she would not have the land ready to plant before the growing season was upon them.
She expressed as much at day’s end as she sat at Martha’s table, drinking cool water from a stone cup. The children were asleep now, the sun had very little fight left in it and the evening was mostly upon them. Asha was exhausted, having stayed much later than she had intended, but she was committed to working as much as possible to ensure the family would have food come winter.
Martha sat beside her and smoothed her long black hair with her palm. She smiled gently at Asha, seeming to know something behind her eyes that Asha did not know.
“You needn’t trouble yourself too much, child. I’m sure whatever you can manage is more than help enough.” Asha was reassured by the woman’s calming manner; her soothing voice was strong and graceful, underpinned by songs of hard years behind.
“Plus, the men will be back before the harvest, anyway,” Asha blurted. “And David will get it all fixed up for me.” She laughed aloud. “I can just hear him now, chiding me for my pitiful efforts out there!”
Martha’s smile did not change, though there may have been the smallest crease added to the corner of her eye. “I’m sure they will be, dear. Now you run on home before it’s pitch black out there. Wouldn’t want you stumbling over anything.” She rose from the table and found her way back to the kitchen, picking up the washing where she had left off. By the time Asha rose to leave, the smile had faded.
Asha took the long way home, making sure to pass by the shoreline. She hesitated just for a moment, vision failing in the minutes just post-dusk, but she stayed nevertheless for just a few moments, looking, gazing longingly at the horizon. When it became nearly to dark to see her feet, she turned back towards the lights of the village.
She returned in the morning, just before sunrise: before the long bright of the day would beat her into submission, before toil and labor would rob her bones of comfort, she came to sit and wait for David. She lingered until just before doing so would put her even further behind in Martha’s garden. She sat patiently, smiling, confident that morning, knowing that it would be the day her beloved would return.
But it wasn’t. Surely the next day. Surely.
BELLS WERE RINGING, and she shot awake. How many bells had it been? Outside were feet scuttling past, half conversations murmured and tossed about by the breeze. must be there’s news and have they returned and a whir of phrases half whispered and lost in the air. Could it be? She poked her head out the window to see droves of villagers making their way towards the keep. News about the men! Already her mother’s voice was calling out to her from across the house, and ohsofast she was throwing her clothes on, half out the door while still dressing and ohsofast she was shaking her dopey brothers awake and saying Let’s Go! at the top of her lungs and already most of the town was halfway up the hill and We Can’t Miss It! and finally she was just running ahead of them up the hill not wanting to wait any longer. All lingering drowsiness had been shattered by the thought of David’s possible return and she was so nervous ohsonervous.
The keep came into view slowly from the top as she darted past villagers on her right and left, as if it were being resurrected from a grave, raised up slowly with a winch, and her hopes with it. The last few weeks had been murder on her spirits. Every day she had been at the dock, and every midday, and every evening, and there had never been the slightest hint of activity on the sea. Of course they would send a runner, she thought now, laughing at her own naiveté.
She thrust her way to the front, thin enough to angle past those already positioned in front of the terrace. The herald would announce the victory any moment now, and the crowds would burst into gleeful embraces and laughter and pats on the back, and everyone would shuffle back to town to work until sundown. And at sundown, there would be ale flowing and dancing and music and joy abundant.
A trumpet blasted. Asha’s heart felt as if it were thrashing around inside her chest, refusing to stay still for even a moment. The doors above creaked open slowly, and Asha was gripping someone’s hand next to her and she had no idea who.
The herald emerged. Why was he walking so slowly? she thought. Enough with the formality and just tell us when they will be home!
He cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he began, “our runner has returned from battle. He has brought news…”
A pause. Why the pause? Oh God why the pause…
“Our army has suffered a terrible defeat.”
“Our runner himself has barely survived the return trip. To the best of his knowledge…”
“…our men were annihilated, to the last man.”
and the only thing after that she heard before her own scream drowned out his words was “I am most saddened…” It was a blackness, a redness maybe, maybe a blinding white even; it was a blur and a tearing off down the hill and nononono she was saying (shouting?) and maybe even idon’tbelieveit (or was she just thinking that?) and all she could do was go look herself. There had to be some mistake. He had promised. He had sworn. He couldn’t be dead, it was impossible. And suddenly she was at the dock where she had seen him last and was searching the horizon, the sea, the sky for anything, any sign, any hope.
He had promised. He had said, “I will return.”
She must hope. She would hope. Standing there on the dock, she made her own promise, she made a covenant vow to herself, to him, because she knew, she just knew, he was still out there.
She would never, ever stop believing.
[TO BE CONTINUED]