As I sit here at the cottage in my twilight years, the silence forces me to recall days gone by and divulge shameful secrets; secrets I didn’t even know I had. There’s no one to listen. Was there ever? Now, everyone is either dead or disappeared. There it is. It’s just me, here amongst the loons, the herons and the cormorants, the ‘crow ducks’ of the Great Lakes. Who will hear my story? It doesn’t matter. There’s not much to tell. Even so, the pen is mightier than the sword. Words cut through the quagmire that is my life.
I hail from a small town out west. I fought in the war; the war to end all wars. I took all my pent-up rage and fury and joined the forces that fought Hitler. I was there, fighting in the trenches and on the battlefields. I had good reason, you might say. Her name was Hannah.
Hannah was a young woman from my neighborhood; a beautiful dancer, whose mind and body worked together gracefully and made glorious music. I didn’t know her very well, you see, but I loved her just the same. I watched her from afar, watched as she carried herself with such grace down miserable, dowdy streets, wishing I had the nerve to ask her out on a date. I never did, yet in my adolescent head, she and I were lovers; passionate and volcanic.
She danced ballet, and I saw her numerous times with her little pink shoes in her hand. I wanted to see her perform so badly, but I never got the chance due to circumstances beyond my control. Yet in my head, she danced with such poise and grace, and I would imagine her body moving ever-so-elegantly across the stage, like a work of art in motion.
When the war broke out, everyone in our town started talking about joining up, how they were going to help crush Hitler and his war machine. Yet when Hannah’s family walked down the street, people would cross to the other side just to avoid them. My heart sank for her as I took in her beautiful dark hair, noticing how her soft brown eyes would turn down. So I joined the war effort, for her, for Hannah; for this unspeakable love I had for her.
I fought a war based on prejudice and hate. During that time, I lost my innocence and a lifetime of hopes and dreams, for nothing would ever look and feel the same. I learned that to survive, one must divide and conquer; that might did overrule right. I tell myself I am bitter, that I fought a war for a woman I loved and never knew. Four long years, I was away. When I returned, she was gone; vanished forever from my life. Like the dust that blew in my face, her loveliness became just that – an image, a mirage on a western street. I never got over her; Hannah is still with me after all these years. I have lived a long life, it seems, but not without hardship; not without pain. Certainly, I have not lived my life on my own terms, for Hannah haunts my every dream. Her beauty, like the classic art work of the masters, lives on in my head – ageless; timeless.
The cormorants’ story reminds me of Hannah and her people. I watch them on the lake, double-crested, large, greenish-black water birds with slender, hooked-tip bills, orange facial skin and webbed feet. They almost became extinct because of their greed, it was said. The fishermen wanted them eradicated; they claimed the cormorants’ desire to fill their bellies with fish made it hard for them to make a living. Because of what people did to this species, poisoning the water with chemicals and pesticides, the cormorants were almost lost to man’s whims. But they survived, and are back regaining their rightful place on the shores of the Great Lakes. A species that almost vanished because of ignorance, has reestablished itself once again. Did Hannah? I wonder, as I watch the slender beauty of these water birds on the lake from my deck.
I have been a fool, it seems, living a lie instead of speaking the truth. Instead of defending the rights and the freedoms of people on the street of my hometown, I went away and fought. What would it have been like if I’d had the courage to speak to her, to Hannah? To offer assistance, to comfort and support her. Like Hannah and her family, I suffered too. I suffered from the injustice of not speaking up. I suffered the shame, the pain and the blame for not being who I was – a boy, a man in love, a man who needed to express his love but found he did not have the fortitude to speak of it. Yet he had the courage to fight. I am just as guilty as those that inflicted the evil in Nazi Germany, for my foolishness kept me from the one thing I ever truly wanted my whole life: the beauty, grace and wonder that was Hannah.
Perhaps now, you silly old man, you’re suffering from dementia. Hannah was never real. I sometimes think that’s all she was, a figment of my imagination. So many years have passed between then and now. But no, she wasn’t an image in my head. She was as real as those birds on the lake. If only I could have told her I fought for her, for her people, for justice, for peace; that I fought for democracy and freedom. If only I could have told her simply, “I love you.” I never did, though, and I never felt like my life was my own. I always felt I was on automatic pilot, doing the right things at the right time but never really feeling right about any of it. Is it too late for me now? Maybe not, if someone could hear my story. If you listened to this story, you’d know that life does not always turn out the way you’ve planned. But like the crow ducks, there’s a good chance you may survive. There’s a chance you can reestablish yourself on the shores of your own ideals, your own values and desires, instead of those of the ‘fishermen’ that just want to control you.
Perhaps if I had done that so many years ago, I would be sitting here with her, with Hannah, watching her dance in her pink pointe shoes around the edges of the shore as the crow ducks fish peacefully on the water.
Photo by Martha Farley – all rights reserved