His breath tripped over words stuck between his teeth
and tongue as sinewy shoulders curved.
The child stood, small, shivering in her tattered brown coat,
a dented, scuffed brown suitcase gripped in her hand.
From his gut, a January gust burst through barn doors,
swept across the dusty floor covered with pieces of last year’s wheat
and this year’s hay before finally disappearing forever in crannies
and cracks in the wall to join the loneliness of winter in the Mid-West.
All he could say was, I’ll be damned.
In red clay stained overalls, he became tired and old
as she walked toward him while the stains spread.
He’d thought he could put the past away, the way you put a book
back on the shelf. He thought he could live illiterate.
But here she stood, shoddy and battered as her suitcase.
He’d seen the girl before, during the war. She stood on a shelled street corner
surrounded by shards of buildings. Her long dark hair blew with the chilled breeze
exhaled after his every inhalation of dread.
He’d seen her in the haze of battle, tall against the bodies crumpled about her
that seconds before been her mother, her father, her younger brother.
She stared at him then as she stared at him now,
beseeched, demanded to know how he could have let it happen
and what he was going to do to make things happy again.
Her intense brown eyes bore into his, shrapnel imbedded in his imagination.
The family had left what remained of a home with hardwood floors
and a rose-patterned wool carpet in the center of the room,
china plates also rimmed with roses, and porcelain dolls in satin dresses.
They wanted to find refuge in the church across the pock-marked street.
They stood, mesmerized by the sea of German and American waves of death.
waiting to wade across when the tide rolled back.
The little girl’s eyes riveted on his. He peered into her fear and courage,
her ragged brown coat danced to the deadly mortar and machine gun current,
her dark hair swirled in synchronized eddies.
Eyes that swam into pools of hers, lost for a moment that was days,
as bullets found and shred her small body.
Now she stood, in confused defiance as if still surrounded
by whatever is left when world wars invade sleepy villages.
She commanded him to save her.
With a January gust he exhaled, Well, I’ll be damned.
Sheri Gabbert is a substitute teacher living in the Missouri Ozarks with her miniature schnauzer, Rilke. Her work has been published in Moon City Review (2011/2017), new graffiti, The Quotable, Rat's Ass Review (Love & Ensuing Madness issue/Such an Ugly Time issue and anthology in print and ebook); Communicators League; 417 Magazine; Street Buzz; and The Lawrence County Record.