Jack drives and I give direction. He stops at a smaller war grave cemetery in the countryside around Ypres. Large trees grow here and there, two by the entrance. He puts his hand on one of them and looks up along the trunk. He caresses the bark and repeats it on the other tree. Once in a while a car drives by, bird song comes from the tree tops and if you listen carefully you can hear the canal behind the bunker. We pass a few graves on the way to the bunker. Despite the daylight the inside darkens quickly, after only a few meters. Four small rooms, too small for Jack to stand up. He strokes the smooth mold. I also do. He closes his eyes towards the inner wall and breathes in and out. In and out. I step outside. A small brook flows below, not deep at all and it probably risks freezing every winter. Jack still kneels in the darkness. I call for him and he gets to his feet. He stops by the bulletin board outside. In Flanders Fields. Jack reads the poem by John McCrae and stands silent in front of it for a minute. He looks out over the thousands of poppies and says:
“Terrible. For that beauty to meet destruction in such a way. In every way…”
A dry voice from not talking for hours, hours which seem like years. I come closer and put my arm around his waist.
“But it’s beautiful that the flowers were able to grow up, almost like an ode to the fallen.”
He walks up to a gravestone and reads the name out loud. “Seventeen-year-old. He must have known going to war was the same as committing suicide.”
“Britons who died for the freedom of Belgium. There are worse things to die for, I guess. But still damn terrible. I’m going to read every name on all of these tombstones.”
I follow him. He stops at a Briton who had grown as old as Leslie did.
“What are you thinking?”
“… On if he left his home, maybe his wife and kids…”
I can’t think of anything better to say. “Awful.”
I pat his back and walk to the next grave. And the next grave. Until the end of the row, but he stands still. I return.
“Jack..? Did you want to… Uhm. Did you know my mother’s great-grandfather died in the war. I don’t know if I ever told you. Nineteen years old. Shot in the chest somewhere in Wallonia.”
“Oh… I didn’t know.”
“No. Nowadays you can survive such a thing, but those days, in the trenches.”
“He must have been young with your mother’s grandmother then, your great-grandmother.”
“Yes. He was forced into battle, just like everyone else in Belgium, by Germans who just stormed in and turned Belgium into a battlefield.”
“…Of mud, trenches and mustard gas.”
He points at the almost dried up brook, which looked more like a ditch.
“Some of those resting here, probably floated there.”
“Oh don’t say that.”
He stares at the brook. I read the names of the graves which had names, pass a dozen unmarked graves, just A Soldier of the Great War. Jack stands still by the brook. He quakes.
“How are you?”
“Death is so present here. It reminds me how we part from loved ones with just a snap. All good things must come to an end, even so our tale.”
“Who said that?”
“Jack, Flanders Fields, Belgium.”
He tries to smile and takes my hand.
“Come. We have hundreds of graves left.”
He turns his back. His tall presence. He only shows me his quivering back and he waves me off.
I step closer, hug him, and clasp my hands around him.
He turns around. His tormented face is old.
I look up into his eyes, those eyes in pain; a full moon in an inland lake.
“Why won’t you come with me to see Leslie’s grave?”
“I can’t. I just can’t. All that’s left of our daughter is a wooden cross in an anonymous war cemetery. I’m here. Honoring the sons of thousands of fathers and mothers, hoping that at least one will honor my child. Because I can’t. Do you think she held someone’s hand during it all?”
“Don’t think like that.”
“That’s all I can think of. Did she think of us? Call for us? When two maybe three men held her down… I can’t. There’s nothing left. Nothing. Only destruction.”
The image of the graves is from John McCrae Memorial Site in Flanders, and below is a photograph of the actual poem, also taken from the same site (press to zoom in):