The First Snow
“I don’t think I ever bin this cold in my whole life,” the man mumbled through chattering teeth. He sat huddled in the dirt while around them snow fell. He pulled tighter his coat and tried to imagine a warm fire, a welcoming hearth.
“My brother left me in the ice cellar once,” a boy beside him replied, his lips cracked, purple. His nose and cheekbones jutted out from his sallow face, carved by stress and starvation. Nonetheless, he chuckled, “It was pretty cold down there.”
“Come here, kid,” the man said and lifted his ratty blanket. “You look like yer turnin blue.”
“Aww, I ain’t that bad,” but he slid across the frozen ground anyway. He’d lost his blanket somewhere on the march, and they hadn’t expected a snow so soon. It was barely November after all.
“I reckon I’m ’bout ready to head on home,” the boy said softly even as he slipped into unconsciousness. The man looked at the young one’s dirty blonde hair and brushed a bit from his forehead. The boy was too far gone to notice; soon enough he was snoring quietly, curled up on the slope of their cold, living grave.
“Joe,” a corporal made his way down the line, hunched over to keep his head below the trench’s crest. He tossed a wrinkled paper in Joe’s lap. He was gone as quickly as he came.
Joe stared at the envelope. He hadn’t received a letter in months, wondered wryly if he even remembered how to read. But he recognized his name, the familiar slant of letters, the sharp turns of the J and extra curl at the end of the line.
He had waited so long, he was almost afraid to open it. He had tried not to imagine what the letter would say all these past weeks; he didn’t want to set himself up for some disappointment he didn’t need and wasn’t sure he could handle. But he had imagined—on those late nights when he couldn’t sleep, when he just stared at the stars and tried to remember her round face and pink lips. He tried to remember the sound of her voice and found he couldn’t. He closed his eyes, searched for the soft drawl, the smile in every syllable.
“If you want…” and he heard her, the funny way she said it. Want. Wont.
He opened his eyes and saw the envelope. His hands trembled as he tore open its seal—whether from fear or simply the cold, he could not tell. He almost smiled—he had faced a thousand muskets, felt the vibrations of hundreds of shells, and he was afraid of a simple letter. Fear was a strange thing, he decided and pulled the letter from its crumpled wrapping.
His eyes fell first upon the date. October 11, 1863. Well, it wasn’t so long ago.
Dear Joseph, it read, and he stopped. He tried to hear her voice again, wished she was there to read it to him—hell, forget about reading. If she was here with him, he wouldn’t waste any of that time reading…. He chuckled, and the boy beside him stirred. He patted the boy on the shoulder, searched for his name. Mitchell… Michael… Micah. Micah, that was it.
I’m stalling, he realized even as his eyes searched for some distraction, anything to avoid the paper before him. Coward, he accused and forced his attention to the letter.
Dear Joseph, he began again. I was pleasantly surprised to receive your letter so soon after it was written (as you remembered to date it this time), although I must admit I was disappointed you took so long to respond.
He tried not to feel guilty. She had written him in late June. He had mailed his response on August 14. He could have written her earlier, he should have. Now, he couldn’t remember what had stopped him. He was faintly aware it had something to do with the fighting. The fighting had been… bad. It left scars he did not want her to see.
She’ll find out eventually, he thought and cursed the voice of logic. He cursed his doubts, What will she think of me then?
He read on. Still, I know nothing of the hardships of war and trust you have reason for the long silence. Of course she would understand. Of course she would forgive him. It was in her nature, some innate goodness that he didn’t deserve—sometimes didn’t want. But no, he would not find fault with her now. Not today, at least.
Much has happened since I last wrote you, but I have no idea where to begin.
Now, you understand how I feel, he thought and then reconsidered. Will she ever understand how I feel?
It is like there is an entire world you are no longer a part of—well, I suppose that is exactly what it’s like. You are not here…not here for any of it.
And then she voiced his greatest fear.
Will we even know each other by the time this dreaded war is over?
She said it; he heard her voice in his head. It did not make him feel any better.
These thoughts plague me—
As they do me, he thought sadly.
—do you ever doubt?
All the time, he answered and hated himself for admitting it. He had gone so long avoiding it. He felt like he was betraying himself by the confession. Was he betraying her?
A part of me wishes you do, she had written, for that would mean it’s not only me… But another piece of me prays you don’t, for then I could find assurance in your confidence.
He realized then that he had nothing to offer her. Nothing. At least, that’s how he felt.
Despite what I’ve written, never doubt my feelings for you.
I try not to, he thought and was embarrassed to feel tears in his eyes. He blinked them away even as the letters on the page swam in his vision.
You know how difficult it is for me to express all of the affection I feel, but I pray you also know how deeply I care for you.
And then his nose started to run, and he clenched his jaw tight.
Always waiting, she had signed, Margaret.