Usually, on Wednesdays, I post a piece of my ongoing conversation with “Hamlet”. But this Wednesday is a little different. Today is Veteran’s Day, I thought I would post a short story I wrote several years ago and never published. It is longer than my other posts and I beg the reader’s patience. I hope it is a story you will find particularly timely for today.
“Where’s your nose, Grandpa?” Sarah asked. It was a mid-April afternoon, 1963—a time when most Americans wanted to know what they could do for their country, not what their country could do for them. Sarah, six-year-old, blonde-haired, brown-eyed Sarah, sat on her grandfather’s lap. She ran her fingers across his face, stopping at the open cavity just above his mouth.
The man in his sixties with eyes so blue his granddaughter thought they were made from the Florida sky outside, her grandfather, Henry, gazed into her smile and smiled back. He worked her question over in his mind the way he did the music he played on his violin to get the best sound possible. Just like his wife, Rose, had taught him.
“I don’t have a nose,” he said. Though he had lived in the United States since 1920, he retained a bit of the Southampton accent he had grown up with in England. “I’m a gargoyle.”
“A gargoyle?” Sarah asked as she rubbed the light whiskery growth on his chin. Then she played with the lighthouse keeper ring on his right hand, stroking it as if it were magic and had a genie inside.
“Yes. A gargoyle.”
She had seen gargoyles in a picture book of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were gray, ugly things, their heads sticking out of the side of the church’s roof, and they had horns. Her grandfather was no gray, ugly thing, and he did not have horns, not even small ones. She knew. She had felt the top of his head.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m not that kind of a gargoyle. I’m a Gargoyle with a capital G.”
Sarah snuggled against him. Henry felt the question unresolved in her body. How could he tell her, he wondered.
How could he tell her of the places he had tried to block from his memory, places like Armentières, the Somme, Passchendaele where the shrapnel smashed into his face, leaving him without a nose and marked with the name of Gargoyle? How could he tell her of the mustard gas, the fleas, the lice, the God-awful stench from the excrement and the piss and the death filling the trenches day after endless day, of the rains and the wet socks and the slogging through the muck up to his knees, of the shit the British Expeditionary Force called rations, the faulty equipment like the bolt-action rifle he had been issued that had misfired and shot off his toe, and the lampoon of a lieutenant—Little Fuzzy Butt they nicknamed him—he and his buddies endured after a sniper’s bullet killed off their popular Captain Percival Montford? How could he tell her about the guts of his best friend splattered all over him like vomit when Albie was sprayed with machine gun fire, about the horror on the face of the German he bayoneted again and again out of revenge, about the boredom, the terrible terrible boredom that often went on for weeks and drove him nearly mad before the adrenalin rush of the charge over the top and into a no-man’s land? How could he tell her about the shelling, the constant noise of the artillery barrages booming around him during the battles? How could he tell her of the loss of over half of his fellow Southie townsmen, stupidly thrown into hopeless battle after hopeless battle and ground up like hamburger? How could he tell his granddaughter that, forty-some-odd years later, those visions, those sounds, those smells of the Hell-to-End-all-Hells were still with him?
Sarah hugged his thin body, her small arms almost reaching around him. “I understand,” she said.
“Yes.” She released him from her hug, then slid off his lap and onto the floor.
“You don’t want to talk about it. When you do, Grandpa, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.” She winked and ran giggling into the next room to play with her four-year-old brother, William.
“Dad,” Henry’s daughter said as she brought a tray of biscuits and hot tea into the living room. The tall, slender woman, his only child, carried it over to the coffee table and set it down.
He looked over at Alice as she sat down. There was loss in the eyes of both father and daughter. A deep loss. Henry’s wife, Alice’s mother, Sarah’s grandmother, Rose had died from cancer seven years earlier. Three years after that, Alice’s husband, archaeologist Jack Waverly, was killed in an airplane crash as he flew over the Madidi in Bolivia.
Henry pulled his weather-beaten body out of his armchair, moved over to the couch, and sat down next to Alice. He picked up a biscuit and started on it. Though he had no sense of smell and could barely taste it, he enjoyed its crunchiness in his mouth.
He finished his biscuit and said, “Only your mother could make better biscuits than these.” He poured himself a cup of tea, dropped two lumps of sugar and a slice of lemon into it, and stirred. He raised the hot tea to his lips. Pleasure from teas-gone-by appeared on his face for the several seconds he sipped. Then he set the cup back on the tray.
“Dad?” she said a second time and wiped a crumb off his chin with her napkin.
“You know I can’t stay.” He reached for her hand to reassure her. He would be all right back at his house on the beach close to two hundred miles away, living alone in the white house Rose inherited from her father. “I’m not an invalid. I can take care of myself.”
Alice pulled her hand free. She poured herself a cup of tea.
“It’s not that, Dad. I’m sure you can. But I want you to stay here. With us.”
Henry studied his daughter as she sipped her tea. She had her mother’s features—blonde hair, brown eyes, a long face, a dimple on her chin. But there was something different about her as well. Somehow, when Rose first saw her, his wife knew what that difference was. She knew what a wandering soul her child would be. Alice was the only name they could think of for a girl whom they knew would seek out dark and dangerous places.
Alice had lived up to her name. She was so curious about nearly everything that her friends called her Wonderland. And she was fearless with her curiosity, afraid of nothing. Not even of the rattlesnake she trapped when she was eight.
“She’s such an independent,” Rose often said. As a teenager, their daughter went off exploring and stayed away for weeks, sometimes months at a time. She traveled to faraway places like Teotihuacán, the Amazon, Machu Picchu, Morocco and the Nile. The one place she regretted missing was Antarctica. She swore she would get there eventually. Her mother called this wanderlust of hers a search for enlightenment; Henry called it going into the heart of darkness.
Alice became an expert in primitive architecture and building in extreme conditions. While working on her doctorates in anthropology and architecture, she met Jack in Peru and married him. Then came Sarah and William. It looked like the Antarctic would have to wait, at least, until their kids were grown. Then there was Jack’s death and no more talk of Antarctica. It seemed to Henry that the passing of her mother and her husband had wrung the glory out of her, leaving her with only responsibility. Since then, she had turned into her mother, someone Henry had once overheard her say she would never become.
“I’ve been here two weeks,” he said as Alice finished her tea. He could not understand how she drank it without sugar or lemon or milk. It was such a strong tea she made, and quite bitter. “That was a week longer than I intended. It’s time you drove me home.”
It wasn’t just the solitude he missed. It was the beach within walking distance from his house and the shells scattered along the seashore and the cool, wet sand between his toes and the salt in the air against his skin. It was the giant sea turtles, coming ashore in the spring and laying their eggs. It was the ocean and its great loneliness. Late at night, he loved standing on the shore, watching the horizon swallow up ships.
Then there were the nights he spent with his telescope, waiting patiently for the moon and the planets to cross the sky. Sitting there in his backyard, he studied the constellations, their seasons and their paths mapped out in his library of charts, birthday and Christmas gifts from his wife. Most of all, he was homesick for the refuge Rose had spent years readying for the two of them while they waited on his retirement. Now he was retired.Now she was dead.
Alice surprised him with her next words, a question. “You recall Mom’s favorite proverb?” Then she turned her head toward the next room. “Oh, no. Sarah, William.” She jumped up. “When they’re this quiet, those two are up to something.” She hurried into the family den where her two children liked to romp and play and tumble on the huge teddy bear Henry had purchased by mail order the previous Christmas.
While he waited on Alice, he crunched on another biscuit and finished his tea. A cup of tea and a biscuit always helped him think about things, especially particularly difficult things. He might not settle on what course of action to take, but he felt comforted just the same.
Alice interrupted his thoughts as she returned to her seat beside him on the sofa.
“Those little hedgehogs,” she said. “They’ve fallen asleep and they’re in the Never Never. Anyway,” she said, “where was I?”
“Your mother’s favorite proverb.”
“Oh, yes. I believe it was: ‘The stars are dripping down upon us one by one and, along with them, a little of the moon.’”
“I’ve been having these dreams for the last three nights. Mom keeps appearing to me and that’s what she’s saying. It’s like a premonition, you know. Like the one I had just before Jack died. Something nasty’s about to happen if you go back. I can feel it. So we’ll bring your things down here and you’ll live with us. We’ll do it this weekend.”
Henry broke out in a cold sweat. A panic rose in his chest until it was ready to explode like a volcano. If he moved in with his daughter and her children, Alice would come to depend on him. He would be the one to see that Sarah made it to her first grade class, to make sure William got to his doctor’s appointments and went to kindergarten, to plan parties for the kids, to chaperone them. He might even have to go out shopping. He knew this would free up Alice’s time to provide for her family and allow her to pursue her career, teaching anthropology, doing research and fieldwork, giving papers at conferences. But he would not be able to hide his deformity of a face away from the strangers and their gawking. He had been through it all before and it scared him. A long time ago, he promised himself he would never go through that again.
After the war, and before he emigrated to the United States, he had thought about plastic surgery. That was much too painful in those early post-World War I years. He tried on false noses. They gave him a rash. For a while, he wore a mask but that called way too much attention to his face. The solution he settled on was to keep away from a gaping public, to be seen only by those who accepted his wound without prejudice. Like Rose. From the first moment they met, she intuitively understood his fear and she had protected him. Until her death.
He wiped the cool sweat from his forehead, then choked back the panic and the dread, and shook his head no.
“No need to worry about me,” he said.
“It’s not just that. I really need you here to help with the kids.”
“Why not get a nanny?”
“I’ve tried several,” she said. “They just don’t work out. It’s very frustrating.”
“What do your friends do?”
“They’re either married, or they have family. Dad, you’re the only family I have.” She knew some of what he was going through. But her nightmares gave her no other choice. Henry had to come to live with her. Her intuition had saved her skin too many times for her to ignore it.
“God knows how much I’d loved to come and live with you and the grandchildren, Alice. But I can’t. I need to be alone. That’s the way I am. That’s why I was…am a lighthouse keeper. Because of the solitude. I just need to be alone…” and left alone, which was what he really meant. It was the first time Henry had ever voiced to her anything remotely close to his fears about his face, fears he first felt when he arrived in the hospital from the trenches and saw how some of the nurses reacted to him.
Alice bit her lip, then said, “You mean you won’t live with us. But you’d love it here, Dad. You know you would. You know how Sarah dotes over her grandfather. And William too.”
“No, I can’t stay,” Henry repeated himself and turned away from Alice. Almost as an afterthought, he reached over and picked up the large book, American Lighthouses, off the coffee table. His wife and his daughter had produced the volume of photographs and commentary fifteen years before. Rose wrote the words. Alice provided the pictures.
“Please, Dad.” There was a desperation in Alice’s voice.
How could he refuse her? How could he refuse her anything? This was his daughter asking, pleading, almost begging. From his very first glimpse of her at her birth, he had been deeply moved. What an amazing thing. This tiny being was his child. As he lay depressed in his parents’ apartment after the war, he could never have believed he could be so happy. Now here he was refusing her. He…felt…awful.
A postcard slipped out of the book Henry held on his lap. He set the book down on the couch, reached to the floor, and picked up the card. It had a sketch of the Taj Mahal on one side. It was from his friend, George Drake, who left the trenches and went off to a low-level bureaucratic job in India to help run the Empire for King and Country.
George’s scrawl across the back of the card spoke of the loss of another of his trenchmates. Good Old Philip Carrick was no longer Good Old Philip. He hanged himself while on duty with the Botanical Society at the Darjeeling Hill Station in northern India. Philip simply could not rid himself of the nightmares from the war, the note said. He finally did himself in, another casualty of the Great War.
Henry thought, “How had that card gotten there?” He had last seen it the afternoon he met Rose. That February day had been a particularly hard day of work at Light Station. He had just completed his duties for the day, readying the lens for the night ahead, winding up the cables that powered the rotating mechanism of the lens, and making necessary repairs. It was time for his daily tea break.
He sat in the watch room of the tower with his tea and listened to the caw of the sea gulls outside. His dog, Basset, rested against his leg while he read the postcard for what must have been the fiftieth time. He dropped it on the table and ate a final biscuit. Then he tucked his violin under his chin and ran the bow across the strings several times.
“My God, stop that,” a voice came from behind him.
He stopped and half-turned to see a seventeen year-old Rose, her blonde hair bobbed and under a red cloche. She stood at the top of the granite stairs. She walked over to him. He turned away from her to hide his face as she took the violin out of his hands.
“How can you be so sacrilegious, punishing the world with your lack of musical ability.” It was not a question. It was a statement.
Henry was dumbfounded. He had done all the things the books on violin playing said to do.
“I was just thinking about my friends, George and Philip,” he said. In his amazement at her criticism, he forgot the deep gash on his face. He turned and stared at her incredulously. Basset looked incredulously at her too. Some watch pooch he turned out to be. Henry remembered his face and lowering it into hiding again as he leaned down and scratched the hound’s ear. The girl knelt and patted the dog’s head. Then she offered him her hand. He hesitated, then showed her his face. He was surprised that she didn’t seem to be horrified.
“I’m Rose Hastings,” she said as they stood up and shook hands.
“Henry Todd,” he said and smiled. “I’m the keeper here. And not a very good violinist, I guess.”
“I deliver your groceries on my bicycle. I left them in the keeper’s house next door. My dad owns the general store.”
She slipped the violin under her chin and played. He pulled his chair around to halfway face her. Then he sat down and listened.
Who was this creature who had just plopped down into his lighthouse and was not repulsed by his disfigurement? he asked himself.
She finished the composition and handed the violin to him.
“Wasn’t that a Bach?” he asked, turning away from her.
“Johann Sebastian himself,” she said. She seemed pleased that he had recognized the composer. “His Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor. One of my favorites.”
He offered her tea, but she gave him, “Can’t stay. Got to get back. Why don’t I come out tomorrow earlier in the afternoon and give you a music lesson? Say, around three. I think you can use it. Otherwise you’re going to push your violin to suicide.”
He nodded a yes. She uttered a “see you” to his back and skipped down the stairwell two stairs at a time, humming a tune he thought might be “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Over the next few weeks, her “see you” turned into a daily activity of violin lessons and beach walks and lighthouse painting and Henry began to feel comfortable around her. He liked her and so did Basset, and soon they were engaged. She turned eighteen, and they were married. It was a private ceremony with only her father and a minister present. Her mother had died when she was born. She moved into his cottage next door to the lighthouse tower. There they lived together for thirty-three years.
Henry stared at the postcard again. My God, how he missed Rose.
“Dad,” Alice pleaded. “Look at me please.”
“I can’t stay,” Henry said, turning back towards his only child.
At just that moment, Sarah came into the room, rubbing her eyes awake. She climbed onto her grandfather’s lap. She had white confetti in her hair. It looked like Rose’s long, curly hair after she had let it grow.
“Haven’t I told you, Sarah Roselyn Waverly to keep out of the confetti? We only bring it out for special occasions, and this is no special occasion.”
“But it is, Mommy.”
“What occasion is it, dear?” Alice asked.
“Grandpa’s here.” Sarah hugged her grandfather and whispered in his ear, “I love you, Grandpa.” She relaxed on his lap. “I had a bad dream,” she said.
“A bad dream?” Henry asked.
“I dreamed that you had a nose,” Sarah said, gazing up into his eyes. “I didn’t like it. I like you just the way you are. You’re my Grandpa Gargoyle, and I love you.”
Henry stared into his granddaughter’s eyes and Rose’s eyes smiled back at him.