A Vanishing Mist

He couldn’t see the moon.  He could see the spot in the heavens where it was supposed to be.  That soft orb of silver light cloaked in gray mist hovered just over the trees south of the house.  He knew it was there, but he couldn’t see the moon.

What he could see was its glow beyond the clouds, beyond the tops of the tall cottonwoods that lined the spring bubbling quietly, even now, in the heart of winter.  What he could see was a winter world shining softly in its iridescent glow.  What he could see was the land he loved as surely as he stood in the light that fell from the heavens, tumbling through the window on and around him.

If he pulled his gaze from the branches fanned before the face of the veiled moon, he could see the spring black against white ground below the fence line that marked the edge of his pasture.  He could trace its progress east until it disappeared from view behind the barn where he knew it bent to join another further out in the pasture, then angled northward until, together with half a dozen others, they reached Logan Creek. 

As it did above the trees, mist hovered over the stream, the snow, meandered along the stream.  Peter studied it in the moonlight.  Ephemeral, illusive, he knew that, come dawn, it would vanish.  Life was a vanishing mist, he thought.  As fleeting, as illusive, as beautiful, and as precarious, he realized.

Of all the places he’d seen during his travels the past over a year and a half, the view before him he deemed the most beautiful.  The gentle lay of the land, the creek that meandered towards distant hills, flanked by the large cottonwoods and gentle willows, was to him, the most perfect spot on earth.  Even now when the world was cold and bare, it filled him with a sense of peace, a serenity born of his awareness of his place, his purpose on this earth, born of loving the land on which he lived, and once more, Peter understood how blessed he was.

As he stood there in the recess of the bay window, he could feel the deep night cold against the glass; but Peter was not cold.  Heat from the stove behind him radiated out and around the room, warming it so that he could stand in his bare feet, shirtless, and watch the world outside quite comfortably.  Occasionally, the wood he’d recently placed in the belly of the stove would crack and pop, adding its music to his sense of contentment at being home.

After a while, he reached up to rub his shoulder.  Hoping to ease the deep ache, he lifted the sling from over his head and dropped it from his forearm.  Ever so slowly, he relaxed his bent elbow until his arm hung down at his side.  It ached and smarted as blood circulated freely though the limb, down to his fingers, running freely as the creek below ran.

The first two nights he’d been home, he’d slept more soundly than he had since before he left.  Tonight was different.  Even the gentle rhythm of his wife’s slumber could not lull him into drowsiness.  Tonight his mind was filled with the day’s leftovers, filled with the unbelievable joy of once more being with those he loved.

Even more, it was filled with the knowledge of what he’d left behind, with an understanding of what those still in the battle endured.  He did not regret being freed from it, but carried a sliver of guilt at being unable to help those still there.  He cared deeply that his men, his friends, those he’d come to know so well, would survive.  Most especially, he cared that Jess would survive.

As he turned his attention back out the window, he knew that, in truth, what really kept him awake was how to tell Beth about Jess—if he should.  He had pondered long what her reaction would be.  He considered once more just letting it go.  After all, he was home.  Jess would never be a part of their lives again; he’d said so.  But, in that lay the problem.  Until she knew, she would always harbor that fragment of fear that he would reappear, would again destroy their peace, their love, if not their home.  It had nearly happened once.

Elizabeth never spoke of it.  Few would know the battle she waged against that fear, that darkness.  But he knew.  He saw it in her eyes every time someone mentioned Jess’ name.  Few close to them mentioned Jess or that time to spare both the opening of old wounds.  Yet, only that morning someone from their past had mentioned Jess to him after Thanksgiving service and Elizabeth’s mask had appeared; her wounds were well hidden but very much still unhealed.  No matter how difficult, he had to tell her the truth to save her from her own personal darkness. 

Peter now understood as no one else could that she would never be really free until she, too, forgave Jess.  And, in part, he felt he owed it to the man that had saved his life, the man who had helped him come home, to try. 

So he stood quietly lost in thought, slowly flexing the weakened muscles of his left hand, wondering how he could accomplish that very thing with the least pain.

“Peter?”  She called his name softly, sleepily.

He turned as bare feet padded across the floor towards him.  The moonlight falling through the bay window created a soft half-circle of light.  When she stepped into it, he smiled to think that this beautiful creature was his.  His smile deepened at the sleepy expression in her lovely eyes. 

“What is it, Honey?  Does your shoulder hurt?”  She looked at his arm hanging limply, touched it lightly.

“A little.  I just couldn’t sleep.  I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“You didn’t.  I reached over and you were gone.  For a minute . . . never mind.  It was silly.”

“What?”  He put his arms around her.  “What was silly?”

Smiling shyly, she touched the deep scar on his shoulder.  “For a minute, I thought the past couple of days were a dream, that you were still gone.”

“That’s not silly, that’s a nightmare.  I’m just too keyed up to sleep.  It was quite a day.”

“The best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.”  Her moonlight smile, her eyes reflected pure happiness.  “Did you see the look on you mother’s face when Tommy told her ‘his dad’ gave him a ride on Pepper?  I thought she was going to cry all over again.”

Peter grinned.  “Matt seemed a little miffed that he wouldn’t let ‘Uncle Matt’ take him for one.”

“Well, they’ve been great buddies since you left.  I suppose he doesn’t like losing out.”

“That pretty little what’s-her-name seemed eager to help him get over it.”

“Peggy.  Yeah, they seem to get on pretty well, though she’s a little more engaged than he is.  You know Matt.”

“You think I should have a talk with him?” he pulled her closer to feel her warmth, her softness.

She let him hold her and turned her attention out the window, gazing long at the quiet moonscape.  Her silence matched its serenity.  When she finally spoke, her words possessed the same quality.

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve stood in this place since you left and wondered where you were?  What you were doing?  If you were alive,” she whispered as she buried her face in his chest.

“Honey,” he said softly. 

As if she hadn’t heard him, she added, “Do you know that the other day is only the second time since I’ve known her that I’ve seen your grandmother cry.”

“When was the other time?”

Looking out the window so he could not see the tears filling her eyes, she said softly, “When we got the telegram.”  She took a deep breath.

Peter held her close, softly kissed the hair below his lips.  As simply as that, he decided.  It seemed better not to put it off, not to over analyze it, simply to do what needed to be done.

“Beth, there’s something I have to tell you about then, that, well, I don’t know how to, not without hurting you.  I don’t want to do that.  You know I don’t.”

Looking up, she searched his face.  Seeing the difficulty he was having, she suggested what he’d already rejected.  “Honey, leave it alone.  You’re home and almost recovered.  I’m so grateful.  We can go on with our lives.  Do I need to know?”

Peter studied her eyes, hesitated then, undeterred,  went on.  “You need to know who’s responsible for that.”

“Why, Peter?”

“Because you do.  Stay right here.”

He disappeared into their room and returned as quickly.  In his hand, he held a letter.  Walking to the table next to the sofa, he struck a match and lit the lamp, adjusted the wick and let its glow flicker, illuminating room.  Turning, he extended his hand and waited for her to come to him. 

“I want you to read this, then you’ll understand.  While you read, you need to remember . . . I wouldn’t be her, not now—not ever, if it weren’t for him”

Puzzled, Elizabeth took the letter and sat down.  With trepidation, she carefully unfolded its well-worn pages.  When the last fold came undone, the timeworn photograph tumbled onto her lap.  She lifted it, looked at it.

“No, no, no,” she keened softly as the truth became clear to her.  Unwilling to go on, she looked to her husband for help.  Tears tracked down her cheeks.

Peter knelt in front of her, wiped her tears, and said with as much command, with as much compassion as he knew, “Read the letter, Beth.”

So she read, hesitantly, unwillingly, but reading courageously to the end.  By the time she finished, she was sobbing. 

Peter wiped tears of his own and pulled her into his arms.  “I’m sorry, Sweetheart, but now you understand why, why you had to know.”

Holding her close, he continued, “You don’t have to be afraid of him ever again, Beth.  He meant what he said.  I saw it in his eyes the last time . . . when I looked at him . . . right before I was hit.”  He sighed a ragged sigh, “I tried,” his voice faltered, “God help me . . .”

Peter broke down, pulled away. 

“I tried to . . . If they hadn’t stopped me, I might have . . . I wanted to kill him for what he did to you.  I hated him so much.”

Elizabeth felt the depth of his pain even as she relived her own.  It filled his voice.  It bowed him under with its weight.  Amazed by the burden she hadn’t realized he still carried, she grew calm, quiet.  Seeing him so was almost more than she could bear.  “Peter?”

“Oh, God, I wanted him to suffer for all we’d suffered because of him.  I wanted so badly to . . .”

He looked into her eyes.  “But I don’t want to anymore, Beth.  I don’t want anything . . . but to forgive him, to let it go.  But I can’t if every time someone says his name . . . if you’re still so afraid, so wounded.  Please, Beth.  Help me.  Help us.”

Elizabeth stood, walked away, towards the window.  With glassy eyes she looked out on the world that lie beyond the warmth of the room in which she stood.  Reaching out, she touched the glass, felt its cold.

“How Peter?  How do I forget?  I don’t want to hate him,” she turned, “I don’t want you to hate him for me,” she whispered.  “But how do I forget what he did to me?”

Coming to her, Peter rubbed his fingers over tear stained cheeks.  “You won’t forget.  You forgive.  Then it won’t matter anymore. 

“He won’t hurt you again, I’m as certain of that as I am standing here.  If we deny him what he’s asked, the fault becomes ours, not his, and it will haunt our lives forever.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by it.”

Tears filled his eyes once more.  “He already knows what he’s lost.  Trust me, he knows, Beth.” 

“Oh, Peter . . .” 

“Sweetheart, I’ve seen . . . enough hate to last me a lifetime.  I can’t live in its darkness anymore.”

Elizabeth saw the depth of his grief, felt his ache to be free of the darkness.  She knew well the truth of his words, ached to be rid of the dark bitterness and fear and despair, knew that it would not be easy but, in an instant, knew forgiveness was the only path to hope, to light, to a peace-filled future.

“Oh, Peter.  How can I hate . . . hate Jess.  He sent you home to me, and I love you so very much.”

Peter turned her so the moonlight fell softly on her face, highlighted the richness of her hair, her eyes.  Looking deep into them, he lost himself in their aura and whispered, “Did I ever tell you how much I love the color of your eye?” then waited for her tearful smile, the one he knew would come before he kissed her moonlit lips.