It was a hot day when he came home. Our farm was sweating under the Mississippi sun, even though it was only May, and I was out feeding the chickens. It's my job, being ten and the youngest of three. The war was over, I'd heard. All the newspapers were proclaiming that the Nazis were defeated. Of course, I was happy, but after a while the effect wore off. Mama was cleaning the house and singing. That's what she does when she is glad. I could guess why, having been told joyfully something about my father coming home. Still, it was such a surprise when he actually did.
I had only vague memories of him, having been six when he got drafted. My last image of him, before he drove away, was of him standing on our porch, staring blankly at a photo of Mama. I remember it had always been his favorite picture. In it my mother is standing in our overgrown garden, holding a tomato. He said she looked beautiful standing there. I remember when we took the picture with the family camera. My father was so happy that day. He was always happy. That was the main thing I remembered of him. I also could picture him, when I thought really hard. He had short, curly, black hair, a rosy face, and dark green eyes. He always used to say that we were alike as two peas in a pod, so I supposed we were, but our mirror had been shattered a year ago and somehow we still hadn't replaced it.
"Maggie!" an excited shriek sounded, "Maggie, he's here!"
The meaning of those words took a moment to register, but then I dashed inside the house. My sisters, Kathy and Linda, were already there.
"Come on, we have to get washed up!" tittered Kathy.
We all tore upstairs. I washed my face and hands, brushed my hair and put on a clean dress. Kathy and Linda were already scurrying downstairs, so I hastened after them. We all met at the landing. Kathy, one year older, and Linda, two, did not remember our father much better than I and we all exchanged fearful glances before walking out to meet him.
We hurried down the driveway and there he was. He was hugging Mama and Mama was crying and laughing. We all slowed our pace. Kathy was chewing her tongue, a habit she had when she was anxious. Just then Mama spotted us.
"Maggie, Kathy, Linda, it's your father, it's your papa come home!" she cried.
Papa—the word sounded strange. "Papa" looked our way with a grin; he was a changed man. As we got closer we could see that, despite his grin, his eyes were haunted and sad, his face taut, his body thin. We smiled uncertainly back. He opened his arms wide and we ran to them, not knowing what to say. He hugged us tight, as if to anchor himself to something. At last Papa let us go. He held us at arm's length and scanned our faces.
"Maggie, Kathy, Linda," he murmured, and then his face grew glad once more, "is there anything to eat? I must say, I can't recommend army food. I got some pork and potatoes for 20 cents when we arrived, but otherwise I haven't had anything."
My mother, glowing, hustled us all into the house. "Maggie, Kathy, get some coffee ready and Linda, will you be a dear and get out the canned peas, the fresh ones aren't ripe yet . . . oh, and see if there is any sugar left. When will this rationing stop?"
Mama, Linda and Kathy sat down in their customary seats, but Papa was sitting in mine! Didn't he remember that he sat to the right of me? I glared at his back, but sat down in his seat instead.
The meal was a quiet one. Mama tried to keep the conversation going, but after a while, talk withered. Soon, silence presided at the table. Papa ate hungrily, his manners cruder than I remembered, and then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Mama immediately jumped to her feet.
"Oh William, what was I thinking? You must be tired after such a long journey. Come, the bed is made up, I'll awaken you for dinner."
Papa opened his eyes and allowed himself to be led upstairs, without saying a word.
Kathy, Linda and I were holding a conference in the pigsty.
"He seems so changed," said Linda. "I know—I don't know what to say to him anymore," whispered Kathy.
"He's a stranger," I said under my breath. No one heard.
"But Mama's happy, so we must be kind to him—and he is our papa," proclaimed Linda dutifully.
We all nodded, and that signified the end of our meeting because Linda was the oldest and usually got the last word.
The next day, I woke up at three o'clock in the morning. I had a vague feeling that something exciting had happened the day before, but it took me a moment before I realized what it was. I shot up and got out of bed, careful not to wake my sisters, slumbering beside me. All I knew was I wanted to get outside, away from the stranger who was boarding free in our house.
"I know where I'll go," I said to myself, "to the chicken coop!"
The chicken coop was where I always went when I was upset. The quiet breathing and clucking of the birds soothed me. I slipped swiftly down the stairs and out the door, still in my nightgown. It was still dark outside and the fresh air greeted my nostrils with a pleasant tang. I walked down the path to the coop, glad to be alone, when out of the blue there formed a shape. As I got closer I could see it was a man. His form looked familiar and suddenly I realized . . . it was Papa.
At first I was annoyed—he was pacing back and forth right on the path to the chicken coop! Then something about his face captured my attention. He still had not seen me and as I gazed at him, something in the way he was smiling to himself brought back memories. As if through a fog, I could suddenly see him jiggling me on his knee, singing with me, showing me how to milk the cow, letting me ride on his shoulders, buying me trinkets when he went to town . . . He looked so different now, so steeped in sadness. I turned around and went back to the house.
It was seven and we had all gathered around the table to eat breakfast. Eggs that I had gathered that morning sizzled in pans. Papa was again sitting in the wrong seat.
"Papa," I said tentatively, "Papa, that is my seat. Don't you remember?" Trembling, I waited for his reply.
"I'm sorry, Maggie," he said, eyes distant as he shifted over, "it's been a long time, but now I remember." He smiled.
We ate our eggs quietly, but the silence wasn't as tense as the night before. Suddenly Papa laughed out loud, then looked slightly abashed. "What?" we all asked.
"It's just that," he mumbled and glanced at Mama, "we never . . . well we, and mind you, it was only because we never got them in the army, we . . ."
"Yes?" we all asked eagerly.
Papa steeled himself and then said in a rush, "Well, we used to steal eggs from farms along the road."
He looked so embarrassed that we all laughed, but I privately wondered what else about Papa I did not know and I looked at him in a new way. My own papa had secrets! That was a surprise. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never asked him about the war and I determined to do just so, next time I saw him alone.
I had just finished feeding the chickens and was stroking my favorite one, a little brown bird, when I heard whistling and saw Papa coming up the path. I quickly hid where a stretch of trees started. Papa sighed as he finally topped the hill and made his way over to the coop. What was he doing? He reached for the bag of chicken feed.
"No!" I cried, as I rushed out from my hiding place. "No, they've already been fed." I lowered my head. What had gotten into me, uncovering myself like that?
"What?" Papa ducked and made as if to grab something before he saw it was me. "Maggie? Do I have a spy for a daughter?" he said, laughing.
"N- n- no," I stuttered, "I was gathering, um, peaches."
"Oh, really? I was not aware that peaches were ripe in May." His eyes danced.
I blushed and twisted my fingers. And then I remembered something. May, May...
"May!" I exploded, "Your birthday is in May!"
"Yes," Papa said, smiling, "but it has passed already. However, we should be thinking of someone else's soon enough, hmmm?" He flicked his fingers at my chin.
"Oh yeah!" I cried excitedly. "June 6! I'm going to be ten years old!"
A darkness fell over Papa's face. "Was that when it was?" he murmured to himself.
"What's wrong, Papa?" I asked, scared I'd offended him.
"Last year—did you hear?—last year, something bad, well actually good, but bad too, happened on that day."
"Yes?" I said, eager to hear about the war.
"Well, that day is called D-Day. That was just a code that we used to refer to the day of an operation," he began, and suddenly I was lost in a world of death and struggle.
I heard through dimmed ears of arriving at Normandy on a boat, of being shoved out into the sea with thousands of your comrades, guns clutched in numbed hands. I heard of wading through the water to shore, while all around soldiers fell, and of shooting blindly. I heard of collapsing on the beach, but having to get back up, while others surged out from the sea. I heard of trampling bodies, of the terror that killed all feeling. And finally, I heard of a pale, exhausted victory.
"That is what happened on your birthday," Papa said, bringing me back to the farm. "Didn't you ever wonder why I didn't write?"
I squirmed, "No, not . . . not really. You see, you had been gone a long time and I . . . and I, well you weren't that clear in my mind and . . . well, I could see Mama was very worried about something, but then we got your next letter and she was happy so . . ." I stuttered to a halt.
Papa stared at me bitterly for a moment, then grinned, but his eyes did not smile. I suddenly felt pity for him and I threw my arms around him.
* * *
That evening, Papa seemed happier than I had yet seen him, as if a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. I supposed the talk with me really helped him. He had probably been keeping everything bottled up. I felt good about myself.
"Martha, this stew is just delicious!" exclaimed Papa.
Mama beamed, as she opened a can of peaches. "We have peaches for desert! And I think we can spare a tiny bit of sugar to welcome you home!" Mama kissed Papa on the forehead.
* * *
It was almost sunset. I walked up the path to the chicken coop. It lay on top of a hill and the view was lovely from there. As I reached the top, however, once again I saw Papa. He was sitting on the fence of the coop. A brief twinge of resentment touched me, but left. Because suddenly I remembered, seeing Papa sitting there, how familiar the scene was. And then I recalled how, before he left, we used to spend every evening up by the coop. I would sit in his lap and we would watch the sunset while I drifted off to sleep.
"Papa?" I whispered.
He turned my way and I ran to him, but I didn't sit in his lap. I sat down beside him and held him in my arms. We watched the sun set.