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The Skylark's Song

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1st January 1918, New Year’s Day
Amiens

Dawn is a shock of colour today. A riotous rebellion against these earthly circumstances. How hard the sun is trying, Colin thinks, to bring some magic back into the world. How desperate the plants and animals must be to respond in kind, to take the gifts of earth and light and dig deep in readiness for spring. It’s difficult to imagine that the magic could work again here; the fields are torn up, full of wire and metal. Blood infuses the soil and bodies spill out of the earth.

It’s quiet, though, at this hour, and that’s something to be grateful for. Colin finishes his morning inspection of the trench, sombrely salutes the sun, and ducks back down the steps into the little dugout that constitutes the little privacy he has the privilege of.

For the longest time he wasn’t able to sign up. Dickon went straight away of course, and Colin was left behind with the women. Too sickly, the medical board said, even after all this time. “You didn’t walk until you were 10?” They frowned. “There’s no chance you could hold the line in battle. No likelihood the men will want to follow you.”

They came back for him after all the others were gone. He thinks of that sometimes, all the fit, healthy men, wasted first; when they should have sent the weak ones like him ahead, far more suitable for cannon fodder.

He hasn’t heard from Dickon in months, hasn’t had word from Mary either. It takes so long for news to reach him here. Even if he did hear something, what would it mean? Dickon was alive a few weeks ago, that would be all he’d know. That means nothing today and he hates it. He hates it, he hates it. He wishes he could block out the big mocking sun like he used to board up his windows. He wants to lie on his back and scream and scream until they run in to help him. He wants to leave this place and run out into the sun to find his friends in the garden where he knows they’ll be waiting for him. On a beautiful morning like this one, he can’t stop himself wishing for that with all his might.

He’d been so upset to be left behind when the war started, but now he’s in it; an officer with men to hold him accountable. It’s his duty to them, and the pure helplessness of being subsumed in this war machine, that fixes him here. He’d been scared, but he’d wanted this, for all that he regrets it now.

It’s strange, all those years convinced he was going to die. He can’t quite reconcile himself to believing that again. He lived and walked and discovered magic. He learnt the power of air and sun and rain and earth. He’ll always know, now, that winter yields to spring, eventually. That tiny spark of hope can’t be quashed even as he is trapped here in this endless war.

“Captain Craven? Captain, sir?” Peters’ head peers down into the dugout, looking nervous. Everything Peters says is a question - a response to Colin’s imperious leadership style, Colin supposes - but he can’t seem to find another way to do things. Commanding is ruling, same as any household or any kingdom. They call him the Maharaja Captain sometimes, and one smart chap once offered to carry Colin through the trench line to keep mud from getting on his boots. Colin had threatened to have him whipped, and all the men had stopped laughing, but it hadn’t helped make him seem any less removed from them.

“Yes, Peters?” Colin asks his Corporal.

“Sir, there’s a bloke here to see you, a Sergeant Sowerby?”

Colin leaps up from his chair – Dickon! Here!

“Well, send him in this instant, Peters! What do you mean by hovering around with him outside?”

He hears Dickon’s laugh before he sees him: legs first, then torso, shoulders, and finally his shining, smiling face. Perhaps he’s thinner, perhaps dirtier and more tired than ever before, but Colin doesn’t really see that, he just sees Dickon, alive, smiling.

For appearance's sake, he says, “Come in Sergeant, have a seat,” gesturing to the one chair the dugout has to offer. Dickon moves towards it but doesn’t sit. They both wait until Peters disappears back out into the trench, and then Colin breathes out, “Dickon!”

“It’s true, it’s me,” Dickon says. He puts his hand on Colin’s shoulder, waits for Colin to return the gesture. They look closely at each other, each taking account of the other with unreserved interest. Colin puts a hand to Dickon’s cheek, suddenly noticing the lack of healthy flushed skin.

“You look like me, all pale like this,” he tells Dickon.

“It’s not so bad as tha’,” Dickon says, voice teasing a little. “I had a spot ‘a dysentery, got taken off th’ line for a while and had some leave, but I’m fit enough again now. On th’ mend and heading back to m’ squad. I heard your regiment was here and figured it was enough in m’ way that I could stop by and wish you a happy New Year.”

“Yes,” Colin says. “Happy New Year, Dickon. How good it is to see you.”

Finally they release each other and Dickon sits down on the chair while Colin makes some tea on the stove. “I think I knew today when I saw the sun that some magic was afoot,” Colin tells him. “I should have guessed it was your doing, like always.”

Dickon grins at him, face alight, his agreement clear in his eyes.

“Aye, yes, I’ve brought you some magic, right enough.” He digs into his pocket and draws out a letter and a pressed rose to hand to Colin.

“You’ve been to Misselthwaite,” Colin exclaims.

“That I have, and a merry Christmas it was too, with all the invalids Mary’s filled your father’s house with.”

Jealousy stabs through Colin, but Dickon continues softly, “I think she misses thee so much she’s stuffed the house full of other people to care for while you’re gone. She’ll bully them all t’health, I reckon, now she’s the chance.”

Colin nods, desperate not to seem upset. He opens the letter quickly and feels better just for looking at Mary’s handwriting.

“Read to me,” Dickon requests, and Colin sits himself down on the floor and rests his head lightly against Dickon’s thigh. While he reads, Dickon strokes his hair absently. The sun comes out again from behind a cloud, poking its way through into the dugout to lay itself over Dickon’s legs and Mary’s letter. Colin reads her words aloud and imagines they’re all three here together once more.

 

31st December 1918, New Years Eve
Misselthwaite

The house is humming tonight. Usually midnight is when Mary’s most reminded of how it used to be when she first came to Misselthwaite; the sense of silent dread, the whole household alert and waiting for the first cry of the sleepless invalid. It’s the same now that the house is full of wounded men, men whose nightmares Mary cannot begin to fathom. She often takes the night shift, unable to bear sleeping through their pain. She shushes them sternly and takes their hands, shaking them firmly, grounding them back in reality.

“Stop being so silly,” she says, “you’re safe here and you’re waking the others.”

They grasp tightly to her hand, and she waits for the grip to loosen and the boy to slip back into sleep before she moves on to the next one.

Tonight though, no one is trying to sleep. The fires are lit in as many of the rooms as they could manage and someone’s playing the piano downstairs. They’ve finished up all the sherry, sharing it out for all the staff and patients. She’s sipping hers slowly, waiting for the clock to strike.

Martha slips into her room and stands beside her at the open window. It’s a cold night, but a good moon, and the wind is working its way up to a wild old howl. It’s lovely, this sense of peace. Still so hard to believe in despite how long looked for it was.

Beyond the trees her garden is out there, waiting for spring. Martha takes her hand and smiles as she knocks their glasses together and the grandfather clock on the landing starts to chime. It always chimes one second before the rest of the clocks in the house.

“It will’na be long now,” Martha says. “They’ll be home soon.”

Mary smiles too, pleased to hear Martha’s contentment in her soft, encouraging tone.

“Your ma will be beside herself with happiness,” Mary says.

“Tha’ she will, mistress, tha’ she will. And we all will be, I dare say.”

They keep their hands fastened and watch the moon, and Mary is glad of the company. There are hundreds of people in the house and just two missing. She can only be grateful, though, because the war is over and some miracle has kept both Dickon and Colin alive. All of her most fervent wishes have come true.

She whispers out into the night sky, “You shall live for ever and ever and ever and find out thousands and thousands of things.” It’s her song, the doxology of her heart that she’s repeated over and over for the last four years, wishing for them both to come home. She’s had to believe it could be possible, because to despair would be to deny the magic before it had a chance to work.

 

20th April 1919, Easter Sunday
Missel Moor

First in, last out, is the way of it and Dickon wouldn’t begrudge it, there’s not many left that it applies to after all, except that there’s somewhere he’s hankering to be. He’s finally been demobbed and he can’t get home quick enough. The winter’s nearly gone; some late March snow drifted in unexpectedly but quickly turned to slush. The ground will be softening now. There are lambs to birth and birds to greet and a garden to tend to, and it so happened he never got leave in the spring nor summer the whole of the last four years. He had Christmas in ’17 but not a glimpse of home since then. His ma wrote to say the pony was foaling, and Martha’s with child too, and Colin’s back at the big house fighting with Mary about how to run the hospital.

He always thought of Colin and Mary as the survivors, the ones who came through grief and back to life again. Now he knows it’s him who has to do the same.

He goes first to his mother because he owes it, and she weeps and hugs him and then sends him back out onto the moors. He takes old Bessie and rides her all over this long beloved piece of earth and it seems as though the colour that had disappeared from the world is being welcomed back in.

He doesn’t go up to the house, but leaves Bessie in the grounds and heads into the garden, unlocked as Mary promised it would always be now.

He finds a small patch of heather in the sunshine where it looks like someone else has lain recently and settles himself down for a while. He lets the animals come and sniff him out and get used to him again. He listens to their chatter, remembers the old tunes and signals and chirps that he’d worried the sound of artillery fire had deafened him to for good.

He sleeps for a bit, lightly, because his mind goes a bit funny if he sleeps too long, and when he rouses himself he feels warm and settled. He looks round for things to do in the garden. It looks cared for still, but there’s always something he can find to busy himself with. He fixes on weeding round the lilies near the old fountain, and a squirrel comes to help him burrow although she ends up being more distracting then helpful.

The light is going down when they finally come and find him. They venture towards him arm in arm, framed by the setting sun, like ghosts visiting him from a former life. He never frets about this thing between them, not like Colin does from a scientific standpoint, measuring it out and investigating the ties and feelings between them. Not like Mary does, fierce and defensive of anything that might threaten them. He’s never let it worry him; it’s better for him to be like any other creature in nature would be, appreciating only what is, and not its whys and wherefores. He simply stands up as they near him and when he reaches out they fall forwards into his arms and it’s Mary who cries, “you’re real, you’re real,” even though Dickon is feeling the same thing.

“Pinch him to make certain,” Colin says, his face pressed into the side of Dickon’s neck. He should be able to feel his pulse from there, so he should know. Mary pinches him anyway. He responds with an “Ow!” as she requires and pulls her closer into his side to kiss the top of her head, and, after a minute, her lips. She smiles blissfully back at him in return.

“I could sing with happiness!” Colin says. “We’ve been calling for you, and at last the magic worked again.”

Dickon kisses him too. “Sing, then, if you will, I’ll not stop thee. I could sing too, to be back with the both of you.”

“For good, too,” Mary adds.

“Aye, for good, I reckon,” Dickon agrees. He can’t imagine leaving again. He can barely imagine letting them go from his arms.

They drag him inside for some dinner, Colin going on about all the changes to the house and how he never thought so many rooms could get used at one time, and Mary glowing with pride as she tells them about how the hospital works and the duties she has as matron. She’s different, they both are, but Mary has changed more; finally she seems to understand what it is she brings to people, what a difference she can make.

She looks at him, quite slyly, knowing what her simple words have exposed to him, knowing that he understands what she’s really telling him about how happy she is now.

“I’ve missed ye, right and true,” he tells them when he can get a word in, his arms still around them as they enter the house. Martha’s waiting for them in the hallway and he detaches himself from the others to wrap her up in his arms and then shake the hand of her husband.

“You’re just in time for the baby,” Martha tells him.

“Tha’ looks it, indeed,” he remarks, and kisses her again.

Colin takes his hand once more, careless of his surroundings, cheeks flushed. “So much life here, isn’t there,” he says, full of understanding of how vivid and sensory this all feels to Dickon. “It’s a shock, but it’s wonderful.”

“Come on,” Mary says. “Your ma sent word over that you were back, and we’ve had a nice meal sent up ready to my room.” She’s flushed too, defiant over their little plans. Dickon spares one helpless shrug for Martha before he’s chasing Mary and Colin up the stairs. His heart races in anticipation of everything that awaits him, and even though he may be a beat behind the others, he still feels his spirit soar with a song of praise that has been quiet for a long time but, in the end, never left him.