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Penelope

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After Steve, after that mess, Peggy turned to Tennyson for the language of her grief. His solidity comforted her. Tennyson had written before she was born and he would be read long after she died. He was canon in the strongest sense of the word; he was the truth, undisputed and irreducible. Most poetry had lost its bloom when Peggy met the real world, but not Tennyson. Too much poetry preached emotions that did not exist outside books, resorted to women who wailed and beat their chests, men who raged at the heavens. Peggy was no writer herself and these days she barely had time to read, but she knew well enough the difference between reality and the shadows poets cast on the wall.

Not Tennyson. To Peggy, this was what poetry should be—bitter truths turned beautiful. And she had seen the truth of his words in the world. She could testify to the colour of nature’s teeth and claws, and the authority of a dying king. She read and forgot that this pain was her pain, was something more than text. Until her work was done she would march on, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell.


Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d


These words she thought as she readied herself for another charge down the hill. She’d mourn tomorrow, if it came.

The war ended by bitter degrees in Europe, then with a flash in the Pacific. Peggy was working in Berlin helping to coordinate the invasion of the home island when the news came. Put down your guns. Pick up your plowshares. The war, at last, is over. The next desk over, a soldier, a boy really, burst into tears. “I’m gonna live,” he wept, this would-be captain of the invasion’s first wave. “Jesus Christ, I’m gonna live.”

With her arms wrapped around him as if he were a child, Peggy realized with a start that he was right. Tomorrow was here.

 

 

Now the real work started. The victors took the cities of their enemy where one building in ten stood, where every floor above the second was gone, and they would rebuild, rebuild, rebuild. The men they had fought were no longer their enemies. The men they had fought with were. The Axis crumbled and the Iron Curtain descended, men scrambling underneath before it fell. Once again, they picked their sides, chose their foe. The light of peace dimmed like the setting sun.

I am half sick of shadows, Peggy thought to herself, but it wasn’t quite true. Her foe shifted once more, now to Communists from Japan from Nazis from Hydra from her family from her birth country from her school from her childhood illnesses and so on and so forth, the list of enemies she had fought and overcome stretching back to her birth in blood and pain, back to conception when one sperm sped ahead of the others. Life was war. Could the inverse be true? It was her life, at least.

On days like these, she took comfort in this: If life was nothing but one battle after another, at least Peggy tended to be on the winning side.

Would she retire, the colonel wanted to know. She equivocated. She didn’t know, she couldn’t say, it was too early for all that, there was still so much work to be done. With the help of a shiny new medal and a box full of glowing recommendations, she moved to Tokyo to serve with the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. She knew nothing about the Japanese. Her first task was to learn how to pronounce the building she worked in. Worryingly, comfortingly, her coworkers didn’t know much more than she did. It didn’t bode well for the task of running the occupation, but at least she didn’t feel ignorant and alone.

Just when she mastered the basics of pleasantries and knowing when to bow, MacArthur himself called her into his office along with a handful of his staff. He needed them to write a constitution.

Did the general mean consult on the constitution, someone eventually asked.

No. He meant write one. They had one week.

I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, Peggy thought as the room rang with silence, that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Peggy was rather useless the entire time, but she did what she could as best she could—fetched historical constitutions, consulted onerous legal tomes, offered her ill-informed but earnest opinions, and kept the coffee hot. Mostly, she kept out of the way while two lawyers and a hard-nosed woman, with the consultation of others who knew better than her, rolled their sleeves up and planned the future of a strange nation. Not for the first time, she was struck by the sight of history in front of her, around her, involving her. She would be in the textbooks, one way or another, in action if not name. A footnote perhaps. Peggy Carter, there while smarter people crafted the new constitution of a nation. Peggy Carter, present at the surrender of Berlin in the rubble of victory. Peggy Carter, there at the fall of Hydra and the death of the red devil. Peggy Carter, there in New York at the birth of—

Well. Never mind.

 

 

On her first weekend off, she requested and received permission to travel to Hiroshima. She stayed outside the city limits, sat on the hood of her Jeep and surveyed the destruction from afar, feeling like the most morbid tourist. In truth, she had seen enough of the aftereffects of war. She knew Hiroshima without seeing it. But oh, her fellow soldiers insisted, she had to see it. It was like nothing else. It was like the wrath of God.

It was a destroyed city that should still be standing. There was nothing novel in this beyond the fact that she had shared drinks with one of its executioners once upon a time. Peggy felt like someone who visited a strange art show because her friend had a painting showing. You sipped dry champagne and murmured nonsense about colours and shadows to cover up for the fact that you did not understand and doubted that you really wanted to.

Peggy had read that when Oppenheimer saw the bomb’s first successful test, the first thing he thought was from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” There was a man who knew the value of someone else’s words.

As she got in the car to drive back to work, it occurred to her that Howard Stark had helped build the two most innovative and destructive weapons of the war. The thought sat heavily in her stomach and stared there through her drive back to Tokyo, through her night of fitful sleep, through her dreams of children running as the sky burned. She woke in a cold sweat and spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sun to rise, for the work to begin again. She had a long wait. The winter was almost over, but nights were still endless in this shattered city.

From childhood, Peggy had striven to never listen to her mother when she could help it, but the woman had given her daughter one good piece of advice: when your mind wouldn’t stop, it was time to read. A small bag in the trunk at the end of her bed held the books she’d thought worth bringing. The Bible. The Hobbit. And Poems, the second volume by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The last fell open when she rested it on her lap to that poem she had first read at age eight and had never stopped reading.

“It profits little that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags,” Peggy read. Her voice echoed in the silent, cramped room. She knew the words by heart, had read them often enough that it would be embarrassing if she didn’t. It was the Lord’s Prayer; it was the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a beating heart pressed in the musty pages of a well-loved book. She didn’t need to read it to know what it said, but the experience wasn’t the same without the paper between her fingers, the weight of the tome on her legs, as familiar as her own skin.


I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone


Would she retire? She didn’t know, she couldn’t say. Right now? She doubted it. There was something addicting about being needed, and they needed her here. Peggy had worked damn hard to be good at what she did, to be good in such a way that no one could deny it. Her life was here, her place was here, and that was that. She had no intention of slinking back to the kitchen.


How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life.


Et cetera and so forth. A life expanded can never comfortably shrink back to its original dimensions. But if things were different? She didn’t know.

Yes. Maybe.

It was late and she was heartsick. There was no better time to be honest. Once she had put hope in a picture torn from a neon comic book that she kept folded against her heart. Once she believed that a good man always came home. But even then, she was not sure. Maybe he would have retired, and she would have roamed.

Ah, strange and sad—to slip to another of Tennyson’s children. So sad, so strange, the days that are no more. Despite logic, reason, sanity, she had thought—no, believed, the way she believed in the unconditional love of God and the infinite second chances of America. She had believed until this night that she was Penelope weaving her endless loom until her husband came back from the war. He was tarrying in the night, that was all. The gods had blown him from his course, but he would come home. Heroes always did, and what was Steve if not that? My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.

In these days, the gods were not so easy to find nor so keen to meddle. And she was a soldier herself. If her Ulysses made it home to Ithaca, he would find an empty house. Peggy had abandoned the loom for the bow long ago.

She had no skill at poetry. She could not make beautiful this bitter truth: Steve was dead. No body found, but he was dead. Howard scraped the bottom of the ocean floor, but that was Howard. He spent his energy like he spent his cash. Peggy was a frugal woman when it came to both, and baseless hope exhausted her.

So goodbye then, to the things that would not happen. Goodbye to holding him, to kissing him, to dancing with him, to laying him down as a wife did a husband. Goodbye to the plans they had made but never voiced, never trusting the world not to snatch them away out of spite. Goodbye to harvesting in peace what they had planted in war. Steve was dead was dead was dead was dead was gone and for what, was gone, for nothing but the sake of the world.

Strange how hard she could cry at something she should have already known.

 

 

In the morning, she washed her face, slapped her cheeks, chugged black coffee. Her sleepless night would sting today, make her stupid and slow on what was supposed to be a day of celebration when the government lifted up their new constitution and pretended it came from Japanese pens. But she felt good, truly, in the empty and weary way that a fever breaking feels like relief. Tired to her bones and soul, yes, but good nonetheless. Though much is taken, much abides.

Peggy was not the young woman she was when she started the war, but she was hardly unique in that. There rolls the deep where grew the tree. O earth, what changes hast thou seen! There was not a person or thing on Earth that escaped the consequences of war—the bad ones or the good. After all, a nation grown strong and cruel on dehumanizing militarism was about to present a constitution that renounced war in favor of guaranteed civil rights. What had Peggy fought for if not that? Let the historians decide whether the methods had been right or wrong, whether their intentions had been pure or cynical. The same hand that helped build the atomic bomb pulled the switch that made Steve Captain America. The world was never as simple or clear-cut as we would like. You did what good you could, took what comfort you found, thanked God for all you got, and held your grief lightly when what you got was gone.

Today, as she buttoned her dress uniform heavy with medals, walked through streets swept clean of rubble, went—as she always had, as she always would—to the work of seeking the newer world she had promised, Peggy took comfort in these bitter, beautiful words folded against her heart where a neon comic used to be:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.