Awash with terror, I lay in bed jumping and flinching at every creak. The old country house had always made such noises at night. The beams would creak, the windows would knock and the wind would howl down the fireplace.
I had not always been so afraid of these sounds, but then again, I had not always been alone.
My husband and I moved to this village five years ago. We had just married and the house was just right for us. I admit it was a bit weather-worn, but my husband Paul could afford it and there was a job available as the village postmaster. He bought the house, took the job and we were happy, oh, so happy here. The wind could scream bloody murder and the house itself could shake, but with Paul here, I feared nothing.
That though was before. Before the war. Before enlistment. Before our men were sent to fight, fester and die in those God-awful trenches in France. So I lay alone, on a cold windy night, both scared of the unearthly things that could be upon me in the unsettled house, and scared of the all too earthly dangers facing my husband far across the Channel.
Context. It is a strange thing. Some things within a certain context can be dull and boring, warranting no thought or attention, though in a different context the same thing – noise, in this case – can be terrifying. The noise I heard that that night would be, in the right context, so very dull. But in bed alone in my old house, this sound scared me to my very bones.
Someone had just unlocked the front door and was walking towards the stairs. I lost feeling in my feet, my hands tingled with pins and needles and my mouth went deathly dry as I listened to the heavy boots trudge across the floorboards, approaching the stairs. My stomach churned as if it was attempting to physically expel this newly tangible, poisonous fear from my body. I did not have time to react further, as the boots hurried up the stairs and a hand came around my bedroom door.
I was at the point of passing out as the man’s face appeared. How soon and how much everything changed in an instant.
I yelled and cried at him as I jump into his arms.
“Paul! You’re home!”
We both sat on the bed in tears as he struggled to find his words to explain his return. He explained all about the shelling they came under, his time in the army hospital with Reg, who happened to be both my neighbor and my best friend Meg’s husband. Paul explained the shrapnel in his arms and back, his discharge from service and how Reg should soon be discharged as well. Soon thereafter he retired to bed without so much as a bite to eat. I suspected he was merely exhausted.
I slept soundly that night. Paul was up and dressed when I woke the next morning. He said he had no time for breakfast as he was off to the post office to resume his duties as postmaster. I found this unusual. However, I didn’t say a word, as I was simply happy to have him home and imagined he was adjusting back to life at home.
Paul was scarcely gone for two hours before he returned with a huge sack of letters, which he promptly dumped on the kitchen table. He sat sorting the correspondence for an hour or so, and I couldn’t help but notice that he had placed roughly two dozen pieces of mail in the small iron waste bucket we kept next to the stove.
Upon noticing my curiosity Paul explained they were rubbish and I was to burn them. Then, with a harshness that I have never heard in his voice, he told me not to open or read a single one. They were to be destroyed and nothing more.
After he had made his demands known, he left on his rounds. The minute he was out of sight, I grabbed the letters in the iron bin and did as I was told, burning them in the stove one by one. After the fifth letter, however, I began to notice a pattern. All of the letters were addressed to women in our village, or to those in neighboring towns. And they all had the army seal on them. I was puzzled by this, but my general confusion gave way to horror as I came upon the eighth letter.
It was addressed to me.
Shaking and losing more of my composure with each passing second, I opened the letter and began to read. It was an official letter to me, offering condolences and informing me that Paul, along with his company, had been killed in action. Foolishly I cast the letter into the stove, destroying it.
After a few moments of nonsensical weeping, I looked through the other letters. The final piece of mail was addressed to my neighbor Meg.
Paul came home later that evening. For the second night in a row, he refused to eat. At that moment I began to realize that not only had I not seen him eat or drink since he had been home, but I had not seen him sleep, either. Moments later Paul interrupted my reverie, asking me coldly if I had destroyed the letters as asked. I nodded to say “yes.” After all, it was nearly true. I had destroyed all the letters, all of them but one – the one addressed to Meg.
That night in bed, though my eyes were closed, I could feel Paul staring at me. He stared for hours. When he eventually rose from bed sometime after midnight, I imagined it was because he was certain I had fallen asleep.
I strained my ears. I could hear him downstairs speaking aloud in a strange voice. It was Paul, but… it wasn’t. And it was not English he was speaking, or any other language I recognized.
The next morning I woke to find Paul the same as the same before – dressed, refusing breakfast and on his way to work. But that day I had a plan. If I could just get to Meg and show her the letter, the two of us could think of a way out of that hell.
I was close to losing my composure again as I knocked firmly upon Meg’s door.
She answered the door smiling broadly from ear-to-ear. Before I could break down, show her the letter and explain what had happened, she spoke five little words. “Reg came home last night!” And with those little words, she crushed any hope I had of escaping that nightmare.
Fighting the knots in my stomach, I managed to ask Meg where Reg was, and she told me that he had accompanied Paul to the county post sorting office to accept a nice new job.
This all happened three months ago. Since then, dozens of men have “come home.” Without exception, and thanks to my Paul, all of them have been given jobs with the post office and other communication services.
When I lay in bed at night now, I shiver and jump. The noises of the house no longer scare me. But when my husband passes our house during his postal route, my blood runs cold.
Context. It’s a strange thing.
This story is preserved in loving memory of Emma Froh (September 13, 1992 – December 6, 2014)
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