THE YOUNG man still had a dressing over one ear and a crust of blood inside one nostril. The doctor paged through the chart. Notations recorded progress as good as could be expected for such a recent amputee. “Mind if I look?” He pulled back the sheet and noted the wound drained normally. “How’d he rest last night?”
The resident pulled at his narrow tie. “Poorly. He was yelling and thrashing around. That’s why I asked for you to look in.”
“Hmm. Has he been given anything to help him sleep?”
“No, he even tried to refuse the morphine.”
“That’s interesting.” He watched the steady rise and fall of the muscular chest. “He’s a sergeant. Was he a squad leader? Do you know what happened to him?”
The resident shook his head, yawning. “Nope. He hasn’t said much.”
“Does he know about the leg?”
“We told him there was too much nerve damage.”
“The nightmares started before the surgery?”
“Before.” The resident yawned again. “From the first night he was here.”
“There’s not much I can do for him until he wakes up. You’ll have me paged?”
FRANK CAME into the barn sniffing the air like the scent might tell him whether the place was dangerous.
“About time you got here. Saw the note, I take it? Any questions?” Charlie watched the boy take in the stone barn, from hayloft to the three-legged stool where he sat. “Questions?” he prompted the boy a second time.
Cocking his head as if sorting through a stack of mental index cards, the boy eventually picked a pair of questions. “What happened to me? Why can’t I remember?”
“You received a head injury, maybe from a shell explosion. That’s what the quacks at the hospital told us. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it? Why don’t you remember anything? I don’t know. Here, grab a bucket. I expect your hands remember how to milk a cow, even if your head don’t.” Charlie watched the boy’s hand creep upward to touch his head. “Queenie knows you, even if you don’t know her.”
Frank picked up a bucket hesitantly.
Charlie nodded at a Jersey cow that stamped impatiently at her stanchion. “She’s waiting.”
What was it like for the boy to discover who he was every morning from a note tacked to the door of the privy? If the boy had any feelings about it, he never told Charlie.
THE BOY discovered the note after waking in an unfamiliar room. Pale light filtered through a dusty window at the end of a tunnellike dormer. Feeling exposed even under a woolen blanket, he slid to the floor and rolled part way underneath the bed. More comfortable with the solid frame looming over him, he stayed for a time, staring upward. As the light strengthened, he let his gaze follow the lines of wood grain in the window frame. The builder of this house had cut matching pieces for the verticals, their patterns mirrored on either side of the window.
Eventually he rose and struggled out of the tangled bedclothes. A small writing desk, cluttered with loose sheets of writing paper, a fountain pen, and an inkpot, was tucked into the dormer. A stack of unopened envelopes lay next to the writing supplies. The first was postmarked in July of 1918, and the last in October of the same year. Why didn’t this fellow, Francis Huddleston, open his mail?
Gut fluttering like an anxious bird, he peered under the bed for a chamber pot. Finding none, he rushed down to the second floor looking for a toilet or the way to the privy. Steps led down toward either end of the house. The set in the back were coarse and painted rather than finished, a servant’s stair. He knew the term, even if he didn’t know where he’d learned it. Down again, he found a large kitchen and heavy door framed in pantry shelves. He ran out into the yard. A well-worn path led to a small, clapboard structure with high windows. A minute later, as he tried not to breathe the acrid stink, he noticed a ruled sheet of writing paper tacked to the door in front of him. GOOD MORNING was blocked out in square letters.
Your name is Francis “Frank” Huddleston. You are a soldier, returned from the war in Europe. The white-haired man milking the cows in the barn is your grandfather, Charlie Clark. He will welcome your help with the chores. When you return from the barn, the gray-haired woman in the kitchen will give you breakfast. She is your grandmother, Edith “Eddy” Clark.
Charlie continued to milk his own cow and watched as Frank began to squeeze a stream of milk from Queenie’s teats, the familiar act calming the boy. Soon the milk squirted steadily, and Frank fell into a kind of trance, his movements automatic, until a diminishing stream and restless stamp from Queenie signaled time to change to a new pair of teats. Shifting to a new set, he rested his head against Queenie’s side and continued mechanically.
Charlie finished first and went to stand behind the boy. When Frank was done, he placed his hands on his knees and looked around. Charlie held his breath and watched Frank’s face. But there was only a tightening around Frank’s mouth and a narrowed gaze. Charlie sighed and placed a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “It’s all right, boy. I’m your grandfather, Charlie Clark. You’re Frank Huddleston, come home from the war with a head injury. That’s why you don’t know me. Let’s go in and meet your grandmother. She’ll give us something to eat. Are you hungry? Don’t forget your bucket.”
EDDY’S SPOTTED hands twisted in her lap as she spoke. “Charlie isn’t a young man anymore. You’re a great worker, Frank, but it’s the forgetting. With one of us staying with you all the time to answer your questions, we can’t….”
Frank fidgeted in his chair and let his gaze wander over the worn fixtures and scarred wood of the kitchen. He wondered if they would ask him to leave, the strangers who had fed him for months, judging from the thick wad of notes in his hand. Would their faces ever be familiar?
“… so Charlie and I, we’ve posted a notice at the Grange Hall. We hope to have someone here by the harvest.”
Frank became aware the room had fallen silent—except for the tap dripping in the sink and the birds calling outside. Eddy and Charlie. They watched him closely as if they expected something, as if they were unsure of his response. He didn’t know why. Eddy’s careful announcement seemed to have little to do with him.
“Will you hire someone I knew… before?”
“No, Frank. You were with your parents in Philadelphia before the war. Nobody around here knows you.” Charlie looked away. His voice took on a rote quality. “They thought you might be more comfortable here with us while you recovered.”
“Will the new person stay with me or work with you?”
Charlie rubbed fingers across his forehead like he was trying to erase the wrinkles there, but Eddy answered in firm tones. “We have to be careful with our money, Frank. It may be cheaper to hire somebody to keep an eye on you and to help you remember when you have one of your spells. Charlie will work around the house.”
Frank fingered his notes again. “So… you want me to keep feeding the horses and milking the cows?”
“Yes, you’ll do that and other work as well.”
“Now, Eddy.” Charlie’s voice was gentle. “The boy’s still recovering. I’m not dead yet.”
“He’s strong as a bull, Charlie.”
“I don’t mind doing more, if that’s what you want.” Frank shifted from face to face until he focused on the sharp furrows at the side of Eddy’s mouth. “Just tell me what you want.”
“That’s what the new man will do,” Eddy said, looking at Charlie.
Charlie’s gaze dropped to his callused hands.