"I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
And you—oh you, who the wildest yearn
For an old-time step, and the glad return,
Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here.
Think of him still as the same. I say,
He is not dead—he is just away.”
-James Whitcomb Riley, He Is Not Dead
I stare down at Taylor. Or should I say I was staring at the shell that Taylor's soul once occupied? I'm having a hard time accepting that he's gone as I look down at his battered corpse; his pale eyes stare back up at me.
Taylor lies on the grass around Falaise, his chest bloodied, his skin pasty white, his lips blue, and his body sprawled out and twisted in the final agony of death. I came across his body while searching the Canadian dead for dog tags.
I should cry; it's a natural reaction to death but nothing comes. My eyes water a little but nothing more. Perhaps I'm too numb to feel anything anymore and deep down it worries me somewhat. Am I too desensitized for human emotion? Have I broke?
Maybe I'm just in shock right now and tears will come later. That's what I want to tell myself.
I hear boots crunching behind me. I don't bother to see who it is.
"Hartigan?" I hear Grayson say softly, as if he doesn't want to provoke me.
"Yeah?" I choke. My voice sounds hoarse like I've been shouting.
'We gotta go." I squeeze my eyes shut in a futile attempt to block everything out. This is wrong, I think. I should be the one in the dirt, not Taylor.
"Must we? Can't we bury him?"
"We don't have time. I'm sorry."
I glance at Taylor one last time, retrieving his personal items and dog tags, before turning and walking a few paces behind Grayson. My lip quivers and my entire body seems to tremble with the sobs I wouldn't dare let free.
Grayson stops and walks back to me. I turn my face away in shame but he forces me to look at him. "Listen to me Hartigan, you have to pull yourself together because now is not the time to falter. You have time to properly mourn Taylor later but not now."
I say nothing as what Grayson has said angers me somewhat.
"That doesn't mean you forget Taylor," Grayson continues. "Neither are you disrespecting his memory. You just can't let this get to you because you can't afford to. You understand?"
I nod. He does have a point.
Grayson gives me a playful slap on the face then continues walking. I follow closely behind.
I walk blindly forward staring at the ground ahead of me. If it weren't for Grayson I probably would have wandered off somewhere and get myself killed; I'm in such a haze I'm a danger to myself.
I wonder when Taylor met his end. I imagine bullets tearing his body apart before he crumples to the earth, mouth hanging open and eyes staring wide to the heavens.
"Grayson did you see Taylor fall?" I croak.
He glances at me over his shoulder, a grimace plain on his face. "Yes."
I stare at the back of his head, mentally willing him to say more.
Grayson huffs. "You want to know what happened don't you? Why?"
"I don't know," I say. "I just want to know. Maybe I'm better off not knowing."
Grayson looks over his shoulder again then turns around and walks right up to me. "You want to know what happened? Fine I'll tell you. You listening?"
"Taylor ended being in that open field there because he was running for cover. He realized he had blundered and got up to move elsewhere. But he distracted the Nazis from some other boys and they got him before he could make it." Grayson gives me a sympathetic look. "He died quickly Hartigan."
"How can you know?"
"He got it straight through the heart."
Grayson squeezes my arm in a comforting manner and continues walking while I follow sheepishly behind.
I try to think of the events that have led us here today but it seems my mind refuses to conjure the memories up. Then again, why do I think of it so much?
Grayson starts to sing softly under his breath and it takes me a moment to realize he's singing "White Cliffs of Dover". I remember hearing the same song in the pubs around England and in the base we were stationed at. I wonder how he has the energy to sing.
Grayson and I regroup with the others and all us soldiers seem too shocked to do much until an officer snaps us out of our revere.
The Nazis leave us be for a while so we take the opportunity to eat. I sit silently next to Grayson while he and the others speak in hushed tones. I realize Grayson is the only one I got, as much as he annoys me. Despite his grievances I know now he's a reliable friend to have.
Taylor's dead. I don't want it to be true but it is. I had lost so many friends, brothers really, to this war but none were so close as Taylor. I guess I have to suck it up and soldier on.
I ignore the pains in my abdomen to stare at the words I wrote. I feel angry; angry enough to lash out violently if provoked. Taylor was a good man, he had more to live for than I did.
I leave the group momentarily to relieve myself at the latrine then return to Grayson giving me a wary glance. I give him a weak half smile and he turns away.
Once I've eaten the sparse rations and dug in with Grayson, I take a look at Taylor's things while Grayson looks on. There's a picture of Taylor's wife and kids, letters and postcards tied neatly into a small bundle, and a few drawings that were drawn by small children. Lastly, there's Taylor's wedding band and a silver necklace with St. Christopher on it.
"We ought to write to Taylor's family." Grayson whispers. By "we" he clearly means I'm the one to do it.
On one of the letters from Taylor's wife has an address from New Brunswick so I copy it down into my notebook for later. I huff. "Dear God, I don't even know what I would say to her."
Grayson says nothing, leaving me to find the answer myself.