by Charles Alexander Neal
A long, crooked road stretched between the forested mountains deep in the heart of the country of Mariposa. It was evening and the sun painted the sky in shades of red and gold and cast dusty shadows on the beech trees surrounding a village. The evening star in its splendor took its seat on its solitary throne at around the time Colonel Leon Diego came walking up the mountain pass. His clothes, once the proud blue uniform of a soldier, were covered in dust. A medal was on his chest, right next to a golden locket. They glinted in the fading sunlight.
It had been many a year since this man had walked this pass. Little had changed. Only he had changed. Descendants of night birds he had known in his youth sang sweet songs on the wind. He paused at a beech tree at the entrance of the village, pressed his hand to its rough bark. There was a carving on the trunk. Two young people in love had carved their initials there, a heart surrounding it. He smiled at the memory of happier days. After a few minutes he passed the tree and set foot on the soil of his native village. A jolt of pain shot through his knee, reviving memories of the wound he had suffered for the sake of his nation and the emperor. Walking more slowly he passed the tavern. Upraised laughter and the shouts of drunks emanated from within. The smell of beer and frying foods nearly tempted him into seeking old friends and reacquainting himself with the liquor of his youth.
He kept walking and touched the locket. He had a promise to keep. Scratching his beard, he traced the scar on his face. That was the remnant of a bayonet an enemy had sliced his cheek with. He remembered anger. It was hard not to take it personally when someone tried to kill you so he had shot his enemy with his last bullet. The enemy had fallen, quivering and twitching as the life left his body and blood ran down his chest. Leon had defended the fort, giving his comrades enough time to retreat so that they might come back and fight again. And fight they had, recapturing the fort only a month later. They had called him and the squadron he led heroes. A parade had been thrown for them. It had all embarrassed and confused him. He had only done his duty. Was duty heroism? He had been terrified and angry, taking revenge for fallen comrades. Patriotism? Bravery? Such ideas had only occurred later.
He had changed so much, would his own mother and father recognize him? Would Juanita recognize him? That was the most important question. She had inspired him through the war. It was the thought of her that had gotten him through lonely nights deep in the jungles, freezing nights in the desert, battles where blood had flowed like water.
He had to return her locket. She had given it to him that he might return it. As long as he had the locket, he could not die for he had to return it to her. He stood beneath the street lamp and fingered it. Her heart, she had said.
The shout rang through the night and he turned. She was coming, running up the lane, her white dress flipping in the wind. She threw her arms around his neck. He held her, buried his nose into her soft hair, the scent of perfume calming him. He took off the locket, placed it around her neck.
“I have returned, my beloved Juanita.”
They embraced and he leaned down, capturing her lips in a kiss.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing