Like the Homecoming of a Soldier a Long Time at War
An Eroica fic by Terri Botta. © 2010
A/N: The title of this fic is derived from the Egyptian Death Song From the "Dispute of A Man with His Ba," a 12th Dynasty papyrus manuscript. I read this poem at my father's funeral in 2008.
The phone rings, waking him from his light doze. The couch he is stretched out on in the living room of this non-descript flat is comfortable, but he cannot afford to allow himself the luxury of deep slumber. His mission is to protect the flat's occupant until those who are hunting her are captured, and nighttime poses the greatest risk. He wishes he was the one doing the hunting, but his reputation, and his Chief's distain, has him playing babysitter to a former researcher instead.
With a muffled groan that belies his age, Major Klaus von dem Eberbach sits up and rubs tired eyes. He can hear his charge speaking softly to the caller on the phone, and he rolls his neck and shoulders to work out the kinks before rising to his feet. He meets the woman as she exits her bedroom, already dressed, smiling to himself as she almost runs into the wall of his chest.
She is a tiny thing, waifish and looking younger than her years – until you look into her eyes, then you know she is much older, and he thinks he could snap her in two with a single twist. She stops short and cranes her neck up to look at him.
"Oh, Major, I am so sorry," she apologizes.
She is polite. She is always polite. Since he was assigned to be her shadow four days ago – the day NATO discovered a plot to kidnap the woman for the information in her head – she has been kind, almost gentle with him. She thanks him often. She is concerned for his welfare. She takes care to prepare meals for both of them and makes sure he takes the time to eat.
He is not used to being… mothered. It reminds him too much of Sister Teresa. The old nun died last year. His butler pointed out her obituary, and he wonders when the old man started trolling the paper for the recently deceased. He vaguely remembers sending a donation in Sister's name, but he can't be sure. He hopes if he did, the money went to preserving the potato fields the nun had loved so much in life.
"Is there a problem?" he asks, bringing himself back to the present, to the mission at hand. He hates it when he is distracted by his past, by his emotions. Lesser agents have been killed for lesser infractions.
He sees her hesitate, and it grates on his patience, but he is patient with her because she is patient with him.
"That was Nurse Bowen. The cat has gone into Mrs. Straus's room," she replies.
He waits silently, looking down at her. She may have well spoken Swahili for all her answer made any sense, and he holds her gaze, expecting an explanation until he sees understanding dawn on her face as she shakes her head and laughs a little.
"Forgive me. I am… out of sorts tonight," she says, touching the back of his hand gently.
It's many times smaller than his own, and not for the first time he marvels at the fact that this little woman was once a brilliant scientist; one of the great minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to believe such an unassuming person holds the secret of mass destruction and mayhem in her brain, that she once walked the halls of top secret labs, puzzling out problems and inventing solutions. Then again, he's seen stranger things, like foppish, irritating English Earls who turn into deadly lions when cornered.
He knows her story. He's been briefed. She was at the height of her career when terrorists killed her husband and forced her into hiding. She has lived a life of quiet anonymity since. Other, younger, brilliant scientists have taken her place, picking up where she left off and continuing her vital work, but it seems there are those who would still seek to use her. Maybe because they think they can get her. Iron Klaus will make them think twice.
"The cat," she continues patiently. "The cat goes into the room of those who are about to die."
Ah. He understands now. The once brilliant scientist has become a hospice nurse, tending to the dying in their last days, and the cat in question is one of the animals at the facility where she works.
"Ja?" he says.
The little hand closes around his, and he thinks that she is trying to comfort him, but he has no idea why.
"He's gone into Mrs. Straus's room. That means she will die soon."
"Ja?" he prompts.
An old woman dying is of no concern to him. It happens all the time. Old people die. Like Uncle Erik, and Sister Teresa, and his father. There is nothing unnatural or disconcerting about the death of one who has lived a long, full life. It's the death of those who have not that haunt his dreams and weigh heavy on his already burdened shoulders. The lives cut short. The ones that could have been saved if not for the kind of people who are hunting his charge right now.
He sees her draw a deep breath, sees her choosing her words carefully and he waits. He is sure she will make sense sometime tonight.
"It is my habit to… sit with those who have no one to sit with them," she finishes.
'Oh.' "Oh," he says, understanding, wondering why her hand suddenly tightens on his and why he cannot suppress the tiniest of shudders. "I see…"
"So… I'll be going over there now… to sit with her…"
To watch her die.
"You don't have to come, Major. There is no need for you…"
"Nein. I go where you go," he corrects, doing his best to keep the edge out of his voice. If he speaks too harshly, she might crumble. At least that is what his instincts tell him when he looks at this tiny woman. In truth, she is probably just as strong as he.
He sees her purse her lips; she is unhappy about something, but he has his orders and he follows them. He always follows orders… well, almost always, and the times he has not have more often than not involved a certain aristocratic thief.
"Alright then. I'll just get my shoes and then we'll go."
He nods once. "I will drive."
"Of course, Major."
She slips on her shoes, grabs her coat, and they head down to the car park where the car is waiting. The drive to the care facility is short and silent. They do not speak, and his charge spends much of the trip looking out the car window at the stars. Her expression is wistful and solemn. Her deceased husband was an aerospace engineer, one of the best. He designed spy satellites, some of which are still up there… somewhere.
The facility is quiet as they enter. It is the middle of the night and most of the patients are asleep. There are a handful of nurses and aides on duty to tend to the patients' needs, but otherwise it is calm. A nurse he has come to know as Nurse Bowen greets them as they enter, and he gives her a nod.
"He went in about two hours ago. Patricia saw him go in and he's still there now," the nurse informs, pointing her chin towards an open door.
"Thanks, Linda," his charge replies.
The other woman shrugs. "We'll see if he's twenty-six for twenty-six. I swear it's uncanny how he knows."
They are speaking of the cat, and the animal's talent for predicting when death is close.
"Yes, but it gives us time to call the family so they can say good-bye," his charge says.
If there is family to call that is. There is none in this case, and that is why they are here.
"Yeah. Let me know when she goes," Linda replies, before turning to answer the bell from one of the patients' rooms.
"I will," his charge promises and heads for the open room. He follows.
The small space is dark, lit only by a dim bar of light over the narrow bed, but he can still see the wasted figure under the blankets and the large tabby cat nestled by the figure's feet. Green cat eyes turn their way as they enter, but the animal is silent. There is a chair by the bed and another in the far corner. His charge takes the seat by the bed, but he opts to stand by the far wall, one eye on the open doorway into the hall. He is in the shadows, half-concealed, but he has a clear view of both the window and the corridor. His magnum is heavy against his hip. He is ready for anything, should anything happen.
"Hello, Mrs. Straus, it's Miriam," his charge says in a gentle voice. "I've come to sit with you for a while. Mr. Tumnus is here, too. We're both going to stay with you."
The woman in the bed is a wraith, little more than a skeleton with pale, paper-thin skin stretched tight over the wasted flesh. She looks dead already, except that her chest rises and falls slowly, shallow breaths rattling in her lungs, and she does not move when his charge carefully takes her hand in hers. There is a bible on the bedside table, but she does not reach for it, instead she begins to speak in a soft, soothing tone.
"I remember when you told me about your son. Geoff, yes? He was a soldier. He died in Afghanistan. He was very brave," she says. "His picture is here, and so is Heinrich, your husband's. I can see them. I remember you told me the picture of the two of them by the sea side was taken on vacation. It's been a long time since I've seen the sea…"
His charge continues on in this manner, speaking quietly, conversationally, as if the woman in the bed can hear every word that is being said, and he watches with interest because he was wondering what someone says to someone who is about to die under these circumstances. Miriam sings softly, recites poetry from memory, or simply tells stories that tie into something the dying woman once said.
The night goes on, the hours pass. Miriam's voice grows softer over time, and the woman's breathing becomes shallower and harsher. At some point, the cat begins to purr, and he finds himself shifting uncomfortably, his hands dug deep into his pockets. He wishes for a cigarette, but there is no smoking allowed, and he is trying to quit anyway because he can feel a heaviness in his chest now when he exerts himself.
It is not that he is squeamish; he has seen death before. Usually he has been crouched beside it as it bubbles out of a comrade in wet, struggling gasps; when all he can do is look on and promise to make sure someone knows the man died proudly, in the line of duty. Never before has he played witness to the gentle ebbing of life he sees now, its eerie silence and restful peace. This moment seems too private, too intimate for his cold gaze, and he feels like an intruder trespassing on sacred ground. He digs into the pocket of his overcoat to fish out a wooden toothpick and clamps it between his teeth.
Finally, some untold hours later, something changes, and his charge goes silent. He does not know exactly what it is that the woman has seen or sensed, but he can feel a chill creeping up his spine, and he holds his breath. Something is here with them, something unknowable and immense, and he is… afraid.
The cat purrs more loudly in the near silence and begins to make that kneading motion the animals do when they are content.
"I see. You're going now," his charge whispers. "Go on then. Geoff and Heinrich are waiting for you."
The wraith in the bed takes a harsh breath, and then lets it out slowly; another follows several moments later. The breaths become fewer and fewer until the body gives a shudder and the air hisses out of her in one long sigh. Somehow he knows that she will not be taking another.
He blinks, coming out of the hypnotic spell that has fallen over the room, the steady truncating of the universe until the only thing that exists is this small, dark space. The world expands again, and he shakes himself a little, taking his own deep breath through his nose. He is cold, and for some reason he feels empty, maybe even a little… alone, until his brain kicks in again and his mind whirrs to life.
The death itself was quick, he notes, a shock compared to the slow lead-in. Once the moment came, the crossing of the threshold from life into death was instantaneous, and it came as a bit of a surprise. He hates to admit that it's shaken him, but it has.
His charge folds the dead woman's hands on the still chest and kisses the corpse's cheek.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Straus. I'll see you again next time."
He straightens his back as his charge rises to her feet, and he observes as the cat jumps down from the bed and saunters out casually, as if it has not just served as a harbinger of death. His charge takes a deep breath herself and makes for the open door. He follows in her wake, but his feet feel odd, like he is not quite in his body. Something inside him is different, something inside him has changed and will never be the same.
Walking through the doorway into the lighted hall, he feels like he is returning to the land of the living after passing through the realm of Death, and he welcomes the light like a sunrise. Slowly, he begins to feel warm again, but there is still a small part of him that remains cold and bereft. It feels like a yearning, like a hole that needs to be filled, but he has no idea how to go about filling it.
"Mrs. Straus is gone," he hears his charge tell the duty nurse, but her voice sounds far away. He turns his head to look down the long corridor that leads to the exit, and he suddenly wants to be rid of this place, to leave these quiet halls where Death comes invited and welcome.
There is some motion, some activity as the staff moves to attend to the final preparations of the body left behind, but his charge is not responsible for any of that. He waits, watching the door, until she comes up beside him, her head barely reaching his shoulder.
"We can go now, Major," she tells him. "I don't have to be back here until my shift starts later this afternoon."
"Jawohl," he agrees, and falls into step beside her as she leads the way down the corridor that seems to stretch longer and longer, the exit never getting any nearer, until he strides ahead, making contact with the door at last and pushing through it with his shoulder.
The outside air hits him, the chill of early morning and the smell of the city: gasoline and rotting garbage, but there are other scents too: ozone and moist dew. He reaches for a cigarette and has it lit and between his lips before the doors close. The familiar flavor and hit of nicotine ground him and make him feel more like himself again.
His charge stands beside him, quiet and patiently waiting while he puffs on his habit and steadies his nerves. Internally, he berates himself for his cowardice and apprehension, but he cannot fully shake the feeling of loss.
"Do you believe that?" he asks suddenly, looking to her as someone who might have the answers to questions he hasn't even known how to ask. "That her son and husband are waiting for her? That our loved ones meet us after we are gone?"
"I don't know. I'd like to believe it. I know many people do. And I've seen things… signs. Many times my patients report seeing someone who has gone before waiting by their bedside or standing in the doorway. So it's possible. Anything is possible," she replies.
"Ja. This is true."
He finishes his cigarette and lights another, drawing deep on the filter until he can feel his lungs scream in protest. The tiny woman stands next to him, her eyes on the horizon. It is nearly dawn, the first faint signs of red bleeding into the night, and she steps closer to him, close enough for her to feel her body heat.
"I've been doing this for quite a while, Major," she says suddenly. "As death nears, you learn what is really important. I've never had a patient bemoan the promotion he didn't get or the things he didn't buy. It's always been about the things that were never said and time that was never spent. These are the things that they regret. Not the material possessions or the affectations of success, but the connections we have to each other. In the end, what is most important is were you loved? And did you give love in return?"
He startles a bit and stares down at her. She meets his gaze steadily, with a small smile on her lips, and somehow he knows that she can see through him, and that she understands.
He shudders, but reflexively hides it behind the action of dropping the spent cigarette and crushing the butt under his boot. He doesn't fool her though, and he feels her tiny hand slipping into his. He closes his eyes and tries to blot out the wound that has opened up inside him.
Were you loved? And did you give love in return?
Such stupid, foppish bullshit, but he cannot deny that the words make him ache and wonder who will be there to sit with him and hold his hand in his final hours.
"C'mon. Let's go back. I'll make us some breakfast. I'll make some of those fried potatoes you like so much," she offers, giving him a little nudge.
He huffs, expelling the breath in his much-abused lungs, and nods. "Ja. That would be good."
Her hand squeezes his briefly then lets it go. He flexes his fingers a bit, curling them and stretching them out again before mentally slapping himself upside the head for being a sentimental idiot and striding towards the parked car. She slides into the passenger seat as he gets behind the wheel, turning the car on and guiding it into early-morning traffic.
They are back at the little flat in no time, and he takes a seat on the couch while she moves about the kitchen with efficient grace. She hums a soft tune as she works, a pleasant melody that makes him think of warmer days and the comforts of a home where he is welcome; things that he knows only in the abstract, and through the lives of others.
Were you loved and did you give love in return?
Yes and no, but perhaps there is still time. Perhaps there is a chance for him to know the things that are really important before his life comes to an end.
Miriam smiles at him as she brings breakfast to the little table in the shared living space, and he sees the fried potatoes steaming on the serving plate. He returns her smile and joins her at the table, taking his place across from her as she doles out the larger portion of food to him. The meal is delicious, but he finds himself hoping that this mission will be over soon, that the ones hunting his charge will be caught shortly so he can leave and return to his life. There are things he needs to do, plans that need to be set in motion.
And there is a certain irritating English Earl that he needs to call.
Egyptian Death Song
From the "Dispute of A Man with His Ba," papyrus manuscript of the 12th Dynasty
Translation by Erik Hornung
Death stands before me today
like the hope of health for a sick man,
like stepping out into the open air after
a time of suffering.
Death stands before me today
like the aroma of incense,
like sitting under the sail on
the Day of the Great Wind.
Death stands before me today
like the odor of lotus-blossoms,
like the first moments on the
edge of sweet drunkenness.
Death stands before me today
like the end of a long rain,
like the homecoming of a soldier
a long time at war.
Death stands before me today
like the clarity of heaven,
like the answer long-desired
to a heavy riddle.
And Death stands before me today
like the way a man feels about home
after he has spent many years
A/N: There actually is a cat that predicts death at a hospice center in Rhode Island. He is the subject of a book: "Making Rounds with Oscar."