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"Our president, Mr. Lincoln, has proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November, starting this year.
"So on this November 26th in the year of the Lord 1863, we've come together to eat and drink, to be together, and to give thanks.
"Good Lord, I'm giving thanks to thee. I'm giving thanks for the return of my family, for having them back, safe and sound, whole and healthy. I'm giving thanks for Adam surviving his ordeal, and Joe his and Juliet hers. I'm giving thanks for my son Hoss and his strength that kept us all from falling apart; and I'm giving thanks for my grandchild, who lights up our days.
"I'm giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew. I am aware that many families in this country won't get that chance. I am aware that the bloodshed of this war isn't over yet, and that it will take tolls from many families. I am also aware that my own family hasn't been spared completely—but that we've come out of it lightly. We're alive, and we're together and healing, and for that I'm giving thanks."
Juliet pondered the words spoken much earlier that evening, while she removed her emerald earrings and the matching necklace—gifts from Adam on the occasion of Henry's birth—and cautiously placed them into their elaborate velvet cases, then started to pull out the small jade pearls that were woven into her elaborate hairdo.
It had been an almost formal dinner; Paul Martin and Clementine Hawkins had been invited, and Hop Sing had outdone himself with serving course after course, each more delicious than the last.
Thanksgiving, a national holiday announced in the middle of a war that provided very little to give thanks for…and yet her father-in-law had found words of gratitude and faith—even though he must have known that they were based, at least in part, more on wishful thinking than on actual facts.
The last green bead stored away in a Chinese lacquer box, Juliet turned her attention to removing the dozens of pins that had kept her hair up. As its waves finally fell freely over her shoulders and back, she let out a deep, relieved sigh, and reached for her hairbrush to start the arduous task of working it through the tousled masses.
"I'm giving thanks for the return of my family." Juliet yanked at a particularly stubborn strand of snarled hair.
Ben knew as well as anyone that not the whole family had returned. That Adam wasn't really at home. Though physically returned, he had yet to arrive completely.
As she'd predicted so many months ago, they had gotten Adam back—but not gotten him back. What they had was a shell resembling Adam, but not…not the man Adam.
There was a deep-rooted sadness in his eyes, even when he smiled or laughed. But smiles and laughter didn't come easy to him any more anyway. He was withdrawn, thoughtful, pensive, and often startled if someone addressed him suddenly, even in conversations he'd seemed to follow. He did his share of work, as yet mostly limited to book keeping and such, but he was easily distracted and didn't seem able to concentrate properly. He was an attentive husband to her and a devoted father to Henry generally, but sometimes also impatient and irritated over insignificant matters. He was erratic; and if there was one thing her Adam had never been it was erratic.
The war had wounded Adam in more ways than one, and none of those wounds had healed completely yet.
Ben knew that. Juliet had seen it in his face as he'd studied Adam the day they'd come home. When he'd seen Adam labouring to get out of the stage coach, Ben's overjoyed smile had faded and given room to a concerned frown.
It had been a long and exhausting journey, not made any easier by Henry's constant expressions of discontent with having to travel yet again—and it showed, on all their faces. But Adam's features had been drawn and haggard anyway, so to Ben he must have looked terrible, emaciated and sick.
Oh, Adam had looked terrible—but much better than he had when she first had seen him in Culpeper; and Juliet was eternally thankful that Ben had been spared that sight.
She wished Ben could have been spared the sight of Adam's empty smile, too. That curling of lips that held no mirth, no happiness, and that never reached his eyes.
The brush now went through her hair smoothly. One, two, three strokes. Four, five, six...a hundred brush strokes a day makes one's hair shine, Mrs. Beeton says in her book…seven, eight, nine….
"I'm giving thanks for the return of my family, for having them back, safe and sound, whole and healthy."
Healthy. …sixteen, seventeen, eighteen… It was debatable if they all were healthy; they all clearly weren't whole. They all were bearing scars.
Adam's, of course, were the most obvious. Even though the scar of his shot wound and the subsequent surgeries was well-hidden beneath his trousers, his painful limp and white-knuckled grip on the cane was visible for everyone. His scope of action was restricted to the confines of the house and the ranch yard: he couldn't sit a horse for more than a few minutes, and even riding a buckboard aggravated his leg more than the change of scenery made worthwhile.
He wouldn't be Adam if he weren't trying to hide the constant pain he was in. But he didn't fool anyone—most certainly not her—neither by feigning "good health" nor by trying to act as if there weren't other scars, too: scars on his heart and on his soul.
Joe's scar from Billy-Bob Coulston's bullet seemed to hurt Adam more than it hurt Joe, who claimed he was "right as rain." Juliet thought if anyone besides Mr. Coulston should feel guilty about that scar, then it was she; but that didn't keep Adam from feeling responsible for Joe having to protect her. Which in return made Joe feel guilty for having provoked the miner to begin with and thus making Adam feel guilty—or whatever scenario had evolved in her brother-in-law's mind and kept him from really being right as rain.
Hoss's scars came out only late at night. He'd become nearly as good as Adam in hiding his real feelings, but he gave himself away when he instantly appeared at the door to their room whenever Adam roused the house with his nightmares. He obviously hurt from what he'd seen during their quest, from what he knew had been done to his older brother—and from the fact that he, too, couldn't provide any kind of solace for Adam.
That same helplessness and the weeks and months of sorrow and anguish had left scars on Ben, too: his hair was now completely white, and the lines in his face deep and more pronounced than before.
Her own scars didn't bother her much. Finally the silvery lines on her wrists were almost invisible, and the deepest, newest scar….
Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, a hundred. She laid the hair brush down and stared into the mirror. It was invisible, too, that new scar, at least to anyone but Adam and her. And both Adam and she had decided not to care about it, not to believe in what Paul had said: that she most probably would never be able to carry another child to full terms. Both Adam and she had decided they would simply ignore it, act as if there wasn't anything wrong and just keep trying. What else were they supposed to do?
She parted her hair into three equal strands and began to plait it into a thick braid for the night.
Keep trying. What else were they supposed to do… That accounted for almost everything, didn't it?
"I'm giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew. We're alive, and we're together and healing, and for that I'm giving thanks."
Ben was right: they had a new chance; they were alive, they were together, and they were healing. Slowly, not always satisfactorily, but healing.
Mr. Hop had almost had a stroke when he'd first seen Adam, and instantly made it his first priority to feed meat back onto Adam's bones. He provided Adam with his favourite dishes, all accompanied by thick slices of buttered bread and always followed by rich deserts, waited on him with cakes and biscuits, hot chocolate and sandwiches in between meals, and even placed bedtime candies on his nightstand.
Whenever Adam found himself unable to stomach the loads of food Mr. Hop had intended for him, he was subjected to one of the house keeper's famous furies, and not always able to escape without at least a small dish of something placed within easy reach—and Mr. Hop supervising him discreetly.
Juliet had long ago ceased to raise an eyebrow at the cook's antics. She knew he meant well and that he was partial to "number one son," whom he'd dealt with since childhood—and she was happy to notice his tactics almost always brought good results. Adam would need more time to completely regain his usual powerful frame, but he was well on his way to become once again the sturdy oak against which she was used to lean.
And along with Adam, the rest of the family healed, too. Ben's prayer of gratitude from earlier that night spoke volumes; and Joe and Hoss…it was a subtle change only, yet for her it was distinctive: she'd heard Hoss saying "Older Brother here" tonight, using the title he hadn't conceded to Adam ever since Culpeper. And Joe had called Adam "mule head"— his first attempt at teasing him since they'd come home.
"I'm giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew."
That they did: they started anew. Looking ahead rather than back. Ben and Joe had finally accepted that Adam wouldn't tell them anything beyond the plain facts, and she and Hoss knew better than to prod anyway. What they'd read in the letter Adam had written in Gettysburg had told them enough and more than enough to know why Adam didn't want to talk about it.
The letter. Lupus est homo homini—man is wolf to man. Juliet was aware that letter was never intended to be sent. There was her name on it, but no address; and if Adam had really wanted to send it, he would have properly addressed it right away. And what Adam had recorded in the letter…she was sure he never meant to burden her with it, or Hoss, or anyone. No, it was never meant to be read, just meant to be written down as some kind of release. And yet she was glad she had read it. She had witnessed only the aftermath of the battle: the destruction, the devastation, the stench that still had polluted the air even when she'd left Gettysburg, more than three months after the battle. It had fuelled her imaginative mind enough to picture how it must have been during the fights, and what little gaps in her imagination remained were filled with what Adam had written down.
It had been incredibly tempting, but she'd refrained from using any of it as she'd written an article for the Territorial Enterprise on the occasion of Mr. Lincoln's speech at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, just a week ago. It was her first article since Henry had been born, and part of her own healing process: an account of her impressions of Gettysburg after the battle. Her impressions, her own, personal story. And anyway, she would not abuse her accidental knowledge of something Adam obviously considered his private…purgatory.
"This is not a tale of fairies, but a report of beastly things and ghastly truths. Beware, readers, beware: here be monsters," she'd written, fully knowing how strongly the poetic prose contrasted—and highlighted—the horror. Mr. Goodman, the editor, had lauded her on the "best goddamn piece of writing" she'd ever offered him, and instantly had indentured her to submit at least two columns a week. She had accepted his proposal gladly—it would bring at least some normalcy back into her life and give back something that was entirely hers and that she'd missed dearly.
She wasn't sure the article was indeed her best writing, but it was good, and she was satisfied with it. It certainly was her most personal writing, and, in a way, an equivalent to Adam's letter-that-wasn't-a-letter. Except that she had never planned to keep it to herself, that she'd written both to relieve herself and to make people understand the unimaginable and unbelievable.
She was fumbling with a green silk ribbon to secure her braid when two arms engulfed her from behind and a hand was put over hers, stilling their actions.
"Leave it loose," Adam's husky voice whispered close to her ear. "I want to see it flow over the bedding."
She leaned back into his embrace, enjoyed the feeling of his tender hands combing out the plait and draping the hair over her shoulders.
"Here we are again," he said as his hands roamed on, opened her dressing gown and pulled it down her back. "In front of another mirror, but still a sight to behold."
Despite the late November night, it was warm in the room. The dying embers in the fireplace still kept a vivid reminder of the blazing heat from earlier that evening. Yet Juliet felt goose bumps rising on her exposed skin.
"Henry?" she asked, just to be sure.
"Sound asleep, finally. I had to go through seven rounds of Simple Simon, but in the end he gave in and closed his eyes. Succumbed to sheer ennui, most probably."
"No, he never gets bored. Not as long as someone pays him attention, and certainly not when it's you who's entertaining him."
"It was unnerving when he didn't remember me in Culpeper." He buried his face in her hair, inhaled deeply.
She reached back, weaved her fingers into his hair, and pulled at it, ever so slightly. "He knows you now."
"Yes." He straightened, grabbed her hair with both hands and yanked at it, just once, before releasing it to flow down her back again. "I'm glad he does. And I'm glad he and you…"
His hands lay warm on her shoulders for a moment, travelled down her arms, her sides, came to rest upon her hips. "I've been thinking…"
She took his hands, laid them on her breasts. "Hmm?"
"Pa's prayer tonight: giving thanks, starting anew..." He bent down, kissed her neck. "I think he's right. We have to start anew. Have to move on." Looking at her reflection, he nodded. "I have to move on."
She closed her eyes, briefly, then looked into his in the mirror. "Move on…how?"
"The things I've seen, the things I've done, the things that were done to me…"
"No, just listen. Those things…they were…bad."
She almost laughed about the triteness of that word. Bad. But perhaps it was the only way Adam could think of it—or he was sparing her yet again.
"Those things...I don't want to…forget them, or act as if they never had happened, because they have happened, and they are a part of me now. But I also don't want them to determine my future life or yours, or Henry's—or anyone's. I don't want them to determine who I am."
"They don't have to determine who you are." She turned around and took his face in her hands, drawing it down to the level of hers. "You have been who you were before they happened, and even if they change your perspective on things they don't have to change you."
"No, they don't, do they." He straightened, hoisting her up with him; turned them to face the mirror again. "See: that's the one thing that hasn't changed."
"We have changed: we're a little frayed around the edges now, I'm afraid." She smiled, a little embarrassed at the view: her dressing gown lay at her feet, and she'd worn nothing underneath it.
"But we're still together, and that still is the most beautiful thing I can imagine."
"Of course, we're together. We will always be together."
"In good times and in bad…"
"Exactly. That's what I've learnt from this, Adam: whatever happens, we won't fall apart. I thought…I thought I'd love you because I can trust you never to hurt me. And then you went and did hurt me—and I found I still loved you. I just couldn't help it."
She looked into the mirror, saw herself and him, saw how he removed his gown and wrapped his arms around her. Felt his warm body against hers. He didn't speak, didn't answer...but—
"I can see your dimples. You're smiling." And it reached his eyes, the smile...it was everywhere on his face. And it was answer enough.
"I am." Now he grinned. "I have every reason to smile." And he looked at her, not at her image in the mirror, but at her. Pointedly. At her face, down her body, back at her face.
Juliet laughed. She laughed out loud, even though he tried to still her with a kiss, with two kisses, with three; she laughed. Laughed right through the kisses.
"Are you quite well, Mylady?" Adam asked, barely able to contain his own laughter.
"I am, oh my consort, I am, perfectly well."
She stopped laughing as he cupped her face and looked into her eyes, breathed, "Forever," and kissed her again.
As he pulled her with him, over to their bed, and then down onto it, keeping her as close as possible, so close that she wasn't sure anymore where she ended and he began, she whispered into his chest, "Welcome home, Adam. Welcome back."
And she gave thanks, silently, secretly, while they started anew, started living the rest of their lives. Together again.
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. ~Kahlil Gibran