Fic: And They Hummed of Mystery
Notes: Written for Team Currahee as part of the HBOWarathonV2 on tumblr. Title from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Special thanks to oneluckystriker for the inspiration provided as a result of the Brecourt Manor Assault maps and the oh-so-cleverly titled, 'Lipton's Tree.'
"I've been told there's always been one man they could count on. Led them into the Bois Jacques, held them together when they had the crap shelled out of them in the woods. Every day, he kept their spirits up, kept the men focused, gave 'em direction... all the things a good combat leader does."
- Speirs, The Breaking Point
They don't spend much time staring at the wreckage of blood spattered over the sprawling greenery, or at the still-smoking ruins of battered guns and men. There's machine gun fire still to worry about, even with the assault successful and completed - they have been taught the enemy is sleepless, and at their backs the weight of grey eyes is constant.
But in the breath before it all begins again, Winters is fumbling with some maps while Speirs talks to him, bright-eyed; some of the others are crawling out of the trenches, dusting at each other's uniforms and trying to play off the relief that shakes in their too-young fingers. Lipton stands off to the side, beneath the shade.
"Come on, boys," he says, hurrying them along as he scans the hillside, "get a move on, let's go, let's go."
His boys protest - "Aw, chrissakes, Lip, just two minutes" - but they do it anyway.
Watching them, he smiles and pauses, one hand on a tree to support his weight. And he allows himself one second, just one, to close his eyes and breathe at last. An acknowledgement of the fact that yes, he is still alive, many of the rest have survived, too, and this part at least is over.
A frisson scours up his spine, and his eyes open again in shock. He looks down at his fingers, spread pale against the tough bark. Something keeps him staring. Gently, half against his will, they slide up and down the steady trunk.
How many battles had it seen, to be still standing so strong and tall? And how many more? There's a strange kinship, and he feels it now especially, in the life that thrums through the solidity of a foundation in the earth and the sensation of something wide and open up above. Something common to both men and trees. Something in these quiet, shared moments...
He steps back, and the feeling ebbs as he once again lapses into the mind of a soldier. He hoists his gun and steps carefully over roots and ducks with the low-hanging branches, making his way back to headquarters once again, the weight of the ammunition belt heavy around his neck and still somehow lighter than before.
He forgets. The tree does not.
In the end he gets a Bronze Star out of it, plus the knowledge that their assault on the artillery at Brecourt Manor will probably go down in history for its effortlessness, its quick and assured destruction. It is, after the drop, his first 'real' battle in the grander scheme of things, so it makes sense for him to come back to it fairly often, whenever his thoughts turn once again to those years spread thin with war...
But ultimately, it fades with the rest, taking its place among the other distant clatters of shells and explosions and the muted shouting of his men in his ears. There are other battles, and more importantly, after they all head home and life stretches away before him and pushes the war further and further behind, there are other things in general. Loves, laughters, all the great and impenetrable cliches that make a life.
When Carwood Lipton closes his eyes and they open somewhere else, he doesn't expect it.
But it's right, all the same.
The earth firm beneath his grasping roots, the crystal sky above his boundless, reaching branches. He stretches and old wood groans like the bows of sailing ships, he laughs and his leaves shake as under some preternatural breeze. He is, he is, and is.
Sometimes old friends stop by. Their journeys are still on-going, and he is but a moment of respite in the midst of it. The salt air stirs and brings with it the sense of something expected, something long lost but always loved. He greets them with open arms, with shade, a place to rest their tired legs.
"Remember when -"
He does, too.
Many times they just sit in silence, their backs against his trunk, staring out at the same old sloping fields, seeing history on its film reel before their eyes. Daydreaming, nightmaring, who knows what men see? He has forgotten.
But he allows their sadness to seep into the soil at his feet; he draws it out in drawing it in. Like an embrace is the press of heavy boughs that sink closer (of course it is the wind, of course it is).
"But all in all, I have every confidence in the men, sir."
Eventually, each of them will rise, will take a moment to lean against him for support, will say a last goodbye. And when they head off again, having shaken the creeping bonds of memory and emerging once more into the world, backs straight, heads high, he sighs a warm farewell into the autumn world, knowing it is no less true even now.
He is home to birds. Warblers, woodpeckers, wrens. He has raised entire families, but often, they, too, rest only for a while in his branches. Often he is left watching them fly off into some greater distance to which he is no longer privy, anchored as he is to the ground.
He takes pleasure in the moments where the little ones first learn to fly. Baby wings spread in anticipation, the ruffle of downy feathers under uncertain sea breeze draughts. He is happy to act the brace before they fling themselves perilously upwards and out, onwards to new lives and better things. He is, as always, happy to be.
But first: the glee of a song, sung just for him and just for them, as they ascend.
One day, he hears lightning and does not think of mortar shells and Dutch country.
Cool rain on his face, better than tears. Still a hushed reminder of what it is to live.
Friends bring children, grandchildren. The gold light of summer slips against pale skin, adds a warmth to screeching laughter as little limbs clamber over trenches, into holes and bunkers. Some climb up, up, up into the canopy (he never allows them to fall, no, just hoists them into the sky, breathless with delight - you hang tough, kids, you hang tough. Yeah boy!).
By night they're curled in the cocoon of his roots, thick beds of moss sprouted as if solely to cradle small, tired bodies. They shiver and he holds them close, a buffer against the wind, the day, the world he used to know and the world that will one day be theirs to inherit. It makes him squeeze just that little bit tighter.
He is content, at times, to simply feel the world go by. The recurrent stars in their great canvas, the flumes of air and sea, the spindled tug of gravity. Tectonic, vast and constant - the first few times it makes him dizzy, but he's learning.
There are, though, some particularly special visits.
The eyes are no less dull for all that age has carved wrinkles over the features, and the mind no less quicksilver-bright. The pink-flushed lips that once told him of battlefield commissions in a snowy, sleepy town now frown over the countryside, but eventually they pull up in the barest hint of a smirk - some memory, some old remark. He leans against the old tree and the naked branches scrape out words just as raw as remembrance. And, mysterious as ever, the man vanishes and is not seen there again.
Foy glimmers from across the distant, icy miles. Lip imagines that, in the way his roots go deep and mingle with the ash and spruce and oaks of foreign lands, one day he will stretch. Will wave, a little bit fond, a little bit sad. And in the sighing wind some new tree will wave right back across the lonely worlds.
The flowers are blooming, all along his spine, all about his ribs, spilling over his hands. They are lovely this time of year.
Days are gelatinous, only the weather to tell him when one season has morphed into another, and nothing at all tells him of how quick or the slow the years are in their passing. Just that they do pass on, on and on through great schisms of time.
Time. It was so important to them, once - so much of it spent longing for home, for pasts or futures. There is a peace to the present that can only be understood once time ceases to matter.
These long day-movements, the sun circling, circling, circling above their heads, waltzing in and out of step with a metamorphic moon. He raises his hands to their motions in the sky. It is surrender. It is peace. With no eyes to close, the night swelling over the dirt like an indigo tide is enough. It drags in, and out. In, and out. Like heartbeats, like breathing, these things which should be lost to him but are just as present as they ever were in life. Well, life before.
He is not lonely. Even in the absence of friends, they're never far behind. And he knows they're doing alright. He has every confidence. When they finally do stop coming, he has no doubt that their rest is earned.
And sometimes, he thinks back...
Autumn light again. In the forests of West Virginia, it peeks through the cracks of shade in gold, russet red, honeyed orange. His brother, laughing ahead. A handful of leaves tossed in the air, full of promise - do they have to fall back to earth so soon? Or do they blow away, away, away... The images flit through his head like old photographs in well-used, dusty albums, like faces once and always loved.
"Be careful!" his own voice calls, as he marches after the younger boy down the slope. The cool dirt steams under his feet. The scent of wet leaves tickles in his nose, and he sneezes. His brother giggles.
They make it to the bottom of the hill, panting, and both of them end up leaning with their backs each against a tree, staring out at the glassy surface of the pond.
Lip's feet crunch in old leaves. "Ma will want us back, soon. To help with -"
"The guests, yeah, yeah, I know." Silence. Somewhere a woodpecker drills into a tree. Tap tap tap, tap tap tap. Hints of life just hidden under a veil of forest. He asks, "Do you believe in heaven?"
"What?" Dad's face, driving goggles on his forehead, appears and dissolves in his mind's eye, laughing, his own eyes creased at the corners. He can't remember what color they were. Lipton blinks over at his brother. "Well, yeah, bud. But why?"
His thin shoulders lift in a shrug. They both know, anyway. His brother asks, "What's it like?"
"Um," he says, stalling for time. Quickly, his eyes fall over the landscape, blushed with dying light. "Kinda like this, I'd guess." He finds, oddly, that it feels true as the words come into the world.
"You are just full of questions today, aren't you?" he replies instead, and steps forward with a grin, arms outstretched. "Come on, time to get back. I'll race you to the top!"
His brother wheels around and splashes through the bed of leaves, laughter rippling out behind him, talk of death and heaven alike forgotten in the joy of this lifetime. Lip just shakes his head, one hand still on the tree, as he takes a second to look back over his shoulder.
Quiet, undisturbed surface of the water. It reflects his own face back, the gold shadow of hair on his forehead echoed in one of the tawny leaves as it falls, down into his open hands. He sucks in a breath, because it feels like a gift, here in this moment, and he doesn't know why. But just as well, he doesn't have to.
"God, please let heaven be just like this," he dares to whisper. "Just like this." He doesn't want to be a liar. And here, now, he also very much doesn't want to be wrong.
His hands draw comfort from the tree still holding him up. Tall, steady, nourishing. It's what he'd like, one day. "And please let me be strong. Strong as a tree. For ma, for my brother. For me."
There's a strange kinship, he feels, in the life that thrums through the solidity of a foundation in the earth and the sensation of something wide and open up above. The earth firm beneath his grasping feet, the distant sky above his outstetched palms. He inhales and feels the gravity of a promise take root, some infinity that can be held in the circle of his arms. He doesn't know it quite yet, but he will.
"Lip!" he hears above him, as his eyes slide closed, and open once again. "Lip!"
There, just in the distance - a voice calling him home.
There is a sunset that shades his trunk in blooms of orange. The shadows of birds flit through the ocher light on salt-stirred winds, preceding only the darker stain of the oncoming night. He is alone above the battlefield, gazing out upon the world, at peace. He has never, he might reflect, felt more alive.
The world whispers secrets that he catches, cups in his leaves, holds close to the soul. Sometimes, he whispers back.