Found in Action
by Richard Ong
The young soldier looked over the horizon beyond the green fields and waited for the first wave of attack to begin. Beads of sweat dotted his brow as he pulled his helm over his eyes and waited for several agonizing minutes till he felt the noonday heat beating down his back and suffocating the life out of him.
He idly played with the button of his collar, daring mutinous thoughts of breaking protocol, and sought in his mind to relieve himself of the ridiculous red tunic that he and his comrades had to suffer under this damnable heat.
A fly landed on his nose and just as he squashed it flat with his wrist, he heard the thunderous hoofbeats of a horse suddenly approach him from behind, accompanied by the rider’s whistle signaling the beginning of the attack.
“Dear God have mercy on us...” began someone on his left. Davies, perhaps.
“Walk with us through the Valley of Shadows,” said Peterson, he thought, from his right.
And from the horizon, he saw the thick line of bluecoats appear like thousands of ants from east to west. Dear Lord, he thought. He didn’t realize there would be so many.
Forgive me, Papa. I should have listened to you. I should not have left home without your consent. Now... now it is far too late.
He closed his eyes as he shoved the bayonet onto the muzzle of his musket and twisted it tight. He waited for the command to charge. I’m sorry, Papa, for I may never see you again.
* * *
Anne Lundy woke up each morning in the dark as she had always done over the past year and a half. The macular degeneration that claimed her sight in both eyes had been swift and thorough. Six months after Paul brought her into the hospital to consult a specialist, the darkness began to creep in. Several weeks later she was blind.
It was a bitter blow for an artist to see the world disappear before her eyes. Ever since she was a child and discovered the magic of crayons, Anne had felt the joy of describing the world in brilliant colours the way she thought it ought to be seen. She loved to draw the sun best of all and would then work her way down the page describing elaborate stick figures of both her parents and their little house at St. David’s.
As an adult, those stick figures had been fleshed out in oil to resemble her husband and children with a bigger country home just north of Queenston, not too far from the vineyards where she used to bike every morning.
None of that mattered any more. When the world went out for the very last time that night, so did her passion for living.
Oh, it wasn’t all that bad, she tried to convince herself. At first, before her vision began to fail, she painted a simple picture of her retirement surrounded by fresh new work enough to occupy her thoughts long after the kids had been married and moved out.
Her husband owned a small bookshop in town that he tried to promote in his other job as the local historian and lobbyist for the expansion of the Niagara Historical Museum. They both knew that Paul had never written anything else after the lacklustre sale of “Old Niagara” five years ago. The proverbial well had, as one might say, long dried up.
Anne, on the other hand, had barely begun to tap into her potential, long delayed after a sabbatical in her role as both mother and wife to her beautiful family.
Two years ago, critics had described her work as a revival of Neo-Classicism, whatever that meant, she thought. She simply loved to paint. After she lost her sight, she underwent the usual bout of self-pity and depression and nearly drowned herself at one time in her own tub.
Paul had always been there for her, unselfish and caring, playing the roles of mother, husband and household shrink. But most of all, he was simply there as a friend and helped her through the trying times until the first few sparks came back into those unseeing eyes.
She doubted that she would ever see the world the way she used to and stubbornly refused Paul’s suggestion to take up other forms of art that people with her condition do with just the use of their hands. She was born a painter, and as far as she was concerned, her love of art ended when her world disappeared.
Nonetheless, she was partial to the idea of getting back some of the other aspects of her former life. She had always loved gardening, and this summer she thought of planting some pansies under the shade of their pear tree in the backyard.
Just a few more flowers, she thought, as she wiped the sweat off her brow with the sleeve of her shirt. It was almost time to take the chicken out of the oven. Her impeccable sense of time was one the few things she remained proud of.
Paul would be coming home for lunch and she wanted everything to be ready for him. However, she couldn’t just leave the pansies to dry up under the heat. She took a deep breath and made one last stab into the earth. Her spade sunk half-way through when she felt the bone-jarring clang of metal hitting metal.
“What’s this?” She pulled out the shovel and re-inserted it in a slant into the soil. With the other hand, she groped for the trowel until she felt the handle near the tray of plants recently brought in from a local nursery. Knowing that there could never be any gas lines by the tree, she vigorously dug away with both hands until she unearthed a long shaft of metal that curiously felt very familiar through the protective fabric of her gloves.
She removed her gloves and carefully ran the tip of her right forefinger up the length of the metal. It was severely rusted, she guessed, by its brittleness and rough texture. It was about a foot and a half long, three-sided and tapered to a point on one end. On the opposite end, a ring-like orifice might have served as a means of securing it to a shaft or a rod of some kind.
“Bless you, madam. You have found my bayonet!”
“Ah-h!” Startled, Anne dropped the object and instinctively started edging away from the voice, crushing her newly planted pansies in her wake.
“W-who are you and where did you come from?” She fought to keep the hysteria from rising up her throat.
“What are you doing in my garden? Help! Somebody, help!” She knew the Taylors next door were out of town, but she gambled that this young man would not be aware of that fact.
Hoping to surprise the stranger, she suddenly lunged forward and landed on her face while she frantically groped for the piece of iron. Feeling her right fingers close on the rusted metal, she reached up in a gesture she hoped would frighten away the stranger.
“Keep away from me, I’m warning you. I can be deadly with a sharp object, you know.” She swished away from left to right in the air around her.
“Madam, please! I mean you no harm. Please, put the bayonet down before you hurt yourself. Madam... Madam!”
She felt her wrist grabbed in a strong, ice-cold grip while the shaft was slowly loosened from her grasp.
“It is all right. I mean you no harm. Just let me have this bayonet before you cut yourself. That’s it... Good.” She heard his ragged sigh of relief at the same moment she lost the weapon from her hand.
“I am most grateful that you found this for me. I’ve gone out of my head searching for this for heaven knows how long. I was so sure that my commanding officer would have me flogged for losing my bayonet before it even reached the field of battle. How could I ever repay you, madam? Madam?”
It took Anne a few long moments to realize that she had been holding her breath before her oxygen-starved lungs convulsed to let the air in. When her senses had returned, she found that for some odd reason, she was no longer afraid of this young man, in spite of the cold sensation on her wrist.
Perhaps it was the voice, so youthful and calm, that did it. Or perhaps, it was his mannerism, so very proper and so very British... yes, even the accent was like that of an old-fashioned English gentleman.
She ventured to compose herself and attempted a modicum of conversation. At least if he was planning to do her harm, she might still be able to distract him long enough until Paul arrived.
“Okay... I’m glad that you’ve found your... um... bayonet, you say? Yes, I’m glad you did. Now I suppose you’ll be off on your way to wherever you’re supposed to be headed... uh... I don’t think I’ve managed to catch your name in all this excitement, Mister...?”
“Mason,” he said almost light-heartedly. “My name is Robert Amberley Mason.” Then, after some hesitation, he added, “the Third.”
“Ah. Of course you are my dear,” she tried soothingly. “Mason... the Third. May I call you Rob?”
He sighed in his raspy breath. He sure didn’t sound too healthy, she thought. “Yes... yes, I’d be most delighted, madam, if you were to call me Rob.”
“Good... good! Now, Rob, where did you say you were headed to? Some sort of battle you say?”
access tunnel, Fort Mississauga
Niagara on the Lake, Ontario
“Yes, madam! Last I saw or remembered... though my memory is somewhat clouded. I must have wandered off the field for a good many leagues for I don’t recall ever seeing any of these houses during our march. Where exactly are we?” She heard a faint rise of fear in his voice. “Am I... am I still in the village?”
“Village? What village?”
“Niagara, madam! Am I still in Niagara?”
“Yes, you are... uh... most definitely still in Niagara,” she said as she struggled to get up. She would have almost tipped over had Rob not caught her in his arms.
“Whoosh... I’m so clumsy these days. Thank you.”
“You cannot see.”
“Yes, I know I can’t see! Isn’t it obvious?” She didn’t mean to throw everything at him. All the hurt and bitterness she had struggled to bury deep inside had suddenly erupted like a vigorously shaken bottle of bitter tonic water.
“I’m so sorry, madam. I was woefully ignorant of your predicament.”
“Just forget it. I’ve been living in the dark for a year and a half. I should be used to it by now. Anyway, what kind of battle are you supposed to be fighting? Is it some sort of game that you and your friends have organized?”
“I wish it were just a ‘game’, as you put it. The truth is, if we are to secure the safety of this village, we must turn back the bluecoats, back towards the water and the land beyond, whence they came.”
“Traitors to the Crown is more like it. They claimed independence some years ago, and as if that were not enough, they dare to add insult to injury by seeking to invade Niagara and all the lands around. We are told that Upper Canada itself is in danger after their damnable president declared war on the British Empire.”
“I see.” She tried to conceal her disbelief in the sound of her voice. Paul should be pulling into the driveway any moment now. She could almost hear the big Oldsmobile putt-putting along in the distance.
“Forgive me, madam, but I must take leave of you and get back to my regiment. Where is the main road to the north? Is it this one, right across from where we stand in front of the tree?”
“This street? Well, uh, I guess if you were to head left from the front of the house, it would take you all the way up north... eventually.”
“Towards the lake?”
“Yes. Roughly speaking, with a few twists and turns here and there, I suppose it would take you all the way to the lake.”
“I am indebted to you, madam and am glad — so very glad — that you will never have to witness the atrocities that our fellow Britons are about to inflict upon one another.”
His voice was beginning to fade. Was he finally moving away? Was that Paul she heard pulling into the driveway?
“I pray, madam,” as his voice became even softer than before, “that whatever the outcome of this conflict,” almost a whisper, “that your world will be a much better place, for all of our children’s sakes and that you will have lasting peace for all t—”
* * *
The library was cool and comfortable that night. The humidity was finally broken as a cold front blew in from the north. Paul had opened all of the windows in the house before supper to let the refreshing breeze in. As he poured himself some wine, he couldn’t help but notice the change that had come over his wife ever since she showed him the artifact she inadvertently unearthed in their backyard that afternoon.
He still remembered coming home for lunch and overhearing her calling out to someone named Rob. Fearing for her safety, he had rushed into the backyard from inside the house to see her waving, to no one in particular, what appeared to be a rusted piece of pointed metal.
He had quickly turned around to confirm that the high-fenced door remained locked. Anne must’ve fallen asleep and had been dreaming, he thought. Thank God she didn’t hurt herself with that thing. Had I been delayed in coming home a minute longer...
But she seemed so different now, more alive than he had ever known her since... since she lost her sight. She was actually almost back to her old self.
“Paul, dear, did you manage to find out who Robert Amberley Mason the Third is?”
“Well, since I couldn’t find anything in any of our books here in the library, I took the liberty of searching his name on the Internet.”
“And as it turns out, your Mr. Mason the Third here, has very little history written about his lineage. If, as you so fervently insisted, he actually did exist and fought in the War of 1812 on the British side, then this Mr. Mason would’ve been the same Robert A. Mason, the only son of Lord Wilfred Mason, a reputable foreign affairs advisor from London who had received a knighthood the year before.
“His line ended when his estranged son was killed near Queenston just before the destruction of Fort George by the Americans. His body, apparently, was never brought home. It is more than likely still buried somewhere in this town.”
“The poor boy,” she said. “How he must’ve wished to have seen his father one last time. I can’t imagine the kind of regrets that went through his mind the moment his regiment engaged the enemy across the field.”
“We may never know, Anne, for he left no journals. At least none has been recovered yet.”
“Perhaps there are other ways to remember him.” She cradled the bayonet in her hands as a mother would her child. “You can write something about him, Paul. You’ve always been good at research and I know you’ve always enjoyed a bit of mystery every now and then. Well, here’s the story of a young aristocrat who ran away from home and travelled halfway across the world and fought in a war to protect our little town. If there’s anyone qualified to take up the challenge, it’s you.”
“Well... I suppose... and mind you, considering the scarcity of available facts...”
“I know you can do it.”
“It will take a fair amount of digging. I... we may even have to travel abroad to find the roots of his lineage.”
“What better way to promote your new book! Adventure, honour lost and regained — right here in our own little town!” Her enthusiasm was contagious.
“All right. I’ll do it! Besides, it’ll be good for the bookshop.” He beamed in spite of his skepticism.
“Bravo! Now I want you to do me a small favour, my dear.”
“Find me a good picture of Rob. And I want you to buy me a bucket of modelling clay.”
“Because,” she said with a smile, “I’m going to sculpt an image of this young man and I’m going to need your help by describing to me exactly what he looks like.”
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ong