Vimy Ridge, France
The wee hours of April 9th, 1917
The door between death and life is so thin. I could melt into the passageway as easily as floating on water. It is a place just one step away from drowning. I could be buoyant and breathing one minute, then not. Death's door becoming a fluid birth.
Will they find me and the intelligence stowed away in my shoe before I die? Will I die before I can make a break for freedom? Death resembles a sort of freedom, I suppose, one I find almost welcoming. My mind tells me it would be easy to surrender to the pull of the mud and the slimy, icy water, but my body won’t let me. It struggles to survive. My lungs suck in quick gasps of air through a copper tube as I stay covered in my watery grave, but I need more. Soon, I will need to breathe, really breathe, for I am starving for oxygen. Unless I die of hypothermia first. Perhaps the mud acts as an insulating layer.
Should I listen and give in to death’s call?
Maybe, for I don’t even know who I am anymore. The man I used to be haunts me and grieves me with accusations. I am a killer. I am a liar. I am a cheater. I’m worse than my father ever was.
Does war really give us a bill of rights to become such things?
Maybe death would erase the wrongs I have done and the atrocities I have seen, the images of men blown to bits before my very eyes, their visceral remains flecked upon my face like macabre confetti. Skewered, bayoneted bodies pile up in my memory like stuck pigs ready for the roasting. We are all preparing to be roasted, for the way of mankind has delved into the depths of hell. Here, I rest in this muddy trench, a narrow sea of mud, water, rats—the living and the dead.
Just let go. It’ll be easy . . .
The thought reverberates in my tired soul. But I can’t. An image of myself as a boy flashes before me—hanging off the cliff at home by the distant shores of Superior. My fingers grip the dirt and rocks again as if it were yesterday and not twenty years ago. In the vision, my feet slip, and I am a fall away from death’s embrace, but Someone intervenes. My soul now cries as that boy once cried.
“Help me! Save me!”
I open my eyes and see by the light of the silver moon—a face, smeared like a dark, watercolor painting through the water. I see a shadow pass before the moon, and before I know what is happening, I feel a tug. I am pulled from the black embrace which called me to release, and I break the plane of the frigid, murky water at the bottom of the trench, wondering who has me in their grasp.
“Luis? Luis!” a voice fiercely whispers, inches from my face.
He looks like . . . Oshki?
Am I dreaming? How can this be? My ragged lungs take a deep surge
of air as I spit out the thin, metal pipe which has kept me alive for the last . . . how long has it been? Hours? Minutes? I can’t be sure. I shake and shiver in the night air.
Oshki, my young friend. He represents home, hope, and everything good. But I am not of that world anymore. I have been sculpted by darkness.
“O-sh-ki?” I finally sputter out. The tremors of my body make my voice rattle in my chest.
He pulls me into a standing position. The water sloshes around us like a simpering witch’s cauldron. We stand thigh-deep in the lifeless dirge of the trench. I must look like a frightened fool to him. My eyes focus only on his.
We are in an outlying spot that is supposed to be occupied but has recently become flooded. I hoped they wouldn’t think to look for me in this deserted portion of Pan’s labyrinth, and I certainly didn’t think my own countrymen would find me.
“You’re safe, Luis. There are no Krauts here. But how did you . . .?” Oshki’s hands grip the lapels of my uniform.
I want to believe he’s real. I do. But the mind plays funny tricks in the darkness.
I focus on nothing but him. “How did you know I was here?”
“A fella named Rooster told us, a German turncoat. He escaped and mentioned an escaped prisoner with him. We were told to investigate, and what do I find?” Oshki slaps me on the back with a splat. “You are one crazy Canadian, my friend.”
Good. Rooster made it. I hope he hasn’t told Oshki too much. Besides the major, he’s the only other person who knows the truth.
I glimpse the outline of another man at Oshki’s side, but I concentrate on my friend. He offers an explanation for their appearance.
“We were going out this way anyway cause Staff Sergeant Jenkins sent Lenny and me to gauge the state of the trenches at this end and if they are passable or not.” He pauses and looks deeper into my eyes. I avert my gaze and busy myself with wringing some water from my drenched clothes.
“Why were you acting like a sewer rat?” he asks.
“I got a bit lost in the dark is all, and I thought I’d attract too much attention sloshing around. They were close on my tail.” I stand up straighter and back away from him a bit, hoping he doesn’t notice my German military jacket. Oshki doesn’t know who I really am or what my position really is. He just knew of my recent placement as a lieutenant with the Allied ground forces near here. The men were told I was captured.
“Well, lucky for you they moved on a while ago.” He points to the hands of the serviceman waiting to lift me up out of the place I thought would be my grave. “Come. We’ve got to get ya warm, but stay low.” He moves ahead, but suddenly he turns and looks at me incredulously.
“I still can’t believe you’re alive and . . . free.”
I am reminded of my prayer. “I had a little help, it seems.”
Oshki grins at me in the silver light and thumps me affectionately
on the back. He’s shorter than me but stronger. I try to grin back to hide who I’ve become. But war has changed us all irrevocably—even he looks older to me.
He says nothing, but I catch his eyes searching me to the core. He must sense more to my story. The spirit of an Ojibwe wise man rests in this young man. Even though his eyes shine hazel, they remind me of the knowing, black eyes of his aunt, Maang-ikwe. Eyes which can see every part of you. It makes me want to hide again. But, no, I must be brave.
Brave. I have been brave for years. I am tired of being brave.
But I choke down my fatigue and force myself to move. It is what I do, because I am a soldier and . . .
I am a spy.
Luis Wilson watched the group of women disembark from the ship, his hand poised in midair. He wasn’t sculpting today; he sketched. Despite the chill on the dock, he recreated the activity of the day with graphite and paper.
He studied the female faces as they passed by. None seemed familiar. He watched as one of the ladies, a more mature looking woman, threw down her suitcase and stood upon it. She scanned the group, raised her arm, her hand in a fist, and rallied her followers. Her voice carried.
“Ladies, you know your duty. Just as our brave men are fighting for our country, our freedom, so must we! Let us fulfill this campaign!”
Clapping and cheers ensued. A shrill whistle by one young lady turned the heads of the dock workers.
The woman speaker, dressed in a plain, white shirtwaist with a navy jacket and skirt and a fur hat upon her head, stepped down from her makeshift soapbox. She pulled out a cluster of something white from her carpet bag and dispersed the contents among the others. “Off to work, ladies!”
Luis could hardly imagine what this gathering of female minds and initiative was all about, but then she appeared before him—the mousy- haired one he’d seen from a distance. Her green eyes bewitched him as they looked into his. He stood stupid and speechless as she peered up at him.
She seemed sweet and unimpressive as her shapely fingers delved into the velvet pouch dangling from her wrist. She pulled out an article and held it delicately between her forefinger and thumb.
“A call to duty, sir,” she said in a firm voice as if she had a right to command his action.
Luis stared at the feather. Such a light, simple thing, yet it felt as heavy as lead against his chest when she reached out and tucked it in the buttonhole of his wool coat.
Her green, accusing eyes met his blue ones, but before he could find his tongue to tell her she was wrong, she had turned and marched on. His face burned with instant humiliation. She didn’t understand. Luis worked at an essential business, providing iron ore for steel, which would be made into munitions for the war effort.
I’m not a shirker! he called after her in his thoughts. He already did his duty. He felt the heat rise in his face.
No one will call me a coward.
He set his pencil down on his pad. Metallic, gray smudges shaded the tips of the first three fingers on his right hand and stained the white feather as he plucked it from his coat. Luis stared at it: a white feather representing a cockerel without the nerve to fight.
An image of cowardice couldn’t define him. It won’t!
No one had the right to tell him who he was but himself.
He glared at her back, the little flip of a thing with brown, mousy
hair, rosy apple cheeks, and green eyes. Witch’s eyes. Oh, she wasn’t a witch. But she might as well have been, for she knew how to make Luis do her bidding
He let the feather float to the rocks at his feet. He stowed his sketching supplies in his satchel and prepared to leave. As he did, he noticed some military men setting up a table and chairs on the edge of the pier leading towards town, where a short line of men was already forming.
Ha! thought Luis. I’ll show her, show them all just how wrong they are. He tucked his bag under his arm and marched forward to enlist.
Lily Parsons wanted to be done for the day. Her hand cramped from filling out pay receipts for the rail workers, filling in statements, and drafting a few letters for her father, Michael Parsons, to sign. She rubbed a sore spot on her middle finger where a lump had begun to form and stowed away her writing utensils in the office desk. She looked at the clock upon the wall, which read 11:00 in the morning, and wished she had the rest of day off as Luis did.
She liked her job as secretary at La Rue Rail and working with her father, who had been the manager for thirty years, but today Lily felt confined. The four walls of the office trapped her, and she was ready to be free of them. She could take off and get lunch in town. Maybe Luis still sketched by the docks where he’d said he’d be when he’d left an hour ago.
Lily couldn’t put a finger on it, but something in the pit of her stomach caused her concern.
Maybe it’s simply my lack of breakfast, she reasoned with herself. She took a deep breath and went to find her father to tell him of her plans. Over the years, La Rue Rail had become a profitable business with several train tracks, an interest in the mine, and numerous businesses relying on its conveyance. The nearby ore mine and La Rue Rail worked in tandem. In fact, their office perched several hundred yards away atop the ridge of the Webaashi Bay Mine. Lily found her father talking with a mine worker near the elevator. The background noise of
the steam shovel and the crunch of rock made Lily speak up.
“Pop, I’ve finished at the office,” she shouted. “I’m going home early
today unless there’s anything else you needed.”
Lily wanted to tell him why, but she didn’t know how to name her
intuition. She certainly didn’t want to worry him. He had enough worries of late. The government needed ore, and the mine worked overtime to produce, which meant the rail company workers put in extra time too.
“Oh, Lil,” Michael Parsons scratched his graying beard, “no, I think I can do without you. Enjoy the rest of your day.” He paused a second.
“Wait.” He pulled his watch out of his vest pocket and flipped open the gold, etched cover. He looked at the time and sighed. He raised his voice over the din. “Can you stop by and tell Vanessa I won’t be back for supper? Some problems here we need to solve with the engines.”
“I will, but don’t stay too late. There’ll always be another day.” Lily touched her father’s arm, nodded to the other man, and started on her walk to town.
When she reached the downtown area, Lily went to the harbor first. She spotted her stepbrother down by the town dock, which was a whirling hub of activity at the moment. Men milled about at the water’s edge, off the planking of the dock. Lily shaded her face with her hand to keep the sun from her eyes.
His average build blended in with the other men, but Luis’s glossy, dark hair, chiseled, dimpled chin, and bright blue eyes made him stick out from the crowd as usual. She waved, hoping to catch his attention, but resorted to shouting when that didn’t work.
Either he’s gone deaf, or he’s ignoring me.
Irritated, Lily walked on ahead, shouldering into the fray when she reached the men. He was talking to some man in a uniform.
Instantly, Lily halted. A military uniform meant one thing. The brass are fishing for new recruits.
Lily choked down her fear and moved forward until she stood elbow to elbow with Luis.
Her stepbrother turned and eyed her with a look that said, “Keep quiet.” He continued, with a set jaw, finishing up the details with the armed forces captain, whose chest bulged, laden with medals pinned on his fatigue-green, wool uniform.
The man handed Luis a packet of information. “Meet in this spot in one week, and you’ll board a ship with other enlistees that’ll take you to Valcartier, Quebec, where military training will commence.” The enlistment officer saluted and held his hand out to Luis. “Canada and the British Empire thank you for your service.”
Luis awkwardly saluted back and shook his hand, then turned and grabbed Lily’s arm.
“Hold your lips tight before you spew forth your opinions. Your temper’s rising, I can tell,” he whispered fiercely.
Lily let Luis lead her away.
She faced him squarely when they were far enough out of ear shot, a hot fire in her blue eyes. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Exactly what it looks like.” His jaw tipped up, and he visibly stiffened. “It’s done now, anyway, and there’s no undoing it.”
“But you’re needed here. We’ve iron ore to get to the port.” Lily sucked in a breath and tried to calm herself. “What prompted this . . .” Lily motioned to the packet tucked under Luis’s arm, “enlistment? You’ve never mentioned doing this.”
Lily listened to her tone get whinier with each word. She just could not fathom how sensitive, artistic Luis would take such a step. The idea shocked her, but she couldn’t imagine what this would do to his mother. Poor Vanessa.
“Things change, Lil. You and Michael can handle things at the rail office. You never needed me anyway.”
His honest eyes turned to Lily. His tender, brotherly look tempered her angst some.
“But Luis . . .” Lily didn’t know what else to say. She could see the determined set of his eyes. No argument would sway him. Her head dropped, and so did her gaze.
What is that? A white feather?
Lily reached down and picked it off the ground. She held it up between them.
“Don’t tell me this instigated your decision.” Lily’s eyes narrowed. She stuck her chin out and pinched her lips together in frustration, her anger reborn.
Luis visibly wilted under her interrogative stance. He flicked his eyes to hers and looked down.
His downward glance was all she needed for affirmation. She silently cursed and said, “You’ve let some girl tell you who you are. Well, let me tell you, Luis Peter Wilson, you are not a coward, and you don’t need to prove anything to anybody.”
Lily bent the feather in half, threw it to the ground, and trod upon it several times with the heel of her boot.
Out the corner of her eye, she spotted a gaggle of women leaving The Eatery. She wasted no time in marching towards them, fully intending to give them a piece of her mind. She recognized none of them.
They must be the ones responsible for this travesty.
Luis caught up to her and pulled her back by her shoulder. “Whoa there, Betsy.”
“Leave me be!” Lily brushed him off and continued on her mission. Luis rolled his eyes, held up his hands, and stayed put.
He hollered after her, “Fair enough. I don’t want to get in the
middle of a tangle of antagonistic women.”
Luis could call her antagonistic if he chose, but Lily was determined
to mete out a measure of justice to those instigators for shaming men into war.
She reached the woman in the navy jacket, who straightened her fur hat and peered at her with beady eyes. “Who do you think you are? What right do you have to peg men you do not know cowards?”
The woman stood straight as a poker against Lily’s assault. “We, ma’am, do our duty, encouraging men to fight for their country.”
“Ha! Is pinning a cowardly feather on a poor man’s jacket what ya call encouragement?” Lily wound up to pop the woman in the jaw. Her face flamed red, and her fist held ready.
Natalie Herman raised her voice at the group of women gathered on the steps of Webaashi Bay’s local café. “Now, now, ladies. I think it’s time you best move on.”
Lily tried to cool down and gain her friend’s calm exterior.
Natalie had managed The Eatery for some years. Lily had watched how hard she’d saved to buy it outright from the aging Bergeron sisterswho previously owned the café.
She breathed in and thought back to the days when Natalie had
worked for her family as a cook. They’d been the best fed folks in Webaashi Bay.
Strange how we became friends,
There’d always been a connection between her and Natalie. And as they had aged, the years had put a distance between their differences. Their friendship had blossomed when Natalie had started working at The Eatery, Lily had finished up with school, and they had both had more time on their hands.
Natalie smiled congenially at the flock of women, who held hostility and shock on their faces. “Good day, ladies. Please excuse us. I think Miss Parsons was just coming in to get some lunch.”
Miss Herman steered Lily forcefully by the elbow up the steps and into the café, closing the door quickly behind them.
Lily pushed a few stray hairs back into her blonde bun, her blue eyes alight with a hot flame. “What did you do that for?”
“To save your skin, that’s why. Those women are determined and bent on the destruction of the poor men of the town. You don’t need to be another casualty added to their list.” Natalie smoothed a motherly hand down Lily’s arm. “Come, sit down, and I’ll fetch some tea and sponge cake for us. The noon lunch crowd has dissipated.”
Natalie knew Lily’s weakness. Lily had loved tea parties since childhood, and she couldn’t say no to a tea party with cake.
She sighed. “No, better not.”
She looked out the curtained front window of the café to see if the ladies had indeed moved on. They had. The group walked back towards the dock. A few turned, giving the café a backward glance. Lily’s eyes scanned for Luis, but he’d gone too.
“I need to get home. I’ve something to tell Vanessa.” Lily acknowledged Natalie’s intervention. “Thanks for simmering me down.” Natalie smiled, but with worry in her expression. “Very well . . . give
my regards to Vanessa.”
Lily nodded, gave a slight upturn of her lips, opened the café door with a jingle of the bell, and headed for home. She had some news to spill.
Rose Greenwood turned and looked at the café the outspoken, blonde woman had entered. She steadied herself and took courage from the other ladies in arms. At heart, Rose was no outspoken leader like Mrs. Taylor, but she had determination. She did her duty, calling men to fight. Rose thought of the man she loved. She wanted to make sure he had plenty of help so he would come home to her.
She had heard about the white feather campaign one day from a friend and found an article in the paper about it. She had gained more information and got up the courage to ask matron for several weeks off from the hospital to take part in the campaign and travel around the ports to encourage Canadian men to rally to the cause. Matron had been grim and stern, but she’d conceded . . .
Victoria General Hospital, Halifax
“Heavens! Speak up, Greenwood. No one likes a mumbler.”
Margaret Hastings, the duty matron at Victoria General, looked tired. She stood next to Rose while she acquired bedding in the laundry room. “Come, it is late, and I wish for nothing better than a warm sweater, a hot cup of tea, a good book, and a cozy fire by which to read it.”
Rose heard the matron’s words come out longingly but with distinct impatience. She gulped and laid the stack of fresh sheets back down on her pile. She tried not to be waylaid by the matron’s tone.
“I . . . would like to request some . . . time off, Matron.”
“Time off? You just started, my girl.” Matron narrowed her eyes and pinched her lips into a stern expression.
“I know, but it’s for the war effort.” Rose held her hands cupped around her middle. Her fingers toyed with a stray thread on her white apron.
Matron sighed. “And what exactly does this war effort entail?” She paused and eyed Rose with what looked like a tinge of compassion. “I suppose there are plenty of staff with the new graduates, and I could . . . rework the schedule a bit to account for your absence.”
Rose turned full, hopeful eyes towards her overseer. “Have you heard of the white feather campaign, mum?”
“Can’t say as I have.” Matron checked the watch hanging at the junction of her white apron and uniform.
“Well, I’ve read about it in the papers and all. Admiral Charles Fitzgerald from England and a lady author, Mrs. Humphrey, have charged young ladies with the handing out of white feathers to encourage men to sign up to do their duty.” Rose worked to inform the matron without displaying a warble in her tone.
“That is there, not here in Canada,” Margaret pointed out.
Rose was not deterred. “A local chapter has started here. I read about it, and I went to a meeting. A local suffragette leads the effort—Amelia Stowe.” She gained more strength in her voice the more she spoke. “I think it important for women to do their part in the war effort.”
“Yes, well, working here at Victoria General will be ‘your part,’ but . . . I suppose I can hold your spot for you. Just a few weeks is all, you hear?” Matron shook her finger in Rose’s face.
“Thank you, Matron, this means so much to me.” Rose lit up with a smile. Her green eyes sparkled.
“Yes, well. Just mind what I said. When does this campaign begin?” “Next week.”
“Very well. Go about your duties and finish up your shift; it is almost
Rose lessened the intensity of her smile, nodded demurely to the matron,
and headed out with the fresh sheets to finish up changing a few of the patient’s linens. She was excited to be doing something so worthwhile.
Rose had met the other ladies at the docks the next week in Halifax and sailed on down the water systems, stopping and transferring vessels as need be. Webaashi Bay had been the most outlying port and their most westward stop. After this, it would be homeward bound. It gladdened her heart. She longed to be home and, to be truthful, to be done with this job. Her expectations had differed from the end results. She’d taken the light out of one too many sets of eyes.
She now dreaded the look on the men’s faces when she pinned a feather to their coat. A vision of the man by the dock this morning, who had been drawing with artist’s coal, came to her. His blue eyes had flashed kind, sad, and so . . . hurt. Her conscience bit at the fact that she used shame as a motivation, but she set it aside. The thought of Henry motivated her, and she would not let him die alone on the battlefield.
Dominique Cota, whom everyone knew as Oshki, got up from his desk at Follett Shipping. He needed to stretch his legs. His tall appendages had a hard time being cramped under a desk all the morning long. He stood up and moved his body in various ways to ease out the kinks. After he poured a glass of water at a side table, he took a stroll to the window.
The afternoon blazed beautiful. Oshki gazed out at Lake Superior. The blue waters rolled in the distance, but the protected bay sheltered its ships and boats securely. He loved the lake, this town, his home, and his family. He couldn’t ever imagine leaving. He gulped the rest of the water down and turned to go back to his desk, but something caught his eye.
Sure enough. There sat Luis down by the docks. Though Luis Wilson was ten years his senior, the two men had formed a friendship. Their mothers were the best of friends, so they had seen each other more than even a small town would account for. Oshki had been the tag along on Luis and Lily’s excursions at first, but when Luis had come back from university and his job in the big city, they had grown closer. They had forged a friendship on their own, separate from their families’ influence.
Oshki appreciated Luis’s kind, inquisitive, and sensitive ways. He saw himself structured much the same, minus the artistic side. Oshki’s skills rested more in the mathematical arena. Their mutual love of nature solidified their friendship. How many times had they trekked off into the interior together?
More times than I can count, Oshki reckoned.
He studied his friend through the glass. Luis had some art supplies with him. Not unusual, but it hit Oshki as strange that they simply sat by Luis’s side as he stared out over the lake.
Something’s wrong. Oshki could tell.
After setting the glass down back where it belonged, Oshki left the office and decided his legs needed a bit more of a stretch. He made his way outside to where Luis sat meditatively looking out over Lake Superior. Oshki’s shoes crunched on the crushed rock on the pier. Luis sat on a wooden bench with cracking, green paint, his supplies next to him.
“Fine day for sketching.” Oshki rolled his eyes over the big ships before them and the business of men at work and waited for a reply from his friend. However, Luis’s only response was an imperceptible nod. He sat down uninvited. “Seems to be bustling today down here with passengers and such. Seen anyone interesting?”
Luis finally looked up at him. “You could say so.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you see the flock of women disembark from the schooner?” “Can’t say as I did. I’ve had my head focused on numbers.” Oshki
turned to Luis with a glint in his eye. “Find anyone suitable yet?”
The question was a joke between them. Oshki had wondered through the years why Luis never held much interest in pursuing any young women. Luis’s response had always been that he hadn’t found
“Someone found me, it seems.”
“Good lookin’, was she? You seem enamored with something.” “Pretty enough, and she set out to catch me.”
Oshki’s eyes opened a little more in surprise. He waited for Luis to fill in the gaps. Finally, he resorted to saying, “Well, tell me, man.”
“She bewitched me with her green eyes,” Luis confessed and looked at Oshki. “How have you been so oblivious to all the activity of the day? Didn’t you see the group of men gathered at the start of the docks? Some of your employees were there too.” He pointed towards town and the main road.
Oshki spied a few army men clustered together.
“They’re cleaning up now. Probably getting ready to board ship and head for some other port to ply for more young men to join the cause.” An uncharacteristic, bitter tone clung to Luis’s words.
Oshki shrugged. “Like I said, had my head in the ledgers.” His brow creased in a worried crinkle. “Some of our workers, you say?”
“Women with . . . white feathers preceded the army recruiters. A young woman pinned one on my coat.” Luis’s eyes fell down to his jacket.
Oshki narrowed his eyes and noticed the tiny plume of a white feather clinging to his empty buttonhole. “Recruiters? White feathers?” He tried to understand. “But what has this to do with you?”
Then he got it. Luis must have enlisted.
“No one would think you a coward, Luis,” he tried to remind his friend. “You’re the bravest man I know.”
“I don’t feel very brave at the moment. Foolish is the word coming to mind.”
“Well, we’ve all been a fool where a woman is concerned.” Oshki tried to lighten the mood and jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. He hated the idea of his friend going off to war. Since Luis had come back, they’d become like brothers.
What if I sign up too?
Oshki surprised himself with the sudden inspiration. Did he want to, just so he wouldn’t be left behind? He looked at Luis again, who met his gaze with a resigned expression. Oshki slapped him on the shoulder and walked towards the army officers.
Luis won’t go alone. We will fight together as brothers ought to, but . . . Mauve is going to kill me.
The thought flashed through him and almost made him stop. But with every step towards the recruiters, he became more convinced—he was making the right decision.
Luis needs me. My country needs me. Mauve will be fine. My father will manage.
These and more thoughts of assurance reverberated in his brain to encourage him in his choice. He didn’t even look back at Luis but marched straight ahead to do his duty.