Men arrived by foot. The first wave made brief attempts at formation, assembling themselves upon view of settlements, but it was a feeble attempt,

made more feeble by the cracked and frayed wool of their uniform, stiff with dust and fear and sorrow and blood. They tilted their faces to the ground and held their weapons weak, as though they were a great weight that they alone must bear. Ana gathered along the side of the road, along with old farmers, old mothers, and, like Ana herself, lonely young brides. She searched the faces of the sluggishly marching men. None were hers.

The second wave did not march. They leaned upon sticks and one another, their faces ruined by scars and pale as crumbling stone. These did not belong to her either.

Ana shooed the pigs into the yard and the horse into the field. The barn was warm and dry, though the wind blew sharp outdoors and it had rained that morning and would rain again soon. Just as she had done the day he left, she leaned the ladder he made against the beam and shimmied up, praying for balance from a power that was not her own. At the crux she had nailed an iron spike, which she had retrieved from the house of her grandmother, who had retrieved it from the house of her grandmother, and so it went, skipping a generation, as it ought. The spike erupted from the wood at a tight angle, and was wound with the decaying bits of a strip of briar, a withered rose, a once ripe berry. She hooked one arm around the beam and worried at the spike until it loosed.

The third wave arrived by donkey cart. Ana approached the road slowly, her apron pocket heavy with the weight of the spike, which thudded against her thigh with every step. The men were past pain, past scream, past moan. They arched their necks to the pitiless sky and closed their eyes. Ana approached the cart, laid her pale hands upon their stretched faces, until she came to a man she knew.

"You are nearly home," she said.

"That much is obvious," he rasped. His mouth foamed pink with each word. "He is gone." She nodded. She already knew. In a corner of her mind, she saw his face as he ran across a bloody field. She saw him shudder, then leap, a great cloud bursting from his back, a shower of red petals fluttering to the ground. He fell upon the clover; violets and sweetgrass grew over him, obliterating his body. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the shriveled berry. She pressed it to his forehead, crushing it under his thumb.

"You will see her before you go. You will kiss her mouth and the mouth of your child. You will watch him take his first step. You will slip away without pain. That much I can do for you. It isn't enough."

"It's everything," he said.

Kelly Barnhill is a teacher, writer, and mom from Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Rake, The Sun, Postscripts, Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Common Ties.

2008 Underground Voices