Frances Ruhlen McConnel





If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of his returning to it were slight.

William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire


A valley, he tells the blacksmith, with a fair creek and blackberries.  The white skeleton of a lightning-struck pine on a knoll.  —With an owl’s roost? asks the blacksmith, glancing up from the hoof,  his singed eyebrows a single snarl across his blackened forehead. —Yes, nods the young man, eager. A horned owl.  You know it? —Many a one, says the blacksmith.  And the stream is called…?

The young man frowns, shifts his weight off his bad leg.  There’s only one of them, he says.  The blacksmith, who chews his lip as he maneuvers the steaming iron to the hoof, taps it smartly with his hammer—Just Creek then. And the river it runs into?

From the knoll, far off a river’s sheen scythes silver through a meadow. —Let me guess, says the blacksmith.  Deer River?  Trout River? If it’s “Deer River” in the hills, it could be “Trout River” by the time it gets to the flats.  Or Green River, perhaps?  The young man mutters Perhaps.  The blacksmith shakes his head, but then he yells quite merrily, —Ma.  An old woman, bent over her twig broom, brushing the dirt yard behind them, lifts her head and hobbles over.  Ma’s pa was a tinker, says the blacksmith.  Ma, how many Green Rivers in your roaming? 

Her grin is missing teeth. —As many as the fingers of your hands, she says to the young man, then reaches to open his left hand and cackles. More.  He is missing two and a half fingers.  War, I reckon?  He doesn’t contradict her.  How many winters were you gone?  He scratches his dirty beard.  Since I was almost a boy, he says.  Now I’m looking for home.   ---Oh, la.  She does a tiny shuffling dance.  And the name of your village?  ---It’s but a hamlet, explains the blacksmith.  No name.  —Course not, she says in delight.  A church?  A priest?  Not likely.  What direction did you travel to the front?

—That way, he points back south, and every which wayI think we came through around here.  His hand makes a circle and then motions vaguely westward.  Three hamlets between here and that cloud’s shadow, says the old woman.  The young man eyes the cloud, figuring how many hours’ walk.  —My mother’s Blondie, he says. You know a Blondie?  —Do I know a Blondie? she asks her son, who has set down the chestnut’s leg and is shifting him around.  Ask him if she’s flaxen or dirty-headed, short or tall, plump or scrawny, pocked or smooth.  There’s a Blondie in every other household hereabouts.  And you’re called?  The young man fidgets. —Will’s son.  He already knows the blacksmith is also Will. —Who’s winning the war? asks the blacksmith. —Who’s fighting? asks his mother and cackles again. The young man shrugs.  —I have a sister Rose, he offers. The old woman winks and prods the blacksmith’s elbow. He curses mildly.  —Not Rosa? she says.  Not Roz?  There’s a Roslyn in the next farmhouse, young and a widow.  The blacksmith clucks his tongue. —Widows and their itches.

The cloud’s shadow has almost reached them.  A sheep blats from a field.  The dog that announced the young man’s arrival is still yapping.  The horse violently nods his head, flips a fly away with his tail, whinnies.  A tail hair flies through the air, lands on the hot coals of the blacksmith’s fire and the air fills with its stink. 

—Might as well stick around, says the blacksmith, lifting a new horseshoe with his tongs. —Might’s well, says the chestnut, turning his head to eye the young man. Bluebells in the meadow, fillies in the field. Two people in the village who can read and write, besides the priest.  You could send a letter home, not that anyone could deliver it.  He snorts derisively.  Or read it, if it got there.  Besides, who can remember where one was born? 

The young man sighs.  In the distance he hears a half-familiar bird hollering.  His ma would know what it was.   He doesn’t ask these three.  Anyway, it’s as good a direction as any other.

Or not:  Face red in firelight, soft rose of a breast, crickets speaking the language of home.


Copyright © 2004 Frances Ruhlen McConnel.  All Rights Reserved.


Back Home Next