She looked down as her hands traced the triangle shape of the flag, mesmerized by the precise shape, the neatness of it all. Tucked corners shaping stripes to stars, stars to stripes, her fingers methodically traced edge-to-edge, and back again in a ceaseless mesmerizing motion. She was lulled into yesterday dream-memories with wide-awake eyes.
Weathered hands they were — all brown with pink irregular patches worn from the palm, pink licking up each finger, leaving island shapes of warm brown color surrounding rivers of pale skin. It looked to her that life had just worn away the dirt brown skin and left patches of pink like the bottoms of the dozens of babies she had cared for over the years. Maybe it was more than dozens, maybe was a gross of bottoms she had dusted, wiped and patted down year after year. Who could count. First they were her sisters and brothers. Then it was the missus’ babies, eight of them right there. Eventually it had been her own flesh and blood she’d cared for day in and day out.
The sweetest babies were her own, they were the ones she had loved without reservation, fearlessly drenched herself in the potion of mother-love, every one of the four had been a different intense love, fashioned special to fit the unique shape of their being. They had all grown tall and gone, strong and good. They were her final pride.
Each one had come back, as soon as they heard. Stood next to her right now, arms around her shoulders taking in the shock of the sound. Twenty one times she jumped as the echoes of each bullet ripped the air.
It was a hero’s goodbye. They meant from the war, but she thought a real hero was a man who could be tender, a gift she was given in her forty decades of marriage. She reached inside her pocket and touched the familiar string. Fingered it up and down, feeling the knots, she thought about the word hero.
What did it take to fight in some war years ago? Nothin’ but the foolishness of a young man all puffed up with brave intentions, no understanding of the suffering that is the real shape of war. A real hero fought for a chance to ease the daily burden of just living with a kindness now and again. The world and she just didn’t see it the same, this hero business.
She had watered the urge to be tender in her kids. She started from the first moment she touched them, pouring love onto them, encouraging the tears of compassion and telling them constantly about the string of love they had inside. When they were just old enough to understand, around five or six, she had given them each a string, straight and strong enough to take them through the years. She told them to tuck it away all private, but close enough to touch in a moments notice.
“It’s your special place of comfort, fashioned just for you.”
She remembered the bedtime litany she had pressed into her young ones ears. “You got a string inside you as strong and real as anything around you,” she had whispered in the night.
“It’s a string of love, just follow it up your belly, see it going through your heart and up your head. Might be silver or gold or green, all of our strings are different, but still the same. It might get tangled, now and again, and you can spend time settin’ it straight. When you feel big love you just make a special knot and when you need something to hang on to there it will be. Some people’s strings are all tangled up and knotted and they don’t know to set it straight. You can’t fix that really, but sometimes just seeing your string of love is enough to make them work on their string, and that’s a good thing. But mainly, your job is to keep your string straight with strong knots of your own makin’. When you see a tangle you got to get to workin’ it out, pry and pull and tug until that tangle is gone. Sometimes you’ll have a knot and it’ll get bigger and bigger. It’ll be your favorite knot, why I’ve had some for years.” She’d reach in her apron pocket and pull out her string and show them.
“I make a new knot each time I love big. See, there’s a knot for each of you children. Sometimes it comes time to undo a special knot. There comes a time of letting go. You’ll know then what is as true as the sky above us, sometimes love is for hangin’ on to and sometimes it’s for lettin’ go.” She’d always pause then, letting silence honor the words.
“It’ll grow with you, just like your feet are growing right now. It’ll be with you from the time you run until the time you are buried under. Some people don’t hang on to their string, or even know it’s there. You can’t fix their knots for them, but sometimes just seeing your string of love is enough to make them remember theirs.”
Now came the sound of the dirt hitting the box. She watched in silence as each shovel was filled and dropped. She put her hand inside her coat pocket, feeling her string, and traced it top-to-bottom. Stopping on each knot her eyes filled up with the love she felt, the face that she remembered as she traced the knots one by one. Love remembered.
Love pure and strong.
And then she found the big knot on the end.
She pulled out the string and started to work on it, releasing it measure by measure.