When she first cried out, we swung our gazes to the sky and took a collective breath. “There they are!” she shouted, her voice rising, like an offshore swell, disruptive, harrowing. We shuffled about, our eyes scanning all of the space in the sky above and all of the space in the sky beyond the gently graded runway that stretched out before us. I felt a hand on my shoulder, a stranger vied for a better view. I stepped aside, and we all pushed our way forward into the waist-high barricade that corralled us into the shadow of an indiscriminate Airforce hangar at the foot of a lonely landing strip.
“My Baby!” she wailed, her voice weighty and buoyant, the offshore swell now standing up over a reef, cresting, and all was silent in the curling wake of her song. Then her cry slammed into a foamy, rolling cascade that swallowed each of us and pulled us helplessly along, “My baby’s come home!”
With our necks craned towards the sky, the rest of us could find no cause for celebration. The autumn sun burned clearly in the cloudless sky and we could see into the deepest blue that is nearly black, but there was no sign of the promised plane bringing our loved ones back from war.
I stood by my younger sister, a senior in college, and my mother, an elementary school teacher. Before the interruption, we were making small talk with those standing closest to us, speculating on what could be causing the delay. Some waited for a son or daughter, others for their spouses, young children waited for a parent. My sister and I waited for our younger brother.
His deployment began 15 months earlier, under somewhat discrete circumstances. For me, it came as a relief to learn that he was leaving; America was at war, deployment was inevitable, now I could begin counting down the days until he would return. To my mother’s frenetic emotions though, deployment was synonymous with death. When my brother enlisted in the Army, a fog descended upon my mother that robbed her vision of future joys. His deployment ushered in a period of grave darkness that rendered even the simplest pleasures of life meaningless. It was a cruel fate for the most stoic of parents, but for my mother, who cried over the simplest goodbyes, it was crippling.
Communication was sporadic while he was gone, and we never fully knew how he was doing. He sent letters to my parents, who immediately passed the information on to the rest of us, but like the light from distant stars, the letters could only provide confirmation that things had been well up to some point in the not-so-distant past. Occasionally, he called. I can’t imagine what it meant to my mother to hear his voice on the other end of the phone, reestablishing an audible connection with the life she had ushered into the world 19 years earlier, triggering countless memories of quotes and conversations, the sounds of his childhood. Yet he was always cryptic, quick to say that he was fine, carefully choosing what information he felt comfortable sharing, leaving us with a filtered narrative void of color and detail.
I got the sense that war, like so much of life in the army, lacked the glamour and singular purpose that is often portrayed on screen, and instead amounted to moments of clarity scattered about a sea of obscurity. In their 15 months abroad, life on a forward operating base had developed into a series of routines that generally complied with the soldierly expectation to hurry up and wait. The sentiment was similar for those of us at home. The initial wound caused by their swift departure remained and it was sensitive, but we still went to work, and we waited, and with time, the empty seat at family meals and the simmering fear of an unexpected visit from military personnel (for that is how they relay news of death) became routine. The plan that they would return remained alive somewhere in our subconsciousness, but rarely made an appearance, and our inability to hasten their return obscured even our foundational perceptions of time and space. I coped with ignorance and uncertainty by suppressing my expectations, thinking it would make news of loss easier to bear and even heighten my joy when he returned. Instead, I trained myself to reject hope and I learned how to give up.
Even on the base, when the plane failed to appear at the scheduled time, I accepted that my brother would not be returning that day. Or any day. I told myself that he was never really going to return, that we had done the right thing by flying to North Carolina, renting a car, booking a hotel and showing up at the base because in doing so, we were showing our support for the troops in general, displaying our patriotism, and declaring our love for my brother. It was the least we could do, and it brought about closure to the indefinite period of waiting. I felt that we could pack up and go home and begin to regain our sense of being now that we knew they would not be returning, and I wanted very much to explain all of this to the shouting lady.
She was relentless. She bounced up and down and waved her hands in the air, her tightly wound braids swung wildly about, and tears streamed from the corners of her strained eyes leaving shimmering paths upon her ebony cheeks. Her celebration was messy, uncomposed; most of us would probably have shown more restraint if we were celebrating alone in a locked room, but she seemed completely unaffected, unaware even, of the crowd of strangers surrounding her.
I wondered if I should go to her and offer some words of consolation, coaxing her down from the delusional frenzy she had worked herself into by explaining that the plane had not yet appeared and quite possibly would never appear. Then I noticed that other empathetic souls standing even closer to her were trying, unsuccessfully, to do the very same thing.
She reminded me of the biblical prophets whose message to repent and believe in the coming messiah were often disruptive to the culturally conditioned beliefs and practices of the day. Before she began her hysterics, I was comfortable on the concrete slab surrounded by my mother and my sister and my doubts. I smiled and talked to those around me, the pleasantries made it easy to keep my emotions at bay and even to forget why we were there. I enjoyed talking about sports and the weather, and yes, it would be nice to see my brother again, but let’s not get emotional about it. The prophets turned their nation’s attention away from enticing distractions by crying out in the wilderness with unrestrained passion that could not be ignored. She ruined my attempt to peacefully quit on hope with her paroxysms of delusion. “Behold, he comes,” the prophets declared. “My baby’s come home,” she said.
I clung to my dignity in the spot where I stood, but with each minute that passed or maybe they were only seconds, I felt as though an article of clothing disappeared. I didn’t like this growing vulnerability; I wasn’t comfortable feeling increasingly exposed for the quitter that I knew I was. Whenever I made eye contact with those standing nearby, I tried to divert their attention away from me by rolling my eyes, lifting my eyebrows, or throwing up my hands, as if to say, “Poor thing, right? It’s a shame… she should really get help…” No one blamed me then. No one disagreed. Our cheeks were equally flushed by the searing fear of being associated with her. Still, she kept on. With the forceful beauty and power of a gospel chorus, she kept on. “My baby,” she cried, “My baby’s come home!”
She was right, of course. I don’t know how we all missed it, but just as the burning fuse of my patience reached its fated end, I saw a faint, yet unmistakable glimmer of the sun’s reflection off the plane’s metallic wing. I didn’t say anything immediately, because I feared her lunacy was wearing off on me, but then others saw the glimmer too, and the glimmer turned into a consistent shining light. Someone else cried out, then another, and another. And then I joined them. “My brother,” I shouted, shamelessly. “My brother’s come home.”
In that moment, every fear and every tear that I had dismissed over the previous 15 months came charging back and suddenly, I was cheering with the same messy and sloppy disregard as the shouting lady. I raised my hands, jumped in place, alternately hugged my mother and my sister and the strangers standing nearby and then threw my hands back into the air. The reflected light off the wing soon crystallized into the entire shape of an airplane, I could see the landing gear down and the flashing taillight, the nose pitched slightly up as the exhaust spiraled mystically behind the swelling aircraft. The cheers from the crowd amplified and we were no longer strangers as we exchanged high fives and hugs and pats on the backs. I could no longer hear the shouting lady, her tremendous, prophetic cry had been swallowed up by the unrestrained celebrations of the rest of us, who had only moments before doubted her and pitied her and even grown annoyed by her.
The plane touched down sending swirls of smoke in its wake and came to a gentle stop on the tarmac just in front of us. Ground crew rolled ladders up to the front and rear exits and weary soldiers exited the plane wearing their fatigues. They formed a single file line, marched into the hanger and a commanding officer addressed them, then they were dismissed. When they broke rank, the congenial kind of chaos ensued that is typical of graduations. My sister, mother and I stayed close to each other as we searched for my brother, we passed eyes that shined from tears already shed and we passed eyes that were drowning in tears being shed. When we finally found my brother, I stepped out of the way so that my mother could throw her arms around him and as she buried her head in his side he reached for our sister with his free arm, and we nodded to each other respectfully, until my sister stepped back and then I hugged him too.
I don’t remember seeing the shouting lady again. I owe her an apology though, and I also owe her a debt of gratitude. I am grateful because her fearless appeal to believe shook the ground on which I stood, and it cracked the carefully manicured facade behind which I hid all the tricks I’d developed for accepting failure, and for quitting when there was still much to hope for. And I should apologize, because I believed her behavior to be crazy based on what I knew. But when I knew what she knew, I behaved the very same way. Which is why now, when I see someone behaving differently than me, I don’t immediately judge them as crazy. Instead, I just assume they know something that I don’t, and often, this gives me hope.
Jeremy Merillat is an emerging writer based in Budapest whose nonfiction has appeared in The Piker Press and whose fiction was recently long listed in the 2020 Fiction Factory Short Story Competition. You can find him on Facebook and Instagram.