Short Fiction

Blue Agate Talisman
by Christine Marcotte

Through the sooty window of the train I saw a tall spire peeking above the trees. Taller than any church steeple along the way, or even in my memory. The man I was handcuffed to nudged me, a little more roughly than I felt he needed to, my body aching from the long bumpy ride.

“Open the window, Moore,” he said, gesturing with his chin towards the right.

I stood stiffly to do so, and of course he did too. The shackles between us had made everything for the past twelve hours a challenge. I would be glad to be rid of this man, this keeper assigned by the judge to make sure I was safely placed.

The train slowed. The air through the open window smelled of spring and cleared my head. The doc had said the laudanum would wear off about the time we got there. He explained that upon arrival I would have a lengthy examination and he wanted me to have the ability to answer their questions.

The deputy whistled and said, “Ain’t that something, biggest thing I’ve ever seen.”

My gaze followed his. It was an impressive brick building that spread out from a multi-turreted center. I counted three rows of tall windows, and some dormers above that. The hospital sat atop a gentle slope and I wondered if it was natural or created by men.

I was one of hundreds of men who had toiled for endless days and weeks to make earthen barriers between us and the enemy. The enemy who had taken Gus. Gus, the man who became my brother, whose blue eyes had looked at me, wide and screaming the words his mouth could not. Those blue eyes, the color of my talisman, once an unwavering comfort, now haunted me. I saw his face most nights as I relived the terror of his last moments. Moments I wished had been mine instead.

My Uncle Clarence gave the marble to me on my 12th birthday. He explained that his younger sister insisted he carry it when he fought in the Spanish War. “I wasn’t superstitious,” he’d said. “But a token of good luck never hurts.”

Father told me his brother returned a different man. He never married and kept to himself. I was honored Uncle Clarence entrusted me with his precious polished blue agate. He told me he prayed I would never go into battle, but said if I did, he hoped the aggie would keep me safe. There was already talk of war when my uncle died, and at his funeral I had the marble nestled deep in my jacket pocket. I had it when I left for Fort Custer in June 1917, and now three years later, I still keep it close.

“Hey soldier, we have arrived at your new quarters,” the deputy said. He elbowed me roughly where bits of shrapnel were still buried deep. I gasped and clenched the back of the seat in front of me, feeling the burning pain in my side. It took a moment to realize where we were. The train had stopped near an ornately painted sign, which read, “River Falls Insane Asylum. Est. 1887.”

The grounds for as far as I could see were lush and neatly trimmed. The late afternoon sun cast an inviting glow on the arched windows flanking oversized doors as we walked the short distance from the train to the building.

A man dressed in a dark suitcoat bowed slightly and opened one of the doors. “Welcome, to the River Falls Nutter,” he said. He smiled lopsidedly as we passed into the marble tiled entryway.

When the deputy stopped near a woman stationed at a raised desk, my own steps forward were halted. Stately green palms and exotics in terra cotta pots filled spaces between windows and ivy trailed gracefully on tall stands. The furnishings, though sparse, were upholstered in heavy brocades, the exposed wood gleaming with well rubbed beeswax.

“Drat it Moore,” the deputy said, working the key into the lock, “can’t even sign you in wearing these things.”

Rubbing my left wrist, I gave my hand a shake and slipped it into my trouser pocket. I sighed with relief, feeling the warmth of the marble. “If it’s all the same to you sir,” I said. “I hope to never be manacled again.”

“Mr. Moore, please follow me,” the matron behind the desk said.

The deputy gave me a salute and left the building.

A moment of panic gripped me, and I looked around for my bags. Most everything important to me had been packed into them by my sister while I sat in a locked hospital ward. “Your belongings will be placed in your room,” the matron said. “Right now, you’re to see the doctor.”

For such a short woman, she moved quickly and before I caught up, we had passed by three closed doors. She rapped on the one bearing the nameplate Dr. Samuel Gordon and waited for a muffled response before turning the knob. She announced me to the man I presumed was Dr. Gordon and closed the door as soon as I was through the threshold.

It annoyed me that Gordon had not stood when I entered, nor had he reached to shake my hand. I sat across from him as directed, noting that he was not square with the desk.

“Lieutenant Moore?” he asked as he continued to write on the paper in front of him.

He acted like a superior officer instead of the psychiatrist I had hoped could help me. From where I sat, he looked to be at least a decade older than I, judging from the grey hair and beard threaded with silver. I would play his game. “Yes,” I said with the authority of my rank, not obliged to say anything more.

Dr. Gordon turned towards me and I saw a flash of blue. His eyes were the same intense shade as Gus’s had been. I shook my head and closed my eyes. Instantly I felt a wave of nausea, then heard the empty sound of wind across water. Not now, mercy sakes not now. I looked again at his eyes, drawn like a magnet to iron. The blue began to swirl. I held tightly to the arms of the chair, but it was too late. The blue swirled to red. And the red to black.
~*~*~

I smelled a faint mixture of ammonia and wintergreen. Where the devil was I? A hospital perhaps? But it was so quiet. I opened my eyes to darkness and quickly felt for a bandage. Had I been shot? Relieved my face was fully intact, I dropped my arm and felt a soft blanket, nothing like army issue.

When I awoke again, it was to full sunlight streaming through bleached muslin curtains. Mulling over the events of yesterday I surmised I must have been placed in bed after my “episode”, as I had learned to call the unexpected leaps back onto the battlefield. Sitting up, I saw I was in a room with two other beds, empty and neatly made. The clothing I had worn on arrival was draped on the metal rail across the foot of the bed. By the looks of it, I was wearing a hospital nightshirt.

There was a hesitant knock, but before I could respond, the door opened, and a man dressed in white entered bearing a tray. “Don’t expect this every day, Captain,” he said, “but I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything left if I didn’t nab it for you.”

I informed him that I was just a lieutenant. He waved his hand, “I can’t keep it straight with so many of you fellows coming in now for a bit of rest. I respect what you have done, fighting over there, so you are all Captain to me. My name is Peter.”

Swinging my legs to the floor, I asked him where the facilities were. As I dressed and ate breakfast, Peter filled me in on the activities of the day. Apparently as a newcomer I’d been allowed to sleep late but was expected to spend the rest of the morning in the day room with the other men. After the noon meal there was a walk for those that could around the grounds. At 2:00 p.m. I was scheduled to meet with Dr. Gordon again.

I felt better than I had in several days and found myself listening attentively to Peter. Walking through the hall with him, we stopped at the windows opposite a wide staircase. I could see the railway tracks and the back of the hospital sign. The walkway was empty now. Peter pointed to the left, “That’s the women’s side. They have their own dining room and courtyard. You won’t see much of them, except for the weekly social event.”

“Social event?” I was surprised once again that the Insane Asylum wasn’t nearly as drab and ominous as I had thought.

“Sure, dances usually, but sometimes a concert, and next week some of the circus acts are to perform here. I’m hoping they’ll let me bring my boy, he’s three years old.”

I asked about his family, and as we continued walking, he proudly explained that he and his wife had been married for five years. She worked in the women’s side and her mother watched their son. The four lived about a half mile from the hospital.

“So, is it an Insane Asylum or a hospital?” I asked.

“The sign says Asylum,” Peter replied, “but most of us call it hospital, well except for Oscar. You probably saw him when you came. He’s actually a patient but has given himself the job as official greeter. He calls the place the Nutter.”

I snorted, “Yes he was at the door. I suppose I’ll meet him again.” We were nearing a large room with several groupings of men. At first glance, there looked to be about three dozen. Some were playing cards or chess. Others were reading. The first one Peter introduced me to was working on a crossword puzzle. Immediately I sensed a kinship when I shook Tom’s hand.

Peter pointed out several other staff stationed in the large room. They wore white and were easy to spot. “Tom here will take you around to meet a few of the men and by dinner you’ll know the names of a handful from this floor. I’ll come find you this afternoon and bring you to the doc.”

Tom pulled on my sleeve, “Sit here, maybe you can help me. I need a four-letter word for like scotch whiskey.” I was grateful and sat beside him. He seemed to sense my rising anxiety as Peter walked away, or perhaps remembered his own.

Later that day I was sitting in the office of Dr. Gordon, but this time I was alone. Peter explained that the doctor was on an important telephone call, and suggested I look around the room while I waited. He must have seen me leaning in to look at a framed photograph on the bookshelf. It was a likeness I had seen often. At training there was always a photographer who came around on Sundays, offering to take photographs of the new recruits in uniform to send to their family and girlfriends. My mother had one of me, before any of us knew what the war was really like. This looked to be younger than Gordon. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the man yet because of my episode, but my guess was that it was a brother or cousin.

The shelves held mostly thick medical books, a few other photographs, and several small glass animals. I picked up the elephant. I held it to the light from the window and through the translucent gray I could see the diffused leaves of an oak tree outside. The workmanship of the piece was exquisite, down to the detail of the eyes. They were brown and not painted, but separate orbs set into the glass before it cooled.

The door opened, and I hastily placed the elephant back on the shelf. A man wearing tinted glasses entered pushing himself in a wheelchair. “Those lovely creatures are from Germany, before the war of course.”

It wasn’t until I heard the voice that I realized the man was indeed the doctor. Instinctively, I reached out to offer assistance, but he waved me away and maneuvered the chair behind the desk without bumping into anything. I was surprised. I had no idea the man was injured, and immediately wanted to know what had happened to him. My mother’s voice reminded me it was not polite to ask, and so instead I replied, “The elephant looks to me to be right out of a school book. The glassblower was genius to insert the brown eyes.”

“Ah, the eyes,” Dr. Gordon said, opening a ledger on his desk. “Good thing they weren’t blue.” He chuckled, and I grimaced. My mouth went dry, so I just nodded in agreement. “I’m wearing these tinted glasses, in hopes that you can’t see mine,” he continued. “After what happened yesterday and then reading your report, I realized the only way I could begin to help you was to make sure I was not the cause of any more difficult situations.”

For the first time since I had been placed in the locked hospital ward, I felt a sense of hope. I’d judged Gordon harshly before, but I could see he was an intelligent man. Wearing tinted specs was brilliant. The amber glass turned the blue of his eyes a dull brown.

“Certainly, a good idea,” I said. “As long as I look at you head on, there’s not a scrap of blue to be seen. I do apologize for the mess I made of things yesterday.”

“Not at all,” Dr. Gordon said. “It is why you’re here. So, let’s start over, shall we Lieutenant Moore? I’d like to begin by telling you a little bit about myself. My father was a physician and wanted me to be one as well. But while in medical school I had the opportunity to attend lectures given by the famous Dr. Freud and decided the mind was far more intriguing. I got a few years in before the war and then I was sent to a hospital not far from the front. On a 24-hour furlough, I was caught in an ambush. When I regained consciousness after the explosion, I was minus two legs. I’m still in recovery, but couldn’t stand to sit around,” he chuckled at his own joke, and I smiled. “The position here opened and, since I’m not married, it was an easy decision for me to relocate from Minneapolis.”

Gordon steepled his scarred fingers and I grimaced inwardly knowing it was my turn. “So, Lieutenant, tell me about yourself and how you came to be at River Falls.”

Nervous as I was, I resorted to humor. “Well sir,” I said, “I came here handcuffed to a local deputy from home, and the first person I met was the man out front who referred to the place as the Nutter.” I broke into a grin and so did the doctor.

I told Gordon about my life near Chicago before the war, that I was a middle child, and the only son in a family of five. My father was a bookseller, who had hopes that his son would aspire to be a successful businessman. I spoke of my friendship with Gustaf Gustafson, our long hours spent together in the trenches trading stories, keeping each other awake on night patrol, and humoring the other soldiers to maintain sanity. And finally, I revealed that I had been plagued by sleepless nights and that the nightmares had become more frequent since I had returned stateside.

He agreed with the diagnosis of shell shock. “It’s not a very professional term,” Dr. Gordon explained. “But it does describe the experience and symptoms.”

Gordon gave me an assignment and a time to return the next day. He also told me how to find my way back to the dayroom, so I suppose he assumed I wouldn’t flee. Or maybe it was a test. At any rate, I was surprised at how easy it was to return to where the others were, and it made me wonder if Peter had taken me the long way around on purpose.

I nodded at Tom, who was still working on the puzzle, and continued to the far side of the room. I dragged a chair to the window and turned it, so I was facing the great expanse of lawn. The wide ledge of the window had been fitted with a solid piece of smooth maple and would serve me well as a desk. I took from my pocket the small notebook Gordon had given me, tossed it onto the wood, and smiled with satisfaction when it slid and hit the window.

“Damn, damn, damn,” I muttered hoping no one who cared heard me. I was exhausted and wondered if I was allowed to close my eyes. Hell, I’m not in uniform. I leaned back and let my eyelids fall shut. The smell of baking bread wafted through the vents from the kitchen and brought forth a memory.

“Tell me again about Thanksgiving,” I said to Gus. We had run out of food three days ago and were carefully rationing the water between the twelve men still in our hole. My stomach had ceased to give me pangs at the thought of food, so I could indulge in the descriptive memories.

Gus relished this opportunity once again. By his accounts, his mother and sisters spent a good portion of any day in the kitchen, and the preparation for a holiday included a full week of cooking and baking. “Always three meats,” Gus said. “In the old days moose, but now venison, baked chicken and fish stew. The deer we usually shot a couple days before and on Thanksgiving Day we have the backstraps, the choice cut, seasoned with juniper and onions. The chicken is rubbed with chives and the fish stew thick with potatoes and cream.”

“Even the fish stew sounds good,” said Tex, who had previously scoffed at it as a holiday delicacy.

One of the others asked, “How ‘bout the biscuits?”

“Johanna’s biscuits truly melt in your mouth. Ma’s chicken gravy was good on the potatoes, but the biscuits sopped up every last bit.” Gus said. “And I always saved room for a biscuit or two with blueberry jam. Their goal was to can at least 100 quarts of fruit every summer.”

I could almost taste the blueberries. When I was still too young to help my dad, I would go with the women and others my age to spend a week in the lowland during blueberry season. After the first day of picking, the cleaning and canning would start, and if all went well each family brought home loads of jarred fruit. “Mmm, mmm,” I said, “I hope this damn war ends soon. I’d give anything to taste a handful of sun warmed berries bursting at the mere touch of my tooth on their skin.”

Gus laughed, “I can almost see the blue juice dripping from your chin.”

Without warning, a barrage of machine gunfire sounded from the left and we scooted into position. I touched the blue aggie and hoped no more men would be struck down.

The next day I entered Dr. Gordon’s office with the newspaper cutting Gus’s sister Johanna sent me and handed it to him.

Harmony Loses First Soldier in France
Mr. and Mrs. Johan Gustafson received a telegram last Friday that their son Gust died September 11, 1918 from wounds sustained on the battlefield of France. Mr. Gustafson was an Infantryman with American Expeditionary Forces.

He was in the first group of young men from here to enlist in April of last year, before the official call to duty was made by President Wilson. He and seven others offered their lives in the name of their country to the service of the world for the betterment of mankind universally.

His commanding officer Lieutenant Spencer Moore sent a letter received by the family yesterday. Moore explained that he had known Gust since June 1917. “Private Gustafson put others above himself and his family should be very proud. He spoke frequently of Harmony and his plans to continue farming alongside his father. He was a man of superior character and I am pleased to have had him working beside me.”

The Weekly joins the community in extending our heartfelt thoughts to the grieving family. As soon as the remains are returned to the Gustafsons, the Harmony Mortuary will assist with the burial arrangements.

I left Gordon’s office that day with the commitment that I would begin recording all my dreams, and any thoughts of Gus.

~*~*~

I wrote that Gus was like the brother I never had. And how on the day we were assigned to the same unit, it was apparent we were destined to look out for one another. We were both oddities in the eyes of the other men; Gus with his strong Swedish accent and rural upbringing, and I the tallest by a good three inches, with hair the color of the ripe sweet potatoes.

It was during the first week that Gus saw my blue marble agate and asked to see it. I handed it to him reluctantly, don’t drop it, I’d told him.

“It’s your good luck charm?” he asked, turning it over in his fingers.

I nodded, grateful that he understood.

“It’s a real beauty. Mine is my harmonica,” he said. “My grandfather was in Minnesota’s first volunteer regiment against the south. He brought a harmonica with him, so my dad insisted I have one too. I’ve just learned to play since I left home.

When Gus handed the marble back to me, I commented that it was the same blue as his eyes. He thought I was joking until he looked in the mirror.

It was the next day that I wrote about the frontline gunfire dream. Gus and I spent the morning shoring up the new trench with sand bags, barbed wire and boards. It was a very windy day; bad for bullets and grenades hitting targets, but good for scuttling along to the new location about a quarter mile to the east. Yesterday, half the men worked at the new site, and the rest of us dismantled what was worth taking. We destroyed anything that could be useful to the enemy. The wind carried the hideous stench of rotting bodies, vermin and maggots away, so for a day or two the new location was a pleasant change. The water table was deeper, and the trenches were still dry at ten feet.

At dusk, the wind had died down and when everyone was settled in the dry bunker, there was a bit of joviality the troops hadn’t experienced for weeks. Letters from home were re-read, cards were shuffled, and Gus played his harmonica softly, so the notes didn’t carry. When the lights were snuffed out, he performed “Taps” as a tribute to all the soldiers who had died, as his grandfather had also done. It was a ritual he did several times a week which I had grown to appreciate.

It was barely daylight when the sound of gunfire woke us and we scrambled to our posts, weapons ready. We’d heard nothing down the line that the enemy was near and were unclear if the gunfire was from us or the Germans. Frustrated that I had no information to give my men, we stood ready and waited. Gus moved to my left, towards the end of the trench, almost out of earshot. I wondered what he was up to. He usually didn’t take risks. We had run out of materials to keep the dirt from falling in at that end, and Gus had stationed himself about half way up. He was still well below the top, thus out of the line of sight. In fact, he was pressing his head against the side of the trench. When I looked again, his helmet was off, and his ear was to the dirt wall. He was listening.

Suddenly, I could feel the earth tremble and before I could speak, the whistle and blast of grenades exploded upon us. I crouched and covered my head, hoping the others had remembered to do the same. I heard screams and debris falling around me. Something or someone fell on me and my world went black.

When I came to, it was to the sound of someone calling my name. I groaned, feeling pain everywhere. A gentle shake to my shoulder caused me to cry out. I was told I had been in and out of consciousness, and had a head wound for sure. Those who could, bandaged up the others. When I was able to sit up without getting dizzy, I drank warm water from my flask. I asked who we lost and was told three men.

“Gus?” I croaked and saw heads nodding.

I looked to the place I thought I had last seen Gus and saw an arm and the lower part of a face. The rest was covered with fresh dirt. The soldiers near me parted and I made my way to the man I had thought of as my brother. Carefully I brushed the filth away to uncover his blonde hair, his forehead, and his eyes. His blue eyes looked at me, wide and filled with terror. I cried for the first time since I had worn short pants.

The dream ended with Gus’s terror-stricken blue eyes begging me to save him, but it was too late. I awoke drenched in sweat as always.

Eventually I was calm enough to recall the beginning and recorded it all for Gordon.

~*~*~

Sitting near my favorite window, I turned the page and concentrated on reading my book. Footsteps clipped across the floor, but I did not look up. It was visiting day and easier for me to focus on reading, than to get distracted by the reunions, positives and negatives of the other patients. I expected no one.

“You’re just as I remembered.”
The female voice was familiar, though I couldn’t place it. A nurse perhaps. My finger slid along the next line of type, but I was further distracted by the gentle rustle of silk as she stepped closer. Not a nurse then, as their starched cotton sounded more like a flag in the breeze. Was it me she addressed?

“Spencer Moore,” she said sharply. “Aren’t you even going to acknowledge me?”

I turned and was surprised to see Clara Montgomery standing three feet from me. I had stood behind her in line all the days we attended the village school together. She was four years younger than me, but with no brothers or sisters yet in school, I was alphabetically the next scholar.

Clara was smiling demurely, hands clasped together. I know my own smile was as broad as it had been, probably since before the war.

I stood quickly, my forgotten book tumbling to the floor. “Clara,” I said. I moved towards her intending to embrace her, but stopped short, realizing she was a young lady who perhaps was married, and the touch might be inappropriate. Instead I reached for her hand, and she let me. “It’s so good to see you,” I said. “What are you doing here? It’s not family is it?”

“Everyone is fine,” she said, and I felt my shoulders relax. “I’m visiting my sister, she’s a nurse on the women’s side. When she told me you were here, I was so worried. I’ve had to wait nearly a week for visiting day. Thank goodness I hadn’t come earlier in the month, she might have lost her position trying to smuggle me in!”

Clara’s hazel eyes sparkled with mischief and I recalled she had always been ready for a challenge, especially if it involved standing up to the boys. The manners my mother instilled in me returned.

“Please, sit down,” I said, giving her my chair. I picked the book off the floor and carried another wingback to the window. When I learned that she was not married, nor even spoken for, I asked if I could hold her hand. Through the fine kid leather, I could feel the steady pulse of her heartbeat.

We talked for hours. In fact, we were the last ones to leave when visiting time had ended. We agreed to write each other, and Clara promised to return for the next visiting day. Her presence was such a comfort and stayed with me.

When I next saw Gordon, the first thing he said to me was, “You’re sleeping better, aren’t you?”

“Indeed, I am,” I said. “I haven’t had the dream for three nights, and last night I dreamt of Gus full of life, enjoying a time we were on leave together.”

Dr. Gordon steepled his fingers, the gesture I had once detested, but had learned to understand was his way of keeping his thoughts to himself.

“I’m making progress,” I said.

He nodded and waited for me to continue.

“I believe I’m ready for you to take off your spectacles,” I said. “And after an unexpected but very pleasant visit from Miss Clara Montgomery, I have renewed hope of –” I cleared my throat of the emotion that had suddenly gathered. “I hope of someday passing my blue aggie and the memories of my good friend Gus on to a son or daughter.”