M. Gail Moore of Fox Island is the winner of Pierce County Library System’s annual writing contest. Participants were asked to write 750 words about sports, triumph over adversity, water, World War II or being part of a team. The contest was judged by The News Tribune. Moore won two tickets to the Pierce County Library Foundation’s reception for author Daniel James Brown. Brown’s work includes “The Boys in the Boat.”
Here’s Moore’s entry:
Two Legs, One Woman and The Unopened Box
Just when he thought he could not stand one more moment, one more bomb blast, one more barrage of wailing shells, one more rat scratching at his boot, one more artillery bombardment to make a corpse where there was once a companion, Albert Walker received the package. In a yellowed envelope that was oddly thick, thicker than the usual letters from home but not wide enough to harbor cookies or dried fruits, this packet bore a shifting heft, moving inside, a life of its own. Albert tore the package open, thin fingers blackened at the nail from the sodden mud and gun powder and pillbox dust of the French field, fingers that had not seen bath water in seven weeks, the same length of time it had taken his company to move forward thirty yards in the cold, wet, smelly tomb of trenches. Immediately, his delight turned upon itself. There, entangled in the lightly scented lock of her sweetly brown hair, winked a key. It was old, dull and gray, shaped like the capital T in one of her letters, and possessed two teeth merely, grinning a death’s head omen, daring him to unlock her. Albert dutifully tied the key to a bootlace, traded for a cigarette, and hung it around his neck. Anna Turner was with him.
When German artillery fire blasted his company’s trench the next morning, Albert was thrown into the mud face down. One leg did not go with him. Waking some days later in a medical tent away from the front line, Albert felt the missing leg at nearly the same moment as his fingers, no longer stained by the mud and muck and mire of the French field but now pink and sallow with antiseptic in Army Camp Hospital Number 45, traced the indented lines where Anna’s key had tattooed the skin just above his heart. The nurse, upon seeing his eyes open, approached with a smile of remarkable uncertainty, her reluctance to care commensurate with the number of dead men she had seen earlier in the day. She offered water for his parched lips, and when she saw Albert’s fingers tapping the contours of the key mark on his chest, she pointed to a small metal tray on the bedside table. There amidst a few personal items lay the key attached to the moldy bootlace. It had been cut off his neck, the cleanly snipped ends erasing all trace of his hasty trench-time knot.
His leg safely entombed in the mud of France, Albert was shipped home with the rest of his meager belongings. In September he arrived at his mother’s three-story walkup in Boston, where a pot of baked beans bubbled on the stove and his younger sister’s eyes barely made their way up his face to meet his nose. His missing leg precluded her eye contact. And then there was Anna, not among those who greeted Albert at this, his homecoming, and in the conspicuous absence of her name, Albert knew something had happened. Later, when the well-wishers left and his sister gratefully volunteered to wash the dishes, he hobbled to his childhood bedroom on army-issued wooden crutches. His mother followed him.
“She caught that flu bug that’s been going around.”
He nodded, the crutches propping up his heart in what was left of his body.
“It came real sudden, while you were still on the ship. She left this for you.”
He shifted the crutches to receive the small rectangular-shaped box in his mother’s outstretched hand, a graveyard between them.
“It looks like a …,” his voice trailed off.
Momma nodded and with a grimace mopped back wisps of hair at her forehead.
He clutched the small wooden box with its neat metal lock, knowing that the toothed grin impressed on his chest since the day he lost his leg would match exactly the lock’s keyhole. It was his key to life.
Albert never used that key, never looked inside that box, never studied its contents, never laid eyes on what had been placed there so lovingly by the pretty brown-haired girl who died before him, leaving an ache in his chest the size of his leg and the tattoo of a key impressed on his heart. But he kept it, reminding him of what he had before the war, of what he lost in the war, of who he became after the war. For Albert Walker, the unopened box became love’s memorial to a second chance life.