They could still remember the way, all up the hill to the market. The track looked a bit smaller, thinner than he remembered it.
“Did we really use to race to the top?” Killian said, starting to pant.
“Come on, Lieutenant. Don’t tell me you’re tired already.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
There were old trees he remembered from their childhood, and there were also new trees and plants around them. When they reached the top of the hill, both of them leaned on the oak tree there, catching their breath.
“What do you say, Liam? A race to the top of the tree?”
“And ruin our new clothes? You’re better than that,” Liam said, laughing.
They turned their sight to the market. It was almost as he remembered it; the tailor, and the fishman, and the butcher, and the blacksmith…
“Mrs. Austin,” Liam said softly and walked towards the blacksmith’s place. The much older woman was sitting on a chair, scrubbing rust off a metal bucket.
“Mrs. Austin?” Liam told her, assuming a formal stance. Killian copied him.
“Blimey,” she said. “Naval officers in our village? Haven’t seen any in decades!”
“Well, it’s always nice to return to your roots,” Killian said with a smile. He’d really missed that place.
“Roots? What are ye talking about, lad?”
“Oh, Mrs. Austin, you’re breaking our hearts,” Liam said. “You don’t remember us?” He pointed at the both of them.
Mrs. Austin looked at them carefully. Granted, they were little boys when they… left, but they couldn’t have changed that much…
She raised from her chair, placing the bucket on the floor. “The Jones? You’re the Jones boys? Why, I’ll be damned!” she exclaimed as a smile broke in her face and she wrapped her arms around Liam. She pulled away and said, “Those wild curls, Liam, right? And oh, little Killian!”
“Not so little anymore,” Killian said and embraced her.
“Oh, you’ll always be little to me,” she said, and Killian looked over her shoulder to Liam, who playfully raised his eyebrows at him. “Oh, you’re all grown up!” Mrs. Austin said and pulled away. “And accomplished!” she added, pointing at the badges on their uniforms. “Come, come! I have soup!”
Killian’s mouth watered, remembering how he always loved her vegetable soup the most. But they didn’t have a lot of time, they were already running off schedule.
“Thank you, but we must be on our way. Is our… home still were it used to be?”
“Aye, but another family resides there. Tell them ol’ Grandma Austin sent you, they’ll let you in to see your old place,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you, Mrs. Austin. We hope we can visit again soon,” Liam said, taking her hand and kissing it. Killian repeated the gesture.
“Look at you, all gentlemanly! Farewell, lads!” she gestured in pride with her hands and sat back down on her chair, retrieving the rusty bucket.
“Grandma Austin,” Killian noted.
Liam smiled. “Still the same, though, sweet and welcoming.”
“Was the place really that small, or did we grow up?” Killian said.
“We grew up. But it’s not really that different, is it?”
“It’s not… and it is.”
When they reached their old home, they both paused outside. It now had a wooden fence around it and the roof looked better than they remembered it. More solid, well-fixed…
There was a woman and a boy, about thirteen years of age, in the garden. They were cutting pieces out of a tree log, probably preparing for the upcoming winter. A scent of stew was coming from inside.
Killian’s chest tightened, and he had no doubt his brother had a similar reaction. They both had wonderful memories of this place, at least up until the last year they lived there. No, that time had been full of concern, or worry, of their mother barely being able to stand in the mornings…
“How about we move on?” Liam suggested in a rough voice. Killian saw him swallow hard, and turn back to the track. Killian stayed back for a few seconds, mouth going dry with the memories… and the nervousness.
He’d only visited the cemetery once, on that fateful day. They hadn’t stayed long in the village after Mama’s death, but for that little while he couldn’t even set foot towards the direction of it.
And now both brothers were taking that very same road.
“Turn right at the old willow tree, walk to the lemon tree orchard and turn left,” Liam whispered.
Following the old instructions, carved to their head despite never having followed them, they both halted at the sight of the old grey tombstones from afar.
This place had definitely become bigger since they left.
“Do you know where it is?” Killian said softly.
“No, but we can look around, right?” Liam said, and Killian noticed how tight his voice sounded. “We didn’t bring anything…” Liam’s voice trailed off. Indeed, they didn’t know if they would even find the village, or the graveyard, or her grave.
The lack of flowers and any kind of colour around only made the place even more sullen. However, a pinch of blue at his right caught Killian’s eye and he turned.
“There,” Killian said. Reaching down, he plucked small bouquets of wild forget-me-nots growing there. “She liked blue, didn’t she?” Killian said with a sad smile.
Liam nodded and put his hand on Killian’s shoulder. They went on.
Even if they’d remembered exactly where her grave was, they wouldn’t have gone immediately there. Searching for names, they saw that many people they knew as children had now passed away and were resting there.
“Mr. Hence, the baker… Ms. Bierman, the horse breeder…” Liam said as they read the names on the tombstones. Killian couldn’t even remember some of them, he’d been so young.
Liam kept on reading names aloud. “Grace Abelson, John Vatter, Philip Smith, Ailis-”
They both stopped short at the name. Killian looked at Liam, who looked stricken himself. He wasn’t ready to look at it.
But if he’d thought about it… he would never be ready for it.
He looked at the gravestone.
Beloved wife and mother
It was simple, engraved by hand like all the other gravestones, and clean from moss and dirt. But it felt heavier than any other.
It pained them both to see it.
Killian squeezed the stems in his hand. All this time that had gone by… it was their first time since they left, visiting this old place, and Killian wondered if anyone cared. Granted, it was relatively clean, but there was nothing to indicate anyone left her flowers over the years. He could see dried-up flower stems and wreaths in most of the other graves. Not all of them, but still…
“Come on, Killian,” Liam whispered.
Killian knelt and set the flowers down, right in front of the gravestone. He laid a kiss on his hand, then touched the ground where she lay.
He felt Liam’s hand on his shoulder as he too knelt down beside him. “We miss you, Mama,” Liam said, finally allowing the emotion in his voice to show.
Killian let his tears fall freely as he put his hand over his brother’s.
The next time Killian would visit his old village, the reception was much colder.
He was a pirate, an infamous one in that, and the village knew. He didn’t bother to be subtle, however. He only paused to touch the familiar oak tree at the top of the hill, before he beckoned to Milah to walk forward with him.
He strutted down the road, noticing how worried parents moved to shield their children from the two armed pirates entering their quiet village. Killian looked around for any old people that might recognize him, but there were none. That bulgy man outside the blacksmith’s shop could be Bill, Mrs. Austin’s son, whom Killian hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting the other time.
However, they locked gazes with each other. There was something in the man’s eye, something that could be recognition… but Killian simply moved on.
He’d come prepared this time, and had hid a small wreath, with bigger flowers that would last longer, under his leather duster.
“Wouldn’t want the simple people to assume Killian Jones is a romantic soul,” Milah had teased him before they left the ship.
He motioned for her to stop when they reached his old place. It looked all abandoned now. The windows had broken, the roof was full of holes, and there was mould growing on the outside walls.
He noticed Milah looking behind her back when he stepped forward. The old wooden gate creaked when he opened it to enter the neglected garden.
“Are you sure you want to go in? You told me it was just a…” she trailed off.
“Just a moment,” he said softly.
Walking into the garden, soft and happy memories came to his mind. He, Liam and Mama playing in the garden. Laying down in the grass at night, looking at the stars and singing.
The lock on the door was broken too, so he stepped in unceremoniously.
Definitely abandoned, he thought. There were broken furniture inside, dust had collected everywhere, and even wild plants were growing from the floor, finding their way through the old, dirty wooden planks.
He swallowed hard and looked to his left. The door to his bedroom had cracked off its hinges and was resting against the wall next to it. He stepped inside.
It was empty. Again, grass and wild flora was growing through the floor, and mould was covering the walls.
“Killian…” he heard Milah say softly.
Suddenly, it was too much. The house was suffocating him. He turned on the spot and walked outside, breathing in the air as if it was his freedom.
He didn’t stop walking. He took the old path, turned right at the old willow tree, walked to the lemon tree orchard and turned left. Milah was right next to him, silent.
Finally, he spotted the gravestones. Again, more than he remembered from any time. He turned to the graveyard, when that same blue caught his eye again and he turned. There were still forget-me-nots growing there, so without any comment, he bent down and picked up as many as he dared. There was a voice in his head, telling him to leave behind some so that he could find them again the next time he visited.
He entered the graveyard, taken aback by its size. He wasn’t sure he could find her grave again on his own.
He started reading the names, all of them unknown but for one.
Beloved sister, mother and grandmother
“Mrs. Austin,” he breathed. He saw Milah stop and turn to look at him.
The gravestone looked new. There were even parts of it that still shined, it couldn’t have been very old.
He only wished she’d lived a good life. If only he could have come here sooner…
Reaching under his jacket, he pulled a few flowers from the wreath and let them rest against the stone.
“You will be missed,” he whispered, then went on.
After a few minutes of search, it was Milah who called at him.
“Killian, come here.”
He saw her looking at a stone not too far from him, and he felt his chest tighten.
He would never be ready.
He stepped forward until he reached her. Her expression was grim, so he turned to the gravestone.
Beloved wife and mother
It was just as he remembered it. Still clean from dirt, but bland and… empty. With tears starting to fill his eyes, he took out the wreath and placed it and the forget-me-nots down on the ground. Once again, he kissed his hand and touched the ground, but then stood up without a word.
Immediately, Milah’s hand found his, intertwining their fingers.
“It’s okay to cry,” she whispered.
It was raining slightly.
There was no path now. Only grass all around what used to be a dirt road, and only the slope and the oak tree at the top seemed to signify that was the old path.
One hundred and eighty-two years, and the tree itself still stood tall and strong.
Unlike the people and places in his life.
He put his hand against its bark. He and Liam, along with other children in the village, used to play a lot around it, on it… and if what he’d heard was true, then it outlived life itself around it.
He swallowed hard and turn to look at what used to be the market.
Somehow, he thought that the sight of the burnt-out remains hurt more than if it had simply been abandoned. He could still make out the structure of each building, but they were beyond repair… and there had been no survivors to claim them anyway.
He walked on, looking at each building, struggling to remember. The blacksmith’s place, the baker’s place, the surgeon’s place, wasn’t it?
Why didn’t they flee in time? What happened to that place? Was it war… or looters?
He knew he was reaching his old home.
Home. Even after so, so many years of not walking down that path, he still felt he knew it by heart.
Only the building wasn’t there anymore.
He stood there, mouth slightly open as he stared at the wild grass growing all around the now empty, flat lot where the place he grew up in once stood. There was nothing left, not even a wall, a stone… nothing.
He felt his chest start to tighten, his heart float to nowhere.
He turned around. He didn’t have any flowers this time.
There was no old willow tree anymore, no lemon tree orchard. In the place where he remembered them was a flat, empty space where only grass grew.
That must’ve been where the survivors from the harbor town below buried the remains of the villagers. No gravestones here, but the lack of trees provided a clear view to the old graveyard further away.
He didn’t want to step on the mass grave, but there was nothing signifying where it started and where it ended. The village had been destroyed nearly a century ago, rain and snow had washed the markings away. So he simply stepped forward.
It wasn’t just with time that the trees he’d used as marks had gone away. The fires had probably reached far into the forest, and what had grown back seemed very young… and colourless. He couldn’t spot any flowers this time, no matter how much he looked around.
His chest tightened even more when he approached the old graveyard. Stones had fallen off, others had cracked, covered in moss, weeds and vines all around them.
He didn’t want to remember where her grave was. He didn’t want to imagine Milah looking down at it, beckoning him to walk there. Her voice, as she called him…
But he did. Somehow, this time, he remembered everything. He needn’t look at other stones. Not that he’d recognize any names anyway.
He clenched his shaking hand into a fist as he approached it. His eyes started stinging, and the duster felt heavier on his shoulders than usual.
He turned to look at it.
ved wife and m
A soft sob escaped him at the sight. There were vines covering some letters, and for almost a minute, he stared at the stone. Even the visible letters seemed worn out on the stone. He sniffled and leaned down, pushing the vines away, first the ones on his left, then the ones on his right. Without thinking, his fingers lingered on the word “mother”. They traced the engraved letters, willing themselves to feel something. It wasn’t just a stone, was it?
He opened his mouth, trying to command his trembling lips to form any word, but his legs gave out instead. He knelt on the ground, fingers still touching the stone as sobs overtook him.
It felt different here. It was… quiet. No sound of people, or waves hitting the hull of the ship, no mast creaking, no wind whistling in his ears…
He’d been used to mourning Liam and Milah anywhere at sea. Whenever grief overtook him, all he needed to do was walk to the rail of his ship or the nearest beach if he was on land, and think of them, their souls free in the endless blue sea. But here, he was surrounded by death. Bodies eternally resting on the ground right under him, here where endless tears have surely been shed.
The air felt heavy. The silence was deafening. The hills around him were suffocating despite their long distance from him.
So much death around him, yet here he was all alone among the living.
His voice trembled.