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17 April 2007

The adventures of Ensign Halli Amura, RINS

Chapter Sixteen

© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer

June 29, 1937
Seathl, Rain Island:

        Halli adjusted her formal uniform’s red-piped green kepi on her head as she stepped off the bus from the base on a brightly sunlit morning and walked over to the depot’s Information desk.  “Excuse me, sir,” she asked, “when is the next bus to Norwood?”
        The squirrel peered up at her through a pair of thick spectacles.  “Norwood?” he muttered, then started looking over schedules.  Finally he said, “Take the Number 11 bus.  It’ll be leaving in thirty minutes, Ensign.”  He went back to his business as soon as he gave her the information, as if she no longer existed.
        The rabbit nodded and after buying a ticket from another booth made her way over to a bench near the parking space for the bus.  Sitting down, she yawned and wished that she’d managed to get more sleep on the flight from Spontoon.

        After she had returned from the shrine, a celebration had been held that culminated in Halli’s name being entered in the family genealogy as married to Trina.  She had smiled and hugged her parents, even as she wept.  Following the customs of the Shadow Marriage she could marry again, but the record (and the memory) of her first love would be forever recorded.

        While she waited a large bus with a yellow and brown paint scheme pulled up, and after a few people got off the vehicle pulled out and went to a nearby service area.  After a few more minutes the bus came back, and this time the driver yelled, “Boarding for Number Eleven!”
        Halli presented her ticket and the raccoon smiled at her.  “No bags, huh?”
        “Just this,” and she held up the small suitcase she had packed with a duty uniform and a few toiletries.
        He chuckled.  “Best way to travel, nice and light.”
        Several other passengers came up, some carrying a few bags that the driver stowed carefully in the luggage compartment.  “Okay, folks,” the driver said, “we’re about ready to board, so show me your tickets and we’ll be on our way.”
        Once everyone was aboard and seated, he closed the luggage compartment and called out, “This bus goes to West Seathl, Windham, Norwood and Baxterville.  If you’re not headed there, you need to get off now.”  He waited for a long moment, then started the engine and pulled out of the station.
        The driver turned onto a road that led past Haywood Square through the center of the city before turning west through a gap in the mountains.  Slowly Seathl faded into the distance behind the peaks, to be replaced by small towns clustered around manufacturing plants and mills.
        After two hours, the driver called out “Norwood!” and pulled the bus to a stop at a small station.  Halli picked up her suitcase and stepped out of the bus.
        The station was a ticket booth and a sheltered platform that shared space with the town’s train depot.  Halli squared her shoulders and walked up to the ticket booth, where an elderly spaniel sat doing a crossword puzzle.  “Excuse me, sir?” she asked.
        “Eh?  Oh, hello there,” the canine said in an agreeable tone.  “What’s a six-letter word for ‘wraparound skirt?’  Starts with ‘s.’”
        “Hmm?  Oh, ah, er . . . ‘sarong?’”
        The spaniel puzzled over the word before breaking into a sunny, slightly gap-toothed smile.  “It fits!  Thank you, little lady – I finally finished this blasted thing.”
        Halli smiled.  “Glad to help, sir.  Can you help me, please?”
        “Can you tell me the way to 45 Elm Street, please?”
        The spaniel thought for a moment, then pointed.  “See that road there, miss?  Head down that way about a half-mile or so, and turn right.  That’s Center Street; Elm’s the third left.”
        “Thank you, sir,” Halli said and started down the road.
        Luckily the weather was holding, and she made good time on the tarred asphalt roads.  The town was centered on a huge rail yard and a smaller lumber mill, but Elm Street turned out to be a quiet single-lane unpaved road with trees shading the houses.
        Halli paused at the path leading up to the front door of number 45, aware that she hadn’t phoned or wired ahead to tell anyone she was coming.  There was therefore no way of knowing what kind of reception she’d get from Trina’s parents. 
        Well, she’d come this far, so her shoes scuffed against the slate flags as she walked to the door.
        The house was a white-painted frame building, with a steeply-pitched roof to shed rain and snow.  She walked past a hedge and a small garden of climbing roses and knocked on the screen door.
        There was a pause, followed by a voice saying “Coming!”  The rabbit waited, and a feline woman came to the door, rubbing her paws on her apron.  She squinted at Halli through the screen and asked, “How can I help you, miss?”
        Faced with Trina’s mother (the family resemblance was startling, and she felt a lump rise in her throat), Halli was at first at a loss for words.  There was a pause before she said, “Hello, Mrs. Demjanjuk.  I’m Halli Amura, Trina’s friend.”  Friend, she thought, was a safe way to introduce herself.
        The woman blinked at her and she stopped wiping off her paws.  She unlatched the screen door and asked, “Won’t you come in, Halli?  My name’s Margaret, but you can call me Marge.  Put your case down there,” and she indicated a corner near the front door, “and come with me to the kitchen.  You just get in from Seathl?”
        “Yes, ma’am,” Halli replied as she placed her kepi on the suitcase and started to follow her.
        The tabby gave the rabbit an arch look over her shoulder.  “I said you could call me Marge, Halli,” she remonstrated gently.  She walked into the kitchen and said, “Here, take a seat while I make some tea.  Can you stay long?”
         “I have to be back on duty by the eighth of July, Marge.”  Halli sat down at the kitchen table, feeling extremely self-conscious as Marge started the gas range and put the kettle on.  “I would have come sooner, and I’m sorry that . . . “
        Marge paused, her eyes closing as she took a deep breath.  “I know,” she said.  “Little later on, if you like, we’ll go up to the cemetery.”  She pulled out a chair and sat down facing the younger woman.  “So, you’re a friend of Trina’s?”
        Halli nodded. 
        “An officer from the base – Commander Fletcher, he said his name was - and one of their chaplains came here to tell us,” the older woman said, “and they mentioned that she’d gotten engaged.  You’re her, right?”
        The rabbit’s ears went straight down as she blushed.  The silence lengthened as Marge looked at her expectantly, and she braced herself.  “Look, if it causes you any distress – “ Halli began, but stopped as the feline raised a paw.
        “Something you might find out in time, Halli,” Marge said with a gentle smile.  “Parents can figure out a lot more than their children want to tell them.  Hank and I – Hank’s Trina’s father – we thought that Trina didn’t like boys, but we thought she might grow out of it.  You two were in love?”
        There was nothing to say.  Halli nodded.
        Marge reached across the table and squeezed the rabbit’s paw.  “From what she wrote, she really liked you,” she said quietly.  “I’m glad she met someone she could love.”  She smiled wryly.  “Hank’s still not quite ready to accept it, but he will.”  The whistling of the kettle interrupted her, and she rose from the table to make two cups of tea.
        The two women chatted over cups of hot, sweet tea; Marge talking about her daughter’s childhood, Halli talking about her lover’s adventures while at the base on Blefuscu and at Spontoon.  Lunch came and went, with grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup while Halli made polite protests that she didn’t want to impose.
        Marge put her foot down on those protests firmly.  “Enough of that, young woman,” she said, smiling despite the catch in her throat and the misty look in her eyes.  “You’re a guest in this house, and you’ll stay for dinner, at the very least.”

        After lunch the two went to the house’s small living room where Marge fussed over the radio until ZYPR, the local station, came in clear.  It was playing an afternoon schedule of jazz, and while Halli sat on the sofa Marge brought out a photo album.
        The two women whiled away the afternoon looking over family pictures until Trina’s younger sisters Karen and Katherine came running in from their Pioneer class.  Halli was introduced as Trina’s friend, and the two girls were sent off to their rooms to get washed up for dinner.  “We’ll be having fish, Halli,” Marge said.  “Is that all right?”
        “That’s fine, Marge,” the rabbit said, smiling.  Just this once in a very great while couldn’t possibly hurt her.
        The radio stopped playing music, and the newsreader came on.  “Miller’s Soap, the friend of the average housewife, now presents the five o’clock news.  I’m Frank James, and our top news tonight comes from the Governing Syndicate, where Chief Syndic Anders Engstrom has resigned following the election of Marianne Red Fox as our nation’s new leader.  Mr. Engstrom is looking forward to returning to his regular work.  Good luck, Anders, and can you give me a good price on bookshelves?” the newsreader asked with a slight chuckle at his own joke.
        There was a sound at the door, and Marge and Halli looked up to see a powerfully-built feline with ginger-colored fur and sandy headfur salted with gray come into the house.  He wore overalls and a grease-spotted cotton work shirt. 
        Marge grinned and stood up, smoothing out her floral-patterned chintz dress.  “Hank!  We have a visitor.  Halli Amura, this is my husband, Hank.  You recall Trina writing about Halli, Hank?”
        The rabbit stood as the feline looked her up and down with an almost suspicious, measuring glance.  Finally he put out a paw.  “Pleased to meet you, Halli,” he growled softly.
        “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she said, matching the strong grip.
        “Hmm.  What’s for dinner, honeyfur?” he asked, giving his wife a kiss on the cheek.
        “Trout,” came the reply.  “You go get cleaned up and I’ll get it started.”
        “I’ll help,” Halli said.
        “You’ll do no such thing, Halli,” Marge said flatly.  “You’re a guest, remember?  Karen!  Kathy!” she called out.  “Come and help me with dinner and get the table set!”
        Kathy, now the oldest daughter at fifteen, came out first, followed by her thirteen year-old sister.  While they bustled into the kitchen, Halli sat back down on the sofa as the radio chattered on and the clock on the living room mantelpiece ticked loudly.
        Dinner was preceded by a prayer, given in a halting voice by the youngest daughter.  The meal was pan-fried trout, seasoned with salt and pepper and served with vegetables and fried potatoes.  Halli ate her share of it as the others talked about school. 
        Conversation apart from almost trivial subjects was limited, usually restricted to a light, almost irrelevant comment from Marge, followed by a growled monosyllable from Hank. 
        Katherine suddenly turned to Halli and asked, “Did you know Trina?”
        Halli paused and lowered her fork, then touched a napkin to her lips to give her a little moment to think.  Judging from the fixed smile on Marge’s face and the gloomy silence from her husband, she needed to keep the conversation on a light tone.  Halli replied, “Sure, she was my friend.  We went through flight school together.”
        “You’re a pilot?” Karen asked, and Halli pointed to the gold wings on her uniform.  “Wow, that’s great,” the younger feline said, her eyes lighting up.  “Trina always used to tell us how she was going to be a pilot.”
        “She was a really good pilot,” Halli said, “and a good friend.” 
        “Then how did she die, if she was a good pilot?” Karen pressed, and a shocked silence ensued.
        Before Marge could scold her daughter Halli replied in a subdued tone, “It was an accident.  Another pilot hit her plane.”  It was all she could do to keep her emotions under control.
        “Oh.”  The young feline went back to her supper and Halli could almost feel the relief emanating from Marge. 
        Hank maintained his silence.
            Marge said in a rather forced light tone, "Trina always did well in Pioneer School.  Kathy and Karen always looked up to her, isn't that so, Hank?"
        Only when Halli asked Hank about his work at the rail yard did the older man start talking.  It seemed that there was a wage dispute growing between the employees and the Transport Collective.  “There’ll be another strike there this year, you watch,” he remarked, his tail snapping from side to side. 
        “Now, Hank,” his wife chided in an exasperated tone.  “Can’t you and the others talk some sense into the collective?”
        “We’ve been trying,” he said, turning to Halli.  “You have any trouble in the Navy, Halli?”
        “No, sir – not yet, at any rate,” she replied.  “I like my pay and benefits so far.”
        “Good,” he grumbled.  He waved his fork at her.  “Don’t ever be afraid to speak up, though, if things get bad.  And remember what the man said – if what they’re selling you isn’t in your contract, it ain’t true.”  He tapped his fork against his empty plate to emphasize the last three words.

        After dinner, Halli and Hank moved into the living room while Marge and her daughters washed up.  Hank settled into an armchair and asked, “So, how long are you here, Halli?”
        “I have to be back at work on the eighth, sir.  I thought that I might pay my respects to Trina tonight.”
        Hank nodded.  “Sensible.  You won’t mind if I don’t go – been a busy day, and I’m bushed.  Marge can show you where she’s laid to rest.”
        “Thank you, sir.”
        He waved a paw.  “It’s okay.”  He leaned close to her as his voice dropped to a whisper.  “Marge told me you and Trina – well, you know . . . just don’t mention it to the girls, though.  Please?  They might not understand.”
        “Of course, sir,” Halli promised.  His eyes seemed to grow distant, and Halli realized that the man was still mourning the death of his daughter – he was just doing it in his own way. 
        His gruffness was a shield.

        Later, as the sun started dipping below the horizon, Marge and Halli walked out of the house and headed up the lane.  About a quarter-mile from the house, on a small hill, stood a church with its attendant graveyard.  The sign out in front of the trim whitewashed structure read Norwood Baptist Church.  Services Sundays at 10.
        “She’s around back, under the trees,” Marge said quietly, and the two walked around the church.  There were several rows of headstones and one paw-carved wooden totem raised to honor those who died in the flu epidemic nearly twenty years earlier.  One stone stood out, being a whiter, cleaner shade than the rest.
        Katrina Anne Demjanjuk, 1915-1937, Beloved Daughter was inscribed on the simple white granite stone, and Marge stood by as Halli knelt beside the grave and cried.