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Under the willow, the willow, I heard the butcher-bird sing,
"Come out you fine young fellow, from under your mother's wing."
Charles Causeley

The song was sweet and seductive and full of promise: it sang of adventure, excitement, heroism. Like rats behind the pied piper, the boys rushed to follow the singer.

I watched them, watched them all, their faces scrubbed to a ruddy glow and their heads held high and proud.

They were young.

They wore their ill-fitting uniforms, like they wore their smiles, with hope and courage and a dreadful desire for glory, with a blithe confidence in their inevitable victory and unassailable rightness

They waved to lovers and family and friends as they marched away, but they never looked over their shoulders to see the encouraging faces dissolve into tears or grimaces of anguish.

That is the picture we kept of them, cherished in our hearts, the way we kept their letters tied in ribbon in boxes and drawers, with the dried, pressed flowers that were all that remained of their gifts tucked neatly into the bundles. When we thought of them, as we so often did, we saw those jaunty grins, the hope, and the terrible, wonderful happiness.

And now they have returned – all those that ever will return – that is still the picture we see, behind their eyes where the dark shadows flit. That provides the counterpoint, the major harmony to the minor reality.

We cannot imagine what they saw, what they did, in any subjective way. When they speak of it, their words are stilted and monotone, without emotion or emphasis. The photographs we see are static and lacking in life. We cannot hear what they heard, smell the stink that filled their nostrils, feel the desperation or the exhaustion or the pain or the hatred.

Those whose boys did not come back are the lucky ones. They can grieve openly.

Every last boy who followed the butcher-bird that day died. It was men who marched home, men victorious, but still destroyed, the course of their future irretrievably altered. They are not the men they would have become had they stayed here, not the men that the boys we loved were supposed to be. These are harder, colder, more haunted men.

For the sake of the picture, and the promises we made to the boys in it, we love them, hold them, and share their lives, but we still feel the loss, and we still grieve.

Every day, we curse the butcher-bird.

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