haibun
A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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March 2007, vol 3 no 1

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Joanna Preston

Lijssenthoek

the fields of flanders–
the rich red
of the cemetery gates

There. Red brick and white stone; an archway anything but triumphal. We wheeled our hired bicycles through the gate-building, blinking at the transition from light to shadow to light again as we stepped out into the garden. And garden it was. Rows of lilies, ranged in front of the crosses that marked the american graves. The german graves. The french graves. But not cut flowers–every grave had a flowering plant growing by the headstone, watered and weeded and tended. A garden! How must it feel, to be a gardener here?

a late baptism–
thirty four christened
'known unto god'

We found his grave. Row 21D. 4564 Corporal Stanley Coombes, 45th Battalion Australian Infantry, died 12th October 1917. I took photographs to send home, the first of our family to visit this place since he died. His full name, place of birth, the names of his parents and his home, written in a ledger almost too heavy for me to lift.

He was twenty-four when he was wounded and sent back home, only to be told that he would die of tuberculosis, likely soon. Twenty-four when he chose to return to the front. Twenty-four when he was wounded at the third battle of Ypres–the Battle of Passchendale–to die of his injuries a few days later in a casualty clearing station in the village of Lijssenthoek.

family photos–
they say I have his
eyebrows

There were hop bines growing in a field on the other side of the cemetery. Pale green, twisting up their wires and into the sky. Fitting somehow, that beside ten thousand dead they plant and harvest each year a herb of bitterness, and comfort.

suddenly understanding
why there are no
old trees

I've read his diaries. Stained and smudged, they were sent home to my great great grandmother. He wrote quietly about fear, and mud, and missing the sound of the currawongs in the evenings. And how, one day like any other, a line of them were trudging across the duckboards, when a sniper took out the man behind him. He said he felt the grip of the other man's hand tighten briefly, and then let go.