Nelly was unlikely to be waiting for me when I returned from the war; we had disagreed too violently on the issue of neutrality versus compassion. It didn't matter. As I approached fifty years of age, I had learned that making my own decisions held more importance for me than the comforts of a passionate friendship. And over the long years, our passion had faded, like a flower pressed in a novel and forgotten until its petals thin and dry and pale to shadows.
By January of 1917, I was serving soup and cocoa to soldiers either on their way to the Front or returning from it via boxcar. Sometimes I and the other canteen "girls" worked forty-eight hour stretches without a break. I blessed the chance that sent few British or Australian soldiers through our little town, for I found it easier not to share a language with the boys who were being sent to die, and easier still not to understand the words of those who returned, covered in filth and lice from the trenches.
At the same time, I yearned for my own language. When the woman in the fur coat spoke to me, I had not seen another English-speaking woman for six months. "Are you the American?" she asked, coming up beside me.
I managed not to spill the hot cup I held, instead giving it to a poilu with a ragged moustache and hurriedly filling another, for the next exhausted soldier in line. "Yes," I said. "Mary Fraser." I handed over the cup and filled another. Her fur coat puzzled me, but perhaps she was one of those volunteers who had money. I had to admit that she was undoubtedly much warmer than I, in a battered Belgian army overcoat.
"My name's Catherine Marling," she said, taking the next cup from my hand and passing it to a soldier, startling him and me with a blinding smile. I blinked and dipped another tin cup, and another, snatching glances at her as we worked.
She was younger than I, perhaps not even thirty. I saw no gray in the dark curls escaping her fur hat, and her cheeks wore roses that had little to do with the bitter cold outside the canteen. She looked like a Gibson Girl drawing who'd been cast out into the snow. She made me think of sitting warm in front of a fire, reading The Ladies' Home Journal with my feet on a hassock, Nelly beside me with a volume of poetry, and I longed for home and, yes, Nelly's arms, with new fervency.
Here's the anthology at Amazon.com. It was out yesterday.