Fallen Heroes

by Helen Adams

Ezra crept into the church, careful not to let his hard boot heels strike the boards. As he had expected, the only other soul present was Josiah. He watched as the other man knelt before the altar and lit a candle. Josiah bowed his head for a few seconds, then rose once more and sat in the first pew, releasing a sigh that carried clear to the back of the silent room and swept over his silent audience.

"Are you all right?" The words were out before Ezra could stop them. Josiah had been near-silent all day and Ezra had been sufficiently concerned to follow him home after he'd left the saloon for the evening. He had told himself that his actions were simply curiosity over what had caused Josiah's moroseness, rather than a nagging desire to reassure himself of a friend's well-being.

Josiah did not appear to be angry at the interruption; nor did he start or gasp in surprise. He merely sat up straighter against the seat back and said, "I'm fine." He waited, but Ezra did not go away, instead venturing closer to take a seat next to him and giving him a prompting look. Josiah sighed again, raising a hand toward the altar and then dropping it back into his lap in a futile gesture. "I just felt like offering some token of remembrance. It was ten years ago today that my father died."

Ezra hesitated. Josiah had rarely spoken of his family, and when he had he'd made his father sound like someone who deserved only to be dismissed with contempt. Now, however, his tone was filled with sorrow. "You miss him?"

Josiah studied his hands. Not answering the question directly, he spread his fingers wide and said, "These could be his hands. Same size, same shape, same calluses. Maybe a few less scars. There's a lot of him in me; too much for my own comfort really. You know, sometimes I look into a mirror and for just an instant I see him instead of me." He paused for several seconds, and then in a voice so quiet that Ezra had to lean closer to hear him clearly, he said, "Have you ever known someone that you hated and loved in equal measure?"

"Yes, I have."

Josiah looked up, searching the green depths of his friend's eyes, seeing the simple truth in them. He nodded. "My father was my hero when I was a boy, the person I most wanted to be like. My ideal of perfection; strong, well-respected, compassionate."

He fell silent and Ezra guessed, "Until eventually you grew up and your father proved himself to be nothing more than human. Just a man with flaws and weaknesses that sometimes hurt the people he was meant to be helping. You couldn't forgive him for failing to live up to your ideals."

Josiah gaped at him in shock.

Ezra merely smiled, answering the question he saw in Josiah's eyes. "No one told me. Except perhaps for you, by what you failed to say. No person can ever fall harder in our estimation than one who refuses to stay on the pedestal we have placed them upon. I imagine it must be even worse if that person is your own father."

"There was so much anger in him; so much bitterness and intolerance toward others. It must have been there all along, but somehow I never saw it until I began to grow into manhood. That's when it all started to direct itself toward us. Suddenly it wasn't enough to drive the sin and wickedness out of strangers in a church or a mission field; it had to be everyone, every day, and most especially it had to be his own family. I still hate him for ... for some of the things he did." Josiah's face twisted for a moment into something hard and cold. "I always will."

It was difficult to say which of the two men was more surprised when Ezra reached out and laid a hand upon his shoulder, squeezing the thick muscles hard until the tension faded and Josiah relaxed once again.

"You still love him because he was your father and yet you feel guilty for doing so, knowing that his actions did not deserve your regard. At the same time, you hate him for his behavior and yet you feel guilty for not being a more loyal son."

Awareness of the irony in their situation showed itself in a sudden quirk of Josiah's lips as he asked, "What did you do? How do you go on loving the person that you love, while at the same time still hating him. Or ... her?"

Ezra smirked at the hesitant addition. "We're not talking about my mother," he assured, snorting softly at Josiah's clearly relieved expression. Leaning back in his seat, Ezra began to twist the crown of the black hat he had laid in his lap. "Who my feelings are directed toward is not important in the course of this discussion. What matters is that I have learned to balance the dichotomy of love and hate. I loved this person because they were very kind to me at a time when I desperately needed kindness. Later, in equal measure, I hated this person for being unable to extend that kindness to another in my esteem; an action which led to the premature demise of the party in question."

He paused; jaw tightening and fingertips crushing the edge of his hat brim. Seeing what he was doing to the finely shaped felt, he deliberately relaxed and expelled a slow breath as he smoothed the contours back out, slumping a bit so that he could lace both hands over his stomach.

Josiah watched him, but did not interrupt and eventually Ezra continued. "I came to understand that my attitude toward this person would in no way change the manner in which they conducted their affairs, and that I carried no blame for their actions. I had to forgive myself for trusting this person and for loving them enough to believe that they would never hurt someone else I cared about, for the part my foolish display of faith played in that other person's eventual fate."

"So in forgiving yourself, you eventually forgave the other," Josiah murmured, lips twisting in self recrimination. "I'm sorry to say that that kind of forgiveness has never been a simple virtue for me. If anything I tend to lash out at others whenever I'm particularly upset with myself. Not sure forgiveness is in the cards."

Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "Then don't call it forgiveness. Call it acceptance. Accept that nothing you do today can alter your father's past actions. And accept that nothing he did will ever alter the fact that you loved him or that he, in all likelihood, loved you. My situation, while much different in the details from your own, was in essence the same. I realized that my attitude would not affect anyone else's actions or choices in life but that it would certainly affect my own. I have accepted that a part of me will always love this person and another will always hate them. I accepted it, and I moved on." Ezra rose from his seat and offered Josiah a smile that, for once, contained no hint of guile or smugness. He turned and walked briskly toward the back of the church, hesitating as he reached the doorway. Looking back over his shoulder, he asked, "Can you?"

In the silence of the little church, Josiah Sanchez thought hard on Ezra's words, shaking his head every so often in amazement that such a simple and sound piece of advice should have come from the one man in his circle of friends who purported to have no interest in the feelings of others. That it should have come in the form of a personal revelation was staggering to him.

Finally, Josiah stood and moved back to kneel before the burning candle once again. He released a sigh that made the small flame dance. "Hello, Pa. I think maybe it's time you and I had a talk..."