- The Scent of Thyme
The scent of wild thyme swept down past the men on the hillside, crossed the meadow and settled in Sergeant Sabini's mouth and throat. The sergeant stopped writing his letter but he did not look up. He concentrated on nursing the hesitant memory closer. Along with the scents of sweet basil and garlic, the scent of thyme had shaped and colored his childhood. He yearned for that childhood now.
To distract himself from looking up he pressed down harder with his pen and he wrote another line. "I've been in Italy almost a year and I haven't tasted pesto once. Right now I can smell thyme. It's in the wind coming down from the mountains."
The tug of memory promised a pain so delicate but so severe, he knew his heart would ache if he yielded. To escape the memories, the heartache, he forced his eyes up from the page. There, on the hillside, was the line of men, half of them from his own Second Platoon.
He had considered joining the men when the first few had left their tanks and crossed the meadow and dashed up the hill. He found little comfort now in the fact that he had not run as they had. Walking offered a dignity the men could have misinterpreted as boredom. Sergeant Sabini was not bored. Being human, he was often angry, almost as often frustrated, too frequently these days on the edge of terror.
The men probably never thought of him as human. He was controlled, authoritative, consistently the reliable platoon sergeant. None of them would be able to call up an incident in which he had demonstrated fear or even doubt. It had been that consistent never-failing authority that had dissolved or at least eased fear or doubt in the most reluctant member of the Second Platoon. There had been several reluctant members during the ten months his unit had been in action, many of them dead now or back in the States in hospitals. A fortunate few were home. None of this explained to Sergeant Sabini his refusal to run across the meadow to join the line.
He was a few years older than most of the men. Was it that—his age plus his ten months of dreary combat—that helped him endure privation and pain and bodily hungers? Hell, he was only twenty-seven, and some of the [End Page 99]
men in that hillside line had fought in Africa against Rommel before he'd even been drafted.
Because every vehicle and weapon had been thoroughly cleaned and had passed inspection that morning, company and battalion officers had not intervened when they'd received the news that men from the First and Second Platoons of Baker Company were crossing the meadow to take their positions in the line that reached up the hillside.
The war was almost over. Almost. Such distraction, the officers said, could only benefit men withdrawn for the moment from combat. Though the latest reports promised the war's end in a week or two, perhaps even a day or two, the possibility of ambushes and shootouts remained. What were the figures Captain Long had announced? In 1918, something like three hundred men had died on the last day of combat.
Sergeant Sabini, settled now on the hood of a half-track near his tank, tried to appreciate the peace and quiet, the almost warm sunlight. He'd begun this letter an hour ago and he'd completed less than a page. His sister, Grazia, would read and reread the letter to his parents as well as to his uncles and aunts and nephews and nieces.
The thyme. That was why he had interrupted the writing. Exquisitely painful images had been born of the scent. In the peace and quiet and sunlight, he closed his eyes and sought to impose those images into an acceptable pattern. There was the kitchen: the polished linoleum floor, the black stove covered with steaming aromatic pots, the noisy refrigerator, the large table that night and day beckoned all, the white porcelain sink and wooden drainboard.
Here in the...