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Ubi Caritas et Amor


By Alan Rice

            Late afternoon sun streamed directly into the upstairs bedroom through thin curtains, and a breeze from the ocean blew in and brought the smell of salt water and cut grass. Gulls screamed and a pickup truck rattled noisily up the hill. In the room, a steel-string folk guitar on a stand in one corner caught the sunlight, a glossy electric guitar lay in its case on the floor, and a mandolin rested in the arm of a battered couch. A student’s desk was piled with spiral notebooks and paperbacks and a laptop was balanced precariously on top of it all. A thin mattress lay on the floor, a boy and a girl, teenagers, entangled in the sheets.

            Abruptly the boy got up and pulled on his shorts, while the girl watched him from where she lay, her head propped up on her hand. 

            “Don’t get up yet,” she said, reaching for him, her fingertips grazing his bare leg. “Just lie here. Can’t you? For a little? It feels nice.”

            “I just want to show you something. Don’t get up.”

            He kicked aside the clothing scattered on the floor and crossed the room. Love, making love, was new to them both, and they were giddy with the thrill, the touch, the play that suddenly turned serious with an exchanged look, the sensation of each other’s bodies and of their own desire, their own excitement. Their passion was not secret, and yet so personal and intimate and private that only a few of their friends were even aware of it. Perhaps their parents knew. Or guessed.

            “I found this,” he said and from beside the desk pulled out a wooden strongbox, about a foot on each side and ten inches deep. “It was in the attic. It’s got a lock on it, but I got one of the old keys on that ring in the kitchen drawer to work.”

            It was quite old, of unfinished maple. The lid had rounded edges, and fitted snugly over the top, like a jewelry box. The hinges were brass, and the entire piece was dovetailed and meticulously crafted. Inside, a removable tray divided into smaller compartments held a few old keys, some pencils, a few foreign coins, and a fountain pen. Beneath that were bundles of letters, many on onionskin paper, tied together with twine. Envelopes were printed “Par Avion” and “Via Air Mail.” There were hand-tinted picture postcards and what appeared to be photocopies of handwritten letters reduced in size, so that the writing was all but illegible. And underneath those were photographs.

            She carefully picked up a few of the letters. “Look at the postmarks.”

            “They go back to World War Two. Earlier, some of them.” He took a few from her. “See, these photocopies. They used them instead of regular mail during the war.”

            “V-mail. I know.”

            “Go ahead,” he said, “Open them,” and he moved closer to her so that their bodies touched.

            She loved the feel of his sunburned skin, its smoothness, the hard muscles underneath, the sharp line of his chin and the unruly curl of his dirty-blond hair. Their eyes met. Then, with one quick movement, she undid the string that bound one of the packets, unfolded one letter and then another.

            “They’re from my great-grandparents,” he said.

            “Did they live here?”

            “You mean in this house? I’m not sure. I think so. He was in the service, I know that.”

            They handed the letters back and forth, examining them, but after a bit the girl’s face clouded. “It’s just news,” she said. “The weather. Gossip. They were, what, engaged, right? I’d have expected something more, I don’t know, passionate.”

            “Well, everything was censored. I mean, there’s always someone else reading your mail, no matter what you say you can’t keep it private.”

            She paused, thinking. “I can’t imagine what it would be like.”


            “Having to go to war.” She frowned. “I mean, when you loved someone.” She was holding one of the old V-mail letters. “Maybe he wrote them when he was in boot camp. Are there any letters from . . .”

            “My great-grandma? Only a few.”

            A shudder went through her.  She didn’t quite know why. “Did he volunteer? Or was he drafted? Do you know?”

            “I don’t know. He probably enlisted. It was the thing to do.”

            She was very still, holding the tiny letter in her hand. “Ethan,” she said, “Look at this one,” and he took it from her. It took him a while to read it, and when he finished reading, their eyes met again.

            “Joanie, look,” he said, breaking the tension. “There’s other stuff here, too,” Reaching deeper into the box, he pulled out a handful of loose black-and-white photographs. Some were only an inch-and-a-half on the longest side.

            She knelt beside him and looked at the tiny pictures. Boys and girls about their own age were standing about, smiling, next to open sailboats or on a beach. Their poses seemed at once cheerful and self-conscious. The boys were shirtless, muscular, and wore belted shorts. The girls wore one-piece bathing suits, and many had on rubber bathing caps. Sometimes the boys had their arms around the girls, or the other way around. There were a few solo pictures; most were of groups of two, or three, or four. Many seemed to have been taken at the same event, the same outing. A picnic, maybe. Or a sailboat race.

            They were carefree, unburdened of the Depression, not yet bothered with the worries of college, or troubled by the cares of family. One girl, who appeared in many of the pictures, wore her dark hair long and uncovered. A handsome boy with a relaxed, open smile often appeared in photos with her.

            “Do you know who these people are?” she asked.

            “There aren’t any labels. That’s my great-grandfather, probably. I don’t know who the others are.”

            “The girl with your—great-grandpa?”

            “I’m not sure. He might have had a lot of friends.”

            “Would your dad know?”

            “I don’t know. Maybe. He doesn’t know I’ve seen these.”

            “Your great-grandpa. Do you know. . .” she broke off, but Ethan already understood her question.

            “He was killed,” he said, and they were quiet.

            Joanie reached in the box for more photographs. There were dozens of them. Most were in black-and white, and some were in color, very faded, fewer in number, and none with the spontaneous joy of the tiny black-and-white ones.

            She was still. “Nobody’s seen these. Not in a long time,” she said. “Nobody but us.”

            “I guess not.”

            “It’s like we’re looking at ourselves, somehow. Don’t you feel that?”


            “When they were taken, like, no one thought about it. They just smiled, you know, having fun,” she said. “No one thought that anyone would be looking at them like this. That they’d be important.”

            “Maybe they did,” Ethan said.

            “Like in that letter I showed you.”

            “Yeah,” he answered. “Like that.”

            And again they were silent.

            “I wonder.  How many of them didn’t come back?” She laid her head on his chest, and he held her. “They must have loved each other.”

            “You mean my grandparents? Great-grandparents?”

            “All of them. They’re like us.” She was right, and he knew it. Her long, beautiful black hair fell across him, and he realized that her face was damp.

            “Are you crying?” he asked, but she shook her head. “Why are you crying?” 

            “I’m not,” she said.

            “You are. Tell me.”

            “I don’t know,” she answered. For a while neither said anything.  Then, she eased out of his embrace. “We have to get dressed,” she said. “You know we do. Your dad’ll be home.”

            Ethan felt a surge of desire, but he fought it down. A door banged downstairs, and they hurried into their clothes and came down the narrow, winding staircase together.


            Fred, Ethan’s father, was in the kitchen, opening a can of beer. He nodded at his son and the girl. He did not look surprised. “Had any supper?” he asked. 

            “Not yet,” Ethan answered. “I was just going to start.”

            Fred looked over at Joanie. “Are you staying? You’re certainly welcome. Just sandwiches, I’m afraid.”

            She glanced over at Ethan, who nodded. “I can make a salad. I just need to text my mom.”

            After supper, Fred went into the living room, turned on the television to the local news, and settled into his armchair. He had given no sign that he knew what had been going on overhead in Ethan’s room or had any desire to find out. Or to judge. He remembered what it had been like when he was his son’s age, the fear, the awkwardness. His sympathy and compassion overcame the vestiges of his New England puritanism.

            He was happy for Ethan, and proud of him. The boy was responsible and hard-working. Talented, too. And Joanie was such a nice girl; it warmed him to see them together. Ethan’s shyness and shaggy good looks contrasted with her exotic appearance, with her dark eyes and long black hair, her mischievous smile. And they were crazy about each other. He wondered what would become of them when they left for college. He knew how these things usually went.

            Joanie appeared from the kitchen with two mugs of black coffee and set one down on the table next to Fred’s chair. Ethan came in with his own mug and the wooden strongbox, and he and Joanie sat down together on the sofa.

            “I found this in the attic and got it open,” Ethan explained. “I thought maybe we could sort it out. Maybe scan them, so they’ll be safe.”

            Fred pulled the box over and took out some of the photos that Ethan had left on top. “Amazing,” he said. He started turning them over, looking at the postmarks of the letters, holding the tiny photos by the edges. “Some of these I remember. Others . . .” He paused, studying one of the clearer ones. “You know, I think that’s my grandfather. It must be. I’ll have to look at these.”

            He held a picture between the thumb and forefinger. “There’s a story there. I never knew all of it. But there’s a story.” He started to put the photos back in the box and then stopped. “Listen, I’m just going back to the store lock up. I’ll be back.” He left without saying any more, letting the screen door bang shut behind him.

            When Fred came back about an hour later, Joanie had gone home. There were half a dozen piles of letters, photos, and V-mails on the coffee table. The front door banged, and Ethan appeared.

            “We were trying to organize them by date. And we were reading some of them.”

            “Find anything?” Fred asked.

            Ethan nodded. “A lot of them are—well, kind of boring. Maybe they were just looking for something to say. Like the pictures. It didn’t matter if it was unimportant. It was the image, the picture. The memory. Know what I mean?” He felt that he wasn’t making much sense. “I had no idea you had saved all this stuff.”

            “I guess I’d forgotten.” He moved over on the sofa. “Come on, sit down,” he said, an invitation and not a command. His son sat down beside him.

            Fred picked up a picture. Ethan recognized it as one he had seen that afternoon: a young man with short, light hair, in swimming trunks, with his arm around the waist of the pretty girl with the long hair. They were smiling for the camera.  “This would be your great-grandfather, just before he went overseas,” Fred said.  “Basic training in the States, then to England, most likely, and then to the front. France.”

            “And he was killed there?”

            “About a week after he arrived, I think. He wasn’t even supposed to be there.”

            “What do you mean? I thought everyone went. Unless you were unfit.”

            “He registered as a C.O. A conscientious objector. Like the Quakers. If you were morally opposed to war on account of your religion, you didn’t have to serve. But you had to perform some kind of alternative service, they called it. Grandpa thought he’d be assigned something in the States, but he got sent overseas.”

            “He was a Quaker?”

            “No. He wouldn’t belong to any church. So the draft board, they really gave him a hard time. Wanted him to put on a uniform and go. But he wouldn’t.”

            “What happened?”

            Fred shook his head. “I don’t know, exactly. It was just one of those things we didn’t talk about much.” He turned to Ethan. “It was the killing, see. He just wouldn’t do it. He could have wound up in jail, but he was so—well—passionate about it.  So they put him in the medical corps. He wouldn’t have to go into active combat, but he’d have to serve. And then he was part of the D-day invasion. Killed a couple of days after the landing.”

            Ethan took the picture from his father. “He looks so happy here.”

            His father nodded. “That would be your great-grandmother there. I’m pretty sure. Your grandfather—my father—was born after he left.”

            “So. Grandpa never knew his father.”

            “Right.” Fred paused.

            Ethan hesitated. “They weren’t married, were they?” He wondered if his dad knew about him and Joanie.

            Fred shrugged. “I don’t know. I kind of don’t think so.” 

            “See, I—Joanie and I—looked through some of them. The letters. While you were out. I found this one.” Ethan picked up one of the V-mails and handed it to his father.

            They were silent for a while. The print was impossibly small, and Fred had to squint. “I can’t make this part out,” he apologized. “Then ubi caritas, I think, et amor, deus ibi est. That’s it. It’s Latin.” He handed the letter to his son. “You understand it?” 

            “Yeah. Where charity is, and love, there is God.” 

            “Yeah,” Fred murmured.

            “I looked for a later letter,” the boy said. “I think this must be the last one.”

            “Yes, I think so.” The two were quiet for a long time.

            At long last Fred broke the silence. “This will be quite a project,” he sighed, and he started gathering things together. 

            “What do you think of trying to scan these?” Ethan asked. “To make a permanent record.”

            Fred sat back. “I think that’s a good idea. To store it safe somewhere. Upload it to the cloud. Something.” He shuffled through the piles. “But a copy only shows that something once existed. These are the real thing. Human hands touched these.”

            He started to get to his feet, but Ethan stopped him. “Dad?”


            Ethan thought about charity, and love, and desire; about passion, and wanted to say something, something he couldn’t put it into words. Something about his great-grandparents who felt, perhaps, in their love of God, their love for each other.

            He thought of his desire for Joanie. His passion. And hers.

            “Nothing,” was all he could manage.

            Fred looked at son, overwhelmed by a wave of love for him. He felt tears forming, and he looked down to keep from betraying his emotion. But Ethan must have known, because he suddenly leaned forward and kissed his father on the cheek.

            “Goodnight, Dad,” he murmured.

            “G’ night,” Fred mumbled in reply, and Ethan headed up the worn, creaky, crooked stairs to his bedroom. 

Alan Rice teaches literature and composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School in rural Connecticut. He holds degrees in English and dramatic arts from Earlham College and the University of Connecticut, and has spent much of his career directing plays and teaching acting and stagecraft. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Change Seven, Night Picnic Journal, Books and Pieces,, Blue Lake Review (forthcoming), and elsewhereHe is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.


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