Courage. Patriotism. Words rendered meaningless to Erik Chavel when his brother Howard returns home from Afghanistan in a flag-draped casket. Months later, Erik finds the gentle words of Howard’s Marine buddy, Greg, soften his pain. After losing a limb in combat, Greg Simmons understands the raw sorrow of loss. Erik and Greg spend a soul-searching night together and find the unexpected in each other’s company.
I count myself among readers who very much enjoy the stories of MacLeod and Valentine and have come to look forward to their homoerotic tales of alternate worlds and supernatural beings. But one aspect of their writing that always stands out is that when the accoutrement of other-worldliness are stripped away from their intricate and fantastical tales of erotic horror or urban fantasy, at heart, their stories are often character-driven and almost always focused on relationships. And this is what this short story is all about.
Purple Hearts is a thoughtful and moving contemporary gay romance that explores two very different men who are brought together by their grief over the death of the same man – Howard Chavel, Erik’s brother and Greg’s brother in arms. While Erik and Greg deal with their individual sorrow and struggle with their own personal demons, Howard is the common tie that binds. Erik and Greg first meet in the unlikeliest, but most befitting, of places and it is their initial conversation about Howard that brings them together. In each other they find not only succor but also hope and the possibilities of love.
The first thing that struck me while reading this short story is how well the writing sets not only the mood of the story, which is introspective and somber at story’s beginning, but also how well the writing captures its setting. MacLeod and Valentine achieve this not through overtly descriptive prose but rather through refined strokes and light touches that evoke strong images and firmly ground the time and place of the story. The setting is also important in terms of characterization mainly in respect of the character of Erik, who is firmly rooted in the small Massachusetts town in which the story takes place.
“The pathway to Greg’s house took them by an open field, in the center of which grew a massive old tree. Erik pointed. ‘That’s Council Oak. The local Wampanoag tribe still holds meetings and powwows there a few times a year. It’s amazing, like taking a trip back in time.’ He looked up at the gnarled branches, wondering what stories they might tell if they could talk.”
Purple Hearts is very much a conversation between two men. Almost the entire story is devoted to Erik and Greg’s discussion of Howard and the telling of their respective pain at his loss. In this sense, the reader gets to know both characters as they get to know each other. Both characters are well developed for a story that is less than twenty pages in length and the authors bring a sense of authenticity to both Erik and Greg and their relationship through well written and realistic dialogue that is further complemented by Erik’s well nuanced narrative.
It is not often that we get physically flawed characters in gay romance or erotica, let alone characters that are amputees. MacLeod and Valentine handle this issue with both sensitivity and honesty. They don’t attempt to wash over Greg’s disability, but rather meet it head on through Greg’s honest telling about losing a limb and Erik’s personal introspection as he both contemplates and confronts his fear of repulsion at the thought of being with Greg. This only adds to the authenticity of Erik and Greg as characters, as well as to their relationship.
Purple Hearts is elemental and quite in nature and stripped of any pretense making the characters and their respective situations quite real. There is a rightness and sense of symmetry in Erik and Greg’s coming together that is both touching and sweet without a saccharine aftertaste and their love scene is a mixture of the erotic and tender.
If there are any thoughts out there that the combined writing talents of this duo fall outside the confines of the romance genre, then Purple Hearts should put these thoughts to rest. I loved this pearl of a short story, have read it several times and will likely re-read it again for the simple reason that it makes me feel good. I highly recommend it to all.
Purple Hearts was initially released in September 2009 as part of eXcessica Publishing’s multi-author anthology Four Seasons: Autumn 2009. It has been revised and re-edited and is available as a single title at Smashwords, All Romance eBooks and at Rainbow eBooks.
Music: Brothers in Arms – Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms, 1985)