The moon’s on its way to November, sailing a sullen sky. I think the whole world breathed a sigh of relief tonight, when the major told us to find shelter, get some shut eye before tomorrow. We’re too close to the enemy for camp fire, all of us hiding behind trees, and under bushes, keeping as quiet as smoke, settling into the dirt and leaves like animals on the prowl.
We walked many miles tonight after the battle yesterday. So many men are dead. The crick is running red with blood, and I’m thinking it’s good to cross it in the dark so I don’t have to see it. Funny how blood looks the same, no matter who it comes out of, whether you’re a Yankee or a Rebel. We all bleed and die the same. None of it makes much sense any more.
I came here all the way from Georgia. I always wondered what was over the next hill, but never thought I would see it through the sights of a rifle. It seemed like my whole town joined up for the cause. I marched for three years with my cousins, neighbors, and friends, priding ourselves on how far we ran in a single day, the proud sons from the Georgia Clay. Now most of them are gone, making clay in a different field, bones bleaching in the sun.
The worst battle was a few weeks ago. Those Yankees found a tree line at the edge of a corn field on a hill to gather themselves, and our damned fool of a colonel sent us in there to bring them down, like hounds after a treed bear. It was a turkey shoot for the boys in blue. They picked us off as we ran towards them, fools all, knowing we were running face on into death. We gave as good as we got though. Our Rebel yells echoed up the knoll like a wild cat in the Carolinas. The enemy drew their heads back like turtles, and hid, popping out long enough to
shoot. Only a few of us reached the edge of the forest, and they were dispatched within seconds.
It was a massacre, to be sure, and I can hardly believe I’m still among the Quick. I fell into a ravine with my old friend Bret, trying as hard as we could to dig into the soil and hide. A bullet whizzed by my head so close I felt the air slap my ear like a hornet. They say you never hear the bullet that kills you, but this one seemed to whisper, “next time, Rebel boy.” I turned to Bret, said “well, shit, that was close”, and saw that his face was blown clean off. It took everything inside of me not to jump out of that little hole and run away, but I buried my face in the leaves and prayed for darkness to come, and when it did, I cried like a baby.
Since then, we’ve been on the march. There have been a few fights along the way, but we stick to the woods and creep along on our journey further up and into Virginia. We venture out at dawn and pick our way through the fields, the sound of dead men everywhere. Gases, the old soldiers tell us. Those are just gases comin’ out of them bodies, all blown up like bullfrogs. But to me, it sounds like ghosts crying to be let out, so they can go on up to wherever they’re going, and their bones can commence to the business of letting go of the thing we call living.
I looked down in the darkness and saw my boots in the moonlight. Got them off a Yankee soldier not ten days ago. He must have died soon after joining up, because the boots still had a bit of a spit shine on ’em. Now they’re mud caked and worn. They fit me pretty good, but I had to stuff the toes with pages from the Bible I keep in my back pocket. I hope the pages ain’t the ones that say ‘thou shalt not kill.’ I keep wishing I had a horse to ride, but for now these boots will do.
I miss my horse, Frost, and wonder if he was taken by the Yankees and turned into a soldier horse. Old Frost, he learned to stand still when we went hunting with Tick, my favorite dog. My old rifle picked off squirrels and birds for supper, and Tick and Frost and me wouldn’t come home until we got something. Good horse, good dog. I miss them.
Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a tintype of Sarah. I run my finger over it in the darkness and know every angle of her face. I’ve known Sarah since we were both little kids, running through the fields after her daddy’s plow, the clay soft like pillows, great waves of dirt parting in the middle like the Red Sea. I’ll never forget the day I held her face in my hands and touched her lips with mine. Her hair wound round my fingers like vines, holding me against her until we both ran out of breath and there was nothing left to do but go home to our families before we shamed ourselves.
I don’t know why we didn’t marry. Wish I had left a bit of myself back there with her. Give her my name at least though I was poor as could be. I pray she’s safe tonight as I stare up at these stars and think to myself that we’re living under the same moon, only mine’s as bloody as Harvest. I dream of her by the fire, a book in her hand, rocking gently at the end of the day, and I hope she remembers me from time to time. I whisper, “Sarah, don’t wait for me” and feel a heaviness in my heart like the slow beat of a funeral dirge.
Tomorrow is a big day, the Colonel said. We’ve been picking through these woods for weeks now, on our way to some vast field near a little town they call Cedar Creek. You can tell that everybody’s all stove up about it. The officers are slipping from tree to tree, whispering to each other in hushed tones. We all strain to hear what they’re saying, but can only hear the sighing of the wind through the Loblolly pines, sounding like ladies crying.
I dig a small hole next to me, then kiss Sarah’s picture and lay it gently, face up, covering it with dirt, leaves, and pine straw. I can’t bear to think of carrying it into battle with me tomorrow and have her hear my last cries, see me take my last breath.
My name’s in the Bible in my back pocket. I hope somebody finds it and lets them know back home. I pray they let her down gently when they find Sarah on the porch and tell her that her Billy is gone, struck in mid heartbeat in a field of grass, as far from home as I ever have been. And I hope she will remember this moon, on its way to November.
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