By Michael Anthony
Still numb from the explosion that had launched him over the hedgerow, the soldier forced open his bloodied eyelids to find carnage everywhere. Broken bodies, some intact, others less so, littered the landscape like random piles of rags. Men crawled, dragging shattered, useless legs behind them; others stumbled and fell, never to rise again; still more wailed in agony, their cries going unheeded until their voices faded.
Clouds of spent gunpowder hung like gray shrouds over corpses on the hushed battlefield. The evening sky along the western horizon burned an eerie rust, smudged by plumes of black smoke rising from the skeletal remains of smoldering farm buildings.
With nightfall would come the dreaded scavengers who crept through the darkness stripping bodies of money, gold or anything of value; and, when they found one barely alive were known to slay the defenseless warrior. Refusing to meet such an end, the infantry officer tried to push off the damp soil where that last fusillade landed him, but other than his arm, nothing moved, not even his head. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he feared his back was broken.
Unable to feel anything below his chest, he sensed escape would not come by his own hand. But, it was not a severed spinal cord that imprisoned him. Rather, it was the massive roots of a tree upended by the artillery shell that nearly decapitated him. Those tendrils coiled about his head, his body and every extremity like a nest of vipers. The splintered ends of the unearthed roots pierced his flesh, forcing him deeper into the soggy land.
He struggled, managing to free his left arm from the tangle, and searched a small patch of soil from hip to head, but nothing beyond that narrow arc. His pained breathing grew labored as he slipped into the netherworld between life and its cold eternal opposite.
A clap of thunder rolled across the open field and brought a soaking rain that pooled in the soft loam against which his face pressed. Unable to lift his head, the growing puddle threatened as he swallowed the brackish water, choking on bits of wood as well as the taste of blood and dirt and horse manure.
In a rare lucid moment he thought, ‘I did not survive another battle only to drown in inches of water.’ His free hand searched frantically until it found a clump of bog grass from which he pulled a single reed that he pushed between his lips, allowing him to breathe without swallowing that rising poison. Evening dimmed into night and then all was black. Only the infrequent cries of the unseen wounded told him he was still alive. When they stopped he was unsure.
The dawning sun crested the distant tree line and warmed his half-submerged face so he knew he had not yet gone to the other side. The haze of the previous sundown had vanished, replaced by a cloudless crystal blue dome. The unmistakable stench of death blanketed the shallow valley, replacing the acrid smoke of firearms.
Still immobile, he wanted to call out for help. But, doing so might draw any lingering enemy troops who would bayonet him where he lay trapped. The soldier suspected he would soon join the bloated and unburied.
Shadows shortened as the sun climbed the sky and the water seeped back into the ground, leaving his face in a basin of mud. A shaft of sunlight cut through the thick canopy of leaves and lit his face so harshly that his eyes closed of their own will. He shielded them against the unforgiving luminance with his open palm until the earth, of which he soon would be part, rotated ever so slightly in its great orbit around the sun and shifted that beam.
Voices approached; not military, but muted, feminine ones.
He made out the indistinct silhouettes of a woman and a young girl moving from corpse to corpse; draping each fallen soldier’s face with a rectangle of gauze they tore from a larger swatch before cutting brass buttons off uniforms; unfastening leather straps; and, rifling the pockets of the dead.
In ordinary times, such acts would be reprehensible, but the soldier knew these days of the war between the states were anything but ordinary. Local farmers saw their food and livestock commandeered by marauders. With little to sustain themselves, the inhabitants scavenged to survive while watching for snipers or renegade soldiers eager for carnal pleasures, regardless of age or virginity.
The two drew near and the soldier had only seconds to either play possum and let them ransack his uniform or risk having his throat slit if they found him alive.
Their dirt-caked feet now stood mere inches from his face still deep in the mud mixed with his blood and that of others. The older woman knelt and with the deft touch of a betrothed, gently swept a wisp of flaxen hair from his eyes. Her touch was the first he had known since leaving his homestead nineteen months earlier. With the dreadful casualty rate of the 8th Regiment, surviving on the field of battle for so long made him a seasoned veteran; though he saw himself only as lucky, at least until that Howitzer shell shattered the tree to which he was running, the same one that now held him captive.
It took all his resolve not to twitch beneath the woman’s fingers. He felt another hand reach into his pocket. The girl removed coins, a button, a folded letter and the small tin-framed photo of the soldier’s twin brother Elijah, which never left its hallowed place near his heart.
“Please,” he uttered in a voice so faint it was barely audible above the cawing of the ravens perched overhead.
He winced as the woman grabbed his hair in her fist. “This uns alive,” she told the girl.
“Should we do um, mama?”
He knew the girl’s intent and readied himself to join Elijah. His mother would soon mourn two sons lost in this unholy war launched by politicians who sent young men off to die while those same silk-hatted statesmen sipped bourbon in red velvet parlors far removed from the hounds of hell they had unleashed upon the nation.
“No,” the woman sighed, “taint going nowhere twisted like he is. Nother day, vultures be pickin’ his bones. Less go.”
Sounding like a bullfrog at dusk, the soldier croaked, “Please, wait.”
“Mama, he’s sayin sumptin.”
“I hear,” she replied in a conflicted voice while leaning down until her face nearly touched his. “Can’t help you boy. We get caught; I’m dead on the spot. No tellin’ what they’d do to my girl.”
“Tell me true,” the soldier asked, “do ya’ see a way out for me?”
The woman surveyed the immense entanglement of roots and shook her head.
“If I did get free and my legs weren’t dead, could I find a safe place?” he gasped.
She studied his uniform, and then said ruefully, “Might make Gettysburg, but lotta troops ‘tween here and thar.”
“You in no position to be askin’ favors, boy,” the girl snapped.
“Hush, child,” the woman admonished and then turned back to the soldier, “What’s this wish?”
He had heard the stories of how the gravely wounded, for whom no hope existed, were delivered a merciful end with a precisely placed blade. “I don’t want to go slowly here. Would you help me to the other side? Maybe say a prayer before ya do?”
“Mama, let’s go.” The girl whined while hopping from one dirty foot to the other like she had to relieve herself.
“We can make time,” the woman said. “You Christian?”
“Catholic,” the soldier groaned, “but ain’t worshiped in a while.”
“Don’t take kindly to Cath’lics,” the girl said, then spat on his uniform.
“Rebecca! What we think don’t much matter now. Man’s about to pass and he needs a bit o’ prayin’ to help him through.”
“Much obliged.” Then, the soldier whispered, “When time comes, send your daughter away. Don’t want her see’n any more dyin’ than she already has.”
Even with his demise at hand, the soldier’s concern for her daughter touched the woman’s war-hardened heart. “I will.”
The woman and child recited the Twenty-third Psalm over the entrapped infantryman. Then, she told her daughter to start for the next cluster of bodies, but not stray too far. When the girl was some twenty-five paces away, the woman’s hand slipped inside a leather sack that hung from her soiled gingham apron and emerged holding a sharp-bladed knife caked with blood. “Close your eyes.”
Resigned to his final journey, he pictured his brother on the opposite shore, now intact, made whole by the crossing. The soldier welcomed the fraternal reunion with the twin who followed him into this world by only minutes; and for whom he still grieved, blaming himself for not protecting his brother from a musket round to the neck; and who often appeared in the soldier’s recurring nightmares.
The blade pressed against the jugular vein throbbing beneath the muddied skin of his neck. He looked up at the woman kneeling close to him and muttered, “I forgive you.”
He was weary of seeing men explode into red mists; horses sliced in two by cannon fire; human limbs hanging from trees like macabre decorations; and, watching rows of young boys, none older than eighteen, fall one atop the other as they charged into a hail of bullets that pierced and tore and severed their willowy bodies. So, death no longer frightened him.
Unlike all those he saw collapse into twisted heaps of lifeless muscle and fractured bone, at least he could prepare for his final moment. He recalled his home in Springfield and wished to again experience his mother’s loving embrace, but that damned artillery shell had sealed his fate.
He imprinted the woman’s image on his eyes for it would be the last thing they saw: her unwashed blonde hair a nest uncontained and windblown; high cheekbones above which hazel eyes reflected the golden daylight; a long thin nose that came to a sharp point; narrow lips stretched taut over ivory teeth, not perfect, but all present; and, a strong chiseled jawline. He would remember her, not as his murderer, but as his salvation from a death prolonged if he remained undiscovered or tortuous if found by the enemy.
The crack of gunfire suddenly split the air as bullets whistled overhead. The woman spun to see her child scramble behind the wide trunk of an old oak. “Rebecca! Stay down,” she screamed.
Jumping to her feet, the woman ran to her daughter whom she wrapped in her arms and then crouched low behind that same tree.
Horses’ hooves pounded the wet ground beneath the imprisoned soldier. As they neared, he attempted to gauge the color of the riders’ uniforms. If like his, he might live; if not, he would die by their blade, bullet or boot.
“Grab them!” The soldier heard as the horses were reined to a stop. “Defiling bodies, huh?” The gruff voice of the unseen mounted officer shouted, “Ya’ll know how we deal with your kind.”
“Please sir,” the soldier heard the woman implore, “I beg of you. We were jes tryin’ t’ get back tar farm across dat field.”
“She your daughter?” he demanded.
“Yes,” the woman replied.
“Would make a pleasant diversion for my men,” the officer crowed.
“Please, sir,” the woman beseeched, “I’ll go witcha. Jus’ set the girl free.”
“What do you think men? Want ‘em both?”
Indistinct rumbling followed his mocking question.
“We cannot afford to be slowed. Shoot them,” the officer commanded.
Still unseen and still unsure if the gathered troops were friend or foe, the soldier called out nonetheless. “Wait, sir. Corporal Augustus Winthrop.”
The measured clop-clop of a horse signaled its approach. “Soldier?”
“Sir,” he replied. “That woman and her child were ministering to me when you arrived. Tryin’ to comfort me ‘til I could be freed.”
“Sergeant,” the officer ordered, “deploy your men to free this soldier.”
It took some forty minutes and seven men to cut away the twisted nest of roots that clung to the soldier like an octopus. With a final push they rocked the massive root base while two others slid the soldier from beneath it.
Although large bruises painted his body black and blue and purple, only one leg was broken. His back was a crosshatch of cuts and punctures, some deep, some superficial, all in need of cleaning. Cracked ribs accounted for the pain that stabbed when he breathed; but once again he could move his good leg and arm, feeble as they were.
All the while, the women were held at gunpoint.
The captain knelt alongside the junior officer as he lay on the tree-shadowed ground. “Is the story you told me true or only to save them? Think carefully before you answer, Corporal.”
Winthrop replied without hesitation, “Sir, it is true. Were it not for them, I would be across the River Styx with my brother.”
“Very well. My men will transport you to the field hospital near Round Top.”
“What about the women?” Winthrop asked.
“Based on your word, they are free to go,” the officer replied.
“May I thank them before they depart?”
The captain motioned for the women to be brought forward and as they passed warned, “Take your daughter home and stay off these battlefields. Next time you will not be so fortunate.”
Unnerved, the women neared Winthrop. Now prone atop a blanket with his head propped on a rock, he curled his index finger, drawing the mother close.
“Bless ya, sir,” she whispered. “Why didn’t cha tell ‘em what I was ‘bout to do?”
Winthrop swallowed and replied so only she could hear, “These fields run red with blood. I will not be responsible for even another drop.”
“But I was ‘bout to spill yours,” she sobbed.
The soldier rested his hand on her tear-stained cheek and smiled.
Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in multiple literary journals including The Opiate, SQ Magazine, The Birch Gang Review and Jonah Magazine. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of the textile industry.