The Pretender

 By Jacquelyn White

Evelyn felt the bandage binding her breasts cut into her skin as she leaned over to clean her musket. She had lost count of how many times she had polished the barrel’s exterior with a cotton rag, no longer white from all the oils and dirt that had nested in the fabric. As she slowly ran the dry rag up and down the barrel, she recalled a time when she once hated this repetitive process.

Initially her cleanings had been half-hearted and sloppy. When she first enlisted, she had been scolded often during training for leaving sweet oil to pool in the crevices of the gun’s intricate mechanisms. Now she had spent so much time sitting around that cleaning her musket had become a beloved ritual, an escape from the monotony of daily life in camp.

She sat on a tree stump that was conveniently located in front of her tent’s entrance. Her tent was one of the many set up in neat rows across a field, studding the grass in an organized sea of white prisms. The smoke from the small fire pit in her tent row floated gracefully into the air, dancing up into a blue sky. She could see one of her fellow soldiers prodding a pot that hung over the fire, most likely brewing hot water for coffee. Not a cloud could be seen for miles and the warm zephyrs caressed Evelyn as they passed, stirring a stray strand of brown hair that dangled in her face. It was days like these that she really missed working on the farm.

At home, she would wake at dawn and put on her most drab work dress before heading downstairs to sit at the table. Oftentimes she was the last one to arrive, taking a seat just as Marilyn walked in baring bowls of corn mush or porridge sprinkled with berries. Some days, if Marilyn had the proper provisions, the family would fill their stomachs with sweet pies. After gobbling up whatever was placed in front of them—and washing it down with a cup of cider—they would head outside to perform their respective tasks. They would work until her sister served dinner around noon, ringing a bell outside the kitchen door to call them all in. Evelyn found that no matter how stuffed she felt after leaving the house in the morning, she always looked forward to eating more by time the afternoon came around. Her famished brothers would anxiously devour their dinner, often throwing away table manners in their eagerness. The smacking of lips and food being chewed always made her sister cringe. Every now and again her and her brothers—glistening wet from the sun beating down upon them—would sneak away from their work to swim in the river. But the more tensions grew between the American colonies and England, the more their Papa’s business suffered. The slaves had already been sold—as Robert found them too expensive to maintain—and help on the farm was needed more than ever before. After that, Alexander became so stern that everyone avoided speaking to him, and the trips to the river stopped. Even now as she sat on her stump cleaning her musket—participating in a grand masquerade—she yearned for those little adventures again.

Four young soldiers passed by her tent, a blur of blue coats and white breeches. Pieces of large, tanned leather were stretched across their hands and between their fingers as rudimentary gloves. Henry, the tallest of the bunch, tossed a ball up in the air as he walked, catching it easily with his ungloved hand when it fell back to him. Evelyn had been there when he had crafted it, shearing the hair off a farmer’s finest sheepdog and stuffing the tufts into a leather sphere he had sewn together himself. He had found it impossible to contain the hair during the ball’s creation, sending himself into a sneezing fit that had made Evelyn fall off her stool laughing. She remembered watching him weave the needle in and out of the leather, wondering at the sewing skills she had never possessed herself.

Marilyn had tried to teach her needlework once, but she had bored of it so quickly that she went running back to the stables, to Alexander, so that he could put her to shoveling the horse stalls again. She thought about her brothers and her Papa once more, and wondered what her sister might have made of the letter she had sent. She even thought about her pesky Aunt, who had so persistently insisted that farm work was no job for a woman, no matter what economic state the family was in. If only Aunt Alice could see her now, see how much that farm work she had admonished over all these years had been put to good use. Evelyn almost laughed aloud thinking about it.

“Morning, blooming boy,” Henry greeted her. She immediately found herself irritated, not wanting to be pulled out of her thoughts. Cleaning her musket was time to meditate, time for herself. The four soldiers stopped in front of her tent. Evelyn dried the oils on her flintlock, hoping that the boys would leave if she openly ignored them. She had long since grown accustomed to their open mocking of her clean face, though one of the three men with Henry had no facial hair to speak of and could not have been older than sixteen. Still, he had broad shoulders to compensate for it. Instead, Evelyn was stuck with a barrage of nicknames insulting a masculinity she had never possessed in the first place.

“Molly Gale. Molls? Molly!” he said, trying in vain to catch her attention. His aggravation amused her; she had to fight the smile she felt growing on her face.

“Evan!” he yelled.

“There you go,” she said, lifting her head at the sound of the name she had given herself when she first enlisted. Evelyn had shown up to an enlistment sign up in a small town outside of Saratoga dressed in her Papa’s most drab clothing: breeches drawn cumbersomely around her waist with a rudimentary belt, a white linen shirt pooling around her slim form, her dark hair pulled into a low ponytail, and a square hat sitting slightly cocked upon her head. As she waited in line to sign her name to the parchment that would commit her to the Continental army for a year, fears of being caught clouded her thoughts. She became hyperaware of her feminine features, how awkwardly her Papa’s clothing fit her. When she came to the table, the process had been shockingly simple. They had asked her a few questions and then handed her a quill for her signature. In a moment of excitement, she had almost signed “Evelyn Gable.” Stopping mid-name, she had created “Evan Gale” out of the first two letters that were already signed to the page.

“Game of fives?” Henry asked, tossing his ball up into the air again. Evelyn placed the musket and rag into her lap.

“For the fourth time today? No thank you,” she said.

“Afraid to lose, Bloomers?” he said.

“Look Henry, I know you want a little competition for once, but don’t worry! I’m sure plenty of other men in camp would be happy to whip your arse. So have a good game, men,” she said, going back to her cleaning. This had such a finality to it that the boys continued their walk down the row of tents, in search of their fifth player. Evelyn took her rag soaked with sweet oil, rounding it about the flintlock carefully. Though she was absorbed in her thoughts as quickly as she had been yanked out of them, she heard the rustling of her tent flap being opened.

“It’s funny that you should turn them down, when I think that may be the hundred-and-twentieth time today you’ve polished your gun,” a voice said. Evelyn turned to see her tent-mate Gabriel standing behind her in the tent’s entrance. He was sliding his blue coat over his shoulders for the sake of decorum, though his hat was still sitting on his cot, leaving his blonde head barren.

“Have you been counting?” she asked.

“It’s difficult not to notice when the damned thing is so clean that it could be a mirror. The sun’s light is bouncing off it. It’s hurting my eyes,” he said.

Evelyn smiled, pinching her lips together as she did so. She tried her best not to bare her teeth during these moments, because her Papa had once told her that she looked most like her Mama when she smiled wide with abandonment. He told her it was her most beautiful feature, and she guarded it even in the presence of her closest friend.

“Don’t you ever tire of the nicknames?” he asked, buttoning up his coat. Evelyn had tired of the nicknames a long time ago, within the first day she had joined the company and had been singled out for her appearance. But now, she knew there was no ill-intent behind their nickname for her. They had spent too much time together now to hate one another.

“Of course, but until I can grow some whiskers, I’m out of luck,” she said.  Gabriel scoffed.

“Why not just give one of them a good punch? Especially Henry. He obviously didn’t get enough whippings as a boy,” he said.

“From growing up with three other brothers, I can say that the less I acknowledge, the less they taunt. I’m happy to give them one form of entertainment here, at least,” she said, looking over the rows of tents for the sight of a ball flying through the air.

“I hope they mobilize us soon. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay here,” he said.

“They’ll have to or my musket is going to be no good anymore,” she joked.

Gabriel laughed and then silence fell between them. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of Evelyn’s forehead as the sun beat down on her. She yearned for those dips in the river with her brothers, but even on their down time, swimming was discouraged by their higher ups. She had always been told that water was toxic to the body, that it bred disease. But she had never gotten sick, nor had her brothers. Even if she could sneak off for a swim—she had seen a creek running along the road nearby as they marched—it wasn’t worth the risk. If someone were to come upon her, it would all be over. She wasn’t sure how they treated women like her in the army. She hadn’t really thought about it when she enlisted and she had tried her best to keep it out of her mind since.

“It’s hot,” Gabriel complained, shifting inside his coat.

“It is not that bad. Imagine! We could be in Virginia,” she said.

“I can’t imagine. I’ve never been to Virginia,” he said.

“Neither have I,” she said with a laugh.

“They have us out in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t even any women here to share a tent with,” he said with a wistful sigh.

“How many women have you been with since you enlisted anyway?” she asked, though she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to hear the answer. Gabriel paused for a few moments, thinking about his conquests.

“Let’s see, there was a whore named Grace, a farmer’s daughter Abigail, you remember Sarah. There was a bonny redhead named Lydia. Oh! Then there was that beautiful blonde nurse Prudence. Who certainly didn’t live up to her name, might I add. She had the best…”

“Okay, that’s enough. I’m sorry I asked,” she interrupted. “Well, I’m going to go join them in their game of fives, assuming they haven’t found another victim yet of course. Have to occupy myself somehow,” he said.

“Oh and Evan,” he said. She looked up at him, remembering her enlistment, how strange her new signature had looked on the parchment. Now the name seemed more  real to her than the one she had been given. But there were times her new name came out his mouth and it felt so wrong, so deceitful. There were times where she wanted to hear him call her “Evelyn.” He smiled at her.

“Don’t polish your musket so much that it never jams. I owe you a saved life, remember?” he said, giving her a hardy pat on the back. Gabriel walked by her and down the row of tents, headed towards the latrine she presumed. His blonde ponytail swung behind him, and the bottom of his coat fluttered in the breeze. The shoulder was ripped, letting the white of his undershirt show through. She remembered the smell of gunpowder filling her nose as she ran across the battlefield, breathing heavily as she caught sight of Gabriel in hand-to-hand combat with a red coat, his bayonet glinting in the sun as it broke off his musket and fell to the ground. The red coat had swung his bayonet with striking speed, cutting into Gabriel’s shoulder. With that she was running again, getting closer and closer to the miniature battle. Though she had only known Gabriel for a few months, Evelyn could not imagine a life without his subtle humor, his golden laugh. When she had been faced with that possibility, her reaction had been automatic. Her bayonet seemed to wield itself, piercing through the British soldier’s stomach with a squish. Red was everywhere; It stained his coat, ran down her musket, dripped onto her hands like hot rain. She fingered the shining blade at the end of her musket as the memory faded away.

Yes, she had saved his life and for that he was grateful. But this was not what she wanted. Though she knew it was impossible, what she wanted was his affections. Though she had not looked at her own reflection in months, she knew what he saw: Her feminine forms bound to create a boyish body covered in uniform; small hands almost permanently stained with dirt; a face barren of hair, except for the ones bushing over her eyes and dotting the space between her eyebrows; a guarded, awkward half-smile. With this image of herself in mind she continued to polish her musket barrel, wishing—for just a fleeting moment—that that he could look at her and see what he saw in all those women that had shared his cot.

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Jacquelyn White is an undergraduate writing student from Ithaca College. Though she currently lives in New York, she is native to Bel Air, Maryland. Her art history essay “Mata Hari: The Creation of an Oriental Identity” will be published in Cerise Press’ Spring 2012 issue.

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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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