Monday, October 23, 2006

Short Story: A Personal Casualty

Leaning his head back, he sat against the base of a thickly gnarled elm away from the others in camp. The heavy roots jutting up from the cool soil seemed welcoming, as if forming a place of respite just for him. Staring blankly at nothing, he wished he could to draw strength from the stoic old tree, perhaps gaining its secrets on weathering life’s storms. Letting his head roll to the side, he somewhat involuntarily focused on the thick lines of bark, tracing them with his eyes, following the deeps grooves carved in its rough timeworn trunk. Seeing an old wound long since healed, he wondered if he would prove as resilient as this longtime tenant of the deep Virginia wilderness.

Although quite removed from the others, he remained safely within the protective line of their pickets. He was alone yet, to him, not alone enough. Tonight, he found his tent suffocating, the sides seeming to collapse in around him. The normally welcome comradery of the others now simply scratched at his pain. Images only a few hours old played in his mind, dangled in front of him by some malicious, unseen puppeteer. His struggle to slow, if not to altogether bury his thoughts, had thus far proved fruitless. Though he told himself that he knew of the inevitability of this moment, he had not anticipated the unbearable anxiety that now gripped him.

The government’s impassioned calls for men had eventually drawn him in. It seemed to him that the whole town had signed up. If not everyone, then at least most of those with whom he had spent his childhood had committed to fight. Sure, he shared their sense of the Union’s importance. He shared their patriotism. After all, he loved the land of his family’s birth. However, unlike the others who dreamed of adventure and glory, he dreaded what enlisting would eventually mean, what fighting would require of him. He had naively thought that he could anticipate and thus prepare for the trials of battle and that he could cope. He always considered himself an insightful thinker. But he could not have predicted the unexpected intensity of this painfully intolerable burden.

Although only a few hours had passed, it seemed lifetimes ago that his regiment settled in for the approaching spring night, cooking over a sprinkling of fires while talking of the likely events to come. Having spent the entirety of his short army career guarding the Capitol, he had wondered how he might face his first test in the field.

He had pictured orderly lines of battle, led by their Colonel as commanded by their Generals. The army would march, move, stand, and fight as a disciplined unit, advance as needed, and withdraw when compelled. They would follow their officer’s leads and force an end to this secessionist madness. Life could then continue as it had.

This idyllic fantasy surrendered to a grim reality when the men camped to their right came crashing through their ranks in a perfect unexplained panic. Something had gone terribly wrong. Understanding immediately what this portended, their experienced Colonel, in his thick German accent, ordered the men to form ranks, shift to the right, load, and fire. Despite his foreign tongue, his bearing commanded respect. They instantly understood and quickly obeyed. The enemy was almost upon them. This proved however, their last attempt at organized movement that day. Their gallant Colonel, leading his men from in front, fell to the ground the first casualty of the sudden conflict. Others began to fall as minie balls swarmed like hornets in the breezy evening air. After some fretful uncertainty, the men broke in harried unmilitary disarray. A few fired first. Most simply ran.

Although he had initially looked to his right and left to see who might stand with him, he too ran. Dense shrubs and forest debris proved no obstacle in his quest for safer ground. Running with his still loaded musket, a voice inside called him to remember his duty and fight honorably. Crashing through the brush running to save his life, he could hear the Rebels close behind him letting loose their spine chilling demonic screams. Jumping into a slight depression, he turned to gage his distance from his gray clad pursuers. A particularly energetic Johnny raced towards him, some yards in front of even their color bearer. Perhaps now had not been a good time to stop. As the Johnny began to point his musket towards him, instinctively, and for the first time, he lowered his own rifle, aimed at the man in gray, and fired.

As if appalled by this sudden violation, time seemed to suspend its energies on this now execrably christened field. All motion seemed to slow. His southern pursuer stopped suddenly, a look of shocked disbelief and resigned comprehension painfully etched in his young face. His expression bespoke no anger, no resentment, no accusation, just stunned disbelief quickly displaced by a longing, silent plea for help. The eyes of this man, startlingly more human than any into which he had looked before, fell as the gray clad soldier’s body hit the unforgiving ground. The growing stain on his loose cotton shirt spoke of this man’s inevitable fate. Staring transfixed at the man in mystified horror, some sense of self-preservation shocked him back into awareness, reminding him of the present approaching danger. With the now enraged Rebels closing quickly, he threw his musket aside and, lightened of its burden, once again fled.

Time rejoined the drama, seeming to push him on his way as if to make up for its delinquencies of the past few seconds. Filled with the energy of near frightened hysteria, he easily outpaced his yelling pursuers. Branches, twigs, and undergrowth crunched under the steady pounding of his quickly moving feet, blending with the crackling sounds of musketry and the booming thundering accompaniment of dueling artillery. After a time and with perhaps a mile of ground behind him, he joined the reformed blue lines and night mercifully closed on the carnage. Now, he sat near camp, tormented by the lingering images of this terrible day.

He had never killed a man, nor had he seen one die. He could only think of the Johnny as a man, not as a Reb, a traitor, or the enemy. Alone on the cold dead ground, his victim was only a man like him, minus the unique gift of the precious breath of life. His soul ached with the pain that his victim no longer felt. He thought that perhaps an angry God had taken from him the serenity that perhaps both men held earlier today. The admonishment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” broke repeatedly and forcefully into his tortured thoughts. “He would have surely killed me or at least tried,” he feebly argued in defense. He rubbed his rough dirty hands hard over his suddenly older face, trying to erase the pain. He could not bear this. “I did my duty!” his inner voice defiantly shouted in response to the agony that savaged his conscience. “I did what I had to do!”

Perhaps with time he might convince himself that he had violated no moral laws. Perhaps with time, the pain would subside. But for now, although far from that place, the imploring pleading eyes of that man remained with him, staring back at him. He could still see his eyes and, to his horror, could almost see through them. He envisioned the man’s family, perhaps the children who would never again run to him, and the wife he would never hold. He saw his parents, children, and friends, wracked with an intense, bitter grief over a loss they could do nothing to undo, a loss caused by his hand.

The evening winds gently swayed the treetops and, as if to provide a merciful distraction, the old elm dropped a few twigs to the ground nearby. Snatching one within reach, he mindlessly began peeling the bark in short strips. He thought of his father, a hard working farmer who had taught him the craft of slaughtering and butchering livestock. “This is hard for me Papa,” he recalled saying to his father, trying to hold back the tears after he had reluctantly killed his first lamb. The older man’s words rang clearly in his ears, pushing from the fore the eyes which threatened to consume him. “Son, when this becomes easy, you need to stop and look at who you’ve become.”

It was not cold, yet he tossed aside his twig and pulled his blanket tightly around him, wishing for the innocence of the safer childhood he mournfully recalled and for his father’s practical strength. He stared into the darkness, searching for the eyes that he could no longer see, fearing that he would see them again and also that he might not. “What had he become?” he wondered. “What would he do tomorrow?”

Although he laid down a mile away, he felt somehow that he shared the same ground as that where his personal casualty now rested. Though he yet lived, had emerged from the fight physically unscathed, he wondered how he would survive what he had done. “This is what this is all about,” he thought, to a degree chastising himself. “To engage in war you must kill, one person at a time. No matter how the illustrated papers say it, announcing the hundreds or thousands of dead, it happens with one man killing one other, one at a time.”

Wrapped in his blanket, he tossed about on the rough ground as if wrestling with some unseen foe. His mind raced through a haze of images from both this day and his past. The lessons of his parents, his schooling, and his church all danced furiously, colliding violently with today’s incongruous events. For a while, the directionless mental conflagration continued. Then suddenly, the storm passed. His mind cleared. He knew that he could kill no more. That night, he slipped quietly through the picket line, leaving the trappings of war behind, and walked into the darkness away from someone he could not become. As he traveled through the night-shrouded woodland, he gazed upward through the swaying trees towards the stars above and offered an earnest quiet prayer for the man whose life he had taken, asking for peace for them both and for us all.



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Judi said...

I see this man, in the silence of the night, in intimate relation to God's creation..the tree, the stars, the darkness, life itself...and wonder if a young soldier of today has anything approaching the luxury of quiet contemplation against an ancient elm.
Just a thought from a military mom.

Randy said...


After I wrote it, I debated whether to post this story. I did not wish the reader to infer any disrespect directed towards those in the military or their families. I also did not intend, and I hope this was evident, to make any value judgments or to imply that what this one fictional soldier did was right or wrong. My hope with the stories that I write is to relay a side of the story about which I see very little. I want very much to underscore that these soldiers were people no different from us. They were not characters in some fantastic, mythical drama created for the amusement of those who came afterward.

Thank you as always for your kind and thoughtful comments. And, since you mentioned that you are a military Mom, I want to take a second to offer my heartfelt gratitude to you and your family for the sacrifices you have made to help make our country the place it is today.



Judi said...

Make no mistake, in my eyes you beautifully accomplished your goals
for this story.

Your purpose shines through powerfully and I'm always amazed at the gift you have to make me (and many others I'm sure) think and learn.

I'm have no doubt we share the hope that out of the noise and distractions of the modern world and modern warfare, our living soldiers are able to search out their own quiet places to do the private business of the soul.

Randy said...

Once again, thank you. And as to your wish for all to find their still, quiet place...amen.