Sunday, January 14, 2007

Short Story: One More Soul

Traces of the bitter smell lingered in the still evening air, held there as a bleak reminder of what had occurred this day. The cool autumn wind which earlier had kept these fields free of sight-obscuring smoke had vanished, distancing itself from any responsibility for the carnage. The late October sun seemed to also retreat, moving effortlessly towards the distance horizon, painting the sky with glorious oranges and reds. Sadly, even this natural brilliance did little to recast the horror on which the light from the retreating sun would soon fade.

Having regained consciousness, and uncertain of the location of his regiment, a soldier rose slowly and gazed about at the host of prone, unmoving figures. He gently rubbed his head where something had hit him. No blood. Puzzled but relieved, he began to walk cautiously among the dead without thought to direction. Dry grass and fallen leaves crunched quietly under his feet as he looked at the shattered forms of what used to be men. Somewhat grateful for his mind’s partial numbness, he wondered at the absence of the familiar bobbing lanterns heralding the grim searches for the wounded.

Patches of surrounding brush still burned. The yellowish tint combined with the setting sun’s ebbing light to color the wispy smoke a hellish crimson. The slight tinge of red served to deepen the fiendish taint of the haze that mercifully obscured the full scene of catastrophic battle. Stopping, he took a deep breath. A fetid taste of death sourly permeated the life sustaining air. Touched with a sense of sad resignation, he continued forward, scanning the ground to avoid treading on the detritus of battle, not knowing in which direction he should go.

Elsewhere on the field lay an anonymous form, once vital and energetic, now bleeding more that life could long sustain. Yet the fluid that ebbed from his body did so slowly enough to allow the retention of sensibility. As he held on to precious life, he suffered the agony of a shattered leg and a rifle shot to the chest. Neither wound would allow the mercy of a quick death although the infliction of both ensured that eventual end. He wondered where his comrades had gone, if he would die here alone on ground so far from his home.

Looking up at the sky, he marveled that while God saw fit to take him from this world, He had at least offered him the final gift of a beautiful sunset. He took his breaths slowly, deliberately, to lessen the pain in his chest.

Through the tall grass that rubbed against his face, he noticed a figure moving towards where he lay. The burning smoke in his eyes did not allow him to focus. He could not distinguish the color of the man’s coat. At this point, perhaps that it matched his own blue uniform would not matter so much. He hoped that at least this man may have water to quench his growing, consuming thirst.

As the man moved closer, his vision cleared. Although the nearing figure wore gray, fear of the enemy seemed no longer relevant. "They can’t kill me more than once," he thought. He opened his mouth and, with a struggle, forced himself to call out, "Hello." His only response was the unmistakable taste of blood in his mouth. The raspy, weak utterance did not reach the approaching man’s ears but did add to the pain from the hole in his chest. Wincing, taking a deeper breath, the air drawing into his lungs mixed with the fluid filling them. He tried again. "Hello." This time, the man in gray turned his head, looking for the source of the single friendly word.

"Who?" he asked, puzzled, again rubbing his head. To this point, none of the fallen shapes had spoken to him.

"Here," the northerner gasped, the exhalation bringing more pain.

Glancing about, he saw a man in blue looking back at him from the ground. The Confederate quickly scanned the prostrate form, taking in the wounds that contributed to the glazed look in this beckoning man’s eyes.

"Need help," the Yank said with obvious exertion. "Water?"

After a reflective pause, the southerner reached for his canteen, then moved towards the fallen man. Kneeling slowly beside him as if the blood commanded reverence, he held out the container of water. "Can ya move?" he asked, looking closer at the growing stains on his woolen clothing.

"No" he said. "I’m afraid…I should soon die." Both winced at the anguish in his labored speech.

Moving closer, he tipped his canteen towards the wounded man. The water poured out, some into his mouth, some down the sides of his face. His sudden coughing forced out as much water as he took in, bringing another look of stabbing terrible pain. The agonizing waves swept across his powder stained face as he tried to remain still. He grabbed at the ground with both his hands.

After a moment passed, he again took in air preparing another effort. "Would you," he paused, stopping to take several short difficult breaths, "letters…my pocket." His body, more rigid as he spoke, relaxed once he finished as if just finishing some arduous task. As the southerner found and removed the bundle of letters, a photograph fell to the ground. He rescued the keepsake from the grass and, brushing off tiny bits of soil, looked at the faces. Two young girls and a woman looked back at him.

"Please?" The fallen man pleaded glancing at the picture. A compassionate hand held the photograph about a foot from his face. A different softer pain now overtook him. After several seconds, sorrow closed his eyes.

A few more breaths and he again tried to speak. "Please, could you," he inhaled again, "a note?" Seeing the kneeling man’s questioning look, he responded, "In the bundle." Quickly flipping through, he found a blank piece of paper. Seeing a name repeated on several envelopes, he looked at the man and asked, "Johnny?" The stricken man nodded. The unfortunate irony did not escape either man. He reached into his pack and pulled out a pencil.

With gasps, pauses, and great effort, the Federal uttered a brief letter. "My Darling Wife. I die for my country, but my last thoughts are of you." He took a longer pause to regain some strength and then said more clearly, "We will meet again." Looking up at the man writing, he pleaded, "Send it…please," then weakly gestured with his hand "in the bundle." The other man nodded, knowing he would find what he needed to send this last letter to a soon-to-be grieving family.

A few moments passed. The land continued to darken. The Confederate looked around the field wondering how many others still lived, fated to spend the night alone on the unforgiving ground. He signed deeply and, in seeming response, the other man spoke. "The pain," he panted. "Please. I cannot live." His eyes pleaded in a way his voice no longer could. The other man stood suddenly. "No," he said quickly, looking away as if searching for a place he would rather be.

"I…cannot live," the dying soldier repeated. The man in gray suddenly felt apprehension sweep through him. He glanced around rapidly, peering into the closing night. Hours ago, he fired as quickly as he could at the advancing, attacking blue lines, obeying ever officer’s command. Now, when this enemy wished death, he could not oblige. He looked down at the struggling man who now lay with his eyes closed, his shallow breaths bringing the only movement his body could tolerate. Once again, he heard the word, "Please." Taking his own deep breath, he looked over the cluttered ground, focusing on the numerous bodies lying nearby. Finally, seeing what he had feared he would find, he moved away.

Returning with his sad prize, he knelt over the man, took his hand, and with anxiety ensured all was in working order. Then, after whispering a brief prayer, the soldier in gray released his hand. The man uttered one last word. "Letter." "Yes. I will," was the reply. The Confederate soldier walked away, tucking the bundle of letters and newly written note into his knapsack.

After some time, a single shot broke the stillness of the battlefield. Were he close enough, he would have noticed the faint smell of sulfur, and the slightest hint of what might be a surprisingly peaceful smile. Allowing his thoughts to drift back for a moment, he silently mourned the loss of one more soul. Then, walking just a little faster, he once again sought to locate his regiment.



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Judi said...

For the many who, like me, search for how it felt, looked, smelled, and tasted to these soldiers in the dim past, you again shed light.

Randy said...

Thank you Judi. Nice to hear from you again.