AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 26
Subject to Editing
He raised his head and held it with the palm of his left hand. Lightning flashed, and he borrowed its luminance to steal a glance at Mama’s face, ashen and smoky, the eyes still open. A memory of a distant bible study flared through him, and he softly quoted from the book of Daniel.
“Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength.” He continued to stroke her forehead, gingerly, lovingly. “We have a lot in common with Daniel, you and me, Mama. That one… Daniel, chapter ten, verse eight… it describes both of us. See, when you’re dead and gone, Mama, I’ll have lost the last person that means anything to me, and I’ll not seek the affections of another.” He swallowed hard. “With no one to love, I’ll never have another to mourn.”
As he went silent, he noticed her breathing slow, stop, and then resume its quick pace. He let go of his head and lay it upon his arm, which he stretched out beneath the pillow. Exhaustion took hold, hard and quick, and he closed his eyes and allowed the fatigue to set in. He hadn’t been aware of how tired he’d been, thinking now about this day’s events and how they’d probably aided in his drowsiness. He was struck by how affected a body could be from emotional stress, how a few hours of strain could collapse a man’s vitality more than a full day of army drill. This line of thinking caused him to slip back to Camp Randall, the company dressed in their grays, stumbling around like the rough recruits they’d been. Sergeant Westcott was yelling at somebody for turning right when they should have turned left, and Arlis snickered in his mind – perhaps in the flesh, too – at the common mistake so many had made in the early days of training.
Suddenly, Westcott was in his ear, screaming at him to “get up that hill and bring back yer friends!” Chamberlain. Arlis tightened, looking at those around him… Talty, Sullivan, and the Hairy One, offering no assistance, no judgment. They stared at him blankly, until Harrison gestured to the hill that had materialized in front of the company.
Arlis, in a panic, held his musket at the ready and bolted to the base of the hill. Here, he realized something wasn’t right, as he was still wearing the state issued gray uniform they’d worn so long ago. We never fought in these, he thought, recognizing the unmistakable outline ahead as that of Turner’s Gap, the ground growing hard and rocky, as he made his way up the battlefield at South Mountain. The Rebs were firing at him now, the balls whizzing and buzzing passed his head, ricocheting off of the rocky formations… formations that were larger and rockier than any he’d seen his first time here. The elevation increased, and the vegetation transformed, changing from prairie grass to tall, winding weeds and then, Oh God, no, cornstalks. Arlis pressed onward, upward, searching for familiar ground, the ground he’d last seen George Chamberlain lying upon, bloodied and frightened. He saw him now, laying between the cornstalks… stalks that were far taller than they had any business being, at nearly twice the height of a grown man.
“Badger,” Chamberlain said as Arlis approached. “The corn’s alive, Badger.”
Of course it is, Arlis thought, squatting next to Chamberlain. “I’m gonna get you out this time, Maid,” he said, calling him by the nickname the boys had given him. Chamberlain hated it.
“I ain’t yer chambermaid,” George said, frowning. “Careful of the leg, now.” He reached out and grabbed Arlis by the front of his coat, gripping hard, pulling him close. With their faces just inches apart, George said, “This is your last shot, Badger. Don’t fuck me this time.”
Arlis pulled away and slid his arms beneath Chamberlain. “I couldn’t even get to you last time, Maid. I’ll save you this time.” He easily picked the man up, as one might pick up a knapsack or a bushel, as he weighed next to nothing, far less than he should have, anyway. He turned to head down the mountain and the gunfire increased. It was close and loud, chilling. Arlis took two steps and was forced to stop, as something had caught on Chamberlain and was impeding his movement. Arlis turned and watched as the cornstalks moved and grabbed, collapsing around the man, taking hold of Chamberlain’s arms and wrapping around his neck.
“NO!” Arlis screeched, taking hold of his bayonet and slashing at the leaves, cutting them at their origins on the stalks. As one was cut free another would take hold. Arlis increased his cutting speed, thrashing wildly at the stalks while pulling, and finally both were free, the sudden release from the bondage of the plants causing him to fall to the ground, Chamberlain sprawling out next to Arlis.
“Hey,” Chamberlain said, “I told ya ta watch the leg!”
Arlis gave a quick look behind them, expecting the corn to try again. But the corn was gone, allowing a full view of the Rebel line, a fortified trench about 75 yards to the front. Rebel heads poked up from behind the walls as their owners fired muskets at the men, who seemed to be the only Union soldiers on the battlefield. He felt his heart racing, beating as fast as his mother’s had been, and now his breathing rate matched hers as well. This time, he’d have no problem keeping the respirations at that measure.
“Okay, once more,” Arlis said to Chamberlain, picking him up. He held him like the man was a toddler, with one arm under his buttocks. As he started to the rear again the Rebels fired a full volley, blowing Chamberlain’s head clean off and knocking Arlis to the ground again. Sitting up, Arlis settled next to the headless corpse, the top of the neck cut clean, bloodless, looking like a round log that had been sawed in half. The firing ceased, causing Arlis to look toward the Rebel line, but the Rebs were gone, the terrain altered again. He realized he was no longer on the South Mountain battlefield, but in the courtyard of the hospital, the crazy old woman yelling at someone for getting blood all over her antique rug. He was abruptly surrounded by the familiar faces of Company K, who held their heads low in shame or disappointment or plain old disapproval, their body language matching their heads in agreement.
Then, Violet Rhys, fourteen years old and dressed in an elaborate red calico dress, resplendent with a repeating, white maple leaf pattern, pushed her way through the crowd of onlookers to stand at the feet of the corpse on the ground. Arlis sat wide-eyed, his eyes fixed on the girl.
“You stupid, stupid boy,” said Violet, refusing to make eye contact with him. “Can’t you save anybody?”
Arlis followed her gaze to the corpse on the ground, his eyes scanning it from the feet upward. The body was dressed in white bedclothes and slippers, wrapped in a quilt. Mama!