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Igms issue 20, p.6

IGMS Issue 20, page 6

 

IGMS Issue 20
 


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  "And you've done it many times since, by the look of you," I said.

  "True. And I expect I only have one more left in me. The next will take my last heartbeat. In the best case, I'm not long for this world." He snorted. "Where's God's love of justice?"

  "Then why don't you save the next soldier who comes to you? Bailey's life is just as precious as anyone's."

  "He might yet live."

  "He has a chance of living!" I cried. "More likely than not, he'll get blood poisoning and come back for you to take off his arm - but it'll be too late. He was a musician, did you know? He played the fiddle and the guitar. Why didn't you save him?"

  "Because of all I have seen of death!" he snapped. "Not a day goes by that I don't send someone from this world. I have held the hands of a hundred thousand men, old men and children both, while darkness took them and their eyes went glassy with their last sight. And then the next carcass comes in, and I superintend its passage. I have seen death so many times - no one knows his face like I do! Having seen his face so many times, how could I know anything for him but fear? He is the destroyer, the thief in the night, who steals, kills, and destroys; the devil, boy, the devil himself!"

  He clenched his hands and rubbed his fists on his temples. "And you ask why I don't throw myself into his jaws. Well? Do you call it selfishness?"

  "No," I admitted. I sat on a cot, cradling my head in my hands. "Then why did you save me?"

  "You remind me of someone. That's all you need to know."

  "Someone you lost?"

  "That's all you need to know." He closed his eyes and stiffened in a momentary spasm. Pain clouded his face, then passed. Pity for the man overwhelmed me. I knelt before him. "Don't do that," he said.

  "What can I do?" I said. "You are giving so much."

  He took my chin in his hand. I was surprised again at its coolness. "Live, boy, just live. You will be my testament against God."

  Disease and death assaulted me as I left the field hospital. Everywhere lay the fruits of war: men of every age, from a beardless drummer boy to a silver-haired lieutenant, frozen forever in their final agonies, claimed by disease, starvation, shell, or bullet. A small cart worked its way up the hill, already laden with fallen soldiers to crowd coffinless into the graveyard.

  McNoughton galloped by. Here is your legacy, I thought. A horrible idea came to me.

  I ran to the burial cart. "McNoughton wants you," I told the driver. "I'll take over." Recognizing me as the General's aide, he offered no argument. I took the reins and whipped the horses up the hill. They strained at their stinking cargo.

  The mansion that served as the General's office had large French windows on the rear, the glass long since shattered. I jumped down and opened the windows. The General napped on a leather sofa within. The room was dark, all the drapes having been closed as caution against snipers. I urged the horses on and they stepped tentatively through. Their hooves on the hardwood floor awakened Pemberton. He rose with a long lionesque yawn.

  He saw what I was doing and his eyes popped. "What is the meaning -" he said.

  I whipped the horses, hard, and they sprang forward. A forward wheel caught on the window jamb while the other wheel went over. The frantic horses continued to tug. The cart capsized, spilling its grotesque freight into the room. Bodies slipped and slid over one another, swollen tongues lolling in swollen heads, digits bloated with fever or sticklike with starvation. The tide of the fallen filled the room. The General leapt back, his mouth moving like that of a fish.

  "What - what in blazes -"

  "An accident, sir, an accident! I'm awful sorry, sir, just awful sorry that you had to see this!" I took the tongs from the fireplace and made a ludicrous attempt to move a corpse. "Legacies are fine things indeed, sir, but it's not so pleasant to see what they're built on. I'll just get these men back to the graveyard. Again, awful sorry to bother you with this."

  He glared at me. "Do you think I don't understand what my decision means, Ashby? Do you think I don't comprehend the suffering of the men under my command?"

  "All due respect, sir - no. You've eaten very well these six weeks, sir, and so have I, I'll admit. But in the trenches, they're dying by the hundreds. And for what? If I may speak baldly, sir."

  "I doubt you'll demand my permission," he said, seething with anger.

  "For your ego, sir, and for McNoughton's. You're too scared to surrender and reveal your northern heritage. Rather than face the scorn of your adopted society, you'd drag seventeen thousand men to the grave with you. Seventeen thousand men, every single one of them braver than you."

  "This city is of incalculable strategic importance," he said. "If Vicksburg falls, the Union will control the Mississippi." The words were hollow. I sensed my grisly theatric display eroding his resistance.

  "It's fallen, sir," I said. "If you spent more time outside, instead of napping and letting McNoughton do your job, you'd know that. Sir." I spoke coolly as you please. Pemberton wouldn't kill me for speaking out, and that black beast Death was the only thing I feared. "As for your ego, sir - surrender. Grant won't keep you or any of us prisoner. He's too busy fighting a war to ship so many men up north. You'll get paroled soon enough, and then you resign your commission, showing that you are truly ashamed of your failure. Your loyalty to the Confederacy will go unquestioned. And for McNoughton's ego - let it hang."

  He fell on his couch. "By God. If there's truth to your words, then I have acted monstrously."

  I had nothing to say. The evidence was piled at his feet.

  With a half-dozen soldiers, I cleaned up the mess and turned the cart over to the driver. "Had an accident," I explained.

  Pemberton summoned McNoughton. "Tell the artillery to stand down."

  "What do you mean by this, sir?" he said, his eyes flashing.

  "I mean that we're surrendering. We've lost."

  McNoughton clicked his heels and threw a salute. "I have too much respect for the chain of command to disagree with you, sir," he said, clipping out his syllables one by one. "I will inform the men of their commander's decision." He marched away.

  Pemberton beamed with relief. "Ah . . . Ashby, find something white." I laughed aloud and dashed upstairs to rummage the linen drawers.

  I opened a wardrobe and tore out the sheets: maroon, orange, blue. Not even a yellow. None of the beds yielded better results. I rifled through a footlocker and hauled out a pair of long johns - purple. I threw them on the floor. Not a scrap of white cloth to be found!

  And then I heard a scream. I heard screams every day, of course. But this scream momentarily froze my blood and paralyzed my brains. It was the General.

  I vaulted down the stairs and into the office. Revolver drawn, McNoughton stood behind Pemberton, who was sprawled facedown on the floor with blood pooling on his back. The eastern curtains were open. "He threw the curtains open in his excitement," McNoughton said calmly. "He forgot about the snipers. I was coming in when I heard the shot."

  "Why is your revolver out?" I shouted.

  "I drew it in alarm. I thought we were under attack. You can check the cartridges if you don't believe me. You'll find them all there." He put his revolver on the desk. "But you forget yourself, private." The usual imperious tone returned. "I am your commanding officer now. And I command you to belay the General's last order. There will be no surrender." Far away, the Union guns boomed. "They're resuming their assault. I must prepare the defenses."

  He left.

  I didn't lose a second. I bolted through the French windows and down the hill to the field hospital, where I found Collier bent over a soldier with a foot-long splinter in his back. "Hold still, dammit. Hold him still!"

  "Doctor," I said, breathlessly, "Doctor. I need you immediately. The General's been shot."

  He threw me an impatient glance, then withdrew the splinter hastily. "Bandage it," he told the nurse. "I'll get my tools."

  Collier grabbed a black bag and we headed up the hill. Shells wrought their
awful handiwork on the barricades below us. Collier leaned heavily on my arm and by the time we reached the mansion, I was all but carrying him. He breathed heavily and with great difficulty. I ushered him inside.

  He knelt beside Pemberton. "He's dead," he said angrily. "I have other things I could be doing."

  "He just issued the surrender," I said. "McNoughton's in charge now. That means no surrender. That means your work won't end. You'll be watching men die for days on days."

  He shook his head. "I can't do anything."

  "Bring him back."

  "I can't."

  "Bring him back and everyone lives. McNoughton and the enemies of life lose. No more shells. No more slow death of starvation. Seventeen thousand men - or thirteen or fourteen by now, I don't know - all living testaments against God, who so desires our destruction."

  "I can't," he said. "I've seen the face of death. He wants me more than anyone."

  "You have to."

  A coughing fit seized him. He covered his mouth with his handkerchief.

  "You're dying, Doctor. So many others have died without meaning or worth. You can be different."

  "Shut your damn mouth," Collier said, and placed his hands on the General's back. A moment later he held up a little piece of metal and tossed it away. He staggered to his feet, pressed his handkerchief into my hands, and lurched through the door. Pemberton stirred.

  "Hell of a headache," he croaked. "Help me up, boy."

  So it was Collier's bloodstained, grimy, stinking handkerchief that flew on the roof of the mansion when Pemberton presented Grant with his sword under the lone oak tree on the morning of July 4th. I stood beside McNoughton in the honor guard. "After you're paroled," I whispered, "make your way to Pennsylvania. Maybe Lee can find a way for you to die gloriously."

  McNoughton kept his eyes forward. "I will serve my country as best I can. I wouldn't expect a coward like you to understand that."

  I laughed quietly. "If the past six weeks have taught me anything, Major General, it's this: it's easy to die."

  And, laughing with the joy of life, I left him frowning under the tree, to be led away by Grant with all the other officers.

  As for us of the 3rd, we were free to go after turning in our uniforms. Just as I'd predicted, Grant had no time to bother with transporting us up north. He figured we'd want to head straight home to our families, and he was right. Spencer and I packed some things for the long walk to Tennessee, while Bailey, still weak with his wounds, looked on. I sold my rifle and sword to a bluecoat sergeant. I was done with them.

  "Wait one second," I said when we were ready to head out. I walked up the hill, past the crews toiling with the dead in the hot summer sun, to the field hospital.

  I found Collier right where I expected him, curled up in his chair, resting at last. He was so small and light that I could carry him with ease down to the field - where I scooped a grave in the soft loam with my hands.

  "You'll feed the corn," I said. "Or cotton or okra." Flowering life after death - I think that's how he would have wanted it. "Yessir, the grass will come back, and the cotton will grow up tall and with white bolls bursting, and the trees will be green again. It can be made right again." After a pause, I added, "There's a brook in the mountains back in Tennessee where the brown trout stand in the clear running water, and I think, even after all this dying, that brook is still there."

  Further words failing me, I tipped my hat and took the first step toward Tennessee.

  Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon

  by Erin Cashier

  Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

  * * *

  "You need to bring her body back," my aunt said as I ate at her table. "They're lighting the Dragon soon. Go and get her."

  I frowned, but only my soup could see. "There'll be other lightings --"

  "How often do officers die? You get her. Leave tomorrow. You'll have a week to bring her body back."

  I sighed and watched the contents of my dinner ripple beneath the weight of my chore. "I don't want to."

  My aunt leaned back, and crossed her arms across her wide bosom. "Bring her back, or don't come back at all," she said sternly. I looked up and saw the memory of my mother cross her face. "But wait until tomorrow."

  I started off in the morning, my aunt setting me on my way. I complained that I couldn't remember where I'd buried her, but my aunt knows that's a lie. I protested and she ignored me and we danced until I was out the door and it was locked behind me.

  The Dragon's metallic carcass casts my aunt's home in shadow. She lives in the wake of its botched landing, in a place where five generations of weather have worn jagged rubble into grassy foothills. Massive fragments of the Dragon litter its self-made valley floor. Far below, on the other side of the ridge, engines as wide as four arms apart are dreaming giant rusting dreams, waiting to be woken.

  We light the Dragon when an officer has died. There's a ceremony, a long procession, and everyone deposits the remains of their loved ones in the blast path. Then the engines turn over, and -- chuggity-chuggity-chuggity-woooosh! -- we've cremated them to ash, so they can lift up into the clouds.

  So now I've got a bag on my back meant for my mother, and a three day walk out to get her.

  Of course I learned about death before my mother died. I know it isn't just people who die. It's technology, too. Dust gets into things it oughtn't and then they break down. The genoark was the first to crap out, leaving us with just chickens for our meals. I've seen pictures of other creatures: cats, dogs, and read stories with horses; but the only thing I've ever really seen enough of to believe in has been a pullet.

  After that went the nan controls. I don't get what nans were, precisely -- my mother told me that they were very, very, small, and that they helped a lot, once upon a time. But they're just stories as far as I'm concerned -- I can't imagine grains of sand working miracles on other grains of sand.

  I make it to the edge of the impact crater the first day. Where the grass begins to thin, I see Watchers, hazy and indistinct, watching me.

  No one knew about the Watchers before we landed -- and maybe that's because they weren't there until we arrived. The current theory, and the one I most espouse, is that it was our wants and needs that brought them up -- little clouds of wishes and hopes and fears. It's why they follow you most closely when someone you know has died. And why when you walk alone at night, they follow you tight behind, slipping from shadow to shadow.

  I've got three of them on my trail. They follow behind me like lazy but excitable children, drifting away for a time before veering back, as if to make sure I haven't accidentally gone away. I control my thoughts so that they can't show me things I don't want to see.

  The people who started this -- my mother's mother's mother, with maybe another two or three thrown in -- what would they have said after wobbling out from the Dragon's wreckage like newborn chicks:

  "Nightmares of the crash replayed out around us!"

  "Many tongued demons visiting us from hell --"

  "Don't come, don't follow!"

  I imagine most of the original fuel was spent on keeping their camp as bright as possible, to light the nascent trees and scare the Watchers away.

  The Watchers hover around me and my strong emotions, reds and blacks flickering on their emerging faces. I inhale, exhale, and calm myself deep down inside. Nothing doing here, slight creatures. And I make myself so still that one of them dissipates entirely, lost to the growing wind.

  On the second day grass gives way entirely, leaving only rock behind. Two Watchers dance and I ignore them, until one of them shows me her face.

  I knew when I started this trip that this would happen.

  I inhaled deeply, to try to swallow down the emotions that just a glimpse of her raises up in me. But for a moment the air between the Watcher and me is charged. I remember her mostly from my youth, when her skin was firm and her eyes were bright, and it is this face that looks back at me, mouth closed, eyes wid
e.

  "Please stop," I tell the Watcher. It's being cruel, although I know it means no harm. I catch my thoughts before they race, bringing them back into myself, hiding them before the thing can taunt me anymore. The more distant of the two remaining Watchers perhaps gets disgusted by this turn of events -- I've been told I can hold my emotions back more than most, especially by men who this fact has left disappointed -- and it seems to descend and disappear into the earth itself, leaving only the one with Mother's face. I ignore it as best I can until I sleep. If the Watcher chose to show me my thoughts and dreams, I had no light to see them.

  In the morning she was still there beside me. My actual mother was a bit further out, underneath a particular stone. There was no use in pleading with the Watcher now, it showed me her face all the time.

  "I don't understand you," I told it. "What did your kind do before my kind came here?"

  As we walk, the image of my mother trails along beside me, the picture firming in my mind. Her hair streams behind her even though there is no wind, and she is covered in the orange plastisilk pajamas I remember her wearing in my youth.

  "How can you eat? How can you change? How can you evolve?"

  But I knew the answers to all of these things -- they didn't. They existed to haplessly torment us, seeming to feed upon our sorrow.

  The Watcher paused beside me and I noticed this, looking back. Despite the fact that the thing was pisspoor company, I suddenly felt alone. "Well, come on," I told it, and it caught up to me quickly, like a hungry hen.

  The home we had lived in was gnawed away by the dust the wind held, walls scoured thin by time. I knew her small tombstone was behind it.

 
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