You, the living, the quick, stand upon the earth and look about yourselves, feel the wind in your hair, perhaps the warmth of the sun on your cheek. You believe the ground beneath your feet is soil and rock, but it is not. What you stand upon are bones.
And who am I to complain? I am nothing and yet not nothing. Do not ask me to explain it for I cannot. One full century has passed and half of another. That is how long I have been here, tethered to this spot.
Still, one must try. Take this creek behind me, bordered by red oak and hickory. Slow flowing, no wider than a strong man can throw a stone, yet it bears a name soaked in bloody infamy. On a cold morning, before the sun pierces the trees, a mist rises from its waters. Cold vapors roil from the surface and the creek mirrors the steam. There is an invisible line where water and air mix and mingle. Can you picture it in your mind? Imagine that I am that unseeable line.
My name, when I had a use for such things, was Henry Thomas. The idea of a name seems foreign to me now, but I cherish it all the same. My life was short and uneventful save for its last fateful hours, yet there is so much to remember. I fill the endless years with watching and memory.
I was born near Hartford, Connecticut, in the year of 1842. Anno Domini as my former headmasters at Trinity College taught me to say. The child was born on this day in the year of our Lord 1842. I would have questions for my headmasters if I should find them, but they are long gone cold in proper graves, marked and perhaps mourned.
A dreamy lad, I was useless as a planter’s son, but I was a gifted student. I kept right on through my schooling, encouraged by my mother. My father was not poor in land, money, or sons. My brothers took on the work of the land and I was sent to Trinity College.
I entered college during troubled times. James Buchanan was president of a nation in turmoil over the question of slavery. Hartford was a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement. The Reverend Lyman Beecher preached Abolition from his pulpit. It was his daughter Harriet who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Debate ran hot in my hometown as Abraham Lincoln was elected and the southern states began seceding from the Union.
Honest Abe had only been the president for three months when The War of Rebellion began. That first year was not a good one for the Grand Army of the Potomac. While the generals and their armies chased each other up and down the Potomac, I finished my first and only year of higher schooling. In the summer of 1862, I joined up with the 16th Connecticut Volunteers under Colonel Beach.
It would be a fine thing to tell you I enlisted with the Union Army in support of the noble cause. Yes, a fine thing indeed, but that would be a lie. I volunteered for a soldier so as not to miss the great adventure of my time. Little did I know how short that adventure would prove to be.
My transition from student to soldier was a brief affair. The sergeants taught us to march in unison, execute pretty turns, and which way to point the business end of a Springfield smoothbore musket. Trained as soldiers proud and brave, we boarded trains for Maryland and our first fight of the war.
We were two weeks bivouacked with the Union Army before the 16th was thrown into battle. General McClellan’s Grand Army was a thing to see. Thousands and thousands of soldiers camped across a broad valley east of the Potomac River, just north of the little town of Sharpsburg. A slow ribbon of water runs north to south through the valley. It is called Antietam Creek.
The Rebels were in Sharpsburg and we meant to knock them over the Potomac and back south where they belonged. The day before our baptismal battle we were allowed to load our muskets for the first time.
The battle raged hot the morning of September 17th. It was a roar like nothing I had ever heard, louder than a thousand thunderheads slamming together. While the two armies smashed into each other, Colonel Beach was marching us south, aiming to ford the Antietam and stage a surprise attack on the Rebel flank.
It was hours past noon by the time we forded the Antietam. There was a narrow band of trees on the far side of the creek and then open cornfields belonging to a man name of John Otto. Those fields and Otto’s name are remembered because of our blood.
We reformed ranks on the edge of the field and set out through rows of shoulder high corn. I remember the water in my boots and my wet trousers clinging to my shins. The sun was slanting into late afternoon on my left shoulder.
The first ranks of our proud boys were halfway across the open ground when A. P. Hill’s Confederates lit into us. Musket balls cracked through the air, sizzling like a million angry wasps. In the blink of an eye, that cornfield transformed into hell on earth. That hail of Rebel fire scythed down the ripe corn and us along with it. The world was made of blood and smoke, the air filled with the shrieks of wounded and dying men.
The boys around me retreated for the trees. I stood frozen amongst the carnage and confusion, angry musket balls buzzing past my ears. A sergeant with blood over half his face was screaming and pointing toward the Rebel lines. Shoot back, damn your hides. Return fire! I raised my musket and fired where he pointed. As I bent to reload, that sergeant’s head disappeared from his shoulders. His body seemed to stay upright for a long time before it toppled over. Then one of them Confederate boys put a .58 caliber ball through my guts, and I followed that sergeant to the ground.
I opened my eyes to twilight and the scattered bodies of the awkward dead. My first sensation was relief that I was not one of the corpses. The second was a parching thirst that drove everything else from my mind. Water, I had to have water! I thought to push myself upright, but my body was numb below my chest and did not answer my demand.
The last dying light of that bloody day fell on the trees that marked the creek. There was water in the creek and the thought of it consumed me. I set out crawling, determined to quench my burning thirst. When I could crawl no more, I dragged myself. Forty yards, fifty, and then I was sliding down the muddy banks of Antietam Creek.
I went face-first into the dark creek water, sucking it in like a greedy horse. That first swallow of water was rich with the rusty iron tang of fresh blood, but I choked it down. Then that tainted water hit my butchered guts and the night exploded into vivid pain.
Where my body had been numb, it was now on fire. Spasm after spasm racked me and I shook like a dog. I pushed myself away from the creek and dragged myself up the bank like a wounded lizard.
I felt an overwhelming need to hide, to burrow into the ground like some small creature. I pulled my broken body under a clump of dogwood and could go no further. My face fell to the cooling earth. The scent of witch hazel was heavy in the night air. I remember wishing I could reach those fragrant leaves, crush them, rub them on my ruined flesh. That was the last mortal thought to pass through my brain.
It was a sultry morning. The sun had not yet pierced the trees and a mist rose from the waters of Antietam Creek. I stood amidst the vapors, though my feet did not feel the ground. I did not feel anything, truth be told. I stared down where my broken body lay hidden under the outstretched branches of dogwood and witch hazel. Red oak and hickory spread their limbs above the understory, casting shadow over shadow.
The sun was risen and the day warm when the Negro stretcher bearers arrived. I could hear their slow deep voices in the ruined cornfield as they gathered up the dead. Two of them appeared at the lip of the creek bank, lean men dressed in bits of cast-off uniforms. They looked down at the stained waters and shook their sad dark heads. I waved my dead arms, shouted, pointed, but they neither saw nor heard me. There is no calling out when you are dead. With nary a glance to where my body lay, they turned away to rejoin the grim work of their fellows.
The war moved on and the armies as well, leaving a trail of splintered bones and ruined corpses. Mine was never found. Small creatures and birds tore meat from bone. Worms and beetles burrowed up from the earth to take my rotting flesh.
September passed into October and brought the first hard frosts. I did not feel the cold, but the living trees did. Showers of leaves fell about my mouldering body. The breeze built drifts over my twisted limbs; yellow, crimson, and gold. The dwindling portion of my earthly remains sank deeper into the forest floor. It was a burial by the seasons; slow, inexorable, and eventually complete.
I watched days turn to nights, autumn to winter, winter to spring. The seasons passed and my bones sank ever deeper into the earth. The one thing I possessed was time, time enough to learn long, slow lessons. After much trial and error, I discovered how to move within the limits of my small world. The secret lay in imagining myself walking, as if I had a corporeal body. It was only after learning to walk again that I discovered I was tethered by intangible limits, like a dog on a chain. I could move only so far away from my unmarked grave, and no farther.
The passing years have changed almost everything about this piece of land I am chained to, but they have not changed me. Three decades after that Confederate ball gutted me, some important folks, living folks, decided that these killing fields were important, places to be remembered.
It was on about the year 1894 when workmen and stonemasons appeared in John Otto’s cornfield. They set about erecting a memorial spire to the 16th Connecticut. Old Otto had died ten years before, but his son still carried on the farming. John Otto spent eighty-two years on this earth. I wish he could have spared me a few of them. I feel I was shortchanged with only twenty.
I watched those fellows build the stone spire. It still stands today, one hundred twenty-five years later. They did a fine job. That obelisk commemorates the slaughter that took place here, but it also marks a turning point in my unearthly existence.
I had spent three decades and more bemoaning my fate. As my bones sank to nothing, my tethered spirit sank with them. I cursed whatever gods had brought me to Antietam. I wailed against all the angels in heaven for letting me die so young and then leaving me forgotten. Yet somehow, the creation of that stone monument brought me a modicum of peace.
That is not to say I am without regret. Dead at only twenty years, there was so much left undone. There are so many things that I have not done, that I will never do. And yet the keen edge of longing has dulled. I bear it when it comes to call, like an unwelcome visitor one must tolerate for the sake of courtesy.
Never to see the ocean, never to ride in one of these fantastic machines that have replaced horse-drawn wagons, that is my fate. The list goes on and on. The living world has changed in so many ways and yet I remain the same, always here, always watching.
There is one regret that sticks the hardest, coarse though it may sound. I never knew a woman’s touch as a living man. My folks brought me up a good Christian. The older soldiers teased me about it, but I saw the camp whores as an invitation to sin that I did not answer. All these many years later, I remember them fondly and as an opportunity missed. The idea of sin be damned. That is what I say now.
They come here to this spot, young women with their families, with their husbands or their beaus. Fashions change with the passing of decades. More and more flesh is revealed. I wander as far as I am able, passing unseen beside their sunny picnics, blankets spread over the green grass. I feast my dead eyes upon bared arms and naked legs, beautiful living skin that stabs and comforts at the same time.
The stone monument stands beyond the limits allowed to me. I have tried. I am able to walk in the open field, even as far as the spot where that deadly ball cut me down. Yet when my phantom path strays farther than one hundred years from my bones, I begin to fade. At one hundred fifty yards I dissolve completely, reappearing under the dogwood trees beside my unmarked grave. These are the borders of my world.
I cannot speak to the living, no matter how strong my desire. I smile, I wave, I greet them with kind words, but to no avail. One time only, several decades ago, I was able to reach out to a living soul. At least I believe it to be so.
A young boy wandered down to the banks of the creek. Perhaps he strayed from one of the tours, bored with the park ranger’s discourse on the history of this bloody ground. Whatever the reason, the lad found his way down to the ford, the very place we proud soldiers had waded the creek. He stood at the water’s edge, only a few steps from where I took my last deadly drink as a living man.
He looked to be about ten years old, a tow-headed boy throwing stones into the flow of the creek. I stood beside him. He cast his stones into the water and the two of us watched the ripples expand in the dappled sunlight.
I reached out my hand to touch his shoulder. I had no desire to frighten him, only the need to feel living flesh under my fingers. My ghostly hand passed through him as if he were the shade and I the living man. For the briefest moment, I felt the tingle of a human heart pumping red blood. Then the boy took fright and ran like a deer.
The years pass, one by one, and still I wander my allotted piece of ground, chained and bound to it for as long as my bones lie beside Antietam Creek. They are gone to earth now and will not be found. I am here to stay.
A young and foolish man, I heeded the siren call of war, and, in answering it, found the great lie at the heart of that fatal song. Listening to the siren cost me everything I had. My death served nothing and no one. The briefest moments of smoke and thunder, terror and blood; nothing more.
My touch upon the waters of life was brief, for I died young. The ripples that I stirred amongst the living were swiftly run to stillness. Yes, the stillness of a mirrored creek on a windless day. That is what I am.
I am nothing and yet not nothing. Are you not listening to my words? Do not ask me to explain it. I cannot.
BIO: Marco Etheridge is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His scribbles have been featured in many lovely reviews and journals in Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, Prime Number Magazine, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and The Metaworker, amongst many others. Marco’s first volume of collected stories, “Orphaned Lies,” is available worldwide. Author website at: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/