Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Short Story: Battle (or, Initiation)

I have neglected this creative outlet for too long, perhaps because I had put upon myself unreasonable demands for its purpose. So I have decided to appropriate this space for a more specific use.

I like to write essays, short stories, poetry, and the like, but I keep it all under guard on my laptop. But it's the kind of writing I enjoy most, much more so than the tripe I put in the newspaper every day. So I will, as Red Smith liked to say, open a vein here and bleed. Many things I have had written for weeks or months or even years will appear here periodically. Being extremely self-critical, I do this with some apprehension, but I figure if people don't like what I write, well, they can find something else to amuse them.

My first entry as I take this new course is a (very) short story about a Union soldier entering battle for the first time. I simply have titled it "Battle," although "Initiation" might be a better title.


An orange sun burns through the mist that is pressing down on our camp. There is a heavy silence, of expectation and foreboding. I am freshly shaven. My uniform is clean and stiff, my black boots tightly buckled. My hat is snug. I check my pistol. It's clean, polished, loaded, ready. My stomach is full of ham and coffee.

The rest of camp is beginning to stir. My fellow soldiers speak in low tones. General Ammond told me that men always speak this way before battle, not wanting to make Death aware of their presence; He would be here soon enough.

The birds are silent, as if they sense something. There is no breeze to move the trees or tall sage grass. The world seems to have paused, waiting as long as possible to furiously exhale. I am breathing easily, nervous not for what I must do – I am well-trained – but for that moment when reality becomes completely inescapable. It is not the bullets and bayonets I fear, nor the men wielding them. It is the unknown fates that will befall us, the Providence that comes well-disguised as chaos and chance.

I have steeled my mind, and so my nerves are no match for my focus and resolve. Still, thoughts of home steal in. The images flit about my mind, and they seem to be so distant from the present in both time and space. They seem little more than a dreamy prelude to the cold reality now facing me. For a moment, I feel like the only man in the world.


Cannons have been carefully aligned, trenches dug, fences erected. The medical tents are clean, fully stocked and prepared for the inevitable influx of patients. I recall a play from my childhood, one my school did about the Revolutionary War. I had played a general. The stage had all the necessary props, all the accoutrements of war, but with no real battle to fight.

The fog is lifting. To my right, well up a hillside, citizens mill about. They are putting down blankets. I see three women in ruffly dresses, fanning themselves. One man has a telescope, surveying the landscape. I remember what we were taught about the ancient Romans and their lust for bloodsport at the Colosseum.

It is time for formations and last-minute instructions. We all know the battle plan like we know the Psalms, and likewise take comfort in it. I sense some fear among our men, but more than that I sense confidence. My fellow officers are striding down the lines, inspecting, searching for any flaw, be it an unbuttoned coat, an unsighted musket, or a wavering will. Everything is in order, and few words are spoken. We are ready.


My horse is fidgety. He seems anxious for the battle, unwilling to await the trumpet's call. He has done this before. I have not.

We can see the enemy coming out of the haze. It is already hot, and sweat is rolling down my cheeks. The scent of dogwood floats by on a breeze, and then the air is still.

The enemy is advancing through the sage, and the only sound is the swishing of their boots against the acquiescent grass. We stand, waiting for the moment, and then the thick air is pierced by the battle cry. The guns rattle as they're unshouldered, the front line kneels into the damp soil, and staccato blasts puncture the air. All the illusions that I'd taken for reality to this point dissipate in the smoke and the screams.


Sounds roll around and collide in my half-dream. Booms, pops, yells, grunts, whizzes, hooves clamping, men crying for God or mother or both. An image of a girl I once wanted fills my groggy mind. Desirée. Caramel skin, hazel eyes and hair as black as the first mare I broke. Desirée once smiled at me, and in that shard of time my heart felt a peace that I've not since felt 'til now. She smiles again, as through a haze, and I am floating toward those blossoming lips. I feel I must be dead, and this is my Heaven. Yet I know it's not real.

I am back in the field, on my stomach. My head feels weighed down as if by a man's heavy boot, and my uniform is twisted about and torn. I lift my head slowly, bloodied sage stuck to my cheek. A fallen soldier's soles are inches away. I suddenly realize the battle has ended. A negro hums as his shovel reaches into the ground. I rise on all fours like a wounded dog. The ground is red, as if the roots of the sage are opened veins.

I stand, feeling like an old man rising from his death bed. Bodies of men and horses lie haphazardly across the pasture like discarded cigarettes. The fog has been replaced by lingering gunsmoke, the acrid smell swallowed up in the stench of what I presume is death. It is like what I once smelled at my uncle's slaughterhouse, only multiplied and folded over and thrust into my nostrils with the force of a roadside abductor, who instead of ammonia soaked his cloth in dead men's sweat. It is nearly smothering me.

My ankle hurts almost as badly as my head. I limp over to the negro gravedigger and ask him who won. He replies that we did, and I realize that victory smells the same as defeat to those in the fray.

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