The Return

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Benjamin Miller awoke beneath a shroud of white petals, several of which lay like soft coins over his eyes. The ground trembled vaguely now, the cannon and mortars wheeled elsewhere. He did not hear the explosions, only felt them. All he heard was a ringing in his left ear. Benjamin lay with his eyes closed a while longer, made slight movements to assay what had struck him to the ground, how bad it was. He turned his right boot in and out, and then his left, felt no pain or absence in foot or leg, arms and hands the same. He moved a hand over his groin and stomach and chest, felt no spill of intestines or stoved-in ribs. Only his head was injured, the hair on one side matted with blood. He touched the wound, gauged its width. In one place the skin unpursed and his finger slid slickly over smooth bone. Smooth, not cracked. He patted the rest of his head, then nose, jaw, and teeth, and found all where they should be.

Benjamin brushed the petals from his eyes and found himself staring into a jaybird-blue sky. He knew where he was, remembered thinking how pert the peach trees looked as his regiment approached the orchard. He’d even notioned to take some seeds back with him to Watauga County. No farmer he knew had grown peaches there, probably too cold, but if anyone could, it would be Emma. Lilies and roses, cherry and apple trees, raspberry bushes—everything Emma put into the earth found life at its appointed time, as if even plants responded to her gentleness. Old Jacob Story, their one near neighbor, listened when Emma said the moon’s horns were turned wrong to seed a cornfield, or not to plant peas before daffodils bloomed. I’ve farmed nigh sixty year, Jacob said, but I’ll cover nary an acorn until Emma allows it’s the time.

Benjamin raised himself to one knee, then stood. More petals fell, puddled the ground white around him. The ringing in his ear increased, and the world leaned left. On the edges of his vision, a gold tinge. Benjamin closed his eyes, hoping the world might realign, but when he opened them, the tilt and gold tinge remained. Because my head’s been knocked off plumb, he told himself, and there ain’t no tonic but to lean with it. He looked around, shifted his eyes first to bead the world before moving his head. He found himself standing alone amid the fallen, friend and foe entangled like logs in a splash dam. A few yet moved, but most did not. Some surely made sounds—death rattle, moan, prayer, curse, or plea. His deafness was a blessing. Two faces Benjamin knew well, recognized three others by hair and girth. All dead. His musket and cap lay side by side as if posed for a tintype. He left them where they lay. The canteen was still strapped to his shoulder and the haversack tied to his back.

He staggered from the orchard, passing trees stripped of every blossom, others branchless, some mere stumps. If an enemy soldier yet lingered, Benjamin was an easy target, but no shot came. He made his way into a small wood and came to a creek, the banks narrow and the current quick. He remembered the old belief and pondered his waking in the orchard. It had been like a pall, the way the white petals covered him. The throbbing in his head increased. He took a deep breath and felt it lift his lungs. No dead man need do that, he told himself, but waited a few more moments before he swung his boot forward. The water let him cross over. Benjamin took off the haversack and sat with his back against an oak tree. He laid an open palm on the ground. Only the slightest vibration, like thunder murmuring after a storm.

His throat was raw from smoke and thirst, so he drank what water the canteen held. Benjamin probed the wound again, tried to recall a raised musket butt, a Minnie ball glancing his skull. Nothing came. What he remembered was charging into the orchard with Dobbins and Wray beside him. Keep your lines, a lieutenant shouted, but amid the like trees and smoke, all direction was lost. Men blundered into each other, shooting and stabbing all who came near. Lead filled the air like slant hail. One man climbed into a peach tree’s highest branches, hunched there, crying, with hands over ears. Benjamin’s last memory was of Wray clutching his arm for a moment, then letting go and falling.

I give both sides their best chance to kill me, Benjamin told himself. They’ll not portion another. He went to the creek and used his handkerchief and water to clean the wound as best he could. He refilled the canteen and went back to the oak. Corn dodgers and jerky were in the haversack, but instead of eating, he took the letter from his shirt pocket, unfolded it.


My dearest husband,

I rite you this mourning from the home that I pray soon you return to. I have sown the fields for our crops, wich you say I am good at. Now I must pray the signs hold true. May your hands and mine together reap what Ive sown. What news I have of others you may wish to here. The youngest Watson boy run off to fight with his brothers. Widow Canipe died of the flux and Jess Albrights baby died last week of putrid fever. Theys a red cross on his cabin door so even the others are sore afflicted. Joe Vickers was killed in Virginia. But that is more than plenty sad tidings. Your Father has been a heep of good to me, helping plow the fields and fixing fences. Folks say in town that this war will last not a year. I pray so if not sooner. For I feel all ways night and day the lonely in my heart and will ever so until you are with me again. I go now to town to mail this letter, dearest husband, nowing that this paper I hold you will hold to.

Your loving wife always



Benjamin refolded the letter and kept it in his hand as his eyes closed. He and Emma had grown up on adjoining farms, like brother and sister, playing leapfrog and Red Rover together, walking to the school and church, sharing chores. He’d been a feisty boy, and one day when he was twelve, he had found a corn snake in the barn. Something wrong inside him had wanted to scare Emma with it. She’d fallen while running away, scraping her knees and elbow. Benjamin had flung the snake into the weeds and gone to her, shut-mouth with shame. As Emma wiped tears off her face, he’d offered his hand to help her up, not expecting her to take it. But she did. He had helped her to the creek, taken his handkerchief, and gingerly wiped the dirt from the knees and elbow. They did not speak the whole time, nor mention it afterward, but that night by his bed Benjamin prayed that God would seine all meanness forever out of him so he might be worthy of her.

He must have passed out, because when he awoke the ground no longer trembled. The ringing in his ears had lessened, as had the world’s tilt. The letter still lay in his hand. He placed it in the pocket closest to his heart and then shed coat and belt and all other allegiance to anyone but himself. He listened for a few moments, heard nothing but a redbird, then rose and walked through the shallow wood and into a pasture.  Below lay a farmhouse, beyond it  a wagon road. The dwelling appeared deserted, its occupants fled or hidden. When Benjamin got to the road, he looked up to gauge direction. An orange sun burned low on the tree line. Buzzards circled the battlefield ,and some appeared to enter the sun, then spiral down blackly as if turned to ash. He followed the road east, not knowing where he headed, only what he was headed from.

The next day he saw an old man alone in his field. I’ve not come to rob or harm you, Benjamin said as he approached. The farmer looked doubtful until Benjamin flattened the back of Emma’s letter on a well guard, took a pencil from the haversack, and asked the way to Knoxville. So you had plenty enough of that tussling, the farmer asked afterward. Benjamin answered that he had. Even with that busted head you got more sense than them still at it, the farmer said, and told Benjamin to wait a minute, came back from his root cellar with salt meat and potatoes. The old man would not have it otherwise, so Benjamin stuffed the victuals in the haversack and went on.

He traveled for two weeks, first north to Nashville and then following the Cumberland Turnpike east. Several times he hid as Union and Confederate soldiers passed, once a whole regiment. Another time, at night, the clatter of cavalry. He was spotted only once. Two soldiers on horseback fired their rifles but did not leave the pike to pursue him.            

One night a few miles from Knoxville, Benjamin felt Emma’s presence. Despite a morning shower, he’d made good time, near dusk bedded in a meadow. When he waked, a wet moon had peeled away the ground dark and replaced it with a silvery sheen. No breeze rustled or night bird called. No sound of water, or distant train. A stiller moment he had never known. Benjamin stepped onto the road and whispered her name. Though Emma did not answer, he knew she was very near. Then she wasn’t, and he felt a distance between them that was more than the miles yet to walk. The next morning Benjamin believed all of it, the silver light, her presence, part of a dream, until he saw his boot prints in the dust.

He followed a drover’s trace into the mountains, and the air quickly cooled. It was as dangerous a place as he had been. Not just soldiers traversed here but also outliers who, with no cause other than profit, took no prisoners. But the few people he met, including a pair of drovers, passed with eyes lowered. They feature me the dangerous one, Benjamin told himself, especially toting this wound on my noggin. As he went higher into the mountains, dogwoods that in the lowlands had shed their white yet clutched flowers, as if time were spooling backward. The fancy pleased him.

The land leveled, and somewhere unmarked he passed from Tennessee into North Carolina. Not just Carolina but Watauga County, he reminded himself. Emma was probably in the field hoeing or planting. He imagined her looking up as she wiped her brow or rubbed dirt from her —hands—gazing toward the gap at this very moment, already sensing his return. Sounds eight months unheard—the chatter of boomers, a raven’s caw—he heard now. Yellow ladyslippers Emma used for tonics flowered on the trace edge. A chestnut three men couldn’t link arms around curved the path. Everything heard and everything seen was a piece of himself restored. He thought of the soldier in the peach tree. It had been as if the man were trying to climb out of hell itself. And now I have, Benjamin thought. A whole mountain range stood between him and the horror and meanness.

Late the next afternoon he spotted a church spire, and soon after, the backs of STORES. Boone, the county seat where he’d been conscripted. He could be easily recognized here, so he waited in the woods as the last farm wagons left town and shops locked or barred their doors. Night settled in and with it a breeze that smelled of coming rain. Only now, for the first time since he’d left them in the orchard, Benjamin let his thoughts ponder on Dobbins and Wray. They too had been conscripted farm boys, Kentucky born. The three of them had been of like nature, quiet men who didn’t dice or drink. At night they kept their own campfire, where they spoke of their farms in such detail that the three homesteads merged into one shared memory. There were friendly disputes over the merits of brightleaf versus burley tobacco, the best way to cure a ham. On the night before the battle, they spoke quietly of crops being tended by wife and kin. I’d nary have figured to miss staring at a mule’s ass dawn to dusk, Wray said, but I surely do.

They knew from the massing of troops that this was to be a battle, not a skirmish. That last morning their regiment had passed a Dunker church, beyond it a plowed field tended only by scarecrows. The braggarts and raw cobs spoke little now, as the battle’s racket encircled them like a noose. Officers rode back and forth on skittish horses. Those who’d gone before them littered the ground, so many that Benjamin wondered if a single man yet survived. Soon they smelled gunpowder, watched its smoke drift toward them. More bodies appeared. Dobbins picked up a dirt clod, squeezed it. Habit, Benjamin thought, as Dobbins let the grains sift through his fingers. Good soil? Wray had asked. Not the best, Dobbins had answered, but I reckon it to cover our bodies well enough.

The courthouse clock chimed nine, and Benjamin stepped from the woods. As he walked a deserted side street, Benjamin thought of the peach seeds he might have placed in his haversack. He’d eaten one once here in Boone, sold off a wagon up from South Carolina, the peach purpled just past ripeness, fuzzy and soft in the hand. It had been like eating warm honeyed snow. Better not to have brought them, he decided, for if they did grow, they might stob his memory come spring.

Once he was outside of Boone, a soft rain began to fall. Benjamin lay down in a laurel slick beside Middlefork Creek, the stream he would follow eight miles until it led him into the pasture below the cabin. Tired as he was, he could not sleep, and would have gone on had the moon and stars offered the way. The laurel leaves caught the rain, let it pool into thick drops that soaked his clothes. For the first time since leaving the battle, Benjamin wished for his field coat. A bone-deep cold entered his body. He clasped his arms over his chest, tucked his knees close. After a while his feet grew numb. Teeth clicked like struck marbles. Just the wet and cold, he told himself, but thought of last winter in camp. Putrid fever had caused the same symptoms. Eight men had died. Those not yet afflicted had filled their mouths with garlic and pinches of gunpowder. A sergeant marked red crosses on dead men’s haversacks. Some had believed that, like consumption, the contagion could drowse in a body for weeks, maybe months, waiting for rain or cold to awaken it.

The rain had thinned to mist by first light. Benjamin did not eat, simply got to his feet and started walking. Fog narrowed the world as he followed Middlefork Creek up the mountain. The few farmhouses loomed briefly out of the white like ships’ prows, sank back. A dog barked once and he heard an axe cleaving wood, but that was all. Soon the fog dimmed, just wisps sliding over low ground.

Until the war, there had not been a night, before or after their marriage, when he and Emma had been more than a furlong apart. Trips to Boone or visits to kin might last all day, but come eventide the families returned. From age twelve until they’d married, Benjamin had listened for the Watsons’ wagon to clatter past. Once it did, he’d watch from a porch or window as the lantern floated from barn to cabin, disappear when the Watsons’ front door closed. In those few moments of darkness, Benjamin used to tease himself into believing Emma and her family had vanished forever. He would hold his breath, feel his heart gallop until, slowly, light began to glow inside the cabin, sifting through chinks, the one glass window. As it did, he felt a happiness almost painful.

As he approached Jacob Story’s farm, Benjamin saw that the corn stood dark and high. No hard frost or gullywasher had come. The signs held true, not only for the corn but the beans and tobacco. Smoke rose from Jacob’s chimney. Noon-dinner time already, he thought. Benjamin followed the trailway through a stand of silver birch, straddled a split-rail fence, placed one foot on his land and then the other. He had hoped Emma would be in the cabin. That way he could step onto the porch, open the door, and stroll in no differently than he would coming from a field or the barn. Benjamin wanted their separation to seem that way, he wanted to never speak of the war or their months apart. He wanted it to become nothing more than a few dark moments, like a lantern carried through a cabin’s low door.

But Emma was not inside. He found her kneeling on the creek bank, next to the cattle guard where the water quickened. He could not see her face because she was looking down, her left arm and hand in the water. She was wearing her Sunday dress, the dress she’d worn on their wedding day. When Benjamin shouted her name, she did not look up. He walked faster, shouted her name again. Emma’s eyes remained on the water and now he saw that her right hand hovered above the creek like a dragonfly. The fingers and palm descended and touched the surface, then lifted, did the same thing again and then again.

He crossed into the corn field, not stumbling over hoe furrows because there were none. Then he was on the bank opposite Emma, the creek so narrow that he could almost jump it. Emma, he said, almost a whisper. She lifted her head but offered no smile or words or tears. She looked past him, as if he weren’t even there.

Benjamin tried to remember the streams he’d crossed, which ones flowed fast and which ones did not. He had stepped over the creek near the peach orchard, after that crossed smidgen branches and wide rivers, sloshing through some, walking their bridges. But what of today, recalling last night’s shivering cold. He’d not eaten or drunk, and from Boone to here not once crossed the creek. He looked past Emma, searching for a mound of dirt, a wooden cross or flat stone. He looked for his own grave.

His gaze moved across pasture and wood, corn crib and barn, seeing no sign of such until his eyes settled on the cabin. A red cross was painted on the door. For a few moments, his eyes remained there. Then he looked at Emma. Her head was down, and her hand touched the water, this time entered the creek’s flow a moment. When she withdrew the hand, something about her had lightened, wisped away like dandelion seeds. Emma, he said. She raised her hand and pointed to Benjamin’s and then to the water. He set his hand in the current and she did the same. The water pressed against his palm. Just for a moment, Benjamin felt another hand touch his. When he looked up, Emma was gone.

Since her grave wasn’t on the farm, it would be behind the church. Benjamin could walk the two miles, but that would delay his going back west into Tennessee. He turned and began the trek back to Boone. In a week he would be on the Cumberland Turnpike. He’d walk the pike in daylight, and soon enough men wearing butternut or men wearing blue would meet him. Whichever side appeared first, Benjamin would join. A month or two might pass, but there’d be another battle. The armies would finish their business with him, and he would hold his hand out and this time Emma would take it. 




Wednesday, January 15, 2014