“Jerry Mullins grew up in central West Virginia, and has lived in the Washington, DC suburbs in recent years. His work has recently been published in or is forthcoming from Columbia University Journal-Catch and Release, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Broadkill Review, Tower Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Newfound Journal, Literary Yard, Foliate Oak, Homestead Review, Literary Nest, and internationally in Nazar-Look (Romania) and Southern Cross Review (Argentina).”
The day came for his furlough to begin. He expected resistance from the officers, that he should not leave, he was needed there, and that battles were raging throughout the surrounding countryside and travel was not safe. Even the back roads far away from the turnpike over the mountains were bedeviled with every type of renegade, either the North or South it did not seem to matter, for now it was the roving bands of renegades that were as dangerous as any military action, claiming their cause as the side they had probably deserted. In the camp he talked of his fiancée, and the pending wedding as if to pass the time of day. Little else was on his mind. The officers knew he would be of little value continuing like this. He was a fine young lad, this John Gordon, who never pulled back from any duty or risk. Privately however they thought “He will be lucky to get out of this alive, just like the rest of us. Any day can be the last, and we have no control over it. ”
He was issued a good horse, better than he had expected, the soldier who equipped him thinking, “We will never see him or the horse again. This is crazy to send a perfectly good horse out on the roads. This young fellow I don’t care much about but I would hate to lose the horse. ”
The distant thump of cannon could be heard from further up in the Great Valley of Virginia, the Shenandoah. He rode on, sensing the beauty of the country, verdant farms, rolling hills, ideal for cattle he thought, but now barren of any farm activity with no animals to be seen. All taken away to feed the war effort, the local people were told.
The shelling became louder as he skirted around the area where an intense battle had been fought just days before. He wanted to stay away from that area on this path to the northwest over the mountains. Sporadic rifle fire could be heard in the distance and occasional cannon fire which assaulted the ears even from several miles away. He pushed the horse harder to clear the area. More rifle fire could be heard as he approached flat level ground, and he realized he was nearing a small but active battle scene.
A flash of light, with intense heat hitting his face, consumed him. He felt his left leg go numb and lifeless, and a veil of darkness momentarily came over his face but then receded, and he could see, as if from a distance, the horse falter and roll to the ground. He could see wounds in the horse’s neck and head where the stray shell hit directly in front of him. His blood mixed with the horse’s blood. He rode the horse down to the ground, remaining erect as if to continue riding, and then fell to his side. He could not tell how badly he had been hurt. He thought, “I must be going on, I cannot stay here in this battle, I must get up and get the horse on the road.” He laid on the ground, his face looking to the sky, not able to tell what had happened to him. The sky was streaked with the smoke of cannon fire. A tree near the shell crater in the ground was burning. In the tree next to it several black birds perched.
He rode on. The horse was as new, as when he picked it up in the stockade. He rode as if in a dream, again sensing the rolling country and more than ever the intense greens, the stark white of the sycamore trunks, the magnificence of the sky, as if he were seeing them for the first time. He did not to feel the pain he now only vaguely remembered. He was relieved of his memory of the shell blast, and seemed to have all his abilities. He could only think of her, the beautiful young girl named Anne Watson from a neighboring farm he had known since a child, and as they matured how he was totally consumed by that love. He fell into reverie on his love for her.
I came to love her as we were lying together, not simply because we were lying together, it was greater than that and in that moment my entire being opened up, and my whole life became more full, more real, and my mind and body filled with the magnificence of life – as if all the people who had ever lived, and all their love came to be gathered in me and I felt all they had ever felt, and my mind and body became one and I felt I was with God, with all the world, and the Heavens spread out before me. And I was sure at that moment if there be a God, He approved and all the people before me approved and were with me.
And I knew then, this is what it is to be in love, so deeply in love, you want to enfold that person and that love in all the ways you can, not simply because of the body’s pleasing satisfaction, but the entire oneness of being.
As I rode, things I had done came back to me, the acts of war said to be done for the good of whatever action someone claimed was justified. How in the name of war, and protecting our own people, we went thru their homes and property, taking what they had in the name of the cause, and their own protection. Small ragged children, old people who looked like skin and bones. We forced our way into homes with little food on the table but took what was there. Children standing by, dirty, badly clothed, with large frightened eyes as we went about our duties.
He approached the house, a good house for this place, overlooking a small valley not far from the road over the mountains, as if fixed in a time of peace and prosperity. His heart was full in anticipation, but knew he would have to deal with Rachel, the only family she had left.
Rachel had stood in the way constantly during his courtship with Anne Watson, and said often under her breath, “This will be the death of you – both of you.” He did not know what she meant and did not challenge Rachel, not wanting to give any life to what sounded like a curse.
“So you have come to claim your bride,” Rachel said as he approached the door. “I am surprised they let you get away for time at home. This is not a time for planting, or harvesting. Why are you here and what do you want?”
“I expect to see Anne and prepare for our wedding. The war can wait,” he said.
“Well, she is not here. I tell you, I don’t know how and I had nothing to do with it, but she seems possessed by the spirits of the far mountains. Look over there,” she said, pointing to the highest peak, “and know that dark spirits came down out of the hills, and took her in her loneliness these last several days, and she has wandered the hills ever since”
He looked at Rachel as she spoke and knew there was not the clean breath of truth in her words. He saw her in a new way, with better vision than he had as a young boy before going to war, and saw her as an evil corruption standing before him. The bitterness and hatred from her own failed loves as a young woman had washed over her all the years since, taking away the beauty of her youth, and she had grown tight lipped and harsh in expression from life’s disappointments. He saw her as a shroud, a face of evil. As she spoke, her face seemed to melt into a gray mask without recognizable features.
“You seem strange to me,” she continued, “coming back like this, but go there”, again pointing to the hills, “and you may find her.”
He walked the hills calling her name, distraught and wondering how such a thing could happen and be true. How could she be captive in this wilderness, held by what power or madness.
From far up in the hills he caught sight of her, moving across the valley as if floating on the valley’s mist toward the house.
Once in her rooms in the house Anne Watson seemed pale, a shell of herself, her beauty gone, since he had last seen her. But she sensed a change about him as well, not seeing the same young man full of hope and vision for the future, worn down by the war, and lacking the substance of before. As she moved within the house she seemed to avoid him, shielding her eyes, not responding to his questions, with no reply to ideas and plans for the future event.
He tried to rekindle with her the fire of love from before but she gave no response. He pulled aside her garments but gasped as he saw a large mark, not a penetration but a large mark across her bosom over her heart, marked as if a stake had been in place. And her lower body a lifeless, ashen color.
He cried out in terror and pain, and anger, but refused to leave her side as Rachel, hearing the shout, rushed into the room. He chased her away with accusing shouts, “What have you done, this is your doing, all your talk of spirits and death. What do you know of life and death, when everything you touch dies at your hand!”
He remained at her side, as the house grew quiet. He grieved her loss as his intended bride, and remembered her in her beauty as the young girl he left going off to war, who had been full of life and dreams matching his. He fell into a deep rest.
Rachel came into the room later as all appeared quiet. She saw no young man on the bed or in the room, only an indentation in the pillow where his head had rested, but no sign of him. He had not come out the only door to the room. Then she jumped back, startled in the half light of the bridal chamber to see the bride lying lifeless it seemed, her face drawn tight and dry with unknown wrinkles around the mouth and eyes, and seeming to be the decaying body of an old woman.
His eyes opened, but the darkness and his mind and vision came and then faded many times and when the brightness returned he found himself again looking up at the sky. The smoke from distant cannon fire had drifted away but the clear blue sky turned a dull gray when the darkness came over him, and the gray receded as the brightness returned. His mind drifted to remembrance of her as they were first together. Walking down the creek road with honeysuckle and the large stand of rhododendron stretching all the way up the hill to the timber, its scent blending with the smell of the honeysuckle. The simple beauty of a walk under a blue sky cloudless as far as you could see over the hills, and the remembered rainbow they took as a sign of the life they could live together. Now it seemed impossible to him that he would ever see her again, or ever rise up from where he was lying. The tree near him was still burning, and more birds had gathered in the tree next to it. One of the birds dropped to the ground and plunged its beak into the entrails of the horse disgorged to the ground. Now there were four birds in the tree.
His eyes closed.
Two troopers rode up to the house. It was customary two were needed for a mission like this. They seemed hesitant, not aggressive, as they rode into the yard, not like the action when they were coming to take property or take a person away. They looked at the house and were surprised it had escaped damage in the long war, and suspected its remoteness had protected it.
“We are sorry to be here and have to tell you this,” they began, as Rachel met them on the porch, not wanting them inside the door, for she knew they would take an inventory with their quick eyes and pass word to others to come back another time. “Your young John Gordon was killed in action over in the Shenandoah. We understand he was engaged to soon marry a young lady here, and that makes it all the more a sorrow. You can take some comfort in knowing he was a fine soldier who served his country well, and had the respect of all.”
“When did this happen?” Rachel asked.
“About a week ago. We are sorry it takes so long to get word to the family, but getting orders from over there is hard. We are sorry for your grief. We try to give word to the family as soon we can.”
Rachel turned her head and looked past the solders, as if she was hearing this from someone else far distant. Her eyes seemed to dance as she turned her face back to the soldiers.
The soldiers were confused by how she took their words, and did not know what to think. They left quickly, each giving the other a sideways look as they walked to the horses.
She turned to go back into the house, but knew there was no bride to tell the news.