Jack Beimler recently graduated with history and archaeology degrees from Binghamton University in upstate NY. He currently lives in Williamsburg, VA and works as an archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery. You can find his previously published work on pennyshorts.com and thefictionpool.com. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past the Bend
He wasn’t prepared for such a sensation. Luther’s bayonet met the wool of the boy’s blue overcoat gently at first, just a kiss. As momentum pushed the steel further, a soft pop resonated through his musket’s stock, and then met no more resistance. The boy’s guts were soft, the blade moved in without objection, and slid out softly, lubricated with blood and bile.
Will couldn’t avoid the strike in time, and the man’s blade tore through his abdomen. The pain overwhelmed him, yet he could still reach for his knife. As the man in grey wrenched out the slick steel, Will fell forward onto him, his knife entering the man’s chest. The blade hit a rib, then shuddered past it, burying itself in his lung like a key into a padlock.
They both fell to the ground. The noises around them went dull and sharp cracks of musket fire and chest-shaking reverberations of cannon were beaten out by their own pain. Blood was pouring from the boy’s belly. The man’s breaths were short. He coughed, expelling a handful of fluid onto the bright green grass next to his face.
Luther stomped down on the small hills of soaked clay. The uncompromising Virginia sun molested his shoulders, burning and hardening his skin. He sighed, looked up at the sky and spread his oily hair back from his forehead.
“What’s the time?” he called to the worker at the kiln’s fire. The man stood watching the flames for most of the day. Luther envied him.
“Nearly one in the afternoon. You best keep mixing before Sampson sees you loafing around.”
Luther felt a sting on his arm and glanced down. A mosquito suckled on a wrinkle of skin below his palm. There were so many of the pests he didn’t bother to swat at them anymore. He tried to ignore the smell of the burning brick as well, but couldn’t. The stench soaked into his clothes and hair, and maybe even his skin.
Instead, he thought of his wife. Luther often thought of love. There had been maybe two things he truly loved in his life. One was his wife, Rose. She was a beautiful woman, soft skin, auburn hair, and a smile unlike any he had seen when they met at fifteen years old. His parents were against the match though, his father was an important politician and Rose’s family was far beneath them.
Luther’s other love was an idea. The idea of his little boy or girl smiling up at him and calling him Father. He remembered the night this love was destroyed far too clearly.
Luther’s feet were sore, and his legs swollen with strain. His first week at the kiln was difficult. The worst of it were the bugs, he thought the smoke from the drying brick would keep the mosquitos at bay, but for all he could tell it attracted them.
He now followed a spindly trail through the fields, barefoot and stinking of hard work, reaching up to grab a handful of leaves from the maple saplings that peppered the path’s edge beside him. His boots hung by their laces across his back, and they knocked together each time he stepped. All he wanted was to see his wife, to make sure she was feeling alright, to comfort her.
Rose came from a god-fearing southern family, from a father who would not react well to news of their coming child. Luther didn’t need the formal word of some priest to tell him Rose was his wife, and although he had proposed to her only a month ago, he considered it finished.
“Rose!” He called. Luther could just see the gray beech of the cabin’s walls through the wheat seeds.
“Rose!” He called again as he came closer to the small house. He thought she must be at the river. Luther’s arm throbbed with pain just from reaching for the latch. He fumbled with the iron hook for a few seconds before he smelled it. Luther stopped trying for the latch. He thought it smelled something like Venison drying and hardening on a gusty, winter night. He turned around and saw Rose lying face-up, staring up at the clouds. This ephemeral vision of his wife gave him such happiness. Luther walked over to Rose, now looking past her to the James River and the hills just over the opposite bank. The smell grew strong as he came up to her body.
Luther looked down at the grass. Such a deep green. Almost blue.
Rose’s eyes were wide open, a thick stream of blood and froth spilled from her mouth. Blood stained the earth beneath her legs. Luther stared at her body for a long time. He didn’t cry.
When he was finished, Luther didn’t run to town and call for help, he didn’t lie down next to her and sob, and he didn’t walk to the shed to fetch a shovel. Luther walked down towards the river, the last thing his wife had seen before she murdered their child, and lay on his back in the water, watching the hawks and eagles glide over him. Every few minutes one would dive down into the current and return with either a splash of water or a writhing fish. One of them caught a snake.
Will watched the Eiders bob with the rolling waves, losing sight of the small birds every time they dropped behind one of the larger whitecaps, or disappeared beyond one of the many outcrops of rocks. Nantucket’s Harbor fidgeted with activity. Small boats rowed out to larger Whaling vessels that had just returned, completely avoiding the bar, something the sailors in town were grateful to hear.
He hadn’t seen his father since he was a small child. His mother told him he had been arrested for some bar fight, and then died in prison. None of this really mattered to Will though, he couldn’t remember anything about the man. He would have to make his way down to the piers soon. Will was eleven now, and made some extra money for his mother by bringing messages from weary sailors to their families in town. Often, he would lie when it came time to report poor news to the sailors from their long-missed families, just to ensure his payment.
That night, Will returned home to an empty house. He sat waiting for hours for his mother to come home before deciding to make the dangerous walk to the governor’s mansion. The town had yet to adopt new oils for their street lamps, and so the night turned the alleys and side streets into havens for pickpockets and thieves. As he neared the north of town, he began to hear shouts, and a few people here and there curiously poked their heads outside of doors and windows. Will hastened his stride.
The moon was waning thin, but something lit the sky. There was a great burst of light ahead of him, and more people were walking alongside, eagerly searching for the source.
The mansion’s fire attacked his face and he couldn’t look directly into it. The flames roasted his skin, his eyelids drooped, and the fat of his cheeks felt like rising dough. Down another street, there were men rushing around and people in their night clothes sobbing. Will moved towards them.
One of the nurses recognized him. She must’ve been a friend of his mother’s. Like his mother, many other women served the governor as his failed him. The woman wore a modest nightgown, its white hem had turned sooty and wet in the night. She took Will’s hand and pulled him to the center of the commotion. A woman lied in the grass.
Her face was covered in a black mask of grime, her dress in tatters. Will could hear her breathe each breath. They were scratchy and labored, as if sand had lined her throat. Her eyes looked melted shut, and her hair had been burned off, leaving her scalp a raw and bloody knob.
Will sat there, sobbing for his mother. He collapsed onto her and his wails echoed over the sounds of the fire which still burned with a hunger behind them. Will sat back for a moment and saw the people around him. “Go away!” he yelled. “For God’s sake get out of here!”
The people glanced. One man kept a sympathetic stare. This man was clean. No blood marred his night clothes. Will stood, “Look away!” The man didn’t turn his gaze from the mangled body next to the boy. “YOU BASTARD!” Will charged at the man and collided with his legs. The man in the clean nightgown fell, his face met the mud and ash of the street. Will grabbed his neck, and began to howl incoherent curses in his face. He would be punished for being here, for seeing his mother like this.
The man grabbed at Will’s hands and pried them loose. He tossed the boy aside and walked away, leaving him to scamper back to his mother, sliding through the filth without taking to his feet. He reached her and placed his cheek on her breast.
His mother’s hand gripped his. She held him and squeezed with what must have been all her strength. Then, her grip loosened, and Will lay across her stomach until the morning.
One late February afternoon in 1864, Luther lay down on his straw mattress and listened to the water bubble over the fireplace. He didn’t want to get up. A strong breeze pushed in underneath the door and over his feet. He climbed underneath a woolen blanket and closed his eyes. A puff of smoke escaped into the cabin as the wind died, and he coughed. The smell reminded him far too much of the kiln, a place he never wanted to think about, especially not at home. The small cloud somehow filled the corners of the cabin, and he got up to open the door and let some of the smoke escape.
Just before he reached the threshold, a gentle rap against the thick oak door surprised him. Luther released the latch and greeted the stranger. He wore a confederate’s uniform, or what passed for one in the struggling army the south had put together.
“Luther Goodwell?” The man asked.
“I’m here to deliver your conscription notice, sir,” the man said.
Luther lifted the parchment from the man’s outstretched hand. He began to read it.
Sir, Take notice that you have been deemed liable to serve military duty…
“Draftees are to report to town hall tomorrow at noon for further instruction.” The man turned and strode away before Luther could even look up at him. He pressed the door shut and sat down by the fire. Ashes spilled out from the hearth and onto the planks of wood that passed for a floor.
Luther heard of neighboring cities losing their men and boys to serve Davis and the “Old man,” but he figured he would let things play out, as he had done since Rose left him. He placed the notice on top of the soft, glowing coals, took the pot from the fireplace, and returned to his mattress. Come morning, Luther collected some clothing, a blanket, hunting knife and the flintlock rifle that lay against the wall, and walked to town, his mind empty and following orders.
“Name.” The man behind the makeshift pine table barked up at Will. It took him a moment to realize the officer was asking him a question.
“Eighteen, sir.” Will said.
The man looked up at him. “You’ll need your father’s consent William.”
Will gave a shove to the old fisherman who waited in line with him. The sailor kept one hand in his pocket, playing with the coins Will had traded for his time and transport from Nantucket. Hyannis’ bay shimmered and shuffled behind the drafting booth, and Will lost focus in the waves that trickled in through the harbor’s bluff. The bay’s lighthouse was taller than most at home, but will already missed the familiar, simple construction of Brant Point’s tower. Even the gulls sounded strange here, louder and wary of folks walking by. At home, they would hop right up to you, eating the crumbs off your jacket.
Back home, everyone knew of Will’s father and how his mother had passed. How she burned. No one on the island would let him even stand in line at an enlistment booth. Without his encouragement or consent, he had become the island’s property, with all its residents his custodians. He stayed in different homes each month, and everyone offered their help and pity. Will hated every moment of it.
The war had all but ended the island’s sole source of income, devastating the whaling fleet as the Union Navy bought out more and more ships to help serve their blockades in the south. Captains couldn’t justify letting their ships rot in the harbor, and one by one they gave in, sending their ships to the union.
The fisherman leaned forward without a word and scribbled his mark next to the officer’s finger. The officer nodded. “Meet here tomorrow morning for your assignment,” the officer looked over Will’s shoulder, ushering him away from the table. Will walked away and looked out to the ocean at the sliver of black that marked Nantucket’s shores. He smiled.
“You see a ghost in them weeds?” An old bearded man had fallen back to walk with Luther. He didn’t answer. “We all got somewhere else we want t’be my friend. Don’t mean you can’t enjoy the company of some like-minded boys while you’re here. Why don’t you come and walk with us?”
He couldn’t see the bearded fellow’s mouth beneath the whiskers, but something under there moved as he spoke. Luther smiled and shook his head, dismissing the bearded man and his invitation. He didn’t need the company.
Shouts echoed along the mountains as the herd of men pushed through saddles and knolls, over creeks and through rivers. For weeks, Luther spoke to himself often, mostly cursing his luck. His luck and his love - they had both left him weak.
Once, Luther had wanted to be great. Not successful, not rich, famous, or even happy. He wanted greatness. He wanted to be known throughout the country, looked up to by young boys and girls. This was before he met his wife, before he was cast out of his privileged home. Now, he wanted only to reach the next bend in the trail, and after that… He didn’t mind much what would happen after that. It would be dealt with after the bend.
Will thought of his mother each night as he covered himself with a scratchy wool blanket. The enemy was camped over the hill to the south, just a few minutes’ walk. He could hear the southerners and their deep, hollow laughter through the night. They sounded much like the men huddled around the fire next to him. Eventually sleep did find him, but it was thin, and he dreamt of nothing.
Luther stood up straight, trying to hide his fear. He kept his eyes forward. The soldier ahead of him made no attempt to hide the dark streak of urine that now seeped down the inside of his trousers. The heat from the stain left a vapor in the autumn air. This soldier had a reason to be afraid. He probably left behind parents, a wife, maybe even children. This soldier meant something to the world. Luther wasn’t sure what he feared, but it was dreadful. There was no surviving this. Were he to live on past this hill, past the fields around it, another would come. Another fight would come next month, and then again, and he would fall there. He would fall and not get back on his feet. And when he died, there would be nothing but black. Even in death he would be alone.
“FIRE!” Will’s finger bent around his trigger. He closed his eyes, looked away, and immediately grabbed for the powder horn at his waist. Just as he began to pour the black sand down the barrel of his rifle, another officer’s voice cut through the din.
“Fix bayonets!” Will cut himself on the steel of his blade as he secured it.
Luther fired and began to reload. The Yankees were storming down the hill, and the soldiers around him prepared to meet the push. He ran forward until he was mere feet away from the enemy. He closed his eyes and steadied his rifle in front of him. He wasn’t prepared for such a sensation.
Luther was silent, calm. He placed his hand over the hole in his chest. Next to him, the boy screamed for his mother. He sat up and stared at the child for a few moments, not sure of what to do next. He was past the bend.
Luther coughed, and more blood dribbled over his chin and chest. The boy continued to call out with a voice so empty and strained, his lower half a mess of colors and wet.
Luther crawled over to him. He sat behind him and propped him up against his chest. The boy lost his breath and stopped screaming. He looked up at Luther, his eyes a scorching red.
“Will you help me find her?” the boy asked, barely audible through his snifflling.
Luther looked at the boy, his mouth parted, and he shut his eyes hard. A tear found it’s way through the wrinkled folds above his nose. “My mother. Will you help me?”
Luther stared forward at the piles of writhing bodies around him, trying to hold off the bubbling blood that filled his lungs. He nodded, and held the boy until the end.