A Dark and Bloody Ground
The first time it happened—the first time anyone admits to it, anyway—was at a Decoration Day picnic being held at the battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia. Several dozen doddering representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had come together on a fine June afternoon for chicken-salad sandwiches and punch. Some sat in metal folding chairs, with their wives at their elbows, while others shuffled around the buffet table in search of the correct sliced cheese or condiment.
With so many aggravatingly credible witnesses, there was no denying that something strange had happened. People would argue the details for weeks, but this is the version I caught first. I suppose the best thing to do is tell it the local way—which is to say, this is partly how I heard it happened, and partly how I bet it happened.
He was confused to find himself in the woods.
Why would he leave us?
The soldier didn’t remember falling in the trees, and what he did remember of trees came to him in hazy fragments of gold and red—not this dark-shadowed hollow where he first arose.
Above, the canopy was green; and below, the ground was covered with new, sprouting things. Back when last he’d seen it, this had been a field. He was nearly certain of it. This whole place had been made of fields and farms, or then again, maybe it hadn’t. Maybe, if he concentrated, he could capture something else—the pressure of his arm against a tree and a squint that made his forehead ache as he leveled his rifle. How tough it must have been to fire with all those trunks in the way, with all that smoke in his eyes. How difficult to aim with all that noise in the woods around him.
How did he ever send off a single shot?
The harder he thought about it, the farther into the distance the details fled. Holding still meant holding on a few moments more, but all he could keep for sure was a dim memory of sound and smelly haze, and a nagging sense of hunger.
Beyond the trees he could hear people sounds, and they weren’t the sort of sounds that warned of trouble. He homed in on the clattering of forks and the papery flutter of napkins. He dragged himself on towards the staccato hum of voices and hoped for the best.
He came up from behind the hill, walking slow and careful. The land looked so different now. Nothing familiar at all. Everything was lush and trim and tidy. He listened again, and considered the noises. They were lunch noises, or the sounds of a nice party. How strange that would be, if this place had become a garden while they slept. The more he considered it, the more likely and likeable he found the idea. It was nice to think of the green-eyed keeper as a gardener, rather than an undertaker.
A rough road headed more or less in the direction of the people, so he stumbled up to the edge and started walking.
Where did he go? Why would he leave us?
As he pulled himself along, foot over foot down the rutted strip of dirt and gravel, he considered how he might deliver his message. He didn’t know what he looked like, but it was safe to guess that the years had not been kind. Time was hard enough on the living.
These people might not listen for long. They might run away before he had a chance to tell them how wrong everything had become. He’d better condense as much as possible. But how? And how to begin?
The green-eyed one, he’s gone. He left us.
No, may as well leave that part out, for surely the world had noticed that much. The odds were good they were already wondering where he’d gone. For all he knew, they could even be looking for him.
Two men made a bargain.
No. Unnecessary backstory. Skip that bit. They might even figure that part out on their own, once they got the rest of it squared away. That was the key, then. Tell them enough so they could work out the rest for themselves.
Do you know that house, back at the other end of the field?
Better. Give them a starting point. Set them on the right track. Start with the house, and the field. Start with what lies behind it, and beneath it. Good. He had a plan, then.
In another time and under different circumstances, he hadn’t cared much for plans; but now was as good a time as any to give organized foresight a shot. With a little more thinking, he trimmed his plan down to just two words. Two words would get things going. Two words would show them where to begin.
A huge wheeled vehicle came roaring around a curve, and he froze. He knew the sound; he’d heard it for years, always in the faraway world above. Still, it startled him to meet it so close and see the source. The thing was rounder than any cart he’d ever seen, and it moved like a train without any tracks—fast and rough over the rocky, dusty strip of road.
Behind a pane of curved glass, a pair of distorted outlines indicated people within the fast-moving car. One of them pointed, the car swerved, and the two right wheels slid off into the grass.
They saw me.
He withdrew, back to the tree line. He didn’t want to frighten everyone off before he could share his brief message. If they ran away before he could speak, all this trouble would have been for nothing.
The wayward wheels crawled back onto the dirt, flinging gravel out behind them.
He watched the thing retreat. Carefully then. He would make his way to the gathering the old way, the scout’s way. He hadn’t been much of a scout, truth be known; but if he could watch them for a bit it might be easier to approach them. It might be easier to speak to the group if he knew what sort of people were in it.
He stumbled and caught himself, wincing with the effort; but the wince was more a habit than a physical reaction. Nothing hurt, exactly, but tremendous concentration was required to pull himself together. Holding everything in one piece, it was like flexing a muscle—not quite so hard or short-lived as holding in a breath of air, but not so easy that he could keep it up for long.
His fingers crushed themselves into a fist, driving his dirty-looking nails into his palm. He barely felt it. He had to watch himself squeeze the knuckles tight or else he wouldn’t have believed it. Nothing felt like anything. Something told him that if he ran his head into the nearest oak, it wouldn’t matter to either the tree or his skull.
A loud, sudden laugh from the nearby party reminded him why he was doing this.
Find someone to tell.
Forget the rest. Hold it together long enough to talk.
Between the branches he spied a flapping white tablecloth trimmed with red and blue. A stray napkin swayed to the grass, and a high-heeled shoe stabbed it into the earth. An older woman in a powder-blue suit bent her knee and plucked the napkin away. She turned to a man beside her and accepted a very thin plate loaded with brightly colored food. Behind them, there were twenty or so rows of chairs lined up neatly, and most of these chairs were occupied by other people with similar plates of food.
If he could read, then the banner hanging over the gathering might have told him something helpful, or then again, it might have only confused him. He wondered what it said. One word looked familiar; it was a long word beginning with a “C.” He felt he ought to recognize it, but he didn’t; so he decided not to dwell on it. Letters had never been his strong suit.
It didn’t matter, anyway. He’d found the party he was looking for, and they were a promising bunch of folks. They were older, so some of them were bound to be respectable; but they were not so old that others wouldn’t take them seriously.
The longer he watched, the more certain he became. Yes. These people would listen. He skirted the edge of the clearing, darting from tree to tree, drawing closer, trying to see their faces.
One man in particular looked like a promising contact. He had a certain leanness in his cheeks, and a slouch that struck the ghost as being familiar in some unspecific, mostly forgotten way. This man was standing beside a woman with bright blond hair that sat immobile on her head like a round yellow crown. She scratched at her wedding ring and tugged at her cuff while the thin-faced man talked to two other men.
The lurking shade closed his eyes and thought hard, willing his form as close to solid as he could come. He forced himself to recall as much detail as he could, conjuring up the dull gray jacket and with it the tarnished buttons, the shapeless pants, and his badly battered cap.
When he was dressed, and when he was as ready as he could make himself, he stepped forward into the sunny patch of grass.
At first, no one noticed.
He was still a few yards from the group, so he drew himself closer to them, nearer to the one who had caught his attention. The ghost moved with care, so as not to startle them. He fixed his eyes on the thin, casually slumping man with the bored-looking wife and pulled himself towards the neat forest of metal chairs.
The wife spotted him first.
He knew she saw him—she froze her idle scratching and polite, agreeable nodding to stare directly at him. The ghost paused, not wanting to frighten her into a scream.
To her credit, she did not cry out. Her eyes widened and her head cocked to the right, but she lifted her hand to her lips and covered them up as if she wasn’t sure what might pass through.
“Evan,” she breathed between her fingers.
“Dear?” her husband answered fast from the middle of his conversation. He dropped the syllable without looking at her.
“Oh, Evan,” she repeated, this time reaching out to touch his arm. “My God, but look at him.”
“Look at him. Look at him, Evan. Doesn’t he look like—”
Evan sighed and turned from his group. “Look at who, darling?”
The figure in question stretched himself up to his full height, and held up his chin. He assumed a stance of formal attention and waited.
Throughout the gathering, all the small conversations dried up and all the happily chatting faces went limp. Evan dropped his plastic glass. It toppled to the grass with a splash and a thud, spilling purple punch across his new shoes—though he wouldn’t notice the stain for days.
Satisfied that he had everyone’s full, undivided attention, the ghost opened his mouth. But no sound followed. Frustrated, he closed his mouth and opened it again.
Just two words, he swore to himself. Why can’t I say it?
He shook his head and tried a third time, but he couldn’t utter a single, raspy gasp. It made him angry: All that preparation, all that effort, and all that trouble, and here he was, right where he’d meant to go, but he couldn’t tell them a damn thing. And to make things worse, he could feel his hold slipping. It would not be long before he lost control over the people’s shocked silence and his own physical form.
No words, then. Quickly. Before the moment had time to pass.
He raised his right arm and pointed, as hard as he could. He aimed his hand across the pretty clearing, and beyond the trees beside it, and over the creek and through the fields of waving green grass to a point that no one could see.
And then he disappeared.
Copyright © 2006 by Cherie Priest