Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Walls

Eric Simonds


The old man opened the screen door and wiped his damp shoes on the mat. The smell of bacon and fresh biscuits and the warmth of the oven made a stark contrast to the early autumn morning outside. Eva was standing at the sink and smiled at him as he walked towards her. Leaning in, he gently kissed her on the cheek as his hands rustled though his pockets. Apples. He stepped away and began fishing them out of the frayed denim jacket one at a time. Eight apples, bright and red, that he had picked that morning were laid on the edge of the sink. Eva looked at the apples and smiled again to herself.

"Your breakfast is ready, are you hungry?" she said.

The worn wooden table was set out orderly. Last year's preserves, apple butter, and the everyday knickknacks that made up their morning were all around. Peaceful and always the same, he thought to himself.

"I am that," he said, and took his place at the head of the table.

Jackson finished his breakfast quietly as his wife of fifty years finished washing the pots and pans that she'd used to fry up the meal. After years of cooking for a family, she found being alone with her husband a much easier chore. Eva had eaten her meal earlier while her husband had been picking apples from the orchard. Jackson often did that when he couldn't sleep. Rising early, he would wander out through the dew and gather freshly fallen apples. Arriving back at the house, he knew what to expect. Inside, his wife would be scrubbing dishes, and his breakfast would be on the table.

Eva was a good woman, and her life with Jackson had been filled with many happy times. But she knew also of darker days that she had not been part of. She had seen those days when her husband would go through an entire day without speaking. She would leave him alone at those times. That is what he wanted. He would speak when directly engaged, of course, but only just. Once or maybe twice a year, he would slip inside himself for an hour, a day, or maybe two. It was as if he sought some sort of shelter that could only be created by quiet. He had been like that since she'd met him. Joyous and outgoing in a normal day, but deeply shy at times. Eva knew that something had happened in those long ago days that had forever changed him. And like the accidental touch of a word on a mental scar, the memories of those times would freshen in his mind. When those times came, she did not pry.

"Dear," Eva said without turning around. "I see you brought me some fine apples here. I expect you'll be wanting a pie tonight?"

Jackson was still chewing on the last piece of bacon as he rose and handed the empty plate to his wife. Walking over to the tattered screen door, he put his calloused hands deep into the empty pockets of his overalls.

"That'd be fine, Mother. Just fine," he said.

Eva's smile came up, and her eyes sparkled slightly as she slid the dish under the soapy water.

"So, old man, what's your plan for the day? You going to head down to the church and watch them put on the new roof? All the old men are going to be there."

"No, I reckon not. I don't feel much like listening to them folks talk that roof up. That's all they do anyway, talk. They'll get along just fine without me."

Eva's smile slid away, and she glanced at her husband. He stood at the screen looking out towards the orchard. His hands moved gracefully to roll a cigarette without the aid of looking down.

"Yeah," he began, "those men will get along fine without me. Besides, I've got to write to Sarah's boy today. It was good to get that letter from him on Friday, and I need to write back. After all, it's been so long since we've seen him."

Jackson opened the door, stepped out onto the porch, and lit the cigarette. "I'll be back later, Mother," he called back. "And don't worry about that pie unless you just want to. I don't know why I picked up those apples just now."

**********

He walked steadily down the path towards the orchard. The wetness of the morning air clung to the rye grass and fell to the ground when brushed by his boots. Soon it would be time to mow the hay and store it for another year. He stopped for a moment and looked back towards the house. He wished that he could speak with his wife like he wanted to. She was his love and his strength, but he knew the words wouldn't come when he called for them. Such it is with love, he thought. More is often spoken in the quiet than we know. He turned and continued his walk. In no time, the orchard was passed, and he found himself at the creek that snaked beyond.

The fishing shack by the stream was his destination. Built long ago when his boys were young, father and sons had spent many summer days resting there. When the fishing rods needed mending or lunchtime had arrived, the small shed provided shade and a cool place to sit and eat. And so today, he wrote.

**********

September 17th, 1902

Sweetwater, Tennessee

Dearest Grandson,

Your dear Mother writes to me with great news of your studies in school. It is indeed a blessing to hear that you are doing so well. She also tells me that you have been asking in regards to the War, and what I might recall of it. It troubles me slightly to recall back to those days, but I feel that I should tell you, however painful, what I remember. I do this not so much for myself as I do for you.

I really can't explain it to you, boy. Some things are without parallel in these mortal lives of ours. Your mother says that she thinks you need something, but I am afraid that the something you are needing ain't in my story. You ask me what I did in this past war, and I don't know where to start. I really don't. However, I can tell you this - and you can take it in any way you see fit. I only fired my musket twicet. Both times happened on the same day. For that matter, they both were fired off within less than a minute, and I never fired my musket again. Not during the whole rest of the war. There, what do you think of that? Not exactly what you expected, eh son?

I had been picked up in Virginia shortly after my 16th birthday by a wily Captain from Mr. Longstreet's Corps. His name was Coltrane. I had been fishing by a small creek when two fellows grabbed me and drug me off to join the Army. Mr. Coltrane and Mr. Fitch. They taught me to drill while on the march, and they gave me a gun. A fine, shiny gun. They taught me how to clean it, load it, and fire it. I did as I was told. As soon as I could, I wrote to Momma and told her I had joined the Army.

But I know you are not interested in that. You want to know what happened on that famous day, and I really can't blame you. I'll bet your history books are just filled to the brim with tales of those three days. History books always are. Still, I probably have a different story than what you have read.

I first remember a very handsome fellow yelling for us to keep in line. Stay in step. We marched out into an open field and Federal cannons began firing at us. It didn't matter, though. All of our eyes and ears were focused on our Officer. The whole time those shells were falling, we just kept listening to what he was saying. Form Left. Align Right. Stay Abreast. Left Oblique. And so on, and so on. We were so engrossed with trying to stay in line that we didn't have time to be afraid. Besides, we knew that the bullet had not yet been cast that could cut us down. With that, we kept on marching right up the middle of that field.

After a good while, we got to a small wooden fence. This was bad news to us all, and at first we tried to tear down the railings. We did this until our Officer yelled for us to just climb it. This was the first time that some of us realized that we were not as bulletproof as we had originally imagined. About half of our Company made it across that little, rickety fence alive. Some of us began to get very scared, and we all noticed that the cannons had stopped shooting. This too, was bad news since it meant we were now within shot of the Yankee rifles.

We formed our ranks as they shot at us, and our Officer - Lt. Higgins from Alabama - gave us the order to fire a volley and reload. Some of the boys were not scared and were fighting mad instead. They hollered like wild men when Mr. Higgins gave the order to fire. After that, we advanced about 15 more feet, and were told to fire again. I did so with much trepidation as many of my friends had either been killed or shot clean through. But Lt. Higgins was in charge and we all trusted him and felt that he would not let anything bad happen to us.

I had just finished reloading when the order to fix bayonets was given. We fixed them while marching, and were told to charge as soon as the last man had fitted his to his rifle. All this time, son, we were less than 50 yards from the Yankees and being shot at the whole time.

Most of us were out of breath from pure excitement and fear by the time we tangled with them Yankees at the stone wall. I was scared to death, and knew that I was fighting for my life right then and there. Lt. Higgins was waving his sword over his head and yelling one minute, and was shot through the neck the next. I reached up to grab him as he fell, but he pushed me to the ground and I hit my head on the wall. When I woke up, the noise of a single human being could not be heard. Instead, the cannons had begun to fire again. I didn't know what to do, so I just lay there in that pile of my dead friends. I think I cried, but I really can't remember. I remember the taste of Lt. Higgins's blood that had run down into the corner of my mouth. It was a metallic taste.

Every time one of those cannons roared, the ground would shake and rattle. My head felt like it would explode as each concussion re-arranged the piled corpses at the base of the wall. I wish I had been able to burrow straight down to China to get away from those blasts, but I couldn't. I just lay there not knowing what to do. And then I heard the cannons stop. I thought that God had heard my wishes, but the very next second, I heard the click clack sound of men running with muskets. I knew what was about to happen, and I was powerless. I was frozen in fear.

Off in the distance, I could hear the yelps and cheers of my fellow Countrymen. This meant that they must be nearing the rail fence I had mentioned to you earlier. This was just as bad of a mess for them as it had been for us.

I could go on, my dear Grandson, but I think you understand me. I stayed by that wall covered by my friends until darkness fell. The Yankees had sent word that we could pick up our dead and wounded, and I was found by a fellow from Texas. Yes, that is right. I was found without a wound on me at the foot of the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge.

No one ever called me a coward. I did not run from the fight. It just seems that once I woke up, I was too scared to figure out what to do. Later that night, Mr. Pickett heard of my situation, and called me to his tent. I explained to him how I had come to join the Army, and how I had come to be alive at the top of The Ridge, and he cried. I think he had been crying already that day, but I do not know for sure.

The next day, I was led to the rear of the Army lines, and told to go home. I was given a piece of paper that was signed by Mr. Longstreet that said I should be given free and safe passage back to Hickman, Virginia. Two weeks later, I was home in the field with Momma again. After the war, we moved down here to Tennessee and continued our farming. I met your Grandmother, and we'll be here for the rest of our lives.

I am not sure if this story is what you wanted to hear. And I really do not know what you are reading in your books. In the end, you asked my story, and I have told it. I hope this helps you in some small way.

Keep up the good work in your studies, and write to me often.

Your loving Grandfather,

Jackson Petty

**********

...The ground seemed to buckle with each shot of the cannonade... the wall was close at hand as the large, heavy projectiles whizzed out of the smooth barrels... in an instant, they were overhead.. so close that the wind of their passing combined with the thunderclap and became one... noise and concussion merged... the sandy soil vibrated as if it were alive... particles morphed, and became a thick molasses which tried to swallow the trooper... lying on sore stomachs and broken limbs, it was as if the Earth herself was trying to sink him into the protection of a grave... the sulfur smoke sickened him, but he dared not cough... he hugged the dirt against the stone wall as the cannons fired quickly... speaking an efficiency borne of years spent in battle...

The screams and cadence of friends could be heard distantly muffled... they were approaching full of anger and ruin... they must have reached the rail fence by now, or he would not have been able to hear their voices... he knew they would be here in three minutes at double-time..

The click clack of men running with muskets drowned out the yells of his comrades for a moment... he knew what was coming, and he wished he could burrow into the dirt... dead or alive, just to be away from this... but with a yell of "Fredericksburg!" his eye caught sight of a thousand barrels being slid across the top of the low wall above him... he noticed that the cannon fire had ceased... this meant only one thing... infantry in an open field... and opposing infantry behind a stone wall…

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Eric Simonds is a freelance writer and native of Tennessee. After traveling and living abroad in Europe for the past ten years, he has finally returned home to The South. He is currently working on his first novel.

 

© Eric Simonds

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012