This time of the year, this week, in fact, I can’t stop myself from thinking back and remembering the hell that we found in Miller’s cornfield. We were just boys, or I guess most of us were boys. Even those that were full grown was innocent. Innocent of what they made us do in there. Innocent as babes to what they forced us to see.
I know they say we did good work and I know they say we saved the Union. But that don’t help them boys lying in the strip of earth that ain’t good for nothing now. I know the grass will grow again, and maybe even crops will be planted, but whatever grows there has the blood of dead soldiers on it. I know that for sure.
I killed my first man in that cornfield. I remember it as if it was yesterday. He really wasn’t much of a man. Younger than me, couldn’t have been more than fourteen, maybe sixteen. Should have been back wherever he come from, sparking the girl down the road. If he wasn’t ready for that, he should have been fishing.
I dream about him sometimes. Used to dream almost every night. He haunted me. Damnedest dream. I was sitting in the cornfield after all the damage was done. The soil is all torn up and there are craters where the artillery landed. Some of them still have a drift of smoke rising. The acidic smell of burnt gunpowder covers the area like an unseen fog.
Bodies and part of bodies are strewn about me and I sit in the dirt, tired, hot, and hungry. To my side, I see an ear of corn. One that isn’t broken or damaged. It’s whole, and it still wears the husk for protection. I hear and feel my stomach rumble. I’ve not eaten in days. I grab the ear, break it free of the bit of stock holding on to it, and I shuck it. The kernels are full, plump and as yellow as the sun itself. My stomach growls, but I take my time, I want to savor this meal. This bounty from God’s earth. I pick free the silk.
I hold that ear in both my hands and I worship it as I lift it to my mouth. As it gets close, I notice a trace of red along some kernels. A bit of the red clay, I suppose but when I wipe it away; it smears. As I watch, blood seeps from the cob and leaks out around the kernels. Blood that had been sucked up from the soil and through the stock.
I hear a noise, and I turn to see the dead boy, the bayonet I ran him through with still in his chest. Blood trickles from the wound and he reaches to take my ear of corn.
Still have that dream every so often, even after all these years. Still see that boy. I can reach out in the dark of my bed and feel the resistance of his skin give way as I run him through.
Never liked corn much after the war. Don’t eat it unless I’m forced to, like at a church social or a community potluck dinner. Sometimes the ladies will fix me a plate as I come through the line and they are proud of themselves for saving me an oversized ear of corn. I don’t rightly know how to tell them I struggle to eat it. What with checking for the blood to start dripping.
Yeah, I remember Antietam. I remember the smells, the shouts, the orders and the men marching up and back. I remember that awful noise that drowned out the rest of the world.
I remember the courage, of both sides, blue and grey. I didn’t have any idea at all why we were fighting where we were and I’m lay you odds; the Rebs knew less than me. What a mess it was. All those men dead or crippled. For what? Not a battle line anywhere on that field was changed by so much as a foot. We just spent twelve hours killing each other. It was a hell of a day. Just a hell of a day.
I know there’s been other wars and I don’t mean to brag or complain; I guess each soldier that goes into battle faces his own Antietam.
Ah, look here. My coffee is cold. I’m gonna get a refill, how about you?
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