Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 2007
He waited. There was a quality of timelessness about this waiting that he imagined must be like the eternity of the next life. But whereas that would surely be unending rapture, this was just void, suspension, most of the time untinged by any emotion. The thoughts that would rouse hope or despair he tried not to entertain. Freed from all physical necessity he had no reason to move; he sat on the large flat stone that the burial party had rolled out of the woods and placed over the grave to keep animals from digging it up. From that vantage point he could see the whole of the clearing and into the surrounding woods, and he watched, and waited.
Now and then a living being would come out of the forest and into his glade. A wild creature -- a deer, or a fox -- would venture into the open, sniff, freeze at the sight of him, then turn and run away. A few times dogs had found their way here. He loved dogs and was glad to see these visitors -- but when he held out his hand and spoke softly to them in the tone that had always made his dogs at home wag their whole backsides and lay their ears back and come close, the animals raised their hackles, bared their teeth and growled, then fled with their tails tucked. That did make him sad.
The first humans to come to this place after his spirit had parted from his body had been his friend Jeremiah and some other soldiers he didn’t know. They had appeared at first light the next day; it would have been January first. They dug the grave and Jeremiah wrapped his body in his blanket, openly crying. He would have liked to comfort the man who was like a brother to him and tell Jeremiah to keep the blanket that he sorely needed with that cough of his. But his stunned spirit stayed at a little distance, helpless to do anything but watch.
And after that the grass grew up over the scars of the fight. The trees that had been beheaded by bullets and shells sprouted new growth that concealed the shattered, burned wood. Over time they had grown as tall as the rest of the forest. The sounds nearby were only peaceful now. And there were other, more distant sounds, too, some familiar to him -- hammering and sawing, the lowing of cows, the moaning whistle and rhythmic pulsing of a train -- and some he had never heard before: roars and screeches and whines not made by any human voices. What all these new sounds meant he did not know. How much time he had been here he also did not know.
Few people ever found their way to this spot. Those who had -- a hunter, a young fellow and his gal, a raggedy man with a bottle, a pair of little boys -- reacted, when he showed himself and spoke to them, with fear and flight, the way the animals had. At such times he could not keep from feeling bitter frustration, because the whole purpose of his waiting was to find someone who would help him fulfill the mission that had kept him from being able to rest like the others who slept beneath his feet. He himself did not seem able to leave this gravesite, except to walk into the forest a little way to the rock slab on which his life had ebbed away.
The next time someone came he vowed that he would take great care to present himself as harmless, an ordinary, unthreatening man. He prayed it would be soon.
For now, he watched, and waited.
The supper pots were washed and dried, the cotton dishcloths were draped over the tent ropes. Jessie Gibbs took off her wet apron and ducked into her tent to spruce herself up a little. Dishwater had soaked all the way through the front of her dress to the corset and chemise she wore underneath, but it was too close to bedtime to bother with changing. She lit her candle-lantern, took off her kerchief and, peering into the mirror she’d hung from a nail on the tent post near the door, brushed her long, light-brown hair and parted it in the middle, then re-twisted it into a knot at the back of her head. Not that anybody here cared much how she looked. All the men in this unit were either married or in relationships. Still, she had her pride.
She picked up her canvas and wooden folding stool and carried it over to the campfire, where a group had gathered. “Hey, great supper, Jessie, Abby,” Stan Trabue said. “I reckon we eat better than anybody in the entire Confederate army.”
“Yankee too,” someone else said.
“Glad y’all enjoyed it,” Jessie said, and caught Abby’s eye. Her friend smiled at her, sitting on the ground holding her little boy, Joshua, in her lap.
“Give us a tune, Jessie?” Tim Stebbins said, taking his guitar from the open case behind him and handing it toward her.
“Sure.” She pulled her skirts around so that there was a dry part to rest the instrument on, and held the guitar away from her wet bodice. “Becky, got your whistle?”
“Yep.” Becky DePew took out her tin whistle. The two of them played the Irish ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.” Glancing up from her picking Jessie saw a circle of rapt, firelit faces turned toward them. When the song was over, a chorus of voices demanded another.
She began strumming and singing the Stephen Foster ballad, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and Becky played a harmony above the vocal line. John Newcomb joined in, tapping a pair of spoons in rhythm. A few people sang along with the refrain, but Jessie was the only one who knew the words to all the verses. When she finished the group applauded and cheered, and she blushed, pleased, and handed the guitar back to Tim, who put it into its case. “You won’t play?” she asked.
“Tomorrow night,” he said. “We’ll have us a good old sing-along then.” Music- making, singing the old songs of Civil War time, was a favorite part of these gatherings for everyone.
“Captain” Jim Bryce, the company commander, spoke up. “It’s late and I know a lot of y’all had to work today, so let me just fill you in on tomorrow’s activities.” Reveille would be at 5:30, he said, prompting a few groans; inspection of uniforms and kits after breakfast (“Stash the cell phones, lighters and wristwatches, folks. New guys, get authentic eyeglasses as soon as you can, and old guys, you have no more excuses. And just a reminder – no sunglasses. Only syphilitics wore dark glasses in the 1860s. I want everybody looking excruciatingly correct at Gettysburg in three weeks."). Marching and formation practice would occupy the rest of the morning, and gun cleaning and handling instruction the afternoon.
When he finished speaking some people stood up and said good-night. John and Abby rose, John lifting Joshua – by now limp in slumber – and carrying him to their tent. Jessie gazed after them, envious of their familial closeness.
Now that the gathering was adults-only, flasks came out of haversacks and pockets and were passed around, their contents splashing into tin cups. Some of the men lit cigars and pipes. Jessie took a sip when a flask came her way – some strong liquor, though not being much of a drinker she couldn’t say what kind.
Pete Moltisanti spoke up. “How do you know you’ve been re-enacting too long?”
“How?” was the obliging response.
“When you see a beautiful woman in a bikini and you think ‘Hmmm, wonder what she’d look like in a hoop skirt?’”
Across the fire Jessie caught his gaze and he gave her a wink, the flames dancing in his dark eyes. The wink surprised and warmed her, as though they shared a private understanding, but that, she reminded herself, was just Pete’s way, friendly and easygoing with everyone. Next to him his sixteen-year-old son, Ben, was stretched out, apparently asleep. Barefoot, in his homespun shirt and baggy gray wool pants with white suspenders, he looked just like a young soldier. It was shocking to think that boys that young -- and even younger – had fought in the Civil War.
Father and son had joined the group a year ago. Everybody appreciated Pete’s quick, Brooklyn-accented wit and good humor, and Ben’s enthusiasm as the unit’s bugler. People also felt protective of them, knowing that Andrea Moltisanti was very ill. The previous summer Jessie had seen her for the first time at an event at the nearby Stones River National Battlefield. Andrea sat in a folding chair watching her husband and son take part in a field demonstration. Despite the warm weather she wore a sweater and had a fleece blanket draped over her lap. The bright sunshine emphasized her pallor and glinted unnaturally on her strawberry-blond cropped wig. A few weeks later, at the next unit meeting, Jessie overheard Pete telling some of the group that Andrea had been fighting cancer for three years; first in her breast and now, unfortunately, in a few different places. Jessie had asked her sister, a nurse, if that was as bad as it sounded and Lou Ann said grimly, “She’s probably only got a couple of years at most.”
That poor family, Jessie thought, watching Pete tuck his butternut wool jacket protectively over his sleeping son’s shoulders. He worked as editor-in-chief for a Nashville religious book publisher, which must mean he was a person of faith. She hoped that would give him strength to face what was coming. As for Ben, he clearly lived and breathed his music in a way that reminded her of how she had been at his age, a mere eight years ago – so idealistic, so hopeful that talent and hard work would magically produce success. Maybe his trumpet would be a lifeline for him, as her piano had always been for her, though thankfully she had never had to put it to the kind of test he would be facing.
The conversation around the fire gradually subsided; some yawns signaled that the evening was winding down. Jessie stood and surveyed the surrounding landscape. It was beautiful in the bright moonlight. She loved the moon, its cool mystery, its serenity, its intimacy. Sunlight, to her, was blaring and relentless, and she shrank from its assault, but the moon invited her shy spirit to come out and bask.
“I think I’ll take a little walk before bed,” she said. “See if there’s a breeze anywhere.”
“Holler if you see any Yankees,” someone said.
“Oh, I’m not scared. I know y’all would protect me,” she said, which brought a chorus of manly assents in response.
She made her way along the mowed lane that ran between the large cornfield on her left and the forest on her right. Even though the air was still, there was a rustling from the cornfield, and she wondered if she was actually hearing the sound of the tall plants growing.
She had never ventured so far in this direction before. Her unit used the same site for their regular drills and training encampments, thanks to “Private” Leonard Judd whose uncle owned this farmland just west of the Stones River National Battlefield and allowed the re-enactors to camp there and come and go as they pleased. The boundary of the National Park was somewhere in the woods to her right.
Crickets’ rasping chorus swelled and faded in the evening air. She walked past the northernmost edge of the cornfield and entered a wooded glade.
It was peaceful here. She did not feel afraid; everything was still and calm. And anyway, the members of her group were within yelling distance. She could see the light of their campfire above the cornfield.
The woods gave way to a clearing with a large flat-topped stone at its center. The place appeared untouched by humanity except for the remains of an old snake-rail fence. Jessie sat down on the stone. The hum of Interstate 24 was audible in the distance, but all she heard nearby were leaves rustling, insects whirring and chirping, and the snap of a twig as an animal moved through the woods.
So beautiful, she thought, and then, as usual, came the sequel: If only I had someone to share it with. Her initial motivation for getting involved in this quirky pastime of Civil War re-enacting had been to find romance. But after two years she still had not met anyone, either in her local group or at the large events that the group attended a few times a year. Of the two single men in her unit, Luke Delmotte turned out to be vain and self-absorbed. He always brought a woman to events and never the same one twice. The other, Ricky Taitt, was a nice guy but a garage mechanic and gun enthusiast – not her type.
She was beginning to wonder if her type actually existed. Someone appreciative of art and music – her two boyfriends in music school had fit that description – but also kind and honorable, which neither of them, as it turned out, had been.
The notes of “Taps” wafted across the field. Ben must have roused himself, or been awakened, to sound the last bugle call of the day. It was a relief to have a respite from her musings, which often frustrated her with their circularity. She picked up her lantern, stood up from the rock and brushed off the back of her skirt.
Movement among the trees to her right caught her eye. A man came into view, moving soundlessly out of the woods.
Adrenaline shot through her, sparking to the end of every nerve. She drew a sharp breath and took a step back.
“Evenin’, ma’am.” He raised his beat-up, wide-brimmed felt hat. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”
He was young, clutching around himself a blanket of rough gray wool. At first she thought he was black, but as he moved closer she saw that his skin was darkened with dirt or soot. The whites of his eyes looked very bright. Her panic-scattered impressions began to organize themselves into a calmer clarity as she saw that he was dressed in the motley “uniform” of a Confederate re-enactor. In the opening at the top of his blanket-cloak she could see the collar and wooden buttons of a tan or gray jacket (it was hard to be certain of color in the bleaching moonlight). Beneath the blanket’s hem the baggy legs of his trousers stopped short of his ankles, bare above dusty brogan-style shoes.
Not a vagrant or homicidal maniac, after all, but a fellow “living historian.”
“I was just startled, that’s all,” she said. “I didn’t expect to meet anyone out here. We’re camped right over there.” She gestured in the direction she had come from, hoping to convey that help was close at hand if he should try anything. “My re-enacting unit,” she added.
He glanced where she was pointing, and nodded but said nothing.
“Looks like you're a Civil War re-enactor too," she prompted. "What’s your regiment?”
“The Thirty-seventh Tennessee Infantry,” he said. “Company I.”
“Really! We’re Company I, too. But we’re the First Tennessee, the Rutherford Rifles. Where are the rest of your soldiers?”
His gaze darted to her face, then fell to the ground. “They’re nearby,” he said.
“I guess you’re the lucky one who pulled picket duty.”
A moment's hesitation, then he said, “Yes, ma’am. That's right.”
“Is there something going on at Stones River this weekend?”
“I wondered if there was some event happening at the National Park, that we hadn’t heard about.”
“No, ma’am, not that I know of.”
He was only a little taller than she, maybe five eight, and he seemed to be about her age, in his mid-twenties. And now that she was looking at him full in the face she saw, beneath the grime that shadowed his skin, that he was striking-looking. His bold eyebrows and the planes of his roughly-shaven cheeks and jawline were definitely masculine, while his large, dark eyes and finely-shaped lips would not have been out of place in a woman’s face.
Handsome, for sure, but a little slow on the uptake. Or, possibly shy – strange though it seemed for someone who looked like him to be socially awkward. That thought put her more at ease; shyness was something she could relate to.
“My name is Jessie Gibbs,” she pressed on.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m Private Lemuel Sanders.”
“Well, now that we know each other’s names you can stop calling me ma’am.” She smiled. “It makes me feel so old.”
“Well, all right then, Mrs....? “
“Miss Gibbs,” he said.
Sometimes re-enactors, in addition to dressing the part, tried to emulate the manners and diction of the 19th century. And in fact some units required that their members stay in “first-person” roles for the whole event. Maybe his group was like that. She was glad hers wasn’t, but she was willing to play along.
“So, Mr. Sanders, when do you go off duty?”
“Not for a while yet.”
“If you’re free tomorrow, come by our campsite, you and your friends. We’re here all weekend. See the firelight over there?”
“Yes, ma -- Yes, I sure do. Thank you for inviting me. How many are with you?”
“Our unit has about twenty soldiers, and I’m one of the camp cooks.”
“A lady cook! Your boys have it good. We just do for ourselves. When we get rations. Which is not too often.”
“Just hard tack and salt horse, right?”
“We feel lucky when we get hard tack and salt horse,” he said. “Parched corn is more like it.” He smiled at her broadly for the first time. That smile -- bright, straight teeth, a deep dimple in his left cheek and a shining in the eyes that met hers directly now -- made something strange happen in her chest: a leap of excitement, a plummeting like doom.
Her eyes faltered downward. “I-- I’d better get back. I have to be up before dawn to fix breakfast for everybody.”
“I sure liked talking to you, Miss Gibbs,” he said. “Will you come again?” His tone, his gaze when she met it again, held an earnestness, even an urgency, that was both flattering and puzzling. She didn’t think of herself as the kind of woman who had an immediately magnetic effect on a man, but that’s how he seemed to be responding to her.
“You’ll be here?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be right here.”
“All right, Mr. Sanders. If you’re not free to come over in the daytime I’ll come back after supper. I’ll bring you some of our food.”
“That’d be real nice. You be careful now, walking back by yourself.”
“I know the way. It’s not far.”
“Well, then, good night, Miss Gibbs.”
As she began walking away, she could not stop herself from glancing back at him.
But the clearing was empty. The woods were dark and still.