Fiction: Adrian Van Young
The Burial Party
In her invalid’s bunk on the steamer Virginia, the Nurse cannot stop throwing up.
When the boat is in motion, it does not afflict her. She could stand on the prow with her face in the wind. But when the steamboat lies at anchor in the hot airlessness of the day, churning faintly, the Nurse’s insides fly apart. She becomes, to herself, an intemperate stranger.
The Nurse does not lie there alone; in his starched uniform with its loud epaulets, the Quartermaster looms above her. “It is an absurd proposition,” he says.
“Absurd,” she says, “in what regard?”
The Quartermaster does not help to keep the vomit from her throat. He has come all the way below-decks to berate her for simply being who she is. “It will squander manpower and rations,” he says, “in grave excess of what we have. I will telegraph Meigs and inform him, all right?”
He means the Quartermaster General. She lurches for her pail of sick and coughs up burning yellow strings. “I will carry on with or without …” The Nurse pauses. She fights down the vomit, her hand at her mouth. “The Private will accompany me.”
“The Private will accompany you,” says the man in her bunk, “to the dock for desertion.”
It’s summer 1865. They are headed to Andersonville in the south with her rolls of accursed, unaccounted for names: fallen soldiers never found. There is the Nurse, the Quartermaster, the Private, and the many men—forty-odd government workers and craftsmen with seven thousand white headboards that are to be planted at Andersonville for twice as many Union dead. At the prison itself, also known as Camp Sumter, or the Final Depot or the Maw of Fresh Hell, 13,000 Union boys have not been buried in their graves. The Georgia Railroad is in shreds from Sherman’s blood-march to the sea, though a clerk has mapped for her an alternate route that will take them by riverboat up to Augusta, by rail to Atlanta, then southeast to Macon, at that point dropping down to enter the prison by points south. Awaiting Meigs’ confirmation for the burial party to keep moving forward, the ship has been moored on the Savannah River for nearly a week now. July is in earnest. What is fact and what is fever churn behind the Nurse’s eyes. She’s seen boys half her age explode into confetti. Red mazes of guts in the plain light of day. But only now over this middling chop do the biscuits and rashers come up in her throat.
With her handkerchief pressed shakily to her mouth, she looks up at the Quartermaster. “When I come above-decks in a moment,” she says, “we will discuss this matter more.”
“Don’t hurry yourself, Madam Nurse.” He goes out. She hears him stop along the hall. The Quartermaster says, “Enough.” She has heard him discussing her now many times—above-decks, in the diner, outside of her door. He always says the same nine words: “Some people aren’t fit to go anywhere, are they?”
She pushes her pail of sick under the bed. She buttons the front of her dress to the collar. The river through her cabin glass resembles a basin of wobbling pus.
The next day Meigs will telegraph for them to “take the roundabout” and their own Quartermaster will wallow in gin, stomping wretched and slurred through the ship in the night. At three past midnight, maybe four, the Army Nurse will wake to scratching, prying at her cabin door, yet by the time she understands the person who is there outside, he will have dragged himself away up the steamer’s gangplank to collapse on the deck, where come the next day he will find himself sprawled in his dress uniform with a mouth full of rot.
The Quartermaster wakes in pain beneath the shadow of the oaks. The oaks themselves are hulking, dark, entwining in agony over the river. He lies on the poop deck in all of his clothes. Though it is scarcely after dawn, already the air is competing with steam.
“The South,” he says. “The cunting South.” He says it aloud, torn apart by hangover. He has served at New Orleans, Bull Run and Antietam.
The Private swivels into view. He’s been standing above him, just off to the right. No telling, really, for how long. He stands as he always does, pale, deferential, hoping somebody will give him his orders. The Private was taken at Andersonville for nearly a year before being turned loose when Sherman’s armies took Atlanta. His body and face bear the ghoulishness of it—emaciated, wan, always seemingly bruised. The Private is responsible for landing him here on this ship with the Nurse. The Private gave her what she needed—the long roll of names of the lost Union dead—and the Nurse promptly went to the government with it. The Private appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, like a specter from Dickens, with good information.
Yet in truth he reminds him of no one so much as a man he had served with in the 12th of Pennsylvania—an Austrian wisp by the name of Van Cleave. Van Cleave had not been cut for war. He pissed himself at cannonades. And worse, when the dirt-blast came showering down, he crouched and gripped his skull for cover. The unit called him this: Van Quease. The Private is different than Van Quease, however. He’s just as skinny, yes, there’s that, and seemingly unfit for war, but there’s also a dark otherworldliness in him that discomfits the Quartermaster, like the Private has been to the depths of the pit and drunk in its foulness without going blind.
The Quartermaster can’t believe that he is here and not back home.
When he drags himself into a leaning position, smacking his mouth with the terrible taste, he finds the sun is in his eyes and he says to the Private: “A bit to the left.”
With the faintest delay between hearing and action, the Private’s heels snap as he moves to obey him. “Perfect,” says the Quartermaster. “Now stay where you are, very still, until lunch.”
The Private starts rifling pockets for something. “You left this on the foredeck, sir.”
“I do sincerely hope,” he says, “that you are reaching for your flask,” but the Private hands over a cameo locket.
About last night, now he is clearer: the Quartermaster has a notion of giving himself to the still, darkened river. Of standing on the foredeck with his hands in the air while cursing the fates that have battered his life. The portrait is a cameo of the woman who once he’d called “fiancé.” It opens on a golden hinge. The face is enclosed by a backing of jet. He vaguely remembers the locket held open, wavering before his face. He had been hoarsely screaming at it, calling it names that are foul to a woman. “Thank you, Private. Very good.”
As the Private backs away from him, the Nurse surfaces above-deck. She has not been outside her bunk since they first anchored here at the mouth of the river and she moves with a lumpen, enfeebled aspect belying just how young she is. He might’ve been more of a gentleman to her had she only admitted when she had been beat, but her illness had rendered her more of a thorn, increasing her permanent need to “press on,” a phrase that irritates him worse than anything she might’ve said, for it means, in his mind, that he cannot press on. “You are primed for the day, it appears,” he says to her, hiding the locket away in his coat.
Ignoring his words, the Nurse turns to the Private, but she cannot resist him and whips back around. “You are still in your cups from last night. It’s disgusting.”
“How could I ever fail to be”—he starts walking backward—“with someone like you?”
Anchor line lies coiled behind him. He stumbles upon it and catches his balance, one leg hopping underneath him. “Assemble the men,” the Nurse says to the Private.
“Half of them are gone ashore, Ma’am.”
The Private regards her attentively, waiting. The Quartermaster would like for the Private to hate her but he seems to regard her with sheepish affection. Everything she says to him he seems to hear: Mind you, change that dressing.
The Private will go off to do as she says, borne away on his gangly, cadaverous limbs, walking into Savannah’s whorehouses and taverns like one alien to his own appetites and the men will come staggering back to the boat in ragged processions of several and few. The Quartermaster won’t see their return; he will hear it, bivouacked below-decks in his room, his head splitting. Mostly, he’ll be occupied never starting completely the same lovelorn letter, his crumpled attempts, like the Nurse’s sick napkins, littering his cabin floor. He will write: Dear Lenore … He will write: Dearest Len … He will write: Dear Beloved Lenore … and redact it. The salutation will take hours. I realize you think me changed since I was delivered from war’s fiery belly—that I have griefs and fits and fears beyond what you can understand—but let me assure you, oh light of my life, my love for you has never changed. All the way to Augusta, shut up in his berth, he will not have a single sip, determined to be spic and span when they dock and debark for the train to Atlanta. Horrors unreckoned will take him at first. A Sergeant-Major’s mustached face disintegrating under fire, turning into an absence that fronted a head. Van Quease stirring in his bed, his fear-scarlet eyes coming groggily open, his lips drawing up from his teeth in alarm when his cheek first encountered the blood on his pillow. Before the boat can even dock he will put on his blues with the yellow chevron, make handsome his whiskers and go up on deck, anxiously seeking out word of the Private to insist that the thousands of white-washed headboards be carried ashore in advance of the rest, but he will find the Private nowhere. He will go knocking at his door in irritated disbelief and it will be a quarter-hour before the man stands there in filthy pajamas. The Private will knuckle his eyes in a daze. And then he will say: “Have we come to the place?”
The dead might speak at any time; the Private cannot miss a word.
Shut up in his car on the train to Atlanta, he means to improve on the way that he listens. He means to block out other sounds save the ambient clack of the train in its motion so when the dead come rising up, he’ll be able to parse them from that other sound. In his own private car, he can’t hear the men’s voices: their alien deepness, the sidle of them. They are principally Negros, now all of them freedmen. For them, he fought a civil war.
A knock comes at the Private’s door. He ignores it a moment and hopes it will pass. When the knock comes again, he gets up to see to it if only to have the car silent again and it is the Nurse who stands there in the door, her hair parted evenly down to the scalp. “Accommodations suit you, Private?”
“Most graciously, Ma’am.”
“May I come in and sit?” She sees the hesitation on his face. “Just a moment.”
He opens himself, like a hinge, from the door. While the nurse spreads her skirts to sit down, he stays standing. “Feeling better, Ma’am, I take it?”
“I am tolerable, Private.”
“That is happy to hear.”
“You have seen the cargo we are carrying with us?”
“The wooden plaques, Ma’am”
“And you know their appointment?”
“They are to be planted,” he says, “for the fallen.”
“As many as we can find out. It is to be a cemetery. I dare say, Private,” says the Nurse, “there would be no mission were you not here with us.”
The Private stares blankly at her; he is listening. He knows, of course, that she is right. To him had the list of dead names been dictated. His hand had inscribed them upon the papyrus. And it had been him who had gone to the nurse, the list tucked tight against his skin. “You have never once mentioned yourself in all this, is all I mean to say,” she says. “If you are the locus of some private pain? Some sorrow that remains unsaid. If there is someone’s Christian name,” she looks up at him, “that requires an inscription.”
He thinks the name but doesn’t say it; it drives like an icicle into his brain, but it can’t pass his lips—not yet. “There are so many names worth remembering, Ma’am.”
“Which is to say you have no one?”
“I come as a vehicle, Ma’am. Nothing more.”
“A medium, you mean?” she says.
The Private pauses, wondering. What does she expect him to say? He says: “Yes.”
A deep satisfaction comes over her face. She smiles and says, “Well.”
Then she gathers herself. The Private is still standing up.
The Nurse goes out the door and it shuttles behind her.
He stands in the car, listening. Then he sits. He sits erect, as he is trained. The car clacks and sways with the curve of the land, and the lantern above him hides things, then reveals them. He hears John January’s voice. It tells him: Go back to the door and look out.
There’s only the dim serpentine of the car. More lantern-light sways from a hook further down. The carpet is a wooly red, the color of blood in a vaudeville play. The train rolls and clacks underfoot. He stands waiting. He strains his ears to hear the voice.
It says: Do you see me?
Here I come.
The door to the subsequent car shuttles open. The Private steps into the hall and stands braced. A skin-colored something begins down the car, moving low to the ground with a dragging and scratching. The top of a head that looks violently bald falls into the lantern light, face to the floor. The hackles of a spine come next. What resolves as a naked and limbless torso is making its way through the gloom toward the Private, propelling itself down the length of the car by convulsing its shoulders and twisting its waist. The arms are sheer. The legs are stumps. The face is turned into the floor.
Between grunting and gasping, it whispers: How long?
“A hundred and twenty miles yet,” says the Private.
Say the hours.
The Private thinks. “A day and a night and a day, as the crow.”
John January groans: Sooo looong.
“The way ahead is compromised. We have had to make do with an alternate route.”
“Due to the war.”
Tell us which.
It is not a question the Private can answer.
John January nears him now. It weighs on us to wait so long.
“They will follow your names to the ends of the earth.”
They are our names, he says, no longer.
He sniffs the Private’s leather shoes. With his neck straining up from the blood-colored rug, he turns his face into the light.
The Private does not see him now. He sees him as he was before. He sees him, his cellmate in Andersonville, if a cell it could even be feasibly called—more a stable for fattening cattle or swine with a ripped canvas tent stretching over the top in which upwards of two-dozen men slid about in the blackened, rank mud of their own filth and piss. John January is one of these men. He stares at the Private through veils of lost time.
Only his right leg had been shot away; he was still sovereign of his left leg and arms. He leaned against the stockade fence, his good foot sunk up to the heel in black mud. He was smoking a cigarette, sacred of objects, having bargained its likeness enough for three more from one of the less hateful guards in the place. He assembled another and passed to the Private. He lit it for him with the end of his own.
“Hold the smoke,” he told the Private. “No matter what happens, you can’t let it go.”
In the train rushing on through the hot Georgia night, John January turns around. It’s a weird, semi-crablike maneuver he makes in the narrow confines of the car; it is awful. As his scarred and depleted buttocks move away, the stumps of his legs kicking up as he goes, he whispers to the Private: Soon.
The Private stands and watches him until the door opens and swallows him whole and imagines him moving prone over the trestle, insects and grit whipping over his back.
All through the rest of the trip to Atlanta, the Private will not close his eyes. The train will enter, circumspect, through a long corridor of upheaval and wrack—the splintered containers, the wrecked shells of depots, a scorched locomotive tipped onto its side, its cowcatcher scraping the incoming train with tiny expulsions of sparks as it passes. When the train enters what now remains of the station, the Private, Quartermaster and dozens of workers, supervised by the Nurse, will unload in the heat. In the shade of a crumbling and freestanding wall that had formerly served as a side of the depot, a woman dressed in widow’s weeds will rise and begin toward the party of men. Though her bombazine veil and her dress of black silk suggest she is someone of elegant breeding, the Private will see that her face is dirt-smeared, her fingernails chewed to the quick. She will stink. The Private will be close enough to observe of the woman how awful she smells because of the way she approaches the party—dawdling at first in the shade of the wall before picking up terrible, animal speed and rushing the Nurse where she stands giving orders, interposing herself, shouting, “Murderers! Devils!” The Nurse will hold her by the shoulders, raise her palm and slap her, hard. Moaning, the woman will stagger away, the dark of her dress billowing in the sun. On the wagons they charter to carry them south, the Private will sit at the reins of the lead and he will have visions of Andersonville as a crater filled up to the top with hot blood. Again and again he will swivel around to see the land that lies behind, expecting to catch sight of John January going mangled and strange in the wake of the train, but all he will see is the Nurse staring at him, sitting straight as a gravestone against the horizon.
The Nurse has never felt so spry. She feels she is entering into her power.
They passed Macon some time ago, the Private in the lead of them. Then Macon’s outskirts fall away on low hills, pine forests, a few cotton fields.
It is the journey’s final leg, a tipping into what awaits, and it is fitting in her view that the rumbling of engines of ferries and trains has turned to the groaning of wood and packhorses. The wagons allow them to feel closer to it.
As they come into Anderson, sparsest of towns, she wants to get down off the seat of her wagon, number four in a train of as many and run. The Quartermaster, she is sure, saw to it she was in the back. The overland journey has seen him grow milder, if milder is not speaking to her at all. He rides the second seat, erect, his chevrons pushing off his shoulders, not swaying along with the wagon beneath him but vibrating stiffly, a soldier of soap. She wants to run past him and tip off his hat.
Past the edge of the town, deeper forest surrounds them. Everything is so quiet. Every birdcall is sudden. The rattle of the wagons’ wheels becomes invocation pronounced by the trees.
When they pass from the trees, there is Andersonville. On twenty-six acres of two treeless slopes divided by a narrow creek, there are watchtowers, stockade and medical buildings. Beyond the west edge of the camp, at the top of the slope, are the improvised graves: trenches only several feet where prisoners’ bodies were tossed by the hundreds, sticks marking the top of the shoveled-in plots to number the vain and anonymous dead. Now they’re just mounds with sticks poking out of them, like a garden of trellises dead at the seed. Above the graveyard, where the hill becomes steeper, human-sized holes have been gouged in the earth. These, the Nurse can only guess, were where the men sheltered in terrible storms and sometimes even died amidst when the dirt grew unstable and caved in around them. She hears their wailing even now; she shudders to think on them, bones in their niches.
The wagon train queues at the camp’s northern gate. The Nurse is not sure what it was she expected. It is quieter here than it was in the forest. The grass is grown tall, and the trees provide shade. Kudzu spirals up the towers. The lead wagon halts and the Private dismounts.
A blistering tension comes over the group as the Private walks back down the train toward the Nurse. He is the only man along who has been to the prison and come back to tell it.
When the Private had first come to visit the Nurse with the roster of names of the lost Union dead, she had been sitting in her office in the building they gave her in Gallery Place from which to catalogue the dead and give them each a proper home. Officially, its name was this: the Office of the Missing Soldiers. But only from the many men who cycled in dress uniform through its doors had she heard it referred to as the Dead Letter Office, “where casualties went to recover their mail.” This on account of the thousands of letters sent out by the Nurse and her writing assistants in reply to the inquiries they had received from the wives and the siblings and parents in search of their husbands and brothers and sons in the field. How one day a person is walking around and writing you letters, and then they are not.
The Private lingered in her door. He had waited to see her, he’d said, for five hours. He might’ve waited fifteen more. He had a sheet of names in hand. His eyes had been hollows, his physique depleted. His chest had appeared oddly prominent to her, not from aggregate muscle but punishing hunger, the ribs and the stomach so sere with disuse the chest above appeared to bulge. She had thought that the Private had battle fatigue, what they called “soldier’s heart” in the few that sought treatment, and while she was not incorrect, there’d been something about him that made her sit straighter.
Had it been fear? Not fear—a hunger.
She knew it was hunger because it was hers. Turning inside her with great, gusting swoops, the hunger the Private had in him but different, and every time it touched her core, the office she sat in would make the Nurse ache with bitter, old humiliation. The office with its street-side windows, its august leather trappings, its great oaken desk.
Before they had put her in charge of the Office, she’d been “Lady in Charge” of the tent hospitals for the Army of the James under General Butler. And when the Union’s glory came, the Nurse had expected to be party to it—to march down the main with her brothers in arms, but the Nurse hadn’t marched, she had sat in the office. And she had watched the marchers pass. They would not let me march, you see, she had wanted to say to everyone when they looked for her face in the crowd and saw no one. They would not let me march with them because it would lessen their glory by half. Because I am their better in all but the thing that I have where my legs come apart, and that, too. It was hunger she felt not because she had failed but because she’d been cheated of what she deserved.
What the Private confessed on that day in her office had been too ghastly to be false. He’d been one of the first men in Andersonville; come the Great Turnaround, one of its last survivors. In between, he’d recorded the names of the dead whatever way he’d had to hand—sometimes with tepid, bartered ink on mattress shucks or canvas shreds, sometimes with blood and excrement, his own and maybe other men’s, transcribed upon the union suits that their moldering bodies no longer required. Many, he had memorized by repeating them nights as a charm against death.
Before he had fled from the camp he’d compiled them on a tent-wall so large he could barely transport it, and that’s how his brethren had found him again, naked and starving and clutching his banner. “Like something,” he’d told her “from somebody’s dream.”
“A nightmare more like it,” had been her response.
“I done what I aimed to,” the Private had said. “What happened before I got loose was the nightmare.”
He’d handed her the sheet of names. The writing had been so, so small and so condensed upon the page that at first she had doubted it writing at all—the product of a ruined mind. The names had gone on to the opposite side.
She’d asked the Private: “Is that all?”
The prominent chest had appeared to deflate when the Private’s hand disappeared under his shirt and emerged with a volume of loose-leaf, inked parchment. He threw it on the Nurse’s desk. The shocking thing was not the sound that it made, but the new skinniness of the man who had thrown it, a marionette of cloth and bone.
Now she climbs from her seat and embraces the Private in full view of the other men. “Poor courage,” she says.
He is like statuary. Beyond his shoulder, workmen watch, a few of them holding their hats to their hearts. They are all veterans of the great conflagration; they have served with Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts. One of them, his hair shock-white, his left eye a puckered concave, hums a psalm. The Nurse feels a summons to look on these men with the traumatized Private held close to her chest. She thinks he’ll say something profound in her arms.
“The creek,” he says. “It’s all dried up.”
They alight from the wagons and tour the stockade—the Private and a dozen workers. The Quartermaster stays behind with the rest of the men who seem too tired to follow.
The Private narrates what they see: the spindly watchtowers embedded with marksmen that shot down Yankees mid-escape; the hospital sheds where the prisoners were brought to treat their scurvy and gangrene. Out of these they would rarely if ever emerge, requisitioned as subjects of medical torture at the hands of the cruel and insane Captain Wirz. They tread the banks of Stockade Creek, which cuts through the center of camp from the east. It’s a lean tributary of Sweet Water Creek where the water runs mineral-potent and clear within rifle shot of the eastern stockade, while the creek through the camp was a sin against nature—a well and a wash-pot, a sink and a privy. A thin lee of grease, now condensed into blubber, still clings eerily to the edge of the banks.
The Nurse is afraid that her breakfast will leave her. It is all so barbaric, inhuman and sad. “Were the men’s miseries not compounded,” she says, “to have drinkable water so near to the fence?”
“It did twist the knife in us some,” says the Private. “One—his name I can’t recall—had a mind to go digging a well in the yard. A little while he got at something but it smelled sulfur-like and it gave him the runs. Kept digging down past it, not eating or sleeping. Fell over face-first in the hole. He drowned in it.”
The Private ambles down the creek, talking back over his shoulder, arms swinging. The excitement she’d felt on approaching the camp sheers away, for a moment, on total despair. At the edge of the creek she stops walking and waits. When the party turns back to see whether she’s coming, she exhales and recites a restorative verse, “In these brave ranks I see only the gaps. Thinking of dear ones whom the dumb turf wraps.”
The Quartermaster says, “James Lowell. Be succored my immortal soul.”
She can see he intends his retort to be funny, but none of the men looking back at her laugh.
There are differing thoughts on where they should pitch camp. The Nurse prefers beside the graves as most of their time will be spent digging in them, not to mention the fact should it happen to storm they won’t be in the water’s way. The Quartermaster, as he’s wont, will have no part in her illogic. Major General Stoneman’s ill-fated campaign to liberate Andersonville had failed thusly—or so the Quartermaster says. They had come from the east, where the graves are dug in, to encircle the camp and been routed by Rebs. Watching him flounder and choke in the past, for the first time, she’s sure, since their party embarked, the Nurse feels pity for the man. “If I may, Colonel,” says the Nurse, “your service to the cause withstanding, we have not come here on campaign. We have come to fulfill our appointment as men.”
“Some of us have come for that.”
Beneath her gaze, the Quartermaster seems poised to say something that he will regret, but all that comes is, “Have your camp.”
He flings his wrist and strides away. She watches him reach some indefinite point in the overgrown field at the center of camp before he stops to curse aloud. Then he turns around again.
As the men set up tents and a wilderness kitchen, the Nurse spurs herself to take matters in hand. She goes to the wagon to seek out the rolls the Private brought her in her office. Then apart from the men, in the lead wagon’s shade, she begins to page through them by name and by date, seeing if she can establish a pattern between the death-date and the lay of the graves. Although there had been little hope of finding out which soldier lay in what grave—their bodies by now would be long depredated by seasons of rainfall, the dank of the earth—the Nurse had insisted to Meigs that they try; the headboards, after all, had specific names on them. If they could be matched to their owners, why not? When she reaches the last of the names on the rolls, the Nurse starts over once again.
It is only past noon and the southern sun bakes.
The Private does not help the men. The Nurse watches him wandering over the hills like a scout or a sleepwalker, hand at his brow. He seems fixated on the holes that dot the hillside leading up from the graves, as though they emanate a pitch that he of all the men can hear.
When the men are done working, they gather around her. Their camp is positioned just right of the plots with their hundreds of sticks to mark the dead, the holes in the hillside continuing up like the blasphemous tunnels of giant-sized ants. The Nurse thinks the men all look faintly bewildered as though they are caught between struggling powers—hers, and another that capers behind her, hiding every time she turns. She says, “Gentlemen, there is still daylight left. If there was a time to start digging, it’s now.”
The workmen grumble, then begin. Their shovels eat into the dirt of the plots.
In half-an-hour’s time she will hear her name called by someone or other involved in the digging. Bemused, she will walk to the lip of the hole that the party has dug rapidly in the earth to find several men looking up from the bottom, shifting around with their palms in the air. The Nurse will tell the men dig more. At the height of the work, there will be seven holes, none of them with corpses in them. The Quartermaster will start laughing. And he will laugh so hard and long that he will have to flee the site, rushing into the calm of his officer’s tent and rifling his soldier’s kit to find two flasks of brandy beneath ammunition. Both of these he will extract.
Before going out to address the campaign, the Quartermaster has a drink.
He empties his boot-flask in three scalding swallows and liquor is a gorgeous thing. It jettisons down from his throat to his chest and radiates out to his hands and his feet. Then he goes out to the site of the graves and hits the Private in the face.
The Private doesn’t even flinch, just receives and absorbs his superior’s blow. He is still—save a trickle of blood from his mouth.
The Quartermaster hears himself as though from very far away. “This man is a spy! Do you see?” he announces. “He brings us here on false pretense—to ferret out corpses that cannot be found. He fraternizes—”
“Colonel, please! You are making a terrible scene,” says the Nurse. She whispers to him, “Carry on, and the men will lose every last shred of respect. This man,” the Nurse continues calmly and louder now so all can hear, “was a prisoner at Andersonville, where you stand. It is a documented fact. He assembled his roster of fallen in secret. He wrote down their names even as they were murdered and dug beneath the dirt like dogs.”
The Quartermaster scarcely hears. A likeness clamors in his mind, begging to be understood: if now on the hill with his knuckles skinned open from hitting the Private in front of the men is close to that time in his fiance’s parlor when she had thrown her teacup at him and he had grabbed her by the throat and slammed her up against the wall.
He leaves the site of his disgrace. Down the hill, past the gates, through the field to the trees. His leg that got nicked in a charge at New Orleans, something off with the tendon, no cause for concern, wobbles out at the knee as he crosses the field. He hammers his mouth with the new brandy flask. The forest envelopes him, fragrant and hushed.
At Antietam his cot had lain next to Van Quease’s. In the several days after the battle was over as they gathered their kit and recorded the fallen, outside of the tent had been hell on this earth: hogs rooted around in the chests of the dead; crows plucked eyeballs out of skulls. His cowardliness under fire notwithstanding, Van Quease slept best of all the unit; each morning like clockwork the man would roll over, an expression of deep-seated calm on his face. His eyes still closed in sleep, mouth smacking.
One night when the Quartermaster couldn’t sleep he wandered out among the dead. He picked up a head mutilated in skirmish and carried it back through the flap of the tent.
The tangled hair, the staring eyes. The scrim of gore below the neck.
This he set sideways on Van Quease’s pillow, left cheek facing down like a lover at rest. Van Quease woke up screaming and sprinted through camp. A sharpshooter woke with his rifle pre-loaded. On instinct he sighted Van Quease and he shot him. In the wake of the gunshot the field was so silent, but what he heard was even worse: the sound of his cruel and maniacal laughter echoing among the dead.
The Quartermaster can’t go on. He falls to his knees with a wretched, choked sound, puts his hand underneath him and slumps on his rear. He leans against a nearby tree. It’s an ancient red hickory, thick in the bark. He follows where it stretches, up, beyond the unwholesome morass of this world, its delicate leaves throwing sunlight above him. He reaches back, claws at the stump. The crusty damp bark comes away in his hand. Then without knowing why and yet knowing precisely, with a bitter surrender that floods through his chest, he shoves the bark inside his mouth and chews it until he can swallow it down. The taste is loamy, almost sweet. Rough shards of tree-bark lodge deep in his throat.
The Quartermaster will remain with his back to the tree until the brandy flask is empty. He will shout at the godhead, “You bastard, make more! You have struck down a half-million men, make more brandy!” The height of his delirium will bring about in him malevolent visions: the dark and robust silhouette of a man who stands on a hill with his back to the trees. In the last of the twilight the figure will turn and he will observe it is Private Van Quease with a sheer prominence where there should be a head—the head itself dangling hair-first from the hand, on the face an expression of sainted contentment. Midway through the night he’ll awake to an owl. He’ll find that he is still quite drunk. In a fog he will stagger the way that he came, through the trees and the field, past the gate, up the hill, but the ruin that brought him to this point in time will not travel backward, will carry him on. Coming into the camp, which is quiet and still, the Quartermaster will see something: at the top of the gravesite, a wavering flame.
The Private hears the call: Wake up.
He hangs in the dark on one elbow, attending.
The bodies of a dozen workmen grumble, snore and sigh around him. A lantern sits outside each tent to light the men’s ways to the privy at night and by its muffled glow he catches movement in the canvas, a spherical pressure. A whisper, a groan.
Wake up, the voice says. It is time to come see.
The Private reaches out his hand and the shape nuzzles in it, a strange, canine warmth. He is wearing a union-suit, cover enough. He unbuttons the flap of the tent and goes out.
Already the torso is moving away, past the graves, up the hill, toward the caves on the ridge. With his shoulders propelling him, beating uphill, and the nubs of his legs serving him as a rudder, John January moves over the wash. His head strains upward at the stars. He is whispering something.
But it is too faint for the Private to hear.
The Private is no longer horrified by him—the way he is mangled, the way that he moves. There is an eerie elegance to the commonsense way he has seen to evolve.
It awaits you, he says to the Private, within.
He means the caves that dot the hill. They look tailor-made for more John January’s: the width of his shoulders, the height of his neck. Below him, the Private begins up the incline, sees that John January, above him, has balls. They are rather big balls and they’re covered in dirt as he drags them like soldier’s kit over the hillside. He is horribly hot in his wool union-suit. For a moment, he envies the torso its freedom. They are now out of range of the lanterns of camp and the dark is ubiquitous, wrapping them up.
He waits for his eyes to adjust to the dark and he sees his old friend up ahead of him, waiting. He is poised at the entrance to one of the caves, his head wrenched around, looking back at the Private. It’s a look of profound and unspeakable blankness.
He never ever takes it off.
He wears it tonight at the mouth of the cave as he wore it at daybreak in Andersonville in a hole that the Private and him had clawed out for a clean patch of dirt at the edge of the fence. In fact, an operating theater. Because John January had gangrene all over; his arms and the leg he had left would be lost. When the Private began on the reeking black leg with a pocketknife bartered from one of the guards not blood but a clear, sludgy serum leaked out, pooling in ribbons on top of the dirt.
John January tells him, Come. He screws himself into the hill and is gone.
The Private rams the dirt face first and makes a little headway in. He corkscrews his torso, breaks through. He is stuck. He tries to wriggle out again. He can still see the leg-stumps of John January paddling through the gloom a few meters ahead where the tunnel appears to be widening, so he gives it his all, clawing further inside. The tendrils of roots bend back over his face, and the dirt showers down in his hair and around him. He hears the whispering again. Not the sphinxlike pronouncements his friend has been making, but something specific—familiar even. John January is chanting the names.
Levi Warren, Horace James, Henry Trumbull, Chauncey Thomas, Henry Turner, Edmund Tuttle, Gamaliel Collins, Oliver Light—
He’s saying them now as he said them before through the walls of the rooming house, yellow and thin, where the Private had sheltered in view of the White House in a district they called Murder Bay. The Private had only lived there for a month when the voice of the dead man had come to live with him. Sometimes, he had even heard skittering bumps as of someone or something abroad in the walls.
He had listened intently to John January. Each name he had written and so many more. Each name he had alphabetized for the Nurse. He had known he must go to the Nurse with these names because his friend had told him to, yet the Private had never once questioned the reason, for he is a soldier. Was then and remains.
He is hearing the names in that way once again when suddenly the passage dips. For a moment the Private feels poised, fraught for balance. His stomach pressed in and his torso seesawing. He slams his hands against the dirt. For now, they seem to hold him up. He strains his eyes to see the drop but all he can feel is dark air, blowing upwards.
The Private will go without hindrance or knowing—one direction, down and down. His passage through darkness will end on more stone, an immense chamber of it, enshrined in the hill. He will exit the shaft in a crablike maneuver, skidding forward on his ass, and will think that he sees by a nimbus of torchlight a field of stalagmites that stretches for miles. Meanwhile up above in the land of the living, the Nurse will start climbing the hill in his wake.
The Nurse has brought a lantern with her. She is glad for the way that it swings from her wrist; she feels swaddled up by the light that it casts, maybe four feet in front of her, two on the side.
It was by lantern-light that she first saw the Private and by lantern-light she now keeps him in sight, tracking his path up the side of the hill. When she reaches the cave at the top of the hill where the Private in only his long johns has vanished, she moves it about the interior space: its crumbling walls, its tangled roots. Her flesh recoils instinctively.
But then she remembers her debt to the men, her avowal to Meigs at his government desk, her reassurance to the Private, her hideous, beautiful Seventh Street office. She shrugs the lantern down her arm and ducks her head inside the hole.
Narrow-going but not quite as bad as it looks. She moves on her elbows, the lantern before her. When the shaft interrupts the way forward, she shouts.
She gathers her limbs up, as though from a slag-pit; it’s not a place for human beings. But still she sees it’s possible with the lantern held carefully over her stomach to voyage downward on her back, which is to say nothing of how she’ll return. When she reaches the stone at the base of the shaft, her breath is rasping in her throat.
Her first impression is of volume. As best she can tell, there are fifty-foot ceilings and rows of stalagmites that go on for yards. She takes a step forward. The dark takes a step.
The room is enormous, a vast echo chamber.
She brushes the skin of the rock as she goes. The formations are sparse at the base of the slide but farther on into the chamber they thicken, a gleaming, dark forest of runts and colossi, of crooked-backed dancers, of Siamese twins. One moment she’s walking, the lantern held high among the stalagmites that cover the floor, and the next one she isn’t, the layout has changed. What she thought were stalagmites aren’t really at all. Now some of them are separating, doubling before her eyes.
There are figures before her. They watch her advance.
The Nurse looks behind her. More figures are watching.
They wear cloth patchwork masks that are tight on their skulls, the bottoms tucked down into uniform collars. At the base of each mask there’s a hole for the mouth.
Behold: their grim and wrinkled lips.
She wraps her hands over the glass of the lantern to feel for a moment the flame’s searing heat.
They wear the colors of their armies: blue or grey or patchwork brown. The uniforms are depredated; frayed and scorched, bloodstained and torn. The patchwork masks the figures wear are cobbled up from battle flags: the Confederate cross or the Federal stripes. She almost doesn’t see the Private.
Like the figures, he stands near a crop of stalagmites—utterly motionless, utterly silent. She has to double back at first to see the single naked face: the eyes fixed open glassily, the wet, healthy mouth in an idiot’s grin. He stands in his underwear, riddled with dirt-stains.
A figure in a chaplain’s sash stands next to the Private, uncomfortably close. He is a tent-pole of a man, gaunt and near on seven feet. One bar of the Rebel flag covers his face. A white, bushy beard pushes out of the hole.
“Private, are you there?” she says. “Private, can you hear my voice?”
The Private does not answer her, so she squeezes his arm at the crease of his elbow.
“You are not well.” She takes his hand. “Shall I escort you back outside?”
The Chaplain leans down like a statue unfreezing and presses his mouth to the Private’s right ear. It is a long leaning, the man is so tall; he’s like a birch tree bending into the wind. She can see his beard shuddering, giving off sound.
The Private’s eyes roll toward the top of the cavern.
When the Nurse turns away from this strange confidence to mark the room of shades around her she sees they have closed in upon her position, ten feet closer than they’d been. There are more than just dozens of them, there are hundreds.
Maybe thousands—she’s unsure.
She’s going to seize the Private’s hand and flee with him up the dirt shaft into moonlight when a slurry of pebbles and dirt hits the floor. The Quartermaster crashes in.
He looks a sodden, wretched fool, his uniform torn, his face covered in dirt.
The Nurse has never felt so glad to see another human being.
“What devil’s trick is this?” he roars. “What motte-licking hog-swallow wimple-cock nonsense!”
He is blistering drunk and he flails through the dark, crashing and cursing among the stalagmites. The heads of the masked figures follow his progress.
He sees the Nurse and stops. “Not you!” he cries in agony.
He pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand and seems to crumple in defeat, kneeling ungainly in front of the Nurse, his clearly empty brandy flask, like a fallen knight’s tribute, displayed in his palm. When he finally looks up and takes in the scene, the boot-flask clatters to the floor.
In the corner of the Nurse’s eye: several figures muster out. These figures emerge from among the stalagmites bearing something enormous and square on their shoulders, one carrier each to the object’s four corners. It is a sort of cage, she sees, which at first the Nurse judges to be made of bones. But then she sees it’s made of muskets, bayonets still attached and sawed off at the stock. The faceless bearers set it down in the least crowded part of the floor and step back. Their manner is decorous—showman-like, almost. Presenting, the cabinet that skins you alive.
Someone is meant to go in there. Someone is meant to not come out.
The Chaplain continues to speak to the Private, the beard-swallowed lips shuddering at the ear. Not terror but serenity begins to flood the Private’s face.
The Nurse recognizes this look. She has seen it.
In the faces of men as they charge toward their deaths, as they lie in hospice, as the saw greets their limbs. It is unmitigated surrender to war, which is no less than war would have.
“Because you breathe and we do not,” the Private translates haltingly, “we the dead do declare open war on the living.” His mouth moves like a marionette’s. “We consecrate this solemn act— “
But before he can get through the rest, they’re upon him.
They fall on him and blot him out. It is as though they have lain dormant, withholding what now is a hideous strength, and they move with the long-muscled fierceness of jackals. Their teeth flash yellow in their masks. The Nurse can hear the Private grunting, trying not to scream. The jaws and the arms of the innermost horde are tearing at the Private’s flesh while the rest moving outward are tearing each other, lashing out because they must. They’re a graveyard carnation that blooms in reverse; they come at him from every side. When the figures withdraw one by one from the Private, their mouths in their mask-holes are muzzled in blood.
The Chaplain is beside her now. His bearded mouth is at her ear. There is no more Private to tell her the rest so now she must hear from the Chaplain directly. His breath doesn’t smell like stale air or decay; it’s surprisingly sweet, like a loaf of bread, cooling.
The Nurse is keen to what he says, though he does not say words—not really. They occur to her that way because she is human, but when the words find her they do as sensation, the tortures of death and the shame of the damned. The purgatory of this place she stands in now beneath the hill, where these legions of Civil War dead have been waiting to make a claim upon a world they feel they owe nothing but what they have suffered. Listening to the Chaplain’s sounds, the Nurse is subject to their meaning: the taking of the prisoner. The march upon the living world. As above, so below, flashes into her mind. How the taking of prisoners consecrates war and the terrible, sobering reason at last that she and drunk man are both still alive.
They will be those prisoners—the Quartermaster and the Nurse. Both of them, who came here to see war’s work undone, will give their lives to its return. “We must go,” says the Nurse. “We must go right away.”
But the words that come out of her mouth are all wrong; it is as though her speech were infected somehow with the dark and sensorial mush of the Chaplain, and it takes the Nurse all of a minute or more to even begin saying English again.
“Prisoner of war,” the Nurse repeats, along with the phrase, “There can be no parlay,” and how unless they “Fly, sir, fly!” then one of them must stay “in forfeit.” The figures are circling them, licking their lips. Their rickety prison of muskets swings open. “I shall stay,” she says somehow. “For I am meant to stay, you see.”
The Quartermaster rises now. He says: “For once, I see your point.”
But then he does the strangest thing: he pushes her out of the tightening throng.
She stumbles away and the figures part for her, revealing the shaft that leads back to the world—a world she suspects is beginning to brighten, the workers stirring in their tents “Go!” He shouts it. “Get you gone!” He flings his wrist across the room in a fey, disingenuous show of impatience. He flings it like he did before when he had told her, “Have your camp” and the Nurse had been certain a more hateful man existed nowhere on this earth.
At the edge of the cavern she stops and turns back.
If she climbs up the shaft it amounts to a crossing: one day she awoke in her bed and was good, the next day she no longer was. Yet the Nurse also knows if she doesn’t go now she’ll be cheating the world of the person she is and the person, always, she has known she will be, for she will have to warn them of it, she will have to lead the charge. Not just when the living come under the tooth and the Nurse must be called on to bandage their wounds but when they must beat the dead back from their borders—when the next generation embarks its campaign on the sons and the husbands, the brothers and friends, whose light they are learning to still live without. She does it for them and does it for this: the fragile Republic, just out of her reach.
The Quartermaster sees her stop, but then he makes it easy for her. He strides through the figures, who paw at his arms. He ducks his head into the cage; he sits cross-legged, petulant. He grits his teeth and slaps his knees. He roars, “Come and take it, you arshole-faced devils!”
The rank of figures nearest him begins to move upon the cage.
What happens next is very fast: she is clawing her way up the shaft to the surface. Screams echo up from the base of the dark. The lantern, still around her wrist, disintegrates against the rock and a shower of little glass pieces go by her, tinkling into the torchlight below. A few of them catch in her knees and she bleeds, and one of her fingernails snaps to the bed, and when she turns around again she is mounting the top of the shaft toward the daylight, a slug’s trail of blood leading up the shaft’s barrel where the strange, patchwork faces have yet to appear.
Through the burrow carved into the side of the hill, the daylight draws closer as though from far off. The Nurse moves forward, numbly twisting. Eyes vacant and strange behind cascading dirt.
Someone on the surface will be there to greet her—someone from the company—who will steady her tumbling out of the hole. She will march down the hill with this man at her side to the place where the others have gathered their camp and here the Nurse will stand a moment, watching them watching her for the words she will say, but the Nurse will sense only how wretched she looks: her pale and daylight-flinching face, her skirts ripped in places and covered in dirt and flecked at the hem with the blood of the Private. None of this will faze the men, or seem to faze them, peering blankly— ready to go home or ready to dig, whichever one she tells them first. She will think of the Private the last time she saw him, a skeleton covered in streaks of red jelly, and also of the Quartermaster, his eyes peering out through the bars of his cage. But she will mention none of this. Instead she will call out, “Cold water. Who has it?” and the men will move backward, allowing her room. Any moment, she knows, she must say it, she must: what they both dread and long to hear. The armistice is over now. They are going back to war.
Adrian Van Young (adrianvanyoung.com) is the author of Shadows in Summerland and The Man Who Noticed Everything. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Electric Lit’s Recommended Reading, Conjunctions, Granta, Slate, The Believer and The New Yorker, among others. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and son Sebastian.