You were the first thing I ever saw that I knew was beautiful.
It’s near night dark in the cabin, just a sliver of sun come creaking through the door. I like it that way. Like hiding, beast in a hole. A while back Caton Bradley left a sack full of food and such on my doorstep. He hollered, but I kept quiet so he’d think I wasn’t home. He and the rest do that, like I was charity. Even Davy, with his cut off foot. I have nothing cut off that you can see.
The first year after the war I found this cabin, old trapper’s place maybe, fixed it up some. Tried to plant. Plowed half a field when time lost me and I was sitting there crying in the dirt and it was moonrise. When I hunt I wander and wake sometimes scratched and muddy and can’t breathe from running. I can never recollect what chased me. So I need the food they leave. But I don’t want it.
You walk up close behind me where I’m sitting on the dirt floor. I can’t feel your hand on my neck. I know it is there. You say come with me…I have asked so many times…come with me. We can be together. Your hand runs down my back and shivers me, cold touch like air.
“I miss you,” I say. “Wish we could be together for real.”
We can. Come with me.
I was shy of you when we first joined up. Hell, shy of everyone, but specially you with the plume in your hat and your hair that looked like a red horse’s mane, but softer, like something a flag would be made out of.
The night before our first fight I sneaked away from camp. We all knew what tomorrow would be, because we had marched here hard as we could to reinforce Ol’ Bory against the whole Yankee army. Tomorrow would be the big fight. Tyler was talking about the Constitution; I never could understand a damn thing that boy would say. Caton was writing a letter, Mac and Trib and Davy singing a song. None of them looked scared. I was scared. I was so damn scared that my throat clicked when I swallowed and I thought I would piss myself before the first guns fired.
I walked into the trees away from camp, looking for quiet. You were sitting against a fallen log. You gave me a hell of a start. “Hey, Bayard,” I said. I didn’t like to say much on account of my backwoods speech.
Your eyes were blue like lake ice. I couldn’t see that in the dark, but I thought of it suddenly.
“Come on and sit down,” you said.
I had scarcely ever spoken to you before. I sat on the log.
“Tomorrow will be a glorious day,” you said. “This time tomorrow night, we’ll have our independence.”
“How do you know?” I burst out. “How do you know we ain’t just all fixing to get shot?”
“Because our cause is right. God will not let brave men fighting for their liberty fail.”
“I ain’t brave like you,” I confessed. “I’m afeared I’ll run.”
You put an arm around me. No one ever had done that before. The July night was hot already, but the heat coming from you was like a bonfire. “You won’t run,” you said. “I’ve seen you shoot. You’re about the best marksman in the company.”
Had to be. At home, I didn’t shoot dinner, we wouldn’t eat and I’d get whipped. Right then if Pa wasn’t too liquored to stand; later, if he was.
“Drill ain’t like a battle, I reckon. Them Yankees going to be shooting back and all…” Wasn’t raised like you, I wanted to say. Ain’t quality.
You moved closer to me. Your sweat smelled good, clean. “You’ll do fine. You’ll see.” Your breath tickled in my ear. I started shivering. I don’t know why. “Oh, now,” you said, you talked soft to me like I was a scared young mule, you shifted so your legs were to either side of the log, pulled me close to you, your breath loud suddenly against my neck. I stopped shaking. I laid back against you. I felt safer than ever in my life before. Your arms were tight around me and I touched the hard sleek muscles, the warm skin under my calloused hands. Your voice sounded half choked in my ear: “God, that…that feels good, Hunter, keep doing that…” You pressed closer and I could feel your cock hard against my ass. I didn’t stop to think, I wriggled against you, proud for a second I could make you gasp like that, and then your hand slipped down and grasped me and I moaned.
No one but me had ever touched me there. Pa Kenney’s boys weren’t what you’d call popular with the girls. Too dirty.
“Shhh,” you breathed, “not too loud,” and you eased me off the log into the soft dewy grass and you opened my britches and squeezed my cock in your hand and I buried my face in your neck so I wouldn’t holler. I ran my hands through your hair and I could tell its color in the dark, red gold. I spent in your hand thrashing and gasping and you bit my neck and then I reached over and did the same to you, your cock alive in my hand, you whispering my name, trembling, spunk scalding in my palm.
Afterward I found out two things: that you never had done that before (although, the way you went after it, seems you must have studied on it some), and that you reckoned it a sin.
My ma had broken my brother’s jaw for meddling with the livestock. To me, what we did felt clean.
We slept by the log in each other’s arms and we sneaked back to camp before reveille the next morning and no one knew, then or ever.
You wanted glory, Bay, followed it like a good hound on a strong scent. I remember how angry you were when Jones was made first sergeant instead of you. But Captain Emrich promoted him, the company would follow him anywhere, and you would do your duty. That didn’t stop you from hovering in the rafters with a sour look on your face, the day he came to see me here.
You were never meant to call roll and shout “Close up!” anyway, Bay. You should have been a general on a tall black horse, and I would have been your orderly and followed you everywhere.
Come with me… It’s been so long, Hunter….
It has been too long and I can’t stand it. Can’t stand living here, a healthy four-limbed cripple.
My sharpest skinning knife lies by my side. Spot of rust on the blade: it’s been hard to keep things clean lately. I look at my hands in the light from the door: sun-browned skin, dirty nails. Not a gentleman’s hands. The veins stand urgent at my wrists. I’m slow with the knife. I will do this right. Skin peels back and blood wells up. Your hands, air, on my shoulders. No pain. Are you taking the pain away? Red fills my palms.
We went on furlough together in the winter of ’62. That was before Sheridan’s men burned your house. Your parents looked at me sideways. I was too low-down to be their heir’s companion. The body servants had a better accent than me. I didn’t know what fork to use: I hardly knew to use one. You didn’t care. We rode out together on your father’s fine shiny horses (before spring the cavalry would take them) and climbed up in the hayloft and kissed with our tongues in each other’s mouths and laughed.
Later I woke sweating, too scared to scream. I was back in the railroad cut, out of cartridges, bleeding, someone’s entrails tangling my feet. “I’m here,” you said, and I remembered I was safe.
You thought what we did was a sin. In every fight you were in front, trying to prove something. You made them let you carry the company flag in every fight, till we lost it at the Bloody Angle. You were wounded more than once but you were lucky.
I never thought you were less than a man. I never even really knew what you meant, saying that. I could feel your manhood in my hand.
But you would not take cover. You would not keep your head down. In the spring of ’65 you leaped atop the barricades and shot down into the enemy charge and fell back into my arms dead. No last words, tell my mother I died with my face to the foe. Dead. Pink lung blood boiling from your mouth.
I only wanted to kill after that. I didn’t get long to do it in. Lee surrendered not much more than a month later. Before I could get to Johnston to join up, he had surrendered too.
I came here. Nothing mattered. I forgot to eat for days at a time. I could not stay awake but my dreams were full of death, mortars bursting in trenches, flags in the mud. I went to Caton’s wedding and stood there like a ghost while Davy danced on his crutches and Jones sneaked popskull into the lemonade.
Deeper, the knife. Blood heartbeat, pulsing, spatters the floor. Slow, drum, slow. Your nothing hand on my cheek.
Last winter you came back: breath of wind like a touch, your voice in silence, your shadow in my door. Come with me. And so I will.
I can’t see the cabin. I can’t feel my skin. I scream in black and dizzying void—
You catch me. I’m standing beside you, you real and smiling, gray uniform bright with braid and redgold hair…”Bayard!” I hold on to you. Your lips are cold, kissing me, and mine are chilling fast.
“Come with me,” you say. “There’s glory waiting for us, Hunter. We don’t have to lose. Look!”
Your outflung hand points out the path. It’s a sunken lane choked with bloated and maggoty dead. It’s a corduroy road where lathered horses strain to pull blackened guns. It’s the stakes of a deadline, marking the narrow way.
“Come with me.”
You’re standing beyond my reach now, a red silk banner in your hand. Its splendor hides the road: I can’t see where you’re bound. “Come to me, Hunter!” Your voice urgent now. “I love you!”
I love you, too. But death is between us. Arms and legs and broken skulls. Blue and gray jackets rotting just the same. Scarlet whip scars on a darkskinned back. Staring bones through a prisoner’s hide. Your eyes are bright, but there is blood on your boots.
“I can’t follow you there,” I say, crying.
“Hunter, now! It must be now! I need you!”
“Find peace,” I wish you. And I turn from your awful beauty and the death that lies at your feet. And I walk into the darkness, and am gone.