by Jay Tilden about a year ago in fiction

A Short Story


I. The return

Unlike most of the boys mustered out and sent homeward, Enoch Thomson received no horse. The stable boy said they were all spoken for, which meant, Enoch supposed, one was expected to spend a year trudging from Vermont to Maryland, suffering in the shit, and trudging back again, but one oughtn’t bother about a horse at the end despite one’s troubles. He estimated walking from Brattleboro to Derobe Valley Village would take three days, accounting for sleep and meals. And he wasn’t the only one going home the long way (he hadn’t seen any of the other surviving black soldiers on horses) and more importantly, he was free. It was over.

He hadn’t believed it after Pickett’s Charge; he hadn’t believed it when the Union trailed Lee all the way to Maryland, soon turning heel when the regiment’s time was up. Likely the commanders knew the 13th had suffered the march painfully with considerable casualties throughout. No, Enoch only truly believed his curtain had fallen when he stood in Brattleboro, the bandage unraveled from his head that morning. He briefly watched the white soldiers greet their parents, wives, and children, but he was soon walking, bound for his family in Derobe Valley Village.

Dragging himself down backwoods roads in the dusty haze of midsummer New England, Enoch practiced his first words to his parents. He’d never been eloquent. Words came unsteady and lacking conviction, emotions exceeding definition. He could well just break down and weep when the front door opened.

But first, he had a plot to attend.

He’d only seen it once, just over a year ago, when he followed his father on horseback to Derobe’s outskirts, along the curling roads to Peacham to a lot so removed it was a world of its own. Gazing upon the bare plot of land, Enoch told his father it was dust making his eyes well up.

Pa said simply, “It’s yours to do whatcha want with when you’re back—good Lord knows you deserve that much.” Looking bitterly at the mountains, he needn’t say more, for Enoch inferred the rest: ‘Cause it sure don’t seem like the government’s gonna give you a damn thing for your sacrifice. Wincing at visions of white soldiers on clean horses, Enoch rounded a bend in the road.

To the right he heard flowing water. Sweating in his dirty military-issued civilian clothes, Enoch craved a bath. He went off the road to the top of a sloping, grassy bank. At the bottom, the river ran forever; six feet wide, cutting its ancient path with liquid streaks of sparkling diamond. A man sat on the bedside below stoking a fire. Scents of wild grass and mist drifted up the hill with coffee and baked beans.

The man looked up, grinned, and shouted, “Hallo, come on down! Water’s nice.”

He seemed harmless. He was older than Enoch and wore ragged linens, his hair long and matted, his skin dark with grime. Judging him generally harmless, Enoch traipsed down the bank and approached the fire. The man had a knapsack bulging with food, tin and silverware, and a few dog-eared paperbacks. Enoch set his own knapsack near the fire and sat on the log opposite the man. Up close, what he’d taken for dirt on Shepard’s skin was actually a peculiar balance of black and white.

“What’s your name?”

“Enoch Thomson. From Derobe.”

“Are ya? I’m from Walden—not that it matters. Everything looks the same in the woods.” He shook Enoch’s hand over the fire. “Shepard.”

“Just Shepard?”

“Just Shepard. Nothin’ fancy. Care for some beans?”

“I wouldn’t mind, thank you.” Gratefully he ate a bowl and afterwards accepted coffee in a tin mug. He watched Shepard with amusement: exasperated by nature’s stimuli, he looked from the river to the few trees above to the clouds to the fire and back again. If a perch leapt from the water or a crow flew overhead, casting leaves into the current, he traced each motion with gasps of aaahh, as if no greater earthly wonder could be seen.

After dinner, Enoch retrieved wraps and tobacco from his sack while Shepard produced a pipe. Enoch offered him the pouch. Shepard took a pinch. When the cigar was rolled—better than it’d have looked a year ago—Enoch lit it over the fire. Shepard lit a twig and scorched his bowl. They puffed and watched the sunset: orange, yellow, and pink bleeding forth in patient ascension; the stars began to glimmer in the dusty rainbow haze; a loon called somewhere, a crow tried to reply, and the breeze stirred strong.

Enoch gazed awestruck through the fire at Shepard’s pipe. “You mind if I—?”

The old man passed it over. “Carved it for my son…Sure liked it, but he only used it once.” Enoch touched the pipe’s ridges, the bulbous shape of the lion’s head, into whose skull tobacco was stuffed, impenetrably black and warm, as if the pipe had sat beside the fire in preparation. Elegant and refined, the craftsmanship seemed professional.

“You do this for a living?”

“Naw, just a hobby. Got lots of hobbies. But me, I just sorta live for a livin’, mostly.”

“Like a vagrant?”

“Might say.” Shepard took the pipe and, puffing, squinted at Enoch through the smoke. “You a vagrant, Mr. Thomson?”

“No, I’m—I was a soldier.”

“Way I heard, ain’t no ‘was’ to soldierin’. Once you’re in you’re always in, ain’t that true?”

“For some. But I’m out. Now.” He looked at the glowing red ember in his cigar. “Not the life I want. One year was all it took for me to see worse things than anyone ever should.”

To his silent thanks, Shepard didn’t push for those details. “Well then, what kinda life you want?”

Thing is, Enoch thought, I don’t know what kind of life I want. But I know the kind I can never live. Maybe the war isn’t all over, but my war ended in Gettysburg.

Shepard leaned into the firelight, inspecting Enoch. “Well?”

“A quiet one. I want my own place to be, to live, where I tend my animals, my land…where I make a home without gunshots and screams every hour of the night, where I don’t sleep in the mud with dozens of other miserable saps hoping we don’t drown in the rain or else die of fever. I want my own kingdom where I’m free to be at peace.”

Shepard nodded, exhaling smoke. “Can’t say that’s too much, all things told. Reality is always another matter, though, so tell me: you walkin’ toward freedom?”

“Got a plot of land waiting in Derobe. Pa damn near ruined his savings buying it but he wouldn’t want me knowing. But I found out.” He smiled, the fire warming his face as the sun had a year ago. “Four acres, that’s all. Enough to start off and make solid ground to stand on. That’s all he wanted for me. I thought the damn fool was investing in a dead man walkin’.”

“But he didn’t. You’re here. And you’re almost home.”

Enoch shrugged, tossed the cigar in the fire, stood, and pulled off his shirt. “Need a wash.” He dropped trow and waded into the water up to his waist, refreshingly cold in the humid night. The current pushed against him trying to imbalance him. Gulping air, he plunged under-neath.

As he dried by the fire later, Enoch said, “How’s a man with no job got so much food and whatnot?”

Shepard smiled coyly, lying down and resting his head on a log. “I volunteer for folks. Need a porch step mended or a wagon wheel reattached? I’m your man. Small services warrant tall thanks. I get food and the like all the time just for helpin’ out.”

“How long you done that for?”

“Forever.” Seeing Enoch’s dubious look, he laughed. “Damned if I know or care. Ain’t gotta watch time when you got no roots in the ground.”

The shiftless life of a transient had long appealed to Enoch, albeit wistfully: while it was a compelling concept, he hadn’t the gall to simply pack up and set out for the open road. No, he thought, I am walking backwards in time, taking my old place in my old world.

“Ma and Pa waitin’ in Derobe?” said Shepard.

“S’pose, but I didn’t get one letter from em the whole time I was gone. Guess I wasn’t too worried though. Ma can’t write, Pa’s too busy workin’ the farm.”

“He ever a soldier too?”

Enoch laughed. “O God, no. Too unruly. Farmer his whole life, just like his Pa, and his before. ‘Course, they usually didn’t have much choice.”

“I see.” Shepard fell silent, a common white reaction to a story that, for most whites, wasn’t comprehendible beyond its place in Vermont’s noble narrative of steadfast moral righteousness. Enoch always noticed these suddenly-discomforted pauses in his interactions with whites, brewing storms of confusion within him.

Shepard said, “Tell me what happened to you.”


“I’m interested? Besides, hell else we gonna talk about?”

Averting his eyes, Enoch said, “Well, you know. Year ago they called for troops from ‘round these counties. I was working on Pa’s farm and I wanted out, so I rode down to East Montpelier and enlisted into Company C under a guy named Lewis Coburn. Smart cookie. Stayed calm even when things got…bad.” He remembered Coburn’s grave-stricken expression when they sorted through Gettysburg’s dead. Even if the faces were damaged beyond recognition, Coburn knew which man was his, recording all their names in his notepad. And, Enoch thought, I bet he personally wrote to all those families, too.

“Where’d you march?”

“Left Vermont in October, ‘bout a thousand of us.” He’d been shocked to see so many other black soldiers in the regiment. It was easy to forget not everybody was white, living in Derobe, yet there they were, blacks and whites marching and riding side by side. All the displays of unity didn’t stop white boys from throwing glares and slurs at them when the Captain wasn’t looking.

“Make any friends?” Shepard said.

“One.” Enoch laughed. “I only made one friend the whole godforsaken time—and he was a white guy,” he added with incredulity.

“What was his name?”

“Nathaniel King. He was from Montpelier. His parents are lawyers, sent him to University. He wasn’t uppity like most of them types, though. He was funny, real smart at the mouth, but not annoying, you know? Seemed…I dunno, he had a way of seein’ stuff, he was very…”


“I guess.” That wasn’t right, but close. Nathan saw the uneasy things in people they’d rather others not see: what embarrassed them, what they skirted in conversation. While he might pursue that nervous compression until the victim was humiliated, Nathan usually avoided making enemies, although he never had many friends, either, always straddling a line between cordiality and cynical reproach. In twenty one years he seemed to have evaded significant hardship. His edges were only rough because they were attractive to him that way.

“Anyway,” Enoch sighed, “after we hit Washington we met the other regiment. Went to Alexandria as the Second Brigade, spent a month picketing, doing railroad duty in Union Mills. Got bogged down later at Centerville defending a courthouse against some Rebs.”

“You kill anyone?”

“Not then. Not that day. We spent January till the end of April at Wolf Run, then another month guarding the Occoquan fords. Sometime in June we rejoined the other Vermont regiments, started toward Gettysburg. Took seven damn days. When we got there, there was no time for rest. The battle had already started.” He remembered smelling gun smoke before they saw Little Round Top rising above the field like a mountain. “We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day… Ah…” His left temple pounded. It hadn’t given him trouble since his return to Brattleboro. He grimaced, holding his skull in his hands.

“All right, Enoch?”

“Fine, just…” He shook his head, trying to clear it: through the river and the rustling trees, he heard men screaming. “I got hit the last day. Head wound. Nothing too bad. Had some damn fine head aches since, though.”

“You don’t have to go on, Enoch.”

“I don’t mind. It’s all right.” No need to make a scene, he heard his father say. Everyone deals with death one way or another. Man up and lift that damn chin before I do it for ya. “Took heavy, heavy fire during Pickett’s Charge. ‘Course you probably don’t know who Pickett is. Idiot broke our front lines, but we pushed back. They did a number on us, though. Nathan…” The pounding again… But why stop? he thought. Nathan’s there, you’re here, it’s over. Talking never killed anyone—or brought em back.

Ever-patient, Shepard said, “What happened to Nathan, Enoch?”

Enoch shrugged, wanting sleep, but his mouth went on: “He died. Rifle shot blew his head halfway off. Nothing from the chin up. He was standing in front of me when it happened. If he hadn’t been I’d be buried in Pennsylvania right now.” And now he’d said what he’d been thinking ever since: I survived by chance of sacrifice.

Shepard searched the young black man’s face for the expected anguish. Seeing it softly, but knowing little could be done for such pain, he took a silver flask from his knapsack and handed it over the fire. “Have a sip.”

Fire rushed down Enoch’s throat and into his gut with a tingle.“I’m not as sad as I look.”

“You barely look sad at all.”

“Well. I’m sadder than that.” But what was the point of showing it? Does no good, he thought. No one who can change it is watching, never have been. “Who decides who gets to live and die, Shepard? People always say ‘God,’ but if it were, wouldn’t he give us some kinda reason? ‘Look—this is why you hurt.’ But none of that. We’re just supposed to accept it.”

“That is life. You must accept it no matter how much it hurts. Refusing means forgetting, Enoch, and forgetting the past means forgetting yourself.”

“But it wasn’t just Nathan, don’t you see that? There were so many others, entire cities’ worth who died, and I get to walk away with some headaches. How’s that s’posed to square out? What I got comin’ to me to make up for living while Nathan and all the rest get blown up and shot down?” Pa once said it was only right that, for once, the white man take a bullet for the black man. But Enoch had too many questions to resolve himself to such beliefs. I need to know where the line gets drawn, he thought. Should be enough I’m alive, but I’m greedy. Always needing more.

“War is awful,” Shepard said. “And destructive. But that is not the fault of men like you. It is the fault of our so-called freedom fighters. You’ve done all you were asked to do: offer yourself, body and soul, to their cause. You were rewarded with your life. Ain’t that reason enough to quit askin’ ‘why?’ and just sit back and enjoy it? You only get one life, after all. Ain’t nobody can take that away. You’ve proven it.”

Enoch was exhausted. The warmth from the dinner and coffee had dissipated. He lay down by the fire, his back to Shepard, but he was too restless and sleep came slowly. Tomorrow, he thought, I will return to my life. I’ll go home and settle as I’ve wanted to ever since I heard that first rifle shot, since I saw the first man fall. Tomorrow, I’ll go home, and the war, the army, the violence, and Nathan, all of it will be in the past.

And then, I will have peace.

II. The meeting

When he rose with the sun, stretching his arms and yawning till his jaw cracked, he saw that Shepard was gone. The transient’s only trace was the lion’s-head pipe resting near the pit of smoldering coals. Enoch pocketed the pipe and knelt by the riverside to splash his face. His broken reflection shimmered in the rippling surface, through which streams of light illuminated microscopic floaters; the pebbles and sand sparkled and wavered. He ate a chunk of bread and drank some water, but his stomach was queasy. He gathered his bag and jacket and clambered up the bank, clutching long tufts of green grass on the way.

A faint breeze eased the heat, cooling the sweat on his neck as he walked, boots crunching in the dirt. He hoped but doubted he’d see Shepard again; he was a man who blew into one’s life and out again on the next gale. Enoch wondered why he left the pipe, why he hadn’t left it with his son. He’d assumed Shepard’s son was dead, perhaps because of the tenderness with which he held the pipe. The mystery maddened him with curiosity after too long. Why not protect such an important relic?

By midday he was hungry and fatigued. He sat by a brook in the speckled shade of the narrow woods, eating bread with his feet dipped in the water.

A peal of thunder sounded faraway, trembling momentarily, then died.

Through the dwindling afternoon haze the Derobe Valley Village sign appeared like a beacon as the sky turned ugly gray. Enoch’s heart swelled with joy and fear. Before reaching the main village, he would turn a corner toward the lot. He would go take in the view, then he’d see his parents and they’d be thrilled he’d returned, for surely they’d have heard the regiment was back, and maybe dinner would be going. They would sit and Pa would grumble about the horses being petulant and the fields being rocky, and Ma would tell Enoch to sit straight while she complained about some fresh local gossip.

His soles ached terribly, but there was no stopping now. Didn’t stop for a year, he thought, and I’m not gonna till my feet are through that door.

He rounded the corner down the unmarked road, much narrower than the main drag. In the rising dark, the sun shed its last and brightest rays as it deflated behind the mountains.

Somber as a man walking the wedding aisle, Enoch approached the lot. The opening was ahead to the right. His father had cleared the trees there after buying the land, and seeing the dusk’s pinks and reds splashing the road, Enoch swelled with satisfaction. It was as he remembered.

He stopped and blinked.

He looked over his shoulder, then at the lot again.

There was a house, simply built, with two windows, a front door, and an uncovered porch, the waning sunlight spilling round its hard edges. Enoch stood in its shadow. There were no signs of the owner, but behind the house a horse stamped its hooves and snorted. Enoch tried to move but his knees were locked.

How could this be? Certainly not his father’s doing: he hadn’t the resources or energy. Had someone bought the land? His mind raced with scenarios: his father, suffering a fruitless harvest, must sell Enoch’s plot to survive; his mother, who had a severe cough last he knew, had worsened and extra money was needed to care for her; or, his parents were evicted from their land while Enoch was away, which was why they hadn’t written…

Stop thinking this way, he thought. Straighten out. He breathed deeply and approached the house as if it might swallow him.

He was sweating, his heart pounding. His boots clunked up the steps to the porch. As he gazed at the front door he instinctively felt something terrible coming, or something that had already occurred that was, regardless, beyond his control.

He lifted a fist and knocked.

The door opened. Bloody sunlight penetrated the house’s deep shadows, forming a halo around the man standing before him.

Enoch croaked a small, terrified word: “N-Nathan?”

Nathaniel King wore a clean cotton shirt and denim trousers. There wasn’t a scuff or scratch on his chestnut leather boots. Shaggy, matted with dirt in Enoch’s memory, Nathan’s yellow hair was trimmed and combed back off his high forehead.

Gazing at this apparition, Enoch was speechless. He could only gape, his own horror reflected in Nathan’s face.

“Enoch?” he said, as if to a ghost.

It was like a dream—one Enoch couldn’t escape.

He sat at Nathan’s dining table, gazing around at the den and dining-room, at the table, two chairs, and armchair near the cold hearth. Sounds of boiling water and cups clinking emerged from the other room. Nathan appeared with a coffeepot and two mugs and settled across from Enoch, whose eyes were glued to his face, calm and neutral as he poured.

“Drink while it’s hot.”

The coffee was too bitter. Enoch set the mug down. “Tell me what happened.”

Nathan frowned. “Tell you? Why don’t you tell me?”

His initial shock fading, replaced with mystified rage, Enoch felt himself slipping away from something, helpless to stop himself. “You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t your place. This is my place. I don’t understand. I don’t…”

“I don’t either, Enoch. Think it makes any sense to me?”

“You don’t make sense to me,” he snapped. Nathaniel King died at Gettysburg. Enoch knew that for a fact, and as if to prove it, cannon fire echoed in his ears. He winced.

“What do you remember?”

“What do I… It doesn’t matter. I remember it right. You died. Your head was blown off, Nathan, and I know, I know because it was all over me, and—” He stopped, seeing Nathan’s bewilderment. “Why? What do you remember?”

His eyes avoided Enoch, searching the surface of the table. Could he see Gettysburg too? Could he see what Enoch saw? He stood and went to the window, gazing out at the green hills and purple mountains. The house creaked, sighed, and settled.

“I remember smoke,” Nathan said. “I remember gunfire everywhere, but above all, I remember I wasn’t afraid. Spent the whole march afraid from the second we started, but when we charged their line did too, and I wasn’t afraid.” As if in challenge he asked, “Were you?”

Enoch nodded. “Before, during, and after. Never stopped.”

“When we reached town that first night—remember?—all the people hiding in houses, but not from us. From the Rebs. When we showed up it was a comfort to them, don’tcha think? We was heroes.”

Enoch said nothing. He’d never felt like a hero.

Nathan seemed nor to see mountains and hills through the window, but clouds of smoke and falling corpses. “We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day…felt so good, didn’t it? Seemed like we was gonna win without losin’ much. Wishful thinking ain’t smart in a war though, huh? They broke our line—broke it hard. I saw the boys in the lines ahead fallin’ like apples. Bam, bam, bam.” Enoch flinched. “The Rebs bullied through like no one’s business, all the time doin’ that animal scream…”

He told it just as Enoch remembered; the hairs on his arms stood up. The coffee was cold. He stared at himself distorted in the stagnant surface.

“They got you, Enoch.” Nathan turned, silhouetted, gazing at Enoch with practiced pity. “I was behind you, not a man between us. I saw em all a sudden, a flood of rags and blood and limbs. They fell on us. The gun smoke made the air taste bad, too bad to breathe, and the ground felt like it was shakin’ under my feet from all the falling bodies, and I saw you, Enoch, body and soul, standing there with your head torn off and blood spillin’ everywhere. When you fell I saw the man that killed you. I killed him, Enoch. For you.” His head tilted, as if the thought had just struck him: “I killed them all for you. For your kind.”

Enoch’s head swam. With great effort, he went outside, stooped over the bushes near the house, and vomited. When he’d retched all he could, wiped his mouth, and returned inside, Nathan had turned to the window again.

Enoch’s eyes darted to the fireplace: a poker jutted from the ashes. He imagined how it would feel to plunge the cold iron into someone’s back. He looked up. Nathan was staring at him coolly. “Is that how you remember it, Enoch? You kill a man for me when I died?”

“No, I just killed the man. And I survived to tell about it. ‘Course, wished I hadn’t. Those first few days after Gettysburg…wished I’d died like you. Lyin’ around with the dead and dying, hearing them scream as they cut off their legs. Remember the piles? They just stacked em up and left em there. Never did clear all the bodies off the field. How could they? They didn’t look like people anymore. More like…” He looked at the fireplace. More like embers, soon to become ash and to alight on fairer winds. “Show it to me. Your wound.”

“I didn’t get none. Told you, I killed that man after he got you.”

“Well, I have a wound. Got knocked down right after you died. One of ours bolted past and threw me off, next thing I knew, I was tryin’ not to get trampled in the mud. It was hell. Nowhere to go, nothing to see but smoke and more smoke, and all the shadows, falling… Someone fired a rifle. Grazed my head while I was trying to get up. If I’d stood fully, I’d have gotten it in the throat. What do you think that’s called?”

Nathan’s lip curled. “Know what I think, Enoch? I think that’s a damn black lie. I think you’re a spirit. Maybe you came back ‘cause you got unfinished business. What happens if I touch you?” he started forward but Enoch backed away. The house was too small for them both; his back soon pressed against the window.

“Don’t touch me.” Nathan’s hand kept coming, and when it was near his chest, Enoch shoved him. Nathan stumbled and tripped over the armchair, landing on the floor and shaking the house. He stared in wonderment at Enoch.

“You’re—you’re real?”

“I want my land back, Nathan. I don’t care if you tear down every board of this house and carry it off in a wagon. I want my land.”

“This is my land.”

“My father gave me this land. If I came home, this was my place to start fresh. Not yours, not anyone else’s—mine. Got it?”

“This land was owned by my great-grandfather and my grandfather after him and my father after him and now me,” the white man said, “and if you want me to draw up the papers to prove it, I’ll do it.”

“You won’t find none ‘cause they don’t exist. Whatever’s happenin’ here isn’t in the natural order. We both remember each other dying, we both intended the land for ourselves.”

“No,” Nathan said fiercely. “You were wrong thinkin’ this was yours. You were wrong to come back from the dead.” He stood, dusting himself off. “I never asked for you back. I was fine leavin’ you dead the way you was. Wasn’t nothin’ I could do. You coulda gone and found your own place where you could be your own king. Like all the other dead people.”

Enoch had somehow expected this, as if he’d always known Nathan’s true convictions. He was unfazed by others’ toil, least of all black others, and, comfortably separated from the terrors of war, he was beholden only to himself. Enoch wondered if God had set Nathan here to test his strength.

“I’m not quitting,” he said.

“What’d you say?”

“You heard me. This land is mine and I got family nearby who’ll happily say so. Matter of fact, once anyone hears about this, once they see I’m home? You chose the wrong village, Nathan. Folks around here know the Thomsons. So you just stay comfy, ‘cause I’ll be back soon to take back what’s mine.”

“You do that,” Nathan said, his tone lethal, “you come back and I’ll kill you, Enoch. This is my property, my home, and my rifle’s in the bedroom. I will kill you, and don’t you fret, ‘cause this time you ain’t comin’ back.”

A draft chilled the house. Eyes darting once more to the fire poker, Enoch withdrew from the house and the land that was his own.

III. The finale

Enoch left the house in a dignified stride, but once he turned the corner he ran, kicking up dirt, ears resounding with Nathan’s words, eyes burning with what they’d seen. He kept hoping to awake and find himself by the river with Shepard, for it would be yesterday and this entire nightmare would never have occurred.

He reached the village center, where squat buildings lined the scant Main Street: a small grocery, a post office open only on Sundays, a flower shop, a blacksmith, and at the end of the street, distanced from the dirt, there was the old white chapel. Most residences were scattered along the roadsides or near open fields where tilling was smoother. Never in Enoch’s memory had Derobe bustled like the cities through which he’d marched, and while he’d longed for Derobe’s peaceful solitude then, now the typically-deserted village depend his disappointment. What’d you expect, Pa’s voice said, a welcome party? You know better than that. Folks got they own lives to live.

True, but Enoch needed help, answers to the half-formed questions racing through his mind. Everything he’d planned had been senselessly dashed away. God seemed to have taken his life without bothering to kill him or offer any reason.

“Why didn’t you just do it?” he whispered, looking at the clouds. “If Nathan remembers it right, why didn’t you just kill me? Why I gotta hurt and remember different?” He knew every second wasted was another the ghost remained on his property, so he repressed his distress and focused on reaching home.

When he passed the blacksmith’s shop the door opened, revealing Harry Turner. Massive, white, and covered in sweat and grime, he held a hammer in a meaty fist.

“Hello, Harry,” Enoch said, slowing before the shop. “Been a minute, eh?”

The blacksmith was silent. Shadows obscured his eyes.

Enoch maintained a neighborly tone. “Listen, you know the story about my plot, the one outside town? There’s—”

“I dunno who you are,” Harry said, “but this village ain’t a place for blacks. What folks got ain’t no negro’s concern. You just go away before you find trouble.” The door slammed, iron handle rattling. Enoch stood shell-shocked in the street, remembering visits to Harry’s with his father, who would need a new spade or hammerhead forged.

Enoch went on out of the village and left down a fork in the road. A horse and rider approached from ahead, clouds of dust billowing behind. Enoch recognized Constable Dussault, Derobe’s only authority, who’d once helped Enoch and his father unstick the wagon from a rut during mud-season.

Enoch waved, but Dussault did not slow, his expression twisted with disdain and suspicion. He was silent as he rode past and glared backwards at Enoch, whose mouth was frozen open in half-uttered greeting.

What is happening? he thought. He must have recognized me. Am I a ghost?

As he walked, he reinforced the increasingly desperate hope that his parents would recognize their son, sense his distress, hug him, say how much they missed him, and listen to his perplexing tale.

He took the next left. The Thomson house waited at the end of the road. Seeing it—simple, quaint, faded brown—Enoch was reassured that despite the world’s horrific instability, there would always be two people with whom he could find comfort.

Reaching the house, he moaned: the horses were not in the field. The stables were empty. He went to the door and knocked. As it fell open, dark shadows crept forth. Enoch gazed inward, smelling dust, mold, rotten wood, not the familiar homely smells of coffee, fresh hay, and sweaty, living humans.

Enoch stepped inside. A floorboard creaked. The furniture was gone. He went to his bedroom, opened the door: all the stuff that once filled his room—bed, books, clothes—all of it was gone. There wasn’t a sign anybody had ever lived here. He stood on a pile of bones.

He went into the kitchen, running a hand over the dusty counter. “Ma?”

Outside, he stared at the long-overgrown fields. “Pa?” The sound carried away, faded, and died.

The Constable was waiting, straddling his horse in the front lot, a rifle resting on his knee. His cold, glazed eyes were fixed on Enoch. He’d never had the misfortune of having Dussault’s sights trained on him—there’d never been a reason before, but it was as if, in his time at war, Enoch had been erased, mind, body, and soul from his home, expending all his earthly importance in a year, and now he’d been banished to an inescapable void.

The Constable said, “You own this here place?”

Enoch swallowed, came down the steps. “No sir, just visiting.”

“Strange, ‘cause ain’t nobody lived here a long time.”

“Are you sure?”

“You questioning me?” Dussault’s tone was lethal.

“No, sir, it’s just… You ever meet the Thomsons?”

“Ain’t no Thomsons in Derobe. Trust me. Not now, not never. Don’t mean this property don’t belong to someone, though. But if you wanna stay, that’s all right—you just ain’t gonna do it alive.”

Enoch remained placid. Within, he was crumbling. “I understand, sir. I’ll just be goin’.”

“Fine idea.” His eyes watched Enoch pass and go back down the road—toward the village, toward the outskirts, toward nothing.

Shriveled and empty, he was a meaningless husk. The life he’d dreamt of had slipped through his fingers like smoke. He’d spent his life a reluctant farmer and then a reluctant soldier. He’d known dirt, toil, sweat, pain, heat, smoke, fire, but above all, he’d known blood. He’d seen it explode in waves from the mangled bodies of faux-brothers with whom he shared nothing— then, he’d almost been broken, but he’d preserved his remnants, hoping to be built up anew with love, joy, and peace, for he would escape the fire and return home.

But in the middle of the road just outside the Derobe border, Enoch collapsed in the dirt and wept, shoulders shaking, tears splattering the dust and making it mud. Crickets were singing. A harsh wind lifted. Lost among the fields and mountains, Enoch’s despair went unheard. Soon after the tears subsided, he remembered Shepard’s pipe in his pocket. The early stars shone dimly in the obsidian face. He thought of Shepard, and their conversation together.

Like a man reciting a prayer, Enoch said, “We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day…” But what had happened that last day? Was Nathaniel King killed in the Rebel onslaught before Enoch—or was it the inverse? Awash in pearly moonlight, Enoch pinched his arm, squeezed his legs, touched his curly hair: undeniably solid. So how did Nathan feel? Also real, also solid? Had he mulled it over forever, Enoch still would’ve refused to believe that.

“I know what I saw,” he whispered. He and Nathan were utterly distinct creatures with distinct experiences. To Nathan, life was nice clothes, education, his parents’ money; for Enoch , it was suffering for years tilling the fields in the summer and sapping in the winter—and then, had he been a rich man, that wouldn’t stop the glares, the whispered slurs, the thinly-veiled insults. Nothing could change the perpetual fear he lived in that, one day, the slurs would become physical, and he would find a mob on his tail, ready to string him up like the rest of those niggers.

He was hot. His hands shook with rage as he clutched the pipe. “We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day…” The last day, Enoch Thomson escaped with his life. A white man died shielding a shot meant for a black man. He killed the man he thought killed Nathan, but in all the chaos and smoke, who kept score? Who could consciously act after witnessing a friend brutally murdered? Who could defy the aggrieved rage of the beast? Who among the veterans would tell brave tales while allowing that it was adrenaline, not reason, that led to valor? When Nathan died, Enoch did not think: he opened fire, knowing his fate balanced between one impulse and the next. He did not claim to avenge Nathan.

Nathan, not Enoch, had valorized himself. And what else had he said? His voice whispered in the dark, I was fine leavin’ you dead the way you was. Wasn’t nothin’ I could do. You coulda gone and found your own place where you could be your own king. Like all the other dead people.

“Could?” Suddenly Enoch stood, feet numb and vibrating. Touching Shepard’s pipe in his pocket, he walked into the dark.

As he walked, Enoch’s inner peace deepened. The surrounding dark absorbed his sorrows. Whereas earlier he’d been blinded with rage at the cruelty done him, now he saw it for what it was. I should’ve known better from the very beginning, he thought: Nathaniel King is no friend of mine. Never was. He’s just like the rest; they say one thing and mean another entirely. And it goes deeper, ’cause it ain’t just with me. They’re lying to themselves, too. They’ve been doing it forever.

The lot loomed ahead. One question emerged paramount in his mind.

He went up the steps and knocked on the door. It opened. Before Nathan saw anything, Enoch drove Shepard’s pipe at his head. Screaming, Nathan fell backwards into the house, blood running down his face and neck. A fire in the hearth cast infernal jagged light throughout the den.

“You fucking n*****,” Nathan hissed, clutching his head, hiding his face, which was fine: Enoch didn’t need to see him when he destroyed him.

“I got one question for you, Nathan, and you’d best answer: Why’d you join the war?”

Nathan froze, petrified. “The…the cause… It’s important that…” He was trying to stand, wincing and swaying. “Goddamn, it hurts…”

“Try a rifle shot,” Enoch snarled. In the flickering light something flashed in Nathan’s hand, and he suddenly slashed out with the butter knife. Enoch stumbled back and tripped over the armchair, landing on his back. Nathan bolted through the house; Enoch struggled to his feet. From around the corner Nathan reappeared with his gun and fired; Enoch ducked, ears ringing…and he was back on that wide, empty field, and everywhere the rifles and cannons fired a symphony, bodies fell like sheep, herded one by one into death, and Enoch couldn’t tell who fought for or with whom, nor who anybody was. Gun smoke lifted into the clouds.

The vision vanished. Enoch was charging across the room, screaming; Nathan fired again and distant pain seared Enoch’s arm, the same numbing he’d felt in his head, and passing the fireplace, he took up the red-hot poker, raised it over his head, and brought it down in a sweeping arc upon Nathan.

There was a sickening crunch! and the body hit the floor, the poker jutting from the skull. Nathan’s blonde hair, twice-bloodstained in Enoch’s memory, caught fire. Gasping, Enoch dropped and sat crosslegged by the corpse and rifle. The shallow graze in his arm bled, and blood pooled on the floorboards beneath Nathan’s corpse. Enoch poked his back: real and solid.

Hearing his own words, he felt dizzy: We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day… And again, over and over, and the fire was eating Nathan, but Enoch hadn’t the energy to kill that too. Cold and empty, he staggered to his feet and dragged himself outside.

He sat in the lot watching the fire blossom in the house. He eventually fell asleep there, and when he awoke it was dawn. The first hints of grayish-blue were creeping into the sky. In the lot, purchased in an impossibly distant world, Enoch gazed at the house’s charred remains: scattered and burned debris, and one tendril of smoke, rising up and dissipating in the morning sky.

The only reason he ever moved again was because someone would soon investigate the fire smoke. He walked without a goal, memories bobbing up and down in his mind. He scanned the sparse trees and long green fields and those mountains, so far away they could’ve been clouds. Vermont was a peaceful, good place, yet it was riddled with horrors: if he’d tried, nobody might have known what occurred last night. As it stood, the Constable would find out; the villagers would raze the land seeking the culprit. He didn’t know where along the boundaries of reality the townsmen’s sensibilities lay, but it didn’t matter.

As he walked he sometimes noticed himself repeating the same thing: “We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day…” He wondered how much blood he’d lost. He felt he had no face, no name, no purpose, and somehow, the feeling was both distressing and freeing.

When he could go no further, Enoch slid down the next grassy bank he found, seeking a place to disappear. At the bottom, near the narrow sandy shore, a gushing river glimmered in the dusty moonlight.

Enoch stripped out of his bloody, sooty clothes, waded in, and stood knee-deep, acclimating to the cold. He looked up at the full moon.

“We held the Hill the first day. We held the batteries on the second day. The last day…” He frowned. Then with sudden clarity he said, “The last day the battle ended. The last day, Nathaniel King’s head was blown off. The last day, I killed a man, and it didn’t matter which. The last day, I was as I started: a black man fighting a white man’s war.” He moved deeper into the water till it rose past his waist.

“The last day, I passed from one world and into another. Neither made any sense and neither did me any good. Those things—goodness, sense—I only ever found them in myself. Beyond that? Whites pretendin’ to fight whites, when they’re really fightin’ blacks; blacks fightin’ with whites, pretendin’ we’re allies when they’re the ones who put us in chains.” Remembering Nathan, he lowered himself into the current. “But these the worst of all: whites pretendin’ to fight for blacks, when really, they were killing us all along.”

The calm that befell him was total. His distress washed away in the current. He gazed at the stars, only his head above the water. “All I ever wanted,” he sighed. “My own little kingdom. Not bothered, and… Free to be at peace.”

A band of horses and riders approached from the north. They were hollering and their hounds were howling; as the hunting party came round the bend, Enoch closed his eyes and, body and soul, he went with the waters; and then he was not, for they had erased him.

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Jay Tilden

Jay Tilden is a fiction writer and student of history, originally from Vermont. He does not like people, which is probably why most of them die in his stories.

See all posts by Jay Tilden