The Kansas Lawyer, 1896, Harvest of Death
A Civil War Short Story of PTSD
It was the year the cicadas emerged in Kansas after seventeen years of silence. His buggy tottered swiftly along the dusty road to home, through July corn that once stood as tall and lusty and green as his eldest son Todd until the last two years when severe weather and drought moved through the area. He passed reddish-gold fields of evening and watched as a few strands of wheat left from the June harvest caught a soft breeze and twinkled on and off with the last remnants of light.
The same as Gettysburg, he thought.
The image appeared again in his mind, the strands of wheat glinting red with blood instead of light, the moaning and crying of boys and men all about the wheatfield, for a sweetheart, a mother, a medic, as he stood among them without so much as a small bruise. Then the photographers came in, moving the bloated bodies around, even posing them as if they had died with a rifle across their laps. It was the beginning of bad news made glorious. He pulled out his flask and drank deeply. The cicadas rang loudly.
The horse usually took control at this point, trotting the same route every evening as the master sat in the seat behind, barely handling the reins, topping off his after-hours binge in the saloon with a stash of bourbon for the road home. From law office to farm, every evening the same, except for the short period of time that he taught school in his log home. From the day he and Elizabeth signed the deed and began filling the farm with children, to this dusky summer evening in Kansas filled once again with that fey summer insect song, Achilles rode home to his wife and children with his bottle and his burden.
It was 1875 when the insects last rose from the earth, and he brought his students outside to listen and learn. He had a spell of the melancholy shortly after, when the nightmares began. Elizabeth had to run both farm and school. He was in the heat of battle in the two-room log house every night for nearly two weeks, frightening the children so badly that the boys camped out in the barn for awhile, taking the girls and babies with them. They returned to the house when it finally seemed certain that the nightmares had stopped.
Todd was chopping wood in the yard and paused to look along the horizon of corn in the distance. A line of dust hung over the fields where the road ran through to the house. He dropped the ax, cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted to the house.
And then to the barn.
Lavina was pumping water at the well. She let go of the handle and ran. George and Thomas hurried out of the barn. Buford had been clearing rocks in a field to build an adjacent stone fence. He stopped his work and began to run. The twins, Pearl and Ruby, were playing in the chicken coop when they heard Todd’s call.
The horse pulled Achilles into the yard and stopped in front of the hitching post. Achilles crawled out of the seat and stumbled up the porch step.
“It’s some days in hell when my children ain’t here to greet me every night.”
He opened the door and stood in the foyer, holding tightly onto the frame with both hands. He shouted in the direction of the stove.
“Elizabeth! Where’s my children? They were all here this mornin’ to see me off!”
“If you start comin’ home proper and sober every night, you might be seein’ em again soon. Way it is Achilles, these last few weeks you bring nothin’ but heartache home to our children. P’haps they left for good this time.”
“I never hit a woman, even in my present state, but I just might make a reg’lr thing of it. Least, now that hidin’ my children is a reg’lr thing with my wife.”
“I believe you’re lookin’ to wear a fresh baked skillet of cornbread Achilles! And don’t forget that Todd and Buford are strappin’, near thirty now, and courtin’ for their own families. You wouldn’t survive. Todd’s been as much a father to our babies as you. You best believe we’d survive without you. Now eat your supper and pass out, because that is what they’re waitin’ for.”
Achilles locked eyes with Elizabeth for a long moment. When she broke the connection, he slumped into a chair at the supper table and began to weep.
“My darlin’ my darlin’ Eliza, and my children, I have so forsaken you for my dreams and nightmares.”
“I know your dreams Achilles. I have em’ memorized. You’re having them again. The drink keeps them away when you pass out, but only for a night. I know what happened to you in the War of the Rebellion. I’ve heard you cry the story in your sleep, I’ve put the pieces together Achilles.”
Achilles jumped from his chair and leaped for the door.
“You know nothing ‘Lizbeth!”
He ran into the yard, calling for his children. Elizabeth stood on the porch and covered her face. She could only weep for a man so filled with demons.
“My little Ruby! Pearl! Come out to pa!”
He staggered to the water trough along the yard where two cows were drinking. One backed away and trotted off as Achilles approached.
“James! Please! Listen! Hear me out!”
“I picked you up to take you home, but it was only your top half that came out of the dirt! I couldn’t find the rest of you!”
The cow began to back away as Achilles grabbed her around the neck, pleading with her to forgive him. He fell head first into the trough.
Todd reached in and lifted his father out of the water. He placed his father’s arm around his neck and put his own arm around his father’s chest. One by one the children emerged from the cornfield and gathered around Todd and Achilles.
“It’s okay Achilles,” said Todd. “The war is over now. I’m with the good Lord. Thanks to you.”
In the morning, Achilles climbed into the buggy to head for the law office after a breakfast of biscuits and gravy with Elizabeth and the children. They waved to Achilles until they could not see him anymore.
The cicadas were silent for now.
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Originally appeared in Lit Up: The Land of Little Tales on Medium