"Kep!” demanded the young woman, eyes afire, fingers grasping the loose thick cotton shirt of the determined young man before her; his boyish face smirked away the threat of probable danger awaiting him. He played off the fear with wide eyes of foolishness, shaking his head, sending wild rolls of curly brown hair bouncing onto his smooth forehead.
“Kep! You stop that you hear!” A fevered crawl of anger heightened the seriousness of her intentions. “You think this here is some kind of a joke!” She twirled on her toes. A wall of stiff shoulders separated the marble of sadness within her from the young man. Her head dipped. A quivering chin blessed the motherhood of her chest. A soft sobbing filled the immediate air.
Kep felt moved to hold her; he felt awkward at her expression of sadness. His eyes looked skyward, wishing to escape. Instead he placed the palm of his right hand on her shoulder. “Now Lyda.” His voice speaking to the back of her beautiful dark hair; a tortoise shell clip held a tight queue onto the whiteness of her neck. “It’ll be ok.” His hand rubbed assuredly in small familiar circles. “We’ve been offering this here topic up for two weeks and I keep telling you not to be a worrying.”
The young woman snapped an about face, startling Kep; the hand on her shoulder found thin air, his eyes a moment ago filled with adolescent sorrow sparked into a wide shock, as the face of Lyda captured his countenance.
“It’s easy for you to stand here, telling me everything will be just fine, when the truth is men are dying for a dying cause.” Kep tried to interrupt; she placed her fingers over his lips. “You hear me out Kep.” She stammered. “I see the sadness haunting the mothers, wives and girlfriends of soldiers fighting and I also see the dark struggles in faces over news of the dead.” She paused, looked down. Late September breezes circled noisily within branches of a leafed out dogwood above them. A scattering of leaves touched easily at her ankles; like homeless children begging for comfort. A cloudless cool sky weighted over them with an ocean of blue. To Lyda, it was her favorite time of the year, though now the saddest as she unwillingly relinquished her lover to war; summer falls from the arms of time, yielding to fall.
The lovers yielded to the powerful grief and lust of the moment. Slipping to the ground, they unwrapped the presents of their youth; the energy of breathing melted onto their lips.
“Kep. Kep.” Lyda’s voice filled warm the memories within his head. Her face freshly painted with each calling of his name. “Lyda, Lyda.” His hand trembled, reaching as the elderly do, attempting to capture the past with crippled fingers.
Kep passionately extended his hand, discovering a welcome patch of warmth. He stroked the familiar between the pads of his fingers. His lips broadened, eyes closed, head tilted back he moved his hand deeper into the wetness. Kep’s innocent smile of lust quickly vanished into the paths and dungeons of his darkest fears. Beads of sweat rained onto the surface of a dirt stained forehead. A cold tree top wind above him beat into branches resembling witches arthritic fingers. Dry life evaporated leaves beneath him rustled at his slightest motion; the death bed of autumn welcomed him onto a brown canopy. He labored to remember bright images of explosions, land clouds of gun powder obscuring his vision, men crying and extremities scattered like twigs under his attacking, ever advancing boots. He yielded to nausea, vomiting onto his bloodied shirt; a tight acid gripped his throat. His eyes opened with the slowness of a man drugged by thieves; he was wounded, severely, dying in a forest, a place foreign to his feet, on the bank of a river, the Rappahannock , across from a city called Fredericksburg .
He called softly, a voice meant only for angels nearby gathering the dead and those wishing for an end. “Lyda, Lyda.” He hoped to return to the dream of his lover, standing behind her. This time he promised to turn her, kiss her passionately, tell her of his love, over and over until he ran to the end of words.
A thousand needles of pain griped him. He pulled his knees toward his chest, easing only for a moment the forever damaged tissue ripped apart within him. The dream of her did not return. Kep turned his head to the waving treetops high above. He imagined for a moment he was at the bottom of an ocean of air, laying on a sandy bed looking up at tall strands of seaweed. He thought of climbing the weeds to the surface, escaping the bottom ocean of death, then swimming to shore, running home, never to leave, never to leave Lyda again.
The pain circled his abdomen, moving roughly within as if demons were dancing loudly on what remained, stabbing him for the sins of his past. Dusk walked over the river, dampening his face, chilling the skin; the last border of life. Kep could see lights from the city across the river. The undercarriage of clouds ushered in by night reflected a gray glow. Voices of men echoed from the city. Men at rivers edge speaking words, jumbled by distance, gathered roughly into baskets of sounds, indistinguishable to Kep. He could tell the voices were stationary, not moving in his direction; nighttime fostered courage in groups not in shadows of one. Kep lay his head back. Weakness caught him up into a level below sleep; rest was broken by the sound of slow deliberate footsteps walking near.
Kep remained motionless, refraining from stirring the leaves below him. Each step of the closing footsteps signaled salvation at the hands of a local farmer or the act of immediate death at the hands of enemy stragglers for his paltry personal possessions. At this moment, exhaustion being the only life form maintaining his breathing, he welcomed the option of death over the pain of being moved. Kep purposely stirred, moaning into night covered air. The approaching steps halted almost immediately. Kep moved some more. Silence maintained the close environment of a stranger and the dying soldier.
Kep called out, “Who’s there?” silence answered back. “I knows someones there, I hear you coming. No sense in hiding from me.” The words spoken by Kep caused him to writhe in pain. He rolled onto his side like a dog beaten with a stick. He sobbed, mentioned Lyda’s name then slipped into unconsciousness.
When he awoke, he could see the broad shoulders of someone leaning over him. The face was obscured by night. An owl high above called into the chilly expanse, echoing onto the river. For a brief moment the gray rolling clouds above offered a separation, allowing a sliver of silver from a December moon to run the face of the stranger. Kep was startled at the face of a black man looking down at him.
The man was bald, heavy set, someone who was sure with their fists. Kep leaned back exposing his neck, hoping the revengeful black man would slit his throat for all the ills imposed upon him by his southern generations.
The stranger spoke as if a wind opened a back door. “What’s you got wrong with you?” he asked, leaning away from Kep; the clouds over him closed like the red sea, the man’s face once again hidden behind a curtain of night.
Kep leaned up slightly, bracing his head on a mound of dirt, observing the large figure before him. It was a poor presentation for a white man before a slave, being partnered with the ground as he was. “I took a slug in my side.” Kep slowly opened the lower tail of his jacket showing the man a dark stain; the brightness of blood extinguished by night. “I’ve been lying here for a day maybe two, I don’t rightly know if it’s more than that.” Kep covered his wound. The black man sat down, any fear of being apprehended by this man was out of the question. His shoulders relaxed, fingers scratched the dirt before him, he looked up at the clouds then at Kep.
“What you expect to do with dat hole in you side?” Kep didn’t answer. The black man continued. “I come across a good number of you boys all shot to hell, none as in good a shape as you dow. One boy ask me to kill him out right, like a pig for slaughter. I told him no way could I do dat. My moma, bless her soul, would come back from the grave an’ whip me out. Sure as day she would, whip me out.” His fingers pushed the dirt again. Finding a small stone he cleaned it off and tossed into the black before him. The pebble skipped on several leaves before settling to the bottom.
Kep spoke up. “Can you find me a doctor?”
“Now where in hell would that be?” answered the stranger angrily.
“There must be someone near this place or across the river. Someone who could get me up. I know if someone could see me they would gets me. I know they wouldn’t just let me die.” Kep lost his breath, coughing lightly and holding his side, he sobbed softly, embarrassed of his weakness before a slave.
“If Iz to go across that there river an' scrounge up some doctor help for you, I would be captured and whipped sure as there is a hell. Boy you’d be long dead before help ever got to you.” The man reached into a small leather pouch. He removed a piece of cooked meat. Kep could smell the spices, causing him to gag. “I guess you ain’t gonna be asken for none of my supper is you?” The man chewed heartily.
“You got any water?” Kep asked. The man reached under his coat. He untied a rope with a canteen attached. Turning the top he held it up to the mouth of Kep. Kep slurped at the water, droplets formed at the corner of his mouth. His eyes thanked the man. The black man wiped the top with his fingers, swallowing hard from the canteen. A few months ago Kep would have never thought of drinking from the same container as a black man, and now, well now he was dying, and the prejudice ingrained to him was washed away with the act of a man’s sharing. He now realized there were no lines dividing white and black; a swallow of water baptized the hate from him. Kep sighed but said nothing; the soul of a dying man gains wisdom in seconds after a lifetime of wrongs.
“Where you headin?” asked Kep.
“North.” Said the man. “As fast as my feet can carry this here frame.” He took another swig of water, wiping his lips with a tattered sleeve. “I gots a little money I stole from my master when he done and left the farm I was on. Took some prime meat to. None of dat shit dey serve up to us workers. Yes sir, dis here chicky is the master’s best and I done serve myself to it.” The man took a mighty bite from the meat, tearing at if as if he were a wild dog.
Kep asked, “You got family?”
The man laughed, sounding more like a growl from a wolf about ready to strike. “What family I gots is scattered like the dust from a dead field. My wife sold to a man in Louisiana . My two boys both gone, sold like mules. ”One to Mississippi, the other . . .” The man looked down at the ground. Clouds above parted. Moon light captured tears escaping onto cheeks familiar with pain and suffering. Kep reached out, placing his hand on the man’s boot. “I don’t know where da udder one is. Somebody done told me he was dead.” The man wiped his face. Anger found life in his words. “He might as well be dead, all of us for dat matter. We is dead the moment weze born. Shackled and beaten into doin for udders. Weze only alive so white folks don’t get dere hands dirty. From da beginnin we is treated like scum, doin da work that dat keeps dere hands clean and wealthy!”
A dog in the distance barked. The man hushed his words. His shoulders bent down. Eyes scanned left and right. “I gots to move on.” The words came as a crushing blow to Kep. He knew there was no holding the man, no convincing him to gain help from the city across the river. Certainly threatening the man was beyond consideration.
The man removed the leather satchel from his waist, placing it with the canteen next to Kep. Kep reached out his hand. The shadow of the black man was motionless. Slowly he moved his right hand clasping Kep’s. The man stood. Slowly at first he moved through the brush, until nervousness pushed his feet into fast; his footsteps merged with night like waves blending onto shore.