Dying in Maryland

by Philip Hanson

The lieutenant came to consciousness staring up into some distant tree branches, thinking “hypoxia.” Hypoxia? From West Point: Anatomy. Not enough oxygen. He lay hurting, not moving, his body an exposed nerve, reduced to a solitary constricted throb. Had his hands gone blue? A gray Confederate, hands blue. Ironic hypoxia. He was in some woods somewhere unknown. No, Maryland. Sharpsburg. They waited for Jackson. No, Jackson had come. The lieutenant thought he lay in the East Woods where Lawton’s men had hidden. No. He hadn’t been with Lawton. He pulsated, squeezed his eyes shut. Even that hurt. Where were they? Where was he? One soldier said they had fought so long the sun had gone backwards and night would not come. They’d gone back to Virginia. Except him, the blue lieutenant. Back in Virginia across the Potomac. He lay on his back, under trees, staring into the blue daylit sky.

He’d retreated with Longstreet. But he’d stumbled upon a Union picket. They opened fire. He’d heard a “thunk,” like that of a mallet striking a tree trunk, a musket ball striking his horse, near the shoulder. The horse broke, ran, veering, stumbling, hysterical, cough-crying like a heartsick child; the lieutenant had been hit twice, once in the knee. He hugged his horse in an empathy of pain. Near a thicket, the horse buckled and fell. The lieutenant had kicked himself free and rolled to the ground. He had crawled in amongst the trees. He must decide now whether to struggle or give in to death here in the shaded woods. After minutes (?) hours (?) he decided he would try to crawl. His first move to roll to his side led to searing pain across the left half of his chest. He lay contemplating this, as the pain slowly rolled back to its dull state. He would have to ignore pain. He moved a little, pulling himself more than crawling−resembling a man at Second Manassas whose legs had been sheared off by a shell−toward sunlight at the edge of the trees. The trees were at the upper edge of a long downward sloping hill, which ended at a shabby farmhouse. A young black woman, dressed in a discarded potato sack, stood in front of the house. A farmer came out behind her and fixed his gaze on her. The lieutenant thought, slipping out of consciousness, they had slaves in Maryland without the inconvenience of dying to keep them.

Semi-conscious now, his mind drifted. Coming into Maryland Jackson’s new horse reared and fell back and threw him. Jackson was badly bruised and he had to enter Middletown in an ambulance. Two young girls waved Union flags at him. Jackson said, “We have no friends here.” The generals had hoped Maryland would rise up when the Confederates entered the state, but the people regarded them in sullen silence. In Frederick, the lieutenant found a farmer who made cider with a hand machine. The man was friendly until the lieutenant paid him with a Confederate dollar. Somberly the farmer cut a Maryland dollar with a scissors to make his change.

When the war began the Charlottesville parties came to a new frenetic life. The long period of dread that something was about to tear had at last come to fruition and with it a kind of release. Rebecca Hampton. He’d known her since he was five. Their families had been intimate for two generations. She could dance and ride. The war had come on so rapidly whatever he felt about Rebecca had been upended. Her big eyes turned liquid when he left. The Molly Capers party. General Capers off to war. Molly a politician’s wife for decades, knew everyone. Doted on him, his brothers, Rebecca. It had all been there in front of him. The parties swam in his dreamscape. Costumes. Charades. Acting out Tacitus’ account of Nero. Colonel McCutcheon as Nero ordering the Christians soaked in oil, torches to light his grounds. Nero’s suicide. The colonel never cracked a smile. Played it straight, went off to die at First Manassas. A disciplinarian, like Jackson. Shot by his own men. Accident? Rebecca doing Lady MacBeth. Molly Capers just right to be Desdemona. Playing at tragedy, until the last. A little bit of a hush around that stuff of a white woman and a black man. Molly had to take the part. Only she had the authority. Blood ran hot, the party got quiet when he killed her. Scotch. Brandy. Singing. Molly at the piano, Rebecca. “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Dancing. Flirting. The shrieks of the partying women right with him now. Living in the moment. Feeling the dread. Tacitus said the nobility danced in the streets at Nero’s suicide. “Qualis artifex pereo.” Nero’s decadence put them off. They never felt much for Nero’s slave women, though. An old West Point instructor told the lieutenant how Nero was rumored to have used the women wasn’t recordable.

He came to at the sound of men’s voices. It must have been late afternoon, judging by the light. Five or six Confederates, enlisted men, all in tatters surrounded the farmer and the black women. Something in their manner. Another black girl there now. Smaller, younger than the first. The first kept her arms around the smaller one. The soldiers laughed, men without boundaries. He could hear the shrieks of the women at the parties. Hilarious, anxious. Some Georgia captain told him about a slave owner who held orgies. The master, the overseer, house slaves, all playing with the women however they wanted. Afterwards a crop of high yellow babies to sell. The voices of the men down the hill rose in anger. The farmer put his hand on the girl’s back and shoved her toward the Confederates. The women at the parties danced and shrieked in their drunkenness. One of the Confederates pointed a gun at the farmer. The lieutenant’s mind dizzied. He was in two places at once. Slipping away, hearing women scream.

Philip Hanson studied creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in English. His short fiction has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Copperfield Review, The Blue Hour Magazine, Other Voices, The Dan River Anthology, and Undercurrent. He is currently an associate professor in the writing program at the University of San Francisco.