Son of the Southern Wind (Chapter 2)

May 1, 2013
‘We are at war.’
Those four simple words echoed throughout my skull, bouncing around and ricocheting back and forth, repeating themselves until I thought my head would burst. The meaning was clear, but the words didn’t make sense. At all. How could we be at war? I thought I had it all figured out. I knew darn well our country was in trouble, but enough to withdraw from the rest of the nation and kill each other for it? I never dreamed I’d see the day it would happen, that it would escalate to this.
No…. No, it couldn’t be true. They had to be lying. This had to be some kind of rumor going around. How could Texas be that stupid as to secede from the rest of the U.S. and get away with it? They had to know that there were people who didn’t want this. Besides, we were one against forty one other states, plus the territories! We would never make it as a country of our own. We would simply be overwhelmed, considering we were smack right in the middle of the lower half of the country.
My mother, as if reading my thoughts, said quietly, “A bunch of the southern states seceded, Russell. Not just Texas. Starting with South Carolina. And then the rest of them followed. We were the most recent ones to break away. And maybe there could be more to come. We aren’t for sure.”
A good chunk of the Deep South separated from the North…… Enough to make our own country, our own army… And there were more states who might possibly rebel against everything that they have ever known. And there were so many innocent people who didn’t choose this path, some who didn’t even have a say in the matter, who had to go along with what all those politicians who represented our states were saying about wanting to secede, and were now going to have to give up a son, a brother, a father.. And send them away to be killed, never to be seen again.. And I was one of those boys. My parent’s conversation from this morning now suddenly made sense, every horrible bit of it. And the sorriest part of it was how true my fears actually were. They really were gonna send me away to battle. With or without remorse would be another question..
I stood there for several unimaginably long minutes, staring off into space, trying to wrap my head around this unreal explanation. My mind spun with questions, but I had no answers. A cold, biting wind blew through the open window and made me shudder so hard I nearly fell over. Luckily, a chair was behind me and I tumbled into it, not even bothering to get back up again. I felt a hand go down my face as I glowered off into oblivion, my reverie not quite broken yet. With a start, I realized it was my own.
I continued to stare at the wall, my head swimming. I couldn’t process any thoughts, pictures, nothing. Just a blur of what I was seeing. Like I was underwater and trying to make out anything in front of me.
“Son?” I heard my father’s voice, but it was like hearing it through a cave. It resonated in my ears, but I couldn’t, at first, figure out where it was coming from.
‘We are at war.’
A memory of when I was little came back to me. The first time I ever saw the rain fall, I was outside, playing in the dirt in our backyard. The droplets of water fell slowly at first, making little brown dots here and there all around me. I looked up at the ominous gray clouds gathering above me and watched, fascinated, as they fell magically from the sky.
But soon the little beads grew plumper and plummeted in an increasingly reckless and steadfast tempo. One flew in my eye, and I immediately blinked quickly, a short-lived pain beating in my eye. The wind picked up and brought with it the rain and dead leaves, and I knew then I had to get inside the house. Struggling to get up, I could feel the rain tearing at my body, the once gentle drizzle turning on me and now bombarding me in a violent manner. Lightning flickered in the distance and the ear crushing boom that responded startled me so much that I slipped in the precarious mud and collapsed head first onto the ground. I felt so weak and helpless laying there and all I wanted to do was just die.
I felt the wind pick up again and I could feel the twigs and leaves being tossed about and thrown into my body. Something sharp ran up my arm and the stinging pain haunted me for the rest of the time I was out there. I was miserable, feeling abandoned and feeble until my father found me a few minutes later and yanked me up into his arms, safe and away from harm. Only now, I don’t even think my father could pull me out of this one, this terrifying idea that could only happen in a nightmare. . .
‘We are at war.’
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut out all that I couldn’t see anyway. The words were being chanted over and over again in my head.
“How could you not tell me?” My voice sounded foreign to me and it took all my effort to get my mouth to work right. I knew my parents hesitated and it irritated me that they wouldn’t give it to me straight. But I couldn’t make my lips speak the words in my mind, like the two had become disconnected.
“Oh Russell, dear….” My mother’s worried voice annoyed me to a point I didn’t know I had.
I felt my fist go down on the table and the bang that came in response was louder than I intended, startling me out of my own trance.
“Why?!” My head snapped up and I stared her down, my eyes burning. She opened her mouth to speak, but it wasn’t her voice that came out.
“Son.” My attention was brought across the table to my father whose face was troubled. “Son, we know that war is a hard thing. It takes its toll on all of us.”
He stopped for a second, glancing up at Mother, as if trying to get her reassurance that what he said was the right thing to say. But she didn’t meet his gaze. In fact, she turned away and began to pace the room hastily. He then turned in Bryan’s direction, as did I, and from the look on Bryan’s face I could tell he was just as aghast and taken aback as I was. All he could manage to do was just dart his eyes back and forth anxiously, trying to turn the spotlight away from him.
“But son,” My father continued, looking away from Bryan and back at me. “The thought of war…. It thrills the hearts and minds of young men who….. haven’t seen a real battle. Who want an adventure or are bored at home. It pushes those who are ashamed to make something better of themselves. If they survive that is...... But in the end, it only ends your life, whether you survive or not.”
I stared at him through slitted eyes, wondering how long it was gonna take for the old man to get to the point. But I guess his little spiel was through for the moment and he was waiting for my response.
The thing that I loved the most about his speech was that he assumed I was like other young men. That I was waiting for this day. That I wanted war, craved it even. He thought I was gonna be bloodthirsty, planning on killing the first Yankee I could get my hands on. Eager to become a murderer. All because I was bored at home, because my life had so little substance to it, was so dull, that I had to go out and kill people just to liven it up a bit. I guess he assumed that I didn’t have a little sister who looked up to me. Who cried to go with me whenever I left. I guess he assumed I didn’t have a best friend who might look down on should I run and go do this without a thought. Especially considering Bryan was from Maine, a state I knew that strongly supported the Union.
But what killed me the most was that he assumed that he wouldn’t even have to force me to sign up for this. He thought that I would automatically leave my family behind to play second fiddle while I went to volunteer for this duty, this supposed honor, of fighting for our country like he did so many years ago. Well, he was fighting for the United States of America back then. Me? I’m now fighting for the southern half of this now divided, broken country.
One would think this would call for a long, drawn-out speech, but all those words in my head only formed one tiny, powerless sentence. “I ain’t for this.”
The silence was painful to listen to. Nobody spoke for a while, giving me time to work my train of thought into words.
“This was your idea, wasn’t it? To keep this from me?” I looked up at him as I spoke, demanding that he held my gaze. And held it he did. I could see my reflection in his eyes, and I was secretly glad to find that my face was unforgiving, refusing to let him see what I was really feeling on the inside. The shock, remorse, betrayal and anger hidden behind a well composed poker face…..
After a few moments, he cracked and nodded his head. “I thought… it would be best.” He looked down, unable to hold my gaze after his confession. Good. He should be ashamed. I picked up the gun and thoughtfully, and turned it around and around in my hands, as if I were inspecting it to find any speck of dust. Pursing my lips, I let the next words fly out of my mouth without a thought.
“So you just thought it would be best to keep this whole thing a secret and then you finally decide to conveniently tell me today? On my birthday? In front of God and everybody,” I gestured back at Bryan who was shifted his position awkwardly as the spotlight shone on him, and my sister, who sat in the chair, playing with a piece of lace distractedly, yet listening to every word that was said. I turned back to my father.
“And now you expect me to accept it? Like this gun?” I shook the rifle in his face, my face burning red with rage. The anger was burning acidic in my stomach and I found my hand was shaking. I leaned back in the chair, pursing my lips again and shook my head. I tapped the gun impatiently on the floor, waiting for an explanation. And I got one. The exact one I knew he would give.
“Son, I thought this would be what you wanted. I thought-“ But I shook my head once and was already on my feet, beginning to head for the door. I didn’t want to hear the rest of his little lecture. He didn’t know anything. Who was he to judge what I did and didn’t do? He would never –
My thoughts were interrupted as I heard him yell my name. “Russell! Listen to me. I thought you would want to continue the legacy. Your grandpa left-“
“Legacy?!” I shouted, spinning on my heel to face him. “You call this a legacy?! Going off to serve in a war that could get you killed? Like father, like son? I’m not gonna be as stupid as you were and go and join the army so young! Not much of a ‘legacy’ if you ask me.” I snarled at him. Now I could see him begin to get angry. His eyebrows arched and his forehead crinkled, his eyes turned into brown flames. A look that sent me crying up the stairs when I was a little boy. Now it only fueled my fire.
“Son, your grandpa was a great war hero. I served in the army only because I thought it would do the family name some good. Your grandpa said that the best thing to do was serve in the army. It’s tradition, going back all the way to your great great grandfather.” My father was now standing right in front of me, towering over me. But I stood my ground, facing him down. I rolled my eyes.
“Family tradition. More like family curse.” I muttered. I started to turn again when a hand spun me around roughly.
“Listen carefully boy. You had better join this army whether you want to or not. You are gonna fight for this family and Texas in this war. You Grandpa would’ve been proud of you. You’re my only son and you’re the only one who can keep up the tradition now.” His eyes softened and he said gently, “We are all so proud of you.”
There he goes again. Assuming I had given in. He thought his words would make me change my mind. And I’ll admit, when he mentioned my Grandpa being proud of me, I truly wanted to make him proud. For the shortest moment, I felt like I was gonna be betraying him. But it died quickly as I thought back to what my father said just this morning. And I turned it against him.
I laughed quietly at first and then began to laugh harder. It wasn’t really that funny, but I felt like laughing because I was genius enough to come up with such a cruel comment that was sure to tear up my father’s defense. Everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic and my father’s smile began to fade away.
“Why are you grinning at, boy? This ain’t a laughing matter!” My father shook my shoulders hard, but that only made me laugh harder. I looked up at him and his eyes were concerned. And before he could even get his guard back up, I let the words fly and watched as they hit him smack in the face.
“Well, you seemed pretty bent on breaking tradition, huh?” Everyone else was confused about my comment, but my father and I were like-minded. It began to dawn on him, but before he could say anything, I explained my comment to everyone, half laughing as I went for effect.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your and Mother’s conversation this morning and I will bet you my life, literally, that you said that I could live my life how I wanted to, so I say to hell with tradition!”
The air in the room had grown tangible with anxiety, a string about to snap and the breaking moment happened when I flashed my Dad a cruel, devilish smile. He knew that I had found the weak spot in his defense and I blatantly presented it for the whole family to see. And it deals a man’s ego a great blow to be embarrassed in front of his family, especially when he is the strong one who is always right.
I’d seen my father angry, but never to the extent that I saw next. The last thing I remembered seeing was my father’s mouth twitch slightly as half a smile crossed his face. But in a split second, it was gone and quick as a flash, I saw a blur of grey and tan fly towards my face. I heard a snap and pain erupted across my left cheek. My head flew to the right and I immediately clutched my face. The shock essentially hurt me more than the actual blow did.
I stared up at my father, stunned that the man who raised me to never hit another person, who saved me from that rainstorm when I was little, who went fishing with me, comforted me on a bad day, bought me that beautiful horse out in the barn, had the guts to slap me across the face. I didn’t know what I expected from my father. Remorse, I guess. But I got none. His face was hard and intolerant, and I knew what I had done was unforgivable. And the words he said next hurt me deeper than any kind of strike to my body.
“You selfish, stupid boy. You are a fool. You will bring the worst kind of dishonor to this family. You have disappointed me greatly.” He said the words in such a cold, calm manner it was almost worse than having them being yelled at me. He turned to walk off and I saw my mother try and console him, but he pushed her away brusquely.
Seeing my father’s dark silhouette saunter slowly down the hallway, seeing my mother’s upset expression, Bryan’s embarrassment, and worst of all, Annie’s tears, brought on a fury in me that I never imagined I had.
“Good, I’m glad! Maybe when I get killed out there, it will bring some kind of honor to this cursed family!” I screamed the words down that hallway at him, and I watched him stop. I thought he would turn around and come back in to continue the fight. I almost wanted him to, my guts churned viciously. But he was more noble than that. Or too weak to come back. How typical. He wasn’t the strong man that I remembered from my childhood. The years had wrung out all of what little strength he had left, and now he was nothing. His head bowed and he continued forward until he disappeared into his room.
As soon as he was out of sight, I sank to my knees. Pain ripped me inside out, and not because of my cheek. I felt arms go around me and I could hear my sisters muffled sobs, her tears staining my shoulder.
“Are you ok, big brother?” Her concern and broken voice just about spilled my tears, the lump in my throat swollen and throbbing, but I was strong enough to hold them in. I managed to nod and said softly, “Yes, little one. I’m alright.” I rocked her back and forth and that soothed her a bit, but she still sniffled every now and then. I looked up and met Bryan’s eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He squeezed my shoulder reassuringly.
I glanced up to see if my Mother was there, but she’d disappeared. To go comfort my father, no doubt. But even as I rocked my sister back and forth, I know I have wounded my family deeply. What was I thinking? Why did I say those awful things? I’ve never had a fight quite as grave as this one, and look what’s come of it. Now there was a gap between my father and me that I wasn’t sure if I could sew back up. And my mother… I didn’t know if I could mend that wound either. Although hers was gonna be easier than my fathers. It seems Annie was the only one who seemed to have gotten through this in one piece.
Oh no, she didn’t. Of course, my father hadn’t been decent enough to send her to her room through all that. She witnessed the fight, the slap, everything. And the words I yelled just now down the hallway couldn’t have added up too well in her mind, either. Now I was sure she thought I’ll be leaving for war. She thought I was gonna get killed. But, in truth, I didn’t even know if I would go off to war. I didn’t want to leave my little sister, but at the same time, I wanted to show my father that I was brave enough to handle the war, even if it did get me murdered. That would’ve taught him a lesson he surely needed, but then again, it would’ve taught my sister one, too.
Either way, I’d killed Annie’s innocence. I’d ruined her take on life and how it always ends in happy endings, that families always stick through for each other when in real life, that’s not always the case. They get torn apart by war, disease, death. And I knew how she felt.
When Grandpa died, I thought it was the end of the world. Hearing my parents argue about it made it all the worse. I could only imagine how Annie felt, being right there in the middle of this argument, with nothing she could do. Good God……
I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, then blinked. I had to shake this off and be strong for my sister. Since my father obviously couldn’t. I picked her up and ventured down the hallway to the stairs. I slowed down at my parent’s room, but I couldn’t hear anything. I scurried up the stairs and went to go tuck Annie in. After I laid her down and pulled the blankets around her, I went and cracked her window a bit, since she liked a breeze going around in her room. I took a deep breath of the sweet night air and sighed. So much for a good birthday.
Annie was wide awake and watching my every movement. “Are you really gonna go and dishonor the family?”
I smirked once, liking how she used that term more than going and getting myself killed. I came and sat down beside her, taking her hand. “I’m not gonna dishonor the family, Annie. I promise you.” I forced a smile so that she wouldn’t worry quite as much. And it seemed to work.
“So you won’t go and join the army?” Annie looked at me expectantly. The look was so joyful that I couldn’t help but smile once again. I opened my mouth to speak, but I honestly didn’t know how to answer the question. Was I going to join the army or wasn’t I?
“I don’t know, little sis. I just don’t know.” I tried to smile, but I almost broke down crying. Her eyes saw through me and immediately the look of elation was wiped off of her face.
“Please don’t go, big brother. Please don’t leave me and Momma and Daddy.” That was when I just about lost it. I immediately snagged her up in a hug so tight I thought I might crush her. But she hugged me back and kept murmuring “Don’t go,” in my ear.
I hushed her over and over again and rocked her back and forth, struggling to keep the tears from spilling over. I couldn’t let her see me like this. I buried my face in her hair, trying to compose myself. I couldn’t say I would always be here, because I just couldn’t.
“Annie, sweetie. Look at me,” I pulled away and made her look me right in the eye. “Listen, little sis. There’s something I need you to understand,” My voice was on the verge of cracking, and I swallowed hard.
“Annie, there is gonna be a day I won’t be here. And you’re gonna have to keep going. For Momma and Daddy. You have to be strong for them. Always.” Her bottom lip trembled and her eyes began to water in the dim moonlight. ‘Just get the last part out, Russell. Don’t lose it.’
A lump was hardening in my throat and when I swallowed, it made it grow in size, making it all the more harder to speak. But I had to finish.
“Annie, I may not always be here. But just know, when I’m gone, I’ll always be with you. In here.” I touched my chest, feeling my heart pound painfully. I looked into her blue eyes and I knew she understood. She put her hand on mine and kissed my forehead. “I love you, big brother. Always.” She handed me something, a pendant of St. Christopher, I believe.
I nodded quickly, overwhelmed with emotion. How wise Annie had become in the course of a day. I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I love you, too, Annie. Thank you. Sweet dreams.” I didn’t take my eyes off her until after I left the room. She was still smiling at me after I shut the door.
Only when I made it into my room did I let a few tears slide. Desperately wiping them from my eyes, I leaned back against the door and slid to the floor. What the heck was happening to me? I just ruined everything. My family was in pieces. And I hated myself for it.
I knew the blame was mine for the taking, I couldn’t deny that. But I wasn’t gonna give up my reasoning. Not now. Not ever.
I rubbed the pendent back and forth between my fingers, feeling the little ridges of the engraving. The rays of moonlight streaming in from the window glinted off the surface and danced before my eyes. Why something so pretty was in my hands I’ll never know. I clenched my fist around the pendent and laid my head on my knees.
I didn’t know what to think anymore. My father thought me a coward, my sister thought me a hero. My mother was probably too upset over losing me to care, Bryan too embarrassed, both for me and for himself since he was caught in the crossfire. And then there was me, too confused, too frightened, and too broken to figure out what my next move was gonna be.
Going away to war would have meant a certain death, but not going would definitely have meant a certain degradation. My father would probably have humiliated me into signing up anyway. I doubted it would be underneath him to do that after what went down tonight. I didn’t see how he thought there was a point in going off to do this. I had no military experience and I would be going up against men two times my size who knew tons of different ways to kill a person with a gun. Or their own powerful fists.
But it’s not like I would be the only one who awkwardly stood there watching everyone else get killed. Bryan would be with me. Well, that is, if Bryan even signed up. He was probably in the same boat that I was in. Now that I thought about it, he probably wouldn’t sign up. Wouldn’t want to turn against his Northern counterparts.
Oh well, he can do whatever he wants. It was nice to know that there was someone out there that who was gonna be worse off than me. Because staying here would mean your people would shame you. Being here would condemn you to a life of remorse, watching all your buddies from town getting slaughtered by Yanks and knowing that you were only thinking of your own little butt when they called for volunteers. Staying here would mean that you were worthless. And I refused to let people think of me that way, to let my sister think of me that way. And in that I knew I had my answer.
Pushing aside my feelings until I felt nothing, I stood up, wiped my already dry tears, slipped the pendent around my neck and tore back down the stairs. Bryan was now sitting on the couch as I stormed in, and he jumped up, anxious to see what I had decided. “What are you going to do?”
Grabbing my hat, I slipped it on my head and then swung my rifle over my shoulder, its bayonet pointing confidently toward the ceiling. Turning to him, I spoke as assertively as possible.
“I’m volunteering to fight for my state of Texas, for my sister and for my own worth, Possum. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Bryan, who normally was always the one to crack a joke in a serious moment, simply raised his right hand to his forehead and saluted me. I was waiting for him to flash a smile and say something like, “Now my best friend is officially a man”, or maybe even something like, “Now that’s worth fighting for,” But he said none of those.
Instead I earned this cold, remote, unsympathetic response.
“Have a good time in Hell.”

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