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Stars, Rocks, and Other Eternal Things
At night, the star-dotted sky is transfixing. I could stare up forever. I wish I had the time. But the morning always arrives sooner than I would like, and the stars fade soon after. The biggest star of all supersedes them, blotting out the tapestry of light.
And then it’s time to go. I should have gotten more sleep, but how can anyone close their eyes beneath the stars?
My habit of stargazing is just not good for the march. My eyes grow tired long before my feet. It was not something I expected when I joined the army; the stars are the only alluring beauty. I don’t want to look down, not at my dusty boots, not at the scored battlefields I pass. But during the day, the sky is too bright to stare into. So I watch the rifles glinting in the line of soldiers before me, and I compare them to the glitter of the constellations at night. Everyone knows that when stars are too near, they are less beautiful and more deadly.
I wait for night. Sometimes we stop marching, other times we march a little longer. Always, we camp under the stars. The stars outshine the glint of the sentries’ guns in the firelight.
The stars must have seen more wars than I will ever fight in. I wonder if they take sides, too, or if right and wrong is a concept entirely human, and all other things simple are.
Obviously, I can’t stay awake every night. But every night, William, who marches to my left, is awake when I finally give in to sleep.
William marches all day, his rhythm as steady as the drums that beat or the songs we sing, maybe steadier. He is young, like me, but for him youth only serves to strengthen his convictions. It is men like him we fight this war for, and many men like him who are fighting this war. William is unshakeable. He is a rock, and he and others of his devotion will build the new nation if our army succeeds. His faith in the war and the Confederacy is as natural as breathing. I have never caught him looking up, during all the time he lays awake at night.
Allan marches to my right, and sometimes a step or two behind me. He lets his rifle drag in the dirt until one of the officers walks close enough to reprimand him. He slouches and he complains while we march. Allan is here because of the draft, but he will live because his personal conviction is not such that he must die in battle for it. He is like water; he is languid, but fluid enough to adapt. Water, not rocks, is what sustains life.
I can see in the disposition of all the men their likelihood of survival. I wonder if they can see it in me, too.
To the stars, we are just a marching constellation, a way to tell the time of day by how many miles we have marched.
Today is Sunday, so we camp early. Every squad is responsible for their own camp arrangements, but sentry duty for the entire camp rotates between the squads. Tonight I am on sentry duty with William, Allan, and an assortment of men older than the three of us, who pass the time talking about their wives and children. They are smart, and value people over ideology. But they are fighting as fervently for their families as William is for his ideals. I doubt they will ever return to the wives and children they recount so merrily.
We divide the area and separate to patrol our separate assignments. We encounter one another from time to time, as our areas overlap. I nod at William as our paths intersect, then turn back the other way to begin another circuit.
A shot cracks through the night. It comes from the opposite end of my patrol area, the end where my path crosses Allan’s. William sprints towards the sound. His pounding steps cloak the more subtle noises of the night, but no more shots ring out. I don’t think I should leave my post, if the rebels are attacking. What if I give them an opening to attack the camp? I stand rooted to the spot, clutching my rifle like the last canteen of water during a dry August. I realize a moment later that I stand guard watching only the patch of forest where William disappeared, and I reorient myself to face out, away from my comrades and the camp.
Not a sound stirs the forest for the remainder of my guard duty. A man from another squad comes to relieve me around midnight, and I trek back to the camp. On the way back to our campfire, I spot William far off in another part of the camp. He lurks around a set of tents much larger than the rest. I feel guilty for not aiding him before. Even from this distance, I can see that the torso of his gray uniform is stained with blood. I pick my way over the campfires and bedrolls of other squads to the tents.
As soon as I approach William, he blurts the story. Half of it he needn’t have spoken, because the grief of it haunts his dark eyes.
Allan is dead. He was shot by a deserter, who lashed out when Allan tried to halt him. William tells me about carrying Allan all the way back to camp, hoping a surgeon could save him. But Allan died before a surgeon could touch him. There was never hope.
Nerves had covered me in sweat during guard duty, but now I am cold. Allan is dead. He was not supposed to die, only to serve his allotted time. He never intended sacrifice. His last act was not heroic. He stood for nothing. Yet he is dead, as dead as any martyred soldier.
Anyone could die.
I stumble away and back through the main camp. Everywhere along the way, I see Williams and Allans; men who are willing to die, and men who are not, but all of whom will die.
I reach my squad’s campfire at last, and settle into the circle of men. They chatter animatedly, as yet unaware of Allan’s death. I wonder if I believe in the war I am fighting. I had not hesitated to leave home. But this is not home, nor something I want to become my home.
William drops down beside me. He bites his lip to keep it from quivering, but no matter how tightly he clenches his fists, his hands tremble. William, who is so sure and steady, is shaking. It scrapes the last flakes of confidence from me.
We sit in silence, not sharing with one another or the other men. The silence is a pact, a mutual agreement to tell no one, even one another, things they do not want to hear. We merely sit, William shaking and me trying not to, because one of us should be strong, and one of us should be certain and rooted in the type of conviction that makes any amount of grief worthwhile. Because if one of us is not, then what had Allan died for? And if he died for nothing, then later so would William, and so would I.
Allan, the most unlikely candidate, has converted me, and invested me with a loyalty inspired by no speeches or personal beliefs. Now I will fight because I mean it, and not because I should or must. It is a selfish decision, and also not. I feel guilty and self-righteous all at once.
William bowed his head. The fire glowed orange on his blond hair and left his face in shadow.
It is strange to have become the rock.
I fall asleep studying the intertwined branches of the trees, and the obscuring designs their needles weave over the stars.