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The birds don’t chirp as they did before, the horses don’t prance. There is a bitter smell in the air that burns my eyes and keeps me awake all night. The bare earth is cracked like old leather because of the dryness in the air; and lately, time seems to stand still.
No one talks much these days. Papa works in the field plowing the soil and watering the crops. I’ve seen him lean against the fence for hours at a time, and talk to himself like he can’t decide what to do about his dead crops. Mama sews and cooks the whole day. She used to be known as the most cheerful person in all of Gettysburg, but ever since the war started, you won’t see her going around smiling any more. My sister Emily and I read and study from the books that Papa used when he was young. Papa says that we have to finish our studies before the war is over.
I haven’t heard someone laugh or even flash a mere smile in a long time. I miss the neighborhood bake sales that we used to have every Sunday afternoon. The Jameson’s would always bring their famous homemade chocolate chip cookies for us all to enjoy. Every Saturday, Emily and I would spend the whole day in the kitchen helping Mama and Papa bake pastries and other treats to share with all of our friends. But ever since the war starting coming up north and more and more people were being sent off to fight, you won’t see us all laughing and spending time with one another anymore. A few people from our town have already gone off to join the army, and it was only a matter of time before they would no longer have the choice. The town of Gettysburg is dead, it has been for a while. The silence haunts our once joyful home...but how can one call such a place “home” while it is suffocating under the burdens of grief and fear?
I notice Papa sitting hunched over in his old red chair. His jet black hair is matted down against the sides of his head, and his eyes are staring up at the ceiling, squinting as though his thoughts are a cause of pain. His sun-bleached jeans are covered in dust, and his shirt is tattered from the hard work he had to do out on the fields. My mind starts wandering to the war, to the dwindling crops, to the money that was never made and the bills that weren't paid this month, to the questions that no one want to ask.
“What are you thinking about, Papa?” I pull over a chair. He shakes his head and continues to stare at the ceiling. “Why won’t you tell me? I’m old enough to understand. What’s the matter?”
“Clara, you know things have been difficult lately, with the bills not being paid and the war going on. We need to figure out how to make this work, and I just need some time to myself to think right now,” he replies, not succeeding in hiding his troubled expression. “Just don’t worry about it. Your mother and I will figure all of this out.”
“But Papa, I can help! I could get a job or take a break from my books to help with the crops, I could help collect items for the soldiers out there or I could - ”
“ No, just stop! There’s nothing you can do!” I gasp, taken aback by his outburst. I can’t remember the last time Papa yelled at me or even got upset at anything I said or did. His words seem to make the following silence even quieter. His eyes finally leave the ceiling, wander around the room, and finally rest on me. “I....I’m sorry, Clara. You know things have been hard around here lately, I really didn’t mean to yell.” I look down at the floor, unable to find the right words to respond.
His grip tightens on the edges of the weathered chair and he takes a deep breath. “Please, Clara, why don’t you go help your mother set the table.” He sits back and his eyes once again become fixated on the seemingly endless lines of wood of the ceiling.
I sulk over to the wooden counter next to the sink, tired of the same routine, tired of the every-day struggles of life and of this ghost-town. As I do every night, I take four plates and lay them on the table. Within a few minutes we are all seated. All throughout our meal, Mama and Papa keep stealing nervous glances at each other, and then at Emily and me. Tension lingers in the air among the sounds of silverware clattering on ceramic bowls. We eat in silence that night; not one of us dares to breathe.
April 6-7th, 1862: The Battle of Shiloh. General Lee leads the Confederates on a surprise attack against General Grant’s army, but the Union forces gain a victory. Over 20,000 soldiers are killed. General Grant stands up on the hill, surveying the blanket of bodies the war has placed over the fields. He knows that it is all for a good cause, but there is no hiding from the remorse for the lives which have been lost. He stands up tall and climbs up onto his horse. The general, weary but determined, turns his back to the bloody fields.
I can’t sleep that night because Mama and Papa are arguing downstairs. The words are hard to make out through the thick door, but I can hear the anger and worry in their hushed voices. I close my eyes and try to discern their words, but they are quiet because I know they don’t want us to hear them. They both whisper for a while, then the voices get louder and louder, then soft again. They don’t dare let the argument get too loud; it is probably about the war or another problem that we have to deal with.
I slip out of bed and open the door. The creaking noise makes me jump back, but I take a deep breath and continue. I creep down the cold stairs slowly, carefully, pressing myself to the cold wall. I am close to the bottom of the steps, and I decide sneak a little closer to hear them over the sound of my breathing and racing heart. Suddenly the stair underneath my foot squeaks. I jump back into the shadows, but not before Mama and Papa notice me. My cheeks turn red.
“Clara!” Papa yells. “Get back upstairs! You aren’t supposed to be up this late! I thought you were asleep!” He lets himself collapse into a chair at the kitchen table and puts his head in his hands. I am so terrified that I just stand there staring at him, not knowing what to do or think or say.
Mama watches him for a moment, sorrow in her eyes, and then turns to me. “Clara, your father and I need to talk about some things right now. Why don’t we go back upstairs?” I expected her to be very upset with me, but all I hear is the anguish and pain in her voice. A part of me is relieved that I am not in trouble, but another part of me can’t help but be frightened by her lack of anger. I try to move my legs but they seem frozen. Mama gently takes my hand and leads me up the stairs to my room. Emily is standing at the top grabbing her doll, confusion and fright in her eyes. Mama gives her a resigned look and she disappears back into her room.
I crawl into my bed and curl up into a ball. Soft hands tuck the sheet under my chin. I look into deep green eyes filled with tears.
“Clara, did you hear anything?” Mama asks biting her lip.
“I…I…I…” I mumble, still trying to put all my words together. Mama closes the shades and walks noiselessly into Emily’s room. I didn’t hear much of the conversation, but I know all this has something to do with the war.
That night the nightmares begin. I am turning twelve years old, and we are having my birthday party at the playground down the street. I grab the rusty bar and swing myself down the slide. Mama, Papa, Emily, my friends, Grandma, and Auntie Linda jump on after me. We are all having a great time, laughing real hard. All of a sudden I look behind me, but instead of the familiar faces that I had seen just a minute before, I see an empty slide. I look the other way to search for the bottom, but all I see is an endless, dark hole. A towering soldier appears out of nowhere and points his gun at me. I wake up screaming.
When I open my eyes Mama is standing over me caressing my forehead. My hands are cold and sweaty.
“It’s okay, I’m right here. Everything is going to be okay,” she assures me. I feel like she is saying that not only to comfort me, but also to convince herself.
I take a deep breath. “I’m…okay.” I lay back and rest my head on her shoulder. Mama sits with me for a while and then whispers in my ear, “You better get yourself back to sleep. You have to be up bright and early tomorrow.”
“Why? What’s happening tomorrow?” I ask. But she just looks out the window.
“I…I’ll see you tomorrow, Clara.” I watch her slip out of my room, a defeated look on her face.
“Clara,” I can hear Mama’s soft whisper in my ear. “Clara, it’s time to get up. Your father wants to have a family meeting down in the kitchen. He’s gonna tell you what’s really going on, what we had to discuss last night.” I open my eyes and turn over so I can see out the window. A streak of sunlight fights through the clouds and forms a small circle on the meadow. It reminds me of the time when the air was clean and the Earth was sunny; the time when Emily and I would roll around in the fields laughing all day long. Mama and Papa would sit on the hammock and smile to each other. But now, dark shadows prowl like wild dogs behind the thick trees surrounding our house.
I make my way down the creaky, wooden steps, anxious yet frightened to know the truth. I see Papa putting some fruit in his sack. Where is he going? He’s probably not going to town; he did that last week. When he sees me he stops what he is doing and walks over to the stairs where I am standing. He lays his strong hands on my shoulders and leads me over to an empty chair. I have to admit I am scared. I don’t know what I’m scared of, but it makes me shake. I’ve never seen Papa looking so worried before. We all sit around the small table and stare at Papa. I can feel the tension settling on us.
“As you probably know, the Civil War has been going on for a few years now, and it keeps moving up north. The Union really wants to bring an end to the many battles that already have claimed many lives, American lives. So, some of them decided to make all the middle-aged men here in Gettysburg and some of the surrounding towns join the Union Army until we’ve won…and that includes me. I know it’s gonna be hard for a while, but it’s for the best. After the war is done, I’ll come back to you all and everything will go back to as it is now.”
Emily stands abruptly and argues, “No! They can’t make you fight! Why can’t you just say no? Just tell them you can’t do it, Papa. Please! Please just don’t go, don’t leave Papa, please, don’t leave us!” she sobs. She falls into Mama’s arms, unable to stop her crying.
Papa looks away, trying to hide his emotion from us. “I’m sorry, Emily. There isn’t anything I can do about this. I was drafted, and that wasn’t a choice I have the liberty of making. But I know it will be okay,” he promises with a very unconvincing smile. He looks over at Mama, “Clara and Emily, you will help out your mother around the house and listen to everything she says. And when I…when I come back I want to see that you two have finished those new books I got you for Christmas.” A pained smile spreads across Papa’s face. “Maybe something good can come out of all this. Let’s just make the best of it!” That’s Papa for you, always the one trying to be optimistic in every situation.
I realize I’ve been clenching my fist, and look down at my hands. Papa’s still talking and Emily and Mama are both crying but all I can hear is the beating of my heart and my shaky breath and wind blowing through an open window somewhere in the house. Finally he clears his throat, stands up straight and tall, and then declares, “I’m going to war!” Mama slouches in her chair and shakes her head mumbling to herself. I sit there, still not moving, hot tears burning my cheeks. Emily races up the stairs and slams the door to her room behind her. My hands are trembling and I futilely try to compose myself. I just can’t seem to stop shaking.
“When are you coming back, Papa?” I whimper. It’s the first thing I’ve said since since he told us the news.
“Oh, I’m not sure. But I hope it’s soon.” Papa replies.
“But you are coming back, right, Papa?”
“What if something happens to you? How will we know that everything is okay?”
“Clara, you don’t have to worry about me. You know me, I’ll get through this. Just help your mother out and try not to get in too much trouble,” he says.
He wraps me in his arms and hugs me so tight that I can hardly breathe. It seems like forever but I never want him to let me go. He goes upstairs to say goodbye to Emily, then comes back down, and kisses Mama’s cheek. When he leaves I see Mama wipe away a tear. My throat tightens. Papa’s words ring in my ears “I promise.” Something about the way he said it doesn’t seem right. I turn and run up to my room.
I lie down on my bed, and take a big breath.
Of course he’s coming back, I think. Why wouldn’t he? He would never lie to me. But then why is Mama crying? He is coming back, isn’t he?
August 29th-30th, 1862: The Second Battle of Bull Run. 75,000 Union soldiers are defeated by 55,000 rebels. The Northern Army is forced to retreat back to Washington, D.C. This was one of the most significant victories for the Confederates. Many people began to question if the North could ever recover from such a terrible loss.
Behind the thick layer of fog you can see the sun melting behind the mountains in the distance. The dim glow of sunlight turns into a black tornado ripping and tearing at those last threads of hope a person can barely hold onto in times like these. I once believed for a mere second that maybe I had a pinpoint of courage just hanging from one fingertip, but I dropped it, and no matter how hard I look I just can’t seem to find it.
“How’s the reading coming along?” Mama asked. I look up from my book, a birthday present from Mama and Papa, which was given to me a few month before Papa left. There’s not much to do around here now except reading when you're not helping out around the house.
“It’s good! Long, but interesting.”
“I have to go to the store, but I’ll be back in a few hours, before you go to sleep. Make sure Emily works on her books while I’m gone.” Mama locks the front door behind her. I watch her walk down the long driveway, against the backdrop of a blood-red sunset. The house is quiet - too quiet.
I look around the room, and after a few moments sit down in the old red chair that Papa would sit in every day after working in the fields. I look up at the ceiling in the way he would do, and I think about what he used to be thinking about every day, and what he could be thinking about now. I get lost in my thoughts until Mama returns home.
The sky is now a dusty gray color; each day adds a thin layer of smoke to the blanket covering the once beautiful nights. There are no stars to wish upon tonight, no wishes for Papa to come back.
I lay there staring at the ceiling. Soon my eyes close and I am asleep. I dream that my whole family is holding hands and we are taking a walk across the fields, not one of us without a smile on our faces. Suddenly, the grip on my hands tighten, but the hands I am holding aren’t Mama’s and Emily’s anymore. On both sides of me are tall Confederate soldiers with evil grins on their faces. They are leading me towards another confederate soldier leaning against a truck with a gun in his hand. There is man with black skin sitting in the truck behind him in chains. The soldier leaning against the truck walks up to me and pushes his gun up against my back; I woke up gasping for air.
The next thing I know I am wrapped in Mama’s arms. Tears run down my face and get her sleeve all wet. She holds me until I fall back to sleep.
“Clara!” Mama calls from the Kitchen, “Breakfast is ready!”
“I’m not hungry right now,” I reply. There is a faint sound of a plate clattering to the floor, and then silence.
I rush to the window when I see a man walking up to our door. Is it Papa? Is he home already? I sprint down the steps joyfully and run to the door. After fumbling with the key, I swing it open.
“Here is your mail, ma’am” the mailman hands over a package, and then leaves. I grab the big bundle, and lean against the doorframe shaking my head with disappointment.
“Stupid,” I scold myself quietly. “Papa said a couple of months, not days.”
“Clara, shut the door,” Emily complains, “You’re letting the dust in the house!” I don’t move.
“Mama! Clara is letting the dust come in the house!” Mama walks over to me, eases the papers out of my hand, and sets them on the table. I run out the front door so Emily won’t tease me when I cry.
September 4th–20th, 1862: The Confederate Army, with 55,000 men, moves into Maryland and continues north to Virginia. They split up into four groups and pursue the Union forces. General Lee knows that his army is becoming weaker. People are deserting and becoming ill, and he is no longer in a territory where he can find support. Nonetheless, he keeps pushing because he is not one to give up. Even though he may lose thousands of men, he is a man who is willing to take risks. The southern army successfully crosses the Potomac.
I slow to a walk and wander in endless circles around our house. The leather belt attached to my dress catches onto the rails next to our porch and tore off. I grab it angrily and hurry towards the back of the house, where there are so many memories of better times, when the fields were thriving, when Papa was home. A cloud of dirt follows my feet and blows harshly at my bare ankles. The crops Papa had left were wilted carcasses, and they now belong to the ants. They aren’t going to do us any good anymore. Suddenly, I see a movement from behind a tree.
I silently slip behind our old tractor, and peek through at the mysterious shadow weaving in and out of the treeline. I remember Papa telling me to not get into trouble while he would be gone. Mama is already nervous enough with Papa at war, and she shouldn’t have to be worrying about me either. Even so, I am intrigued by this strange figure and want to find out who he is and what he wants.
I peer over the top of the tractor and finally get a glimpse of the stranger. The man’s ebony skin gleams in the sun and he limps when he walks. He is breathing hard and clutches a worn leather pack to his chest. He looks around as if he is hiding from someone and doesn’t want to be caught, and then settles down behind the big oak tree in the middle of our backyard. He is wearing ripped jeans and has no shirt. His straw hat is full of holes and tilts on an angle like one side is heavier than the other. There is something about him I just don’t understand.
He lays out a chipped ceramic bowl on the ground and opens the outside pocket of his backpack. He dumps the entire thing upside down and I watch a few bread crumbs fall out and land in the bowl. His calloused hands eagerly grab the food and shovel it in his mouth. That isn’t something Mama would ever let me do! I look back at him and finally realize what was wrong. His emaciated stomach stretches tightly across his rib cage, and you can see his shoulder blades sticking out noticeably. I’m old enough to have heard the stories, the stories of the south and how they treat their slaves.
I look down at my flowered green dress, guilt welling up in my chest. My hand immediately drops down to the apple I had stuffed in my pocket this morning. The voice in my head tells me to just stay hidden and to not make a sound, but I decide to go against that demand. What bad could come out of offering someone an apple? No one would even have to find out.
I cautiously slip from behind the tractor and creep towards the mysterious stranger gobbling down the crumbs that were almost invisible to the human eye. I stand behind the tree hoping to steal a glance around the thick trunk. I stand there nervously for several long moments, unsure of what my next move should be. I take a breath and I step out from my hiding place, waving my hand in front of his face to get his attention.
Clumsily, he rolls over backwards and huddles in a ball with his hands over his head. His breath comes out in short gasps and blows the dust in front of him towards my quivering legs. His sudden reaction has almost scared me to death! Confused at why he was so frightened, I look back to the leather strap of a belt I still had in my hand. I lay it down at his exposed feet and take three steps back. I stand there too alarmed to move. I never expected a grown man to be scared of someone like me. There is uneasiness in the air, and I am not sure whether to talk to him or run back to the house.
After a while the man peeks at me from between his arms and then his perceptive eyes dart down to my belt that still lay at his feet. His worn hands shakily hoist the piece of leather from the ground and then drop it back onto the dirt below. Then he stares, unblinking, up at me with wary eyes. Hoping to show him that there was no need to be scared, I hold out the smooth apple before his face.
When he takes it from my hands, his tense features soften. It seems as though he isn’t quite as scared of me as before, and because of that, I am not as scared of him. As soon as he takes a bite out of the apple he takes my hands in his and murmurs some words I can’t understand. His eyes squint and then he finally speaks.
“Friend?” he questioned with a stare that seemed to go right through me. “You me friend?” I have trouble understanding what he is trying to say. I don’t really know him - we merely met a few minutes ago. I can tell that he is not very well-spoken and not used to conversing with people in this way.
“Yes?” I answer, not wanting to be rude. “Yes, I am your… friend?”
“Clara! Clara! What are you doing? Get back in this house this instant! I already told you that I didn’t want no fooling around anymore!” Mama screams from the open window in Emily’s room. I had dreaded the moment when she found out what I had done, but I knew it was coming. I look back at the man watching me with eager eyes. It doesn’t do much harm to do something bad when you’re already in trouble, right?
I stare down at the scratched wooden floor lining my room. The only thing I hear is the repetitive “tick” of the clock and the murmuring voices downstairs. The door creaks open and Emily stealthily crawls into my room.
“Why did you disobey Mama? Who is that guy? Do you think you’re gonna get in trouble? Why was that guy even in our yard? Where did he come from?” She stopped at the end, out of breath.
“Shh, don’t let Mama hear you!” I whisper harshly. I take a deep breath, and knowing Emily was not going to give up, tell her the few things she needed to know, “Listen. I was walking outside and I saw a guy out there and just gave him an apple because he looked like he was starving, okay? Mama was never supposed to know. I just felt bad for him because –”
“Clara! Emily! Get down here!” Mama interrupts me. I walk down the intimidating stairs and Emily follows close behind me. When I get to the kitchen I expect the stranger to be gone, but to my surprise, Mama is giving him a big bowl of soup.
“Now, I want you two to listen to me very closely and carefully. I think you need to hear this,” Mama looks around her like she was about to do something real bad and doesn’t want anyone to catch her. “In the south people keep blacks as slaves in horrible conditions. In the north, where we live, we understand that it’s wrong. This is Agwar,” Mama explains as she gestures towards the stranger I had met in our backyard. Agwar is fidgeting excitedly at the table as he picks up the bowl and finishes the soup in one gulp. Mama continues, “He was a slave but he escaped from his master. I think you’ve both read and heard enough to know how bad it can be down there. You need to understand how dangerous it could be to keep him here, and that telling anyone could put both him and all of us in danger,” I look down at my feet.
“I’m gonna let him stay here for a while, maybe until the war is over. Now, if any of you tell one soul that he’s here, we could all get killed. If one person in the south ever finds out…” she gives us that look that something really bad would happen, and she just doesn’t want to say what. “I want you all to be kind and respectful to Agwar, and you better not make him feel bad in any way. He’s going to stay in the attic for now. Show him to his room.” She shoos us away and goes back to cleaning the house. Agwar’s eyes wander curiously along the walls. He stares at our pictures and furniture and big stacks of books. I look at Agwar and take a deep breath.
Emily noisily scurries up the stairs, and so I am left to lead Agwar to his room. As we walk his eyes wander around the house as if he had never seen anything more magnificent. I usually don’t think much of the wooden hallways, but I guess it is much better than living on some sort of plantation. I lead him up to the closet in my room. Brushing the old coats and dresses aside I revealed the concealed door at the top of my closet that leads up to the attic.
The old ladder creaks under our feet as we recede away from my comforting closet floor. It might sound crazy, but I’ve only been in the attic once myself! The ancient door shifts uneasily to the side, showering us with wood splinters and dust. The unexpected mist makes me cough and sputter, but Agwar’s wide eyes just brighten. As the dust clears we continue up the ladder into the attic.
The attic is a triangular-shaped space no more than half the size of my room. In the corner furthest from the trap door, a worn caramel-colored mattress covers a large portion of the floor. A pile made of a few sheets, a cotton blanket Mama had probably sewed, and a white pillow are piled up on top of the mattress. A few yards away from me, a small window, about the size of a child’s head, has cracked and darkened over the years.
“Well, here’s your room,” I explain as I lean against the wall, making space for Agwar to appear from beneath the moved floor panel. He shoots up from the hole that had once been sealed shut.
“All of it?” he exclaims, his hands trembling with excitement.
I wonder why he would ask such a silly question. It’s just a room, not a huge palace meant for royalty. Why is he so excited? Everyone has a room; it’s not that special. “It is! Why? You ain’t ever had a room before?”
“No, I had a room. Was my favorite place.” He stares at the ground for a few minutes, then walks to the other side of the attic and peers out the window. “Under trees, under bushes. Home.”
“What about your Mama and Papa?”
He slowly turns towards me and lets out a crooked-toothed smile. “I’ll tell you. One day.” He sprints down the wooden ladder back into my closet, and out of my room. I stand still for a moment, confused. Where could his family be? Agwar looks up and down the hall. Cautiously, I follow him down the hall to a large window.
Under the window, a wooden table holds fourteen plants. Every year, papa would give a plant to mama on their anniversary. Twice a day, she would come upstairs, water each pot carefully, and trim the leaves. Agwar points to the table with curiosity. I tell him the name of each flower, and when they bloom. How much sun they each needed, how much Mama cared for them.
Agwar listens intently to each word I said. When I finish, he speaks carefully, enunciating each word. “Me ma and pa, they gave me something. I got it when I escaped from the plantation. Come. I show you.”
Again, he bolts up the ladder in my closet and into the attic. I watch as he searches through the small bag, and finally finding what he was looking for, carefully brings out a ragged piece of wood from a pine tree. One side looks as though it had been sandpapered and smoothed out. Some markings were carved into the smooth side with what I can tell was a pointed, sharp blade. I approach Agwar and sit down beside him.
“Last present my parents gave me before I was free,” Agwar states phlegmatically. No emotion breaks through his voice. “Me father and me mother told me they worked for months on it ‘cause they knew I was gonna escape and leave. Told me it was most important thing I’d own. Said I was to pass it down to my children, and my children would pass it on to theirs.”
I take a closer look at the wood. On the top off the rectangular piece, a simple drawing of a bird is lightly sketched on the dark wood. Underneath, some thick letters, of which I could tell were written in a different language, are in the center of the wood block. An inch or so below the bolded word, a paragraph of smaller letters fills up the rest of the area. I point to the words and symbols on the piece of wood and look at Agwar for an explanation.
“This drawing: Mikiya, an eagle, symbol for strength.” I look at the drawing of the eagle; the bird is pointing upwards, towards the sky. It’s long wings spread elegantly from one corner of the wooden block to the other. I’ve never seen an eagle in my life, but Papa used to tell me about the ones he saw when he lived up in the mountains as a child. He says eagles were the most spectacular birds he had ever seen, and that when I was older, he would take me to see them. I nod my head.
“These letters under the eagle say Mikiya,” Agwar continues. With my eyes, I trace the beautiful symbols that curve and twist until the word Mikiya is spelled out. I’ve never heard any language more beautiful than the one Agwar knows. I whisper the word over and over, mikiya, mikiya, and let each syllable roll off my tongue.
“And under here, there is a poem. When I worked on the fields, all the slaves used to sing this song. It’s how we stayed alive. I sing it for you if you like,” Agwar looks over at me.
Agwar takes a few seconds to look at the verse, and then takes a deep breath.
“Don alla kana da ƙarfin
Da mikiya fuka fuki, u
Wani bangaskiya da kuma ƙarfin hali da
Tashi zuwa sabon tsawo,
Domin gudanar da ka a can.
“May you have the strength
Of eagles’ wings,
The faith and courage to
Fly to new heights,
And the wisdom
Of the universe
To carry you there.”
The last word of the song rings out and echoes through the musty air. Agwar closes his eyes and tilts his head up towards the roof, a smile appearing on his face. I squint at the beautiful wooden block and imagine the hundreds of slaves plowing fields and harvesting crops, this one ancestral song giving them the strength and courage to live on.
After several moments, Agwar turns toward me. His eyes are wide and I can see how important all this is to him.
“Do all the slaves have a carving like this?” I ask.
“No,” Agwar shakes his head proudly. “On the plantations, my father was put to work making chairs and tables out of wood. Every night for six months, when no white men were watching, father would sneak into the building where he worked during the day. Most slaves don’t know how to read or write, but there was this one boy who had been taught by his ma. He met father every night and wrote all of them words on the ten blocks that my father had already smoothed, polished, and carved the picture of an eagle on.
“Back there, all of us tried to get out of the plantation. Every three bird-wind cycles, thirty-nine days, my father and four others would choose a few people to help escape up north. Usually, women, children, and men with good potential and some education were chosen to be set free.
“When I was a younger, I was friends with that boy who knew how to read and write. He taught me what he knew, and I also found one book called a dictionary. It had every word in the English language, how to say, or pronounce it, and what the word meant. I read many pages of the book every year since I was eight years.
“’Bout six months ago, my father, he came to me one night. He said: Son, tell me what would you do if you were free. I looked at him oddly, then I said I would get a job that paid me well, then would go to school. I would study hard and graduate. I would buy me a house and start me a family.”
His eyes lit up with pride. “Then, I would sit down with a piece a paper and a quill pen and write,” he continued. “I would write about these days, when I was working on a plantation. ‘Bout how the conditions were real terrible and we got no pay. I would write about me friends, me family. I would write and write and write. People would read me books and our family name would be kept alive.”
“Me pa, he would stare at the floor and bite his lip. ‘But you know,’ he said to me, ‘if you escaped from here, slaves would not be free. Even up north, you might not be safe.’
“Well, I would hide and make sure no one saw me, and when the day comes when we are really free, I would jump out from the forest and run all the way south and sing our songs. I would find you all, and we would be free to go anywhere. We would be happy. We would…we will…”
Agwar stands up and walks over to the small window on the other side of the room. He squints his eyes and stares out onto the dead fields for a few moments.
“Me father stood up and left without another word. Then ‘bout a week ago, he woke me in the night, and brought me to the stream near where some of the slaves cut down the trees. Ten other slaves were already there. My father’s brother brought a woman clutching the hand of a boy, age of ten, cradling a baby in the other. Me pa, he brought us all to the stream.
“‘Wait,’ he warned¸ ‘wait until the moon is right above us, then cross the waves to freedom.’ I shook my head with disbelief and whirled around. ‘Yes,’ he repeated¸ ‘to freedom.’ I can still feel the cool current in the stream flowing effortlessly past my feet. He gave me a pack with my dictionary, some clothes, and food. Lastly, he brought out a few blocks of wood. He gave one to the woman next to me, a few to some other slaves, then placed one in my hands. He told me to never let go of who I am, and who I always will be.” Agwar finishes his story and lays a worn hand on the window.
Agwar’s hands tremble and I stand up noiselessly. Silently, I creep over to the trap door above my closet and slide down the ladder. When I shut the trap door, he is still standing by the window, a distant look in his eyes.
I change into my night dress and climb under my covers. I can hear Emily tossing and turning in the room next to me and Mama sweeping the kitchen floor down the stairs. I let my eyes drift up to the ceiling and stare at the plain wood. Mikiya, I whisper to the thick air, mikiya.
I sleep, and another scene appears in my mind. This time, however, it is calming and reassuring. I am an eagle gliding elegantly through the air. I look down upon the Earth below; the people, the towns, and the cities are blurred. I know that on the ground sisters may be arguing and men may be dying on a lonely battlefield, but that troublesome place seems worlds away. I am finally free from the burdens and pain that humanity has inflicted upon itself. I am above the world, above my world. The sky is peaceful and pleasant, and seems to go on forever. Ahead, all I can see is blue. I spread my wings, and set out for the horizon…
September 17th, 1862: The Battle of Antietam. The North has a strategic win, which discourages many rebels. This was just the win that President Lincoln had been waiting for to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, an announcement that would completely change the war. The Union army forces the Confederates to retreat from Maryland back to Virginia during the bloodiest day in American military history. By the time the fighting ceases, 26,000 soldiers are dead, wounded, or missing.
I awake to the sound of Mama and Emily hurrying about the house. As I peer at the town through the window I see an unusual commotion near the church. It must be something having to do with the war, for the uneven roads have been empty for many weeks. Before I can reach out to open my door, Mama bursts into my room.
“Clara, get yourself ready this instant! If you’re not ready to leave in ten minutes, Emily and I are going have to go to the church without you!” she warns. “And don’t forget to make your bed.” Mama runs out of my room hastily and begins to shout Emily’s name.
I pull my sheets over my mattress and arrange my pillows just the way Mama likes them. I walk over to my closet and pull the heavy wooden doors apart. Since we are going into the town for the first time in a few months, I look for a fancy dress that I could wear. I go through my dresses, pushing aside the ones that are ripped, dirty, or do not fit me anymore.
Ever since the beginning of the war, business has been slow. Mama and Papa have not been selling enough crops, and so our family has not been able to afford to buy new clothes. I wish every year for a new dress, but never get one. I try to understand that this is the best I am going to get, and I shouldn’t let myself wish too far.
I choose a dress that I was given by Papa four years ago. It is little short, coming just above my ankles, but I decide that it is the best choice I have. I quickly slip the dress on, and make sure my hair is pulled up in a neat bun before I rush down the stairs. Mama has put a cup of tea and a piece of toast on the table for me, and hands me another piece of toast with jam for Agwar. I finish my tea in a few gulps and devour my toast.
I grab Agwar’s breakfast and run back up the stairs. I take the ladder from under my bed and set it up in my closet. I climb up and feel along the ceiling until I have found the trap door. I remove the cracking sheet of wood, and find myself in the attic. Looking around, I see that Agwar has made himself right at home. My eyes rest on a withered plant with one leaf sitting on a small wooden table. Agwar walks away from the window and comes up to me. I hand him his breakfast, and he sincerely thanks me.
“Where did you get that plant?” I ask.
“I pick it up when I was walking through a forest,” he explains. “It looked helpless. I wanted to help it live. I will take care of it every day like your mother does.” I smile and look at the shriveled leaf. “Someday,” Agwar continues, “it’ll be a tall, beautiful tree,” he takes a bite of his toast. “Where you going?”
“Everyone is going to town today to see the wounded soldiers that are being brought home. I’m not exactly sure what I want to happen,” I admit. “On the one hand, I don’t want to see Papa because that would mean he has not been hurt. One the other hand, if he is brought home, he would not be able to get hurt anymore. But then again, he may be brought home in a…in a c-coffin.” I feel the tears swelling up in my eyes. I had never expressed the fear that I have for Papa to anyone before, and never thought that I would confide in a stranger. But somehow I know that Agwar would be understanding; he has been through worse.
“Mikiya, don’t you ever forget it.” Agwar says. “In times like these, we need to be strong.”
“Mikiya,”I repeat and wipe away the warm tears that are burning my face.
I would stay to talk to him longer, but Mama’s voice tells me that it was time I got downstairs. I carefully set the attic door back in place, and join Mama and Emily as they walk down the path.
We walk along the narrow path, and come across a neighbor that we haven’t spoken to in quite a few months. As she approaches us, I realize that it is Mrs. Jameson with her two sons. She seems to be anxious and has circles under her eyes. “Josephina,” Mama calls, “Josephina! It’s so nice to see you again! Seems like forever.”
“Why, is it not Natalie Kenicott?!” Mrs. Jameson replies, “I am glad to see you and the girls on a day like today. I am so nervous, I-I just don’t know what the boys and I are going to do if…if…” She looks down at her two boys playing behind her, and then at her feet.
Mama sighs and reassuringly places her hand on Mrs. Jameson’s shoulder to comfort her. “I’m sure that your husband will be fine. Just don’t worry about it, and he’ll probably end up coming home at the end of the war, completely unharmed. Everyone will be okay, I promise.” Mrs. Jameson nods, but still looks upset. She motions for her boys to come back on the path, takes their hands, and we all continue down the street.
As we enter the town, people we have not seen for a long time come up to greet us. Near the church, some men in blue uniforms stand around an American flag. They are positioned in a straight line, and wait for the crowd to quiet down. I look around at all the people that are listening closely to the words of the officials. Everyone somehow looks different. None of them are the happy, joyous neighbors that I remember. They are anxious, worried and scared for their husbands and brothers and fathers and sons. When one of the officials begins to speak, all sounds coming from the crowd immediately stop.
“Hello, people of Gettysburg,” the man greets us with a rough voice. “I have been sent by the president to deliver news of the war and your families to this town. As of right now, the battles are continuing to move up north towards our capital. It is possible that some battles may occur near this area, so all of you must be prepared. We have recently received a list of the current status of the soldiers. Each of you will come up to one of the seven officials who are up here, and give the name of your family member or friend, and we will tell you any news about that soldier that is available.”
Everyone files into straight lines and waits for their answer. There are people crying, either out of sadness or relief. After a while of waiting, it is finally our turn. Mama shakily steps up to the man in the uniform. The official looks at me, Emily, and then Mama. “Last name,” he demands.
“Kenicott,” Mama says quietly. The man turns a few pages and his eyes scan the list until he finds Papa’s name. I hold my breath, and squeeze Mama’s hand tighter.
“Peter Kenicott?” Mama nods her head and wait for the news about Papa. The official clears his throat and says, “He’s currently serving in Regiment number seven. Next!”
We all hug each other and Mama is wiping tears off her face. We are happy that Papa is safe, but we know that the war isn’t over yet, and we’ll just have to wait and see. A cry pierces through the air, and everyone stares in the direction from which it came. When I see Mrs. Jameson on her knees with her head in her hands, I stare at the ground. Mama does this too, because she was the one who promised that Mr. Jameson would be alright.
As we begin to leave, Eva Radley comes up to me. Eva has been my best friend since I was four. She had grown a few inches from the last time I saw her and is now almost my height. I run up to greet her, but stop when I see the tears on her face.
“Clara, me and my brothers have to go up North to stay with my cousins in Massachusetts. It isn’t safe here anymore. I’m sorry.” She turns back around and hurries away. I shake my head with disbelief. Is the place I have grown up and lived my whole life in really not safe anymore? I wonder if we should move North…would we even have anywhere to go? I know that the war may come into our town, but could we just leave everything and everyone we know behind for something so uncertain?
December 13th, 1862: The Battle of Fredericksburg. General Burnside is a persistent man. He has not stopped pushing into the Confederate forces until more than half of his army is dead. He knows that this defeat would mean that he would be replaced. He scans the battlefield, and sees the blue uniforms, stained red, littering the ground. There is nothing else he could do but retreat; there is no chance of a victory. He knows that this battle would be one of his last. Over 12,000 Union lives are lost during this failed attempt at attacking the Southern army. Confederate losses are estimated to be just over 5,000. This is an overwhelming defeat for the Northern army of the Potomac.
I look around me and realize that there are dozens of families from Gettysburg who are saying goodbye to their friends and making plans to head further north. I sometimes get scared that the war and fighting is going to make its way up to our town, but I’m more worried for the soldiers that have to fight. Papa is alright for now, but one can never be too hopeful.
I look out the window, past the dead fields, and watch the mailman walking up the winding dirt road. There has been no news of the war since last week, and the town of Gettysburg is anxious to find out the recent events. My family has known Mr. Ross, the mailman, for a long time. He has delivered us letters and the morning news every day for the past twelve years. I see him running, out of breath, towards our house. He is clutching a crumpled newspaper in his hands. I run to the door and meet him on the porch.
“Clara! I haven’t seen ya in a while. How’s your father doing?” Mr. Ross seems anxious and in a hurry.
I look out into the vast openness of the fields surrounding my house. Taking a deep breath , I answer, “He is alive…for now.”
“Ah, don’t you worry, now. He’ll be fine, ya hear me? Your father will be just fine.” He turned to walk away.
“Oh, before you go, Mr. Ross, my mother wanted to talk to you for a minute or two. I’ll go get her real quick.”
“Actually I’m in a bit of a hurry right now. Ya see, after the news about the war, I decided to pack up my wife and kids and go on up north to stay safe. Who knows what will happen to this town by the time those rebels are done with her. Anyway, I gotta go. Tell your Mum that I’m real sorry I had to leave so quickly and that I hope to see ya’ll again someday. Goodbye, Clara.” Mr. Ross smiles softly and hurries back down the winding driveway.
“Wait…what news?” I ask, but he is already too far away to hear me. I know this is the last day I would ever see him come up our driveway. I watch him disappear behind the trees and run inside to see the news that forced Mr. Ross and his family to move away.
The front-page story is titled War Moving North. The article explains that the fighting reached Virginia a week ago. The armies are moving towards our little town faster than anyone had ever predicted. This must be the reason so many of our neighbors are traveling North.
“Mama! Emily!” I call. “The newspaper is here!” A few moments later, both of them come running down the stairs to see the news about the war. “The war is coming North, up here. A lot of people are going away for a bit to stay safe,” I explain.
Emily’s eyes widen with fear and she tugs on Mama’s shirt. “Mama,” she complains, “we have to go. I-I’m scared, Mama. We should leave…today!”
I know that leaving would be our best option, but there are many problems with that: we don’t have the money. We can’t afford to just leave everything behind and travel hundreds of miles to go…where? Mama knows this and I know this but Emily is too young to realize why this would not be possible. Mama and I exchange a worried glance. She nods to me and I go to my room to give her some time to explain to Emily our situation. Also, we do not have any family to stay with. I pick up one of the books that Papa gave me before he left and try to keep my mind off the war.
A few hours later, I hear a knock at the door. I sprint down the stairs. When I get to the kitchen, Mama is unlocking the front door. It cannot be Mr. Ross because he has already given us the paper; and our neighbors are all hiding in their houses deciding what to do about the war. There is only one person it can be: Papa! Instead, when Mama opens the door, a big, tall army general wearing a gray uniform barges into the house. Mama screams and pulls me away. I don’t know why she is so scared; the man is a general, which would make him a leader.
He speaks in a low, gruff voice. “The name’s Cleburne. I’ve heard there’ve been some escaped slaves seen up around here. I’m gonna search every house until I find ‘em. So, you Miss are gonna get your family and just wait outside ‘til me and my men are done here. Do you understand?”
Mama is trembling and pulls me closer. General Cleburne steps right up to us and yells “Do you understand?” again.
“Y-yes s-sir,” Mama stutters. Emily is hiding behind the staircase and runs over to us. Mama hurries us outside. A few other soldiers come up to us. One smirks and spits at our feet. Then he grins at us with tobacco-stained teeth. The three Confederates burst into our house. Mama, Emily, and I wait outside and listen to the sound of breaking and ripping coming from inside our house.
I think of Agwar. He must have heard the screams. Hopefully he knows what’s going on. I think I closed my closet door…right? If they do go in the closet, all I can hope is that the rebels just don’t look up and see the trap door.
A few minutes later, the soldiers finish searching our house. The general had locked the door when he and his men first went into the house, and now he is frustrated with the lock. The three of us take a step back as he kicks down the door.
The soldiers take some of our pots and pans, a few apples, and a blanket that Mama just finished knitting last week. She made the blanket look like an American flag and was going to give it to Papa when he came home. With an order from their general, the two soldiers take some paint and crudely draw the Confederate flag over the beautiful blanket Mama had worked so hard on. They load our pots and pans onto their cart and feed the apples to their emaciated horses.
Cleburne takes one last look at our house. He comes over to us and stares menacingly at Mama. She is trembling, but holds the stare. “If ya know anything ‘bout any escaped slave, I will find out. Ya hear me?!” General Cleburne screams. “I’ll be back,” he warns us. We stand still and watch the horse and cart until it disappears into the dust.
Emily starts crying and Mama tries to console her. I step over pieces of the broken door and enter our house. Everything has been pulled out of the kitchen cabinets and strewn all over the floor. There are shards of ceramic from broken plates and bowls on the rug. I pick up a painting that Mama was given by her mother and gently hang it back on the wall. I walk slowly up the stairs, looking away as I see Mama crying on the floor, clutching the destroyed flowers which Papa got her to her chest. My door was left open, and I slip inside. Trying to keep myself together, I pick up the books from my floor and place them neatly back on the shelves.
I open my closet and look up. The door is sealed shut and there are no signs that it was opened. I take the ladder out from behind my clothes and set it up. I open the trap door and climb into the attic. Agwar is looking out of his small window. “Agwar?” I call. He sighs but does not move from his position.
“They came for me, didn’t they?” Agwar asks after some moments of silence. “When I heard his voice, I just knew he was a Rebel.” He turns around when Mama and Emily enter the attic.
“I don’t think they suspected anything,” Mama tries to convince Agwar, but he knows it is a lie. We all watch him as he looks back to the window.
“I shouldn’t be here, putting your lives in danger,” Agwar admits. Mama opens her mouth to reassure him, but nothing comes out. “It was nice of y’all to help me with everything, but I don’t wanna put my problems on you. I think I’ll leave tonight. Maybe I’ll just go back to me plantation with me family. I could just turn myself in to the rebels…”
Mama steps forward and puts her hand on Agwar’s shoulder. “Please, don’t go, Agwar,” she pleads. “Nothing will happen, and I can’t let you go back to your plantation. We’ll figure everything out and…” Mama looks at her feet, “and…well…your part of our family now.”
Agwar stares at Mama, then at Emily, and finally at me. Tears are brought to his eyes, “Your…family?” Mama takes his hand and nods.
“Yes, our family.”
In my head, visions of Papa loading his gun appear. He is crouching behind a wide tree. It all seems so real that I can almost feel his hot breath, the suffocating smoke, the intense smell of death in the air.
Papa pushes the point of his rifle through two thin branches. He closes one eye and focuses on his target. He can see a tall man with a hat sitting on a sleek black horse. Papa’s hand fingers the trigger. He doesn’t want to take away a life, but he knows that by sacrificing this one, he will save many. His finger pulls the trigger.
I wake up staring at my ceiling, breathing hard. My hands are clenched at my sides. I sit up and walk over to the window. I know it was just a dream, but everything felt so real, so true. Papa has been with the army for a few months now, and besides a few updates we haven’t heard much.
I walk down the stairs, still shaking. I try to force my thoughts to think about happier things like…breakfast! I smell eggs boiling and bread baking in the oven. I enter the kitchen to find Agwar putting a platter of fruit on the table. I can’t remember the last time we had a meal this good. Mama and Emily come down the stairs a few minutes later.
“Come,” Agwar welcomes us. I’ve never seen him smile this big before. “I make breakfast!” He puts the bread on the table. “This is huckleberry bread, something my other family always ate.” We all sit down and enjoy the wonderful meal Agwar prepared. I think of Papa and how much he would have loved this bread with some of that strawberry jam we bought every week from …No, I scold myself. Don’t think of Papa...
April 30th to May 6th, 1863: The Battle of Chancellorsville. Union General Hooker is finally able to catch up to Confederate General Lee in the deep woods of Spotsylvania, VA. Lee, along with General Jackson, devise one of the boldest plans of the war. Jackson attacked the Union forces’ right flank. Even though Jackson is killed, his actions allow Lee’s troops to defeat Hooker’s army. This is Lee’s greatest victory yet! 17,000 union soldiers are dead and thousands more are wounded or missing. As General Hooker leads what is left of his army back to join the rest of the Union forces, he knows that another defeat may just cost them the war.
I sit in a big rocking chair and pick up one of my study books. Papa said that he had used it when he was just a boy, and that I could learn a lot from it too. I open to the first page and run my finger down the table of contents. An image of Papa as a little boy flipping through these same pages pops into my head.
Why?! Why do I keep thinking of Papa? I haven’t been this worried about him since he left. Why now? A sharp knock at the door startles us all. I pull up the corner of a closed curtain and gasp as I see the man who had come to search our house before… Cleburne. Mama motions for Agwar to go to the attic, and Emily runs up to shut the attic door behind him.
Mama takes a deep breath, closes her eyes momentarily, and then unlocks the door. Emily returns to the kitchen just as Cleburne and his friends burst in.
“Everyone!” he orders, “Move now!” Mama grabs me and Emily and we do as ordered. He then turns to the other soldiers who are standing in a straight line behind him. “Barrens and Martin – search the first floor, and Hill and Jackson – you two take the second floor.”
He grins at Mama, Emily, and me, then turns back to the others soldiers. “Well, go on.”
The soldiers split up and start searching our house. I close my eyes and try to imagine Emily carefully sealing the door to the attic, hiding the ladder behind my clothes, and completely shutting my closet door. I try to convince myself that everything is going to be fine, but it does not seem to be working. My legs are still shaking.
A few minutes later, a few of the men return to the kitchen. “I’ve got something!”
“Jackson,” General Cleburne asks, while he continues to stare at us, “what have you found?”
“The height of the house don’t add up…It must be more than two floors!”
“Jackson!” General Cleburne says. My heart starts pounding and I my face starts to feel hot.
“Yes?” the proud soldier replies.
“How ‘bout we take a little trip up to the attic of this house and see what we find…eh?”
Cleburne looks at Mama. “Now, we can do this one of two ways: either the three of you show me and McCauley here up to your attic, or I’m gonna get to use this brand new rifle I got ‘ere for the first time. It’s your choice.”
I swallow hard and can feel my face getting all wet. After a few seconds, Mama nods. “Go on, Clara,” she tells me. I want to be angry at her, but I know there is nothing else she can do.
“Yes,” Cleburne mocks Mama, “Go on, Clara.”
My feet seem to move themselves as I travel up the stairs. I wish I can stop, but I have no other choice. The rest of the soldiers join us at the top of the stairs. My footsteps seem to get louder as I enter my bedroom. I open my closet and look up at the ceiling.
Mama pulls me back as Cleburne stabs the attic door with the point of his rifle. A large hole appears in the ceiling and pieces of wood fall to the floor. The tallest soldier hoists himself up into the attic, and I hold Mama’s hand tighter.
A few moments later, the soldier returns with Agwar. Before he is pushed out of the room, he tosses me his most important possession: the wood engraved with the poem and the picture of the eagle. I try to go up to him and tell him I’m sorry, but Mama is holding me back. The three of us stand there together, silently crying, as the rebels force Agwar down the stairs and out of the house.
When I see Cleburne tying up Agwar’s hands and putting him into the back of a horse-drawn cart, I suddenly start to run down the stairs. I have no idea what I’m doing, and ignore Mama when she calls my name. I sprint across the field towards the Confederates screaming Agwar’s name. But I am too late; the cart has already begun to travel down our driveway.
“No!” I scream to the darkening sky. Even though I know I have no chance of catching up to General Cleburne and his soldiers, I keep running. I run until I can’t feel my legs and I collapse from exhaustion. I press my forehead to the dirt road and hug my knees to my chest. I look up at the stars that I can begin to see.
“Papa?” I whisper to the cool wind, “Papa, please come home…”
Mama finally catches up and encloses me in her arms. We both just stay there, with wet cheeks, crying under the dark sky.
War destroys everything. It can tear apart people, friends, families, towns, even nations. It turns innocent men into killers. It takes away brothers, fathers; people you care about. And when it ends, all you are left with is a bloody battlefield, strewn with the ghosts of hopes and dreams.
June 3rd, 1863: 75,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Lee, invade the North for the second time, plowing through the Shenandoah Valley. The war travels into Pennsylvania.
We all have heard the news; the fighting is even closer. Mama has hired one of our neighbors to build an underground shelter for us in case there is a battle near Gettysburg. He comes every afternoon to work on it.
Besides reading my study books, there isn’t much to do this summer. The fighting is so close now that Mama won’t even let us go out of the house anymore. I often lie in my bed, staring at the ceiling, and remember happier days. Sometimes I think of Papa and how he used to let me ride on his shoulders. He would lift me up and run around in the fields. He would always laugh…I could never forget that laugh. Other times I remember Agwar’s stories; he always told the best stories. I like to pretend that Agwar and his family are free and happy on their very own farm, but we all know that he was not so lucky.
A cacophony of cannon blasts and gunshots jolts me from my thoughts. Even though I know they are far away, every gunshot sends shivers down my spine. I sigh; the battle has begun again, and probably would last until morning.
Suddenly, I see some movement outside the house. It is hard to see very far, especially because it is evening. I brush the dirt off of the window with the back of my hand and squint my eyes. There, coming out of the heavy fog, are hundreds of soldiers walking down the path to our house.
Emily curiously walks over to me. “Clara? What’s out there?” I just shake my head. “Move over,” Emily insists, “I wanna see.” I shift to the right so she can see too. Her eyes widen and we look at each other with fear.
“Mama?” I whisper. When she doesn’t answer, Emily yells her name, “Mama! Mama, come quickly!” Soon after, she is running down the stairs. Now, the troops are only about half a mile away from our house.
Emily and I stand to the side so Mama can look through the window. “There’s so many…” Mama whispers. “Emily, can you see what color their uniforms are? I can’t tell…”
“I think they’re blue, Mama. What does it mean?” Emily asks.
A smile spreads across Mama’s face. “That…that’s good!” she exclaims. “Blue uniforms mean that these soldiers are from the Union army. They’re on our side. Your Papa – he may even be with them!” This time, when there is a knock at the door, we are happy to answer.
“General George Armstrong Custer, Miss,” the Union general introduces himself. “I lead Regiment 4 of the Union army, and we need to station ourselves at your house for a few days.”
“Oh, yes!” Mama says, “Please, come inside. I’ll go make some soup right away!” She turns to Emily and me. Emily, come help me. Clara, go see if they need any help setting up their tents.” Mama grabs Emily’s hand and pulls her into the kitchen. I open the door wider so some of the soldiers can come inside. Once a dozen cots were placed in the den, I wander outside. Within the hour that Regiment 4 had arrived, dozens of tents have been set up. I decide to go out and see if anyone knew Papa.
Some of the men are sad, others seem carefree. A larger tent is to the side of our house, and my curiosity brings me inside. I enter the tent and see two long rows of simple, white beds. Sick and wounded soldiers are cared for by a few nurses. As I turn to leave, a voice calls out to me.
“Hey!” he calls weakly. I cautiously turn around to see a man…no, a boy, looking straight at me. “Please,” he begs, “come ‘ere.” He looks to be only a few years older than I am, and his leg is bandaged. I hesitantly approach the bed he is lying in.
“Would you mind getting’ me some water? I haven’t had anything to drink in…I don’t even know how long…”
“Oh, of course! I should also go find someone to replace that bandage you have there on your leg.”
After dipping his cup in a big tub of water, I return to his bedside. “I’m Johnny,” he introduces himself, with a friendly smile.
“Clara,” I respond. “So what are you doing out here in the army?”
Johnny looks away. “I always wanted to be an artist, but my family just thought that drawing was a useless skill. So, they suggested that I come here with my father, but we got separated a few months ago. Don’t know where he is now.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. What happened to your leg?” I question, trying to change the topic, but Johnny just shakes his head and smiles. Suddenly, Emily comes in and taps me on the shoulder.
“Come on, Clara, Mama says we have to help hand out the soup. Also, she probably wouldn’t be happy if I told her you’re in the hospital tent.”
“Okay! Just – just one minute.” I turn back to Johnny. “Well, I’ll make sure you get your water, but then I gotta go and help out. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
June 31st, 1863: Confederate General Parsons has begun raiding Union lands in Louisiana. General Ellet of the Union army led several troops down south to catch the rebels. After some intense fighting, they are able to successfully take back and protect the Union supplies and lands. There is word of the Southern army approaching Gettysburg.
I awake the next morning and look out my window. To my surprise, I see all the soldiers packing up their tents. I quickly get dressed and hurry outside. I run around to the hospital tent and look inside. Johnny is sitting on the same bed he was at yesterday, and is putting some food in a torn backpack. He tries to stand up, but almost falls over when he puts weight on his injured leg.
“Johnny,” I ask, “What’s going on? Why’s everyone leaving?”
Without looking at me he says, “We’ve got ourselves a battle to fight. The rebels are comin’, and we’re going out to defeat ‘em.”
“But your leg; how will you fight?” I worry. “It looks like it’s getting infected...that could be really dangerous.”
“I’ll be fine.” He couldn’t look me in the eye. It was hard to imagine someone so close to my age fighting and being put in this kind of situation. It was wrong. Johnny was nice, a good person, and someone who was way too young for all of this. He didn’t deserve this.
“No,” I insist. “You can’t go out there…you’ll die!”
For the first time since I entered the tent, he look up at me. “I have nothin’ left. My only family was my father, and he’s probably dead by now. I’m never gonna get no job, no life. This is why I joined the army – so I could feel like somethin’ important!” he yells. I take a step back and stare at the ground. “I – I’m sorry. I guess this is what war does to people. But it’s true, I don’t have much to fight for anymore. I’ve stood there while good men were dying all around me, and I find myself wondering if there’s a point to any of this. I tried for so long to be brave and have courage...I guess there comes a point where you get tired of being strong all the time.” He sighs and returns to packing his bag.
“I’ll be right back,” I say, “stay here.” I run up to my room, then return to the hospital tent a few moments later.
I give Johnny a piece of wood with a poem engraved beneath a carving of a soaring eagle, figuring that he needs it more than I do. He runs his fingers over the word Mikiya written at the top of the wood. After reading it, he looks back at me and smiles. He now seems more brave somehow, more determined.
“Mikiya,” he says. “Thank you.”
“Clara!” I hear Emily screaming my name. I wake up quickly and jump off the rocking chair. It is almost noon, so I must have drifted off after breakfast.
Then, I see why everyone she is screaming. In the distance, I can see troops of Confederate soldiers marching over Culp’s Hill. There must be hundreds of them, all in the same gray uniforms, setting up their cannons and loading their guns.
Mama grabs my arm and pulls me over to the shallow underground shelter that our neighbor built. I follow Mama down the ladder and help her put the doors shut. Emily is already waiting for us. She is curled up in the corner, and she looks terrified.
“It’s beginning,” Mama says, and those are the only words said during our time down there.
We sit there for an hour. No one breathes, no one moves. Then, we hear the first cannon go off. Everything is shaking and I hear glass shattering up in the house. After a few minutes of silence, a second cannon goes off. This one seems to come more from the west, possibly from Cemetery Hill. The next one comes just a few minutes later. The cannon blasts get closer together. I allow myself to think of Papa, Agwar, Johnny, my nightmares; everything that has happened.
July 1st, 1863: Day one of the Battle of Gettysburg. A. P. Hill, a Confederate general, sends a 7,500-man division towards Gettysburg where they meet up with the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. Union General Meade orders his regiment to travel through the town of Gettysburg and join the battle. Later that day, more Confederate reinforcements arrive. The rebels are able to push the Northern troops back through Gettysburg. The fighting ceases until morning, giving the Union army time to receive reinforcements.
The only light we have is the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the door to the underground shelter. As Mama, Emily, and I sit, cramped in the little room, we watch the light disappear. Mama strikes a match and lights a candle. After an entire day of listening to the cannons and gunshots, Mama finally opens the door to the house. She sets up the ladder, and the three of us wearily drag ourselves into our own, comfortable beds.
Morning arrives just a few hours later when gunshots go off. Once again, we all run down to the basement. The fighting seems even heavier today as the house is constantly shaking. I don’t know whether I should think of Papa and the war or try to focus on happier things. I try to imagine Papa coming home, but every image in my head is stained red.
How can one think of happy times when thousands of men are dying in our own town?
July 2nd, 1863: Day two of the Battle of Gettysburg. The southern General Robert E. Lee devises a plan for his troops to attack the flanks of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. There are three hours of battle, but the Confederates do not gain any significant advantage. Union soldiers killed, wounded, or missing are 8, 750. The Confederate casualties total up to 6,500.
It is the middle of the day, and Mama pulls out some apples for lunch. Without warning, the entire house starts shaking violently. It sounds like all the windows in the house shattered, and all the furniture is falling over. Something must have hit the house!
When the shaking stops, the three of us stand up and open the door so we can see what had happened. There, imbedded in the middle of the front door, is a huge, black, smoking cannon ball.
“They must be right in the middle of town,” I say softly. I think of all the stores where Mama used to take Emily and me shopping, the library where Papa always took me to get study books, and the park where I would take walks with Eva before she moved. The center of town used to be a happy and friendly place. Now, the sunflowers and cherry blossoms that lined the streets have been painted over with a deep, bloody red.
“Let’s go back underground. I think they’re still fighting. Maybe we should stay in the shelter tonight,” Mama suggests. Without having to be asked a second time, Emily and I hurry back into the tiny room. Mama makes sure the door is closed properly, and then joins us. The gunshots get louder, and we all huddle together, holding hands.
Thankfully, the night brings silence.
It is the third day of July, and also the third day that the war has been in Gettysburg. It seems like the fighting will never stop. I try to see the town out of my window, but all I can see is a thick layer of smoke. Today, the first cannon doesn’t go off until after noon. I follow the same routine as the last few days: when I hear a cannon or a gunshot, I go to the shelter right away. Mama and Emily are already waiting, and I shut the door hard behind me. I take a deep breath and close my eyes: Please, Papa, I beg, just come home.
July 3rd, 1863: The third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. At one o’clock in the afternoon, ignoring the opinions of General Longstreet, southern General Lee orders 15,000 rebels to march across open ground to the Union forces. Lee believes that the Union forces are only 6,500. He is not aware that the Northern army had reinforcements nearby.
No big battle had erupted yet, but Mama still doesn’t let us go upstairs. All at once, hundreds of guns and cannons go off at the same time. The loud blasts shake the ground, and we all have to cover our ears. It is hard to know what is going on with all the yelling and objects falling to the floor above us.
It is hard to hear and it is hard to see; I can’t tell what is happening. Mama squeezes my hand so tight it starts to hurt. I think someone is screaming…am I screaming? The fighting must be so close to our house! The shaking and blasting continues for the next hour.
Pickett’s Charge: The battle that wins the war. General Lee orders the Confederate General Pickett to lead the army up and over the hill where the Union army is waiting. Before they reach the top, the Union army starts to blast hundreds of cannons over the hill. Pickett’s troops are on open ground and have nowhere to hide. Cannonballs and bullets rain down on them until they retreat. It is clear that the Union army has won the war. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg claims the title “the bloodiest battle in American history,” and with it, 157, 289 American lives.
Then, the last cannon goes off. It is loud and powerful and rings in the suddenly still air. We all hold our breath, waiting for the next blast, but it doesn’t come. After a long period of silence, Mama opens the door and steps out of the basement into the kitchen. Emily and I follow her.
There are broken plates and bowls all over the floor, and many paintings have fallen off the walls. Mama looks out of the window, but quickly closes the curtain. She doesn’t want us to see what lies on the hill, but I know what is out there.
Outside, we can hear the cheers of Union soldiers. Through the slit in the curtain I can make out a group of men holding a flag of the United States up high for everyone to see. Mama, Emily, and I come together. This time, I don’t try to hold back the tears of joy that cover my face.
It has been two weeks since the battles ceased. I am helping Mama glue together some broken bowls. The war seems like it was so long ago, but I still remember every detail of it. Mama stands up suddenly, startling me. She gasps and stares out the window.
“What? What is it, Mama?” I ask. She just points at the window. I walk over and my eyes search the forest, the empty fields, the driveway…there! At the end of the driveway, a man is slowly walking towards the house. Could it be…?
“Papa!” I exclaim. Emily runs down the stairs and fumbles with the lock until the door opens. We all start running as fast as we can to the figure at the end of the driveway. When he sees us, he stops and smiles. When we get to him, he picks Emily up and puts her on his shoulders. Then, he wraps his arms around me and Mama.
We stay there for a long time, though it will never seem long enough. As we head back to the house, I notice that Papa looks different. I can’t tell exactly what it is. He looks a little older, maybe due to all the battles and deaths he must have witnessed. Somehow, the war changed him.
“You look like you’ve gotten so much older,” Papa tells me, and in a way, I had. Everything I have been through with Cleburne and his soldiers, the Union troops staying at our house, Agwar…
“Tell me everything,” he says, with the laugh that I’ve missed so much.
Today, I got a package in the mail. I can’t remember the last time anyone has sent me anything. I sit outside on the steps and rip it open. A crumpled letter falls out onto my lap, and I carefully unfold it. There are a few words scribbled on the middle of the page.
Although Johnny was able to survive the battles, the infection in his leg got the better of him. He requested that I send this to you when he had passed. Thank you.
My eyes fill with tears as I take out a piece of wood with a carving of an eagle. No…why, I think. Why would something like this happen? He never deserved this! War had a way of taking everything innocent and good in the world and just ruining it. Johnny was so young, he had his whole life ahead of him. And it was all taken from him because of this stupid war.
With anger, I stomp on the beautiful pink flowers that had recently bloomed. I walk around the house and stop at the place where I first found Agwar. I think of Agwar and his kindness and wisdom and the Confederates taking him away. I know he would tell me that it is pointless to be angry. Anger never solves anything. I sit down on the stump of a tree and take a deep breath. Agwar would tell me to be strong. He would tell me to have faith and courage to fly to new heights. To use the wisdom of the universe. I feel a smile begin to slowly spread across my face as I remember his words.
We are all just human, nothing more. It is natural for disappointment or sadness to crush our dreams. We cannot keep war or death out of our world, and the worries and nightmares will always be filling our thoughts. After a while, we may feel as though hoping always ends in disappointment and sorrow. But everyone needs a little hope in their life; some inspiration that leaves them to believe that maybe, just maybe, something good may rise out of the darkness.
I look up into the sky. The smog that had hovered over Gettysburg during the war has started to clear, and there is now a hole in the clouds where I can see the blueness of the sky. For the first time in a while, the sun shines boldly down on the fields. I hear a distinct bird call from above me and search for the animal that made it. My eyes rest on the eagle as it swoops and flies effortlessly into the sunset. For a moment, it turns towards me and hovers in the still air. Mikiya, it seems to call, mikiya.