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I turn fifteen the day the soldiers come
Betsy and John stand beside me
Eyes wide in awe, wonder
Mother covers her mouth, face pale
She calls us to her, voice trembling
John doesn’t hear; he doesn’t listen
Betsy tugs his arm, but he shakes her off
My sister and I slip to our mother’s side
She doesn’t cry, because
She is a strong Southern woman
We all raise our heads defiantly as the troops appear
A command comes from the high-ranking officer,
And the soldiers stop marching
The slaves start to run towards them,
Thinking they’re free
But they don’t make it halfway across
Our front yard
Jeremiah’s shotgun in hand,
He shot them down one by one
Then nods to my mother
Better they die than fight with Yanks.
Mother agrees with the flick of her head
I bite my cheek to keep from doing anything
And the commanding officer of the soldiers
Yells something, something awful
All of the Union soldiers are suddenly sprinting
Around us and past us and to us
And John is gone, a scream trailing in his wake
Mother shudders with horror
But doesn’t cry.
Jeremiah is stabbed with a bayonet
Betsy turns to the side and throws up
Still, Mother’s eyes remain dry
Buildings go up in hot, crackling flames
A soldier leaps onto the porch; snatches Betsy
She cries out and grabs Mother’s hand
But Mother lets go.
I sob as my sister is carried off
Why why why why? I ask them,
But my scream is barely heard.
Mother grabs my arm tightly
Steers me into the house
The noise of guns and laughs and screams
Is muted in here, a relief to my ears
I collapse on the couch,
And Mother locks the doors
As if that might keep them out.
We stay close together, too scared to move
Happy birthday, my mother says.
Her face is weary and sad
I can only think of them.
Mother sighs, pulls me closer.
Don’t worry about them right now.
It’s every man for himself.
Then I smell it.
Our house is on fire.
We run to the door, but it’s too hot
Fire outside the door now.
I never thought I’d burn to death.
I never thought I’d die on my birthday.
I never thought soldiers would do this.
But it doesn’t matter what I thought.
Because what’s done is done.
When my father comes home,
His home and family will be gone
We will be gone
We are the uncounted,
The dead, some of us without a tombstone
Some of us ash and dust,
Some of us bloated under an unforgiving sun
Some of us barely clinging to life
In a forgotten field, a forgotten battle
We are the uncounted.