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Timothy Wilkie

The May Selected Writer is Timothy Wilkie

Feel free to email Timothy at:

timwilkie09@gmail.com

Wilkie

THE SPOILS OF WAR
by Timothy Wilkie

I walked the silent, sacred ground, yanking the boots off the dead. The ones that were flat on their backs were easy. You just lifted their legs and yanked them off. I didn’t like it but Pa would blister my back-side if I gave him any sass about it. “They just Federals,” he’d say. “Our boys done kicked their collective Yankee asses.”  

I respected the dead, and sometimes I could even feel their ghosts right beside me. I always asked their permission and thanked them when I was done. It was only right.

Pa was a share-cropper and we were poor as dirt. I was only eleven years old when the War of Northern Aggression started. Pa always said. “We take what the good Lord provides.”

The crows were already picking at the remains of the soldiers.  They were the first to come and the last to leave. For most of the morning, I had been so full of doom and gloom that I might well have taken a lesson from the crows and got about what needed to be done before the Cherokees showed up and took all the good stuff. The Bluecoats’ boots and jackets would fetch a good price with Mister Mac at the trading post.

In the vast sea of death, I found a rock outcrop and sat down. The day was gray and cold, but the snow no longer poured down out of the sky like yesterday; instead it came down soft and fine like white flour. The kind mama used to bake with.

I rubbed my palms together and then tucked them in between my thighs to warm them up and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. It hung there for a moment and then disappeared in thin air as if by magic. 

I took my hands that were still cold as ice and put them under my shirt, flat on my stomach, to warm them up. I watched the birds. One crow had feathers missing on the back of his neck. He turned and eyed me. He seemed older and wiser than the rest, and it gave me the creeps. He looked at me with disdain as if to say, There’s work to be done.

It seemed I had been out there forever. It was cold and my butthole itched like crazy. Pa told me it was pinworms and he’d pour me a cup of shine. “If this doesn’t cure ya, nothing will.” He’d say.  

I took my load of jackets and boots over to where I had started a heap and piled them on top, knowing that when I was done, Pa would come by with the wagon and pick them up. He and my baby sister Iona were up on the ridge tending the fire. “It was gonna be a cold night, and if we lose the coals,” Pa said, “we’ll freeze plum to death.”

The truth was. Pa was sick just like mamma had been. He had this cough and sometimes he’d keel right over and see Jesus and then straighten up again and go back to working.

The angels came and got mamma just last year; they took her while she was sleeping. Pa said, “It weren’t a bad way to go.” We dressed her up in her Sunday go to meeting clothes and chucked her on the bonfire. Pa said, “We do what we gotta do since the ground’s too frozen to bury her proper.” 

Then he lay drunk for two whole days. It was okay; I figured he had a broken heart so I tended to Iona. Pa told me, “That’s what it’s like for us poor white trash, we can’t afford to die. God don’t want us no-how.”

So it was a gloomy process in the morning, going up and down the seemingly endless rows of the dead. Some of them I patted down their pockets for valuables just like the highway men that Pa told stories about. The grass they were laying on was tan and brittle like straw. It had a light coating of snow and ice, but it was as dead as the Bluecoats that lay on top of it.

At noon I walked across the field and down to the creek. I was hungry so I reached in my pocket and pulled out a biscuit I had stashed there. It was mostly crumbs now. When I was done, I knelt down and took a long cold drink of icy water from the creek. It did more to fill my empty belly then the biscuit.

I made my way back up to The Field, taking my own sweet time. The snow had changed to a slow, drizzling rain. Even the crows were discouraged and hung to the tree-line. 

I found a place in the thick brush to huddle and wait it out. That’s when I saw him.

He was making his way slowly across the field, occasionally bending down to pick something up. The man wore a big, grey slouch-hat pulled down low on his brow and his head was tipped down like he was looking for something. I could tell even in the rain that he wasn’t from around these parts.

He walked on past me and then turned around and smiled and said, “These are sad times, my boy,” and then walked on and into the trees. The rain got harder and fell slantwise, stinging my face and hands—bitter cold it was. I dug deeper into the bramble trying to stay dry. Pa always said, “The wet will kill you, boy.”

As I sat there brooding, all wet and cold, I could see The Field was awash in blood and it soaked deep into the soil turning the clay red. I looked over to where the little man had entered the woods, but he was gone. I hoped and prayed that my Pa would come soon with the wagon. I was frightened and very hungry, ill prepared to spend the night out here while he lay drunk somewhere. My will to do for him was almost gone. I was growing up.

Then suddenly out of nowhere a voice said, “I see you wait for the very cord of your deliverance from this hell spawn place.  I too am forced to come here by my father.” 

I spun around and the little man was standing there. He looked too old to have a father making him do anything. His slouch-hat was off now and the rain spattered down his bald head. He made a sweeping gesture at the field and said, “Nature’s bounty, you know.”

I stared at him, having no shame in examining him from head to foot because he was such an odd looking fellow. He seemed completely devoid of hair. His lack of eyebrows and lashes made his eyes almost appear square and demonic.

“This war is something else,” the little man said from where he was kneeling next to a body, going through the pockets.  He rubbed his hands and stood up and shifted his feet in a little dance to find a better grip on the muddy ground. Over his shoulder he said, “Follow me.” 

We walked across the field with the little man following close behind stopping from time to time to pick something up or go through someone’s pockets. At the other end of the field there was a footpath going through the woods.

It was dark and scary and looked like no path I had ever been on. Huge creatures seemed to be all around us, hidden by the thick brush…just watching us. I could feel their eyes watching us.  I drew back in horror as the woods got darker and thick brush seemed to close in on us. 

I saw a face in the brush, and it took on the appearance of a skull; its skin like parchment over bone. I wanted to scream but I felt frozen in fright.

The little man came suddenly up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. They looked like monkey hands and I shivered at his touch. “Move along boy.”

A few moments later I smelled the hint of a heavenly aroma in the air. I was so hungry and it was the smell of cooking meat. I was snuffing my nose and blinking my eyes with my head cocked to the side like an old hound dog. 

“Hurry,” the little man whispered in my ear.  I was so, so, hungry I followed along obediently.  We soon arrived at a camp on a stream with a covered wagon and a number of horses. There were several large gray pyramidal tents and a large crackling fire. Strips of meat were hanging down over it and they smelled delicious. 

A woman approached me.  “Are you hungry?” she asked with a faint smile.

“Pa says not to take food from strangers,” I muttered.

Her smile broadened. “I am Lucinda,” she said.  “So we’re not strangers anymore.” 

As she spoke, the little man circled her on his hands and knees. I stared at him as he sniffed her legs like a dog.

The woman looked at him with scorn. “He has no name. He hasn’t earned one.” With that, she kicked him and he scurried away. “Now eat,” she said. 

I hurried over and took a large chunk of meat off the spit and ate it hungrily. It was so good and I was starving.  It had been a long time since I had tasted meat.

We heard gunshots in the distance like sticks snapping under foot. “My Pa,” I said.

“Naw, sir,” Lucinda said softly. “Your daddy was laying there drunk when I slit his throat. He was going to leave you out there to freeze to death. So—how’d he taste?”

Timothy Wilkie is a writer living in Kingston, New York. He has two grown sons, Justin and Blake. He performs music on the side and creates art to keep busy.