‘LONG THE BLOODY LANE
Written by Steve Shives
I parked by the gravel path and took my camera bag. I walked with Alice through the unpretentious black iron gate. Most of the headstones were so dilapidated that I could barely read their inscriptions. I photographed Alice standing beneath one of the big trees that stood in the middle. I took one of her as she walked between two rows of the old stones, the wind blowing her hair across her face. She walked back to the truck. I stood at a corner of the stone wall and photographed the entire place, the massive trees and the antique stones. That was the last of the roll. On the way back I took it out and put in a roll of black and white.
We drove to the sunken road. There was a group of cyclists gathered at the far edge of the parking lot. They drank bottled water and discussed the next stage of their route. I photographed the bronze of the Irish Brigade in front of the watchtower. We entered the tower and climbed the black spiral steps to the top. Alice leaned against the south ledge and I took her picture with the fields down below reaching out to the horizon behind her. A father and son emerged from the staircase.
The cyclists mounted up and rode on. I photographed them gliding away over the hill as we exited the bottom of the tower. We walked the center of the lane. Alice went on ahead while I lingered, photographing the wooden rail fences that ran along above the lane on either side. Beyond the fence to my right was the cornfield.
“I counted myself one of the fortunate ones that I died here where I fell.”
“Why?” I asked. “If you had survived long enough to be taken to a hospital, you may have lived.”
“I had seen field hospitals before. I had acquired a great aversion to seeing one as a patient.”
“Wasn’t it the ones who survived without having to carry a bullet in their side or have a limb sawed off who were the fortunate ones?”
“Oh yes, for certain. However I only remember thinking, in the few seconds after I was shot, ‘Thank God I won’t have to live through this.’”
I looked up ahead. Alice was near the end of the lane, at a corner of one of the fences. “Would your name happen to be Daniel Shaw?”
“Did you know anyone by that name?”
“Why do you ask?”
“He was my great great great great grandfather. I know he fought with the Union army, but I’m not sure where or for how long.”
“I don’t believe I knew him.”
“I just realized what a silly question it was, anyway. Obviously he survived the war to have children, so you couldn’t be him.”
He clasped his hands behind his back and looked over the fields to the west. “Oh yes, I suppose that’s true.”
“Where are you from?” I asked him. “And what’s your name, since I know it isn’t Daniel Shaw?”
He walked ahead of me by a few steps, took the blue cap from his head and held it behind his back with both hands. He gazed up the lane toward Alice. “Is she your wife?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “but I love her very much.”
“Then accept my apologies for intruding and go to her.”
Alice stood beneath a stone statue at the end of the sunken road. It was a young Union soldier, musket planted proudly by his side, staring into the distance with a humble, strangely peaceful smile. I photographed it. Not far from it, across the lane, stood a granite monument to the Ohio regiment. Its inscription read “On this field, Ohio’s sons sacrificed life and health for one country and one flag.” Alice reached her arm around my waist. I put my arm across her shoulders and together we walked back down the lane.
--- --- ---
She placed the book back on the shelf and turned away from me. I reached my arm around her and kissed her below the ear. She shrugged me off. “All right. Let’s not make a scene here.” She glanced at my empty hands. “Are you done?”
I pushed my hands into my pockets. “Yes.”
“Let’s go, then.”
I followed her out the door. We drove several minutes in silence. “Do you know Halfway Antiques? On Virginia Avenue?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“Do you want to go there?”
Alice drew a sigh. “Sure.”
We were the only customers. We browsed aisles of vinyl records and dusty old dishes and paperbacks that smelled like an attic. Alice peered into a rotating plastic display case and found a pair of silver earrings. The owner unlocked the case for her and she bought them. She passed the earrings to me as she climbed into the truck. I held them up to the sun and squinted at them. She took them from me and pulled her door shut.
I slid in behind the steering wheel. “When I see the word ‘antiques’ I just naturally think of old furniture,” I said. “This place is more like a junk store.” Alice said nothing. “You got those earrings, at least. They look nice.”
I took the long way back to Sharpsburg. From the corner of my eye I saw her glance at me. Halfway through the drive she asked me, “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
I looked across at her. “I would but I’m afraid I’ll say something else to unwittingly piss you off.” I felt her eyes burning me as I turned my attention back to the road. We were quiet the rest of the drive. I parked along the curb outside her apartment. She opened her door and stepped one leg outside the truck. She looked back at me.
“Are you coming in?”
“I’m going to go for a drive by myself, I think.”
“Fine,” she said. “Later.” She slid off the seat onto the sidewalk and vanished behind her front door.
I drove to the battlefield and parked at Burnside Bridge. I took my camera and crossed the parking lot to the final attack trail. On the other side of the first hill, in a small field bordered by trees, I photographed a group of deer. There were four does. They grazed calmly, looked up at me every few seconds but otherwise they seemed undisturbed by my intrusion. I continued along the trail to the right, up another hill. Another doe grazed along the top. I brought my camera cautiously to my eye and took her picture. She looked down at me at the sound of the shutter, stood there frozen. I held my camera to my chest and stared calmly back at her. After a few seconds she broke her gaze and returned her nose to the grass.
“I’ve passed decades just standing here watching them.”
I watched the doe at the top of the hill take her time over to the edge of the woods. “I don’t doubt it.”
“Are you alone, then?”
“Your lady had her fill of the place that last visit, I suppose.”
“She may have.” We walked to the top the hill. I took another photograph of the doe as she munched grass she had uncovered beneath a bed of leaves. “We had a fight, if you want to know the truth.”
“The nature of which was?”
“Nothing. It was stupid. Nevermind.” I snapped the lens cap on the camera and stuffed it back in the camera bag. “What brings you over here? I had the impression you spent most of your time near the bloody lane.” I looked over at him. “What’s that you’re wearing?”
He looked down at himself, smoothed a hand over his gray wool coat. “I should hesitate to call it a uniform . . .”
“You wore blue when we first spoke.”
“I don’t recall, but I’ll accept your word.”
“I thought you were a Union soldier.”
“Is that important?”
“It should be to you, shouldn’t it?”
He unbuttoned the front of his coat. “You asked me my name when we spoke on the lane.”
“Yes. What is it?”
“That I cannot tell you.”
I took a step toward him. “Why not?”
“I no longer remember it.”
“How can you possibly forget your own name?”
“I have no concept of how long I have been here. Most things I once found important retreated into a fog a long, long time ago. My name. My uniform. The side on which I fought. The reason I wanted to fight to begin with. None of that carries the slightest meaning here.” He shrugged off his coat and flung it off the end of his finger. It landed with a crash in the leaves near the grazing doe. She darted off but slowed to a trot after a second and settled back into her sniffing and grass munching only twenty or thirty feet from where she had been. “When I walk these fields, especially on nights when the stars are bright, my head fills not with memories of my childhood, or nostalgia for the glorious cause, whatever it was. Instead, I think of the wife I never met. I try to imagine the children she and I would have had. On a clear night I can see them almost as if they had really existed. When I reflect on the life I lost when I died, it isn’t the life I lived before the war that I think of, but rather that imaginary life, that life I was never to have. My parents, my friends, my brothers in arms—they are shapeless and empty to me after all this time. But these fantasies, the faces of my wife and children, they have retained their power over me down through the ages. And I long for them in a way I could never express.”
The wind gusted and rustled the trees for a moment, then it was quiet. For a few seconds the only sounds we heard were the doe’s delicate steps into the woods. “Accept my apologies for interrupting you a second time,” he said. He walked off toward the trees. When he reached his coat he stooped over, picked it up and folded it across his arm.
“What were their names?” I asked before he was too far away to hear.
He stopped where he was and looked back in my direction. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m sorry. Your wife and children. What do you imagine were their names?”
“May I ask you what you would like to be the names of your children?”
“I’m not sure. Jack, I think, if I have a son.”
He smiled and nodded his head. “Jack is an excellent name.” He turned and resumed his walk. The doe stood nibbling the grass directly ahead of him. He reached out and stroked her back as he passed her. She raised her head and followed him into the woods.
--- --- ---
Alice and I stepped through the gate into the cemetery. I held her hand as we walked beneath the trees. She looked down at the modest white stones that marked the graves of unknowns. We stopped at random marker and she knelt down over it. “I wonder if one of these belongs to him,” she said as she touched her fingertips to the stone.
I knelt down next to her and put my arm around her shoulders. “Maybe.” I traced my finger along the numbers etched into the top of the stone. They were shallow, hard to make out, eroded by a hundred and fifty years of wind and rain. I stood up. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.” Alice rose up and reached her arm around my waist. I leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “He isn’t here. Not really.”