A Wound Under The Heart
"It is not only the living who are killed in war." - Isaac Asimov
For a long time now there's been nothing but dying.
It's expected, he knows, for young men die in war, people bleed and fight and the battles go on, countless names stored like a roster in the back of his mind. There's Bull Run Danny was killed there, the first man he ever saw die, and Chickamauga Lester died at the end, a bullet through the head in the middle of a sentence, blood, his blood all over his hands, and Shiloh stumbling, running, falling across a pile of limbs that used to belong to men, and the Wilderness burning everywhere, men screaming, screaming through his nightmares until he thinks he'll go mad, and then he remembers that madness is an escape and there's no escape, not now, not ever, from this living death they've found themselves in.
He no longer wonders what dying is like because he's knows, he's died a thousand times and more already. Dying is marching and hunger and exhaustion, cold and darkness, filth and misery, the aching in his bones and the wheezing in his lungs. He falls asleep next to a living man and wakes up to find him stiff in death. No one knows what killed him for there's not a mark on him and he can't even say that the man was dead a long time and he just didn't realize it until that moment when his heart finally gave out. He knows because his own heart slams against his ribs, beating against the cage even knowing that it's bruising and killing itself slowly, inch by painful inch.
They're low on ammunition again and not one of them has a uniform that isn't ragged and worn through in places. They fight in rain and mud up to his knees and he thinks that once rain used to be clear, an almost faint cast of blue and not the brackish crimson that slops against his boots. Nobody knows if its their blood or the enemy's and it doesn't matter because blood is blood and he can almost taste his own at the back of his throat, a sickening metallic tang that makes him want to vomit.
He tries to write but the words break apart, bleeding across the page, dripping red and black as one. He can't hold the pen anymore for the shaking in his fingers and even if he could the words have failed him. None of the others write home anymore, half started letters lying in the mud like the wounded in front of the hospital tents, too many broken and too few to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
He's forgotten so many things. He can't remember the taste of real food or clean water, the feel of a soft bed or the perfume of a woman. He thinks there was all those things and more once but he can't remember how long ago. All he knows is that he's been here for a lifetime. Nobody knows who won the last battle and he can't recall where it was fought, countless days and weeks running together like sand in an hourglass, piling up on him and closing over his head. He doesn't remember why they're fighting half the time and the other half it doesn't seem to matter if there's a reason or not. Fighting is a habit and little else. There's no longer time to count their losses or bury their dead, hardly any time at all to help the wounded, hundreds of them dying in the fields.
Once one of the others calls him by name and he startles, for it's been so long since he's thought of his name or even remembered that he had one. There's no time to learn names of the new men and no need to try, they'll be dead in the next battle just like the two before them. He can't help wondering if they knew they were going to die, if they felt it in their heart, or if it came quickly without introducing itself until it was too late. And he wonders if he'll know when its his turn to die.
He learns what dying is truly like in the middle of a nameless battle that no one even knows what number it is only that it's another day. He's running across the field when the bullet hits, slamming full force beneath his heart and throwing him backwards. For an instant there's an odd sort of emptiness, silence and distance from the rest of the world. And then it explodes into scarlet all wet, running down him, and pain make it stop, make it stop! tearing him apart inside as he struggles for breath and finds it impossible somebody help me!, and he coughs and chokes on the metallic taste clawing at the back of his throat as the war goes on and men stumble across him.
And then he's alone, lost in an sea of agony, shaking until his teeth slam together, alone in the twilight with the other dead. Someone touches him, hands rough, and he cries out, the sound strangely weak even to his own ears. A lamp shines down onto him, burning into his eyes, as a hand hastily probes his wound. He's caked in filth and blood, almost indistinguishable as human. He doesn't know how they can even find the wound within it all, but somehow they do. He's not hopeless. Far gone but not one of those to be set aside, the ones so badly injured that precious time can not be wasted trying to repair the damage that already is beyond mortal skill. They pick him up and carry him to a tent, ahead of the line of waiting men. He wants to protest but lacks the strength. He's cold, so very cold.
Someone cuts aside his uniform and starts to work on the wound, knife slicing through his skin toward the chunk of lead pulsing beneath his heart and the world mercifully turns black. Minutes pass into hours, hours into days. He knows and feels nothing, only a void as if his heart has stopped and he hasn't yet realized it. He hovers somewhere between life and death, closer to the latter and even more distant from the first than he's been for most of the war. Hands wash and dress him, shave and feed him. He can't seem to even open his eyes, drifting in a netherworld filled with skeletal ghosts and mist-filled scenes of horror.
Constantly there's words, whispers, shouts, cries, voices calling names, begging for water and comfort, yelling orders. Thousands of words slamming against the inside of his head, beating like the pulse of his heart. The pain in his chest starts to ebb, and he can almost feel the skin knitting back together, fragile flesh over bone leaving a scar corded beneath his heart. And yet his body wavers between life and death as if waiting to be told which way to turn, fighting for life out of habit and death out of desire.
One day, whether by choice or simply fate, he finds the path up the steep slope back toward life and takes it. He heals, slowly, and at the end of long weeks he's strong and well again, still little more than skin and bones but alive.
There's still a war on, even after all this time. It seems unfathomable to him, surely it would have ended, even if both sides finally killed each other off in a single battle, leaving no victors and no survivors. It's impossible for him to grasp that nothing has changed, that it drags on and on, with no release, no time to rest.
They send him back into the war, to the sound of bullets that rattle his bones, to the acrid scent of gunpowder that he'll smell for a year afterwards and in dreams the rest of his life, and to the scarlet on his hands that he knows no matter how many time he washes will never be removed. For a little while words linger, fragments of thoughts, or kindnesses, of water against parched lips, cool sheets against his scars, echoes faintly whispering over the sound of shouting as the men run, leaving him kneeling against a tree, cradling Davis in his arms, watching as the boy, his friend, dies, blood-stained fingers still reaching for his drum to sound the retreat, sounding quietly over the vision of the Confederate flag, torn and muddy, lying on the ground beside the dead.
But after a while they fade away, slipping into the darkness of picket duty, shivering in the cold and waiting for a bayonet in the back. Only the scar remains, aching beneath his heart like a pulse behind a bruise, and he questions the reason behind it all, the purpose for the killing, for the death, for the wound beneath his heart. And no answers ever come.
And it's cold and wet and raining, and he huddles against it, beside the dead and dying, the marginally living, and the hopeless, and tries to remember what living was like. But he can't because it's only been this forever.
And for a long time now there's been nothing but dying.