We do this every year. To remember the past. I take the old wool sack coat and kepi out of the closet and and dust them off, hoping the coat will fit again this year.
This time, it's apparent that the moths have started getting to it. That's just as well. A soldier's uniform shouldn't look too new or too pretty. This one is as gray as my hair—well, what's left of my hair—and my beard. There's a dark green day dress that's hung undisturbed beside the sack coat these past few years. I should give it to someone who'd wear it, someone who'd appreciate Jenny's craftsmanship and the beauty of the tiny floral print. Jenny would like it if I did that.
July is just around the corner. Pennsylvania will be muggy and hot. Not as hot and muggy as here in South Carolina, maybe, but hot enough, especially in a woolen uniform. At least I'm wearing the gray. It'll be a lot hotter for the Yankees in that dark navy blue.
You might wonder why we dress up in these antiquated clothes and fight the Battle of Gettysburg all over again, year after year and century after century. Why people like me have been recreating part of an old war in spite of all the real wars that have come and gone since then. First, there were the two world wars in the twentieth century, followed by the eugenics war at the turn of the century. Then came the third world war that ended ten years ago. And, most recently, Jenny's own war. She fought her disease and lost. Forty-five years we had together. It doesn't seem long enough.
People like me and these other dress-up soldiers, we're drawn to a past that maybe never was. Not Jenny, though. She loved the past, but she had her eye on the future, too. "There are others like us out there in the universe," she would insist. "There have to be." Sitting around the campfires with the other folks from out unit, amidst row on row of white canvas tents, we'd gaze up at the constellations. Jenny would point to various stars and tell me their names. There in the camp, I only felt the ghosts of the past, but Jenny could sense the spirit of a world that was yet to come. "How many stars out there?" she would ask. "How many planets? There must be other people out there. Don't tell me it's just us alone in the whole galaxy. Someday, either we'll find them, or they'll find us."
Now Jenny's ashes are scattered on the battleground at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Oh, I know you're not supposed to do that. There are strict rules against that kind of thing. But it was her last wish, and I reckon it wasn't doing any harm. She says she has an ancestor that's probably buried thereabouts, in some unmarked grave. At least, that's what they figure, since he was never seen again after the battle. She loved reading about the War Between the States, Jenny did, as much as she loved all those crazy make-believe stories about traveling into space. "I'm at home in any century but my own," she used to joke.
Five years she's been gone. When I pass the place where we scattered her ashes, I always stop and whisper a few words to her. Tell her what's been going on in the world. Sometimes, it almost feels like she's about to answer. Like she just took in a breath to answer me back, but then changed her mind all of a sudden and let her breath back out again. It's that real.
Of course, this year is different. This year the crowds will be overwhelming. This is, as they would've said back in the day, the Year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Sixty-Three, the bicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg. For two hundred years, fallen Yankees and Confederates have slept the long sleep here, side by side. Two hundred years, people have been putting on uniforms and coming here to remember. They say the first reenactment was the soldiers themselves, after they'd turned old and gray. Gray like me. They re-traced their advances, even though some of them were hobbling on canes. When they met in the middle, they shook hands and threw their arms around their old enemies and wept instead of firing on each other.
Why couldn't they have just started like they finished and saved all the trouble of that war in the middle? "You'd have thought we'd have learned our lesson after that," she used to say. "What would it take for us to just be human together, instead always seeing each other as enemies?"
I know now what it would take. The whole world knows. This year, it's like a fire in my heart to get to Gettysburg. To tell her, "Jenny, we found the answer. Jenny, we're finally one human race, all together. Just like you said."
Because she was right, after all. It's 2063, and not only is this the two-hundred year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but it's the year we finally found out we're not alone in the universe. We've made contact. They call themselves the whl'q'n, the Vulcans They claim their people have been traveling among the stars for a millenium already, preaching logic and peace. Just think of it: they were in space already when the Yankees were firing on Fort Sumter. When George Washington was at Valley Forge. When this continent was all Cherokee and Pawnee and Navajo and Apache, and Europe and Africa were nothing but tribes and clans and feudal fiefdoms.
Just three months ago, the Vulcans showed up in Bozeman, Montana, of all places. Sixteen light years they traveled. Things on earth haven't been the same since. Our new Vulcan friends are all over the newsvids; they look so much like us, and yet not like us at all. And us humans, we were just collections of people, fighting, sniping, trying to get along or trying to cheat each other or trying, just trying, to survive on this one lonely blue ball in the vastness of space. Now, now we're galactic travelers with this new thing they call "warp drive," hobnobbing with space aliens. Crazy as it seems, to our visitors, I reckon we're the aliens. Doesn't that beat all.
So today, I measure out the black powder and roll it up into cartridges. As soon as that's done, I'll oil up the Enfield rifle and make sure the cork stopper to my canteen is still in good shape. Tomorrow I'll pack it all up and head for Pennsylvania with my fighting buddies. When the sun goes down and the crowds of spectators go back to their hotels, I'll creep out alone in the dark to find Jenny.
And I'll tell Jenny all about the Vulcans, that is, if she can even hear me. After all, who can really say she doesn't? Maybe there's something of us that goes on, something that outlives the body and never loses its sense of wonder or love. I hope to God that's true, if there is a God—and I hope there is. So maybe when I tell her about the Vulcans, she'll learn that her dream has finally come true. Or maybe, just maybe, she already knows.