No Country for Old Anthems
June 20, 2012
The rains came just about the time daylight slipped back beyond the fog, hanging thick in the trees, and a bullet took the life of the soldier lying beside him. Young boy. Hadn’t even begun to shave. He had spent the night before crying in a ditch beneath a rampart on a Vicksburg hillside. Maybe he had known the end was near. Then again, maybe he was just afraid. Everybody was afraid. Seth looked at his pale, waxen face for a moment, then turned away and watched the fog crawl up the ravine, a fog as wet as the rain falling on his face. A life had passed by. That’s all. A life had passed by and was gone. Seth didn’t even know the boy’s name.
The silence of the night was broken only by the occasional sharp crack of gunfire. A Yankee sharpshooter chasing shadows no doubt. He was hiding in the gray mist, probably high in a tree on the far side of the hill, shooting at any sign of movement, no matter how slight, hoping to get lucky, and sometimes putting a boy into such a deep sleep he would never wake up.
Seth looked back at the boy beside him.
His gray coat was splattered with blood.
His throat was gone.
His eyes were open.
Seth only hoped that the boy was dead before he knew he was dying. It was better that way. He probably never heard the shot. If he did, he probably suspected it was meant for someone else.
Everyone feared he would be dead by morning.
No one believed it.
Seth inched his way farther down the hillside. The darkness had wrapped itself around him, and even the fog had turned black. The earth, the trees, the sky, it was all the same.
It was as dark as the innards of a grave.
Seth lay back and placed his head against a log.
There were thousands on the hills around him, dressed in blue, dressed in gray, and yet he had never felt more lonely in his life.
In the distance, he heard the strains of a tune he knew well.
An old tune.
Sad and always mournful.
Played on a harmonica.
He mouthed the words but made no sound.
Only the harp was playing Dixie.
It was an old show tune, or so he had been told. But somebody down South had picked it up, somebody in the land of cotton where old times there are not forgotten, and Dixie became the song he was destined to live for and die for, and he had no idea why he was fighting and why he had been ordered to kill a bunch of boys no older than he and why he was lying on a godforsaken patch of earth, torn by shells, stained with blood, and hammered by the rains and why his country had left him or why he had left his country, and he never could figure out which was which.
Then the harmonica began playing again.
Seth prayed that the night would not end.
Morning brought daylight.
Morning brought the dying.
Morning brought the mourning.
It always did.
The fog was so wet he could taste it. The ground beneath him was turning to mud.
And even the harmonica quit playing.
All was silent again.
Seth closed his eyes and tried to remember better times, but they were far beyond the reach of his memory.
He had found them once.
They would not be coming back.
Seth sat, his head bowed against the rain.
He missed his home.
He missed his mama.
He even missed the cows that needed to be milked and the old mule that pulled his plow and the hoe he used to chop those endless fields of cotton.
He missed the blisters on his hands and the ache in his back.
Times had been hard but not as hard as dying on a piece of ground that belonged to somebody else, being thrown into a grave his mama would never find, lying there beneath a headstone with only a number and never a name.
The harmonica began playing again.
It was pretty enough, he guessed, but the song wasn’t his, not really. He had never heard Dixie played anywhere but at a barn dance until the shots were fired at Shiloh, and a band struck up Dixie to encourage a ragged bunch of boys to fight back.
Seth listened to the tune.
It meant nothing.
He missed his country.
Where had it gone?
He had seen the bombs bursting in air.
He had witnessed the rockets red glare.
But it wasn’t the same.
There was no land of the free, not anymore.
There was no home for the brave.
He mouthed the words once, then sang them, softly and tenderly.
Most of all, he missed his anthem.
His anthem was his country.
He prayed silently that someone would play the anthem and not Dixie when they came to throw dirt upon his grave.