To The Lonely Seas And The Sky -- Part 7b
To reiterate--this story is completely fictional. None of the characters in this tale really existed. However, their stories closely mirror the lives of real people who lived during the Civil War. The Battle at Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863, was one of unprecedented carnage. Having visited Gettysburg myself, I will try to do its grim memory justice for those soldiers who died there and for the men and women who tended them.Within the house, Carina had found a horde of medical attendants and three surgeons, all of them operating in the same cramped confines. Ellie met three women and several men who cared for patients on the first floor. The surgeons worked in the rooms upstairs.
Overwhelmed at the sheer number of injured, the nurses and attendants welcomed the extra help. Their wan faces and flat tones betrayed the toll of war on those who had not seen the battle itself, but were left to handle the aftermath. Drained from little to no sleep, poor nutrition and staggering numbers of injured men who desperately needed round-the-clock treatment, they moved like ghosts amongst innumerable patients, as transient as the very souls of their maimed charges. More men died in an hour than what could be treated in a day, one of the women explained to Carina as she showed them around the first floor.
Ellie stood by her mother's side, nearly eclipsed in her skirts, as a older, gray-haired woman plainly explained their routine and the conditions of their work. She couldn't believe the conditions of the men around her, men of all ages, soaked in blood and in all states of undress. Glanced between them, terrified by their injuries--injuries she could not have dreamt of in the worst of her nightmares.
Ellie looked up at the crumbling ceiling of the house and around at the bullet-scarred walls, the punctured, stained furniture and the sticky red hardwood floors and carpets. It was hardly a mansion, but it had been a well-kept home before the war, she realized. I wonder if the owners know that their house is full of bleeding, dying soldiers... she pondered, immediately questioning what place such a pointless thought had in the face of suffering and imminent death.
All at once, Ellie realized as she gazed out the back door across a field of blue and gray uniforms that her father might lay among them. Father--tall, strong, gentle Father--among the dying? No, Ellie insisted, unable to tolerate such a thought. Father cannot be out there. We are here to tend to these men. Father's regiment had moved on. The gray-haired woman said so when Mama asked about the First Maryland.
The conversation was coming to an end. Ellie felt her mother moving. She moved automatically with her, the two of them crossing the room and walking out the back door and onto porch. The smell was even worse outside, Ellie realized, coughing to keep herself from acting on her nausea.
Carina handed Ellie a canteen, pointing to the men who lay strewn across the porch. "You will give them water, Ellie, yes? Visit them each and talk with them if they wish, but make sure they get water." Carina disappeared back inside the house.
Ellie stood petrified, alone with the canteen and a porch full of dying men.
Ellie tried to escape the sight, looking up from the porch to the fields behind the house, but beyond lay more bodies--in some places, stacked four men deep. She quickly realized that her safest bet was to concentrate on that porch.
She gazed across the men, trying to choose whom to visit first. She slipped as she took her first step toward one man who seemed to be sitting very quietly on the steps. Catching her balance, Ellie looked down only to realize that the floor of the porch was slippery with fresh blood. Her lower lip trembling, Ellie walked to the man who sat sleeping on the steps, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Sir," Ellie whispered, tapping him again with a trembling hand. "Sir?"
The man's body fell back, revealing blood-encrusted eyes, forever open in the frozen terror of death, staring hollowly back at her. Blood had dried around his mouth and nose and in streaks down his neck.
Ellie jumped back, too terrified to scream. She struggled to maintain her balance, determined not to fall in the blood. She clutched the canteen to her chest and stood perfectly still, panting in the middle of the porch. She could feel her fear rising into panic, sobs forming in her chest and her eyes stinging as she looked into the gaze of the dead soldier.
A voice behind her, weak and whispered, caused her to spin around. Breathlessly, she found herself staring into the dark brown eyes of a soldier who lay along the wall of the house on the porch.
Ellie could only stare in horror. The young man, perhaps five years older than her, was missing his right leg from the knee down. His shirt, torn and dirty, was soaked in blood and the rest of him was drenched in sweat. Even on his dark blue trousers, the sinister stain of blood was visible from across the porch. He lay on one side, shaking in the heat.
But even more gripping than his grim condition was the striking perfection of his features. High cheekbones, gentle lips, and rich brown eyes gazed up at her from behind the blood and dripping sweat. Injuries and the pallor of death aside, Ellie was stunned speechless at the sight of the young man before her.
"Miss...don't you cry, now. A little water for me...if you will. My friend there...he's gone to where there's water eternal. Don't cry for him, mi hermana." The soldier entreated, shaking with effort as he spoke.
Ellie recognized that familiar accent, the lilt in his voice that belonged to another voice that so often brought comfort.
"Usted es espanol." Ellie murmured, taking a step toward him.
The soldier's eyes dilated, his lips parting slightly in surprise. Her words alone seemed to infuse life back into his face. He pushed himself up on one arm, a smile moving in over the look of disbelief. "Si, si, estoy. Eres espanola tambien?"
"Mi madre esta espanola." Ellie replied, crouching on the porch next to him in a spot that was miraculously free of blood. "Necesitas agua." She said, picking up the canteen and holding it to his lips.
The soldier drank, nearly draining the supply from the container. He set the canteen down on the porch and began to slip back toward the ground, his arm giving way.
Ellie didn't hesitate as she tried to ease his descent, guiding his back to the floor. The soldier settled into position, tilted up on his right shoulder, his awed gaze never leaving her. "Who are you?" He asked, his eyes locked into hers.
"I'm Ellie." She replied, smiling weakly. "Who are you?"
"Solomon. Solomon Valdez." He smiled radiantly, sweat running mingling with blood as it ran down his neck.
Ellie couldn't help but return his contagiously genuine smile. Noticing the blood and dirt and sweat, she poured water from the canteen on the hem of her dress and wiped the blood from his eyes, around his mouth and off his neck.
Solomon exhaled, his body relaxing at the sensation of the cold water. "Gracias, mi hermana." He murmured, his eyes reopening right back into hers.
And suddenly, the cries of the battlefield caught Ellie's attention; the moans of the other men on the porch had her ear. Ellie looked about her, once again stunned and afraid at the overwhelming sight of death that caged her into that moment.
A hand slipped over hers. Ellie's attention refocused on Solomon, who lay quietly below.
"I know, Ellie. I hear them, too. Go give them water. They are thirsty. The doctor sewed me up..." He glanced down at his leg. "...so I need nothing more. Go and help them as you helped me, and do not be afraid." His eyes beamed brilliantly, fearlessly into hers.
Ellie nodded and Solomon nodded back. "Do not be afraid..." She repeated.
"Do not be afraid." Solomon confirmed hoarsely. "He said we oughtn't fear death, mi hermana. He has conquered it all, so of what shall we be afraid?" Solomon eyes seemed to glow at his words. He grimaced as he moved his shoulder, tilting his head back toward the end of the porch. "See that man there, the one with the bandages on his arms? That's my friend, James. We're from the same regiment. You ought to tend to him next."
Ellie looked across the porch at the man in question. He had heard Solomon speak, his pale blue eyes looking up arduously from the ground. James sat against the porch railing and managed a quick smile amidst deep, desperate gasps for air.
Ellie rose from Solomon's side, wishing she didn't have to leave him. There was a certain beauty to his presence that drew her like a magnet, but he had told her to go, and she knew she must. She looked uncertainly at James, then back to Solomon.
Solomon nodded. "I will be here when you are done, Ellie. I promise." His steadfast confidence propelled her across the slippery floor to James, who readily accepted her company and her water. After a long drink, James lowered the canteen into her hands and met her eyes. "Thank you, Miss Ellie." He said breathlessly.
Ellie nodded, amazed as she once more saw the man behind the blood and pain of a maimed body. And that's what she had to do, she understood in the span of that moment. She could not focus on their injuries, no matter how horrid or distracting. She had to concentrate on the men themselves.
Circling the porch, Ellie gave water to all of the men, her eyes occasionally seeking reassurance from Solomon. Every time, he was there, strength exuding from those dark eyes and into her terrified heart. That strength gave her the courage to place a hand on each soldier, meet the pained eyes that answered her touch, and help them gulp the water she carried. She quickly became accustomed to bloody hands on the sides of her face and clasped around her own, desperate to thank her for her simple yet life-sustaining service.
Ellie paused at the steps to the back yard, turning to meet his eyes one more time before braving the field, and with his nod, she moved down the steps.
For the rest of the day, water became Ellie's mission. It was that mission that
kept her focused, even when she was certain she would become overwhelmed at the severity of the injuries, the pain in the soldiers' cries and the constant presence of death and profound suffering. The call to fulfill her task drove her beyond her fear to push back against the very teeth of death that threatened all who lay on the battlefield.
As Ellie turned the corner of the house into the far side lawn, she stopped, gasping in horror at a pile of limbs that lay on the ground directly below the second story window. Retching, Ellie turned from the sight and the smell, closing her eyes tightly and clenching her fists. In her mind, she could see Solomon, urging her to go. Do not be afraid.
Ellie straightened her back, took a deep, determined breath, and turned the corner.
She brought water to the men on the lawn around the house, to the men in the crowded rooms who bled on the expensive furniture, to the men on the front porch, to the men along the road. Several of them clung to her, and as they took their final drink and breathed their last breaths, Ellie repeated Solomon's words, as much to herself as to the men. "Do not be afraid...do not be afraid..." She whispered until their gasps fell silent and their trembling hands released hers. Carefully, she'd lay them in the grass, say a quiet prayer and move on to the next man.
Ellie noticed that the attendants and nurses seemed immune to the shrieks and cries that emanated from the upstairs of the house where the surgeons worked around the clock. They also seemed unruffled when they came across the dead, the very men who had in minutes not long before been alive and breathing on the lawn. As she circled back from retrieving water, Ellie noticed that one man whom she had recently given a drink had died. She choked back the lump in her throat and forced herself forward, knowing that though she hadn't been able to save that soldier, her water might save the next man she came across. She had to keep going for the rest of them.
The day wore on and Ellie eventually ran out of the water that had been caught from the recent rain in a barrel near the side of the house. Inside the house, attendants and nurses worked nonstop. Unable to find her mother, Ellie sought the gray-haired woman she and her mother had met earlier, but when she found her, the woman had barked, "I haven't time for you, child! Be gone!"
Startled, Ellie had fled the room into the front hall. Other attendants milled about, though no one seemed have noticed the exchange. Ellie searched the room for assistance, but every pair of eyes were busy, too busy to notice her--except for those of one man with dark brown skin and an accent unlike any she had ever heard before.
In a voice like a nighttime song, he pointed one dark hand out the front door and down the road, indicating that there was water at the end of a path that had been cleared through the bodies.
Ellie had seen men like him a few times, usually on the docks in Baltimore, but she had never spoken to any until that day. She regarded him with unmitigated fascination, barely able to respond to his directions with a simple word of thanks. To her surprise, he didn't seem to mind her unabashed scrutiny. After a few moments, he set down his canteen, rose from the floor where he had been helping a dark-skinned soldier, and introduced himself.
"I am Thomas." He had said, extending his hand to her. Thomas was a tall, looming man with broad shoulders and big, rough hands that were somehow gentle to the touch.
Ellie shook his hand with uncertainty at first, but at the sight of his soft smile she felt her anxiety melt away. Instinctively, she trusted Thomas. "I am Ellie." She replied.
Ellie followed the path Thomas had described through the bodies that had been cleared to allow access to the water source, but even as she moved down the rocky path, she heard their cries for help, for water. Unable to leave them to die thirsty, Ellie started at the path where the bodies met the stream, providing water to men who, half-dead moments before, suddenly leapt from the ground to guzzle the life-giving liquid.
Her arms and back ached, her feet were blistering from the heat in her boots, and everything within her yearned for home, but she knew that her task might save some of the men from death while they awaited the busy hands of the surgeons. Every time she lifted her canteen to chapped lips and grateful eyes, she knew she had to press on. She could see the hope in the eyes of the soldiers who, much like her, longed for peaceful homes far from the macabre in that Pennsylvania field. She would soon return to her home. She had to help them return to theirs.
When nighttime fell, Ellie stumbled back into the house where Carina von Erich was tending men on the first floor. Upon seeing her daughter, Carina put down the bandages she had been removing from a basket and scooped up her exhausted child. She carried Ellie to an upstairs room, pulled off her boots and dress, slipped her out of her petticoat and tucked the blankets about her.
Ellie fell asleep so quickly that she didn't realize it had only been ten minutes that her mother was gone. Carina woke her gently, handing her a bowl of stew and a piece of bread. Ellie ate the food as though she had never awoken and then lay down to return to her restless slumber.
It was early in the morning when Ellie awoke again, the moon bright on the fields. She could still hear them, but they were quieter now. Some of them must have fallen asleep, she realized. I wonder if Solomon is sleeping.
The thought spurred Ellie out of bed. She pulled on her boots and slipped on her dress, making her way carefully downstairs. Several familiar yet blurred, nameless faces still tended the men in the night by lantern light. Ellie moved past them toward the back porch where her eyes adjusted rapidly to the dark before she picked out Solomon Valdez, who lay where she had left him the day before, shivering along the wall of the porch.
Ellie knelt next to him, placing her hand over his. Solomon looked up, smiling as he met her eyes. "Hello, Ellie." He whispered, taking her hand.
"Hello, Solomon. Are you able to sleep?" She asked.
Solomon exhaled and shook his head. "Not tonight, mi hermana." He said. "I am preoccupied with thoughts of home." He explained.
"Where is your home?"
His smile widened. "My home is Ohio, along the river near a town called Steubenville. My family has a farm and a house and a big barn where we keep the horses and cows. That's where I'd watch the sunrise over the cornfields after milking--the roof of the barn." He said, breaking eye contact to gaze out over the field behind her.
Dawn was slowly awakening at the horizon. A new day was about to begin. Ellie looked back at Solomon. "Were there many good days that you saw begin on the roof of the barn in Ohio?"
Solomon gazed up at her, pushing off the ground with both arms. Ellie leaned down to meet his confidential gaze. "Every day, Ellie. Every day was good."
The sound of footsteps approaching in the grass caused Ellie to look over her shoulder toward the field. Lost in thought, her mother strode across the blood-stained lawn, her skirts kicking up in fervor. Ellie and Solomon watched as Carina von Erich marched up the steps, opened the back door and disappeared into the house.
Solomon exhaled. "She looks for someone she loves. She has been out in the fields since midnight." He said, his exhausted eyes full of sympathy.
Ellie nodded, biting her lip. "She is looking for my father." She whispered.
"Your father? Your father was here?" Solomon asked, his voice hushed.
Ellie nodded, fear knotting in her chest. "He is with the First Maryland."
Solomon was silent for a few minutes. "She was looking in the right place, Ellie. Right beyond that stretch of field, near that patch of trees is where the First Maryland was set up..." Solomon recalled, swallowing hard as things he didn't want to remember clouded his mind.
On her back, Ellie could feel the sunrise breaking free from the horizon. Light flooded the porch all around her and Solomon. She turned to gaze at the bright orange sky, the clouds overhead ablaze with light.
"You best be tending your duties, Ellie." Solomon whispered, his dark eyes heavy with an unspoken sorrow.
Ellie knew he was right, but she was held firmly in her place, struck by the sadness in his expression. "You are right, of course, but I shall not be leaving you in dismay."
Solomon smiled weakly. "Then perhaps you'll sing a tune and give me better things to think on."
Ellie blushed, never one to sing in public, much less in a crowd of strangers, but she quickly thought of a song and began to sing. "When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah, we'll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah! Hurrah!"
The words tumbled from Ellie's lips as Solomon first joined in, and by the end of the first verse, all around the porch, weak, exhausted voices joined the familiar chorus. Ellie had stopped singing and looked around her in amazement as the deep voices of men rippled across the field. "The men will cheer and the boys will shout, the ladies they will all turn out, and we'll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home..."
Ellie joined them for the second verse, the third, the fourth, and by the fifth, voices were quieting down again, the men falling back into slumber. Ellie's small voice rose out of the many, faltering as she looked down at Solomon, who was very nearly asleep.
"When Sol'mon comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah, they'll give him a mighty cheer and then hurrah, hurrah, he'll milk the cows and drink the proof, greet the morning on the roof, and the dawn will break when Sol'mon comes marching home." Ellie whispered, Solomon's radiant smile fading as he slipped into sleep.
Ellie lingered for but a moment, her hand carefully leaving his as she rose and sought out her canteen.
All of the days seemed to run together, the short nights of interrupted sleep barely sufficient to separate the long periods of consciousness. Ellie spent her time bringing water to the men at the house, to the men along the road, and to the men and women who worked to save the soldiers. In between fetching and distributing water, she brought the meager supplies of food that they had--mostly hard tack and salted pork--to the soldiers.
One of the things that Ellie remembered clearly from those long days in the field was the song that the soldiers used to sing, some of them barely able to talk, but the melody hummed in their throats when she brought them water. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord... That was how it started. In the span of several days, Ellie knew pieces of the song. She hummed it herself when she rounded with the water, and often, the soldiers, in all states of consciousness, would sing back to her, almost as if in a reflex.
On occasion, Ellie would wander amongst the bodies in one of the side yards--the one with the pile of limbs that cascaded from the window above. That was the yard where the attendants lay the men who were expected to die. They lay in the shade of the house, the places where they had been in the house desperately needed for men who might live.
Ellie quickly discovered that man of them were afraid. Sometimes, she would sit with them and hum a song, and that was enough to convince them that it was all right to pass on. Others, mistaking them for their mothers, aunts, or sisters, would simply hear her voice, smile, and fall into eternal sleep. She had never cried more than she did in that yard, but Ellie knew that if her father ever lay dying in the presence of a stranger, she would want that stranger to comfort him. As such stranger, Ellie felt obliged to stand in for the women the men called for, waiting with them until their final breath left their lips.
Ellie barely saw her mother except when it came time to eat. Carina never failed to bring her daughter food, even if it was only a bit of salted pork and hard tack to share between the two of them. But Carina never stayed long, and silence reigned between mother and daughter. In the loneliness, Ellie often found herself wandering, seeking some quiet place of reprieve from the sun and the suffering. She always ended up on the back porch at the side of a dark-haired soldier with only half of his right leg.
At dawn, Ellie would arise and meet the attendants, distributing food to the soldiers. When that was done, she would bring water, and when the water was dispersed, Ellie found her place on the porch with Solomon, the two of them talking over what little remained for breakfast. At each break, she sat on the back porch, eating and talking with her only confidant. Before bedtime, she would pay Solomon a final visit, and as his eyes slipped closed, she sang him songs she remembered from Germany.
Ellie and Solomon spent most of their time talking, regaling each other of their memories of home. When they weren't talking, they simply sat in the comfort of each others' presence, escaping the hell around them in the company of another.
One day, Ellie mentioned the mysterious song, and Solomon taught her the rest of the words, the two of them sitting and singing between each other in the heat of the afternoon. Solomon told her that song was popular with the soldiers. It was the song they had sung together on the march to Gettysburg, the night before the battle, and the song he had heard in his head as bullets and cannonballs flew all around him and the world seemed to come undone within seconds. It was a song of the final battle, of God's justice for a wasted world. And as Ellie listened to soldier after soldier whisper its lyrics, she slowly came to understand why soldiers in both colors of uniform found its words so reassuring.
One day, as Ellie neared the back door to return to the fields, the old gray-haired woman had caught her arm as she entered the house to retrieve the canteen. Ellie had seen her earlier, watching them from the window as she and Solomon talked.
"You oughtn't speak with him in such a way, young lady." The woman hissed, her eyes ablaze. "You'll get what's coming to you for being foolish enough to befriend a soldier."
Ellie pulled away, fear and anger knotted in her chest. "He's far better company than anyone else in this wretched place." Ellie spat, storming out the back door.
Solomon seemed to be growing stronger every day. They would talk for an hour at a time when Ellie stopped working to eat, Solomon telling her of the rolling fields of Ohio and Ellie telling him of the towering mountains of Germany. She spoke of Liesl and Maidie and Johann and of life in the chaos of Baltimore. He recollected hot Ohio summer days swimming in deep ponds, climbing trees and catching frogs with his brother, the two of them then chasing his older sister with the confused amphibians.
"...and then, Magdalena locked the door and didn't let Juan or myself inside until Papa came in from the fields and Mama returned from town." Solomon said, grinning at the memory.
"As an older sister myself, I feel she may have been justified in her actions. But I've never been afraid of frogs, so I can't say I'd have been in a position to lock you out, either." Ellie mused.
"Not afraid of frogs? What about grasshoppers?" Solomon's eyes widened in disbelief.
Ellie shook her head. "Nope."
"Your brother has no simple task ahead, that's for certain. It is the duty of every little brother to scare their sisters with bugs and snakes and wildlife of all kinds! And there you are, making it very difficult for him indeed."
Ellie laughed. "Johann and I found a frog one day near the harbor and we had a race to see who might catch it first. I suppose there isn't much competition between myself and a four-year-old, but he's mighty fast. From then on, I didn't let those little legs fool me."
Solomon smiled, shaking his head. "Perhaps you'll soon be on your way back to those frogs and your harbor." He said, and though Ellie knew he was trying to be encouraging, she could see a sadness in his eyes--the same sadness she felt at the thought of their eventual and inevitable parting.
A few days later, Solomon hinted at the topic again. "You and your mother have been here a long time--much longer than the other women have normally stayed." He had observed, carefully watching Ellie for her reaction.
"I don't think we'll be going too quickly. I don't know that Mama will ever find Father." Ellie said, staring down at her hands in her lap as she ate her bread and Solomon nibbled on salt pork. Solomon was now strong enough to sit against the side of the house. She sat in front of him, not daring to meet his eyes.
Solomon was quiet a few minutes before speaking. "If he is here, Ellie, your mother will find him. I don't thinks she's slept a night since she arrived, and you've been here nearly a week."
"And if he's not here?" Ellie managed to ask, her heart pounding. She knew that those who had survived Gettysburg had set off to face death once again in the next battle.
"If he is not here, then he shall meet you at home when the war is over. He'll come marching home again, too." Solomon said gently.
Ellie smiled at his earnest, genuine hope, wishing she could be more like the young man before her. "Who do you want to see when you get home?" She asked, noticing a spark in his eyes at the question.
"Everyone." Solomon replied, his eyes focusing over the field with a smile. "Mama, Papa, Magdalena, Juan... I want to see the corn fields again. I want to see a storm rising over the sunset and spend a night at the town tavern with my friends." He exhaled, his chest slowly releasing his breath. Solomon was glowing with happiness at the memories.
"I only hope this will end soon, Solomon."
Solomon nodded in conviction. "It will, mia. Soon enough, it will."Last edit by Joe V on Oct 29, '13
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