Scars of Our Civil Wars

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Guilt, if that’s what it is, has to have consequences. I bear them all as scars beneath the sleeves of my blouse. 

I used to have another life. In that one, I left college after my best friend killed herself. There just didn’t seem to be a point anymore. And so I drifted for years, often in dubious company. 

The most recent place I ended up in was this boarding home outside San Francisco, run by a guy who collected military paraphernalia—Civil War stuff. He was a nice guy. Like badgers can be nice if they are well-fed and the temperature is right, I reckon.

Anyway, I got a job—my first—helping him transcribe old letters for a book he had been working on like forever. Stories from the war. Ordinary soldiers’ stories. 

History never really was my thing, but it helped pay the rent. And his wife baked me pie and got me a glass of orange juice every Sunday, when I was sitting in their attic listening to the heartbeat of the Pacific, straining to decipher curls and loops that made out 140-year-old memories.

Yeah, I can do shit like that when I want to. I always crushed languages in all my schools (and got crushed by math in return).  But the badger was smiling for the first time in weeks when he found out. Not in the least because he could save a lot of money. 

I didn’t care. I also loved strutting my stuff, for a change. Oh, and I can draw, too.

I am someone. Not no one.

Not the one who always catches up with me. Not my ghost half. 

Less than a year before moving into the boarding home, I had ditched my last boyfriend (the guy was into bruising). I had gone cold turkey right after that and I had kept ‘clean’ by drinking whiskey instead. 

Now, Tom Conway—that’s our Civil War author’s name—he didn’t take kindly to drinking. In fact, everyone who stayed at his “Home”, as he called it—had no choice but to keep clean. No smoking. No drinking. No nothing.

But of course, I did just that. And with some new guy, I picked up at a bus stop in Oakland no less.

And yes, you guessed it. No men allowed in the women’s rooms either.

The breakup wasn’t good. They never are. 

But his wife wasn’t angry. She gave me a farewell present. 

I got a copy of all the letters I had translated. Just those, she said.

But I was grateful since it made me feel worth something, even if it had been an obscure gig. 

And I would have more than enough time to read it all on the bus to L.A. with less than 100 dollars in my pocket and the knowledge that I had to beg my mother for cash again and try to pretend I was finally coming back to life when I’m anything but.

I couldn’t do it. We hadn’t seen each other for years and only talked on the phone and whenever I passed an Internet café.

What could I tell her? I was a prize student. I knew I had my future in my hand. I threw it all away because of one terrible thing that I should have gotten over. I made a ghost of my life and now I have become a ghost.

Dad also tried to call. I told him less. 

It’s always the same.

And I couldn’t even open the damn envelope because I was busy staring out the window and feeling sorry for myself.

Except when I was bored out of my mind at the transit station. Then I finally looked in that mother of an envelope, and my jaw dropped.

There was nothing in it.

I mean, there weren’t any of the printouts I had expected—of the letters I had transcribed. 

Only old letters. Letters I had never seen before.

Mrs. Conway must’ve gotten it wrong in all the hurry, and I’m sure she didn’t have the badger’s blessing to give me originals!

Yes, she gave me a bunch of genuine letters from the 19th century. 

On second thought, maybe that wasn’t a mistake. Maybe that was her rebellion. I mean, they were talking about divorce all the time and didn’t care if anyone heard.

For a moment, I considered calling and delivering it all back to Mr. Conway. Then I started reading because I couldn’t figure out why the hell Mrs. Conway wanted me to have more letters 

That’s when I discovered that the papers weren’t letters at all.

They were a diary.

*

Anna Lee Shepherd exited the only store in the mining town somebody had thought to name Telluride. That was when she saw the three men waiting for her.

She recognized them all from the saloon from last night. They had not seemed better company yesterday than now. 

“You leaving town already, girl?” 

The first man had a gruff voice. He was at least 6 feet tall, sported a big black mustache, and was bald as an egg.

“We thought we recognized a dame getting a room last night.” 

The second man’s beard was gray as the dust from the mines. He was also missing most of his teeth and wore an old Confederate slouch hat. He had played cards with Baldy last night. 

“Rarely we see a dame around here. Shame to leave so soon. “

The third was built like an armored train and had an odd accent. He had been sitting silently at the table next to Baldy and Graybeard. 

“I’m not a dame.” Anna slowly let go of the bag of provisions she had just purchased.

Both hands free. That was best.

“Sure look like one.” Baldy spat something out, black as tar.

The single town road behind him seemed empty suddenly. There was only whispering of the mountain wind between the handful of shed-like houses.

“And she talks like one.” Graybeard grinned, but his eyes were dark pits.

She had seen such eyes before.

“Okay, so I’m a woman. What’s it to you?” Anna’s hand wasn’t close enough to touch the cold steel hammer of the army colt very visible on her hip. But she knew exactly how close it was.

Less than a second close.

“Please … ” The mousy form of Mr. Simmons emerged from the shop. “Please, no shooting here.”

“Shut up!” The Train waved him back and Mr. Simmons retreated as quickly as he had come. 

The wind was now almost still.

“There are few women here.” Graybeard smiled so Anna could see what remained of his teeth, which was not much. “And the ones that are, wear proper skirts.”

“Then maybe I am not a proper woman.” Anna’s voice was even.

This wasn’t so different from escaping Union soldiers who had raped her at age 12. 

Or shooting a man in Reno years later when he had tried the same.

This wasn’t any more different from knowing that her parents were inside the burning mansion back in Georgia and would never get out in time.

Or Mammy who had fed her and played with her when she was a little girl, but who preferred the woods and freedom instead of helping that same girl, just a few years later, when the whole plantation was torched by Sherman’s men.

No. No different at all.

At first, it is. But then it becomes strangely normal. A small part of you—a deeper part—still feels the terror. But it recedes. The part of you that is the eagle—that part soars above it all and flies away and survives. 

So the eagle part is different and speaks in a different voice. It’s the part that learns to be still and wait for the moment.

And so there is no need to raise your voice.

“I don’t want to kill you.” She looked down upon the entire scene now. From high above. 

Marking exactly where the three men stood on the deserted street.

“Kill us?!” The men heehawed. 

Then Baldy spat again, but slower, all the time looking at Anna. And at her gun. “There’ll be no need for killin’. We just wondered if you were up for a good time?” 

He eyed her carefully. “It’s been very long since there were any good times in Telluride.”

“I hear that,” Anna said. “Simmons back there tells me the mines are almost empty.”

“There’ll be new ones.” Graybeard’s gaze flickered from Baldy to The Train and then also back to Anna’s very visible colt. “There always has been.”

“All things must end,” Anna said.

A few heads peeked out windows further down the street. It was as if the sudden delay to disaster acted as a magnet. As if the wind whispered impatiently and called people out to see.

Anna had hoped to make a discreet getaway into the mountains after getting her provisions. She had hoped her story from last night about her ‘husband’ waiting for her just outside town, because of some vaguely defined accident, would hold up and that there wouldn’t be too many questions. 

But she felt she didn’t have time to change her clothes again as soon as she had gotten provisions. Or maybe that was the excuse. Maybe the single dress she owned reeked of too many bad memories. 

And she was already behind her schedule, and perhaps Limerick was really dead—up there. She eyed the mountains that dominated all horizons in Telluride.

Then she eyed the men again. Wolves.

And she knew the dress would have made it worse. Also, it would not have let her do what she now did.

The shot silenced the wind immediately. It cleaved the air like a whiplash of thunder and smoke. One second the colt was at Anna’s hip, the next it was in her hand.

The slouch hat flew off Graybeard and landed in a puddle on the muddy street they all tried to dominate.

But the battle had been fought and won before the men had even decided to participate.

Nobody should be that fast. Least of all a woman. 

But whatever their own dark thoughts about what ought to be, the men kept all of that to themselves. They were busy staring dumbfounded at the hat and then at her gun.

After a few more moments of hesitation, they backed off.

Anna knew that time was not on her side, though. Not just regarding Limerick and whether he was dead up there. No, these men would be back soon. They did not like to lose. They did not like tables turning and suddenly becoming the weaker part they had hoped to prey upon.

She knew all that. She knew men well by now. In her 38 years, she had known quite a few. Some were good, most were bad, and quite a few were dead.

Time waited for no man or woman. 

They must have been desperate, she mused, and picked up her bag. This old gal is not worth that much attention anymore.

She was about to get her horse when something stopped her. She looked down at the slouch hat in the mud.

Had one of these once. It served me well. 

She picked it up and looked at the small scar in the left brim where the bullet had grazed it, exactly as she had wanted it to.

But that was a long time ago … Now I’m at the end of my ride.

*

Money is not a problem if you are willing to put a part of yourself to sleep for a few hours. That’s how I always deal with it. 

I look down at the man beside me in the bed. He is sleeping for real. And snoring, if anyone was in doubt.

I’m not. I’m sitting in the other half of the bed, legs drawn up and the sweaty sheet only tentatively covering me. I look at the stars outside the motel window and the curtains we had forgotten to close completely because he was so hungry.

But it was all right. With whatever his name was. And it isn’t like I am doing this full time. And even if I was, does it matter? He was nice. He had the money for the next ticket to my next destination. And more. 

I have decided not to see mum in L.A. but I wrote a message for her about soon coming home and that I was all right and other reassuring things I hardly believe anymore.

Maybe mum doesn’t either, but it was a little game that was easier to play the more you played it. You have a confederation of lies you nurture and the more you do that, the more it feels like reality. The reality of wishes and intentions.

I pull out the envelope again and the thick bunch of old papers, which I carefully unwrap from their protective plastic sheets.

At first, I thought they were just letters. But my God—this is a little script. An attempt at writing a book. Or a diary that was to become a book. It is not entirely clear. 

5 April 1889 is the last date on the last page, and there is no ending after that.

The author—Anna Lee Shepherd—had just stopped.

Perhaps that was why Mr. Conway had cared so little for this stack of old paper, which he had probably got from one of the many Civil War auctions he constantly bragged about winning. He had not even mentioned this script to me in the 4 months I was at his ‘Home’. Or perhaps he believed it was just fiction and not an actual diary. And hey, it was all written by a woman and not a soldier, anyway. 

So there.

And maybe Mr. Conway would spare his wife because she put this little treasure in my bag when I was booted out of the boarding home (along with a lunchbox with enough pie for 3 days).

Maybe not. There were thunderclouds in the air every time I saw them in the kitchen together. But whatever sainthood the Pope is planning to announce next, Mrs. Conway is on my shortlist.

I can’t help smiling at the memory of that sneaky, elderly woman while I continue leafing through the old pages slowly and carefully.

It feels strange, though, to do this—sitting here in a bed with a stranger I fucked so I could get money for the next three days. 

It is strange to be here and feel somewhat like flypaper but also feel that real old paper under my fingertips. Can’t explain why, but that last part almost feels holy. Unlike the feeling in the rest of my body which I have had enough practice in burying. 

Yeah, my ghost self takes care of quite a few burials.

My other self—the one I like—hasn’t decided what to do with this script yet. I have been in self-imposed exile for 4 years and drifted over most of the Americas, working as … everything. And often not working. Just drifting. I have not been used to planning anything more than a few days ahead.

I once was. I quit law school, of all things. And family. People. Even my drawing, which had once been the most important thing in my life. It had all faded like the old photographs that were glued to two pieces of cardboard at the end of all Anna’s diary pages.

But the principal person in those photos had only faded because of time, not because she had lost her spirit. She had not quit like me. 

She had lost so much more, during the Civil War and after. But she had not quit. She had moved on. She had survived and lived. Scout. Miner. Even a stint at selling cow hides in Nebraska.

I had lost one person. Maybe Lin had committed suicide after a long depression. And maybe I feel like she should have done more to make it. And maybe there are always good reasons you shouldn’t hate yourself for feeling like that. Rational therapeutic reasons.

But still. It was one person. Not an entire family, or home, or way of living.

No, the rest of those things I had thrown away. And for what? Getting high? And a man who beat me, but whom I stayed with for too long because he gave me that high for free? If I can be that stupid then something must have been very, very wrong with me way before Lin died.

And I roamed around with no purpose—always moving. And moving. Meeting new people in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina—and then north again—all the way to Cape Cod. But always leaving them. Never staying.

 Doing nothing to change.

My hands are shaking. I turn the last page of the cardboard with the old photographs. 

Here’s the very last photograph. Again Anna Lee Shepherd. Her name scribbled on the lower part of the photo. And in a dress for a change. Cute.

Okay, I have seen drawings of myself that were more mirror-like, but something in her eyes shines with life that goes beyond simple physical resemblance.

No, no—Anna doesn’t look much like me. That’s not what I mean. 

She just has the eyes I want. 

Eyes that have seen it all and moved on.

That’s what she wrote about in the diary. 

Still, there is the missing ending. Her diary stops in that mining town in the Rockies, Telluride. There all traces of Anna Lee Shepherd disappear.

So what to do with that? 

I look for the last time at the nameless man in the bed beside me. 

I make a decision and feel like a thief now more than ever. And, you know, he had promised to pay for another night.

But I pack my bag and put on my clothes silently. Then I leave the room without waking him.

Putting myself to sleep in that room, with that man, while my body worked—that had netted me another 300 dollars. Enough.

It has been a long night, but it was what I needed. To get to where I knew I had to go.

I dash through the warm night towards the Bakersfield bus station. Once there, I curl up on a plastic bench until the ticket sales open at 7 AM. 

Then I buy a one-way ticket for Grand Junction, Colorado. 

From there, it is only a brief trip with a local bus to Telluride.

*

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