The old woman sat on her front porch in a rocking chair. The chair creaked rhythmically--or maybe it was the planks of the old porch--everything was so ramshackle it was hard to tell anymore exactly where the creaks were coming from. Maybe it was even her old bones, moaning and popping with the stress of her great age. The dilapidated shack behind her was nearly as drafty as the porch in bad weather, and nearly as pleasant in good weather. She extracted a plug of tobacco and a pocketknife from within the folds of her dress and hewed off a chew, which she popped into her mouth and began working slowly, letting the dark rich taste fill her mouth and waft up into her sinuses. Abruptly she stopped rocking, peering away into the distance where a dark green line of trees skirted along the riverbank. A figure appeared from out of the trees and walked toward her and the house. She squinted into the distance for a few seconds, then leaned back and resumed her rocking. In spite of her fading eyesight she knew it could only be one person. It was her grandson. The war was over, and he was coming home.
He left the giant moss-hung cypress trees behind him and walked toward the old shack at the other end of the clearing. It was where he'd been born, and grown up, where his parents, Grampa, and little sister had lived before they had gone on. He could barely remember his grandfather. Old Benjamin Cullum had gone on a long time ago, when Jeremiah was hardly more than a baby, and his sister had gone when they were both kids. He could see his grandmother sitting in her rocking chair, the same place she'd been sitting when he had left to join the rebels in 1861. He could almost believe she'd been sitting there the whole time, not moving except for her gentle rocking, the only consistent thing in this country that had been so torn by the chaos that the war brought on. The war...
He was still haunted by vivid memories of some of the things he'd seen. He would never forget Shiloh. He had probably come as close to death as he ever would, back at Shiloh. He had felt himself a part of an invincible force as his regiment had advanced in a ragged line toward the waiting Federal troops. There was a sudden thundering rumble of muskets and artillery and men began falling all around him. He had a vivid split-second vision of a giant scythe cutting through a hayfield, except the hay in this field were men; Confederate troops by the thousand collapsing in pools of blood and shattered limbs. His face was spattered by bits of flesh and bone fragments as a bullet struck someone near him. Many were dead when they hit the ground, others, not so lucky, fell screaming with arms or legs nearly severed from the deadly minié balls hurtling through the air toward them. Some pulled insanely at their clothing to see exactly where they'd been hit--those who had been hit in the guts knew they would be facing a long, slow, excruciatingly painful death. The first bullet to hit him actually crashed through the lock of the old squirrel rifle he carried before him, breaking the gun completely in two and deflecting into his hip. Almost at the same time, a second ball hit him in the arm. He spun and fell as he heard an unending howl of thousands more musket balls flying over him. He remained still. Maybe if he quit moving no one would shoot at him. Maybe...he had regained consciousness hours later, when it was nearly dark and the only sounds were the moans and screams of the men still lying in the field, dying all around him.
He shook himself to try and rid his mind of the visions of that battlefield. After Shiloh all he wanted to do was go home, but the fighting wasn't over yet, not by a long shot.
Gramma Cullum was wearing a faded old calico dress with a matching bandanna; the bandanna wrapped around her head like a scarf and tied with a bow in the back to cover her nearly bald head. As he approached more closely he found himself unable to speak. A simple hello just didn't seem right anymore. Gramma Cullum spat a long dark brown arch of tobacco juice away from the porch. "Well, it's good to see you home," she said.
"It's good to be...here," answered Jeremiah. He couldn't bring himself to call it home anymore.
"Come on up where I can get a look at you," said his grandmother. "My eyes ain't so good no more, these days."
"Yes'm," he answered. He walked closer and lifted one foot up onto the edge of the low porch, crossing his arms on his knee. His grandmother looked him over more closely.
"You been doin' okay?" she asked.
"Yes'm," he answered.
"Know anything new?"
"I reckon I might, Gramma." He hesitated, and was about to speak when she cut him off.
"You ain't stayin', are you?"
"No ma'am," he answered. "I just wanted to stop by and..."
"You got somethin' on your mind, go ahead and tell me."
"Well, I just seen some things I wanted to tell you about."
She spat again, and gestured for him to continue.
"I guess I always thought I'd be able to live here forever," he started. "Even after ever'body but you an' me was gone, I thought maybe it'd just stay like this. I figgered I could spend the rest of my days fishin' in the river and takin' a few 'gators from the swamp, take the skins down to Port Arthur for a little cash money when we needed it."
"You know that cain't be," his grandmother said. "We cain't stay here forever."
"Yes'm," he agreed. "I guess just a part of me thought maybe it could be that way. Anyhow I damn near didn't come back. I liked to got killed twice. Them Yankee boys weren't half-bad fighters, I'll tell you what."
"First time was at Shiloh," he continued. "We just about had them Yankees on the run, then durin' the night they got some reinforcements. They whupped hell out of us the next day. I caught a ball in my arm, right about here, and another one here." He pointed to a spot on his left arm about midway between shoulder and elbow, and another spot somewhere on his left hip. It hurt like all hell, and I figgered maybe if I quit movin' they'd stop shootin' at me. I musta laid there for hours, nearly bled to death, then fin'ly when things quieted down I got up and drug myself back into camp. Damn sawbones was gonna cut my arm off, said it was the only way to keep me from gettin' the gangrene. Well, you know I've always been stronger'n most folks, I was still able to put up a hell of a fuss. Told him wasn't no way he was gonna saw off my arm, kep' raisin' such a ruckus that fin'ly he just said, 'All right, you wanna die, you go 'head an' die. I got other people need's takin' care of.' So I crawled off an' hid up in some real thick brush for a few days until I got to feelin' better. I went ahead and joined back up with my regiment, a few weeks later I saw that doctor again. He went plumb white when he seen me. Didn't say nothin', just went all white and scared-like and went on his way, like he figgered I shoulda been dead by that time. I just laughed at him, and waved like this with my shot arm, to show him it was okay, and that kinda seemed to scare him even more. Bastard called hisself a doctor. Cuttin' off people's arms an' legs was all that sawbones was good for."
"You watch your language," said his grandmother. "He was just doin' his job as best he could."
"Yes'm", he answered sullenly. "I reckon he was."
"So how's your arm?" she asked.
He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a puckered white mass of toughened skin where the musket ball had struck him. "I guess I'll always have this here scar, but other than that, seems just fine."
"Yep," she said, leaning forward to peer at it more closely, "our folk always was better at healin' up hurts than most. I reckon you'll be okay."
"The next time," he said, "that's what I mainly wanted to tell you about. We was stationed up along the Red River. I had been assigned to scout duty and was out all by myself when I just walked smack into a little group of three Yankees. You know when I left here all I had was Daddy's old squirrel gun, but by this time I'd took one of them fancy muskets off a dead Yankee somewhere or 'nother, it had a bayonet an' all. Anyhow, when I walked into them three boys we all looked at each other real surprised for about two seconds, an' then all hell cut loose. I shot one, took another one out with the bayonet, and then the third one managed to wing me, I reckon he wasn't a very good shot. I figger I was real lucky he didn't kill me right then and there."
"Yep, our folks always was good in a scrap," interrupted his grandmother, a glint of admiration in her eyes.
"Anyway," he continued, "I'd lost my musket when I put the bayonet through the guts of that one ol' boy, he had twisted around back'ards and I lost my grip on it. I didn't reckon I wanted to take on that last Yankee, him with a bayonet and me with only my bare hands, so I dove right into the river. I can hold my breath for a long time, so I figgered I'd just stay under until he got tired of lookin' for me and wandered off. I held my breath so long I was about to bust, then fin'ly I come up real slow like with just my eyes out of the water and took a look around. Damn it if that ol' boy wasn't still prowlin' around the riverbank lookin' for me. He seen me too, so I went under again and I guess he musta reloaded because I felt a hard smack in the water that I figgered was prob'ly a musket ball. I knew it would take him a while to reload so I went ahead and came up again, and damn it if that son of a gun didn't just drop his musket and come into the water after me!"
His grandmother's expression only changed to a slightly greater degree of curiosity as she spat once more. "Then what?" she asked.
"I didn't think he could swim near as good as me, so I went for the deepest water I could find, but damn if he didn't come right after me. We went at it, right there in the river, and that ol' boy was strong, nearly as strong as me! Fin'ly I got a grip around his neck that he couldn't break, and I held on a long time, him still squirmin' and wigglin' like a fish on a hook. I had to surface for another breath, so I kep' my grip on him and got back into some shallow water where I could sit up with my head above water and get some air. Fin'ly he stopped movin', so I drug him out on a sandbar and just sat there a while gettin' my breath back. 'Bout that time I got to looking at 'im and got to noticin' he was kinda familiar." He stopped for a second and looked directly at his grandmother. "Gramma, you reckon we got any Yankee kinfolk?" he asked.
"Yankee kinfolk?" she echoed.
"Yes ma'am," he confirmed. "Once I got to lookin' him over I noticed how he had them big eyes like we get. He wasn't quite so far along, but he was just beginnin' to lose his hair and such. I pulled his shirt open and took a good look at his neck, and I'm pretty sure he was our kinda folk."
His grandmother took several long, thoughtful chews of her tobacco before she answered. "Well..." she drawled, "I reckon there's folks like us all over the world these days. Wouldn't surprise me a'tall if we had some kinfolk up north."
"Well, anyhow," said Jeremiah, "after that, I guess with me spendin' all that time in the water tryin' to hold my breath an' all, it started the change somethin' fierce. I figgered I better get on back home. The fightin' was mostly done by then, anyway. So I started back home an' here I am."
"You'll be goin' on, then?" asked his grandmother.
"Yes'm," he replied. "I figger two, three days at most, I'll be ready to go. I reckon I'll just head south and hide out in the swamp along the coast until the time comes.
His grandmother leaned forward, taking his chin in her hand and turning his head from side to side as she looked him over. "Yep," she agreed, "the change comes to some sooner than t'others. Looks like it's about your time." She leaned back and resumed rocking. "You tell your Momma and Daddy hello for me, an' little Liza and Grampa too, if you can find 'em."
"Yes'm. I don't reckon Liza is so little no more, though. She's prob'ly growed up pretty big by now." His grandmother only nodded in reply.
"I got to thinkin'," continued Jeremiah, "maybe I'll head up north and see if I can find any other kinfolk up there. I guess the war don't mean much to us now, anyway."
"You do that," said his grandmother. "An' if you find 'em, you give 'em my best regards."
"Yes ma'am. I guess I better go."
"You take care, Jer'miah. I'll be seein' you again, someday. Later or sooner, I'll be there."
He walked away slowly, looking back several times to see his grandmother still sitting, still rocking and chewing her plug as he walked back to the river.
Gramma Cullum watched her grandson hesitantly walk away, trying to remind herself that she shouldn't miss him, or anyone else in her family. It was only a matter of time before she would see them all again. She was still sitting there at sundown. As the soft summer darkness slowly welled up from the thickening trees away down by the river, and the quiet noises of the night began to echo from the swamp around the shack, she sat and remembered. Her husband Ben had gone on long ago, along with many of the other residents of this old backwoods where they had settled all those years ago.
"Derned old cuss," she muttered as she thought about him.
Her son and his wife had gone on when Jeremiah was only a boy, and she had been left to raise him all by herself, but that was nothing. He was family, and she was glad to do it. His little sister Liza had been born with the change already coming upon her. She remembered how all the family had gone down to the coast with her, and how Ben had been waiting, tall and strong and dark in the moonlight as the breakers crashed along the sandy shoreline. How little Liza had giggled, a sharp gurgling laugh as he had taken her hand and they had vanished with hardly a ripple beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
"The change comes sooner to some than t'others," she mumbled to herself, and took a deep breath of the briny air that wafted up from the salty marsh around her.
Three days later, just after dark, a strange crouching figure appeared from out of the brush along a thin strip of beach several miles to the south of Gramma Cullum's old shack. It half-walked, half-hopped into the breakers and as the salty water swirled around its legs, there appeared on its face an expression that might have been a smile. Farther out away from the beach four other similar figures appeared. One waved and shouted a deep, croaking hello over the noise of the crashing surf.
The thing that had once been Jeremiah Cullum knew it was his grandfather waving to him. He hesitated for just a moment, looking back toward the shore. Somewhere back in that darkness his grandmother still waited. He knew he would miss her, even knowing that someday, sooner or later, he would see her again.
He dove into the water and croaked with pleasure as his newly-developed gills responded to the water washing over them. His family was waiting.
© 1998 Alan Peschke