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John C. Mannone: He Wore a Purple Heart Inside a Gray Uniform

99_ym_purpleheart_shortcandle_fawcett.jpg
Art by Cynthia Fawcett 2023

He Wore a Purple Heart Inside a Gray Uniform

 

John C. Mannone

 

After the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862

                       

 

Will had lost a lot of valiant blood and slips into shock. Medics carry him across the Potomac, gray water rippling in a stiff breeze. That same bluster flaps the canvas of a field-tent where the medics triage him; he waits in and out of sleep with an aching pain in his arm. They move him to a makeshift hospital, a converted retail building in a small West Virginia town, when the waning gibbous moon has barely risen and the nighthawks begin their lament. The doctor, apron’d in blood, saunters over to see him.

“Who you with, Corporal?”

“Thirteenth Virginia, Sir.” Will shifts his body trying to ease his discomfort. “I survived the volleys in the West woods but took lead in the Cornfields.”

“That’s a nasty wound, Son.” The doctor’s eyes betray his understatement that the nurse senses. She remains silent and moves behind Will, who is lying on a stretcher; she shakes her head almost imperceptibly from left to right, right to left, a few times. She had seen that same look of fear in so many other young soldiers but none so intensified as from those who had fought in Sharpsburg, which some call Antietam.

Will winces as the doctor probes his left arm. The uniform had been cut away and the blood-soiled sleeve tossed in a bin with the other torn and tattered remnants of uniforms darkened with blood. And in the other corner, there’s a pile of gangrenous flesh and severed bone.

~~~

It’s a month later in mid to late November, and Will, now an amputee, is on his way home. A medical discharge. He thinks out loud so he’ll better remember when he writes his thoughts on paper:

I sink as I march through the woods; wish the ground to swallow me. Musket smoke still hangs in my nostrils. I lift my eyes to pray, and the air is crisp with sweet pawpaw leaves and syrup-colored maples. I see a tanager in the pines; hear the oriole’s pure, liquid whistles, rich flute and piccolo, flutter-drums of passion, and the beating of wings.

But the buzz around those carcasses maggot my thoughts. I am running now, away from there, away from the cornfields scattered with ears pressed to the ground; hair silked with blood; bodies husked in gray and blue. I am running away from the fields littered with death as I feel my own reaper close behind swinging his scythe. My arm already severed to my shoulder bone; my limb thrown among the other arms and legs onto piles, only its ghost remains to taunt me.

But today, I am coming home.

~~~

From afar, Will’s mother sees her son ambling through the fields. She runs to him. With an awkward moment on how to embrace him with a missing arm, Will throws his one good arm around his mother. He kisses her gently on the cheek.

          “I’ve missed you, Momma.”

          “I’ve missed you, too, Will. Been praying for this day; your coming home.”

          “Where’s Betty Lynn?” he says, his eyes growing wide.

          “She’s not here... I’m sorry, Son. She ran off and got married to a banker from Richmond.”

          “She what?”

          “We’ll talk more later.”

          “No, Momma. Tell me now.”

          “She left a letter for you. I put it on the dresser in your room.”

          They both go into the house and Will works his way up the loft to his old room. He sheds his backpack and undresses. He sees the letter, but doesn’t open it. He just stares at it. It now made sense why he didn’t receive any more letters from her after the first few months of his enlistment.

His side is hurting, so he fishes out some whiskey the doctor had given him, then lies down for a moment. Trying hard to quell the cacophony of thoughts and assuage the pain of loss, not just of his arm, he lies down on propped-up pillows, and takes another swig, and falls into half-stirred dreams.

Will mumbles in his sleep; tosses, and ruffles sheets, writhes, his face distorting in the late afternoon shadows of that bakery shop commandeered and converted to a hospital in Shepherdstown, WV just across the Potomac. The narcotic-infused whiskey sloshes with his delirium. And the cannon roars in the near distance of his nightmare rattle his sore ribs from when he was thrown hard to the ground from the cannon blast that shrapnel’d his arm. That laudanum-laced whiskey left a bad taste in his mouth when they braced him for the saw. There would only be a slight dulling to the excruciation of amputation. He yells out, “No. No, no!” as the tool razor-toothed into his flesh.

Will awakens to his own screams, beads of sweat dripping fear all over his face; his shirt drenched.

          His mother, startled, comes running, a thin shawl draped over her shoulders. “Will!”

          “I’m okay, Momma.” His voice perhaps is not very convincing. “It was just a bad dream.”

          “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, Son.”

          “I will.” But even wide awake, his nightmare continues.

          Will sits up at the edge of his bed in the farmhouse he grew up in trying to lose himself in childhood memories until the sun cracks the darkness. As he hopes and dreams, he can see a few slants of gold light bleed in, the windowpane transforming from black to the gray hue of morning, not quite blue. It’s a new day. It’s Thanksgiving morning and the cock is crowing. Will jumps out of bed, throws on some clothes, and scurries down to make breakfast with his mother.

The letter remains in shadows, unopened.

 

THE END

John C. Mannone has poems in Windhover, North Dakota Quarterly, Poetry South, Baltimore Review, and others. Winner/Nominee of numerous contests/awards, John edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. He’s a retired physics professor living in Knoxville, Tennessee.

http://jcmannone.wordpress.com

https://www.facebook.com/jcmannone/

Cynthia Fawcett has been writing for fun or money since she was able to hold a pen. A Jersey Girl at heart, she got her journalism degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee and now writes mostly technical articles about hydraulics and an occasional short story or poem on any other subject.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2023