Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fiction: River of Blood

(Working Title: River of Blood)
Creative Commons License
This work by Jonty Kershaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

    Tommy Pullaski ran. He ran as fast as he could, for as long as he could. Then he hid under a bush, curled in fetal position, sobbing. He ran some more.
    He always knew which way to run. He knew now what the rabbit knows: It’s easier to run away from something than toward it. Away is any direction but one, and he could hear that direction clearly.
    He hadn’t chosen to desert -- not exactly. The cannons had started firing, and the screams started, but it was the fife that had made him run. In all that chaos and death, the tinny notes of the fife had hooked their claws into his mind and made him start running.
    He didn’t know how long he had been running. He could remember snatches of time, and it seemed like some were night, but he couldn’t have been running that long. Besides, he could still hear the cannons. There was no sun to be seen, just a twilight glow through the mist that seemed to offer no hint of a direction.
    Tommy Pulaski had no food or water, and it was beginning to slow him down. How long can you run through a forest without finding a creek? Surely not more than an hour. The mist that hung on everything tasted of coal smoke, and his lungs burned. His steps began to falter, but he kept running.
    He kept running because he had a new certainty in his life, a new drive stronger than the religion he knew, stronger than his love for family, or loyalty to his cause. His new truth was that of not dying.
    Tommy didn’t know what happened after death. What the preachers had told him was all very well, but it had always rung falsely. Somehow he was sure that eternity consisted of the last few moments of life [] in some way. A few hours or days ago, he had watched his closest friends torn apart, screaming and twitching their last moments away. Not him. So he ran.
    Fifteen-or-so years ago, this was Cherokee country. They had called it Chickamauga, after the river of the same name. River of Blood, its name meant. He had certainly seen a river of blood today. Or yesterday. He just wanted a drink of water. “Water!” he yelled in hoarse desperation.
    He found water soon, but it was still. It was a dry creek at the bottom of a little valley he was running through, and he was standing knee deep in it before he knew it was there. You can’t drink water that doesn’t move, he knew, but maybe if he followed the creek bed, it would lead him to the river.
    He should have climbed out of the creek bed, but he found himself wading through the middle of it, enjoying the coolness of the swampy water in his boots. The water was a ruddy color from the local clay, and it stuck to his grey uniform wherever it splashed him. “River of Blood”, he laughed between gulps of air. Exhaustion was making a meal of him. He ran squarely into a tree, his legs gave out, and he knelt down in the muddy water, pressing his face against the cool bark.
    He stayed that way for some time. It was the buzzing that brought him around eventually. He pushed himself back from the tree and looked up.
    The tree he was holding on to was a dead one. Black leaves that he couldn’t quite focus on, and only two real branches to speak of, stretching out to either side like a stick figure, or a crucifix.
    As his wits returned to him, he realized that the leaves weren’t blurry. They weren’t leaves at all. The tree was surrounded by a buzzing mass of flies. A high keening noise was introduced to the buzzing, and he realized it was coming from him.
    More quickly than he could comprehend, the buzzing ceased, and the tree turned black with a coating of the flies. His own wail stopped in a cough a moment later as the tree spoke to him.
    “Queequatuk. Chugawahlodi?”
    The language was unfamiliar to him, but he knew what the words meant with certainty.
    “What is it worth? What price are you willing to pay”
    He ran from the tree, and the tree followed him. Sometimes when he looked back the tree was bare, and the moon and stars hung behind it. Sometimes the tree and its buzzing flies would loom in front of him to block his path. Sometimes the flies alone would flank him with burning sunlight and smoke. The branches of trees lashed his raised forearms to ribbons, and something – maybe sap or blood – was running into his left eye, blinding him.
    How long this nightmare went on he wasn’t sure, but as suddenly as it began he broke through the trees into a clearing. The clearing was littered with tree stumps, and in the middle of them sat a cabin. He plunged forward, swatting at the flies and the moon and the smoke that were closing in on him, and flung himself through the empty doorway.
    The cabin was dark and cool, and when he stopped swatting and cringing, he realized it was night outside. No sign of the tree or the flies.
    The cabin was one room, and as his eyes adjusted he saw two other people huddled in a different corner, staring at him. Their blue uniforms were in tatters, and their hair was matted. One of them had a smear of blood and cartillage where his nose should have been.
    They stared at each other for a long while, these three men from different sides of a war, deciding if they could trust each other, and indeed if you could be said to be on different sides when you have deserted. Finally, one of them reached forward to offer him a canteen. There wasn’t much left, but he took just a sip and handed it back. They sat there together for a while, this makeshift family, not saying anything and hardly breathing.
    “Have you made your decision yet?” Asked the soldier with no nose. Tommy Pulaski handed him a bandanna to wrap around his face.
    “How long have you two been waiting here?” he asked.
    The two Unoin soldiers looked at each other, and started laughing. Tommy didn’t know what he had said that was so funny. “What is that thing?” he asked, irritated.
    “Something old,” was the reply “Something maybe the Indians had a name for. We don’t know. We do know it only stops chasing you when you stop running and answer its question.”
    The tree was there again, just outside the door of the cabin, bathed in sunlight and stars. It asked its question again, and Tommy Pulaski knew the answer.
    “Anything. I’d be willing to pay anything.”
    The flowers grew, and the water came, and the cabin and its occupants vanished.

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