The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
The next morning, when darkness still lay around the field and before the sun had regained its rightful place in the sky, Annabelle was awoken. A brigadier general, Alpheus Baker (if she remembered it correctly) kicked her tired legs and jerked in her blue collar.
“Up.” She rose and watched him continue waking and shouting at other sleeping soldiers. It was their turn to fight now; their turn to kill and be killed. Suddenly she heard how shots were being fired and became aware of where she was. It was almost so that sleep had made her forget. She took a deep breath and her memories started coming back. Her hair!
She let her fingers search for the brown curls along her shoulders, but the only thing she found was memories and shadows of when her hair had laid free. She sighed and felt with a smile that the cap still sat on her head. Then she walked out of the tent, pale and still tired.
They had put up the tents fairly deep into the thick, dark forest, but Annabelle only needed to follow the smell of war, fog and the loud gunshots to reach the battlefield. Despite the night that had passed, and the regret that had taken root deep within her, she had managed to persuade herself to continue fighting. For my father, she thought, for my brothers and for Killian. For my family. Hesitantly, unsure of her own thoughts, she had silently added: For me.
She was just about to start walking when she felt someone grab her collar from behind. She made herself ready faster than she could blink, and then stood facing the person with a loaded rifle firmly resting on her right shoulder. Just as quickly she saw who it was and lowered the weapon.
“General Allen. Sir.” He nodded at her, and didn’t look particularly amused. However, he chose not to mention it, but instead went straight to the point.
“Your collar is blue, Johnson,” he said, and Annabelle quickly turned her head down to look. Her collar was bluer than the sky in early July.
“Yes, sir?” He cleared his throat, and looked at her as if she were stupid; as if she was only a girl.
“I just wanted to make sure that you knew that. You belong in the infantry.” Annabelle swallowed deeply and looked at the man. She didn’t want to say anything simply because she didn’t know how to feel. “You belong out there on the battlefield, not with the artillery.” Annabelle stood against the impulse to once again ask the man, because deep down she knew what he meant. She would fight for real; she would be in the heart of the war. The beating, dying heart.
Without really knowing which feelings fought within her to get the upper hand - sadness, happiness, fear or freedom - she lowered her head bravely, and gave the general a clear nod.
The sky was dull and gray that day. Annabelle herself never noticed it, though, just like she didn’t hear the birds’ sweet singing. For her, the sky was black, and no birds were present. For her, the wind blew, shook the majestically high trees so that one could have thought that they would break, and for her, the meadow they stood on was stained with blood.
She fought that day like she never fought before. She came to stand face to face with men she had never seen before - with men she would never see again. She looked right into their eyes, into their souls, past their blue-colored uniforms. She saw their fear when she held her finger against the trigger, how they all tried to get away. They never got away.
Annabelle, even though she was a girl, soon got used of the weight of the rifle in her arms, and forced herself to be better than them. Than all of them. She had to; that was the only way to survive. So she kept her regret and fear well hidden, and let nothing get in the way of her revenge. If I’m going to fight, she thought bitterly, I’m going to win.
They fought for a long time; the sun never seemed to set. Therefore Annabelle became very surprised when a cold shadow suddenly was laid across her back where she stood, almost at the edge of the battlefield. She quickly looked back, and her eyes landed on a blue soldier, riding a horse. He was a few feet behind her, and since he didn’t aim for her, he probably hadn’t seen her. He looked very important, as he sat straight and with a sharp face.
But he seemed lost, in some way, and Annabelle couldn’t stop the compassion she felt for him. He reminded her of soldiers she had treated, soldiers that had died and some that had lived. They had all had that look; that innocent, childish look - they had all been lost.
Before she could react further, she heard weapons behind her being loaded. Quickly she turned around, only to be met by several soldiers from her own company, gray faces adorned with dirt and desperation. They didn’t aim for her, but for the yankee soldier in front of her. So she raised her own rifle and aimed for the blue soldier, too.
“Look at that”, one of them scoffed; Annabelle didn’t know his name, even though she knew he was in her platoon. “If it isn’t General James McPherson.” The southern soldier, now standing beside Annabelle, whistled. His voice was hoarse and dull, but that didn’t keep the victorious smile from his lips. Another seven southerners were there, and now they all took a few steps forward. “Lost your troop, hm?”
Their voices had a mocking tone, but Annabelle still stood by their side. They were her men, her platoon and squad, and she couldn’t abandon them, no matter how badly they treated the cavalry general. He’s the evil one, she tried to convince herself, he and I, we are enemies. She had, after all, killed his men, and he had killed hers. McPherson’s horse reared wildly, but the general himself calmed it down.
“You’ll never make it”, he finally said, with courage and knowledge behind his words. “How could you, when even God is against you?” His eyes searched for the sky, and suddenly Annabelle realized that he was right, no matter how much she hated it. It could never be God’s will to fight for slavery; God could never think that people were less worth because of their skin. In the end, they were all his children.
McPherson said nothing more, and his face showed no trace of fear. He believed in himself, his troops and his country; he was sure that they would ultimately win, no matter if he himself wouldn’t be there to see it. She envied him for that.
“Let’s finish this, shall we?” Annabelle couldn’t argue with the soldier beside her, and the following second a shot was heard, loud and ominous. The horse reared again, but it was already done. General James McPherson coughed, and dark red blood dyed his blue jacket black. He looked at her then, she thought, with a look full of betrayal and death. He blamed his death on her, she imagined, and she had to take a deep breath, or else her fast breathing would make the other soldiers believe that she was weak.
Then she heard him fall to the ground, and when his lost soul passed through her, she had to close her eyes.
“Johnson!” Annabelle turned around and saw a blue soldier with a rifle aimed at her. The panic rushed over her as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over her. She didn’t have time to reload, so she hit him in the head with the back of her weapon instead. Then she looked for whoever had shouted at her, and saw a seemingly unknown soldier, dressed in gray. Annabelle gave him a quick smile, and turned back, so that she had her own people behind her.
At the beginning of the battle the Confederates had stood elbow to elbow with each other, to minimize the risk of attack from behind. The Yankees had done the same, which had made it easy to shoot, but also easy to be shot yourself. Now they were more spread out, even though there still was like an invisible line between the two armies.
Annabelle wiped her face with her sleeve, as the sun was blazing hot. Just seconds later she noticed another man in front of her, his lips curved into a dark smile. He wanted to kill her. Instead of a rifle he carried something that looked like a short sword; glistening sharp, half covered with dark brown paint and rust. Annabelle had no time to think, it all went too fast, and the only thing she heard was herself, screaming at the inside.
She realized suddenly how all the people she so cold-bloodedly murdered had felt; empty, scared and weak. She felt the knife’s edge against her dirty cheek, and the warm feeling of flowing blood overwhelmed her. She felt how life flowed out of her, and she was ready to fall.
Then it was as if she was brought back to life, echoing with emptiness, and she only had one thing in mind: the dagger. She hurried and pulled out the weapon she had hidden, and quickly stabbed the man in his stomach. The man began to cough, and a huge cascade of blood came gushing out of his mouth. She didn’t dare to look at his jacket, where the dagger had left a hole, but instead tried to tajke a deep breath. All the red made her blind and she could only hear how the man fell to the ground. She continued to try and breathe normally, but the scent of heat and iron, the scent of her own blood, came suddenly upon her.
No one bothered to listen to the thud that arose when Annabelle’s body hit the ground.
“Don’t leave me alone with the darkness, father...“, “Don’t let him leave me, not yet...“, “You left me, Annabelle! You promised to forever stand by my side, but you left me! You left me to die, only to fight in a battle destined to be lost!”
Killian’s crystal blue eyes haunted her even after she awoke. Her hand found her throat and the necklace; his farewell. Her heart calmed down when the blue charm lay in her hand.
Then she noticed a soft shadow bending over her, and she instantly closed her eyes again. She had ruined everything! The following seconds she was just waiting for a final shot to ring out. The fear within her grew ever larger, when no bullet hit her.
After a while, when she barely couldn’t control her panicked breathing anymore, she heard a beautiful voice whispering her name, a voice that she immediately associated with dark, beautiful lullabies and soothing words. The voice reminded her of her mother, Charlotte, who she long ago left in her past and doubted whether she would ever see again. She knew it couldn’t be her, but still she couldn’t resist.
“Mother?” she whispered anxiously, and dared to breathe again.
“Sorry, Johnson”, the voice said, and Annabelle sat up too quick, which resulted in her head meeting the ground again, cold and dark and unforgiving.
Her cheeks were burning. She could feel the flames licking her already burnt skin, and she screamed. Suddenly she felt a fire flaming up on the other cheek, and she opened her eyes. A softly shaped face, still hidden in the shadows, examined her critically, and Annabelle swallowed.
“Quiet”, the soldier hissed, and Annabelle looked around. She was no longer on the field, but in the woods. The sky above her was still dark, but not nearly as black, and the tall trees seemed to keep watch on her from above. “Girl”, the voice said, condescending, and Annabelle sat up gently, and brought her hand to her injured cheek. Then suddenly she understood what the voice said to her.
“What? No. No!” Her voice was on the verge of betraying her, and the obvious concern crept up behind her words, but she still did her best to hide it behind her cool facade.
“You’re not that good at hiding it, I must admit”, the voice laughed, which made Annabelle frown.
“If you tell anyone I’ll cut your throat faster than you can blink.” Again she only heard laughter, and Annabelle started to get up to go.
“No, wait.” Annabelle saw for the first time where the voice came from, and what she saw gave her a slight shock.
“You’re a girl”, she whispered. Like me.
“Woman. And you have a few things to learn.” With a movement too fast for Annabelle’s tired eyes, the woman snatched her hat from her head, and Annabelle’s beautiful curls flowed over her shoulders. “This is not going to work, you see”, the woman murmured, and pulled out a shiny knife from inside her uniform jacket.
“No!” Annabelle shouted and took a couple of steps away from the soldier. Then she added, in a slightly softer tone, “not that.” The woman took a deep, prolonged breath.
“Sure. But if they find out about you, it will be a shame for all of us.” All of us? Women, like herself, who had gone to fight in a war reserved for men. She wasn’t alone. Annabelle opened her mouth to ask, but stopped herself. She must not forget that this woman still was nothing more than a stranger to her.
“I know”, she said. The woman nodded, and then bowed down.
“Another big mistake of yours was this”, she said, and showed off a hand whose fingers were covered in mud. “I could see from afar that you were a girl. Your face revealed you in seconds.” She shook her head tiredly. “I’m actually surprised they didn’t take you straight away.” Then, without waiting another second, the woman laid the dirty fingers against Annabelle’s face. She painted dark lines and then covered her lips. “Much better”, she murmured, and looked at Annabelle, “much better.” Then she frowned her eyebrows slightly.
“What?” Annabelle said, and the woman just shook her head.
“Nothing. Let’s see...” She stood up, and gave a helping hand to Annabelle, who took it. She then saw how the stranger began to walk away.
“Wait! Thank you, really”, Annabelle said, still surprised and not at all sure that it wasn’t all a dream. She saw how the woman gave her a crooked smile.
“No reason. See you on the battlefield.” Again she started to go, but then interrupted herself, and turned back towards Annabelle. She held out her hand.
“Jack Milton. Let’s keep our other names for ourselves.” Annabelle took it again, and smiled slightly.
“Killian Johnson.” Jack nodded.