“I dunno when this damned road‘s gonna end, ah swear is’ longer than the river Hudson, an’ colder too,” said Richard Potts, and the other three white men in our small group responded with grunts of agreement. The four of them bellyached the whole way. My belly was frozen and aching too, but a freed slave cannot afford an opinion in the middle of nowhere.
It was fifteen frigid days since we marched for Yorktown, and fifteen frigid days since I had last felt my toes in my shoes. But at least I had shoes.
I was called Simon. I don’t know who chose that name for me. I don’t recall my parents. Even so, I did get one thing from them. Two, actually. My eyebrows, which were extremely large and resembled caterpillars.
“Ah never thought anythin’ could be colder than mah wife, but this road gone an’ proved me wrong,” said Thomas Carlile, who was constantly complaining about his wife at home and how terrible she was. We all knew he loved her, but it was as if he didn’t want anyone to know.
Then William Young spoke in his soft, gentle voice. “I miss my daughter, Alice. Lizabeth is all alone with her, and they will be missing me.”
The other men had all started fighting the war believing righteously in freedom, liberty, and bravery in battle. Slowly though, they lost their spirit, fighting now only for the pitiful “US dollars” that might be worth something if we won. I felt no love for the war – I was getting paid in freedom. William was the only one who still believed in what America could be, and so he left his beloved family and fought bravely beside us.
He spoke to me then. “What about you, Simon? What of your life at home?” This was met with grunts of rough laughter.
“Yeh, Mr. Freedom’ D’you miss your li’l wife and kiddies?” This was Samuel Penn, who seemed to think of taunting me as a game to be won.
“No suh, there’s nu’n for me back home.” I kept my eyes down. Being spoken to was dangerous. Just then, a black bird flew over William’s head.
“Well, would ‘ja lookit that, musta come from blasted Yorktown. We mus’ be gettin’ close.” Robert Penn liked to state the obvious.
Will said his daughter loved feathers. “She likes to run her fingers through them. She calls them flutters, you know. Flutters.” Will smiled at me. No one else ever did that. His eyes wrinkled in that way of his, and I knew he was happy thinking of home.
“We don’ need to know bout your stupid girly, besides, we’re here.” Richard pointed, and I dragged my tired eyes up. “No time ter linger, get ter diggin some trenches! Before long, yer’l be innem!”
We grabbed some shovels, badly made and all splinters, and started to dig. William worked next to me, and a feeling of companionship enveloped us.
“I’ll stand by you until the lobsterbacks stain the ground red.” He patted my shoulder and grinned. I smiled, grimly. A foot soldier is disposable, especially a black one. I would die.
But there was William. Maybe with him on my side I would survive. But what then? Back to my old life? Never. But maybe the Americans would live up to their promise of “All men created equal.” No, I had to face it: The trench I was digging would be my grave. Nobody buries a foot soldier. Nobody cares about a black man. And nobody wants to realize that they are fighting for a cause they might never live to see. Again, a black bird flew over us, over the redcoats, over to death.
For a moment the only sound was the shovels hitting the ground. Shk. Shk. Shk. Like the beating of a heart. We danced with the ground. Tangoed. Waltzed. Knee down, dig, step back, dump the dirt backwards. We danced in unison, a line of men, soldiers, ground grubs, but we were graceful, like the blackbirds that swooped in the sky.
“Thas’ enough boys, back ter camp an’ get some sleep, yerl be fightin’ men in the mornin, not diggin men.”
I trudged to the bunks and fought the night with fitful sleep. Then the drums were being beat, and I dressed quickly with the others.
“Ready for this?”
“What I wouldn’t give fer some good ‘ard brandy…”
“Yankee doodle wen’ ter town…”
“Oy, that song again…”
“Stuck a flutter in his cap and called it macaroooony,” sang William as he came up to me. He was in good spirits for he had gotten a letter from his wife, Lizabeth. And his little girl Alice had written “Miz Yu” in scrawny letters. He loved his family. He was beautiful, I thought to myself as we marched to the trenches. Blue eyes, and longish golden hair. I wanted to stroke that hair…
We stood in our trenches up to our shoulders, our guns at the ready. The air was quiet, thick, endless. It smelled of metal. Human blood is metallic.
“Fire, men! Fire!!!”
We pressed the triggers. We reloaded. Again and again until blood ran. From our fingers, from our targets.
I’d heard the British soldiers were aggressive, but through the barrage I saw a strange sight…the redcoats seemed weak…stumbling like they were children’s rag dolls. They were…sick? A plan formed…I would need a small group…no more than four…if we rushed across the line of fire, we could get a jump on them, get behind enemy lines, stabbing with bayonets. I shouted my idea to the others, abandoning all meekness.
“Shaddap! We don’t ‘ave time fer plans, ye lollpoop! Shoot!” Richard’s voice was hoarse, but I heard him plain. The others grunted their agreement, except William.
“I’ll go Simon. Get a good story to tell my girls back home.” I could see in his eyes that he was scared but we clasped hands, signing a contract of friendship, and made ready to run. We loaded our guns, straightened our uniforms, and stood.
Then the bullet came. It was a normal bullet. An ordinary bullet. No overachiever, just doing it’s job. It did its job. William dropped to the ground. Beautiful hair spilled over the ground. Blue eyes shut to the world. Golden soul gone from mortal body. And the world turned gray.
The others kept on firing. Blam. Blam. Blam. My heartbeat matched their flurried rhythm. Then it slowed. Flowers wilted. The earth froze. I closed his mouth, turning it from a scream to a grim smile.
I looked up. I saw the face that was responsible for William, my friend, my love, and his death. The face was young, smooth, and confused. Scared. Innocent. I knew otherwise.
And then the gray world turned red.
I jumped. Over the trench, dodge the big rock, left a ways, jump the large branch, keep running. There was the face, pale in the gray light, going, going, jump…BAM. His head hits the ground. He gasps. I stab. And stab. He cries out…then is still. I keep going. Legs, hips, arms, stupid, STUPID innocent face…the redcoats are on me now. I am outnumbered. I try to make my escape…a bullet nicked me in the leg, earlier. I hadn’t noticed…it drags me down, down to the earth that gave us creation, and I think to myself, ‘I will see William now.’
Then everything is blurry. Warm blood streams from me, and a boot rests on my chest. I cannot feel it. Why can’t I feel it? Was this death? Really? All quiet? The pain of barely a lifetime lifted from my shoulders. No comments, no race, no war, no Washington, no Cornwallis, nothing. A small beat. A heartbeat. That is all. I was leaving…I was sure. Going where William went. Colors faded.
A black bird crowed triumphantly. It perched on my cold body. And I died. I saw my body on the ground. I saw the others. Samuel Penn was cut down with a bullet to the side of the neck. The others survived. We won. The Americans won. There was a ceremony. Cornwallis didn’t show up. Richard Potts died at forty of yellow fever. Only Thomas Carlile lived to old age, his terrible old wife and him madly in love. The Americans didn’t live up to their promise for another 84 years. Black skinned men and women suffered.
It is peaceful here. I have time. I see civilizations grow, and I see them fall. I no longer have large eyebrows, nor brown eyes. I am pure soul now. No more Simon Banks. No more love for William. No more hate for cruel men who hated me. I make friends with the birds here. There is a black bird. I feed him every day. We sing together, that bird of death and I. A song of love, and war, and hope, and despair, and death. A duet. And I am content.