We had a book. And in the book, there were hundreds of pictures of the Civil War. The book was heavy and cool as a rock. When we were both eleven we held it between us, the left side would fall on his lap and the right on mine. We shared it slowly, gravely. Whenever our families got together, we opened the book.
In 1863, in a section of overgrown farmland that had been worked dead and then abandoned, two great armies met in tangled willows and thick pine. They bumped into each other, like blind men, before radios, or satellite, or even accurate maps. They killed each other with their hands, or shot into the wilderness, hoping to hit something they couldn’t see. Wild pigs ate the dead and wounded in the night. From outside of the wilderness, in their camps in the cleared fields, the men heard screams all night.
A year of war passed. Moving in circles and turn-around the armies returned. The rotten ground stood again between them. This time, they turned up the bones of last year’s dead. After the fighting and charging, sometime in the night, a fire started. First low, in the dense leaves and brush, then running up the trees like a flag up a mast. And again, sitting in their tents, with the wilderness like a black sea between them, the armies listened to the screams of the men they couldn’t save as the fire moved through them and spread both ways outward. In one picture from the morning after the battle there are bones and ashes.
We loved the photograph of the burned bodies under the burnt trees. I think we knew that it was horrible. What we were doing was wrong, or it felt that way. The book sat openly on the shelves, but when we read it together, we hid. Or maybe it was because under the dead weight of the cover, half on my lap, half on his, our legs touched from thigh to calf and charged me like rubbing my feet on the carpet. I could feel him move against me as we flipped through picture after picture, pointing out the bones, the bones, the bodies.
We used to hide out by the northeast corner of his house, where it was always cold and in shadow. The woods came right up to the clapboard there, the blackberries and birch spilling over the stone wall like waves, rising back into the dark pines and up into the sugar bush. If I think of him at eleven, he slips away over the stone wall like one of the family’s cats, and I can watch his white blond hair fade away into the darkness like a white tail running, into the wild places where it is easy to lose your way.
Megan Baxter is a MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from New Hampshire, she is currently living in South Carolina. Most recently her essays have appeared in Carte Blanche and The 3288 Review. Megan is working on a memoir and a collection of linked lyric essays. She received her BFA from Goddard College and is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy.