He visited the scene twenty-four hours after the shooting stopped, and thereafter, one detail burned itself deep into his mind. Over the years, that detail had grown nonsensical, a cosmic joke told by a darkly comic creator. He could revisit the shade of that moment anytime he pleased, and for the first two decades, he brought it up continually, reviewed the landscape, walked among the shades, heard all the voices and the sounds of the shovels cutting the sodden ground, and positioned himself just so in order to hear the sound as though it were the first time all over again, expecting the thunder clap of it to hit him, but this time with a meaning and an explanation.
It always pulled him up short and left him hollow, unfilled, longing.
Would it surprise you to know that the dead do not have all the answers? That they do not know whether there is a god? That they have not found the meaning of life and of their singular existence? That there is no agreement about what form of existence they now embody? That the Buddhists and the Hindus are still preparing for nirvana, that the Christians are expecting the rapture, that the Catholics believe they are in purgatory, that the atheists explain it all through entropy? That the physicists are thrilled to learn that consciousness continues in another dimension but are still debating the multi-dimensionality of the universe? These are the sorts of things you pick up post-death over the course of one hundred fifty plus years. Not that you try to think too much about time because it has become warped to you. The fact that every experience you ever had–pre- and post-death–becomes a shade that can be called up and visited at any time tends to cause time’s passage to seem trivial. In fact, John knew people who never seemed to break free of their shades, always seemed stuck within them, though they were not alterable, and always remained in them, creating a hall of mirrors that went on forever.
John Alexander did not live his afterlife this way. Mostly, he tried to keep advancing forward through time, as he had done in life, and the times when it occurred to him that he dwelt outside of time, he tried to find someone else to talk to, tried to study something else, because if he thought too hard about existing outside of time, his mind and vision closed in on him, causing what would have been panic in a physical body.
Corporal John K. Alexander came from Plymouth, Massachusetts, joined the 29th Massachusetts Infantry early in the War, saw action on the Peninsula, at Antietam, at Vicksburg. Then, he was part of a group that joined with the 36th Massachusetts. On May 12, 1864, at four am, he advanced with his regiment against the eastern side of the salient or Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The regiment came under intense fire and retired within an hour. But they left Corporal Alexander on the field, shot through the chest and dead.
There was, of course, a brief terror when he felt the thud and crumpled to the ground, when he saw the blood oozing through his blue coat, which was already soaked from the night and morning rains. But the terror passed, and he soon felt strangely peaceful, even as paralysis crept over his body. Strange to see the flashes of musketry and hear the cannon and feel no fear.
Then, of course, he was no longer lying on the ground, but hovering above it, watching the horror unfold.
Those would always be unforgettable moments, but he never called up those shades. He wasn’t bothered or traumatized, as they said in a later era–he just took nothing from them. It was the shades of the next day that he revisited continually.
Most of the disembodied, killed that fateful day, visited the site the day after—blue and gray. The Confederate units had fallen back a half mile to straighten their lines, and so the grave diggers were out, as well as men looking for fallen friends.
The first disembodied man he met wore gray and stood near John’s body.
“I believe I recognize you, sir,” said the man.
“You do?” said John.
“I believe that is your body there, sir,” said the man with a wave to the right.
John nodded. “I believe so.”
“I also believe, sir, that I took that shot.”
John nodded. Was he supposed to feel angry? Resentful? “I suppose one of ours got you back.”
“Yes, sir,” said the man. “I think you might not like to look at my body, though.”
“Yes, sir. One of yours put a bayonet through my eye.”
“I’m sorry,” said John.
“For what?” said the Reb. “We were all just doin our duty.”
“I guess so,” said John.
Motion caught his eye, and he saw men he knew from his unit surround his body. They had shovels, and they started digging. Ah! He was to be buried individually. They would mark the spot! Perhaps someone would come for him, and his remains would make it home at some point!
He watched for a few moments and then moved on.
None of these sounds are what struck him. Rather, he wandered the field. On the western side of the salient, he saw a group of specters staring at an artillery wagon.
“I’ll be damned,” one muttered to the other. “We look like sculptures.”
“I almost wanna poke a few of us to see if we’d wake up.”
In one of the battlefield’s oddities, the whole artillery group had been shot to death in place, the horse included. The horse was down in front of the limber. Two of the men sat in wagon seats slumped over, one still holding the reins. Two men stood against cannon wheels, their legs locked in place in the mud. Another man was folded over the limber link, shot dead where he had been trying to unlimber. If you could pour amber on the scene, you could preserve forever a Union artillery unit in their final act of supporting the attack.
John turned away. A group of specters huddle around a tree adjacent to the Mule Shoe. Tree was a misnomer–remains of a tree made more sense.
“No wonder they got me,” said one. “No place to hide behind this.”
Bodies carpeted the ground around the tree remains.
The remainder of the trunk was shot through with thousands of minie balls. The top half of the tree had toppled onto a pile of dead.
To John’s left were the earthworks, and the sounds there were horrific, even to the mind of a disembodied specter. John approached and saw piles of men, and some of the piles moaned–wounded men had fallen, and then dead men had toppled on top of them. Grave diggers and medics tried to pull apart some of the piles in order to do their jobs.
John wandered to the earthworks. Here he found the leg of a man poking up from the crest of the earthworks. The leg was disconnected from its owner, and John couldn’t make out to whom it belonged on the other side–the entrance to the Confederate lines was carpeted in mangled blue and gray bodies. The leg was not unusual. The eleven bullet holes through the foot were.
John shuddered and glanced elsewhere only to have his eyes alight on a worse sight–just ahead about twenty-five yards was a Confederate officer leaning against breastworks with his left shoulder, his right hand resting on a drawn saber, which was jabbed into the mud. The officer had had half his head knocked off by a shell.
John had been at Antietam and seen its horrors. Even that did not match this. And yet, he didn’t feel the same physical illness at these sights. Probably because he was no longer physical.
He stood in the midst of the bodies, the grave diggers, the medics, the disembodied and listened to the muttering and swearing of the Union men, the wondering of the specters, the moaning of those still alive. The sun was finally out, and flies buzzed around. Men stepping through the mud made suction sounds. A light wind blew.
And then, above the sounds of the dead, the moans and cursing of the living, and the whisper of the breeze, he heard it. It came from a tree twenty yards away.
The peak-and-valley singing of a warbler.
John stopped and listened. The warbler repeated the peak-and-valley over and over, then moved to a high-pitched trill, then cycled to a long-held cheep.
How could this be?
John looked around. No one else–living or dead–heard the warbler or paid it any attention, but now, it was almost the only thing John could hear. He passed over the carnage and moved under the tree. At first, he didn’t see it but still heard the trill then cheeps. He grew still and quiet, tracing the sound until he finally saw a tiny hop. There! Bounding among the mid-level branches, the yellow-throated warbler foraged in the bark entirely unaware of the carnage below, the sounds of the dying, and even the limbs that had been stripped bare of flowers and leaves by bullets and shrapnel.
John watched the tiny bird peck the bark, then pull back and let out long cheeps. No portion of this field had been spared—the grass was trampled to mud, most of the trees were down and formed into breastworks, many men had been reduced to bullet-riddled trunks, other trees had been shot to pieces and blown apart, horses lay bloating with post-mortem gases … and the warbler trilled and cheeped and pecked for food.
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? John recalled.
“I guess you still need to eat today,” John whispered, and of course, the warbler paid him no attention.
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.
And what was the evidence of that? This field? The Wilderness? The farms of Sharpsburg and Gettysburg? The mountains overlooking Chattanooga?
You are equally unaware of the struggles of the birds, a voice whispered in his mind.
“I suppose that’s so,” he said softly. “I am not aware when your predators destroy you.”
John stayed with that bird for a long time—minutes, an hour, hours … he didn’t know and never tried to figure it out over the years. Instead, when he revisited this shade, he focused on the sound of the song striking him amidst the carnage.
In the early years after his death, he lamented what he had not experienced. He had never married, never dated a girl even. He missed out on relationships with his parents, his siblings. As they aged, he stayed in his twenties forever to them. Mourn your life cut short and your loss of experiences … that’s what you are supposed to do, right? And it’s why many people remained trapped in their shades, seeking to restore something they had lost or never had.
Being unmoored from time, though, means that the people you miss from life show up sooner than you think. Suddenly, your parents are disembodied and wandering with you. Then come your school mates, your cousins, and your siblings. You fill their heads with your army experiences, show them the shades of your death, hear their stories of life without you.
And yes, you have missed things. They have left children, wives, husbands, and lovers behind, while you have no legacy except a memory of you that is fading as your generation ages out.
But you have also missed the downsides—cancer never invaded your bones and ate them to pieces until you died of pain, you did not lose your memories and mind in your final years, you did not live long enough to shatter your closest relationships with long grudges, you did not come to resent your parents for manipulating you or passing along their bad habits, you never lost anyone too young and you have a perspective on that loss now that you never could have had in life, and while you never married, that also means you never came to loath the sound of your spouse’s heavy sigh or irritated glance. Your early death has left your unlived life a hole of possibilities without the sorrow and tragedy that comes with them.
These are the lessons John learned over decades, though they were layered on more by experience, by studying and reflecting on shades, by talking to people than by any notion of time.
Despite the big lessons, details did not escape him. His body was not returned home. His friends marked his initial burial spot with a wooden headboard. Years later, when the national cemetery in Fredericksburg was formed, reburial crews dug up his remains—the markings on the headboard had faded in the weather, and he was mistakenly identified as John S. Alexander of the 6th Massachusetts, a unit that was never at Spotsylvania Courthouse.
His family received notice that he had been killed, his body never recovered. The government awarded them a headstone. They had it engraved and installed on Burial Hill in Plymouth. The marker stood in the family plot beneath a large oak with nothing but dirt and grass in front.
Why do we preserve bodies? For the resurrection? Because, yet in my flesh shall I see God? Why do we mark their locations? Why do we go to those spots? Why do we try to remember what will be forgotten within a few decades?
And when there is no body, why carve a stone, put it in a family plot, and pretend? The fact of the carving helps you remember?
When he saw his mother in disembodied state, he asked her these questions and she shrugged and said, “I don’t know. They gave us a free headstone. It was a place I liked to go to talk to you.”
He let it go. He did not tell her, “I was never there when you talked to me.” Not that he couldn’t have been—it had just never occurred to him.
Civil War veterans groups began having reunions after the War. So, likewise, did the disembodied, and as with their living counterparts, they tended to meet at the battlefields.
As they aged, the old living veterans from both sides came together. Pictures exist of men who charged the Angle at Gettysburg shaking hands with the men who defended that ground. Similarly, a variety of Confederate veterans attended the funeral of US Grant and joined with Union men in mourning his passing.
The disembodied got through these reconciliations much faster. They shared the common experience of dying in combat under wretched conditions and likewise realizing how disconnected their cause was from their post-death experience. When you possess nothing and have no ability to do so, the importance of your possessions and way of life greatly diminishes. In fact, as John agreed with Private Jackson Dawes, the man who had pulled the trigger, the whole of their conflict was little more than comic tragedy marked by absurdity and randomness. Dawes had been a proud member of the Stonewall brigade, which functionally ceased to exist after Spotsylvania.
In the early years, during their spring visits, Jackson told John of the young wife and child he left behind and his lament that his boy would not know him even while he watched the boy grow. And of course, there might well come another man into his life. But these concerns faded—what could be done about them anyway? Then, faster than John would have expected, Jackson’s wife joined him at a reunion.
Strange to become friends with the man who had killed you? It became common among the former enemies of that field. Further, they all grew grim senses of humor over their manners of death. The half headless Confederate officer? He became Captain Duck. The man who belonged to the leg and foot shot full of holes? Long John Silver. A man whose torso was shot through at least fifteen times? The Hole-y Ghost. The tree trunk shot full of holes? The Hole-y Idol. The trenches? The Red Sea. The artillery unit shot down in their places? The Monument Men.
Sharing these experiences with Jackson led John to believe he might be someone who would understand the warbler. So at one of their reunions, he brought up the shade and asked Jackson to join him.
They stood together on the earthworks, as the grave diggers, medics, and wounded all made their sounds and went through their paces.
“What am I listening for, John?” Jackson asked.
“Let’s see if you know it when you hear it,” John answered.
They waited and John closed his eyes, ticking down the seconds and waiting for the exact feeling in the air when it would happen.
Finally, at the same moment as always, the warbler let loose his peak-and-valley call followed by his trill.
Jackson chuckled. “You wanted me to hear the warbler?”
“Yes!” John exclaimed.
“That’s fittin for a fella like you.”
“What does that mean?” John said.
“Now don’t get me wrong. His timin’s impeccable.”
For the thousandth time, John walked to the tree, this time with Jackson in tow. “Look at him,” he said.
“Little guy’s gotta eat,” said Jackson.
“Don’t you think it’s more than that?” said John as the bird drilled its beak into the bark.
“There are millions of these birds in Virginia. I seen em all the time around our farm.”
“That’s what I mean. They’re like the sparrows of the Bible. I feel like it might be a sign, but I don’t know of what.”
“Like how? I mean, if the little fella was lucky enough to survive all that mayhem, he’s gotta eat. He forages in trees. This here was one of the only trees left.”
John nodded. “Here’s all this carnage, all this death and mayhem. But then this little bird sings. It’s spring. The rain has stopped. The killing has stopped. It seems like a sign about life and rejuvenation.”
Jackson chuckled. “Jesus stuff, huh. Or maybe it’s about how we’re so miserable that God decided to kill us all and all our kin and all our animals. Like Saul or Joshua did in the Bible. And like Noah after the flood, there was birds to start it all over again.”
“But we were the ones killing each other.”
“That’s how He usually works–letting people kill each other to extinction. Except for raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. If you believe that sorta thing anyway.”
John watched the bird, which never looked at the field but focused on the bark. “I thought for a long time that it was a positive sign. Life and renewal. Then I thought it was God reminding us that we’re little more than the grass of the field. A giant slaughter like this occurs, and God’s creatures just do what they do, and they don’t care and God doesn’t care.”
“Why do you think He don’t care?”
“There have to have been a million ways to have avoided this. The God who destroyed the earth by water could’ve figured a way to keep this from happening.”
Jackson gently moved his finger toward the bird as though he could induce it to hop on, but of course, a disembodied man could do no such thing, and besides, it was just a shade. “Now think of it this way, John. I shot you. One of your mates stabbed me. We were as angry as any two men could be at each other. Here we are now–friends as though we grew up together and knew each other our whole lives.”
“Probably known each other longer than our whole lives,” said John.
“Yes, sir,” said Jackson. “So if it took you and me killing each other to do that and you were God, why would you interfere in that?”
John shook his head. “But all the things we missed–”
Jackson waved his hand. “And all the things we’ve gained. Look here, we got to it quicker than the whole rest of the country, the whole rest of the world. They still ain’t learned the stuff we know.”
John paced around and looked back at the thousands of the slaughtered, the blood spilled all over the ground, but also saw all their specters milling around.
“Are you suggesting the hand of God was in the slaughter?” John said.
Jackson laughed. “I’m just sayin, I don’t see no evidence that it works out better if God meddles.” The bird cheeped over and over. “In fact, I don’t see no evidence of God anywhere in it at all.”
John turned back to him. “How could that possibly be? There’s so much order, so much symmetry in life and now in death. Everything suggests God’s involvement.”
Jackson shrugged. “If everything suggested it, I don’t think we’d be here talking. In fact, in all your time being on the other side, have you ever seen any evidence that there’s any God at all?”
“I mean, we’re here, right?” John said.
Jackson laughed. “Come on, John. We both know plenty of people can explain that without God. Have you seen any angels? Been visited by Jesus? Been visited by Zeus or Allah or any other manifestation people believe in?”
John looked at the bird again, watched it click its head left, right, and diagonal, always checking for a predator while also looking for its prey. The bird trilled again, and John felt deep inside that it had to mean something, that its song framed the Mule Shoe, framed his own death, said something about life and death and existence and where he was bound and where all people were bound.
“Everything that is essential seems to hang on this bird,” said John quietly at last.
“Indeed,” said Jackson.
John glanced at Jackson who watched the warbler hop around the limb. He looked around once more. The shade was not present in any real sense, but it existed here as though it were. The events had happened more than one hundred years ago but were always happening anytime he needed them to. Some form of himself was even in this shade–a shade of a shade, a refraction of time, space, memory, and meaning. He looked back at the hopping warbler, heard its peak and valley again.
“Well?” said John.
“Well, what?” said Jackson.
“Well, what do you think about it? About the warbler? About what it means?”
Jackson half-smiled. “I think if you stare at it any longer, you’ll go blind.”
John nodded. “All right. Thank you, my friend.”
Then he and Jackson turned away from the bird and away from the shade.