Cold Harbor

by Patricia L. Meek

soldiersThere are men in the woods I cannot see, reenactment soldiers dressed in blue wool uniforms; some are in gray. The uniforms are nineteenth century and absolutely authentic. Believe me, there is no silk lining, no thin cotton padding to keep He-man skin from chafing and itching, though the machine tooled-brass buttons have an unmistakably twentieth-century shine. The sales clerk at Union Cords, a reenactment store in Gettysburg, told me that such discrepancies hardly matter. “What’s important,” he’d said, “is that these replicas are handmade. Guaranteed too.”

My fingers prickled when he lifted back the collar in the Grant’s deluxe and showed me where the seamstress had stitched in her number six. A golden stitch framed the stars on the inside of the tag. Could I help it? I had to touch that heroic cord. “In battle,” the clerk informed me, “Grant dressed like the men he led. Might have lost a commander if them rebels had been able to tell shit from shinola.”

That did it. The clerk sold to my imagination, and if I’d felt $758 press into my palm, I’d have put cash down. I would have gone into the backroom with my general’s uniform draped over my arm, dipped behind the moth-eaten curtain, emerged as a good Grant wannabe even if I’m a Southerner and a girl to boot. “You got any smaller sizes?” I’d asked.

“Not if you want to be Grant.”

I guess I don’t want to be Grant, but I don’t want to be Clara Barton either. Her costume was a special order from a Washington D.C. wax museum where they owned the pattern to her dress. Everyone knows that special orders cost more. Besides, in her own time, folks thought Miss Clarissa was a whore. Why else would she follow a bunch of homesick boys around behind the lines? She was good for morale.

Why do the men in the woods need morale? They’ve got tourists. The tourists step down from touring buses and the buses keep coming. If the tourists are older women, they trickle toward the rear tire in sets of two. They loiter—stop in cluster formation on some inaudible command, and then dig deep into quilted, metallic bags for their Sure Shot. At least one lady pulls out the laminated battlefield map that she holds for her husband. If the day is hot, the lady with the map will fan, with slow and exaggerated gestures, the damp spot under her doughy arms. The other ladies understand. They understand that summers are always hot. They understand that they have been suited to a lifetime of understanding. They understand that such gesture is meant as dry wit. They politely laugh but they also turn away. They don’t wish to think about how uncomfortable their own damp spots felt.

The husbands have been spotted. They flank a Union private at a respectful distance, ready to check his information with their own memories of Civil War history. Some of the men are strapped with mini camcorders, recorder buttons set on pause. The private gently lifts his sharpshooter up to the fingers of an old man who will die one day as a husband. Red lights flash on. The brass buttons on this private’s coat scrape a sudden shard of light. His double breast shines like new. The old man lowers his shy gaze and listens to the Cold Harbor talk. He turns when the private turns and looks to where the private points. There are the shallow breastworks, scars riveting around trees, where dying men buried themselves under leaves and dirt because some protection was better than no protection at all. They all nod, that line of men.

The understanding women see—oh, how their husbands nod—and they quickly join in with the questions they’ve thought to ask since the last guide. Deep down, at the heart of their questions, they think about vacationing next year at Martha’s Vineyard when it will finally be their turn. When will it finally be their turn?


Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing