Matthew Warner’s work spans a variety of formats, including novels, short stories, screenplays, radio, and newspapers. His publishing credits include five books and more than 30 short stories. Warner’s latest novel is Blood Born, an apocalyptic monster tale set in Washington, D. C.. His two-act Lovecraftian comedy stage play, ‘Pirate Appreciation Day’, premieres early 2012 in central Virginia. He lives in Staunton, Virginia, with his wife, Deena Warner, who designs websites and illustrates for publishers and authors. More information: matthewwarner.com.
by Matthew Warner
Life in Uncle Billy’s army weren’t no roll on a feather-filled mattress. We marched fifteen miles a day toward Savannah, foraging and pillaging, lest we stay in one place too long and starve. I had holes in my shoes and a chill shaking me clean through my blue uniform coat. But you know what? I was the best damn soldier in the Union.
Too bad I couldn’t tell my fellow bummers I was really a woman. That would’ve gotten their goat for sure.
My foraging squad today consisted of fourteen privates and a corporal. We wore clothes confiscated from Georgian homes since leaving Atlanta three weeks ago. Private Charles, marching beside me, wore a striped vest and dandy bowler with a feather in the brim. He moved his rifle to his other shoulder so he could address me from the corner of his mouth: ‘Still have that pitcher?’
I pretended not to hear. ‘That cotton plantation, we’ll be there by nightfall.’
‘Francis,’ he said, louder. ‘The pitcher. You have it?’
Francis, with an ‘i-s,’ was my male name. Charles had no idea my given name was Frances, with an ‘e-s.’ He also thought I was just a slender twenty-year-old who didn’t need to shave yet.
The others glanced over their shoulders at us. One man cursed as he tripped into a wheel rut and splashed through a puddle. Georgia might be in the balmy South, sure, but a December puddle weren’t no dip in a hot spring.
‘Yes, I have the picture,’ I said. ‘Now will you hush?’
‘I want it tonight.’
‘But it’s mine.’
He leaned close so only I could hear. ‘Let me have it, or I’ll tell General William T. Sherman himself you got a nekkid-woman pitcher in a frame.’
‘Hell, you tell Uncle Billy that, and he’ll give me a ribbon.’
Charles shrugged. ‘All right, then.’ He held tight to the blanket tied bandolier-style across his shoulder and hip, and made as if to hurry to the front of the line. ‘Say, Jessie. You’ll never guess what old Francis here has—‘
I grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back. ‘Confound you. It’s a picture of my girl.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘You ain’t got no right to it.’
He harrumphed. ‘Some gentleman you are, allowing your girl to pose for a nekkid pitcher.’
He watched me as I weighed my lack of choices. Finally, I spoke in a small voice. ‘Fine. But you give her back in the morning. Hear?’
‘That I will do, sir. And with a ration of coffee. How’s that to wet your whistle?’
I nodded. Coffee was like gold, so it was a good compromise. To end the conversation, I switched my rifle to my other shoulder so he couldn’t see my face.
I still cursed him, privately. Despite what Charles might believe, Emma really had been my girl, once upon a time.
Yes sir, I’m a woman who loves women. I don’t care what you may think about that. The Bible ain’t held no water for me since my minister father disposed of me in an orphanage when I was four. Emma and me, we was like fire and wood, just a couple of poor laundry girls with nothing but a blanket and our love to warm us. Them days was marked all over by hunger and desperation, but I wouldn’t trade them for all the tobacky in Virginia.
While I’m at it, here’s something else you can stuff in your hat. Emma and me was Georgians. Yes sir. We lived right here in this very county I was now marching through with Uncle Billy’s army. If not for Emma, I wouldn’t have been no bummer on this day, three years hence. I would’ve been one of them girls burying someone’s family silver as the bummers come skulking up the road.
It was the whoring that done it. Emma and me slept in a canvas tent not unlike the wedge I now shared with four men. In them days, we made love to stay warm, huddled under a woollen carriage blanket. We’d just finished when she told me the bad news.
‘You did what?’ I said, still panting.
‘I earned us a whole dollar.’
‘By letting the blacksmith have his way with you? Oh, Emma.’
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, but we gots to eat.’
She showed me the dollar note, but I still turned my back on her for the night.
To hold to my convictions would have meant not using her earnings. But yes, we needed to eat, and the pennies from washing laundry was never enough.
Still, a rift soon widened between us. We stopped making love. Then one morning, Emma said she’d met a gentleman, a cotton planter. He was fixing to marry her.
‘But I promise you, sweetheart,’ she said, ‘I’ll get him to take you on.’
‘As a maid.’
I snorted and shook my head.
‘But we’ll still be together, Frances.’
We was sharing the bed, if only to keep warm. I sat up and glared at her in the gray dawn light. ‘How can you trust him?’
‘Because he gives me things. We’re even business partners.’
‘Partners?’ I echoed. My voice dripped with disbelief. Wives did not partner with their husbands in business. We didn’t vote and couldn’t even hold bank accounts. How could Emma be a partner, for Christ’s sake? ‘Tell me,’ was all I could say.
‘He took me to a photographer. They paid me a whole dollar for a portrait.’
‘What kind of portrait?’
‘Thomas is gonna sell them to lonely men and give me a penny for each one sold.’
‘I said, what kind of portrait?’
Face shining, eager, she dug it out. ‘He gave me one for my ownself. Here, you can have it.’
When I saw her bare curves within the tiny frame, I buried my face in my hands and wept. What kind of fiancé was this man?
I never found out firsthand. A few days later, with the rift a mile wide between us, Emma announced she was leaving to go live with him. Thomas McCombs. I’ll never forget his name. I took a slow gander of his cotton plantation—really just a small, sorry affair with a handful of buildings and a gin—before leaving the area.
I fled as far as I could from Emma. But I never got me the courage to give up the picture of her.
I made it as far as Ohio before the war broke out. By then, I was a wisp of a girl, scavenging from garbage pits. That’s when I overheard two Army recruits in a barn. They was congratulating themselves on receiving a $152 signing bonus. Each.
That same day, I cut off most of my hair. I put on some man’s clothes I stole from a clothes-line. Then I straightened my shoulders, widened my gait, and walked into an Army muster station.
A uniformed man sat behind a desk and looked me up and down. He recorded the made-up name, age, and birth place I told him. ‘Have any infirmities?’
‘Any what, sir?’ I kept my voice low and whispery, afraid of revealing my sex.
‘Handicaps. Hysterias. You a drunkard?’
‘No sir. I ain’t had but a sip in ten years.’ And that was the truth.
He stood up and shook my hand, smiling for the first time. ‘Welcome to the U.S. Army.’