October 15, 2004


By Molly Burkhart © 2004

I hate cannonballs.

Muskets, I can handle. Bayonets, I can counter. But those damn, shrapnel-filled cannonballs scare the holy hell out of me.

I've seen whickering strips of metal tear a man's legs out from under him, rip out a man's intestines, peel a man's face down to the bone. I hate cannonballs.

They put nails in them. Nails and barbed wire and even forks, when they run out of other shrapnel. Who thinks of these things? What kind of mind comes up with something so insanely, effectively cruel?

Whoever he was, they probably made him a general.

I wish we were fighting foreigners. I don't have any kin up north, but it just doesn't seem right to slaughter people from my own...well...my own country, sort of. I don't guess I've killed anyone I know yet, but it's just a matter of time.

Lying here thinking about it doesn't help, but it does pass the time between the bombardment and dawn.

They're depriving us of sleep, of course. They keep up the cannonade until well after midnight, only allowing us a few hours of sleep before the sun comes up and they start with the tracer shots. They aren't actually trying to shoot us, for the most part. No, they're just measuring how much gun powder they need for the most effectiveness when they decide to actually attack.

Vicious bastards, but smart bastards, nonetheless. It's an old-fashioned siege.

My watch partner is asleep, bless his soul. He nodded off early, but I don't have the heart to wake him. I can sleep during the day, and I really don't mind this time of night. It's quiet.

Once the cannons still, it doesn't take long for nature to step into the silence. Night birds, crickets, and spring peepers start their noise, singing in the spaces between until it seems like the cannons never fired a volley. If it weren't for the occasional masonry falling apart in the night, I could almost convince myself I'm just camping out with my little brother.

God, I miss that kid. Thank the good Lord he's too young for war just yet.

Suddenly, it's entirely too quiet, and I sit up straight, gripping my gun. I haven't heard anything yet, but that's half the problem. Wasn't I just musing on the peaceful night music?

I catch a flash of movement, and my musket is set against my shoulder before I really think about it. I guess I've been here long enough that my reflexes beat out logic. It could just be a deer, but I feel safer with my gun at the ready, and I make no move to lower it.

There it is again, a slight twitch of a bush, the leaves shivering. No breath of wind stirs the unnatural silence, and surely a deer wouldn't scare the crickets quiet.

My finger tightens on the trigger, and I wait for the interloper to show himself. For a small eternity, I see nothing. My breath stills in my chest. I am calm. A scout, I can handle.

At least it's not cannonballs.

He never fully shows himself, but, unlike me, he finally breaks. His eyes give him away. I catch a wink of reflected light as he shifts his gaze, and I put a ball directly through that tiny flash.

The report is deafening in the silence, and my watch partner wets himself as he jerks awake.

The whole fort comes alive, but I leave it behind, dropping my musket and pulling a hunting knife to check my kill. I jump off the wall, creeping across the greenbelt and into the trees.

Scouts rarely have valuable information, but he might be carrying food, and only an idiot wouldn't at least go through the pockets and pack.

He's a little older than I am, I think. At least he's not younger. That always hurts, somehow.

He looks like someone's big brother.

My shot was true; his right eye is completely gone, as is most of the back of his head. His blue uniform is pristine, but the tree a few feet behind is spattered with blood and bits of brain and bone. His rifle lay like a discarded toy a few inches from his hand.

I nod once. It was either him or me. My reflexes knew that, but my conscience feels a little better with the knowledge that this fellow truly did intend to shoot.

His pockets are empty, but his pack is a veritable treasure trove. I fill my pockets with enough jerky to last several days, a good dollar's worth of loose change, and a handful of hard candy. I haven't had candy in an age.

Leaving the rest of his supplies in the pack, I tug it off his shoulders and take it with me back to the fort. We'll bury him tomorrow, but for tonight, I think we'll make use of his deck of cards. Something tells me no one's getting any more sleep, anyway.

Things settle down quickly enough, a group of boys forming a quiet poker game as I take my place on the wall. I settle in again, my reloaded musket comfortable in my hands. It didn't take long for the wildlife to readjust, of course, and the rhythmic buzz of the crickets soothes me, makes me again appreciate this time of night.

The peace won't last long, of course. Tomorrow, the cannons will roar again, sending those damned monstrosities over the walls and into our buildings, taking lives and legs and intestines and faces.

Did I mention that I hate cannonballs?

Molly Burkhart is a writer from Joplin, Missouri and the author of the blog Letters to Charlie.

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