I remember when first I saw her.
Long red hair set free from the snood common amongst New Orlean's ladies floated gently down her back. Delicate white skin set against the darkness of her green dress. And such an odd dress it was. No hoops or ruffles, no jacket. Just a simple green dress. If it had been white I'dve thought it a night shift. She'd wrapped a grey riding cloak around her shoulders.
I'dve taken her for one of the camp followers that flock to the trail of the armies had it not been for that simplicity. She looked like no woman I'd seen trailing us or the Yankees. Whores would have shown more of that white flesh, wandering amongst the pickets posted between the armies.
She couldn't have been one of the soldier's wives, the Vivandiers that the 6th had trailing around with them, neither. None of them would have been fool enough to wander in the woods at night with two armies threatening a battle. Nah, the ones stupid enough to have done that would have had enough frights early on to have left by now. Only the ones with sense are left.
I was about to challenge her. Could be she was some sort of spy, sent to sniff us out by the Yankees. Best to take her and hold her until we could learn her business. But then she turned.
The look she turned on me, as I stood there in the dark, was one of such sadness. It was as though all the sadness of this awful war had come to rest on her shoulders. It pierced me to my very heart. All I could do was stare as she gazed at me.
I don't know how long that gaze lasted. Could be it was but a moment, or it could have been hours. But then a cloud moved across the moon, and the faint light filtering through the leaves was blacked from the skies. The darkness lifted but seconds later, but when it did, she was gone.
I kept the thing to myself, of course. What was I going to say? "Jacob, I saw a most lovely lady last night while on picket duty." "Aye, and did you now? And why would it be that ye didn't be bringing this lovely lass to the camp?" "Well, she disappeared." "Disappeared, did she? Sounds to me like someone was dreaming on picket duty. Perhaps a turn at digging latrines might wake you up."
Still, my comrades knew something had my attention. Here we were, preparing for a major dust up, and yet my mind was elsewhere. Corporal Deschenes had to ask me several times if I had 80 rounds for my Enfield. Of course, with that Cajun patois of his, even those of us born in New Orleans sometimes had difficulty understanding him. But then, when you're part of Ewells Corp, you learn to understand, and right quickly. There are so many brogues, drawls, and such.
I stumbled into the man before me several times during the march. Kept missing the calls from the Sergeant-Major. After so many thousands of miles, you'd think my legs would have learned the commands without any need for my mind to tell 'em what to do. But somehow I kept bumping into O'Sullivan. All I could see in front of me was those eyes.
She visited me again, that night. I'd drawn picket duty again. This time I'd been placed along the bank of some quiet little steam. I was permitted a few hours of sleep before, but then, as the mists began to form, I was rousted out and sent to relieve the man who'd held the post before me.
I was tired. Mortal tired. Lacking sleep from the night before, marching all day, and then shaken from my worn, filthy blankets again, you'd be too. Staring out into the night, a rifle your only companion, you might find yourself having trouble not falling to sleep. And so I found myself wandering about a tree overhanging the bank. Was the only way I could think to remain awake.
Then I heard it. At first I was uncertain if I was even hearing anything. It was so faint, and my hearing is none to good. Too much shooting, too many cannon. But hear it I did.
She was singing. I couldn't see her. Not at first. But I knew, I just knew it was her.
I didn't understand the words. My ma and da never taught me the tongue of the old country. Said I was here in America, and I'd learn to speak like I was. But I know the sound of it, sure enough.
It was like the songs I'd heard my ma sing so quietly. She'd sing whenever there was a sick one to care for, or a simple chore to be done.
But never with such sadness. I've known my share of it, seen companions lying on the field, torn apart by shot and shell. I know the melancholy of having death as a constant companion. But this? That voice spoke of a depth of knowing that I'd not believe a mortal man or woman could ever have the chance to learn.
The ancient words wrapped themselves around me. The stream, the moon, the tree I was under, all faded away until all my world became the music. It was all I knew, that sadness, that despair.
And then the dawn broke.
I swear I didn't sleep. I couldn't have slept. Not standing on my feet. Yet I couldn't remember the passing of time. I'd have sworn it'd not been more than an hour since I'd taken my watch. Yet there I stood, blinking stupidly at the sun as it crept over the top of a hill across the stream.
The army didn't move that day. I don't know why. Marse Robert doesn't share his reasons for moving or not with us lowly foot soldiers. It'd hardly matter if he did, though. We'd follow his orders anyway. After all, he's led us to victory after victory, even if that effort in Maryland didn't come over so well last year.
What I do know is it gave me a chance to rest after the previous days. I shoveled down some food, bacon and corn meal, and then wrapped myself in my blankets for a few hours sleep.
Sleep didn't come easily. I kept having dreams. You know the type. You can't quite make heads or tails of them once you awake, but they seem to make sense while you're in them. All I know is she was in them, looking at me with those eyes full of sorrow, and singing that song.
I didn't feel particularly rested when I crawled out from under the blankets. But by then the heat was getting up. I don't know about you, but I can't sleep if it gets too hot, no matter how tired I get.
Jacob needed a hand digging some slit trenches. Hard work, digging latrines. But it needed doing, and I needed something to take my mind off things. Of course, doing mindless labor is hardly the best way to keep from thinking. Leaves the mind with nothing much to mull over, so you start going over everything you don't want it to look at.
I kept hearing the song. It was stuck in there. I tried thinking of something else, Bonnie Blue, Allons à Lafayette, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, anything. But I'd stumble part way through a verse, and find myself hearing those words again.
"S'airiu, Agus a leanbh, Cad a Dheanfaidh me..."
I returned to my company more distracted than ever. Something about those words, about that song, the girl. The answer floated at the back of my memory, buried under the layers of two years of war. Somehow I knew there was more to this than just a girl singing ancient tunes far from home.
I was so caught up in my thoughts I nearly collided with Hinkley. He was attempting to get my attention, but I had no mind for what was going on around me. Of course, being grabbed by the arm and spun about serves wondrously to focus ones self.
"So, where'd you pick the girl up?" he asked me.
"Girl? She came here? You saw her?"
"What? You trying to hide her? I know some of us can get a little rough around the edges, but y'all need to have a lil more faith."
"What... What was she doing?"
"She came and washed your clothes. She knew just where to find 'em. Figured you'd told her where they was. Course, I kept an eye on her. Didn't want her running off with anything of yourn. Was a distinct pleasure, too. Odd clothes she was wearin, but lovely red hair. Where'd you find her?"
I confess I ran off at that point. I've faced the fire of the Yankees in dozens of scraps. But this scared me.
Have you ever been afraid? I have. I've been terrified before. Sometimes, out there in the night, the old fears come alive. Standing there in the dark the you can feel the ancient spirits come alive. There's nothing there but you, and creatures of a world older than fire. You begin to understand why the old stories talk of a spirit in every tree, every rock, and all of them malicious.
My ma used to tell me stories of that sort. She'd tell me those tales, stories of elves and fairies, brownies and leprechauns. The wee folk, she called them. Always she spoke of them with a hushed voice. She tried not to let it show, but she was scared of them.
Well, now, so was I.
I was put on picket duty again that night. Guess I got someone irritated. They put you on Picket duty that much, it's not because they're short on bodies. Even with all the kids I knew dead or missing pieces of themselves, we still have enough for picket duty.
So out I went again. Same place, too. Same tree, same stream. And me more tired than ever.
This time I saw her. She was walking slowly, ever so slowly up the stream bank. A gentle breeze was drifting strands of her red hair around her head. She was gazing at me as she sung softly.
Sorrow washed over me. It was like a splash of cold rain water on my skin, only from the inside. Best way I can describe it, I guess. Looking into her eyes, I felt such sadness, it seemed I was drowning, and I wasn't sure I even cared any more.
She drifted on past me as I stood there, unable to speak, unable to tear my eyes away. I was terrified, and yet I couldn't escape. I didn't want to escape. All that mattered was that red hair, that white skin, and that voice.
She kept her eyes on me as she walked past and continued on. It was as though she couldn't take her eyes off me any more than I could take mine off her. She knew me. She had to watch me. As if she knew something.
I had to ask. I had to know. She was something from my mothers stories, and for some reason, she had come to see me. She had seen lifetimes full of sorrow, and now, somehow, that sorrow had focused on me.
I couldn't get the words out. I couldn't find them. And so she drifted on by, and continued along the bank, her pale white chin turned back over her shoulder as she continued to track me with her eyes.
I followed, of course. What else could I do? That song drew me after her, that sorrow spoke to hollow depths within my soul. Every death I'd seen was spoken to by the song. Every moment where I contemplated my own mortality, it all welled up with every note, every word.
"S'airiu, Agus a leanbh, Cad a Dheanfaidh me..."
"Brandon! What are you doing? You aint supposed to be here. You're place is up there by the tree."
I'd stumbled my way up the river bank to Fontaine's position. I didn't even realize I'd done it. But he'd seen me wandering by and grabbed my arm to stop me.
"Are you all right? You've been acting different the past couple days."
I asked him where she'd gone. She had to have walked right past him.
"What girl? There's no girl out here. She'd have to be crazed to be walking out amongst the pickets." He gave me a curious look.
I knew that look. I'd seen it before. It's that same look we always gave someone who was no longer quite right. It happens, you know. You spend too much time out here, doing what we do, and some men start to change. And soon, you're not sure about them. They always seem to be looking at something no one else can see, talking about things no one else knows. And then, in time, they do something stupid. Something we all learned not to do back at Manassas.
We all know. We all see it. And you can see everyone around him giving him the look. That look. The one that says, "You're going to get yourself killed soon."
He was giving me that look.
So I returned to my place under the tree until my relief came and took my place.
I spent all day thinking about her. I've been thinking about her, about that song. You see, I know what it is now. My ma told me about it. She sang it once, when young Eamon died of the cough. Keening, she called it.
She's keening. Singing for all the dead she's seen. We've had an awful lot of dead here since the North came down here. That must be what brought her over from the Old Country. She keens for every young lad that's died since it's started. And for all those who are soon to die.
I'm tired. Mortal tired. I've been marching two years, watching friends die, and doing my fair share of killing too. I've seen the Yankees getting stronger, and better at this, while we keep getting weaker.
All I want to do is rest.
She's coming. I can hear her now. I can see her green dress, her pale face. I can feel her eyes.
I'm going to meet her now. I know it's what she's come for. I'm going to listen to the song until it ends. And then I'm going over to the other side of the stream where the Yankees are, and sleep.