“Disgusting, heathen practice. They’re goin’ straight to hell.” Clive bit into the muddy hard tack and pulled off a piece of the flavorless hunk of bread. Everyone else dipped theirs in coffee to soften it first, but Clive had a bone to pick.
Johnny rubbed his hand over his fuzzy chin, fancying himself a much older and wiser man than the 16-year-old kid he really was. “What you reckon they do it for? Gotta be somethin’ in it for ’em.”
Hiram, a grisly 23-year old who’d been in the Army of Northern Virginia since 1861, poured a touch of a clear liquid into his coffee cup. He leaned over the campfire, and the light bounced threateningly about his sallow face. “It’s ’cause they’s in league with the devil hisself. I seen with my own eyes what they done. Like Ezekiel, but God sure as shootin’ ain’t in it.” He spat on the ground. “If y’alld hush, I’ll tell y’all what I know…”
I was a new soldier. Everyone thought the war would be fast, that we’d go home before the biscuits got cold, but they were wrong. Satan laughs at our folly, and he probably drank the hatred in the rivers of blood. Don’t y’all dare make the mistake and believe that our blood is cleaner than theirs. It’s all red, all spilled for something none of us care about.
Most of you have seen a few battles. You’ll remember the gunshots, the blood, the haunting faces that look at you as they die – both gray and blue – but you take a look-see at some of them Union boys next time, assumin’ the typhoid don’t getcha first.
I don’t remember ‘xactly what battle it was that the embalmists moved in. They set up shop in a tent to the north, what with a big sign on the door and everthin. Boy up yonder with the telescope seen it first, and I was still bright eyed enough that I wanted a peek.
But when I looked, I seen somethin’ weird. Corpses – sometimes just pieces of bodies – would be brought into the embalmist’s shop. I saw half as many corpses come back out.
I told my officer. He thought I was crazy, but it was a lull in the battle, and it ain’t like a human life is worth much these days. He let me take off behind enemy lines, sneakin’ round and figgerin’ up what I saw. I could look after my embalmist’s ways, but I had to bring back some ideas on what the enemy movement was, too.
I suited up in blue. Their uniform’s easy enough to come by. I kep my mouth shut and walked right through their camp without as much as a sideways glance. It still makes me shiver to think I look so much a Yank.
Anyway, I come up on the embalmist’s tent. It’d grown since the first time I’d seen it. There were a pile of bodies just outside, and the doctors had nurses what come in and out on a regular basis.
One of the ladies spotted me, so she picked up her skirts and come over. “One of your friends here?” she asked. “I got all the paper work, if you want me to find him. I just can’t have you skulking around so.” Her Yankee words rung round in my brain a few seconds, stingin’ my thoughts with their harshness.
“No ma’am,” I said in my best Yankee imitation. “I just never heard of this kind of place afore. What you do here?”
She lifted a brow then crossed her arms. “We’re helping our boys in blue get back home.”
“I don’t reckon I much care ’bout that,” I said, “But this place seems a mite weird.”
“I can take you in. Show you what we do.” She brazenly took me by the wrist and pulled me towards the embalmist’s tent. “It’ll be an eye-opener.” I follered without much thought. The lady’s hands were sweet and purty, and I couldn’t stand the thoughts of breakin’ such a beautiful, fragile flower.
The tent smelled funny, like nothin’ I smelled afore. It got stronger when I entered under the flap, but I didn’t ask about it. Jars full of clear liquid hung from rafters in the tent, and lines ran down to hordes of corpses that covered dozens of cots all down the rows. “Mercy sakes alive.”
She pointed to the only living man in the hospital as he stooped over one of the Yankee corpses. “There. He’s putting the fluid in that man’s body so the remains can be shipped back to New York. The fluid has arsenic and kills everything it touches, so none of the bugs that eat bodies can make them rot. Think of what a relief that must be for the poor young man’s family.”
I thought of all my friends who’d been killed. They’d had no wake, no funeral, just been chucked in the ground often in unmarked graves so they wouldn’t rot and make such a stink.
“You’d like to get back home to your family too, wouldn’t you? I mean, even you Southern boys must like that.”
“I ain’t no-”
“You are, and you’re a terrible spy. But I don’t mind. Me and the dead don’t see a problem with your interest. You’re just another customer base.” She snapped her fingers and waltzed alluringly as she went deeper into the tent. At a certain bed she stopped, looked at the fluid level in a heavily-labeled glass bottle, and tapped the cheeks of a Yankee full of gunshot holes. “Get up. I need your bed.”
The dead man – dead, no life in his eyes at all – sat up without a breath.
“Lord have mercy!” I shouted.
A few other heads, both on tables and on the nurses, turned to look at me.
I started to run, but I realized that outside the tent I’d be killed by living men just as surely as the dead ones’d get me in here!
The nurse unhooked the needles from the naked corpse’s arms and legs then brushed off the table beneath him. The dead Yank reached for a bloody uniform under the bed and started pulling on the trousers and shell jacket.
The nurse held up a needle. “Like I asked earlier… you want to make it back home, don’t you?” She smiled, her strangely white teeth glinting like dog’s fangs. “Come on. Sit a spell,” she said with sweet, Carolina tones.
I shook my head and started to back away, but one of the dead Yanks grabbed me by the leg. His fingers were tight with rigor mortis.
“Don’t come adder me, you witch!” I pushed off the one Yank, but several others got up from their beds to try and stop me. Other nurses exchanged the fluid lines on their dead patients, and the doctor watched with ravenous excitement. I remember the look on his face when…
Never mind that. Eventually, I realized I needed to escape. I punched the witch square in the face. I know it ain’t right to hit a lady, but I was desperate. I couldn’t do much of nothin’ to the Yanks, so I had to go straight to the source.
For all her misbegotten demons, it was like a punch to the gut. I had to take my chance to escape, so I didn’t let my aches or the grabbing of the Yanks keep me down. I stole several bottles of the magic liquid, hopin’ to bring a few pints with me to the Captain and prove what I’d seen. I ran right outta that tent and through the God-forsaken Yankee encampment as fast as I could.
If they’s raisin’ their dead, ain’t nothin’ we can do to win. Ain’t nothin’ you can do to kill a dead man.
Johnny, eyes bright and wide, leaned closer to the fire. “And did the Captain believe you?”
“Yes. But he was wise, and he knew no one else would. Turns out the bottles were just full of arsenic, ‘corddin to our doctors.” Hiram swallowed the rest of his coffee and put the closed bottle of liquid into his cup, then wrapped both carefully in a hemp sack.
Clive pointed at the practice. “What you got there? Moonshine, right?”
“You cain’t read the labels, I take it?”
Clive shook his head no.
“Prolly better that way.” Hiram stood and stretched, his gaunt face frightening in the campfire, his eyes glinting like a demon. “See y’all tomorrow.”