The Wounded and the Dead

by Wade Newhouse

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Do you believe in the Resurrection and the life? Do you believe in the blood of the lamb? 

My new bride, golden-haired and dark-eyed, believes these things. She has not studied them in the seminary as I have, but she was raised to be studious and pious from girlhood, and she uses these words in her daily life the way a craftsman in Boston colors his personal life with the language of his shop. She has encouraged me to look back on the dark corners of my life and to be unafraid to name them.

I was in Petersburg when the war ended. We sat in mazes of trenches and rifle pits on the edge of the city and there were fires burning in the sky all midnight long. Every now and then they would come at us without warning, scarecrows of men barely alive screaming up out of the smoke and shadows.

I tried to rise up to fight them, but I couldn’t make my arms move and they came down on us like locusts. And there was a boy—not more than fourteen, with a wild shock of yellow hair and his eyes glittering because he could not give up. He had a black spot here on his cheek, a mole or a sunspot or something, and he came right at me with his bayonet pointing, scrambling up the side of the pit where I was.

I remember thinking that I could smell—roses? I wondered how I could smell roses and I was thinking then all of roses, fat blooming petals and thorns and the smell choked me and I could not do anything else but smell roses. Then I saw something hit this boy square in his left eye. His eyesocket disappeared in a spray of blood and he fell in on me. He lay there with his remaining eye open to Heaven. His chest stopped heaving and, in an hour, when the fighting was over, he was cold and the smell of roses was gone.

In the morning when the smoke sank into the earth, the burial details came out and pulled some of the bodies away. Later the men in gray came at us again out of the black, fiery nighttime. Where did they come from? We killed them and we killed them and they fell in piles. 

When I looked up there was a boy, with a shock of yellow hair and earth streaked down his face.  He had a mole or something here—on his left cheek. I opened my mouth, not believing, like I might say something to him about how he could not be here. And I saw that his eye was gone and the shot-away space where it had been was open with dried blood. But he was there nonetheless, and a smell of roses was spilling up out of him and instead of asking him I stabbed him, here, with my bayonet and I watched him fall, still blind, into the pit. I stood over him, smelling smoke and roses, and I stabbed him again and then again until his chest was caving in. I passed out weeping, drowning, and then I was buried in the red earth and in my own blood.

Later I knew the feeling of being carried. I saw what the city looked like upside down, while my head hung below the arms of the men who carried me. As I bobbed and shook, I saw fires burning downward instead of upward. At last, I knew the feeling of cooler, cleaner air when they laid me on the grass, and when the sun started to go down, I turned my head and saw a red-brick building with tall white columns and porches fronting. I heard the voices of women talking and moving between the wounded and the dead. 

I remember candles and oil lamps and dark wooden floors. Men’s heavy boots thudded back and forth under the smell of ether and blood and the sounds of crying and cutting and sawing. Behind all of that I heard the voices of the women and the sounds of water dripping in doorways. They put me in a dark room, and in the flickering of the light, I saw rustling, soiled skirts pass by my cot.  I heard them say:

We’ll take care of you now.

Other men were brought in. Some were stacked like firewood and were missing parts of themselves that they would have a hard time digging up come Judgment Day. 

For many minutes I tried to talk but my mouth and throat were caked shut. I kept trying, moving in tiny spaces and swallows, and finally I was able to say, “I don’t want to be dead.”

You are not dead.  You are saved.  We’ll take care of you.

Everything was upside down.  I could not turn my head enough to see the shape of the room or the height of the walls or the color of the ceilings.  “What is this place?”

This is a school.

I had a vision of desks all in a row, schoolmasters stalking past frightened children, and punishments being delivered with stern voices and the whip of a thin stick. But I also had visions of shells exploding and of arms and legs raining down on boys not much older than the ones who should be at their desks. I smelled women; I smelled blood and smoke.

Our school.  We’re taking care of you now.  We will always take care of you.

There were soft hands on my forehead and holding up water to my burned lips. I slept and heard them whispering, talking like women do when they think we cannot hear them. If you have ever drowsed, happily, in some bed while mothers and sisters float by in the hallways, carrying flickering candles and sharing things, secret things, with one another, that we are not meant to know, then that is what it was like. Yet behind the soft voices, there were still the sounds of saws cutting back and forth, letting go of their shattered cargo in the next room.

More men were brought in. Others were carried out and wrapped in bloody sheets. 

Stay asleep. You need your rest.

Then they brought in another body and laid it on the table beside me. I turned away because I knew that death carries over sometimes from one bed to the one beside it, and that the smell would find me and overcome me and drive me mad. But instead of death, I smelled roses.

I managed to turn my head to see, because it was impossible that there could be roses in this place. The boy on the table had a wild shock of yellow hair, and his eye was gone, the hole caked over with blood. His entire chest was hardened over with blood and sunken in. 

I screamed.

Do you believe in the Resurrection and the Life? 

Have you been saved by grace?

Do you know the power of the blood?

Have you been saved by the blood of the Lamb?

There were women all around me. One of them carried a bowl. Another, a razor. 

“What are you doing?”

You need your rest. We will take care of you. It is for the Cause.

They cut me here, just a little, just so little that you cannot see the scar. They cut me while they sang. There is a scar that you can see and they took my blood in a bowl. 

You need your rest. We will take care of you.

They made me sleep. As I was falling asleep, I saw them take the bowl to the boy with the yellow hair and no eye and a chest that I had caved in. They sang to him and gave him my blood. I slept. Shortly after midnight, I awoke to that boy rising up from my table and dragging himself toward the door of the school with the white pillars and the dark wooden floors, and I could smell roses.

I remained here after the war, never returning to my seminary in Boston. I have looked out of this window, watching the black gum and sweetbay trees wave in the wind, while I drowse in the hot summers lulled by singing, low, under these dark floors. My new bride, golden-haired and dark-eyed, comes to me in the night and touches me before she sets the bowl and the razor on the table. There is so much to rebuild now that the war is over, and when she takes my blood to give to the cold ones laid out on the tables, she tells me about the Resurrection and the Life, and she says:

I will take care of you. You are my favorite. You believe.

©️ 2021 by Wade Newhouse

“The Wounded and the Dead,” by Wade Newhouse, was first published on May 20, 2021 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume I: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.

Interview with Wade Newhouse, Author of “The Wounded and the Dead”

What inspired your story?

I teach English at a small liberal arts university in Raleigh, NC that dates back to 1857 and was used both as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War and, afterward, as an office for the Freedman’s Bureau. The aura of the central building, with its huge columns and dark wooden floors, always suggests to many of us that strange things might have happened over the years—and perhaps the remnants of them might still linger. The first draft of this story began as a little play that the Theatre department put together for Halloween almost ten years ago.

What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?

For an audience of Poe fans, I really like “Ligeia”—the obsessive relationship between the characters and the maddeningly abrupt and ambiguous ending is a master class in aligning mood and theme.  I’m also a sucker for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I think is the all-time winner for creating complex, approachable gothic psychology as a place for horror to hide.

How long have you been writing?

I have been writing stories ever since I learned to read, and the vast majority of them have had ghosts, monsters, or other assorted spooky figures in them.  I only started submitting seriously for publication about fifteen years ago, and I started getting published about ten years ago. 

Do you have a theme you return to time and again?

I’m really drawn to the idea that we—as readers and as extensions of characters—can only get a glimpse of otherworldly realities and events.  Rather than create a whole supernatural mythos that we can really get our heads around, I like to create small confrontations with things that are unknown; I like the unnerving sense that there’s more out there than we can understand, but we are only in the story long enough to get a taste of it so we won’t ever known precisely how and why it works.

What are you working on now?

I have a story about theatre ghosts coming out in CORVID-19: The Second Wave, an anthology of short fiction that will be appearing soon to raise money for RavenCon after two years of cancellations.

What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?

I welcome email!  wnewhouse2 [at] gmail [dot] com.