Fiction Issue

All the Purple Flowers

I walked down the dusty street in the light purple glow of the near-dusk, going to confront someone I had been wishing to see for a long time. There was no one around me, for the street was empty. It was so bitterly quiet that it seemed like even Jesus had left me and it did not take much imagination to picture Him shaking his head in disappointment. It had been so long since I had been this way that it didn’t seem like a real place at all anymore; just a lonely dream of my yesterdays, so sunny and bright, yet ever wispy and intangible enough to make me unable to grasp its floating essence. Each time the heel of my silver-spurred boots struck the ground, small cyclones of sandy clouds billowed upwards, enveloping my foot in trancelike wisps that I once thought fascinating as a younger man, but I now despised their choking dust as much as my shooting hand. I could only see dark, blurry shapes of the town I had entered, due to the flames of the whiskey in my gut. It had been my place of happiness in days back before Grant and Lee and Sherman were names I recognized. There had always been a light somewhere to guide the way, but at the present all lamps had gone out. To find solace, I drew in a breath and sang in a low voice to quell the chills, ever so slowly in a rhythm too faint and too piercingly hollow for my liking.

“John Brown’s body lies a’ mouldrin’ in his grave, but his soul goes marching on.”

Far away in the northeast of the republic, they were surely praising freedom’s victory, but upon my silent entry, there was no freedom I could see in this little Kansas town. When I had set out originally, there had been many flags and fifes and drums, shouting praise and gallant choruses clear in the summer air, with colours blazing boldly. Many young men with eager hearts marched as a sea of blue with a common dream of revelry for glory and hallelujah. Now, after years of tearful marching on, I alone remained of a force once hundred strong. There were no stars and stripes to meet me, nor people’s laughs and cheers, but only a whistling whisper of the wind as it kissed a weather vane and twirled a waltz back towards the faintest distance my eyes could see. Even the bells in the town’s only church were deathly still.

I wish I could say I saved my comrades, but in the smoke of the volleys I lost them, like ghosts in the winter wind—one moment alive, now gone forever, leaving only me to remember their last days and moments. Why did they die? Was it for freedom or for fame? I did not know, but kept their memories in my heart so they would not die in vain.

When I was a boy, there was a girl who lived down the street from me. She wore her hair in braids and skipped in the green grass so happily that it made me want to laugh and run along with her down the country lanes. Though I wished whole-heartedly to be as free as a bird as she, the folks in town despised her family for no reason I could see. In my opinion, she was beautiful. One day when we were older, I picked her a bouquet of violet flowers and put them in her gentle hands. She stared at me, surprised, and graciously accepted my gift.

“You must be brave,” she said, “to not show hate of me. Folks ‘round here ain’t used to someone of my colour being free.”

We were friends a while and watched a great many sunsets. The stubborn folks talked; I didn’t care because I knew they wouldn’t dare to harm her and have to face my oiled gun. We lived happily together, until that fateful day when honour’s bugles came a’calling to chase the grey confederates away. When I left, amid the grandeur and the lust for war and action, flanked on both sides by the encouragements of my brethren, I only saw her tears that fell so gracefully down her cheeks and away from large, staring eyes so innocent and loving—lost and forgotten in diamond dewdrops to all but me, for no one cared about the sadness of people of her kind, though we went to kill and die so she would be treated as our equal. I missed her so…

The war was not General McClellan’s dream, since there was no love or glory, but only hating hearts and bitter days where hell is cold and death is grey. Through riddling bullets and cannonades, I staggered up rocky hills and across sucking swamp mud plains to battle rebel lines that charged ever onward with malicious demons’ yells. The days merged into one blurred combination of shattered memories, full of pain and killing. I shot with my rifle and slashed with my saber to survive, for if I didn’t my tale would never be told. All the while I fought for the freedom of the girl back home and all the wonderful people like her who were victim to the contempt of southern gentry and the lies that said they weren’t equal.

For the first year or so of my service I lived only by my faith and luck, until the day I thanked God for the arrival of General Sheridan, the courageous leader who led the cavalry in pursuit of the grey ghosts of death to banish them from our land once and for all. Though there were many barns and fields set on fire and much destruction caused by our hands, in the end we emerged victorious in the silent surrender of the grey; nothing like the jubilee we had imagined.

My term ended. I rode and rode upon my horse in a delirious frenzy, losing my entire soldier’s pay on drinks and late night poker games. I soon found myself travelling on foot, shooting to stay alive and looting those I vanquished in order to live another day. I regretted every act of unjustified violence I committed, so much so that the time came when I couldn’t look at my gun anymore without wanting to wretch. I threw my weapon in a lake and stumbled west, following the sunsets to my home, the only place in the world where I felt truly safe.

My treasured hometown had become a lonely desolation of pain as I remembered what it used to be. I could think of nothing else but to see my friends and family. Yet the windows of their houses were dark because all the young men I knew had long died away and the elders had not the eyes to recognize my return. After all I had done and endured, from the fighting and killing to the loneliness and near starvation, nobody cared. I had been forgotten by my own people. In the dark, shapes grew more contorted through the window-like panes of the glass whiskey bottle in my hand that I had emptied rather fast. Alone, exhausted, malnourished and afraid of what I had become, I stumbled and fell forward into the powdery dust of the earth at my feet, losing all feeling before my face struck the ground. I dreamed of golden memories, once upon a time ago.

I thought I had gone back through time when, suddenly, I was awakened. I looked up to see, among the many shining stars, the girl for whom I fought the war. There were moonbeams in her eyes and a finger to her lips, and her long brown hair fell down around my aching head in dark, sheltering curtains. She wiped my forehead with a cold cloth and said not a word, but she hummed the sweetest lullaby that I had ever heard. At that moment thoughts returned to me and I understood how lonesome she must have felt, living in a sea of dense, ignorant souls who would give her neither help nor consolation. She had mourned my supposed death for three long years, which must have hurt so much and made her hopes faint, for without friends to be around, the world will turn to sadness all too quickly. In leaving to fight for her, I had abandoned her to fight battles of her own in isolation. Of course I could be ever-kind and make better future days but, alas, the time taken by my sins had caused her so much pain that all the purple flowers in the world could never change the time we lost. Lying in her arms that night, I prayed that I would stay to make amends with my dear friend and not slowly drift away to die a lonely, icy death in a land where hearts are led astray.