The Black Cat of Antietam

by D.M. Rosner

I stare out through a window of the tiny, stone house, watching the birds with feigned interest. The old woman with whom I live talks to herself by the fire; when I can take it no longer, I jump from the window sill and run through the open back door.

The farm is cold and quiet, and my black fur rises to defend me from the October chill. I sit among red and orange fallen leaves, my long tail curled around my paws.

I sometimes wonder if this is purgatory, or maybe hell. My brother, God rest his soul, must be in Heaven, for I have not found him in the cornfields, nor along the old sunken road. I've even gone to the Hagerstown cemetery where his body rests, but I've not found him there, either. I lick my whiskers, stroking them with my tongue as I think. Tonight, I decide, I will go again to the sunken road. Perhaps he will see me there, and appear to me; for tomorrow is All Saints Day, and he'll know I will be looking.

The old lady calls me, and I go to her. In the kitchen, she sets a blue and white porcelain bowl onto the wooden floor. Steam rises from the chicken and spoon bread. As she scratches my head, the woman cautions, "It's hot, Shamrock. Let it cool down a bit."

She says she named me Shamrock because my eyes are so green. I wonder, though, if she knows more than she lets on.

I am old, for a cat, and she, for a woman. In 1862, she was nearly forty. I was only one of many she had tended, and perhaps it was my brogue which drew her to me. She fed me chicken, and spoon bread with apple butter, and sometimes sweet corn relish. She wrote a letter home for me, and cried when I passed on. Now she calls me Shamrock, and I wonder if she sees in my green eyes the soldier of New York's Irish brigade who so fancied her spoon bread and kindness. She might. The townsfolk say she's crazy, but she's just unusually perceptive. She claims to see ghosts in the cornfields, and I believe she does.

I eat my meal. It is hot, as she warned, but the heat is soothing. Outside, dusk is settling on the Maryland hills. I retire to the fireside to await the night.

The old woman is asleep as I creep out into the darkness. I cut through her haunted cornfield; the ghosts are here, I am certain. I try not to think of them as I make my way toward the sunken road.

I come over the rise, just as did the troops some fifteen years ago. The road is much the same, though most now call it Bloody Lane. I climb down the dirt embankment, and my fur stands as I reach the road; I sprint, feeling as though I am running over graves, and sit at the far end to wait.

It is nearly midnight when I hear artillery fire. Some have come from the cemeteries in Hagerstown and Antietam; others have never left this lane--and, though I am not in Heaven, I am relieved that I have not suffered their fates.

I watch as Rebs of the sixth Alabama and second and twelfth North Carolina coalesce in the lane. Union soldiers under General French are coming over the rise, to be shot down again and again. My ears flatten to my head at the noise, and I crouch.

Anderson's brigade comes to the aid of the Rebs. I look to the north, watching for my brigade; then I see them, red shamrocks atop their blue hats, come to face Anderson's North Carolinians. The battle is just as brutal this night as it was that September morning. I smell the smoke and the blood, hear the cries of the wounded, see the dead fall in piles in the road and on the rise. I look for my brother. I cannot see him. I maintain my position, for I expect that if he comes it will be here, where he fell.

I recall with painful clarity that white puff of smoke, and how, when it cleared, I could see him sprawled on the ground. Blood surrounded the large hole his chest, and I knew straight away he was dead; but, in a battle like that one, there is no time for tears.

Here, in the dark, over fifteen years later, I keep watch for him, while the translucent war around me brings back to mind the pain and horror of that day. Eventually, as it was in 1862, the Irish brigade is repelled. Tonight's ghostly battle is nearly at a close, and I have not yet seen my brother.

In my heart, I know he will not come, but the hope that he might has kept me going. And so, as dawn approaches, I roam the Bloody Lane, continuing my search among the fading apparitions for the Rebel brother I shot down.

© 2000 D.M. Rosner
First appearance, Dead Promises, edited by June Hubbard, Chameleon Publishing, Inc.
Second appearance, The Mensa Bulletin, June 2001