Plum Grove, a short story by Lowell R Torres

From Hoosier Writers 2012 by Lowell R Torres

I spent the spring 2005 semester studying abroad at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, a tiny village right outside of Liverpool, England.  My favorite class that semester was the creative writing class, as it was different from every other CW class I’d participated in before or since.  One very different activity was a field trip to the Tate Art Gallery in Liverpool, where our assignment was to find a piece of art and write a short story about it.

The piece I eventually chose was Plum Grove, by Peter Howson and it depicted a brutal scene from the fighting between Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s.  My story changes that setting to somewhere in the south during the US Civil War.

Plum Grove by Peter Howson, courtesy of tate.org.uk

A crow pecked and pulled at the man’s left hand.  The appendage was purple and bloated, but that didn’t deter the crow any.  It ripped off a piece of flesh and gulped the prize down with a quick motion of its head.  The bird went about securing itself another morsel in a business-like way.

Fran’s rock missed the bird by a good six inches and proved to be more annoyance to it than a threat.  It ruffled its feathers and cocked its head her way, one black beady eye glaring at her with what her mind’s eye considered malice.  Don’t try that again lass, or may be I’ll dine on you next; the look seemed to tell her.  Isaac’s rock was much bigger, and while he missed as well, it was enough of a threat to send the crow off with a disdainful caw.  Fran followed its progress to a nearby tree before her eyes were compelled to return to the man.

They had come upon him strung up to one of the plum trees as they played and raced through the grove.  Fran nearly ran right into him as she risked a swift glance over her shoulder to check how close Isaac was, and only her brother’s look of shocked surprise had saved her.  When she turned around to see what it was that had Isaac gaping, she gave a panicked yelp of surprise that quickly turned into a shriek of horror.

The rope started at the man’s right ankle, tied tight so that his leg hung up awkward behind him while the other one dangled on the ground.  Up and across his stomach it went, securing him to the thick limb of the downed tree.  After looping around his chest it went under his armpit and stopped at his left wrist, secured to a branch.  His whole left arm was sticking up behind his head in such a grotesque way his shoulder had to be broken or dislocated.  But the arm wasn’t the worst, nor was it his lumpy face, all cut up and bleeding and bruised.  The worst was his lower.  His trousers were pulled down, and instead of his man parts there was just an ugly gaping red hole.  Trails of dried blood ran down his thighs.

The area was thick with flies.  The air hummed with their buzzing.

“What happened, Sissa?” Isaac asked, his voice full of awe, but not fear.  Isaac was very brave for a four-year-old.  Almost too brave.

“He got lynched, you dummy.  What do you think happened?”  She didn’t mean to be cross with him, but her nerves were quite frayed suddenly, and she felt jumpy.  Her stomach fluttered dangerously, but she told herself she wouldn’t vomit.

“But he’s wearing the grays!” Isaac pointed out, as if she couldn’t see the Confederate uniform for herself.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.  How a soldier on their side could have been lynched, especially down here in friendly territory, was beyond her.

“Was there a battle?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Maybe it was a battle,” he said, though it was more of a question.

“I said I don’t know!” she shouted, and then shrieked again as the man’s eyes opened.  Fran was sure she was going to drop dead of a chest seizure at that very moment.  Even though nine-year-olds were too young to drop dead, she was positive there were some exceptions.

“He’s alive,” Isaac said dumbly.  He didn’t even jump, but his eyes were real wide.

One of the man’s eyes was so filled up with blood you couldn’t make out the color, but the other was a startling hazel.  Even though the eye was dull and glazed over with pain it struck her.  There was something about the color that was familiar, but she’d never seen this man before.  His gaze moved from brother to sister with a quiet desperation.  He opened his mouth, but only a dry click came out.  He cleared his throat loudly, and grimaced in pain.

“Water,” he finally rasped.  “Please . . . water . . . dying.”

“Was there a battle?” Isaac asked and stepped forward.

Fran was too stunned to act at first.  Her heart still felt like it was in her throat.  The man seemed confused by Isaac’s question.  He shook his head, like he was trying to clear it of cobwebs, and then repeated his plea for water.  Fran noticed two his two front teeth were missing, the gums bloody.

“What happened, mister?” she brought herself to ask.  She wanted to run away, run home.  The smell of him and the sight of the flies crawling in and out of the hole in his crotch made her feel faint, and even more sick.  But her curiosity overwhelmed those feelings.

“It was a battle, wasn’t it?” Isaac asked again, and Fran contemplated punching him in the nose.

“It weren’t no battle, you stupid!” she spat at him.  “There would be bodies everywhere and we would’a heard it.”  Isaac just rolled his eyes at her, and then looked at the soldier again.

“Please . . . water,” he pleaded, voice full of pain.  “She . . . she wanted to . . . was willing . . . swear . . . God!”  This last word he said with vehemence, as if invoking the name of the Holy Father explained it all.  Fran didn’t think it explained anything.  “Please . . . water . . . please.”  She understood that much.

Fran turned to go, then remembered her brother.  She grabbed Isaac’s sleeve and tugged, but he resisted her.  The dying man entranced him.  Fran had seen all she wanted to see of the man, but she pitied him so much she would get him some water.

“Come on, Isaac,” she urged, but her brother ignored her.  To her complete and utter horror he reached out a hand and touched the man’s outstretched leg.

That was when their father arrived.

“What are you children doing?” he boomed in his angry voice.  Fran turned to look at him in helpless mute appeal.  Isaac jumped back so fast he tripped on a root and fell onto his bottom with a teeth-rattling thud.

“Francis made me!” he wailed, and then started crying.

“You rotten lying little!” she shrieked and kicked him in the leg, which made him start bawling even louder.  He looked at Father as if that proved his point.  Fran was relieved to see that Father didn’t seem to believe Isaac’s lie.  He marched forward and pulled Isaac to his feet.

“You both get home right this instant, or I’ll be tanning both your hides!”

“He wants water,” Isaac said as Fran tried pulling him away.  Father glowered at them for a moment, and then his face softened.

“I come to bring him something better than that,” he said, and Fran noticed the big bayonet sticking out of his waistband.  “You children get on now.”

Fran obeyed her father and drug Isaac after her.  She was still mad about his blaming her, but he was a little devil like that.  At the end of the row she turned back for one last look.  Her father was talking to the soldier, who was nodding his head slowly.  The man said one last thing, and then her father drove the knife into the man’s heart.

The soldier’s body gave a shudder, and was still.

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