Generals

by Erin McKnight

 

 

I was suffocated by the night. Its cloak draped over my luminous shoulders, the heavy fabric smothered every trace of light as I spun myself into enveloping folds and creases.

 

*

 

That first morning I sat across from him on the train. Sliding doors’ ripple of air caused my eyelashes to flutter. He’d missed a patch while shaving his curved jawbone that I longed to trace with my thumbnail. When he caught me staring, he didn’t look away.

 

We sped underground and in his gaze I found shadows. They spoke to me. Told me to ignore their presence, which reflected nothing more than my own face. For two years it mattered that this scrutiny could force shaded vestiges into retreat.

 

*

 

I’d stopped looking by the time we penetrated the wooded wall of trees. I thought we were alone as we avoided fetid leaves along the muddied trail, but my talking had nothing to do with a past I couldn’t sense. I’ve always talked. When there was a space, I would inflame it with my inadequate words.

 

“How long since you were here?” I asked, slipping my arm through his.

 

A whisper: “Too long.”

 

We stopped walking when we reached a mound, his body rigid. I should have noticed his blinking rage, the way his eyes ignited against the darkened turf.

 

There was an opening in the moment I had to devour. “It looks like a fairy ring.”

 

Dusk swallowed his face. I’m sure of it now, but unseen to me then was the silhouette of a boy playing atop the raised earth.

 

His body loosened. “Sean was Grant and I was Lee. We’d bring our soldiers out here, line them up, and then wait for the moon before charging into battle.”

 

This hill never belonged to fairies, but to armies. I envisaged boys with the same freckled noses facing each other here in combat.

 

“The Civil War was hard on the nation, Dad had said,” for the first time speaking of his father without prompting. “I needed to do something to achieve victory for the South. After all, I was the older brother.”

 

His irises flared in wicked slivers as he reached for me, his fingers tightening around my throat. I saw Sean, then: hovering over his contingent of olive-colored troops, the brave men awaiting his order to spring into action and confront their enemy.

 

*

 

With infantrymen flanked in offensive positions and longing to prove their loyalty, two brothers had met that evening beneath a glowing canopy of fireflies.

 

Sean hadn’t noticed the lighter. He was too occupied with his strategy to hear his sibling’s thumb strike its ridges.

 

Flames rushed the hill so fast there wasn’t time to fall back. As plastic army men melted into wounded flesh, Sean was unable to feel the dirt kicked up by reinforcements’ frantic feet. Plumes of smoke rose above the trees and choked a clear sky the night a general fell.

 

*

 

Yet as I lie here I understand why he extinguished our memories. His father had withered because of war stories he believed responsible for the death of his younger son. I couldn’t be allowed to smolder in the same way.

 

I’ll admit I was scared. Low-crawling recognition and the echoes of commands in the branches above made it impossible to rest. I wanted to draw the cloak of darkness even closer, but instead loosened my grip so twilight could bring him back.

 

*

 

And here he marches, a casualty of his own war. Falling to his knees he says I belong in these woods, as Sean has never left. His unclouded eyes say that none of us ever will. Reaching his hands into the soft soil of this shallow grave, he lets the dirt slip through his fingers and searches beyond vigilant trees for stars.

 

 

###

 

 

Erin McKnight lives in Dallas, where she teaches fiction writing and works as a freelance editor. Erin is the Managing Fiction Editor of Prick of the Spindle, and her reviews of poetry and fiction titles can be found at Bookslut. Last year, Erin’s collection of short short stories, “To the Quick,” was published by Recycled Karma Press.

 

Generals was first published in slightly different form by Ginosko Literary Journal