I never believed in re-incarnation until…
My wife, Eliza, and I are both high school teachers, and for summer break this year, we decided to take out eight-year old twin boys, Henry and Gabe, on a trip through a few of the Civil War battlefields located in Pennsylvania. I have been fascinated – obsessed, really – with that dark era of American History since I was a young boy, and was eager to share my enthusiasm with my sons. Gettysburg was our first stop, a battle I had always found particularly interesting.
“This battle,” my wife read the brochure aloud. “Raged from July first to July third, 1863. Today is July second.”
“That’s kinda’ spooky, Mom,” Gabe’s eyes were wide as I pulled into the National Cemetery.
“Yeah, I hear there are ghosts all over these battlefields.” His brother teased.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, and quit picking on your brother,” I reprimanded as I put the car in park. We ambled out, stretching our legs. Gabe and Henry were ragged messes, their clothing crumpled from all their squirming in the back seat.
“Maybe we should go to the restroom, clean up a bit,” I suggested as I watched Eliza stretch her spine with various stretching and yoga moves. I couldn’t help but admire her long, tanned legs. I think I have loved her for centuries.
I put my arm around her small waist, gave her a quick kiss before taking the boys to the restroom. They skipped alongside me, bursting with healthy energy, glad to be out of the car for a while. Inside the men’s room, we relieved ourselves, and then I scrubbed them as well as I could before we rejoined Eliza. She, too, had freshened up, and pulled her long auburn hair back into a sleek bun. Her beauty is ageless. I kissed her gently on the cheek, and then turned toward an unfamiliar sound. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what, John?”
“Sounds like, I don’t know,” I walked ahead of my family, listening carefully to the muffled noise. “Like moans.” I was focusing completely to what only I was hearing. “Like cries of anguish.”
Eliza and the boys caught up with me. “It’s probably just the wind, honey,” She reached for my hand, braided her fingers in mine. “Your hand’s cold, John, are you feeling well?”
“Dad’s just hearing ghosts.” Henry thought aloud.
“There’s no such thing, and your father told you not to frighten your brother like that.” Eliza scolded. I noticed a twinge of fear in her pitch. “Your Dad’s very tired, and his mind is just playing tricks on him.” She leaned closer to me. “Maybe we should go back to the car, let you get some rest?”
“No, I’m fine,” I continued moving forward, searching for whatever – whoever – was now calling my name.
“John?” Eliza pulled my arm back. “I don’t like this; let’s go back to the car.”
I was crouching along by the time we got to the cemetery, and the noises were becoming louder and by the time we reached the first tombstone, I thought I was hearing battle noises: guns, cannons, horses, officers shouting orders in the confusion that was the human slaughter called war. The pandemonium was audible only to me.
“Dad, are you okay?” Henry sounded concerned.
“Yeah,” I tousled his wavy brown hair. “I’m alright, just a little spooked, I guess.” I tried to shake the feeling of dread.
“Do your ears need to pop? Maybe you are getting another ear infection?” The concern in Eliza’s voice was palpable.
I was walking more slowly now, studying each marker, noting the name, the day of the birth, and the day of the soldier’s death. Why were so many of the names familiar? I heard Eliza’s voice from a distance.
“What?” I turned to see that the concern on my wife’s face had turned into something else. Fear?
Eliza gently shook her head. “I didn’t say anything.” A solitary tear slid down her cheek. Her hands were folded across her chest, and for less than a second, I envisioned her in a long black dress and veil.
The kind that war widows wore.
“I thought I heard you say something. Gabe? Henry? Did either one of you say anything?”
“No, Dad,” they answered simultaneously. I knew they were telling the truth because I heard the voice again, and it was behind me, urging me to follow it. What was going on? Could I simply have an ear infection? Was I just overly tired? Maybe Eliza was right, we should go back to the car and I could take a short nap. Something – someone- was calling my name, as if looking for me. I looked at the tops of the trees to see if maybe the wind was simply whistling. Not a single leaf was moving. Still, the voices, the sounds of battle, and now, I was smelling something. Death was permeating my nostrils.
The further into the cemetery I ventured, the louder the noises, and the stronger the smells became. My sense of reality seemed to be fading.
I looked at Eliza, standing between our sons, holding each of their hands, watching me slip from her grasp. Did she know something I didn’t? I ran over to where they were standing, Eliza in her black dress and veil, the boys in their Sunday best. I kissed Eliza deeply, as if it were for the last time. I gave each of my sons a bear hug. “You boys take care of your Momma, now, she’s gonna’ need ya’.” Where was the accent coming from? I looked directly into my beautiful wife’s brown eyes. “I love you, I always will.”
I turned to the noises, almost running to the middle of the cemetery. I noticed the tombstone of a soldier.
His name was the same as mine. First, middle, last.
He was born the same day as I was. One-hundred and ten years earlier than me.
He died on July second, 1863.
I felt my chest exploding, then sudden blackness. When I re-gained consciousness, there was a young boy, maybe nineteen, lying beside me. He was wearing a Union Army uniform.
The tombstones were gone. So was my family.
“Welcome back, Johnny, we been missin’ ya’,” He smiled, patting my shoulder as he handed me my rifle.