by Fiona J. Mackintosh
January 25, 1867
Somewhere outside Jacksonville, Illinois, the train slows to a crawl. Clara cups her hands and peers into the darkness but sees only the rail bed stones and the ragged edge of a sorghum field.
Dorr is looking at the ghost of his own reflection, his long chin resting on his fist. Is he thinking of his life before the war? Perhaps of some young girl he left behind, her long tight braid and downy upper lip. Strands of fine brown hair drift across his forehead, and Clara has to bunch her fists in her lap to stop herself from brushing the lock aside with her finger.
She’s tired from hard-bolstered beds and mealy food and the endless sorrow at every stop. The faces of the mothers are especially hard to bear. The train exhales a gust of steam and the coals in the carriage stove crump, and Dorr sighs and, turning from the window, opens the book on his lap. His face, filled out and furred with beard, is beautiful, and, as his long, slim fingers turn a page, Clara feels the dragging tide pull of her heart.
This isn’t the gaunt boy of thirty months ago, straggle-limbed inside his shabby clothes, who’d dug the noxious mud of Andersonville with a bent spoon and drunk from a stream rank with piss and maggots. Clara’s seen her fill of horrors in the honest rage of battle, but what he told her about the camps darkened her soul. So when he came with haunted eyes to say he loved her, she felt what a mother would feel; the urge to keep him safe. She told him there was no room for love with so much left to do, so many men still to be found, but they could face the task together. ‘Work with me,’ she said, ‘Let’s be honorable comrades’ and shook his hand.
A sudden, teeth-wrenching noise, and their eyes meet. The floor bucks, skittering the foot warmers, and the lights flare and die with a pop and reek of gas, and the carriage leans with an almost human groan and then topples, pitching Clara into space. Blinded, she cartwheels, clutching at air, cloth, metal, skin, then with a jarring that seems to rearrange her bones, lands chin first on Dorr’s shoulder. She tastes blood and feels his leg across her thighs beneath her upturned skirts, and then his hands are on her face in the blackness, feeling for her breath against his palm. ‘Thank god’ he says, and then his hands are in her hair and the roughness of his face is pressed to hers. But then there’s screaming and voices shouting and a wavering light high above in a shattered square of window. A man’s voice calls, ‘Is anybody there?’ and Dorr’s hands fall away as Clara, fighting free of her tangled dress, cries upwards to the night, ‘I’m a nurse. Let me help.’
Fiona J. Mackintosh is a British-American writer. She won the 2018 Fish Flash Fiction Award, has been listed for the Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Prizes, and has twice been nominated for The Best Small Fictions. She received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Award in 2016. You can find her online at www.fionajmackintosh.com and on Twitter at @fionajanemack.
Image of Clara Barton by Mathew Brady, circa 1865, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.