Wait. Shouldn’t the trail go left here?
The runner stopped and surveyed the new bend in the trail, heading away from the river and up towards the tree line. A pile of brush and logs blocked the path he typically followed. He intended to run hills today and hoped the trail would have just as many and be just as rugged as what he planned to run. Off to a new adventure, he thought, and took off running.
As it was early April, the leaves on the Virginia trees had not yet blossomed and as usual he focused less on the trail and more on the hidden wonders that might be seen in the brush not yet covered in the green leaves and vines and weeds of spring. He loved spotting foundations of old houses, remnants of chimneys and fireplaces, rusted out cars, or some old wooden house or cabin slowly being reclaimed by the trees and earth from which it was once born. As he ran along the high ridge of the trail he could clearly see a break in the trees about 100 yards off. There was some sort of pasture and he decided to explore it. The runner paused his watch and made his way through the trees.
There on the far side of a pasture were the remnants of a house foundation. Immediately, he thought it might be an old Civil War era home. It was hard to stop his imagination when he found things like this. A history buff, his mind began to fill vividly with pictures of what his life would have been like as the head of a poor southern farming family, making do with their modest plot of land, versus what life was really like for his actual relatives who lived in Boston during the Civil War.
A novice writer, the runner took a few pictures of the foundation, posted them on Instagram, then began to jot down some notes on his phone. This would certainly make a great story, he thought. It had been a long time since he thought of a good story. So, while it wasn’t normal for him to rest by a tree in the woods mid-trail run, now seemed to be a good time to start. Though it was still a little wet from last night’s storm, he leaned back against the dead tree and began to imagine a new story. But, the warm sun and soft breeze got the better of him and he drifted off to sleep, not sure if he was imagining the voice of his main character or someone actually said the words…
April 7, 1865
In a fit of fury, he bolted for the buzzard while waving his walking stick and screaming to drive the scavenging bird away from a human carcass. The spat of exertion made him dizzy. Blood loss was taking it’s toll and now, the sight of the buzzard pecking at the bloated rotting body of a soldier and ripping ribbons of dead flesh from it’s bones turned his empty stomach and made him heave his empty guts. He buckled over and fell to his hands and knees before rolling on his side curled up in a hoarse-voiced low-pitched dying moan of agony as the walls of his stomach squeezed together with every spasm.
Years of fighting made him numb to the sight of newly dead but, not to the sight of those God-forsaken buzzards tearing bits and pieces of flesh off the dead soldiers’ bodies and gobbling them down. Ever since he saw that dead soldier hung up in the thickets after the Wilderness battle, he could not free his mind from the grotesque image. A Confederate soldier, a boy really, lay leaning back against the thickets, arms spread wide, as if he was resting up against a fence. He almost looked peaceful except for the vulture perched upon his face with one claw partially in his gaping mouth and the other on his bloated neck. The buzzard stood on the boy’s face and pecked and pulled on an eyeball with sickening jerk after sickening jerk until it ripped the dead gray eye from its socket.
Dear Lord, don’t let them buzzards at me. Please, dear Lord— not them damn buzzards…
For sure, he would die soon. He only hoped to see his Sarah and the girls.
While most other troops received positive letters from their wives with hopeful news that the South was winning the war, he did not. Sarah was not that strong. Her letters were heartbreaking and filled with a depth of sorrow he didn’t know possible from the cheerful woman he left behind. Times were hard almost immediately for Sarah and the girls but, it wasn’t until Yankee bastards hung her brother on the gate post of their farm that something broke in Sarah. Troops were all about the countryside looting farms when they found Sarah’s 14-year-old brother Robert hiding in a barn. Held at gunpoint, he was marched to the gate post where a noose was already hung. Sarah cried and pleaded for mercy but in only minutes, Robert was dead. The troops left him hanging and poor Sarah could not get him down for more than a day. She never got over the sight of it or in how quickly it all happened.
It all happened after the Wilderness battle and just before Spotsylvania— a battle many claimed as a Southern victory but, with so many dead all around, it didn’t feel like that to James. It wasn’t until Dinwiddie that the his outfit had some semblance of a victory, but after that he took a flesh wound at Five Forks, where they lost badly. Rumors were that Lee ordered the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond afterwards. Rumor or not, he knew then that the South would fall and the infection about his wound worsened. There was no hospital at this point in the war and he knew from seeing other men live and die that he would have to walk out or die. All the men were exhausted and starving from months of fighting and were struggling to hold their own. Later that night, James and several other deserted.
It was a good twenty miles or so back to his farm where he hoped to see Sarah and the girls. He and the other deserters relied on the good Southern graces of women on nearby farms to feed and put them up for the night while they made their way back to their homes. The men departed one particular farm early one morning and not too long afterwards heard quite a commotion behind them. Obliged to return a good favor, the men retreated to the farm to see it set ablaze. Before James could react, a man to his left was shot and fell dead. Some men began to fire back, since as deserters, they still had their rifles while those who surrendered with Lee did not. But those men, too, were shot by the Yankee looters. James ran.
Sick and weak with just a few pieces of bread and water in his belly, he tried to outrun the Yankee troops. He had, many times, been able to quell his fear on the battlefield but, now starving and sick, fear raked through his body and made him scream and cry as he ran. He leapt over a rock but, in doing so caught a round in his back and fell into a thicket. Before he passed out, he remember the dead boy and the buzzard.
Please dear Lord, don’t let them buzzards at me…
He awoke several hours later, dizzy and nauseous. He had seen enough war to know that he would not survive this. Were he not dehydrated and short on blood, tears would have fallen from his eyes as he cried. He cursed the Yankees, Lincoln, and prayed for every northerner as well. He no longer saw the boy and eye ball eating buzzard in his mind… he saw himself, mouth agape with a buzzards claw in it and the other on his throat as it pulled his face apart while stuck in the thickets.
Please dear God. Please! Please don’t let the buzzards get me!
He cried out loud and wrestled himself from the thickets falling over the other side where to his surprise, he saw a barn. Not just any barn but, his barn! And it was burning. His house was gone— burnt to the ground. There was nothing left! Damn Yankees!!! James crawled to his home. Closer and closer he crawled until he saw his wife and children’s bodies. He could take no more and rolled onto his back, looking skyward and praying for God to take him. Then he heard horses. The Yankees were coming back for him! Well, they won’t get the pleasure, he thought. James rolled back on his stomach and crawled trying to find someplace to hide.
He didn’t know why there was this strange hole in the ground and why there was a pile of dirt beside it. Then, he saw the sapling. Sarah and the girls were probably planning to plant a tree for him, he imagined. He knew then that he would win. He would beat the Yankees and the buzzards with this final gift. James crawled into the hole, rested the sapling on his chest, and covered himself with the earth. He was right. Neither the buzzards nor the Yankees would get him. The troops passed by shortly after he died and did not think twice on the newly planted tree.
As spring wore on, rain fell, and the air grew warm the sapling spread it roots around and through James’ body. Had the property not been burned the sapling would have struggled to outgrow surrounding vegetation and garner any sunlight but, there amongst the ruins of a small southern farm, the sapling thrived that summer, it’s roots nourished by Jame’s body. It thrived so much that summer that it grew strong enough to survive the ensuing harsh winters.
It took several years before James became conscious that his soul lived on in the tree. He existed between moods of warm soothing sunlight and violent fearful storms. Summer was like a warm and pleasant afternoon nap and winter a peaceful sleep until he woke again in the spring. As years passed, the senses that reminded him of his home and Sarah and the children faded but, always existed as an inner sadness. His hatred for Yankees and buzzards existed still, too, and if one could have trained a camera on the tree in which James’ soul existed, one would see that not a single buzzard perched for even a second in over a 150 years on one his branches. His hatred was evident.
James could sense the presence of people about him. Over the years people had stumbled upon the pasture and ruins of the farm house. Eventually, a hiking trail was cut nearby and the frequency of people increased. Then, a few miles away, land was cut and a community estab- lished. Wealthy people from all over the country moved there after finding work in Richmond. The trail saw more use, including that as part of a trail run event. Hundreds of runners would run the race once a year. Many would return to run the trail recreationally.
It started off an annoyance to James. He could sense the runners nearby and knew that some were not from the South. Some were Yankees. He could smell their hateful blood. One night, a storm hung over the area for a great deal of time and James raged with it, cursing Yankees and reigniting his hatred for them. Thunder roared and lightning flashed over and over until suddenly a bolt crashed into the trunk and splitting it. With a loud crack the tree broke completely near it’s base and fell. Everything went black.
As the temperature rose with the morning sun, James awoke, too but, something was different. He could sense the warming sun, and even a damned Yankee, but for the first time in over 150 years, he could actually see. James could see the tree trunk split in two. He could see it at different angles, too. He was no longer confined to the tree! He spirit was free from the tree and could move about.
James’ spirit laughed. He was free from the tree. The storm freed him but, he was just as angry as he was in the storm itself. He wanted revenge on the Yankees and he could smell Yankee blood nearby. His spirit rose and circled the split tree and there he saw him… a Yankee… resting upon the tree trunk. With all the violence of last night’s storm and 150 years of pent up desire for revenge, James’ evil spirit descended upon the sleeping Yankee runner.