This story is by Bethany Meeker and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
They say everyone dies twice. Once when your heart plays its concluding beat and you expel any remaining breath of life from your lungs and the second, after some time has passed, when someone whispers your name for the last time and the memory of your life is lost to the pages of history. I believe I have died twice.
My own memories of life elude me now; I have been in this state of limbo, between life and the afterlife for decades, I am sure of it. When you are dead time has lost all meaning to you and it doesn’t abide by the laws of nature as it once did. Either time passes as swiftly as a raging river or momentarily stands still as though the universe is holding its breath. Then the cycle repeats evermore.
It was a normal day in limbo. I wandered from town to town and today I stopped on a grassy hilltop to overlook a sleepy village as the morning sun burned off last night’s mist. I was deep in thought when I felt the earth shake beneath me, a thick haze covering me. Nervously, I curled up in a ball until the ground steadied. At long last, everything finally stilled and I glanced about. I was still in the dense haze but I was now in a circle of lit candles. Without the weight, I finally stood up to gauge my environment.
A shooting pain engulfed my body and I choked out a scream from the pain when I attempted to cross the threshold of candles. I fell to the ground clutching my knees to my chest. How is it possible to feel pain? I haven’t felt anything since I perished.
“Hello? Is…is someone here with me?” A soft, trembling voice called out from the dense cloud. Hearing the sweet voice brought me back to the present and broke my blurred gaze of the flickering flames. Not knowing if she could truly hear me, I gasped out a ‘yes.’
No reaction. Refusing to give in so easily, I pushed myself to sit upright on the floor and crouched over to where I believe I heard the voice originated.
“Hello? I’m here, Miss, I’m here!” I implored loudly with the candle glow dancing off the fog. After a few tense moments of holding my breath, the air cleared and I could, at last, see my surroundings. The walls of the room were covered in curled dingy floral wallpaper and the hardwood floors were covered with scattered bits of debris accumulated from years of neglect. Light from a fading sun filtered through the only window in the room, slithering through the blinds along the walls and floor.
There sat on the other side of the candles’ dancing glow was a young woman with long, curly blonde hair and a round cherub face with glasses perched at the end of her delicate nose. A sense of familiarity bubbled in the back of my mind.
I repeated myself once more in the hopes that now the fog has cleared, she could finally hear me. My gaze searched her face for any signs that revealed she did in fact hear my pleas. A dim spark of hope was fanned into a roaring flame when she smiled and nodded her head yes.
“I hear you loud and clear, sir.” It appeared she was looking directly at me as she spoke. Has my sanity finally forsaken me after all of these years of unnatural isolation?
“It says here in this old clipping you were in the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia 1863.” The girl looked upwards and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. She gasped after a moment of deep thought. “You’re only twenty years old! You were only my age when you… well… when you passed away.” I could see a little tear had escaped the corner of her eye before she quickly wiped it away.
Was she talking about me… about my life? I glanced over at the spread of documents in front of her; old newspapers, tattered letters, faded photographs, and her own handwritten notes littered the floor around her. A photograph with a torn corner caught my eye. It featured a young man in a dark uniform lined with metal buttons and he had a tall rifle in hand with bayonet affixed to the front. He carried a stern expression upon is boyish face and held his shoulders back and down to puff out his chest, taking up as much room in the photograph as he physically could. But he was still so young.
With excellent intuition, the girl tenderly picked up the sepia photograph and gazed upon it admirably.
“This is you, Jacob,” she whispered with a smile. Disbelief shook me to the core. Was this truly my image captured in a single moment, forever memorialized on paper? Was I once a young soldier caught up in a war that divided a nation?
“Miss, can you tell me more about my life? I… I don’t remember it.” She looked up from the photograph and nodded.
“You were born in 1843 to a Mr. Lucas Asher and Mrs. Susannah Asher in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. And it says here,” she pointed to her handwritten notes, “you had a younger sister, Lillian Rose Asher.” Flashbacks of smiling parents and a young girl with long blonde hair surfaced to the forefront of my mind.
“It’s slowly coming back to me. Please, continue, Miss.”
“Of course.” She looked back to her notes, shuffled them about before landing on another tid bit of information she wished to relinquish to me. “Jacob Gideon Asher, you joined the Union army after your eighteenth birthday in 1861 and served under Major General Hooker.” Enthralled with her retelling of my life from childhood to young adulthood and preoccupied by the memories, I failed to notice another tear escape her green eyes when she began to talk of how I died.
“It was the Battle of Chancellorsville, the second to last day of it, and… oh Jacob, you were a hero that day!” Memories of the deafening screams of men dying and the acrid smell of blood and gunpowder filled my mind and senses.
“That was the day my friend Adam was attacked by a Reb.” I reminisced aloud. “He was on the ground, struggling to keep the blade from his neck when I grappled the Reb to the ground and knocked him out cold. Told Adam to head back to the regiment to await further orders from Hooker. That’s all I remember, everything is black after that”
“You were hit by cannon fire; they say you died instantly.”
“I appreciate all you have told me Miss, but how do you know who I am and what happened to me? Who are you?” I finally asked.
“I suppose after calling you here it seems only fair to introduce myself. I’m Madison Rose Lockhart and I am your great-great-great niece. Your sister, Lillian, married a few years after you passed and had my great-great grandpa Gideon, named after you of course. I grew up on the story of your bravery during the war; we have a long lineage of war heroes in the family and it all began with you. Out of curiosity, I investigated our family history and came across all of these documents about you and our family.” Madison gestured to the piles of papers scattered around her.
“I believed my life was lost to the sands of time, and yet here I am in these letters and photographs.” I grinned from ear to ear at the thought of not being forgotten after all. Despite these long, lingering years of loneliness I still had a family, a tether that linked me to the living.
Madison stood and stretched her limbs, giving them relief from the hours of sitting on the hard floor.
“Jacob, it’s time for you to go back. I have to get home to help make dinner. If it were at all possible, would it be okay if I called on you again? I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and want to learn more.” She looked hopeful at the possibilities of meeting again and disappointed she had to leave so soon.
“I would greatly enjoy your company again, Miss Madison, on the promise you tell me all about our family.”
“Absolutely! Goodbye, Uncle Jacob!” She exclaimed as she went around the circle blowing out the candles, sending me back to the grassy hilltop overlooking the sleepy village.
They say everyone dies twice. Once when your heart plays its concluding beat and you expel any remaining breath of life from your lungs and the second, after some time has passed, when someone whispers your name for the last time and the memory of your life is lost to the pages of history. I know I have died once.