Anna Lee

by Obinna Onwuka

Every headstone in the graveyard bore the name Anna Lee.

A young woman wandered through that graveyard. Her hair was well-coiled, blonde tresses worked into springs that bounced around a usually bright face. Her nose was small and pointed slightly upwards in a buttonish way. Her limbs were thin, not gaunt but thin, though she seemed even smaller in the red dress that flounced around her. She kept her skirts up away from the black mud with dainty little hands. Her eyes were green and they streaked from stone to stone, seeing that name under crosses and embossed on hard, square blocks of night grey stone.

The young woman’s name was Anna Lee and she was quite perplexed.

The moon looked down upon her through bright, fleece-like clouds. Her feet, slippered by sleek red shoes, squelched into the mud as she whirled around and around, dancing frantically as she saw her name on the headstones. Her skin shone under the moonlight and against the deepness of the earth all around her. None of the graves bore flowers. None of them had even been visited. Her footprints, she saw, were the only ones. Anna Lee. Anna Lee. She drew her breaths more quickly as each second passed. Her eyes brimmed with tears and it wasn’t because of how much mud, how much dirt there was.

“Miss Lee?” called out a deep, clear voice. Anna spun around. A man stood next to a headstone not far from her, his head bowed and a beaten, wide-brimmed hat covering his features. He wore a Union uniform that was handsome once, before all the dirt and the little tears that she barely saw, injuries of time and rage. He was too tall. He raised his face and his eyes were too big. He was darker than her. His black mustache hung over his top lip and drooped down the sides. The burning end of his cigar brightened angrily as he puffed.

“That is your name, isn’t it?” he asked. He lifted a rifle and settled it over his shoulder. Her eyes slid up and down its length. A Henry repeating rifle. A killing tool. He leaned his hip against the headstone that bore her name.

“Yes, it is,” Anna choked. She stepped backwards, her hand reaching out and finding a headstone. Union men never sat well with her. “May I ask yours?”

The man smiled. The moon did not look down on him. “People tend to call me the Halfwit,” he said. “Being half-white, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.” He looked at the end of his cigar. “Better than being called plain old nigger, I suppose.”

Anna licked her lips and glanced away from him. “I… I don’t suppose that’s…” She looked at him. “Mister Halfwit?”

He looked away from her to cover his laugh. “Just the Halfwit,” the Halfwit said. He took a step forward and stood between four headstones. His finger was looped against the trigger of his rifle. “Quite a find, this place.”

Anna swallowed. “I am…” Anna said, wringing her hands together. She looked to her left, her hair swimming about her head as she looked at the rows of headstones. “I am quite perplexed, Halfwit.” And she was.

“Makes sense,” the Halfwit said, strolling towards her through the headstones, his left hand passing over the rock as he approached. She didn’t move. She simply watched him come.

“Nobody’s prepared to see a graveyard like this.”

“I don’t understand it,” Anna said, looking at the Halfwit walk towards her. His uniform was unbuttoned slightly. An officer’s uniform. “I am still alive, right?” Her eyes pleaded with him.

The Halfwit shrugged and came on, slowly, sauntering.

Anna’s trembling lips spread in a smile. “Maybe I get blown to pieces and these graves are just waiting, each one getting a little piece of me.”

“It’s possible,” the Halfwit said. “A stick of dynamite could be shoved down your throat.”

Anna shuddered and leaned her hip against a headstone. “I didn’t want to hear that, Halfwit.”

The Halfwit puffed on his cigar. “You brought it up, Miss Lee. In any case, I don’t have a stick of dynamite.” The Halfwit stopped not far from Anna. He fingered the trigger of his rifle. Anna pushed both hands down on the headstone and did her best to get the image of herself being blown into a thousand pieces out of her head. It was a spectacularly thrilling image, though, and that was what scared her the most. Perhaps if it was happening to someone else it might be agreeable.

“Do you remember an Army of the Illinois?” the Halfwit asked.

Anna looked up and steadied herself. “The War never interested me,” she breathed because a soft voice could never carry a lie, not to a man. The Halfwit nodded.

“All of these are you,” the Halfwit said. “All these graves. Your life has been replayed at least a hundred thousand times, Miss Lee, just like everyone else’s, just like all of history. And you’re trapped. You always make the same mistake and you always get killed right here.” The Halfwit tapped a headstone and puffed on his cigar. “Always for the same reason: that mistake.”

Anna tried to study the Halfwit’s face but he lifted his thumb and lowered the brow of his hat. She turned her eyes upwards and the moon looked back at her. “How do you know all that?” she asked. “You’re just a Halfwit, after all.”

The Halfwit smiled under his hat. “I know,” he told her. “I’m the one that kills you.”

Anna took a deep breath, closed her eyes and held it in, then exhaled. The Halfwit watched her. “Did you follow me here?”

“In a sense,” the Halfwit said. “I knew where you were going.” Anna nodded somberly. “Do you remember a man named Brown?”

Anna smoothed her skirt down the back of her thighs and took a seat atop a headstone. Her toes scrubbed the earth, made two small smooth patches in it. “Lots of Browns,” she said, looking at her name engraved a dozen times. “My mother almost married a man named Brown. I was almost a Brown.” She smiled and gripped her skirts at her knees. “Anna Brown isn’t a good name, though.”

“Artaxerxes Brown,” the Halfwit said. His eyes seemed to smolder under the brim of his hat even though she couldn’t see them. His cigar did a little dance between his lips. “Major General Artaxerxes Brown of the Army of the Illinois. Do you remember?”

Anna looked at him. “Artaxerxes is a peculiar name, don’t you think?”

The Halfwit walked towards her, growing as he came on. She didn’t move but her knees quaked. He wanted to block out the moon but he wasn’t quite tall enough to manage that. He stood between two headstones.

“Do you remember, Miss Lee?”

Anna nodded slowly, bunching her skirts together. Her toes knotted against each other. Her eyes darted from headstone to headstone, to dirt, to more.

“Do you remember John’s Crossing?” the Halfwit asked. He lifted his foot and set it atop a headstone. He leaned forward, plucked the cigar from his mouth and studied the end, blowing smoke onto it, and then set it back between his lips. With his thumb he pushed his hat up and showed her his face. “Do you remember the sprawling camp of the Army of the Illinois? Neat blue uniforms, rifles, faces of the soldiers? Do you remember Brown’s face?”

“I remember,” she hissed. She looked at him, her features slack. “I remember Brown’s face and the way he looked when he was giving orders. There was one day, a Tuesday I think, when he stepped out of his cabin in just his longjohns holding his revolver. His belly was always too fat without his uniform.” She didn’t smile. “He said that someone had stolen his hat and he was going to shoot every man in camp until he got it back. He actually did shoot some poor Ohio boy before the other officers restrained him. Oh, I remember it all.”

She fell silent and looked at the dirty buttons on the Halfwit’s uniform. His finger itched the trigger of his rifle. He slung his left wrist over his upraised knee and leaned forward further.

“This is an awful place to die,” Anna sighed.

“Yes it is, Miss Lee,” the Halfwit said. “No one wants an audience. Doesn’t seem to matter that they’re all corpses and that they’re all you.”

Anna swallowed and looked up at his face. She saw the creases that dissected it. There was a way out of this just like there was a way out of John’s Crossing, just like there was always a way out. She bit her lower lip and watched his eyes soften.

“I want to stop it,” Anna said. “I don’t want to die here. Not again.”

“Are you going to change the past? That’s the only way I can see to do it,” the Halfwit said. He chuckled and blew smoke.

“But how?” she asked.

The corners of the Halfwit’s mouth twitched, turned up slightly. The stink of tobacco protected him, but it didn’t protect Anna Lee, and she looked at his cigar and pined for it as she tasted the fetid air. She thought she might retch if she stayed here too much longer. The red end of his cigar flared up. She dropped her eyes to the dirt again.

“What about my face?” the Halfwit asked. “Do you remember me?” She didn’t look up. “I barely got out as all that bad business was going down. Never rode a horse before in my life and there I was, my ass getting cracked on a horse’s bare back as I made my escape.”

Anna shook her head, kicking her feet a bit. “I don’t know what business you’re talking about,” she said. Slaughter wasn’t a business.

The Halfwit puffed out on his cigar. “Just because you weren’t there doesn’t mean you don’t know, Miss Lee,” he said. “Woken up at three in the morning by cannonfire, Rebs right across the river, splitting apart our camp with shells. Before we could even get our guns in our hands they’re charging across at us, yelling and firing, cutting us down with bayonets. They knew where we were, knew just where to attack. They broke us, beat us like dogs, killed us to a man.” He worked the cigar around with his teeth and his lips. “I was the only one to get out, Miss Lee. The only one. At best others might’ve been captured. General Brown caught a bullet to the gut. Bled to death on a Confederate cot.”

“That’s terrible, Halfwit, but I was long gone by then,” she said. Her fingers curled. “Whenever that was.” She glanced up, brave enough only to look at the buttons on his chest before glancing at the dirt again.

“I saw you crossing the river the day before,” he continued, “in that red dress of yours, the one you’re wearing now, just after you’d got done spreading your legs for my uncle. Probably went to spread ’em for some rebel private.”

Anna Lee looked up sharply and found herself caught in the Halfwit’s glare, her body shivering like a wet dog’s. Suddenly she wondered how she didn’t recognize him before. And who else would have chased her so far except this grudge-wracked savage?

“Sergeant Julius Langston-Hughes,” the Halfwit growled. “Nephew of Major General Brown. Do you remember me, Miss Lee?”

“I do,” she said. “I remember you… but no one ever called you Halfwit then.”

“They knew better than to say it in front of my uncle,” he said. “Or in front of me. Or in front of you. But it’s all I am now.” He smiled at her, leered over the field of headstones, his tall, vulturish body not shifting, a Medusa’s statue with some malevolence still lurking deep inside. “Until I avenge my uncle.”

The Halfwit’s arms seemed to creak soundlessly into motion, bringing that hateful rifle up to his shoulder. He didn’t flip up the sights, but Anna Lee felt the heat of the muzzle’s deathly stare between her eyes and she forced tears from her eyes. The Halfwit didn’t smile as she began to weep, squeezing her skirts, lips trembling, all over pitiful.

“I’m going to kill you,” the Halfwit said slowly but not softly. “A spy’s death for a spy. I won’t show you mercy. Your crying isn’t going to do any good.”

She looked up at him with red and dripping eyes. “What will do good, then?” she asked. “What is going to help me?”

“Confess and apologize,” the Halfwit said, keeping his aim true. “Pray to God. Maybe He’ll have pity on you and you’ll walk into Heaven. The worst He can do is say no.”

Anna Lee bit her lower lip and looked around her at the endless rows of graves, her graves, her tombstones, as far as she could see. Her body was wracked with new sobs. She looked at the Halfwit, stared right at the muzzle of that rifle. It wasn’t over yet.

“I want to warn myself,” she said, and then she swallowed. “My other selves. Not to spy for the rebels. I can… I can see my graveyard taking over the frontier and I don’t…” She choked on sorrow. “I should be the last one here, if possible. The rest of the ‘me’s should… live their lives happily. They shouldn’t come to be executed in this awful place.”

Anna could taste the smirk on the Halfwit’s lips. “And how do you plan to do that?” he inquired.

She gathered herself, taking deep breaths. “I have a friend in Philadelphia,” she said, “A medium, a mystic… name of Morgan Woods. I… I want to send her a short letter. If anyone can contact my other selves, it would be her.” She tugged the bodice of her dress out with her thumb and reached inside with two fingers.

“Hey,” the Halfwit snapped. Anna Lee looked up, perplexed. He puffed on his cigar and its end flared at her. “Don’t do that, don’t reach for anything. You have two options: pray and then die or just die.”

“Listen to me, Halfwit,” she said, feeling the tears in her eyes again, feeling them roll into her voice. Hysteria 1863. “If I can tell Morgan and if she can tell my other selves, then they’ll never betray the Illinois and the other Browns will still live! Your uncles, Halfwit! Help me! Please! I only ask that you take this message to Morgan. You’ll still get your revenge.”

The Halfwit watched her for a while, watched her weeping face and her tear-stained cheeks and her hands so close to her breasts. “Hurry up,” he said. “I don’t like this place any more than you do.”

Anna nodded and silently brought forth a fountain pen with a piece of paper rolled tight around it. She was prepared, as always, to send secret messages. She unfurled the paper and pressed it on her knee as flat as she could manage despite its continually rolling up. She glanced up at that rifle and decided to be quick, scrawling as neatly as possible, her wrist quickly disagreeing with her. Still she wrote on, pleading with Morgan to do this thing for her out of love. As she wrote, she drove the point of her pen through the paper and dragged that tear to the edge. She stared at that rip, not moving a muscle, her jaw slack, eyes frantic.

“What’s going on?” the Halfwit asked urgently. “You done with it? I’ll take it off your body when I’ve finished killing you.”

“I ripped it,” Anna said quietly.

“What’s that?” the Halfwit called across the headstones.

“I ripped it,” she said, louder now. “I ripped the paper.” She looked up at him, feeling tears beginning again. “Do you… do you have another? I’ll copy what I have, I’ll be more careful next time!”

The muzzle’s angry stare wavered. The Halfwit tilted the rifle back and rested the barrel on his shoulder. “I have a piece of paper,” he said, slowly walking past headstones, his boots pushing deep into the dirt. He reached into his uniform as he came towards her, every step making her tense, quail in fear. It was still a gamble. He had that rifle. He produced the paper and held it between his forefinger and thumb. “You’re lucky, Miss Lee.”

She made herself laugh with shame, a parting of her lips and a rough sound from her mouth.

The Halfwit came on and she could only watch the ground. He walked past the graves, past her names, not touching them- only looking on at Anna Lee and holding his rifle and the paper.

Finally he stood in front of her and handed her the paper. Anna Lee turned her hand around, flicking her thumb along the pen to produce the hidden blade. Quick as a fox she jammed the blade between the Halfwit’s ribs and she slipped off of the headstone and ran through the graveyard.

“Bitch!” the Halfwit groaned, letting the papers fall and slumping to a knee against the headstone. Anna Lee didn’t look back as she ran, gripping her skirts. She felt the dirt flinging up with every step, felt it crawling up her feet, up her legs, and she fought down the urge to vomit. Dirt! Filth! She kept running. A shot buzzed past her thigh and she kept running. The headstones to either side of her were a whirl of Anna Lee Anna Lee Anna Lee. Another shot punctured the ground just before her.

“Stop shooting!” Anna Lee cried. “Stop shooting at me!” A bullet whizzed past her ear and she hunched her shoulders and kept on. She looked up as the Halfwit plagued her with shots and saw the bare hill ahead. The bare hill! She’d have to keep running for some time, but that hill was freedom, none of her graves upon it, none of this nightmare. She’d be free!

Her feet, unsuited for this hard running, managed to support her. Once she got free, she would have to get to Philadelphia, to Morgan, so she could tell her other lives not to let the Halfwit live.

A bullet tore through her dress. Anna Lee kept running.

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