The Battle of Fallow Field

posted Jul 8, 2008

James Terry has published or has stories forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, Dublin Review, 42Opus, Juked, Dark Sky, The Barcelona Review, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, Georgia Review, South Dakota Review, and North Atlantic Review. He lives in Dublin.

Early one summer morning, Corporal Skaggs and Corporal Wilson of the Third Yorkers, Continental Line, appeared mid-stride in the parking lot of Cherry Tree Shopping Mall. Terrified by what they saw—acres of asphalt, legions of shiny cars, armies of teenagers wielding large plastic bags—they ran.

Corporal Skaggs, the younger of the two, had lately fallen prey to stomach troubles. Already a thin man, the heat of recent battles coupled with his loss of appetite had all but made a skeleton of him. His knobby wrists protruded well beyond his cuffs—the jacket never had fit properly—and to keep his breeches up he’d been forced to tie a rope around his waist. Now this rope came undone and fell to the pavement. The breeches threatened to follow. Despite this encumbrance, Corporal Skaggs easily outpaced Corporal Wilson, who, after a year of hard marches, was still built like a bear. Both men were caked, head to toe, in soot and mud.

Corporal! shouted Corporal Wilson some time later. Ahead! A Wood!

Corporal Skaggs and Corporal Wilson ran across the freshly mown meadow of Independence Park and collapsed in a heap deep within the leafy shade of the Old Oak Grove. Above them, insensitive to their plight, a meadowlark gaily twittered.

If this be Death, panted Corporal Skaggs, then we be dead.

It would follow, said Corporal Wilson.

And this Tree, dead? This Field? This Sky? Living yet dead?

Cease with your blasted Rhymes, Corporal!

Corporal Skaggs pulled his cravat from his collar and mopped his sweaty brow. I made no Rhymes.

Corporal Wilson ran his fingers through his thick, copper beard, a habit to calm the nerves. We were running, you & I, Side by Side; the English advancing down the opposite Knoll, three deep, firing their Cannons & Muskets; our Men falling by the Dozens. I stumbled & fell in the Mud. I heard a Ball whistle o’erhead and strike the Man behind me. I fear’d it was you. But you were there, pulling me to my Feet.

I remember. We were charging, Side by Side. I saw the Cannon flash yet heard no Sound.

Then we were here, you & I, in this Place, still running. Heaven or Hell, or somewhere between, I know not which.

Strange that our Wounds shouldn’t appear mortal.

They cling to our Corpses, Corporal, not our Spirits.

The Corporals fell silent and remained so for the rest of the morning, as though wary of each other. Soon the bright green meadow beyond the Old Oak Grove was teeming with office workers at their noontime leisure, their white shirts radiating a heavenly luminescence. Distant laughter, sounding as if sealed in thick Mason jars, lulled the Corporals into a heavy-lidded torpor. Fearing they might never wake again, the Corporals fought off sleep for as long as they could.

Corporal Skaggs was the first to succumb. Side by side they slept the sleep of the dead.

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

It was night when they awoke. No owls whooed, no frogs croaked, no possums making possum noises. Only the steady thrum of the city.

Are we still here? whispered Corporal Skaggs.

It would seem so, said Corporal Wilson.

Will we be long?

God alone knows.

The Corporals gathered branches and kindling from a nearby thicket and built a fire. They were hungry but could not bring themselves to speak of food. As night wore on they grew increasingly sentimental.

Corporal, said Corporal Skaggs, will thy Wife remember thee fondly?

A low chortle bubbled up from Corporal Wilson’s throat. In the firelight his beard glowed redder than the flames. He stirred the embers with a stick. May I be frank, Corporal?

When have you been otherwise?

I did not take up Arms against our Oppressors for noble Reasons.


It was to flee my Wife.

Corporal Skaggs inhaled sharply. Do not dishonor thy Beloved, Corporal. Not in Death.

She had unwomanly Appetites, Corporal.

I won’t listen. Corporal Skaggs pushed his fingers into his ears. A moment later his fingers came out. Unwomanly? How so?

She sought Congress at an insufferable Frequency. Before Breakfast. At Lunch. Before Supper. After Supper. In the Evening and the dead of Night. Name the Man strong enough to stoke this Fire? Not I, Corporal, and I was no Milksop when we were wed; I rose to her Beck & Call with Equal Parts Zeal & Pride.

Corporal Wilson chortled again, chucked a stick into the fire, and settled into the meat of his confession. My Understanding of the Female Sex before this Time was that in conjugal Matters they were no more animated than a Ship’s Plank. Abigail surely amended my Way of thinking on that Score; she took her Pleasure from behind like the Oxen of the Field and regaled the Countryside with a Torrent of indecorous Declarations; on warm Days she paraded around the Cabin naked as a Needle; and to my mounting Dismay she sought Happiness in Places God never intended it should be found, which I renounced for Fear of eternal Damnation. On the rare Occasion that I rebuff’d her Advances, she sank into a most frightful Melancholy, cunning Kisses being the only Cure.

Then, in the icy Winter of ’75, Abigail grew stout with Child; but a Belly big as a Barrel could not quell her Appetite. Her Mirth o’ergrew her Girth. Michael Joseph wasn’t a Week from the Womb before Abigail, after a mere Fortnight’s Reprieve, held me again fast within her Stocks.

Mindful of the Welfare of our Son and the many Sons & Daughters God seem’d poised to shower upon us, I bent my Energies toward acquiring another Parcel of Land and Beasts to till it; but Abigail’s Quest for Congress so interfered with my Labor that, alas, fearing for the Balance of her Vapors, I rode two Days & Nights to lay my Worries in the capable Hands of good Doctor McGruder. He assured me, in no uncertain Terms, that he knew of no Ailments befalling a Wife from too much Love of her Husband. I was grateful when he shewed Sympathy with my State of Affairs—with a wry Smile, I might add, he being of Celtic disposition—by producing from his Satchel an Object I took for the Tusk of a common Boar. In Fact it was. The good Doctor explain’d that the Tusk—he call’d it the Gentlewoman’s Secret Companion—when employ’d as directed, considerably diminish’d the Risks of a Wife committing Mortal Sin while her Husband was afield. In the same Breath he reminded me that Rumours of War were afoot; that I might soon be call’d upon to fight the British. For the Promise of a Bushel of Maize, he placed the Gentlewoman’s Secret Companion in a Rawhide Pouch and bade me adieu.

Wending my Way back Home with the Gentlewoman’s Secret Companion stow’d within my Saddlebag, I contemplated my Chances of Success in this Endeavour. I had no Intention of fighting, be it for the British or for the Colonies. My Concerns lay Elsewhere: would Abigail employ the Tusk whilst I was reaping and sowing so that our future Prosperity might be better ensured? Would the Tusk dispel her Melancholy? But the thought of being cuckolded by the overgrown Tooth of a Boar did not entirely please me.

I did not give it to her straight away. Instead I hid it in a Sack of Grain. In Spring the Countryside erupted in Battle. My Neighbors implored me to arm myself. Our very Freedom was at stake. The call to Battle, when at last I heard it with mine own Ears, aroused in me a most compelling Lust for Liberty.

On the Night the Yorkers call’d upon me, I beg’d for a final Moment with my Wife. All present chuckled, News of my Predicament having made the Rounds of the Colony, thanks no doubt to the good Doctor’s loose Tongue. Even now I see Abigail’s forlorn Face in the Moonlight, beseeching me to stay, stay, her ample Bosom aquiver. O, Corporal, will I never embrace her again? Has the sweet Scent of Freedom I smell’d that Night blown forever from my Heart?

Corporal Wilson wiped a tear from his smoke-blackened cheek, sighed, then concluded his story.

After a parting Embrace, I bequeath’d to Abigail the Gentlewoman’s Secret Companion, admonishing her to use it whenever she felt the Urge for Congress, lest she succumb to greater Sin whilst I was away. I grab’d my Hoe and march’d off with the Regiment, her Lamentations still ringing in my Ears. Still ringing now, beyond the Grave.

Corporal Skaggs, unaccustomed to displays of emotion from stern old Corporal Wilson, remained silent long after the end of the story. In time their little fire sputtered and died. The trees came alive with the shimmering pulse of crickets. The Corporals lay beneath their tree, legs crossed, hands behind their heads, gazing in rapt wonder at the city’s billion bulbs brightly shining.

Finally, chilled by the damp night air, the Corporals curled up together and bedded down for the coming eternity.

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

It was not a restful night. The shrill reveille of four-stage car alarms—to eighteenth-century ears nothing short of the hounds of hell raping owls—kept our heroes awake and shivering much of the night.

When at last it came, dawn’s early light found the Corporals in the same place twilight’s last gleaming had found them, side by side beneath the oak.

Our Tenure in Limbo continues, observed Corporal Wilson. He got up and took a piss behind the tree. Tell me, Corporal, he said, what does the Afterlife hold in Store for us?

Quality Merchandise at Everyday low Prices. All this and More at your Local . . . The Rest is unclear.

Meaningless Verse. I am going for Tea. Come if you wish.

Tea? In this Place?

Corporal Wilson fastened his breeches, leveled his hat, and marched out into the meadow. Corporal Skaggs followed close behind.

A herd of futures traders in Italian suits stood at the crossing of Park Avenue, waiting for the signal to change. Corporal Wilson and Corporal Skaggs joined them. The cars stopped. Bodies surged forward as one. Corporal Wilson and Corporal Skaggs marched with poise and purpose through the crosswalk to the other side of the street.

So moved were they by the experience that they turned around and marched back against the tide to the original side of the street. Again the Corporals waited to cross. The cars stopped. WALK, flashed the lights. The Corporals strode across and back again. Back and Across. Across and back. Tea was all but forgotten to this renewed thirst for Purpose.

In the early afternoon, faint with hunger, Corporal Wilson and Corporal Skaggs abandoned their drill and marched back across the meadow to their tree.

Backs against the bark they sat, Corporal Wilson facing north, Corporal Skaggs facing south. Yesterday, when everything was new, a nameless hope, transported wholesale from battle, lived on within their hearts. Not so today.

Surely there is Reason behind it, said Corporal Skaggs.

More Rhyme than Reason, I suspect.

Speak plainly.

Corporal Wilson sighed. Tell me the Story of your Life, Corporal. Perhaps it will ease our Suffering.

Corporal Skaggs removed his hat. As all Men are, he began in the grandiloquent style of his day, I was born. Of that I am certain. The Rest is unclear. I presume my Birth preceded my Life, and my Death followed my Birth, but where I came by this Knowledge, I cannot say. I have no Memory of my Father telling me these Things. Nor any of my Mother. As for my Brothers & Sisters, they were too busy pelting me with Pebbles to notice that I had been born and was not yet dead. The Apex of my Youth was the Day I got my golden Tooth. I could not keep my Tongue away from it, so wonderful did it feel. It changed my Manner of Speech. I was oft mistaken for a Frenchman. All my Friends coveted it. Some of them grew disdainful of me, accused me of being a Fop. Sometimes I wish’d I’d never gotten it. I haven’t thought about it in a long Time.

One Spring Day in my fifteenth year the General march’d up to our little Log-house by the River and ask’d Permission of my Father & Mother—mostly of my Father—to take me away to die for Freedom. This was the first Time anyone had spoken directly of my Death, at least within Earshot. My Parents, having Nothing to do with my Birth, harbor’d no Plans for my Death and so gladly placed my Life in the Hands of the General. Part of my Life ended. Another Part began. This was Revolutionary to me. I had never imagined that a Life, like a Traitor, might be drawn & quarter’d. One Part here, another Part there.

The steady Rhythm of marching Feet, marching o’er Hill & Dale to the gleeful Song of Drum & Fife, marshal’d my Vision to the Divisions of my Life. The Past behind, the Future ahead, the Present betwixt. Those were good Days. At last I was a Man.

Before each Battle I smiled the Skaggs Family Smile of Denial and march’d off to meet my Maker. Every time I kill’d a Man I felt my Life divide again. One Life into two, two into four, four into eight, eight into sixteen, sixteen into two & thirty, two & thirty into the Double of two & thirty, and so forth, each Life a Birth & a Death unto itself; no longer one Past & one Future, one Birth & one Death, but so many Pasts & so many Futures, so many Births & so many Deaths, that in time I was unable to distinguish between them.

Then I met you. You confided in me. You were not responsible for my Birth but you behaved as if you were. We put Molasses in Private Nelson’s Stockings. We hid Horse-Turds in the Toe of Corporal Reading’s Boots. Some Nights you & I stole down to the Creek and ask’d ourselves why we had stolen down to the Creek at such an Hour. Each of these Actions a Birth & a Life & a Death unto itself.

Finally, Fallow Field & Death. We ran, you & I, Side by Side. I fell. You help’d me up. Or was it you who fell and me who help’d you up? We ran, out of Life, into Death. The Tree. The Fire. The Want of Tea. You ask’d to hear the Story of my Life. I began at the Beginning and end at the End. The Rest is unclear.

Corporal Wilson nodded solemnly and said, A fuller Life was never lived.

Hunger could be postponed no longer. With no weapons but their hands and their wits, the Corporals stole deep into the grove.

Game is scarce, said Corporal Wilson an hour later.

What is to be done? said Corporal Skaggs.

As luck would have it, a pair of rusty pliers lay on the ground equidistant from Corporal Wilson’s left and Corporal Skaggs’s right spatterdash.

Corporal Wilson picked up the pliers and proclaimed:

These are the Pliers that pry Men’s Molars!

Your words ring oddly familiar, Corporal, yet oddly foreboding.

You are no Stranger to Paine, I presume?

None to Common Sense. Why?

On the Ground, Corporal, and open wide.

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

It was nearly night by the time Corporal Wilson returned to the tree with a 19-piece bucket of The Colonel’s Country Chicken. Corporal Skaggs, his face swollen beyond recognition, greeted him with a jolly little dance.

I fear’d you had deserted me, Corporal.

I too was beside myself with Grief.

Corporal Wilson handed Corporal Skaggs a drumstick and said, Come, let our Ears be fill’d with the joyful Noise of Mastication.

In a matter of minutes the Corporals had devoured every piece of the crispy, tangy, oily chicken. Not a single crumb clung to the bucket. Licking his fingers, Corporal Skaggs begged Corporal Wilson to tell him the tale of his sojourn into the city.

Corporal Wilson showed Corporal Skaggs the remainder of the fifty dollars he’d fetched for the gold tooth.

O, how my Heart fills with Gladness to see the General’s Face, said Corporal Skaggs.

Indeed, said Corporal Wilson.

Do you think the Day was his?

I am certain of it, Corporal. His Portrait is Proof.

Corporal Wilson pocketed the money and proceeded to describe his experiences with the staff and management of The Colonel’s Country Chicken.

She kept admonishing me to give her Orders, the coy Wench. I give Orders only to Privates, I told her, without Effect. I smelled the Food but could not see it. Scores of Boys & Girls in holy Vestments, bustling amidst shiny Relics. An unGodly Din. Vats of boiling Oil. I ask’d for ten Pounds of cured Venison, a Bushel of thresh’d Wheat, two Plugs of Tobacco, a Half-barrel of Ox Tongues, an Anker of dark Ale, a Five Pound Wheel of sharp Cheddar, & a Bucket of Lard. The little Angel attending me left her Altar and soon return’d with an Apprentice, a Boy who call’d himself Buck. He address’d me Sir, which made me laugh, then ask’d me to explain the Nature of my Predicament. I told him that I had already lodged my Requisition with the little Angel. A diligent Pupil, young Buck ask’d for Money. I shew’d him one of the Bills, concealing the rest lest he take me for landed Gentry. He declared that I had enough Money for a 19-piece Bucket. I told him that I had no Need for a Bucket, and surely None for a broken one. When it soon became apparent that this Establishment traded only in Chickens, I rejoiced; alas, we had breach’d the Obfuscation which so long delay’d our mutual Understanding. I ask’d the Boy for three Cocks & one fertile Hen, subsequent to Inspection. I shan’t bore you with the rest, but by & by I came by the Bucket of delicious Stuff that you & I have just devour’d without a Thought for the imminent Pangs of Tomorrow’s Hunger.

But Corporal, said Corporal Skaggs, haven’t you enough Money for another Bucket?

By my Reckoning, enough for three only.

Corporal Wilson grabbed the empty bucket and stood up. Come, Corporal. Join me in a Game of Kick the Bucket. Whilst there is still Light.

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

Apart from Corporal Wilson’s missions to The Colonel’s Country Chicken, the Corporals remained beneath their oak, debating the best way to eat a 19-piece bucket of chicken.

Corporal Wilson insisted that strict adherence to Reason was essential. Corporal Skaggs did not concur. Tempers soon grew short.

Do you not agree, argued Corporal Wilson, that these Pieces of Chicken are not all Equal?

I do.

You do or you do not agree?

I agree that they are not all Equal.

You agree then that of the 19 Pieces of a full Bucket—8 Drumsticks, 6 Breasts, 5 Wings—you agree that the Wings are good, the Drumsticks better, the Breasts best?

In Essence, yes.

Then listen to me, Corporal, said Corporal Wilson. This is no trifling Matter. There are only three Categories of Chicken Pieces to choose from, corresponding precisely with the Number of Times you & I wish to eat in a Day’s Time. Three Chicken Parts, three Meals. The Matter then, if we can agree to eat only one Piece each at each Meal, and if we can agree that a different Type of Piece—Wing, Drumstick, Breast—will be eaten at each Meal, the Matter then is a simple one: which Part of the Chicken do we eat at which Meal?

Corporal Skaggs, still smarting from the loss of his molar, emerged a more formidable opponent than Corporal Wilson bargained for.

What does it matter, Corporal, which Type of Chicken Piece one chooses to eat at the designated Mealtime, so long as it is only one Piece?

Corporal Wilson shook his head in exasperation. Corporal, if one were to choose his Piece of Chicken solely on the Whims of Desire, all three of one’s Breasts would be consumed in a single Day. You are worse than Abigail.

Corporal Skaggs, offended by the comparison, pointed the knee-end of a denuded drumstick at Corporal Wilson. You have tacitly acknowledg’d, have you not, your Highness, that of the 19 Pieces of Chicken, Half are yours, Half are mine? That is to say, each of us is allotted 3 Breasts, 4 Drumsticks, and 2½ Wings.

That is Plain.

Then what right have you, Corporal, to demand that I eat my Pieces in any particular Order? Wasn’t it my beloved Tooth that enabled us to buy the Buckets of Chicken? Aren’t my Pieces mine to do with as I wish, to eat in any Order I please, to not eat at all if such is my Fancy? In short, isn’t this the very Freedom I fought and died for?

Corporal Wilson ran his fingers through his beard. O, the Blindness of Youth! Corporal, tell me this. How will you feel when you have exhausted your Store of Breasts and are made to eat a lesser Piece while I still revel in my tender, juicy Breasts?

I cannot predict such a Thing.

You cannot or you will not, Corporal? Be truthful and admit that this Disparity will sow the Seeds of Envy in the Man who, as a Consequence of his untamed Greed, is prematurely reduced to eating Wings and only Wings. As with Cain and Abel, so too with us. Brother turns against Brother, and Blood anoints the Soil.

Corporal Skaggs straightened his hat and looked defiantly across the meadow. Corporal Wilson lunged for the kill.

The only way out of this Impasse, he preached, is to draw up and ratify with great Haste a System whereby the Piece of Chicken that awaits each Man at each Meal will be the same each Day, will remain the same for the rest of Eternity, and, more to the Point, will be consider’d Just and Good by all concern’d. Do you want to be remember’d by our Children’s Children’s Children’s Children’s Children as Men who cast aside our own Wants for the Sake of a System whereby all Men, regardless of Height or Weight, are guaranteed at least one Breast of Chicken for Supper at least three Days running? Or is a Legacy of mindless Gluttony good enough for you, Corporal Skaggs? For such a System would not be confined merely to the Purview of Poultry but would be applicable to any Situation in which two Men finding themselves displaced from familiar Environs are required to assign arbitrary Values to three discrete Objects (multiply’d by any Variable x) before according said Objects a Place on one Tier of a three-Tier’d hierarchical Structure. The Possibilities are infinite: three Mice, three Pigs, three Bears, to name but a few. Imagine the Glory, Corporal Skaggs! Imagine it!

Not since the General had roused his men to battle on the morning of Fallow Field had Corporal Skaggs been so moved. O, Corporal, he wept, can you ever forgive my Lapse of Moral Vision?

Corporal Wilson embraced Corporal Skaggs and held him long. My dear, dear Friend, said he, why the Tears? It is not my Place to forgive the natural Impulses of Youth. Come now, we are Men, are we not? Eat.

Corporal Skaggs wiped his eyes and with deep humility took the smallest wing from the bucket.

But the Corporals were a long way yet from a final draft. There was the matter of the difference in number between the three types of pieces, which the Corporals justly feared would give rise to fresh conundrums the closer they came to the end of a bucket; there was the problem of how to deal with random variables in the system, such as a bucket with six wings instead of five; there was the issue of Corporal Skaggs’s faster metabolism, which made his hunger pangs all the more acute; and a whole host of other not inconsequential articles in need of address.

In the end, notwithstanding a few radical ideas half-heatedly proposed and duly vetoed, Corporal Wilson and Corporal Skaggs agreed to adhere without deviation to the unwritten laws that they had labored so long and hard to forge. And while it is true that all but one wing of three 19-piece buckets of chicken was sacrificed during these deliberations, this seems a minor misfortune considering the peace-of-mind their Bill of Rights afforded the Corporals.

Corporal, said Corporal Skaggs, are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Our Thoughts are wed.

Corporal Wilson grasped one end of the last chicken wing. Corporal Skaggs grasped the other.

We hardly seem the same two Corporals who arrived here not so long ago, said Corporal Skaggs. Death has matured us.

Perhaps God will take this into Consideration, said Corporal Wilson.

With a brittle snap of the wing, the Corporals shared their final meal together. Scarcely had the last scraps of batter slithered down their throats when the quiet of the Old Oak Grove was shattered by a cannon’s belated boom. When the smoke had cleared, the Corporals were gone. All that remained of their brief visit were three empty cardboard buckets, the third inside the second, the second inside the first, poised like a monument at the foot of the tree.