Five Sentence Fiction: Story Time

In Fiction on August 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Caleb set down his drink and gave the negro a hard, searching look; in the silence, the sounds of the night seemed to swell outside the window, pressing in on the cabin.

“I ain’t saying I’m ungrateful for the offer, doc, or for what you’ve done for me here, but you’ve gotta look at this thing realistically: a negro and a cripple against an army?  What exactly would your plan be?”

“First I’d educate you on my name, so you can stop calling me negro,” the negro said sharply, but he smiled just the same, “and then I’d tell you how I come to find myself in this place, at which time I suspect my plan will be clear enough.”

Caleb sat up in the bed and propped his pillow at the small of his back, never once taking his eyes from the doctor: “Well go on then,” he said at last, “I ain’t going nowhere.”


The Story So Far…Five Sentences at a Time

Chapter 1

The fog crept across the plain, wispy and wavering like a line of ghostly scavengers stooping low to inspect the dead. Caleb felt the dew it had deposited on his eyelids – cold, liquid coins — and awoke, sorely disappointed to find that he was still alive.

He sat up and peered through the mist. A few yards distant, the white shroud was wrapping some fortunate soul in its folds, hiding from view the open eyes and slackened mouth and hollow cheeks, making dark shapes of the bodies that lay farther afield in the grassy muck.

Theirs is the glory of war, he thought bitterly as he got to his feet, and now the task is mine alone.

The battle was a blaze in his memory, a single burst of fire, all shrapnel and blood and smoke and noise. Now all was quiet, and the dead were everywhere, some stacked and gathered, others strewn lonely in the field. Somehow the silence beat a rhythm within itself, like the memory of a heart gone still, like drums only almost struck.

Grammar’s forces had moved on, north probably, toward the river and the mill and the stores beneath Pa Conner’s shop. Caleb had glimpsed the map only in passing and only in the uncertain light of the Captain’s low-burned taper, but he had a fair idea of where the men were headed.

He pushed on, down the slope of a wet ridge, feet sliding. The sun, overripe and bursting orange, was crushed against the horizon, breaking through the clouds and smoke to the west.

The town was fewer than five miles distant, easy enough to walk by nightfall, but Caleb couldn’t be sure Grammar and his men would stop for rest, or how many men Grammar had left, even. If the company was at full strength, there would be little he could do, but a dozen men — sleeping perhaps — would be quick work for his dagger.

Quick work except for one, Caleb thought, and he quickened his pace.

Andro’s Crossing they called it, one of the first dead towns, lost in a deep raid in the early fighting. It was some fifty miles south of the line, and the raid some six months past, but the town folk had never returned and Caleb didn’t blame them.

It was a broken place, hard by the river and shaded by hills, low buildings huddled on the bank as if in fear. There were no lights in the windows, now, no smoke from the chimneys and no walkers in the street, but Caleb knew Grammar and his men wouldn’t be far. Men like Grammar were drawn to desolation like blow flies, sniffing out the ruins of human life – feeding on putrefaction – and there was no question but Andro’s Crossing was a picture of desolation, all sickness and decline.

He kept to the main streets (there was no point in trying to slip through now), hearing nothing but the scrape of his boots and the rush of the river and the cry of a far-off lark. He’d been six or seven the last time he’d seen this place, waist-high on his father, and it seemed he’d seen the whole place from the ground up: wagons rolling, skirts swaying, earth and sky joined in the rise of dust. His father had bought him penny candy and root beer at the apothecary, and let him sit by and listen as the old men told their dirty stories, as long as he was good and didn’t relate the stories to his mother later on.

He stopped by the old place now, its sign swinging, half off its chain, blown in the breeze: Spirits – Tobacco – Medicines.

“You best pray for the spirits, young Mr. Williams,” he heard a voice say, “’cause as far as I seen there ain’t no medicine what can cure a man of death.”

Caleb turned to find a man watching him from the shadows. His eyes were shaded by a low-fit gray cap, his jaw cropped with stubble, his beard not yet thick enough to hide the track of bubbled skin, lumped like curdled milk, that ran down the side of his face and neck.

“Or am I to call you Lieutenant Williams?” Colonel Grammar asked, stepping into the street and the half-light of the moon. “The lowly musician turned hero of the rebel army, trading his fife and fiddle for rifle and sword — climbing the ranks on his righteous quest to bring the evil Colonel Grammar to justice.”

“Where are your men?” Caleb asked simply.

“Sleeping, God save them; dreaming of honor and glory and country, fairies and wood nymphs and sea serpents: all the figments that visit men and children alike when their minds sleep and their logic fails them.”

“Honor is a figment?” Caleb spat. “Is that what you tell yourself when you dream, when you see the faces of the men and women and children you’ve slaughtered?”

Colonel Grammar paced forward, circling, his hand resting on the hilt of his saber.

“If you knew what the cotton harvest was worth last year, Lieutenant, or tobacco or sugar, or the fortune we stand to make when this war has finished, you might not speak so highly of honor, either.”

“I know what I need to know: I know you’ve been murdering southerners to win that fortune of yours; I know you’ve disguised your raping and pillaging as raids from the north, as the work of the Union; I know you’ve killed old men in their sleep and burnt babies in their cribs; and I know you took the life from my mother and father when they did nothin’ else but run; but the greatest truth I know is that you have about three minutes left on this earth before I carve that smirk from your face and cut the lies from your throat.”

Colonel Grammar’s sword was out of the scabbard before Caleb had finished speaking, moonlight glinting on its honed edge – winking in the eyes of the skull etched in its ivory pommel.  

“D’ya mean to frighten me, boy?” he said, stepping closer, dragging the tip of his sword on the hard ground. In an instant the blade flashed, and Caleb felt it bite, first at his left hand and then at his right, deep as bone, cutting a line up his forearm and across his chest. 

 Blood seeped through his linens, and Caleb staggered.

 “Let me offer you a piece of advice,” Colonel Grammar said, circling as Caleb sunk toward the blood-speckled ground, “when you aim to kill a man, don’t give him so much as a word of warning, let alone a goddamn lecture.”

Chapter 2

Caleb’s dreams were dark and ribboned with terror: the faces of the dead (his mother, his father, his brother Gabe), rose to greet him as from a deep, clouded pool, flesh falling from their corrupted cheeks and peeling from now lidless eyes; fires burned ungodly hot across fields of barley, devouring cattle and villager alike, blackening the sky with horrid smoke and searing his skin; severed hands groped toward him through the ashes as beetles and worms poured from their ragged ends; and all the while, Colonel Grammar’s bubbled face watched gleefully from behind a mask of swirling smoke.

When at last he awoke it was to a sharp, ripping pain deep within his arm, as though a hot nail were being drawn slowly through the marrow, rending the bone. He was fevered and weak and could scarcely move.

“Rest now, Confederate, less’n you take chill again and I lose you for truth this time,” a voice said beside him, deep and calm and sure.

Caleb twisted on the bed to find a man composing himself before a shattered mirror — eyeing him as he pulled a necktie tight to his collar, flashing his white teeth in a smile — and suddenly Caleb’s fluttering heart grew quiet and still, for the man at the mirror was a negro.

“Who are you,” Caleb asked, “an escaped slave? Why are you holding me here?”

“I didn’t escape and I ain’t no slave,” the man said quietly, turning from the mirror, “and I ain’t holding you so much as you’re holding me: I shoulda been well north by now, but when I come to find you in the shape you was in…”

The man’s gaze drifted slowly to Caleb’s side, and suddenly Caleb remembered what had happened – the sharp bite of Colonel Grammar’s sword and the hard crack of the dusty ground, wetted by scarlet blood. He struggled to sit up, to see what the man could see, but pain blazed across his chest and down his arm…down his arm, but not all the way down… not to the wrist and not to the hand.

“It’s gone, Confederate,” the man said, almost sadly.

Caleb stared long at the mangled limb, the wrappings nearly black with dried blood; he could feel his pulse throbbing there, thrashing inside the stub like an animal fit to burst from its cage.

“You did this… you took my hand… you – you had no right.”

“The flesh was dying,” the negro said, too calm for Caleb’s liking, “necrotic, as they say, like a crop without irrigation; did I have a right to save your life?”

Caleb fell back in the bed and squeezed his eyes shut, no longer caring to see, no longer caring to live, but then the negro spoke.

“I am a doctor, Confederate, not a soldier, so maybe I don’t understand,” he said, “but it seems to me you can learn to kill a man with your left hand as well as with your right, if that’s what’s troubling you.”

Caleb thought on that: to kill the man would be sweet, he had to admit, but one death would not make a victory; Colonel Grammar had allies, not just in the south but in the north as well, and their plans would go forward whether the colonel lived or died. Meanwhile, the death of every landowner, every distributor, every manufacturer, was a boon to these men. The battles would rage and countless innocents would die as the traitors waited, north and south, writing up their contracts and parceling out the future spoils. 

“One hand doesn’t make a soldier,” Caleb said at last, defeated, “any more than one sword makes an army…”

“What about two swords?” the doctor asked, and he smiled.

“I’m your enemy– why would you ever want to help me?”

“Death is my first enemy, Confederate – with injustice a close second, on account of my humanity; that puts you at a distant third, and figurin’ on what I heard in the street – before your Colonel tried to cut you in half, that is – you’re no more a friend to the Southern cause than I am.”

The negro poured two tumblers of a copper-clear drink as he spoke, stoppered the bottle and handed a glass to his patient.

“I’m no traitor,” Caleb urged, taking the smoky-sweet bourbon nonetheless, “and the Colonel’s cause ain’t the Southern cause; the Southern cause is freedom.”

“If four million in chains is freedom to you, then could be you’re my enemy after all.”

Caleb set down his drink and gave the negro a hard searching look; in the silence, the sounds of night seemed to swell outside the window, pressing in on the cabin.

“I ain’t saying I’m ungrateful for the offer, doc, or for what you’ve done for me here, but you’ve gotta look at this thing realistically: a negro and a cripple against an army?  What exactly would your plan be?”

“First I’d educate you on my name, so you can stop calling me negro,” the negro said sharply, but he smiled just the same, “and then I’d tell you how I come to find myself in this place, at which time I suspect my plan will be clear enough.”

Caleb sat up in the bed and propped his pillow at the small of his back, never once taking his eyes from the doctor: “Well go on then,” he said at last, “I ain’t going nowhere.”


This is my response to Lillie McFerrin’s Five Sentence Fiction prompt, NIGHT. If you’ve been following this story for a while now (hopefully I have at least a couple regular readers) you’ll know I’ve been playing with the idea of splitting this off into a weekly serial, separate from Five Sentence Fiction. Well stay tuned, because it’s coming next week (I’m thinking Wednesday) – not just a few sentences but a whole new chapter.

As always, constructive criticism and commentary is welcome below, and be sure to check out all the other responses on Lillie’s blog. If you’ve written your own, feel free to put the link to it below, too!

And if you’re interested in a bit of the real-life history behind this story (loosely anyway), I recently checked out some Civil War-era ruins and wrote a short piece about it: Walkin’ in the Old South.

  1. I love this story and cant wait to read it. The mystery and energy just keep flowing! beebeesworld

  2. What a clever way to tell a story. I’m intrigued.

  3. I’m beginning to look forward to each new episode. Keep it coming.

  4. Nice. Your story develops well for only writing 5 sentences at a time.

  5. A truly inspired take on these prompts, Brian! I will look forward to new additions…once I’ve caught up on what’s already here.

    Thanks so much for coming over to my entry and commenting, because you’ve introduced me to an exciting new story: yours! 😀

  6. Oh, that was really rude of me, not commenting on your actual entry. 😦
    I’m not up to speed on the back story, here, but I don’t feel like I need to be. I like the characters of Caleb and the doctor already, even from so few lines. And the potential for both conflict and camaraderie is so ripe in those lines! Well done!

  7. As one of your regular readers I have always looked forward to the next installment. One thing that I really liked about the five sentences a week was how it kept your writing tight and how the prompts each week inject some spontaneity that has taken your story in directions that maybe you hadn’t expected. Nonetheless I am excited about seeing where you take it in bigger chunks.

    • I appreciate that! I started a new job this week so I didn’t get to my continuation as soon as I had hoped, but now it’s the weekend so anything is possible ha

      • Good luck with both the story and the new job. You give new meaning to the phrase “living for the weekend” though…

  8. Great stuff, as always!

  9. The concept of writing only five sentences at a time (and working to a prompt) is challenging–you’ve done a really good job of meeting it. Look forward to reading your story as it develops.

Comments, constructive criticism, destructive praise:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: