Mark of the Shadow Part 20: Tommy Zinderman
First thing I noticed: the sound of the train sliding along iron. It isn’t a good sound to begin with, and it makes me think I was having a nightmare. Maybe I was. I can only hope so.
Next thing I noticed was the smell. Dirt, sweat, and a lot of it. I open my eyes and they confirm what I’d been feeling. My head was slumped over, giving me a view of my legs. Beat up mud caked pants. Only thing was, they weren’t on my legs. Well they were on legs, but my legs didn’t seem like my legs. They felt, wrong somehow. Too long, and there was something hangin in between um.
What’s going on I thought. I jerked my head up to get a view of my surroundings. Twelve other men. Bearded, scruffy, dirty and armed. They all had rifles and one had a long blade, curved at the top.
I looked at my arms: hairy and large, cumbersome. I didn’t know how to deal with this body, and the horror and shock I felt must have shown through cause the man next to me somehow yelled through his mountain of a beard, “Looks like Zinderman’s having a bit of homesickness already!”
The statement was met with a round of laughter by the men. The cabin was dark, and it looked like we were in some sort of storage crate, not a passenger train. No windows, just a hole punched in the right hand door for air. No seats, just wooden crates and some piles of hay.
I looked back down. Whatever was going on, I didn’t want to take any chances. I told myself this was just a dream, but something about it felt too real to be a dream. But if it wasn’t a dream, I didn’t know what it was. I could feel the eyes of the men watching me like dogs waiting to pounce.
“Leave him alone,” came a barking voice. “You wan’t him turnin’ his gun on you folks when we’re fighting?” It was the man with the sword. He was wearing a long coat, and he looked less dirty than the rest of um.
“Let him speak for himself!” said the bearded man.
I opened my mouth but words didn’t seem to want to come. Another round of laughter. I turned to the bearded man, lifting my eyes to meet his. His eyes looked fierce, mad even, and I prayed I would never have to fight him.
“I ain’t homesick,” the words caught in my mouth in surprise at the deepness of my voice. “I don’t like trains,” I finished, putting my head back down.
“Oh, he don’t like trains! Little Tommy Zinderman don’t like trains,” he mocked. Tommy Zinderman, that was me. But who was Tommy Zinderman?
My body was clumsy. I wasn’t used to being so large, so full of strength. I decided to test it out. I grabbed the bearded man by his beard and slammed his head into the side of the train. He stopped laughing, but the rest of the train – they just laughed harder. What if they knew I was in for it now I thought? The man held his head, and smiled but he didn’t make a move.
“That’s enough you two,” said the man with the sword. “I won’t have any fighting until we get to front.”
“Where’s that?” I ask my confidence growing.
“Jesus Zinderman did you sleep through our talk? Were going to Georgia. The Union thinks they can pillage their way through our land. Their burning our homes, our people, our crops. Their destroying our way of life. They’re savages, and it’s up to us to stop them.
“How’s the east coast doing?” came a voice.
The man responded quickly, practiced, “We are holding the bastard northerners at bay. That’s all we need to do. I don’t want you worrying about them. If we fail here, their fight won’t be worth anything.”
Was the south really winning in the east? Daddy’d told me that the North was almost finished with the war. That the south was being pushed further n’ further south.
From the corner of my eye I could see the bearded man still watching me, hateful. I’d made an enemy out of him. I ignored him. I looked at the pack at my feet. A small sack, next to it my rifle with a detached bayonet lying on the floor. I picked up my pack slowly and began to rummage through it. A paper case of bullets, some dried meat, a water skin, and a ramming stick to unjam a rifle if need be. I took out the water skin and took a drink. The water was stale, and lukewarm but it went down easy.
Then I waited. I tried not to think about what was happening to me. That I was somehow a confederate soldier, somehow a different person. Some of the men maintained idle chatter and two men played cards but no one talked to me. I tried time and time again to fall asleep hoping that it would send me back to…me, but I couldn’t.
“Alright, everybody out!” yelled the man with the sword. The door to the cabin was open and light poured in for the first time. In the light I could see a star pinned to the man’s jacket. He was our officer. I stumbled out in a line with the other soldiers and fell off the train. It was a larger drop from the train to the ground than I’d thought and I didn’t know how to walk in this body.
“Get up Zinderman!” yelled the officer.
I got up and continued walking. My arms and chest were now covered in mud. My prize for falling.
The train tracks stopped here, not at a station. They just stopped. The rails had been pulled up so the iron could be reforged into bullets past this point. We walked in a line for hours through a forested countryside.
We found a road and followed it north.
I saw my first negro this way. Daddy said we were fighting because the negro people had to be given a chance. Now I saw what he meant. A family of four stopped working as we passed. They looked strange to me, not quite right looking. I think it was their eyes. Three men, each older than the next, and a woman stood in a field, loose clothes on their backs, sacks on their waists holding their days work. Not that they’d ever get to see the profits. Their hands were cut up, and the woman, she was tall and stood straight had visible cuts on her face and exposed back. They watched us, no hate, no feeling at all. I wished I could go speak to them, tell them that I wasn’t a confederate.
“Stop starin’, ain’t your family got a negro boy?” said one of the men. He had a toothless grin.
I realized that I was craning my neck to see them now that we were past the plantation. I stopped.
In the afternoon we saw tents. A mass of them, and guns. Massive guns I could see no man carrying. There were fires, and music. It coulda been mistaken for a party had the guns not been there.
“We’re sleeping here tonight. Find a tent. Get a good rest, we move with the rest of these men further north tomorrow. Wake when the gun sounds.” What did that mean?
I found a tent with a young boy. He looked as scared as I felt.
“I’m Tom,” I said. I’d almost forgotten the name of this boy.
The boy just nodded at me, and then pulled a blanket over himself. I didn’t undress. It was cold, and I was afraid of what I might find underneath the cotton. I lay down next to the boy and lifted a blanket around me. Now to try and sleep.