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Death stalks the fields of Gettysburg on wet red claws. Supple muscles, smooth as water, ripple beneath scales the color of polished gunmetal. In measured strides it walks the battlefield, a nightmare clothed in flesh.
The guns and the cannons have already done their work here, already gone silent. The living lie tangled with the dead, too exhausted to rise when the great clawed feet step delicately over them. They will name this a dream, a vision, brought on by dehydration and fear. To believe otherwise would open the door to a reality even more staggering than the one confronting them, more horrible and impossible than their friends' split bodies spilling viscera and brains into the cold earth.
When one boy raises a rifle in trembling hands, his companion seizes his arm and pulls it down. No one wants that predator's stare turned on him. No one wants to find out if Death can die.
Death is long and lean, as graceful as a lion. Its silver wings, rich with hints of iridescent colors, lie fold decorously along its back. Half an hour ago, it came down on the Confederate troops like a scythe mowing wheat. Now its sleek sides are splattered with blood, its claws plastered with gore and offal and bits of bone. Bodies lie scattered like kindling on the field, and though it tries to avoid them, it is too large; it cannot avoid crushing them underfoot.
It pauses briefly, attempting to clean its claws with its long dark tongue, but chokes on the taste. Death does not want to vomit in front of the living, so it moves on, swaying with its reptilian stride. It is not so graceful anymore, as weariness slows its ponderous steps.
As it walks, it begins to fade, between each step and the next, until it is gone. There might still be a slight shimmer in the air to mark its passing, but the footprints continue to appear, one after another, together with the sinuous snake's track where its tail drags behind it.
And so, finally, spreading now-invisible wings, it launches itself unseen; it makes one last long hop over a field and a few stands of trees. It lands atop a ditch, straddling the crevice with its great legs. In this ditch, a handful of bodies sprawl against one another where they fell. There is a small packet of clothing tucked against one dead man's arm, folded neatly, with a pair of glasses on top.
Death bows its head, and falls, and becomes a man. The name he uses in this country, in this century, is Miles Reid, an ordinary human name. He is nothing unusual now, just a thin naked man, covered with dirt and filth. In the ditch, he goes to his knees and vomits; he starts to raise his hand to wipe his mouth, then sees what covers it, and retches again.
After a while, he moves the dead man's arm covering his little pile of clothes -- gently, so gently. In silence, he dons his stained and ragged uniform, his smudged glasses with one earpiece bent. And then he lies down in the mud with the rest of them. Perhaps he will sleep. He wishes that he could sleep. But his senses are still dragon-sharp; the smell of blood is overwhelming, and he cannot stop thinking, cannot make his mind be still.
When he is found, he will be just another survivor, dazed and disoriented, so covered with the blood of his friends that he must have been left for dead in a ditch. If anyone reads the great clawed tracks, if anyone dares to speak the impossible aloud, they might say that the dragon stood above the ditch, and looked down, saw nothing more than dead bodies, and moved on to continue its foul work elsewhere. Some of the gossip rags might be so crass as to report a dragon seen walking the fields of Gettysburg, but this bit of sensationalism will surely be overshadowed by the ranks of the honored dead.
So many dead.
He has killed, he guesses, about four hundred men today. And he stopped not because he had to -- he could have killed four hundred more -- but because he came to his senses, the grief and rage falling to pieces around him, leaving him with nothing but a cold pit of regret.
When Miles was a child, long ago in another country, an army came to his village. On that day, he killed forty-seven men in mere minutes. Through all the long years, up to this day, those are the only men he has ever killed, and the only men he has ever wanted to kill.
Miles lies close by the bodies of his friends, the men of his regiment -- men he has worked with, and trained with; the first humans he has felt to be his brothers since he was, at the age of nine, sent tumbling out of his home into a world he did not understand. He has tried so hard to keep himself apart, neither wanting nor loving, because hate is the flip side of love, and for Miles, the color of hate is the color of blood.
He tells himself that the deaths he dealt today are but one tiny part of the whole, as meaningless in the larger scheme of things as grains of sand in a desert. Miles' brief stint as a self-appointed Angel of Death has done nothing but add a few more grains to the total. When he flew above the battlefield, he saw a sea of blood below him, littered with dead men scattered in impossible numbers in the fields. Humans can deal death to each other more efficiently than ever did dragon teeth, dragon claws.
In his mind, though, the dead of Gettysburg become one with the soldiers lying in the streets of his village -- their bellies torn out, their empty faces as open and young as the faces of his playmates, his neighbors' children. He has come so far, but not far enough, never far enough. There are always wars. His claws will always be red.
In a ditch in Gettysburg, Miles turns his face to the pitiless sky, and closes his eyes, and prays to the God of his childhood for rain to wash him clean.
Layla Lawlor a 30-year-old newspaper graphic designer and independent comics artist. She lives in Fox, Alaska, with her husband, two dogs, and a rather annoying cat.
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