No Boots No More
by Tony Noland
He was fleshy but he moved like a skeleton. His bare feet should have been blue with cold or white with frostbite as he shuffled through the snow and horse manure of the street, but they weren't. They were pink and smooth, just like his face and his hands. Through his torn and stained rags, the other New York-bound people waiting for the Staten Island ferry could see that he was smooth and pink all over.
His eyes were those of a dead man.
No one came near. Everyone gave him a wide berth, even those self-satisfied, upright citizens who would have accosted any normal man simply for lacking in common social graces.
The nods and sidelong glances gave way to whispers and muttering. They knew. Just the way a bone long-ago broken will know when the storm is coming, they knew. Somehow, they knew. Like every forlorn and hopeless soul the man had come within breath of on his long walk, they knew.
The words ran though the crowd. "Andersonville." "Andersonville? Impossible!" "That's nine hundred miles from here!" "More like a thousand." "Andersonville?"
The icy wind cut across the river, bringing tears to the eyes of the passengers. They stared at him sidelong. Yes, the rags used to be blue. It was just possible to see a regimental ensign on his left shoulder: the 123rd New York Infantry.
"Sweet savior protect us - he's one of ours, come home after two years. But... if he walked all this way... I mean, my God, if the poor man was at Andersonville of all places!"
They had seen the images in the newspapers, taken with the new photogravure process. The scenes from the battlefields had been bad enough, but Andersonville! The bags of bones that had stared out from the images could move a granite statue to tears of rage and pity. Andersonville! Such a horrid pit of Confederate villainy was not to be found anywhere else on earth!
Yet this man was pink and fleshy and whole. How could this be? How? After his ordeal and his travels on foot? What was left of his uniform told the tale of his woes, but his body bore not a mark, despite the wicked conditions on the platform. How?
The bravest of the New Yorkers, a longshoreman from Red Hook, cleared his throat and made to talk to him. Before a word was spoken, the soldier turned upwards. From his dead, hollow eyes, a yellow glow shone, bathing the longshoreman's face in a golden, celestial light.
They stood undisturbed in the wintry wind, amid the first pellets of sleet. Around them, the people turned away.
The ferry came, passengers and wagons unloaded onto the Island and loaded again, bound for New York City. The ferry pulled away, none of the passengers noticing the two men standing in the sleet and freezing rain.
After a time, what was once a longshoreman dropped to the planking and shattered into dust and pebbles. The old soldier, a little pinker and a little rounder in his blue rags and tatters, stepped off the pier into the ice-strewn river.
Deep beneath the surface, his eyes glowed in the darkness as he walked the last leg of his journey homeward.
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