Short yet whole of “A RESUMED IDENTITY”July 16, 2014
by Ambrose Bierce
ONE summer night a man stood on a low hill overlooking a wide expanse of forest and field. By the full moon hanging low in the west he knew what he might not have known otherwise: that it was near the hour of dawn. A light mist lay along the earth, partly veiling the lower features of the landscape, but above it the taller trees showed in well- defined masses against a clear sky. Two or three farmhouses were visible through the haze, but in none of them, naturally, was a light. Nowhere, in- deed, was any sign or suggestion of life except the barkingof a distant dog, which, repeated with mechanical iteration, servedrather to accentuate than dispel the loneliness of the scene.
The man looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part inthe scheme of things. It is so, perhaps, that we shall act when, risenfrom the dead, we await the call to judgment. A hundred yards away was a straight road, showing white in themoonlight. Endeavoring to orient himself, as a surveyor or navigatormight say, the man moved his eyes slowly along its visible length and ata distance of a quarter-mile to the south of his station saw, dim andgrey in the haze, a group of horsemen riding to the north. Behind themwere men afoot, marching in column, with dimly gleaming rifles aslantabove their shoulders. They moved slowly and in silence. Another groupof horsemen, another regiment of infantry, another and another –all inunceasing motion toward the man’s point of view, past it, and beyond. Abattery of artillery followed, the cannoneers riding with folded arms onlimber and caisson. And still the interminable procession came out ofthe obscurity to south and passed into the obscurity to north, with never a sound of voice, nor hoof, nor wheel.
The man could not rightly understand: he thought himself deaf; saidso, and heard his own voice, al- though it had an unfamiliar qualitythat almost alarmed him; it disappointed his ear’s expectancy in thematter of timbre and resonance. But he was not deaf, and that for themoment sufficed.Then he remembered that there are natural phenomena to which someone has given the name ‘acoustic shadows.’ If you stand in an acousticshadow there is one direction from which you will hear nothing. At thebattle of Gaines’s Mill, one of the fiercest conflicts of the Civil War,with a hundred guns in play, spectators a mile and a half away on theopposite side of the Chickahominy Valley heard nothing of what theyclearly saw. The bombardment of Port Royal, heard and felt at St.Augustine, a hundred and fifty miles to the south, was inaudible twomiles to the north in a still atmosphere. A few days before thesurrender at Appomattox a thunderous engagement between the commandsof Sheridan and Pickett was unknown to the latter commander, a mile in the rear of his own line.
These instances were not known to the man of whom we write, but less striking ones of the same character had not escaped his observation. Hewas profoundly disquieted, but for another reason than the uncannysilence of that moonlight march. ‘Good Lord! ‘ he said to himself–and again it was as if another hadspoken his thought–‘if those people are what I take them to be we havelost the battle and they are moving on Nashville!’
Then came a thought of self–an apprehension –a strong sense ofpersonal peril, such as in an- other we call fear. He stepped quicklyinto the shadow of a tree. And still the silent battalions moved slowlyforward in the haze. The chill of a sudden breeze upon the back of his neck drew hisattention to the quarter whence it came, and turning to the east he sawa faint grey light along the horizon–the first sign of returning day.This increased his apprehension. ‘I must get away from here,’ he thought, ‘or I shall be discoveredand taken.He moved out of the shadow, walking rapidly toward the greying east.From the safer seclusion of a clump of cedars he looked back. The entirecolumn had passed out of sight: the straight white road lay bare anddesolate in the moonlight! Puzzled before, he was now inexpressibly astonished. So swift apassing of so slow an army!–he could not comprehend it. Minute afterminute passed unnoted; he had lost his sense of time. He sought with aterrible earnestness a solution of the mystery, but sought in vain. Whenat last he roused himself from his abstraction the sun’s rim was visi-ble above the hills, but in the new conditions he found no other lightthan that of day; his understanding was involved as darkly in doubt asbefore. On every side lay cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war’sravages. From the chimneys of the farmhouses thin ascensions of bluesmoke signalled preparations for a day’s peaceful toil. Having stilledits immemorial allocution to the moon, the watch-dog was assisting anegro who, prefixing a team of mules to the plough, was flatting andsharping contentedly at his task. The hero of this tale staredstupidly at the pastoral picture as if he had never seen such a thing inall his life; then he put his hand to his head, passed it through hishair and, withdrawing it, attentively considered the palm–a singularthing to do. Apparently reassured by the act, he walked confidentlytoward the road.
2: When You have Lost Your Life Consult a Physician
Dr. Stilling Malson, of Murfreesboro, having visited a patient sixor seven miles away, on the Nash- ville road, had remained with him allnight. At daybreak he set out for home on horseback, as was the customof doctors of the time and region. He had passed into the neighbourhoodof Stone’s River battlefield when a man approached him from the road-side and saluted in the military fashion, with a movement of the righthand to the hat-brim. But the hat was not a military hat, the man wasnot in uniform and had not a martial bearing. The doctor noddedcivilly, half thinking that the stranger’s uncommon greeting wasperhaps in deference to the historic surroundings. As the strangerevidently desired speech with him he courteously reined in his horseand waited. ‘Sir,’ said the stranger, ‘although a civilian, you are perhaps an enemy.’ ‘I am a physician,’ was the non-committal reply. ‘Thank you,’ said the other. ‘I am a lieutenant, of the staff ofGeneral Hazen.’ He paused a moment and looked sharply at the person whomhe was addressing, then added, ‘Of the Federal army.’ The physicianmerely nodded. ‘Kindly tell me,’ continued the other, ‘what has happened here.Where are the armies? Which has won the battle?’ The physician regarded his questioner curiously with half-shut eyes.After a professional scrutiny, prolonged to the limit of politeness,’Pardon me,’ he said; ‘one asking information should be willing toimpart it. Are you wounded?’ he added, smiling. ‘Not seriously–it seems.’ The man removed the unmilitary hat, put his hand to his head, passedit through his hair and, withdrawing it, attentively considered thepalm. ‘I was struck by a bullet and have been unconscious. It must havebeen a light, glancing blow: I find no blood and feel no pain. I willnot trouble you for treatment, but will you kindly direct me to mycommand–to any part of the Federal army–if you know?’ Again the doctor did not immediately reply: he was recalling muchthat is recorded in the books of his profession–something about lostidentity and the effect of familiar scenes in restoring it. At length helooked the man in the face, smiled, and said: ‘Lieutenant, you are not wearing the uniform of your rank andservice.’ At this the man glanced down at his civilian attire, lifted hiseyes, and said with hesitation: ‘That is true. I–I don’t quite understand.’ Still regarding him sharply but not unsympathetically, the man ofscience bluntly inquired: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-three–if that has anything to do with it.’ ‘You don’t look it; I should hardly have guessed you to be justthat.’ The man was growing impatient. ‘We need not discuss that,’ he said:’I want to know about the army. Not two hours ago I saw a column oftroops moving northward on this road. You must have met them. Be goodenough to tell me the colour of their clothing, which I was unable tomake out, and I’ll trouble you no more.’ ‘You are quite sure that you saw them?’ ‘Sure? My God, sir, I could have counted them!’ ‘Why, really,’ said the physician, with an amusing consciousness ofhis own resemblance to the loquacious barber of the Arabian Nights,’this is very interesting. I met no troops.’ The man looked at him coldly, as if he had himself observed thelikeness to the barber. ‘It is plain,’ he said, ‘that you do not care toassist me. Sir, you may go to the devil!’ He turned and strode away, very much at random, across the dewyfields, his half-penitent tormentor quietly watching him from hispoint of vantage in the saddle till he disappeared beyond an array oftrees.
3: The Danger of Looking into a Pool of Water
After leaving the road the man slackened his pace, and now wentforward, rather deviously, with a distinct feeling of fatigue. Hecould not account for this, though truly the interminable loquacity ofthat country doctor offered itself in explanation. Seating himself upona rock, he laid one hand upon his knee, back upward, and casually lookedat it. It was lean and withered. He lifted both hands to his face. Itwas seamed and furrowed; he could trace the lines with the tips of hisfingers. How strange!–a mere bullet-stroke and a brief unconsciousnessshould not make one a physical wreck. ‘I must have been a long time in hospital,’ he said aloud. ‘Why,what a fool I am! The battle was in December, and it is now summer!’ Helaughed. ‘No wonder that fellow thought me an escaped luna- tic. He waswrong: I am only an escaped patient.’ At a little distance a small plot of ground enclosed by a stone wallcaught his attention. With no very definite intent he rose and went toit. In the centre was a square, solid monument of hewn stone. It wasbrown with age, weather-worn at the angles, spotted with moss andlichen. Between the massive blocks were strips of grass the leverage ofwhose roots had pushed them apart. In answer to the challenge of thisambitious structure Time had laid his destroying hand upon it, and itwould soon be ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre.’ In an inscription on one sidehis eye caught a familiar name. Shaking with excitement, he craned his body across the wall and read:
to The Memory of Its Soldiers
who fell at Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862.
The man fell back from the wall, faint and sick. Almost within anarm’s length was a little depression in the earth; it had been filled bya recent rain–a pool of clear water. He crept to it to revive himself,lifted the upper part of his body on his trembling arms, thrust forwardhis head and saw the reflection of his face, as in a mirror. He uttereda terrible cry. His arms gave way; he fell, face downward, into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned another life.
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