Acoustic shadows is a phenomenon where an event may sound louder and more distinct when heard from far away, than when heard from a short distance away. This seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes, sound wave propagation is affected by nearby lay of the land, trees, structures, or people engaged in fierce battle, while farther away, it’s travel is unobstructed.
Think Civil War. The effect of acoustic shadows has been well documented in the letters on both sides of the Civil War conflict. Civil War commanders often relied on the intensity and direction of the sounds of fighting to dictate where and how they employed their limited resources.
A witness on the other side of a tree line may not hear fighting in a valley as well as, or in the same as, someone on the next hill. In addition to rolling hills and structures, a bombardment of concussive sounds could create its own sound barrier. Some scholars believe that acoustic shadows may have affected some battles, and maybe even helped determine the Civil War’s final outcome.
That said, this story is not about the Civil War. It’s not really about acoustic shadows either, come to think of it. But it’s a cool title. The story is historical fiction, so it’s not historically accurate, but I’m using parts of a real event in a fictitious story.
_ . _ . _ . _
On June 29, 1862, in Savage’s Station, Virginia, heavy casualties took their toll on both sides. A Union retreat resulted in the Confederate capture of 2,500 wounded soldiers abandoned in a Union field hospital. The battle was inconclusive. That was about all Mr. Burke was told. That, and that his son had fought valiantly.
Jonathan Burke’s cartridge box was not a box at all, but more like a small leather pouch with a wooden block inside and a flap outside. It was carried at the waistband for easy access to pre-measured amounts of gun powder and lead balls, ready for quick loading and firing.
Mr. Burke, Private Jonathan Burke’s father, did what he had done since his son’s cartridge box had been delivered to him. He examined it as if a museum piece, then he shook it. What rattled inside the cartridge box was the bullet that had killed his son.
Mrs. Burke had refused to look inside, even years after it had intruded into their home. She had lived the rest of her life satisfied with never being satisfied again, not after the war and the bullet and torn beliefs had taken her son.
Although Jonathan had never discussed his beliefs with his mother, Mrs. Burke was convinced that he had died fighting for the beliefs of strangers, and she had died believing that, no matter the outcome, no matter who won, the so-called Civil War would never be worth the cost. Mrs. Burke believed that there could be no winner, because there was no way to win.
The soldier’s father, on the other hand, had to know, had to see, had to feel, had to keep old wounds open. Mr Burke kept the cut fresh, as of protecting it from healing over and disappearing. It was his way of keeping his son alive. It also kept him freshly dead.
“Keeping old wounds open means tearing open a new one.” Mrs. Burke had told her husband this from her death bed upstairs. It had been her last words to her husband.
“But I love him so,” had been Mr. Burke’s last words to his wife. Not that he loved her so, but that he had loved their son.
Now, on what would be the coldest night of the winter, long after the event, the aging father of Private Jonathan Burke once again heard acoustic shadow of his son’s death. He stood from his wheel chair, reached to the mantle, and took down the cartridge box for what would be the last time. He returned to his chair with the cartridge box in both hands.
Mr. Burke rubbed the brass emblem on the leather flap. It was warm from the fire. He lifted the leather box to his nose. After all of these years, it still smelled of gun powder. It was as if the war still raged. He could almost hear voices of the infantry, reports of the battle, yelled commands of retreats and re-attacks. The sounds were not always coming from the fields of battle. Sometimes, the sounds came from inside the house or inside his head.
He examined the oval metal plate on the flap. He tilted it toward the fire for better light. It was identical to the officer’s who had delivered the thing, and the news along with it. He had told his wife that their son’s cartridge box had arrived by anonymous mail messenger.
In truth, a young officer had stood at the door, holding the cartridge box like a wounded bird. He had delivered words of comfort, as best as he knew how, but Mr. Burke heard differently.
“Sir, your son received his wounds with honor,” the officer said.
“Received,” Mr. Burke echoed, “his wounds, with honor.”
“You say that as if Jonathan were given a medal. Only the medal was metal,” the father said. “Sounds the same, but not.”
The young officer tried to explain. “Sir, the fight came to us in the form of a fierce storm of gunfire, blowing sideways. Scarcely the smallest of fingers could be held airborne, and brought back to form a fist without being shot.”
“So, my son’s death was inevitable.”
“That’s not what I meant to say.”
Mr. Burke examined the eyes of the officer and ignored the rest of him. “Were you there with him?”
“Yes, sir, I was.”
“In the same battle storm?”
“Yet, here you stand in my doorway, woundless and whole,” Mr. Burke said. He never looked away and neither did the officer.
“Sir, I am many things, but I can assure you, whole I am not.”
The two men stared, neither blinking.
“Nevertheless,” Mr. Burke said, “here you stand.” He reached for the door.
“My deepest apologies,” the officer replied. The officer lowered his head, removed his cap and placed his cap over his heart.
“I accept your blame,” the father said, and slammed the door.
Mr. Burke never fully regretted the battle of words he and the officer had had, but over the years, he often found himself wishing the man well. At times, Mr. Burke was able to see beyond his circumstances long enough to say a short prayer for that soldier.
In those brief times, he had asked God to make the man whole, or as close to whole as was divinely possible in this life. Other times, Mr. Burke prayed for God to exchange places with Jonathan and the fellow soldier, or, as much as it was divinely possible, to exchange his son’s death for his own.
Mr. Burke rolled his wheel chair closer to the fire, and removed a slender block of wood from his son’s cartridge box. In the wood had been drilled 22 holes of equal size, two rows of 11. Each hole had once held gun power and lead.
The gun power had been wrapped tightly in paper, each end wound tight like candy. Of the 22 holes, 21 were empty. The final one contained the metal removed from his son’s insides. He shook the wooden wedge and what was inside rattled like bone. The sound had not lessened its impact through the years.
The flickering firelight revealed explosive burn marks between the holes in the wood. It was where enemy gunfire had punctured the leather set the wrapped powder aflame. The old man snaked a feeble finger through the hole in the leather. He turned the wood insert upside down and shook it until the thing fell into his palm. He held the thing in a trembling hand toward the fire for better light.
“Was this the killing shot, or were there others?”
He rolled the thing around in his hand, examining it from all angles. The oddly-shaped metal had once been the shape of a ball, a common sphere, like the others used by both sides. What he held between his aged finger tips had been made singular by his son’s insides. It had been shaped by the path it took. The result was a mangled deformity too complex to describe.
At first, no one answered the old man’s question about the killing shot. There was none there to answer. Then some voice, some distant propagation of sound, some anomaly, came close enough to be audible.
A souvenir. Something to remember. Bought with a price.
Mr. Burke felt heat as he rolled his wheel chair against the side of the mantle. He raised himself again.
“God? God, is that you?”
He put the cartridge box back on the mantle while he balanced himself with one hand. There was silence in the house.
“Son?” He winced in pain from worn joints and a few internal organs tired of functioning as designed. Mr. Burke slipped the deformed metal ball into a pocket of his robe, a small pocket meant for decoration, not intended to hold things. He grabbed the edge of the mantle with both hands and held on.
“Son, is that you?”
Here we stand.
“Are you here?”
In your very footprints.
The house fell silent again.
“What this war has done,” Mr. Burke said to God, the room, to his son, or to himself. “What it has done to the fighter and his family. It has taken the commonplace and made it indescribable, like a sphere through flesh and bone.”
“I am an insane man,” Mr. Burke said. “Among everything else I am, I am also insane.”
“What’s worse, I am cursed to know it.”
He pressed his hand against the thing in his pocket, and felt the warmth of metal against his side. Then he heard it again.
Here. In your footprints. History. Standing.
“And I’m here, in your footsteps, Jonathan, not whole, but standing.”
The only sound in the room was the violent crackling of burning wood.
Smoke rose from the corner of the old man’s lap blanket at his feet, a smoldering heap. Mr. Burke tried to disentangle his feet from the blanket and stomp out the fire, but he moved in slow motion. All Mr. Burke could do was struggle to disentangle his feet, and laugh. He laughed at the absurdity of his predicament.
“Looks like I’m taking on heavy fire too, son.”
The fire spread like a sideways storm. Flames spread up the dry blanket wrapped around his feet, and onto and through the old man’s clothes before he could back away or move, or think of another witty thing to say to the empty room.
* * *
“The fire gutted the house,” the tour guide said. “It was a total loss.”
There was no reaction from the group of tourists, so he sold it more. “The house became as empty as Mr. Burke’s soul after the tragic loss of his wife and son. The old man simply couldn’t bare the pain, so he set himself on fire.”
He paused for dramatic effect, then continued.”It is said that his son’s bullet was found inside his body in the same place it had been found in his son.”
The crowd gasped. One elderly couple wept and held hands. The tour guide grinned. “And, if you look closely at the rubble, you’ll notice the rusted mangled remains of Mr. Burke’s wheel chair.”
“Where, where,” a young tourist asked.
“I see it,” said his dad. “There, in front of that pile of old bricks.”
“That pile of old bricks,” the guide explained, “is what’s left of the fireplace and chimney. There were many more bricks, but, well, vandals, souvenir seekers.”
There was respectful silence for the most part, except for the fake mechanical shutter clicking sounds from smart phone cameras.
“Feel free to explore the rubble. Go ahead. Walk around. Get interactive with history. Just don’t take anything but pictures.”
One tourist stood between the rims of the charred wheel chair frame and the small pile of bricks. “Is this where Mr. Burke stood when he committed suicide?”
“Exactly. In fact, you’re standing in his very footprints.”
“Amazing. I’m one with history.” The tourist handed the guide his camera and a dollar as a tip. “Do you mind?”
“My pleasure. Smile. Got it. Next!”
After everyone who wished to be photographed in the footprints of Mr. Burke had been, the guide concluded the tour with a sales pitch.
“To your left, you’ll see our newly renovated gift shop, with a full line souvenirs of this terrible conflagration, including our authentic replication of Private Burke’s cartridge box in the form of Private Burke’s Cartridge Lunchbox. It’s molded in durable dish-washable plastic, and distressed by our own volunteers, so as to appear nearly original.”
He held one of the plastic lunch boxes over his head. “Listen!” He shook it and it rattled like plastic in plastic.
“Friends, that’s the sound of a heated battle. Inside each cartridge lunchbox is a small plastic ball, just like the real one that killed Mr Burke’s son. Place one of these on your own fireplace mantle and amaze your friends. Just don’t start your own terrible conflagration.”
There was laughter.
“Also for sale are our ‘Terrible Burke Conflagration’ t-shirts with the slogan, ‘I was there,’ in bold flame-like font. Available in blue or grey.”
As soon as the last of the tour group entered the gift store, the guide heard a too-familiar noise in the distance: the roar of a diesel engine, followed by the hiss of air brakes.
“I didn’t even have time to pee.”
The next tour bus was already unloading.
. _ . _ . _ .