"People were massacred up real bad. It was like war. They was people that had been hit, and part of they head taken off, not all they head, just part. Bodies in every form of mutilation. They hands cut off. They legs cut off. Some of 'em cut half in two."
-- Karei McDonald, firefighter on the scene of the Candlestick Tornado
It was a wild place once, the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, so wild you could imagine that the dead here still spoke, that from beyond the long curtain of kudzu draped and twisted on the old trees, someone watched, the ancient sentry for the ghosts of all wars past. The entry to the winding, steep-valleyed road that turns at rolling angles through the fields of graves and monuments and battle sites was a lowered archway of kudzu when I was a child, a green porthole through which the mirage of the past widened and became defined like an image in a diorama. You knew then that this had been a battlefield, the trenches still marked along eroded slopes, rough with rock and brambles, the trees bound together in the sheath of tightly knotted vines, the granite monuments rising above the neglected fields like tree-high tombstones in this place of interminable stillness and heat. Without these markers, I was certain, you would still know upon which ground you trespassed because, as one Civil War historian put it, "It is the land that remembers bloodshed," takes it deep into an elemental consciousness, separates guilt from righteousness, honor from pride, and distills what is left into an abiding remembrance of the horror of things past. Which is to say that hallowed ground has its genesis in pain and treachery, and what we come to remember afterward, what we come to honor on behalf of those who have fought in such a place is the overwhelming silence that is the aftermath of all war.
It was a place of silence when I visited there as a child, beyond the steady high-voltage hum of cicadas hidden high in the oak and sweet gum trees, a sound perfectly pitched in its ability to numb consciousness and make it all the more easy to imagine the shoeless footfalls of the Rebel army under the siege here in winter, dug into the cold and dampness of the clay hills, provisions nonexistent, starvation imminent. Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863, a day that for Mississippians created a form of psychological independence that went deep. Defeated and dishonored, many refused in the coming years to celebrate the independence of a nation, choosing instead, on the Fourth of July, to remember Vicksburg and the men who had fallen here. More than a century later some still mark this date in silent vigil -- no firecrackers, no backyard barbecues, no American flags -- with a thousand-yard stare into the past, and sometimes with a pilgrimage to this battlefield that is now combed clean, polished, and spit-shined, just another roadside attraction.
When I have returned to the wild place of memory, it has been familiar only by the contours of the land and the heat that rises from it in a fog. The once overgrown battlefield has been weeded and pruned and mown so that it now looks like a manicured estate, the old trenches still there, but now they are gentle slopes sown in fescue, a broadening lawn that would appeal to the romping instinct of a child and would not, by the most liberal imagination, call forth the image of bodies decomposing beneath a July sun. It had been easier to imagine war when this place was forbidding, when its roughness forced you to stop at the edge of a weed-choked depression for fear of snakes, black widows, an ankle turned in the jaws of a land still angry. It was the very wildness of it that gave it sanctity.
Forty-five miles southeast of Vicksburg, along the low bluff of the Pearl River where the water runs red with clay, lies Jackson, burned four times during the War Between the States so that all that was left along the blackened bank when Sherman's troops pulled out was the chimneys of homes and public buildings. For a while Jackson was called Chimneyville. There are trenches, still, in Battlefield Park, where children play on the cannons, Civil War generals and soldiers are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, and Fortification Street is named for the Confederate fortification built along its course. On Terry Road, which runs from the heart of Jackson out into what for years was country land, there was once a fine plantation where Confederate troops would stop for food and a bed. The plantation home was never burned. The troops kept vigil. The home still stands today, the land that surrounded it now divided into suburbs. For years the neighborhood that the plantation became was a wild place, too. There were woods still, and acres of pasture, acres of cotton and corn and soybeans. A tributary of the Pearl River, Caney Creek, made a natural boundary in the deep backyards of the modest homes that would be built here, winding its way beneath new bridges, bearing its floodwaters in spring, drying to a pockmarking of deep potholes in summer. Far into the woods the source of Caney Creek lay, a deep trench of water where albino catfish swam, a mystery long before I came here.
This sprawl of swamp, woods, and fields, the sun hard and hot on the dirt in summer, the air wet with the steam off the gulf waters that rolls north and spreads like a shroud, this would be the place that I, as a girl, would come to know indelibly as home. No matter that there were places before and after. I would pledge allegiance to none of them. This was a place, too, where natural wars would fall, in the spring when the gulf burned with a fever and the territory north pushed its cold air into the buoyant balloon of Mississippi. Spring storms, floods, lightning bolts, hail, fire, and brimstone. A wild place where North and South still collided, where atmospheric wars would lay out the fields with the dead again. And again. It is a place that would remind me always of the look and feel of the old battlefield at Vicksburg, where the green world rose up to cover the past, and where you could still see the mark of it in the creek bed littered with arrowheads, and in the redness of the dirt, and in the sound of the cicadas when the wind was still. And for all the time I came to know this place and what happened here, there is a dream that comes, always the same, always a dream unwelcome because it can never be undone. It can never be just a dream.
In the dream I see the yellowing Mississippi sky in distinct parallel bands that are broken by the broad green canopy of pin oaks, pecan, and sycamore, strips of sky the shape of banners, a cartoon wash of color that threatens rain. In the dream rain is welcome, not a thing to fear, and as I walk quickly toward the small shopping center beyond the trees, at the end of the black ribbon of road where I live, the rain starts up, defined, too, by the gutters of houses along the road, by eaves that catch the quick unleashing of water at an angle and force it momentarily skyward. Rain that rains upside down. I look away from the wet and heavy sky, afraid of what I might see. But I know. I know this because this is the one dream where it does not matter what I do, it will happen the same way, and I know that in this dream, familiar above all others, I will not look up to find the sunlight fractured in an enameled bowl of blue that holds everything suspended in calm. I will not look up to see snow falling. Snow is cold and slow and hypnotic. Safe. You never have to hide from snow. This dream is about the world rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart. But still I look up because it would not be the dream if I did not.
The yellow awning of the grocery store, the color of the sky, is close enough now that in a moment I can be under it, dry, ignorant, pretending that I will not see again what I am about to witness for the hundredth time. It has come that often in these dreams, maybe more, so many times that I can only guess at how easily my unconscious slides into the world of the haunted and conjures up what it knows I fear, feared before the fear had substance. I look and there it is, the veil of yellow gone, its relative brightness swallowed up now in black webbing, and at the core of this pockmarked darkness there begins the gyroscopic tightening of clouds, a Luciferian sleight of hand I will turn my back to once, to gain courage, before I look at it dead-on. It is a spiral, thin at first, barely discernible on the heavy gauze of the horizon, a wisp that could be mistaken for hallucination if I did not already know the pregnant way the turning needle will begin to swell until it becomes what I have suspected all along, the four winds twisting in combat, the Wizard of Oz cyclone poised above the store, ready to fall.
All light is gone now but for the sulfurous burn of streetlamps that blink on suddenly, their sensors tricked by the curtain drop of clouds.
Where to run? I know what happens here, at this overhanging of eave in the dark in this too-familiar place. People die here.
And they do not die in an ordinary way, in clean-sheeted beds, their fingers pulling at the satin trim of blankets, their eyes fixed and waiting and ready. They do not die knowing someone else is near. They do not die having time to think there is a chance not to die. Here in this dream of darkening skies, on this killing ground, they die by punishing force, against their will, and long before their time has come, so those who gather afterward to gaze at the tumult of bodies say, as if it were a mantra, "dead before their time has come," "dead before his time has come." Dead. It is the last word that will be inescapable, no matter what the context of the life, no matter how poignant the lament, and it will remain unto itself a proclamation of what is and can never be undone.
I feel the edges of the wind, quick and rough and nearer than I ever believed it could be, cutting an undertow in the now-unbreathable air. It is close now, stealing by degrees across the pasture that spreads like a dark lake behind the store, its black belly bulging straight out as it begins to feed on scrub pine, then on the girdered steel of the supermarket, on the cars once parked in even rows, on living tissue pliant as clay. If there is time, there is nothing to do but run.
I push my way through the spinning plasma of air, my body the shield that splits the heightening current into two rushing streams that meet at my back, shoving me as if it wants me gone. I ride the whip of wind halfway to a building that has not fallen, a home built high and narrow in the green of the pasture lake, and I know that I will make it inside because I always do, but it is not until that halfway mark where my feet strike some magical, memorable place on the heaving ground that I remember that this time I will live. Though not until I close behind me the door that is heavy as a vault, as the wind sucks in around the edges, bowing it so it strains and the walls shudder and then explode and the roof lifts clear, rising like an arrow into the maelstrom of dust and steel and wood, do I know for certain that I am alive. The rain begins again, but black now and steaming, melting the outline of my body against the dim light as I pull myself up to the broken world by a ladder of splintered boards and twisted rebar, the hollow place where the house had been filling with dark water.
In the dream I turn to look from where I have come, no further than three hundred feet, to the place where the wind has scoured a pit, where now stand spears of metal in the shape of crosses, and then beyond the pit to where the trees once stood, a level field of busted ground now, the color of mercury in the dawning light. At a point between the crosses and the field the bodies lie. Thirteen of them lined up heel to head, and I can see by their faces that I know them all. And I wonder for a moment, in the psychotic way of dreams where all that is surreal has a crossroads in reality, how a wind so brutal and so without conscience would take the time to lay out the dead row on row. But even in the dream I know that this is not the way these bodies finally rested, that instead they were smashed and broken, decapitated and scored, pulled like sacks of water and bone into the sky and left to drop and splinter and burst. I know how they really died, but still in the dream, where the unconscious will not even own to this treachery, I see them quiet and unmarked and so near to one another that maybe they are just resting from the drain of the wind.
I turn from the bodies and the waste that is beginning to grow and spread around them, back to where the shattered store has now re-formed itself, new and gleaming, lit from inside like a warming oven, no mark of the wind left anywhere, and even in the dream I think of Vicksburg, of the battlefield bright and clipped and sterile, of the lie that it is.
Copyright © 2002 by Lorian Hemingway
A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever
A World Turned Over
A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever
In A World Turned Over, Lorian Hemingway returns to the Jackson she knew as a child and tells the story of the Candlestick Tornado, as it came to be known. Vividly re-creating the terrifying day of the tornado, she recounts the miracles and tragedies that also happened that day -- including the story of Donna Durr, who with her baby was lifted in her car seventy-five feet up into the vortex, and of eighteen-year-old Ronny Hannis, who survived to help rescue others, oblivious to the danger to his own life. Decades later, the devastation of that single day continues to reverberate and affect those left behind.
Lyrical and haunting, A World Turned Over is an unforgettable story of awesome destruction -- and a powerful testament to the extraordinary resilience, faith, and heroism of ordinary people visited by fate.