A Brightness New and Welcoming
"Here Johnny, have a swallow."
The two South Carolinians held the wooden bucket between them, and the orderly drew out a dipperful and held it to his lips. John took as much into his mouth as he could, hoping the quantity would cover the muddy taste. The only water on the island came from a well in the corner of the yard, a hole not more than twelve feet deep and covered with boards. The boat coming over from Chicago brought a keg of water for the guards and officers, but the prisoners had to drink from the well.
"Better drink it up Reb; all you'll get for a while."
The Sandlappers moved on with the heavy leaking bucket. John couldn't tell if the taste of the water was worse than the smell of the camp. He held the wetness on his tongue a few more seconds and forced himself to swallow, then lay back on the cot. The canvas above was completely still. There was no sun, but no wind either in the hazy heat. It was so humid the lake itself seemed to have risen and filled the air with a viscous stench. How could it be so hot this far north?
"Better drink it up Reb," the orderly said two or three tents away.
It was the spring he thought of most often, of the trail down into the hollow, and the rocks he had put at the lip of the pool. The water boiled out from under the root of the great poplar. For that high on the ridge it was a bold spring. When he found it, when he was looking for land to buy across the line in North Carolina, there was a muck of leaves and sand collected around the head. And he dug it all out, dug a channel for the overflow to move the run-off quickly so the little swamp hardened and grew grass. And he shoveled out the basin back to the roots of the poplar and the pores from the mountainside. There were at least three fountains coming together, and as the basin cleared he saw the sand dance above the inlets. He gathered a pail of the whitest sand from the branch and spread it on the floor of the pool, and rimmed the edges with rocks. On the hottest days of July the water was cold when he came down from the cornfield. It tasted of quartz rock deep under the mountain. Sometimes when he found a specially brilliant crystal he would place it in the spring to sparkle for all to see. Spring water was touched by all the mineral wealth it had passed through, the gold and rubies, silver and emeralds in the deep veins. The water was a cold rainbow on the tongue.
And he built for Louise a washstand in the meadow just below the spring, a puncheon table where she could place her tub and washboard, and wring out pieces before spreading them on bushes to dry. He brought the cauldron up from North Fork in the wagon and placed it on three rocks high enough to keep the fire underneath.
"You put that thing close to the spring," she said. "I ain't breaking my back carrying water to wash for you men."
"There's only one man here."
"There will be more. I'm thinking ahead."
He cleared out the brush on the side of the hollow and leveled out a bench for the washstand. He'd seen women use stumps for the washing or bend over tubs set on the ground. But Louise was already showing her condition. It was easy to chop the young poplars on the south side, and to grub up the woodsfloor. Within a year they had worn a regular path to the spring, and to the washpot. And the ironweed and goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace sorted themselves out in the meadow he had cleared.
On a hot day, coming into the hollow from the bright field, you couldn't see much in the shade at first. A few mosquitoes and deerflies in June and July made the air seem needled, and the rocks wet the knees of your pants when you knelt to drink. As you put your lips to the surface of the pool and sipped, or scooped the gourd into the scattered reflections, your eyes adjusted, and you could see the sand and quartz on the bottom like beacons on a plain. Troy spring lizards gripped the deepest floor, and the pores under the root were ebullient and busy as ever. It was like watching an hourglass that never ran out of grains, a source feeding tirelessly as time, the flow rung long before he ever saw or bought the acres and long after he left them. Nothing made him feel the vastness of time as much as the spring. It seemed the dial of some instrument. He looked into its depths and at the reflections on the surface. He stayed so long looking into the cold lens he had to mask his embarrassment when Louise came up behind and said, "Don't you ever get enough to drink?" and he had to turn back to the blinding sunlight and work.
But he had lost track of his memories. Sometimes he thought he was back home after the war, and sometimes he thought he had deserted again and was hiding out at the spring. In the cool mornings he watched the mist on the creek valley below as he walked out to milk in the wet grass and stopped between the gap and the spring to listen to the bobwhites call.
They were coming around with the bucket of oatmeal. The same two Sandlappers carried it and the orderly ladled out the porridge in cups. At least they called it oatmeal, though there were husks mixed in, and shells of bugs and fly wings, all hard to tell apart. And the mess was watery and unsweetened. It seemed to make his dysentery worse.
"This one stinks so bad I hate to go by him," he heard one of the Sandlappers whisper.
"Tarheel can't help his stink," the other said. "Besides, he won't eat."
John could no longer smell himself. When the fever first struck he could sniff his heated skin; the flesh seemed to be cooking on the bones and the outer layers dying. His hands smelled like meat that had been half boiled and was sweet with first decay. But all the sweating, all the diarrhea, the vomiting, left no scent in his nostrils. The nerves in his nose had been burned out. If only somebody would wash him.
But he had no money, and the orderlies left him alone except for the drink of water twice a day, and the cup of oatmeal or soup.
"Hey Powell, what time is it?"
It was Woodruff in the next tent. They had emptied out his own tent except for him, but Woodruff was still in his, only six or seven muddy yards away. Before he got too weak he and Woodruff had talked across the space. Only Woodruff knew he had the watch still. They had an agreement. If the orderlies knew about the gold timepiece it would long ago have been gone. It was all he had left.
He reached under the cot where the watch was tucked into the rags. He would have to think of a new hiding place because they might clean up the rags there any day. The metal was cooler than his hand. He listened again. The Sandlappers with their bucket were four tents away. He brought the dial close to his face and called, "Eleven-thirty."
Woodruff didn't really care about the time; he just wanted to talk, wanted to know if he was still conscious. The doctor came around only once every day or two now, which meant they had given up on him. The doctors attended those who might recover. All they really knew how to do was amputate. The saw was their favorite instrument. They had taken Woodruff's arm, and now he was getting stronger. But he had seen other cases, both on the field and in the camp, where some boy begged them them not to cut, screamed he'd rather die than be a cripple. And they held him on the table and poured the morphine down him. And when the boy woke he cried for days and said he still felt his leg rotting out in the ditch where they had thrown it.
There were things he wanted to tell Woodruff again, about how you reached Mountain Page by the Buncombe Turnpike and Saluda Gap, about the trail up to his place by the Red Old Field. He wanted to tell him again about the spring. He couldn't remember how much he had told him before. Maybe he had told him everything already, or maybe he had just thought about it and was remembering the intention. All this had happened before, and he had thought about it before. He was too weak to talk now.
A bell rang somewhere. And there were shouts and a whistle. He concentrated hard to remember where he was, to visualize the tents of the hospital section of the camp. He was number four on the seventh row. There was nothing but mud and rotting canvas. And beyond the sick area was the yard where all the others lived, with puddles here and there full of urine and excrement, rotting rags. Most of the refuse had been thrown there when the yard was frozen over, and when thaw came the depressions filled and turned putrid. No one would wade in to clean them out. The island was so level there was nowhere for water to run, without ditches to the lake. And the prisoners were too weak to work or care. When they arrived in early winter they hoped for rest and warmth and regular rations, after the long train ride north, after the starvation of the battlefield. The cattle cars got colder as they crossed Kentucky and Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, each night more freezing than the last.
When they stopped to exercise in a field, around a bonfire, he was too stiff to take a step, and the guard prodded him to circle the fire with the rest.
"Johnny too lazy to walk," he joked.
There must have been five thousand on the island. In the early months they gathered for prayer meetings and singings on the frozen ground, and clapped and stamped the ice to keep warm. The wind off the lake could knock you down. They sometimes crawled to the well, and had the water blown out of the bucket before they returned to the tents.
"Enlist now and receive a bonus," the handbills in Saluda said. He told Louise he would take the bonus and serve his term. Everybody said the fight would be over in six months, at most a year. And the bonus would buy the fifty acres of adjoining land which the Nixes were willing to sell.
He walked to Hendersonville and signed on, at the tent in front of the courthouse. And Louise cut his uniform from homeSPun and dyed the material with butternut in the pot behind the house. He had his picture made in Hendersonville, holding the Bible over his heart.
"I'll be back in time to put in crops next year," he told her, when she stood with hoe in hand by the young corn. "You'll have to carry through this year but I'll be back in the spring."
And he walked down the trail and up the road in his new uniform, carrying a duffel and a blanket, and biscuits with sidemeat for his lunch.
And for the next six months he walked and drilled, he rode on trains. He waited in the sun, and slept on grass, in tents, in cold wind. He ate the hardtack and potato gruel with bits of meat floating, and he cursed the mud and march up the Valley of Virginia, and down the Valley of Virginia. Across the Rapidan and the James, along the Potomac, he marched and waited. Once the men said they could see the dome of the Capitol in the distance, but all he could see was a wisp of cloud to the east.
The letter from Louise began, "Dere husbun John, it raned all thrue the fall, but I saeved most of the corn. The babye wannt come till March." By then the fighting looked different. It seemed the Yankees would not give in no matter how hard General Jackson whipped them. By Christmas he was studying on his foolishness for enlisting. While lying on the frozen ground, or shivering on sentry in the long star-covered night, he thought of his cabin up the branch beyond Mountain Page and Louise by herself milking and carrying a sack to mill. Her people lived just over at Saluda Gap, but her brothers had all joined. He'd seen her brother Mem once after a baffle and they were so happy they danced and slapped each other's shoulders before the marching took them apart.
Through Christmas and New Year's he studied, and knew it was dangerous to think so much of what he'd left. It was no good to hanker. It made him careless on sentry and careful in battle to stay behind others if possible, loading and reloading.
He would not have thought it could be so cold in Virginia. He had seen men shot for stealing a ham from a smokehouse they passed, and others hanged from trees along the road for deserting to go home at Christmas. They were an example, the general said.
Through the long days of February, the long days by the sour fire, the nights in the pitiful tent, he studied on his bed at home, and Louise there by the fire waiting for the baby. He was trapped, he was helpless to escape, this far from home and without money. He didn't even have a map for getting back to Carolina, and it was too dangerous to confide plans, to ask for directions.
A warm day in March decided him. A breeze crept out of the south smelling of new grass and fresh plowed ground. He thought of Louise with a baby and unable to break the fields and put in a crop. He had promised them the one year. That night when he went out to stand guard and was relieved he just kept on walking. By dawn he was forty miles to the west. He walked up the Valley of Virginia, past burnt-out farms, up the James River, sleeping in cowsheds, shooting squirrels until his powder gave out.
And walked into the yard one evening at milking time and knocked. Louise was feeding the baby and looked up in terror, pulling her shawl down over her shoulder as he stepped in. For the country lived in fear of the outlaw gangs. And she didn't recognize him behind the beard, the shrunken features.
"I thought you was an outlier," she said. "I prayed you would come, now that it's corn planting time."
Never had he been so happy and so scared at once. Though the place was back up the hollow a mile from any road, he still feared working in the fields in daytime. No telling who might pass and report him. Only family could be trusted, and sooner or later the Home Guard would come looking.
The horse was startled the first morning he hitched her up for plowing while it was still dark. There was frost on the grass, and the faintest light in the east. The stars were still out as he creaked with the turning plow down to the potato patch. There was a heavy stubble because Louise had not cleared the fields of stalks in the fall, and he did not want to burn the acres and call attention with the smoke. As he broke the ground he had to keep clearing away the stalks that gathered on the plow's tongue and shaft. Whoaing and starting again he turned perhaps a third of an acre before the sun came up over Callahan. He ran a couple more furrows before unhitching the plow and heading for the shed. He'd leave the horse in harness and perhaps Louise could plow a little after breakfast to cover his work in case it was noticed.
But because they had no money and would have nothing from the garden until July, and because he knew he'd have to leave sometime for the army or prison, he started cutting tanbark. The tanning yard in Tryon was still working and the sap was just now in the chestnut oaks. His oaks were on the highest land on the ridge, and every day he took the ax, after plowing and planting before dawn, and vanished into the woods. If the Guard came looking what could they find, his pipe, his clothes, his baby? Let them search.
Tanbark was a one-time crop because the trees had to be cut to be peeled. Once the trunk had been felled a skilled peeler could ring the bark with the ax every three or four feet and shuck off sleeves and curling strips of the skin. The inner bark was sopping wet with sap. That was the part the tanners wanted. When they got a wagon load of bark they crushed it in their mill and than soaked the pulp to leach out the tanning acids. It was that steeped water they bathed the leather in for months, sometimes half a year.
John worked quickly, knowing he had only a few days before the sap had lost its prime and the first leaves came out. He was still weak from the long walk back from Virginia, and his hands blistered from the ax. Sometimes his fingers cramped so he could not let go the handle after chopping and flensing off the bark for hours. When he had to rest he sat down in the leaves, listening to the silence of the woods, a crow calling from somewhere in the hollow, a robin in the cucumber trees. He thought of his unit still fighting in Virginia. He lived every day as though this would be his last summer on the place.
At night he dreamed he was still in the army, and was hoping there would be bread and grease in the morning. He wished he were closer to the fire. And woke with Louise beside him, and the cabin warm, and knew it was time to hitch up the horse.
Already things were getting scarce in the stores. The price of salt had risen a hundred-fold. People were digging up the floors of their smokehouses and boiling the dirt to get the salt drippings, then boiling down the water for a cup of dirty salt. Salt would soon be more valuable than its weight in gold, it was said. The price of leather had quadrupled, and with most shoemakers away in the army boots were no longer to be had. John wore his infantry boots until they cracked, and he patched them crudely with a piece of cowhide. Soon he would be going barefoot.
Louise continued to attend church, carrying the baby so no one would be suspicious. Once she hitched up the wagon and drove all the way to North Fork Church, to tell his Daddy and Mama he was home. It was at North Fork he had first seen her, when she walked with her sister down from their place at Saluda Gap on Sunday. And Mama invited them to stay for dinner. That afternoon he walked back Up the long hollow through Chestnut Springs, seeing them home. By the time they got to the old Poinsett Bridge they were holding hands. At the place where the road started winding up the mountain face below the Gap they kissed in-the shade of honey locusts. And before they walked into the clearing at the top of the mountain and were greeted by the Ward hounds they agreed to be married.
The next Sunday Mama and Daddy drove up to visit, bringing a bushel of potatoes and several moulds of butter. But their arrival must have aroused suspicion, for no sooner had they sat down to eat than four members of the Guard rode up into the yard.
"Here, Johnny, can you take a drink of this?" It was a large woman dressed in black bending over him. He raised his head slightly, and she poured from a bottle into a spoon and held it to his lips. The thick blackberry syrup felt sweet and hot going down his throat. Already flies were touching his lips to get the stickiness.
The big woman looked like his aunt Icy Mae. Suddenly he remembered who she was, Mrs. Atkins, "The Angel of Death" the prisoners called her, because she wore black and visited only those thought to be dying. Her husband had been killed in Virginia, and in her weeds she visited the camp each week to bring orange juice and syrup, sometimes candy and cakes, to those in the worst condition. Her visit to him meant the doctors had put him on the most critical list.
"May the Lord bless you," she said, screwing the lid back on the bottle. "All you need now is to rest. You have nothing to fear. Where are you from, Johnny?"
"I'm sure your family in North Carolina think of you often. You are ever in the care of God. Have you had a letter from them?"
"Next week when I come I'll bring pen and paper and write to your family. Are you married?"
Before she left she asked if his soul was right with God, and he nodded.
"God bless you, dear Johnny," she said, and moved on to another tent. The flies buzzed to his sweetened lips, but he was too weak to lick the last of the syrup away.
"Could you give Powell some morphine?" he heard Woodruff ask the doctor when he came around later.
"No, he's resting now, and there's no morphine to spare."
When he was saved at the revival John felt a terrible shame and conviction as he walked up to the altar, along the aisle lit by lanterns. The planks he put his face against were cold, and he prayed to be forgiven, to be accepted into the flock. But it was the way his tears wet the pine wood and made it smell of resin he was thinking of when Pastor Howard touched him on the shoulder and asked if he accepted Jesus as his personal savior. When he nodded the preacher took his hand and raised it and said, "Thank you Lord. We have a new brother."
When he stood he felt the relief flooding him, the faces of the Amen Corner and the choir accepting him. He felt lighter than he ever had, and assumed it was the burden of sin that had been lifted from inside him. And all that night, as everyone shook hands, and as he walked back home swinging the lantern, and as he lay in the loft listening to the katydids, he was at peace, and in a brightness new and welcoming.
But weeks later, and months later, when the brightneSS had faded, he wondered how it was he had changed. He was the same, thinking the same temptations, fearing and doubting the human way. "Once saved always saved," the Baptist preachers said. Had he really not been saved? He was the same John as ever except that he was now a member of the church and had been baptized in the pool at the bend. Was he an imposter? Had it merely been the approval of his mother, of the preacher and the congregation, he had sought?
The sergeant of the Guard was a Ballard from the Macedonia Church. Through the window John saw him dismount and walk toward the door. John put a finger to his lips, looked at Louise and Mama and Daddy, and climbed the rungs to the loft. He pressed himself against the cobwebbed chimney at the far end of the house by the time Ballard knocked at the door.
"Ma'am, we're looking for your husband. We've heard he's been hiding out."
Louise stepped back and the sergeant walked into the room, looked at the table with its extra plate, and inspected the corners. He climbed the ladder and looked around the dark attic from the top rung, as John pushed himself closer into the day and rock of the chimney. Then Ballard lowered himself back to the puncheon floor.
"You tell John if you see him," he said to Louise, "You tell him the Law will go easy if he gives himself in. Otherwise he can be shot on sight by any member of the Guard as a deserter. You tell him hear?"
"You folks want to stay for a bite of Sunday dinner?" Louise said.
"No ma'am, we got duties," the sergeant said. "But we might just take a piece of chicken to nibble."
"Then I'll get a box."
"Won't be necessary," he said, and took the platter of fried chicken up and emptied the pieces into his hat.
"Do you want a napkin?"
"This will do just fine."
When he was gone they all sat around the table, Louise and his Mama and Daddy and little Emma, looking at the empty platter, and the bowls of beans and rice, com and okra. They were still sitting there without reaching a fork when John climbed back down the ladder.
There was a clump of laurel on the slope above the spring. After Ballard's visit he was afraid to stay in the house in the daytime. And after the leaves had come out on the chestnut oaks there was no more tanbark to be peeled. When he finished his early morning work in the corn he retired to the little opening in the laurels he had made and furnished with a cot and blanket. There he sat most of the day, looking down on the spring, at Louise working over the wash table, little Emma asleep on a quilt. He sipped from his water jug and hoped it wouldn't rain.
And later, when the Guard came again, and again, and searched the loft, he retreated further up the mountain by day, and then met Louise at the spring at dark where she gave him a basket of bread and bacon, fresh corn. Sometimes they used the cot in the laurels, in the early evening, with katydids loud in the woods around and stars prickling through the canopy above. As they lay in the dark he knew he would turn himself in, as soon as the tops were cut and the fodder pulled.
"Woodruff," he was calling when he woke. "Woodruff!" But something was wrong. The last thing he remembered was the two Sandlappers and the orderly coming round with the pot of soup. But he had been too weak to touch a spoon or cup to his lips. He no longer felt the heat. It had turned cool while he slept, and the flies were gone. He could no longer smell the stench of the camp, the mudholes and privies, and the sewage from Chicago floating in the lake. He shivered and wished he had a blanket tight around him, over the scraps of dirty cotton. He wished he was by a fire. He could smell only his own fever and heated nostrils. It was a ripe cooking smell, as though he were baked and getting tender.
Something was wrong. They were in battle again and shells were going off, worse than the night he surrendered. Then the air was full of lead bees and the hiss of grapeshot. It seemed impossible that anyone could survive the air full of lead. When the Yankees appeared with their bayonets he raised his arms.
But it was wrong now, the shooting and bombardment. The air was lit, the filthy canvas, with red and green and yellow flashes. All seemed reflected on water, and on the hazy sky. One blast followed another. Maybe the Southerns had broken through in Tennessee or Virginia and run the Yankees ali the way to Illinois, pushed them back into Lake Michigan, driving them to Canada where they belonged. Maybe the Federals were blowing up the city and its arsenals and powder magazines to prevent their being seized. Maybe they were blowing up the prison-island. He didn't care about the war anymore.
The charges were getting bigger and brighter. He heard a bomb hiss in the water and then go off. It was so cold he jerked and thought he must be remembering the last battle. It was winter and he had been asleep a long time since the awful July heat and stench. A soldier was screaming somewhere as they sawed off his leg, and then one of his arms, and cauterized the stubs with redhot irons that hissed and scorched as they touched the flesh.
He was so cold it must be December, and the war had reached such a desperate stage they were killing the prisoners by firing on the island from gunboats. If he had to die it was better to die in battle. The flames and blasts were many-colored. He must be hallucinating with hunger as he heard men did. It was only a matter of time before his tent was hit. Would the fire warm him? Would he be warmed by the flames of hell, in the lake of fire?
He didn't know what it meant. He had never known what it meant. Grownups and preachers and teachers and politicians acted like they knew what everything meant. And he kept thinking as he grew up he would learn too. And he thought once he joined the church it would be clear to him. But nothing was revealed, and he just kept waiting. And everything happened as it did, and he was still waiting for the explanation. He had forgotten the reason for all the men in mud and rags and dying, and the women at home digging up the smokehouse dirt for salt. And the questions from when he was young, of what he was doing alive anyway, and why he was himself and not someone else in another country and time, got pushed to the side, but were left hanging, like jobs still to be done.
Something was wrong, and he was tired and cold. And things had been wrong a long time, since he woke up and the firing was going on. Since he got sick and could no longer catch rats and seabirds for meat. Since he turned himself in after the fodder was pulled. Since he joined the Confederate army. It traced all the way back. Something had always been wrong. Something was wrong at the beginning of creation he guessed. It was in the nature of things that they were wrong. On the night before he left for the army he listened to the oaks muttering outside the window and the hush of the distant waterfall, and knew things were wrong.
"Woodruff," he called out again. And this time in the flame light from the shells Woodruff loomed above him and bent down closer.
"Woodruff, who's firing?"
"Speak louder Powell. Can you speak?"
And with every cell concentrating its energy he shouted, "Who's firing?"
"It's the Fourth of July, Powell. They're having fireworks in the city. And I heard a guard say they're celebrating the fall of Vicksburg and a Yankee victory at Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. I stood out by the fence and watched the show over the water."
He wanted to tell Woodruff how cold he was, and where the watch was in the cot. But he couldn't tell if he was speaking or not. He heard himself say the words. Maybe he had already said them and was remembering what he had said. Or maybe it was just the memory of his intention to speak that he recalled. It was the timing that confused him.
That's the way it was on the train coming north, after he surrendered. It was cold and windy in Tennessee, but colder in the mountains of Kentucky. They huddled in their rags in the cattlecar. There was no room to lie down. He sat on the stinking straw and the car lurched and rattled and light sliced through the cracks stabbing his eyes. He leaned on one buttock till it got sore, and then the other. And his bones ached. It must be the ache of fever, or the numbness of the cold.
No one sang in the railroad car as they kept jerking and shaking north. Somewhere in Kentucky snow began to sift through the cracks and wet the straw under them. He was sure the cold in his nose and throat would become pneumonia. There was already a weakness in his breath.
As he drowsed and slept and woke through those long nights on the train, he began to be confused about what had already happened, and what he had merely thought about. He dreamed he had gone to the prison camp and was being returned at the end of the war. He thought of Louise and talked with her, and then remembered he was on the train, He thought they had arrived and were assigned quarters, and then he woke on the train, a white winter sun shredded through the cracks. He asked the man he leaned against if they were still in Ohio and the man said, "You asked me that two minutes ago, friend."
Every twelve hours they stopped the train and all were ordered out to stand beside the tracks and relieve themselves in the weeds. He decided he would stay inside at the next stop and lie down on the straw. He was constipated anyway with fever and low rations. And then he couldn't remember if he had stayed inside at the last stop or just planned to at the next. Act and intention and memory were mixed up. In one dream he went into the weeds during a stop and ran off into the dark snowy woods looking for a lighted cabin where they would let him in. He even saw the inside of the cabin, the hearth where stew was steaming, the bucket of water in the corner. "Any child of God is a friend," the woman said when she opened the door. She held a nursing child. She was shorter than Louise. She fed him stew and he ate and drowsed until the guards knocked on the door and jerked him back into the cold. He wasn't sure but what it had happened and he had been pushed back onto the prisoner train. He licked his lips for some residue of the stew, and tasted nothing but his chapped skin and soot.
The cot shook and shivered and Woodruff hovered nearby. "Powell, can you hear me? Are you awake?" The cot trembled like the floor of the cattlecar. Maybe it was him who was shaking. He must give the watch to Woodruff. It was down there somewhere. It was solid and cold in his hand. Long ago Woodruff had said there was a letter from Louise that said she was fine except the outliers took all the corn he had grown and ran their horses over what they couldn't carry, grinding it into the mud. And there was a new baby named John. And it was too dangerous to live at the place before he got back, so she had returned to her family at Saluda Gap. But that was a long time ago. Or maybe in the future, or in a dream, when Woodruff read it to him as he leaned down close as he was now.
"Look what I brung you now," he said.
And in the bright light he saw the little bottle brought to his lips. The spiritous liquid chilled his tongue and warmed his throat as Woodruff poured in drop after drop. The drops soaked right through his tongue and skin and rose like vapor into his sinuses, and through his brain with an ether-like breath, like salve on a burn. And then the drops seeped down his spine and throughout his veins. Until the day was very bright and dark at once. He kept thinking of the row of sunflowers he had planted along the fence, and they were huge and bright, though he remembered them as black -- bright and black. Woodruff was still talking even though he had stopped talking.
When he got off the train in Greenville he saw the station was still intact, but the building had been stripped of every bit of decoration and furnishings. The windows were broken in places, and some panes seemed to have been removed intact, for what purpose he couldn't guess. Many stores nearby were boarded up, and blue soldiers patrolled at every intersection. Little groups of soldiers stood around fires at each corner. It was cold in the April dawn.
Greenville did not seem to be the town he remembered. But then he had never spent any time there, usually driving through with a wag of produce for the Augusta river market. He and his Daddy made the trip every December when the hams were cured. There was a stillness, a deadness, about the town. But it was still early. A few people were out besides the soldiers. A negro chopped wood on a sidestreet he passed. It was all so quiet, so empty. The dogs he saw were showing their ribs.
"Hey, Johnny," a soldier called after him, but he kept on walking.
He was glad to reach the countryside and follow the red day road north through green banks and new weeds in ditches. There were almost no horses or cows in the pastures, but many of the patches had been broken up.
In his soreness and weakness from the long train ride the road seemed to stretch out forever ahead, getting longer with each step. He hoped somebody would come along with a buggy or wagon and offer him a lift. He wished he had some money and could stop at a large house and ask for something to eat. They would give it to him for nothing, but he could not ask if he had no money in his pocket. He wished he had a uniform, and not the rags from the prison camp. He wished he had shoes for the rocky road bit into his feet.
When he increased his pace, the soreness in his lungs returned. The least stretching hurt. The pain had stayed with him long after the pneumonia that came in the long spring rains. For a week the lake water had lapped right into the camp and spread into the tent and under the cot. He stopped to cough, and rest on the bank.
A mockingbird seemed to be following him. He had heard it running through a medley of voices and saw its gray form and cocked tail in an apple tree above the road. And then it was sitting on a fencepost ahead as he approached. And later it was off in the oaks as he wound through the woods. It kept repeating a three-note theme, along with its other quotes and Variations, following him for miles. Was it trying to tell him something?
By noon he reached the peach country at the edge of the hills. And though it was late for blossoms a few trees still shone and shivered above the red clods. They seemed like pools of sparkling water at a distance. He stopped several times to watch the petals in the breeze and rest his lungs.
Because he had gotten off the train so early he had gone eighteen or twenty miles. Should he ask the man plowing with a mule if he could stop and stay at his house? The tightness in his lungs was slowing him. Should he stop at the dust-covered house ahead and tell them who he was, hoping they'd invite him in? A cur with hackles raised greeted him at the side of the road, its eyes fixed on his. He walked on, stooping to give himself a slight advantage with his weight.
The road turned into the hills, and he saw the blue mountains above. They rose like smoke in the haze of the northern sky. I am rising a step at a time, he thought. Continuing like this, one foot after another, I could step into the sky, into heaven. A step at a time he could reach any height, and deep into the future. The thought gave him strength. The higher he got the newer were the leaves on the trees. On the mountain the grass was green but shorter. He was climbing back into early spring. The slopes were many shades of yellow and gold and faint greens. All sharps and flats, he thought. Women bent over washtubs by branches. Smoke from the cauldron fires rose above the trees. He saw apple trees blooming in the little hollows, protected from frost, and dogwoods further up the slope. And further still redbud and sarvis stood out like puffs of coral cloud on the higher ridges. A cowbell tinkled out of a cove, the music carried by a down-draft. He passed a smokehouse with a pile of dirt in front where the floor had been dug up. Once he smelled the scent of mash blown up a mountainside and realized someone had enough corn for making whiskey. The church at Mountain Page needed new shingles. Somebody had torn the door off the schoolhouse in the Old Field above the road.
It was late in the day but not dark-when he turned into the trail. Some of the poplars were in leaf but the maples were just budding. It had been a late winter, and he could tell by the packed-down leaves in the woods there had been a lot of snow. The sweet-shrubs were just beginning to bud, but would not bloom for another month. He could look far down over the piedmont he had crossed, but the roads and hills were indistinct with distance. It was cool this high.
He stopped by the spring, fearing to see it was clogged with sticks and rotting leaves. But the pool had been kept clean, and the clear water thrust up from under the poplar roots and dimpled the surface like wrinkled silk. He took the gourd from its stick and drank slowly. The tart cold taste seemed to come from the deepest part of the mountain, from the beginning of the world. He had forgotten the living poplar taste and the quartz taste of mountain water. On the path by the wash stand he wiped the drops from his beard.
The yard in front of the house had been swept with a willow broom, and geraniums in boxes were blooming along the porch. There was a box of cabbage slips that had been wet down by the door. He felt the gold watch in his pocket as he knocked. A baby cried inside. The door was opened by a young woman whose hair had come down over her cheeks and neck. She held a baby on her hip. He bowed to her slightly, and pulling the watch from his pocket held it out to her. "My name is Woodruff," he said, "And I have brought you this."
Copyright © 1989 by Robert Morgan
A Collection Of Stories
The Blue Valley
A Collection Of Stories
- Touchstone |
- 176 pages |
- ISBN 9780743204224 |
- October 2000