Varina, page 1
For Nancy Olson
The Blue Book
Hurricane & Brierfield
Writing on the Wall
Place of Dreams
Thief of Lives
After the Deluge
New York City
About the Author
Also by Charles Frazier
About the Publisher
The Blue Book
Saratoga Springs, 1906
IF HE IS THE BOY IN THE BLUE BOOK, WHERE TO START? HE can’t expect to recognize her after four decades, and he certainly doesn’t expect her to recognize him. The last time they saw each other he would have been no more than six.
Firm memory of childhood eludes him until about eight years old, and before that it’s mostly whispers of sound and images flashing like photographs. A dead boy lying on the ground, a grand house, a tall woman with black hair and a soothing voice.
A year ago, walking down a street in Albany, he heard a dozen syllables of someone singing “Alouette” through an open second-story window. The song twitched a strong nerve of memory from the deep past—a ribbon of road stretching forward, a swath of starry sky visible between tops of pine trees, a thin paring of moon, a brown-eyed mother hugging him close and pointing out the patterns of constellations, telling their names and stories. Entrained with those hazy memories came a surging feeling something like love.
FIRST SUNDAY OF AUGUST, early afternoon, James Blake walks through the heavy front doors of The Retreat carrying a marbled journal and a book bound in dark blue nubby cloth, bristling with torn newspaper place-marks. He wears his best gray suit, a club-collar shirt bleached perfect white, a striped black-and-gray waistcoat, a coral silk tie knotted loose. Three steps inside the door he removes his hat—a new boater—and walks purposefully to the front desk like he belongs there. The desk clerk looks him over and then pauses long enough to make sure Blake becomes aware that his shade of skin has been noted. The clerk—maybe fifty, thinning hair combed straight back, teeth marks intact—finally says, May I help?
Blake hands him a small envelope. Says, Could you deliver this to a guest? Mrs. Davis.
The clerk pats the envelope down onto his desktop without taking his eyes off Blake. He turns his palms up and says, She’s expecting you?
—I doubt it.
—You’re not here to interview her for some publication?
The clerk rings for a bellboy and then says, You might be more comfortable waiting outside. Turn left and there are benches. We’ll notify you if Mrs. Davis is available.
—Here in front of the fireplace will be better. So I’ll see her when she arrives.
THE LOBBY OF THE RETREAT matches every detail of public rooms in tasteful modern resort hotels designed in the Arts & Crafts style—Limbert furniture, Voysey rugs, Roycroft lighting. Except, faint and far down one of the long corridors, James thinks he hears someone scream.
He shifts uncomfortably in the strict angles of an oak and leather settle facing the massive stone hearth. Broad windows and French doors look out across a green and blue landscape—fields, woods, valleys, hills. A few people scattered around the great room read books and flap papers from Boston and New York and Philadelphia. In a corner, a tousled young blond woman sits bowed in concentration at the piano trying to play “Sunflower Slow Drag.” It keeps getting away from her until she gives up and plays it half-speed.
Over the big hearth, a sentiment cuts deep into the massive keystone, lettered like a Gothic forgery on a famous man’s grave marker. It reads WHAT LIES BEHIND US AND WHAT LIES BEFORE US ARE TINY MATTERS COMPARED TO WHAT LIES WITHIN US. ~ EMERSON.
James stands and traces each letter with his forefinger, as if writing the sentence for the first time. It works to establish balance—like perfectly equal pinches of sand in each cup of a set of scales—and then he draws a deep breath and blows it all away. He touches each junction of that grand E and tries to reckon what state of guilt and dread about time past and time future Emerson proposed to comfort.
James sits again and thumbs through his blue book until he comes to a chapter toward the end that he has read and reread and underscored in pencil to the point that every line appears profound. Margins congest with question marks and checks and exclamations. If he’s right and the boy described in the book is him, this is all he knows of his origin. No living relatives, recently a widower, no links to the past until six months ago when a title on a bookstore shelf drew him—First Days Among the Contrabands. He had reached for it thinking it would be a mystery.
AN ELDERLY WOMAN enters the great room from one of the corridors. She resembles later photographs of Queen Victoria—much taller, but with similar gravity and tiredness dragging from behind. Same hairstyle. Her dress a sheen of eggplant. She walks by the piano player and palms the small of her back to correct her posture.
James doesn’t recognize the woman, but he makes an assumption and stands.
At the chair beside the settle, V stops and says, Mister Blake? I don’t recollect your name, but I’m curious.
—Yes, ma’am. Thank you for seeing me. I’ll be brief. What I wanted to speak to you about concerns the war.
She had started to sit, but now remains standing.
—Please. I’m long since exhausted with that insane war and don’t need to re-dream a nightmare.
V turns to walk away but then turns back, angry. She tells him how uninterested she is in the past, except people keep trying to clench its fist around her throat. Whatever old story he needs to tell, she’s heard a thousand of them—all the tales of waste and loss. And heaps of guilt too, for failing to find a bloodless way to end ownership of people—choosing a bloodbath instead. Since then, South and North have been busy constructing new memories and new histories, fictions fighting to become facts.
—If you haven’t noticed, she says, we’re a furious nation, and war drums beat in our chest. Our leaders proclaim better than they negotiate. The only bright spot is, the right side won. My only advice is to be where you are now—don’t look back. Otherwise, good luck and good day, sir.
—My apologies, Mrs. Davis. I saw in the Albany paper that you were here, and I wanted to see you and ask about this book and about the children. I don’t recall all the names, but I remember Joe.
—What could you possibly know about Joe?
—I remember sitting with the others, trying to wake him up.
V pauses and then says, I don’t know what you’re after, but I’ve dealt with confidence artists for decades. Or else you’re just recalling the funeral. Thousands attended.
—Not the funeral. I remember him lying on the pavement. And I remember him that night, upstairs. So still on the big bed with candles and flowers all around. He’d gotten smaller and very white, and his lips were a color I’d never seen. He looked like himself, but changed. It terrified me. I remember people coming and going late in the night. Every lamp and candle in the house lit and all the windows open and c
V says, I’m lost.
SHE WORKS AT REMEMBRANCE, looks harder at Blake’s broad forehead, brown skin, curling hair graying at the temples. She tries to cast back four decades to the war. When she arrived, who was there in that huddle of people on the cobbles beneath the balcony of the house stupidly called the Confederate White House?
She had been down by the river making an appearance at a celebration—a mass of people welcoming a boatload of men and women returned through prisoner exchange from Northern detention. A brass band played “Home, Sweet Home.” The kind of event where V’s every move was watched side-eyed by those hoping for a gossip-worthy moment. She stood near her carriage and chatted with Mary Chesnut, who had been circulating through the crowd birdlike in her brief, bright attentions—snapping up bits of language, facial expressions, details of wardrobe, witty comments, stupid comments, moments of human grace and foolishness—every detail of observation to be entered into her journal at day’s end.
A man, a stranger, walked up and stood close like trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. Then low and breathy, looking oddly off to the side, he said, Little Joe has gotten himself killed.
V turned to her driver, and trying not to scream said, Get me home now.
A fast rattling dash—the driver popping his whip above the horses, their shoes striking sparks off the cobbles—and she found a crowd arranged in concentric arcs below the balcony at the high end of the house. Gawkers stood at the fringes, then a few neighbors and their servants, and then Ellen and the children ringed tight around Joe. He had recently turned five and had fallen twenty feet and lay completely broken on the cobblestones. Ellen bent over trying to hug the live children and to ease them away from Joe. But when she saw V, Ellen collapsed onto her knees and buried her face in her hands.
The children—Maggie and Jeffy and Billy and Jimmie—sat on the pavers saying Joe’s name and trying to nudge him out of sleep. Joe lay on his side, and his limbs formed strange angles. A puddle of blood the size of a saucer thickened beneath his head. Maggie held Joe’s hand and the three boys kept touching his shoulder. Joe and Jimmie were close to the same age and often shared clothes.
—Missus V, Ellen said. He was playing and fell between the railings. Must have.
With her face all scared and confused, Ellen looked so young.
V remembers trying to kneel beside Joe, how pregnant she was at the time, how heavy and awkward. She remembers looking at him and touching his face and feeling numb. And then slipping sideways from her knees onto her hip, a hard jolt against the cobbles. And then the new baby began flailing inside her.
V HOLDS HER RIGHT HAND OUT toward James Blake, pushes at him like gesturing Stop. Then she presses her left palm against the fingertips and bends the right hand back toward her wrist. She presses hard, but ninety degrees is her limit.
She says, Show me.
James Blake bends his hand until the fingernails almost fold against the top of his forearm. An inch gap.
—Lately, I can’t go all the way back, he says.
—You’re Jimmie Limber.
—I don’t remember that name, but I believe the Jimmie in this book is me.
He holds out the bristling blue book.
V won’t take it. She reaches two fingers and touches the inside of his wrist as if testing his pulse, his materiality.
—I don’t need a book to know you, she says. I’ve believed for years that all my boys were long gone, crossed over. I’ve thought of it as my diminishing circle of boys pinching to a black point, like the period at the end of a sentence. But here you are.
—I hardly know anything about my life then, he says.
—Sit down and I’ll tell you what I remember.
THINGS FELL APART SLOWLY BEFORE THEY FELL APART fast. Late March—Friday night before Richmond burned—V fled the false White House and the capital city. That afternoon she and Ellen Barnes packed in a rush, knowing they might never be back. Billy and Jimmie went back and forth from V to Ellen, touching their arms or hips for reassurance. Ellen always kept her hair parted in the middle and oiled, pulled back tight against her scalp. But that day, long curling strands escaped, and she kept sweeping them back from her face.
—Don’t fret, Jimmie Limber, Ellen said. Just a little jaunt south. Billy’s been on one before, so ask him about it.
Ellen took an apple out of her apron pocket and held it in both hands to get the boys’ attention. Then with hardly any effort or sense of motion, she snapped it perfectly in half and handed the pieces to the boys, and they went on their way laughing and studying the apple halves as if the secret to Ellen’s magic might reveal itself.
When the packing was done, Jeff took V aside and gave her a departure present. A purse pistol, slight and pretty, almost an art object suited for display in a museum.
—Do you know how to load and aim and fire? he said.
—I didn’t grow up in Mississippi for nothing.
He said that if the country fell, she should take the children to Florida and find passage to Havana. Then he told V to keep the little pistol with her at all times, and if Federals tried to violate her, she should shoot herself. Or if she couldn’t do that, at least fire it in their direction to make them kill her.
He gave her what money he could gather, and she had been building her own hoard of running money from selling furnishings and china and crystal. Her carriage horses had been seized for the army, and Jeff said he couldn’t allow her to take food beyond a few pounds of flour and grits and dried beans. Wouldn’t be fair. But he didn’t at all believe Richmond or the nation faced doom. This alarm would be like all the others. Two weeks from now, she would be coming back. General Lee would find a way.
Except V knew it wasn’t like the other alarms because he hadn’t gifted her a suicide pistol before now.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, vagrants traveled southwest down springtime Carolina roads, red mud and pale leaves on the poplar trees only big as the tip of your little finger, a green haze at the tree line. They fled like a band of Gypsies—a ragged little caravan of saddle horses and wagons with hay and horse feed and a sort of kitchen wagon and another for baggage. Two leftover battlefield ambulances for those not a-saddle. The band comprised a white woman, a black woman, five children, and a dwindling supply of white men—which V called Noah’s animals, because as soon as they realized the war was truly lost, they began departing two by two.
Worse yet, the core of fugitives traveled under rumors of possible Federal warrants—including hanging charges, such as treason. If true, the price on their heads would be a mighty cash fortune in a time of destitution.
V had with her a scant bit of hard money and a bale or two of government bills. A single chicken, though, cost fistfuls of that nearly worthless paper. One-dollar bills—with her friend Clement Clay’s graven image on the front—were useless except to wad by the dozens and light cookfires.
Wherever the fugitives traveled, rumor followed that their little caravan comprised the Treasure Train, the last hoard of gold and silver from the Rebel treasury, wagons heaped with millions in bullion instead of weary, scared children threatening to go croupy and feverish at every moment.
In delusion, bounty hunters surely rode hard behind, faces dark in the shadows of deep hat brims, daylight striking nothing but jawbones and chin grizzle, dirty necks, and once-white shirt collars banded with extrusions of their own amber grease. Below that, wool coats black as skillets, muddy tall boots, and bay horses foaming yellow sweat.
And yet, all along the way, the woods-edge spooled by lined with redbud blooming pink and dogwood blooming white, bearing the holy cross of the Savior. The nail wounds hammered into his hands printed on every blossom, reproduced in their billions through the Southern woods and even blooming hopefully in the yards of homes recently burned down to middens of shiny black charcoal by the Northern army.
Their immediate goal? Escape to
V penciled a thought on the endpaper of Northanger Abbey: The frontier is no place for those who can’t afford to run.
A ROUGH STRETCH OF ROAD woke the children. The ambulance banged through rocks the size of pullets and potholes deep enough with red water to drown a shoat. The driver sawed at the reins, working the tired mules, trying to avoid the worst of it. But there was only so much he could do. All day the wagon went heading and pitching from mudhole to mudhole, and now the night gathered so dark you hardly saw the mules’ haunches right in front of you.
Over the course of the journey, the children had become like weary sailors long out on the foam, able to sleep through all but the stormiest nights. But now, back in the bed of the ambulance, inside the cave of dirty beige canvas arched tight over bent oak-splint ribs, the children rose from their patchwork quilts all together and began fretting and whimpering. Winnie, though, just cried in place, being not even a year old. Every one of them suddenly needed easement.
V had been riding along for two hours, jostling dreamlike under a tiny taste of opium, feeling like the world had collapsed to rubble around her—an appropriate feeling, because it had. Not the best of times to have to budget medicine, though she had enough Dover’s powder to last a month if she took it by the conservative directions on the label. But doing it that way, V felt little effect, not nearly enough to faze her anxiety, to loosen the tight knot her diaphragm and stomach had become even when she slept. So in reality she had only a few days’ supply left. Which would have been desperate but for the promise of seeing Mary Chesnut in Abbeville, South Carolina, soon. Maybe more a hope than a promise, but surely even in an apocalypse one wonderful fact must remain unchanged, that Mary flitted through the world with morphine aplenty and used it freely to combat whatever new hell life threw at her day by day. Influenza, nausea, deaths of loved ones, loneliness, headache, boredom. She claimed it also aided in the reading of novels.
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