Varina, p.14

Varina, page 14



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  GRIM TIMES AFTER JEFF LEFT. Letters passed between them declaring love but ending in threats. He urged her to become less bitter toward his family and declared that if her behavior didn’t change, it would be impossible ever to live together again. She sent back letters suggesting maybe that would be for the best.

  She thought for a while about getting a puppy for company, a warm body to snuggle with when she stayed up late reading. But eventually she decided that at the Bend it would grow to be some vicious hunting dog chasing deer to exhaustion and death.

  At Jeff’s insistence, Joseph’s horrible patched-on wing finally rose from the ground, and a very worn and bleak woman with four insane children moved in. Even the hour of supper became so full of running and screaming and crying that V began taking her evening meal alone in her room or out at the table under the big tree. But she kept fighting Jeff and Brother Joe and the damned will all along the way.

  JEFF HAD A HARD TIME alone in Washington, and it wasn’t just that he lacked social skills. He nearly got into a duel with a mere congressman, and it took his old father-in-law—now President Zachary Taylor—to calm the two men. Then shortly afterward, on Christmas Day, Jeff and his fellow senator from Mississippi, Henry Foote—both living at Brown’s Hotel—fell into disagreement on either a political or a Constitutional issue. Jeff forever remained too embarrassed to talk about it, but V heard in letters from acquaintances and friends that he and Foote had been drinking pretty strongly from breakfast onward. Jeff, who still walked with a cane, began fistfighting Foote, a rolling-in-the-floor kind of fight. When they became winded and stood up, they threatened to kill one another for a while, and then on his way out of the room, Foote turned around and claimed he was the one who struck the first blow. Then Jeff got right in his face, and they threatened to kill one another all over again until Foote struck Jeff, and then Jeff knocked Foote to the floor and beat on him until the other members of the legislative branch dragged them apart. At which point Jeff, very cold-blooded, said he had two loaded pistols in his room and suggested they go up and lock the door from the inside and settle the matter for good. Foote declined. A few days later, when the event became public, both of them—politicians to the marrow—agreed to call their brawl a Christmas frolic, a regrettable celebration of the Savior’s birth.

  V didn’t know what all was going on with Jeff at that time and didn’t much care. But letters kept coming from friends sharing gossip—such as, that in the middle of the night, probably drunk, he had fallen off a bridge or down a bank into a ditch and limped around the Capitol for a week with his head and hands wrapped in white bandages. Their own letters to each other remained icy during that entire session, but it seemed clear Jeff needed a steadying hand.

  At a long break in the congressional calendar, Jeff came to his senses and arrived back home with a draft of a new agreement among the three warring parties. A treaty wherein Joseph saved face and V got a true stake in Davis Bend should Jeff die ahead of her, with Joseph having a right to make the first offer to buy her share should she want to sell out. An entertaining negotiation to anticipate—V having something Joe wanted and the power to say no—which regrettably never came to pass, since she has far outlived both brothers.

  When Jeff and V left together for the next session of Congress, V never again lived at Brierfield for more than a few weeks at a time. But the night after the signing of the peace papers, Jeff opened a couple of bottles of old Bordeaux and made a ceremony of burning the previous will in the bedroom fireplace, and V felt like the second half of an incomplete wedding had finally been performed, that for better or worse they were linked and committed and that she had become a full shareholder in her own future.

  Gossips speculated as to why Jeff and V went years without her bearing a child and then suddenly she seemed to stay pregnant most of the time. It didn’t seem mysterious to V, and that second will and second wedding ceremony by the fire had a great deal to do with it, a reconciliation of hearts and bodies that lasted for some years.

  THE RETURN TO WASHINGTON would have seemed triumphant to V, except that soon after they arrived news came from the Bend that Pemberton had died very unexpectedly. Jeff hardly spoke of Pemberton’s death, but he brooded for a few days and then just said, I don’t know which of us hated that north woods weather the most.

  The news of Pemberton hit V hard—deeper than she would have thought. She couldn’t stop feeling guilty that she hadn’t been there for his burial, couldn’t stop remembering how he had tried to divert Joseph’s rage, couldn’t stop feeling exposed and at risk knowing he was gone. But she kept her feelings tamped, since no one—especially Jeff—would understand her grief for Pemberton. There wasn’t a vocabulary to explain their relationship to other people.

  * * *

  —There still aren’t words now, V says.

  —But you could try. It sounds like Pemberton protected you the best he could when you didn’t have anyone else on your side.

  —That’s exactly the way it was. And when he died it felt almost like Winchester had passed. Like a father had gone for good, but I couldn’t say that.

  She thinks a moment and then says, I don’t know why, but I remember one evening Pemberton telling me he wouldn’t be around for a day or two. That he was going to visit a man he knew—an old friend—on a plantation twenty miles away. He said he’d gotten word the man had been beaten badly because after he’d groomed a horse his master had wiped a white handkerchief down its neck and it came back dirty. I was so young. I mostly felt happy that he trusted me enough to tell me where he was going and why. I told him I’d never been around those horrors and always felt like they were mostly stories. He said, It’s not one thing everywhere. People act their natures. Some plantations beat bloody every chance they get. Other places a man can go off two or three days to visit a girlfriend miles away, and when he gets back the master just says, I thought you’d fallen in the river and drowned.

  —Yes, James says. I heard plenty of true stories from freed people when I first started teaching. A little kindness and a lot of horror. My first real job as a teacher—making my living at it—I was nineteen. A student of mine—she’d been enslaved in Maryland. She was about fifty, just learning to read. Her name was Martha.

  James tells V that Martha was body servant to a young mistress who trusted her and chattered at length every day, telling every dirty secret about her disgusting older husband, every flirtation she had with handsome younger men at parties, her occasional adulterous flings, every thread of gossip in the county. Martha dressed her mistress every day from bare skin to composed belle—arranged her hair, applied powder and rouge, told her how beautiful she was. And yet the mistress sold Martha’s ten-year-old daughter to traders for seven hundred dollars. She believed Martha would get over her crying and forget about the girl, and Martha did get over the crying because she had to. But she told James that not one day of her life passed without grieving for her daughter, and wondering which was worse, believing her child dead or imagining the fate that might have awaited her. And still every day having to touch with care the woman who inflicted such pain.

  —Inhuman, V says. But that’s an easy word. We’ve been doing that sort of thing to each other all through history, back past the Pyramids. Humans are inhuman, whether it’s by direct action or by acceptance of a horrible action as normal.

  —That godlike long view is fine. Sometimes we need it. But hearing a story like Martha’s made me want to kill somebody right then. James pauses and then says, Anyway, let’s circle back to what you call the axle of your life. Maybe the axle of mine too—when all that old order was in the middle of collapsing.

  Writing on the Wall


  AFTER THEIR MOMENT OF LUXURY IN ABBEVILLE, THE fugitives traveled west, crossed the Savannah River into Georgia. The town of Washington, Georgia, had once been pretty, but it had filled with refugees fleeing north from Sherman’s wasteland. Garbage in the streets, stores looted. V’s group
kept right on going and spent the night in a little white country chapel, sleeping on the pews. Then through a stretch of beautiful broken country, slow going for a whole week. Wet weather and bad roads. Then they fell off the map for three days of greenwood country and tangles of curvy single-track, seven or eight miles a day at best, but pretty camp places. Not mountains, but low ridges, water running over big rocks in the streams. Little towns blurred together, but V remembers a place called Mayfield. She wanted to stop and buy a house and let the children grow up there.

  DELREY AND BURTON AND JIMMIE LIMBER never owned their tiredness. Go twelve hours with little food and no rest, banging down the rutted roads dazed and numb, and then ask them if they were ready to stop for the night and they’d each say, I could keep going awhile. Like having a contest to see who could persist, who fell in his footsteps last.

  —You tired, little man? Delrey said. Fading? Do we need to stop?

  Jimmie said, Nope. I can go.

  V said, Delrey, are you hinting you could use a nap? Jimmie can probably figure out how to drive this rig if he needs to.

  Delrey said, I believe he could if he had a little teaching.

  Jimmie looked far down the road and said nothing.

  Delrey widened and lifted his arms, spreading the long drooping leather reins, and said, Come here and spell me, then.

  Jimmie looked at V, and she nodded yes. He ducked under and stood in front of Delrey and took hold of the reins. The backs of his hands were still childhood chubby to the extent that the knuckles at the base of his fingers were like four dimples in his plump handbacks. The reins were wide as his palms.

  —Guide ’em easy, Delrey said. Don’t pull, and don’t flap. They have plenty of sense on their own. Use the reins to make suggestions. Don’t go yanking and checking them unless they give you no other choice. Got it?

  —Sure, Jimmie said.

  —Well, I believe I’ll take me a nap, then. Wake me up when we get to Florida. You’ll know we’re there when you start seeing alligators.

  Delrey slouched down a little on the wagon bench and pretended to snore.

  A NIGHT LATER AT CAMP, almost bedtime, they heard horses trotting on the road and then heard them stop. As they had planned, Ellen eased the children off into the woods out of earshot, and Delrey hid outside the ring of campfire light with his shotgun and pistol ready in case of trouble.

  At the campfire, V and Burton were joined by three bummers, raiders, deserters, or killers—whatever you want to call leftovers and scavengers from Sherman’s army. Maybe they were just stray northern shop clerks conscripted against their wills a year before and had spent their few months of war trying to figure out which end of the gun you aimed at the enemy and now were lost on their way home. Except that’s not at all how they looked and acted. They looked like they wanted what you had and would kill you to get it but would slightly prefer you just handed it over.

  Burton sat on a log with his right hand loose by his side so he could reach his pistol. He talked polite. Had they come from the east? Were things bad there? Or from back toward Atlanta? He and V had agreed to be calm, friendly, not be angered by anything people said until they made their intentions clear. Not react to taunts or insults or rude words. If it went bad, hit the dirt fast and give Delrey room to fill the air with lead shot.

  The man with the black beard and the red-haired man talked vague. The thin, pale man stayed silent. One thing rang clear in their voices. They did not come from around here.

  V said, I can’t place your accents exactly, but I’m going to guess north of Baltimore and south of Boston.

  —Easy guess, the red-haired man said. Most of the world’s somewhere between the two.

  He stood up and walked about five steps from the fire and pulled his britches down on one side until it seemed like he intended to strip bare. But he stopped with just his hip exposed to the firelight, and on it a big pearly welted letter D. He patted it like a pet and said, Supposed to teach me a lesson. Down here you probably just shoot deserters in the head. We brand them.

  The black beard man said, Good God, you can’t piss right here.

  The red-haired man turned his back and looked over his shoulder and said, I’m not aiming to piss right here. I’m aiming to piss way over yonder.

  He made a graceful gesture with his left hand and arm, the smooth arc of a dolphin rising to take a breath of air. And then he let fly.

  The black beard man smiled—a white flash of teeth, and then his mouth snapped shut and the lower half of his face became nothing but beard again.

  He said, Doesn’t really matter if you people know where we’re from or not, but we’re from Pennsylvania. Red and me got conscripted halfway through the war. It was us set fire to Atlanta and left on the Decatur Road with everything burning down. Blue sky ahead, black smoke behind. From there we angled southeast and left a black stripe nearly a hundred miles wide all the way across this shithole state to the ocean. We were a big machine. It took fifteen thousand horses and mules to haul our stuff. Just picture that. We had orders to seize everything we could eat, everything our horses and mules could eat, with a surplus of minimum two weeks. We took all their beeves and pigs and chickens, whatever crops still stood in the fields, whatever the farmers had put away, dried and canned and smoked. We had orders not to enter their houses and steal stuff unless we felt they’d worked against us—burnt bridges or hid food. Entirely up to our discretion, so that rule didn’t mean much. At big plantations, no rules at all. Just wide open. We were free to bust in wherever we thought there might be something valuable—cash money, boxes of jewelry, cupboards full of silver forks and spoons. In smaller places, you quit bothering because all you’d find was just pitiful cigar boxes of low-number coins.

  —And him? V said, looking at the pale man. He’s from Pennsylvania too?

  —I don’t know. Somewhere. He’s seen the whole show from the start. Name a bad fight and he was probably in it. He’s about done now.

  —Done with the war? Burton said.

  Red said, With everything you could name. He’s looking to venge himself against the world.

  —I’m sure they’ll welcome you heroes back home with brass bands, Burton said.

  The bearded man said, How many have you killed the past four years? We’ve shot so many men better than you it’s sickening.

  Burton didn’t answer.

  —What did you all do before the war? V said.

  Red said, Shoe factory.

  The bearded man tipped his head toward the pale man and said, Foundry. And for me, stockyard.

  What is it you’re wanting from us? Burton said.

  The bearded man smiled his quick white smile.

  Red said, What you got?

  The pale man leaned into the firelight. He looked consumptive, blue around the eyes and fragile. He stood at least six feet but wouldn’t have gone better than one-twenty. He had been hit bad in the face. Every piece of skin you could see had scars either gouged or burned. His mouth drew up on one side over his back teeth in a permanent wolfish grin. The eye on that side lay dead and milky in his face. About the only thing left normal about him was his nose and the other eye. And that good eye was the scariest thing about him. It looked out at the world like he was meeting God and didn’t give a damn how he might be judged.

  The pale man looked at V and said, We’ve met.

  He talked whispery, from his throat, with a hiss of air from the part of his mouth that failed to close because his lips on that side were gone.

  V looked at Burton, and then before she could catch herself, she glanced off to the woods where Ellen and the children and Delrey hid.

  —Forgive me, V said, but I don’t recall when that would have been.


  V said, Yes?

  —Libby Prison Hospital. I’d been cut up by canister. Lost a deal of blood. And the first part of this happened then.

  He raised a hand and patted it against the left side of his face
, netted with scars like a sheet of caul fat.

  He said, Richmond doctors told me I ought to get square with my Maker. You came in and acted like the smell of wounds didn’t sicken you. Fed me cookies and tea and held my hand. You kissed me on the head and said you were sorry.

  —What’s your name? V said.


  —Well, I’m still sorry, and I’m glad you made it, Jens.

  He puffed out air from the broken side of his mouth. Made it? he said. I can’t go home. I’d have to wear a mask to walk down the street.

  —But you’re still the same person inside.

  —That right there is bullshit, Jens said. And you say it to me knowing that I know it’s bullshit. Good God, nothing’s left of me.

  —Go home and see. People might be better than you think.

  —I always wondered why you were there, Jens said. One minute your people are ripping me apart. The next minute, kisses and cookies. Better for you if you went to the Rebel hospitals.

  —I did that too.

  —Boo-hoo, the bearded man said. A couple of months from now, after all this gets settled, maybe we’ll start robbing banks and trains and we’ll all be wearing masks.

  Jens said to the bearded man, Let her be. We’re done here.

  He stood and looked at V and said, I’m calling us even.

  He walked to his horse and mounted and rode off. The other two looked at each other and shrugged and walked to their horses.

  Before they rode away, Red said, Must be your lucky day, folks.

  ONE AFTERNOON BEFORE SUPPER, the boys had been hunkering on their knees, knuckled down at a marble ring they’d scratched in the dirt with a stick. But Jeffy’s taw was a big, shiny steel ball bearing, and Jimmie and Billy had only glass shooters. Jeffy had run the table two or three times, and his jacket pockets bulged full of marbles he’d won. The younger boys claimed Jeffy was cheating, and all of a sudden they were wallowing in the red dirt, bashing at each other with their little soft fists.

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