Varina, page 18
—The difference is you’re white and I’m not. I don’t know what I am, and I’m never comfortable anywhere. I can’t remember a time when people—white and black—weren’t telling me how well I talk to white people. Both directions, they offer it as a compliment. But mostly it makes me feel separate.
—If you had been scooped off the streets of Richmond and taken straight to Paris at age four, you’d be good at talking to French people.
—That’s nowhere near an accurate analogy.
—No, it’s not.
DOWN IN THE WASTELAND, CROSSING SHERMAN’S WAKE, the world had shut down. Loose coon dogs and bear dogs, half wild already, had started forming packs as soon as their owners scattered, leaving them to discover their own manners without interference from human opinions. V saw them hanging at the edges of dark pinewoods as her gang of fugitives rolled slowly down the roads south—bunches of dogs, yellow and brown and mottled, with their ribs showing and almost countable even from a distance, pink tongues hanging from desperate grins. Only a little more time—three seasons, V speculated—until all sense of man’s dominion over them would fade and they’d start taking down stray children and elder folks. Two or three dog generations after that, they’d go wholly wolf. Civilization balances always on a keen and precarious point, a showman spinning a fine Spode dinner plate on a long dowel slender as a stem of hay. A puff of breath, a moment’s lost attention, and it’s all gone, crashed to ruination, shards in the dirt. Then mankind retreats to the caves, leaving little behind but obelisks weathering to nubs like broken teeth, dissolving to beach sand.
IT HAPPENED RIGHT AFTER HARVESTTIME—Sherman’s raiders burned their way across Georgia. Corncribs full, fodder and forage stacked high in conical piles around eight-foot poles, apples all picked and stored fresh in root cellars for the fall or sun-dried in leathery rings for the winter. Onions and potatoes and turnips in root cellars, beans dried in the sun and ready for winter soup, cabbages still green in the fields almost ready for cutting. Fat hogs that you didn’t want to have to feed for the cold months ready to slaughter and feast on fresh or salt and smoke for later. A winter’s food wiped out and people left starving.
—Where did they all go? V asked as they passed a tiny ghost village surrounded by farms—only one house with light in the window, smoke coming from the chimney.
Delrey said, Somewhere else. Wandering refugee. Or off in the woods eating squirrels and grabbling trash fish out of creeks.
AT A RIVER FORD, a blond child sat alone on the far bank and shouted directions to them as they began crossing. Gee and haw. She claimed there were holes in the river widely known to be bottomless and able to pull down entire wagons and their teams.
When they reached dry land, V reached her out a few coins, but the girl looked at them and said, Ain’t nothing to buy around here. But if you’ve got clean water, I’ll pester you for a swallow of it. That river’s nasty. It’s got dead people in it, just laying there spoiling.
She tipped her head upstream.
MIDDAY, V WANDERED into the pinewoods for what all in their caravan delicately agreed to call a natural break. Men and women both scattered into the trees on opposite sides of the road, though the men only had to step casually behind a largish trunk a few feet from the roadbed and reappear a few seconds later looking at ease. V and Ellen trekked far beyond sight and had voluminous garments to deal with—awkward squatting and arising and so on.
Off in the woods in her moment of privacy, V thought about Winchester. He mostly taught mathematics by way of Euclid and Pythagoras. Winchester especially loved Pythagoras and his genius in understanding the ratios that order the universe, his declaration that number was God, and also his craziness otherwise, such as his rule that one should always answer the call of nature with back to sun, which was how V had aligned herself.
Walking back to the caravan, watching out for snakes, V plucked new growth from the center of a grassy plant, slid the innermost stalk of it free with a squeaky friction, a feel of suction. She put the white tip and the first pale green of the blade into her mouth like a farmer sucking on a wheat sprout. Her weed was an ugly nameless thing, except she believes that nothing is nameless. The weed’s bitter green beautiful taste carried with it an essential question. Will this thing help or hurt? Be medicine or poison? Thusly, the earliest herb doctors sounded out the world in endless experiment. How many thousands of generations cascaded down through time just to find the healing power in goldenseal or ginseng or coneflower root? But surely only three or four to note the poison in pokeberries or green parasols or false morels. The urge to graze in spring abides, the need for something green after a winter of dried beans and potato. Country people called spring greens a tonic. Medicine.
Back at the caravan V said to Burton, We need a huge pot of greens, any kind you can find.
—And meat to flavor the pot. We all need it. We’re starting to look pasty as corpses from traveling and living too much on white food. Biscuits and grits and flour gravy.
She multiplied people, counting children as half a person, figuring at least a quart per person for a good strong dose of greens and meat broth.
She said, We’ll need about three bushels of greens. A couple of chickens or a pound of bacon or ham will do for the broth.
THREE HOURS LATER, Delrey and Bristol and Ryland came back from foraging with comically big tow sacks paired behind their saddles. The bags bulged with various cresses and mustards and a great deal of dandelion and dock and plantain, even a few beautiful fiddleheads and wild leeks. But no meat, not even a skinny squirrel.
—I found a place with aplenty of hogs, Delrey said. This man’s shaped his farm like a fort. Long pine logs axed to a point on either end and piled onto each other in a jagged circle with the hogs and the smokehouse and a pretty, white farmhouse in the middle of it. Like he’s trying to live inside a brier-patch. He’s got a pack of big dogs. The dogs and the hogs are all brown and black and some of them wear their colors in spots and some go striped, and all of them are so long-legged you have to get up close to tell the difference. I tried to buy some hog meat off him, but he wasn’t selling. The man said he and his one boy and four daughters and wife have an arsenal of weapons and ammunition they’ve taken off of Sherman’s raiders. Two Henry repeating rifles for the man and his son, and a bunch of Colt’s pistols and shotguns for the women. Said they took the rifles off the first band of raiders and then used them afterward to pour down fire on every bunch that came to steal their food and burn them out. The boy looks about fifteen and very chilly. The man said the boy is God-almighty fast and can empty the Henry’s magazine in twenty seconds and can hit anything he can see without really aiming. That’s near a shot a second. Said all seven members of the family share one mind. They stand ready to fight anybody—North or South—coming to take what’s theirs until one side or the other meets their fate right there in the hog yard.
—Is he just blowing? V said.
—He means it, ma’am, Delrey said. And two good marksmen firing from cover with Henry rifles can take down a right smart of men fast, so I don’t fully doubt the story he told. I said to him that we had no intention of robbing him or burning him out. Said we were traveling with a lady and children and they were hungry. The farmer said he didn’t believe ladies existed in the world anymore. Or God either. But he said if we could produce one or the other of them at his fortress and prove him wrong he’d give us an entire smoked ham and send us on our way with his blessing.
—A ham? V said.
—Yes, and you could smell the smokehouse from where we stood talking. Like cooking bacon in a greasy skillet over a campfire. But that man’s about crazy, and I don’t believe we need a ham bad enough to deal with him.
V looked around at the children, at Ellen and the thin navy boys still traveling along. How sickly they looked. She said, Delrey, I believe you lack confidence in our evidence.
—Proof that ladies have not gone extinct.
—No, ma’am, not at all. But I will say that Richmond’s a long way back and we’ve all been living rough for a while now. Of course, this is Georgia, and who knows what standards they go by.
—Delrey, is there a state with standards you know and approve?
—Not any I’ve been to.
—I do take your point, about rough traveling, though. Give me twenty minutes to clean up and change clothes, and trowel on a great deal of powder, and then you and I will take the ambulance and go out to this fortress and give it a try. The navy boys should follow along with us. An entire smoked ham and those beautiful greens you found would be a feast for all of us. And plenty of ham biscuits later.
MOTTLED COON HOUNDS BAWLED at their approach with such force that V worried they would rupture a lung. But the nearer she got the more they backed away from the horses and hung near the porch, ready to retreat into the dark underneath.
She pushed the palm of her hand toward them and said, Bad dogs.
The dogs walked angling away, looking at her side-eyed.
She said, Good dogs.
They came forward with their tails wagging.
V said to Delrey, Just introduce me and then after that let me do all the talking. Do not use my real name.
V looked at the boys.
—What? Ryland said.
—Simple, V said. Don’t say my name. I’ll do the talking. Yes?
—We’ve got it, Bristol said.
Ryland said, But what name should we call you?
—Just keep your mouths shut, Delrey said.
THE MAN AND HIS SON—a boy even younger than the navy boys but looking completely dead-eyed—came out the door with their Henry rifles cocked and angled down over their forearms, ready to lift and fire, but being polite about it. Beyond the doorframe and through the front windows, V saw women passing behind the two men, their much-washed homespun dresses ghostly in the brown light of the house, their drained faces and dark eyes glancing outward toward a larger world full of threat.
The man said, What’s all this, then?
—Sir, Delrey said, I would like to introduce Mrs. Anthony Thomas. The lady I mentioned earlier. However I don’t know your name to make a proper introduction.
The boy took his eyes off V and Delrey and twitched his attention toward his father for half a second and then right back at them.
The father said, My name is Mister Wiggins.
Delrey said, Mrs. Thomas, permit me to introduce Mister Wiggins.
—Ma’am, Wiggins said.
He wore no hat to lift and sort of dipped his head toward her an inch. A vestigial bow.
V said, Mister Wiggins, I believe you know of our circumstances, and I didn’t want you to trouble yourself with our difficulties. We all have more than enough responsibility in taking care of our own families.
—Amen, the boy said.
The father let his rifle down and stood its butt against the porch boards. The boy, though, kept alert. There was a good deal of killer about him, and it was why he still lived. The last four years had made a whole generation of young boys—who ought to have been going to school and learning a trade and thrilling deep in their bones just to dance with a girl and peck her on the cheek—into slit-eyed killers with no more tell of emotion than an old riverboat faro gambler.
V climbed down from the ambulance bench and walked toward the porch.
She said, Could I possibly speak a word or two with the lady of the house?
—With who? Wiggins said.
—Your wife? A word, please?
—Politeness? What but manners do we have left?
Wiggins looked at the boy, but the boy just kept flicking his attention between V and Delrey and Bristol and Ryland. He held his rifle balanced scalelike in his hands, measuring its weight to be ready to lift it fast and fire.
Wiggins said, A minute, please, Missus Thomas.
He went to the door and spoke something inside, and a slim woman walked out and down the steps.
She wore a cotton dress laundered almost thin as gauze. The fabric might have been a sort of milky chocolate at one time, patterned with leaves or flowers. Now it looked like parchment marked with script too faint to read. She carried a heavy black pistol, and she looked young to be mother to five. Pretty in an exhausted way. Much as V imagined herself to look, having birthed one more than Mrs. Wiggins, and really the dead ones batter you even more than the living, pull more out of you in their leaving than their arriving.
When they were close enough to speak softly, V said, Missus Wiggins, are you and your daughters all right?
Missus Wiggins lifted her left hand and wiped the prominent second knuckle of the forefinger three swipes against the wings of her nose and then swept her loose and mostly brown hair back from her forehead with the inside angle of her elbow.
—All right? she said. If we’re not, where could we go to be right? And what would we live on when we got there? Just breathe air and be fine? I’m not standing here to be judged by you or anybody else.
—I only meant . . .
—God hates lies, and I’m not going to tell one to you. We’re not any of us all right. We’re all about half crazy since the raiders started passing through. Wiggins and I didn’t carry slaves. Didn’t believe in them, and didn’t want them. Believed there would be a bloody reckoning for them, and we were right. We hoed our own rows, emptied our own night jars, cooked our own meals, taught our children to read, and when we could spare the money, we bought them books too hard for us to read. Our goal was simple. If every generation helps the next take one step up, imagine where we might all be someday. But those boys from the Northern army came after us anyway. Six or a dozen at a time in waves for weeks. Trying to take what they could carry and burn the rest. If we had a choice but to let them kill us or to put them down, I can’t see it. Every one of us killed at least a person, and two of the girls can’t lift the blame off themselves. They dream about it no matter how I tell them the load’s on those boy soldiers for their own dying. And on the old men who sent them here. You turn the other cheek too many times in this world, and before you can blink you’re wiped away. We didn’t go out to steal everything they had and burn their farms to ashes. They came here, and they stayed here. I’m sorry they believed whatever they believed about us that made it right to come try to kill us. They’re thirty-one of them. They don’t have markers, but we all went out in the pines to put them in the ground and say sad words over them about their delusions.
The pistol hung from her hand, pulling her down, a burden heavier than she could bear. The other women, all in their teens, hovered behind the front door and the flanking windows, watching. V pictured dark woods, a crescent moon riding across a deep indigo sky, a dark night procession of pretty girls and tall dogs lit by yellow pine-knot torches, tangled bodies of bloody young men heaped in a wagon-bed.
V said, Could I come inside and meet your girls?
THEY WERE INDEED PRETTY and strange and might have fallen from Venus for all they knew of the current outside world. They lined up to meet V, a receiving line. They were all the same size, and V imagined a common pile of worn and faded dresses from before the war—every morning each girl just drawing something from the pile without thought of possession or personal style. They had names along the lines of flowering plants and tragic heroines. Names like Daisy and Daphne and Laurel and Hecuba, though V couldn’t keep any of them straight. The girls flurried around preparing an afternoon tea, carrying their pistols and then setting them down on every horizontal surface in a percussive four-beat rhythm.
The tea was herbal, a sinus-clearing mixture that made a nice greenish-yellow cup. One of the girls set out a platter of cold breakfast biscuits cut into triangles and drizzled with honey and sprinkled with some brown spice similar to cinnamon but more piney.
—This is a gift from my husband, V said. He meant me to kill myself with it if I found myself on the brink of being dishonored.
They all looked at the little thing, and then one of the girls said, Did he understand how a gun works? Somebody comes at you, you point it at them, not yourself.
—Well, V said, I always planned on using it your way, no matter what his intentions were.
They sipped tea a moment, and then V said, I understand this has been a hard time.
The girl who looked oldest—meaning maybe seventeen—said, They didn’t come marching across Georgia as one big army all together. They fanned out sixty or a hundred miles wide in little bunches of raiders. Sometimes only a few men, but one time more than a dozen. And then thieves and scavengers followed them. First bunch—four of them—it was clear you let them do what they wanted and take what they wanted or they would burn you out and leave you wandering the roads. Say one thing they didn’t like, they might go wild and slaughter everybody. But Billy reached real fast and yanked away one of their Henry rifles and started working it. Six seconds later we were all standing around in a cloud of gun smoke trying to catch our breaths, watching those soldiers finish dying.
—After that, there wasn’t any luck to it, one of the younger girls said. We had a plan. Of course if there had ever been thirty of them at one time or if just one got away to tell what happened to the rest, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking.
—They made us choose, the older girl said. Them or us.
The youngest girl, very pale, her hair loose below her shoulders, said, Yes, that’s the choice we made. Us.
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