Varina, p.19

Varina, page 19



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  One of the girls poured more of the herb tea and V looked around the dim parlor. Heart pine floors and pine wainscoting and pine plank ceilings. Yet it displayed flairs of decor. Many wide dark picture frames surrounded small watercolors, each one composed of three horizontal bands of color grading up from beige to green to blue, representing the only landscape they knew. Bits of needlework, antimacassars and tabletop doilies in patterns like overlapped leaves or explosions of flower petals or diagrams of mental geometry representing the physics of existence way into the depths of the night sky. Three dozen precious well-read leather books stood on a shelf over the fireplace. Milton and Shakespeare, Dickens and Trollope and Scott, and translations of random Greeks and Romans. And one volume which, when V pulled it off the shelf, turned out to be actual Greek, a collection of lyric poets.

  By way of trying to prove the nonextinction of ladies she translated a few lines on the fly. The girls crowded around. Very slowly, pointing word by word, V read, The moon sets. Then the Pleiades. Midnight. Time goes away. I am alone.

  When she closed the book they all applauded, as if she had just performed an amazing magic trick in reverse, starting with a sawed-in-half lady and putting her back together. They all talked at once asking how she knew the code to reading that strange book of runes. Their voices rose like a bird chorus floating lovely in V’s mind without every note needing to carry a specific definition. She told them about Winchester, how much he taught her for no reason but his devotion to learning and for no compensation but her eternal love.

  It would have been easy to dismiss their efforts toward culture as laughable, crude similitudes and dislocations. Proximate at best. But where did the Greeks start? With fundamentals. Sheep and olives and grapes, white stones and dark blue sea. The moon and planets in the night sky and willing spirits—which these girls had aplenty. Smart, pretty girls with guns.

  V was as touched as they were by such welcome company. Their yearning she recognized fully from that age, the need to become something at least within the vicinity of your dream of yourself. She looked at that quartet of lifted faces and wished each of them something better than the man they would most probably find themselves bound to till death—even if that something better was solitude. She shaped a ragged philosophy to tide them through lonesome nights. It was simple, and not one she’d ever found the strength to follow. The idea was, the you you are with others is not you. To be lonesome is to be who you most fully are. And also maybe something about the great reluctance with which we let go of our belief in a just God.

  When she finished talking she feared she had said too many of those things aloud. Or all of those things and more. The girls looked at her in some confusion, but excited and willing to consider and discuss the merits of her comments. V looked at Missus Wiggins to gauge her reaction, and Missus Wiggins reached and touched her hand very briefly in reassurance, so the girls and V talked on and on.

  Despite being unable to keep their names straight, V fell in love with them all and wanted to take them with her, load them and their weapons into the wagons and have conversations around campfires every night until late as they made their way deep into the jungles of Terra Florida and through the horrors of its reptiles and outlaw inhabitants and across the Straits of Florida to safety in old civilized Havana.

  But then came the immediate recognition that whatever V’s best intentions, these girls were safer here smothered under dim pinewoods inside their hog fortress than coming along with her to talk about poetry and beauty while big-dollar bounties hovered like a vortex of buzzards overhead. V’s contribution to their lives would likely be to drag them down darker than they already were. A sorry realization when you know the best you can offer is not your presence but your absence.

  EVENTUALLY, V AND THE WIGGINS GIRLS all walked out of the house as a babbling group, talking over the top of each other about books they all intended to read and how much they loved each other. V promised that if she ever retrieved her library from Mississippi she would send them boxes and boxes of books.

  They spent a great deal of time kissing cheeks and hugging and saying bye, including Missus Wiggins.

  V pulled her aside and kissed her and said, You know these girls of yours are splendid?

  Missus Wiggins said, I’ve been knowing it since they were old enough to stand up on their feet and talk for themselves.

  Mister Wiggins had a bundle, a big awkward lump inside a greasy swaddling of hemp tow. A joint of yellowish bone stuck out the top in place of a handle.

  He said, There’s a ham and a couple slabs of bacon to boot.

  —So you’ve reached a favorable judgment as to the existence of ladies? V said.

  —Ladies maybe. I’ve been listening at the window. But God’s still a great mystery.

  —Yes, V said. Mystery is His primary attribute. But the pork is more than generous.

  —Makes me happy to see my girls happy, Wiggins said.

  Delrey gave V a hand into the ambulance and the navy boys mounted up and away they all went.

  Still, the Wiggins boy stood on the porch watching intensely, his Henry balanced and ready to lift and fire.

  AT THE FIRST BEND in the road Delrey said, So that’s the way ladies do?

  —Good Lord no, V said. Not in the least.

  They rode back to camp in silence, and V thought about how the landscape would never be the same after this war even if the blasted battlegrounds healed with new green growth and burned farms were either rebuilt or allowed to rot into the dirt. The old land had become all overlain with new maps of failures and sins, troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair. Slave quarters, whipping posts, and slave market platforms. Routes of attack and retreat. Monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon, and also lonesome mountain burials with one name knife-cut into a pine board, weathering blank in ten years and rotted into the ground in twenty. The land itself defaced and haunted with countless places where blood—all red whoever it sprang from—would keep seeping up for generations to come. That place out in the pinewoods would haunt those girls to death and keep haunting. The last one, the youngest—at a hundred years old, tiny and translucent—might tell the story of the marauding army and the killings and the torchlight burials to a little girl in 1950 who would carry it with her into the twenty-first century.

  * * *

  —Subtract everything inessential from America and what’s left?

  —Geography and political philosophy, V says. The Declaration and Constitution. The Federalist Papers.

  —I’d say geography and mythology, James says. Our legends.

  He gives examples, talks about Columbus sailing past the edge of the world, John Smith at Jamestown and Puritans at Plymouth Rock, conquering the howling wilderness. Benjamin Franklin going from rags to riches with the help of a little slave trading, Frederick Douglass escaping to freedom, the assassination of Lincoln, annexing the West. All those stories that tell us who we are—stories of exploration, freedom, slavery, and always violence. We keep clutching those things, or at least worn-out images of them, like idols we can’t quit worshipping.

  —TAKING THE LIFE OF A NATION is a serious task, V says. Few succeed, even if the cause is just. We didn’t, and ours wasn’t. But sometimes I can’t help missing those days when we all just took care of each other.

  —We? James asks.

  —Everyone living together at Brierfield and The Hurricane.

  —If you mean slaves, you only remember what they allowed you to remember. Even if Davis Bend was really as humane as you believe, they kept their misery to themselves, kept it a mystery to you. I promise that’s true. Think of it as a great gift, a mark of affection. Their protection of your memory.

  —Let’s don’t start getting ironic with each other.

  —It’s true.

  V stands and says, A moment. Please don’t go.

  She walks down the steps from the terrace to a pat
h leading into a flower garden. She is gone for fifteen minutes, and in that time an employee of The Retreat comes out from the lobby and asks how he might be of help. A certain tone to the question.

  When V returns, she tells about the political fighting in Washington during the whole decade of the fifties, how the struggle over slavery became more and more poisonous, even though a possible model stared the lawmakers on both sides square in the face. Some of the Northern states—Pennsylvania and Connecticut—had just recently finished the gradual abolition of slavery. Others—New Jersey and New Hampshire—were still in the process and remained so until the Emancipation Proclamation. But they all worked on similar plans, ending slavery bloodlessly over time. Of course all the Northern states, including those still holding slaves through the fifties and on into the sixties, claimed high ground. V says, Their moral position in converting from slaveholders to champions of freedom was about like a house cat on a cold night scooting through a closing door just before the latch clacks shut. But sometimes timing is all. A brief moment of history, less than a deep breath, becomes the difference between inside and outside.

  * * *

  In Richmond, people attacked V on the grounds that her greatest ambition had been to become First Lady of the United States of America—which she couldn’t deny. She wanted to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for eight years and throw fine dinners for the smartest and most entertaining people in the world. And having that dream come real was right at the tips of her fingers. When your lowly congressman husband becomes a great, wounded American war hero in Mexico, widely known for his genius battlefield strategy and personal risk and sacrifice, and then he becomes a U.S. senator and secretary of war—well, living in the real White House someday is hardly a delusional aspiration.

  Though, at the time Jeff became secretary of war for the United States, one of his old teachers at West Point wrote,

  Neither Davis nor my opinion of him have changed since I knew him as a cadet. If I am not deceived, he intends to leave his mark in the Army & also at West Point & a black mark it will be I fear. He is a recreant and unnatural son, would have pleasure in giving his Alma Mater a kick & would disclaim her, if he could.

  THOSE DAYS IN WASHINGTON, she dreamed nothing but black doom. She saw the end from the beginning—all the loss and devastation, our beautiful country full of ghosts haunting cornfields and cow pastures and night woods for centuries to come. She told Mary Chesnut that the way it would all play out was that the Southern states would secede and cobble together a breakaway country and would make Jeff its president and it would all fail disastrously.

  For a stretch of weeks in 1855, she dreamed in detail about being First Lady. But the White House was all wrong. She’d been all over it during the past fifteen years—not just the public rooms, but also every hallway and bedroom upstairs. In her dream, though, she wandered lost, looking for an exit. Whatever path she took—through hallways, up and down stairways—she always wound around to find herself in a dim downstairs kitchen with the servants. Eventually she did live as First Lady, but in a White House reflected in a grotesque carnival mirror, though downstairs she recognized the kitchen, that dead end her dream kept leading her toward.

  SECOND HALF OF THE FIFTIES—when government failed to do anything but shove the country into convulsion and apocalypse, Jeff’s health declined. His malaria kept recurring and his bad eye dimmed slowly almost to blindness. V spent much of that time having children. Messages in bottles floated out into a terrifying future. Samuel was the first, a fat and happy baby. Everything struck him as funny. V’s First Lady friend Jane Pierce—the madwoman allegedly confined in the attic of the White House—loved taking Samuel on long carriage rides all around town and out in the country. She loved his company, his entertainment, his belly laugh that seemed far too big to come from such a small package.

  Samuel fell ill and died when he was still three, and for months afterward V closed herself up in their big rented house. Jeff kept working, going to the Capitol every morning, but he couldn’t sleep and sometimes wandered the streets of Washington late at night. Friends and family offered brief sympathy, but infant death rates stood so high that many people didn’t really think of them as fully human those first few years. Case in point, V’s father. Samuel had been gone only a month or six weeks when WB sent her a breezy note barely acknowledging her loss. He might have mentioned hearing she was under the weather. She tossed it in the fire and wrote back that she would let him know when she recovered from her grief, but until then his mercantile messages weren’t welcome. She used the word a lot around that time—mercantile—to mean without emotion, businesslike. Jeff finally had to request that for the good of their marriage she stop using that word in regard to his family.

  MAGGIE AND JEFFY AND JOE AND BILLY arrived at roughly two-year intervals, little bursts of life during dark days for the country when the arguments over slavery turned fatal for hundreds of thousands. She was pregnant with Billy when things fell apart completely, those frightening and chaotic days as state after state seceded and the Southern legislators resigned and packed up and went home to improvise a rebel country.

  Toward the end, an English journalist reporting on the Senate described Jeff as having the face of a corpse, the form of a skeleton.

  Jeff held on, the last of the last, hoping newly elected Lincoln and the Yankee Congress would take a deep breath and try to find a way to avoid war. But that didn’t happen. Lincoln came to town refusing to talk to anybody who disagreed with him. Jeff stayed on, hoping to be imprisoned, since the North had vowed to arrest for treason any member of the House or Senate from secessionist states who tried to leave. All the others, even Judah, eased out of town. But Jeff always wanted a trial, to wrap himself in the Constitution and defend himself in front of the Supreme Court. Either win or go down a martyr. Wife and children be damned.

  Except the Federals weren’t really enthusiastic about charging anyone with treason, given that the Constitution wasn’t clear about what to do if members of the club of states wanted to resign—whether to let them go or try to kill them. So Jeff and V went home to Brierfield, a dreary trip because V sensed the tidal wave rising to break over them. Jeff became more silent than usual, brooding over the unwelcome likelihood that he would become president, at least until an election could be organized. Neither of them felt surprised, therefore, when one afternoon a man came riding up at Brierfield, his horse in a lather, and gave Jeff the message—he had been appointed president of a country that didn’t exist. Nevertheless, they both read the letter with faces grim, as if it were a death notice. Nor was V surprised when the attack on Sumter soon began brewing. Their friend Robert Toombs, until recently a U.S. senator from Washington, Georgia, sent Jeff a letter of warning against being pulled into battle. Toombs wrote,

  It is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal.

  Ultimately Jeff, who had read nearly as much history as V, refused to see that days of building and maintaining fortunes based on enslavement were passing quickly. Country after country had been finding various ways to end the ownership of people. Haiti, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru saw the writing on the wall. Jeff and his wealthy and powerful friends couldn’t.


  February 1862

  OUT THE WINDOW A LOW SKY AND DRIZZLE, EVERYTHING gray. February cold radiated through the glass. Even in cobbled streets, mud swelled between stones and smeared into horse shit and the general everyday effluent to make a gray organic paste, slick and greasy and shoe-heel deep, shiny even in the absence of sunlight. V raised the window sash a few inches and reached her hand into the morning and found the day as raw to her palm as it appeared, the air fragrant as an outhouse.

  She turned straight from the window to her medicine. Her new doctor had s
uggested—as if it were a brilliant discovery—that when she felt low, cored out, she should take a glass of wine and a pinch of morphine. Same prescription as when she’d miscarried and also when Samuel died. The current new baby, Billy, lived and existed as a real being in the world, sleeping and eating and crying and filling diapers to his armpits. But every moment her insides pulled at her, much like with the lost children, a feeling of absence, a suction. She unfolded the wax-paper packet and tapped some of its powder into a generously sized wineglass and then poured Bordeaux near the brim. Just enough room to stir with her finger until the lumps dissolved and then put her finger in her mouth so as not to lose a grain.

  Fifteen minutes after, still feeling desperately empty, she poured another glass and the remainder of the packet. She put on a robe and walked downstairs to the kitchen, moving like fog from room to room, down two flights of stairs and along hallways. So drifting in her thoughts that she kept touching walls with fingertips to confirm reality.

  In the kitchen Mary O’Melia and Ellen worked with their housemaids and under-cooks preparing for the party that evening. Mary ran the place as head housekeeper, and Ellen was the main cook. V was still fairly new to the house and to both of them.

  —Coffee? V said, standing in the doorway, a hand on the casing.

  Mary O’Melia was a broad-faced Irish widow of a ship captain—maybe a year or two younger than V, pretty and tough and weary. She’d been trapped in the South after borders shut down following Sumter. All her American family lived in Baltimore, and she let everyone know she couldn’t wait for the war to end one way or the other so she could go home and be with her children. Mary said, Ma’am, I know you’re new here. We all are. But the way it works is you pull the cord and ring the bell, and I send someone right up to see what you want done, and then we do it. So go back upstairs and let’s practice.

  V looked at Ellen, and Ellen smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

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