Varina, p.26

Varina, page 26



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  The heavy cannons of the ramparts and the water battery almost disappeared in the dark. The two boys at the gate—young enough to be her sons if she’d had children right after her marriage—ate their oysters in gulps and one of them slightly groaned at the pleasure of it. He raised his fingertips to his face and breathed in the salt sea of the oysters and the earth of bacon grease on his skin.

  He reminded V of those thousands of young dying men in the hospitals of Richmond. Northern boys and Southerners, blown apart by war, lying swaddled in bloody bandages, their limbs and the features of their faces blasted away. How difficult on her daily visits not to tell them to go right ahead and die at that very moment of young life while still ruled by a rising tide of emotions, those same emotions old cynical politicians and businessmen and army officers used against them to convince them to fight and die. Hard not to hold their chilly hands with ragged dirty nails and push the long hair back and kiss their sweaty brows and say, Don’t wait, do it now, not decades later when every throb of feeling ebbs, every action and choice becomes tinged with regret and harsh judgment, a sense of waste and loss and emptiness, life narrowing down to little more than an endless railway tunnel. Let go, son. It will be all right. Take one deep breath and then just rise from this bad place and from your broken body and keep going. I’ll sit here with you and hold your hand until you’ve made it past the bend in the road and into the green woods.

  And truthfully, one time she couldn’t help but actually say it. She whispered into a boy’s ear like a sweetheart, Walk into the big green woods. I’ll wait here and watch until you’re gone. She said it hardly louder than a sigh, and—like a magic spell—the boy died right then. Holding his hand, she could feel life go, the lifting of the spirit, a sudden lightness. And then that young man blown apart by the sorry war became young and whole forever.

  TWO YEARS AFTER HIS IMPRISONMENT, Jefferson and V left the Fortress and went up the James to federal court in Richmond. They stayed at the Spotswood Hotel only because few downtown hotels had been rebuilt after the fall and the fire. They agreed not to talk about staying there when they first arrived in Richmond.

  Next day the court granted bail, and wealthy Yankees like Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt put up the money, largely as a way to clear the last rubble from the war and help the country reunite and move forward. Jeff was free to go, though the treason charges hadn’t yet been dropped.

  They went straight back to their room in the Spotswood. Jeff sat in a straight chair and looked out the window. V flopped onto the bed and lay staring at the ceiling blank as a corpse. Half an hour later, Jeff said, They lost their nerve. I didn’t lose mine.

  V, still staring at the ceiling, said, Yes. I never doubted you’d be willing to let pride dig your grave in that damp casemate. You already had dirt twenty feet deep over you.

  * * *

  On the way back to Albany that evening, James Blake writes:

  Especially since I found the blue book, I’ve come to see Mr. Davis and his beliefs this way. He did as most politicians do—except more so—corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our heroes. Because, like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse. Take a king or a president or anybody. Put a heavy sack of gold in one hand and a feather-light declaration about freedom in the other. And then an outlaw sticks a pistol in his face and says give me one or the other. Every time—ten out of ten—he’ll hug the sack and throw away the ideals. Because the sack’s what’s behind the ideals, like the foundation under a building. And that’s how freedom and chains and a whipping post can live alongside each other comfortably.

  Sixth Sunday

  Saratoga Springs

  RACE DAYS, SURREYS FROM THE HOTEL TRAVEL TO THE track every half hour. James and Laura and V ride three across—V in the middle, talking brightly about the horses and her strategies for betting, the latest gossip concerning owners and trainers and jockeys. She knows all the Kentucky thoroughbreds here now, shining like waxed walnut or coal or bronze in the sun, their strange names and individual personalities.

  Laura says, I like to watch them eat their grain from their buckets. They’re so serious about it. And I want to kiss their velvet noses, except racehorses are nervous and some of them bite.

  —Do you bet? James asks Laura.

  —I always bet everything I have with me on the first race—the horse I think has the funniest name. I quit when I run out of money.

  —Except she never does because she wins most of the time, V says. She refuses to tell me her real system. Mostly the horses she bets don’t even have funny names.

  —Funny to me, Laura says.

  James says, I’m just going to observe for today.

  Laura leans her head on V’s shoulder and closes her eyes.

  JAMES ASKS, How did Hamlet go?

  —Because it’s a movie—no talking, all pictures, and film is expensive—the filmmaker went through the play with a red pencil and cut it to twelve minutes. Kept the ghost and the skull and all the killing and dying. Swordplay. And since our Ophelia is beautiful, they boiled her parts down to mostly embracing and kissing the prince. I played the aggrieved ghost. Flowing robes, white face, black around the eyes like a raccoon.

  Laura barely opens her eyes and says, I couldn’t even look at her.

  THEY WALK THE ROWS of low stables and watch horses being groomed and tacked. The ones running later in the afternoon stand in their stalls and reach over the half-doors to pull hay from their nets. Laura holds V’s hand much of the time, particularly when they approach knots of people.

  Some of the grooms have known V for years and whisper tips as they pass by. They say, Missus V, Cairngorm’s a little off today. Blue Girl’s full of herself, about to jump out of her skin. Sir Visto looks good. Spindrift’s ready to run. Ten Brooks and Asteroid about like always, like they know their jobs.

  One groom says, This your family visiting, ma’am?

  —Three generations, V says.

  JUST BEFORE V AND LAURA PLACE BETS on the first race, James says to Laura, I believe I know how you’re betting.

  —I never say.

  —I’m sure of it. It’s Cairngorm.

  —How’s that funny? Laura says.

  —The sound of it?

  —Not funny at all, Laura says.

  —You’ll know how she bet when her horse comes across the finish line first, V says.

  —She makes it sound like I never lose, Laura says.

  —Have we ever left at the end of the day and you have less money than you started with? V asks.

  —Well, no. Because that’s not the point of coming.

  ON THE RIDE BACK, V talks about a book on Eastern religion she’s reading. She says, Like most religions, they have something to say about the consequences of bad actions, of hubris, of sins against others. Karma.

  Laura says, I know about that. It has to do with going around in circles, life after life, until you come to your senses and become less horrible and get to move on.

  —That’s reincarnation, dear. A different thing entirely, V says.

  —But related, James says. Like together they’re a gentler substitute for hell, with the possibility of an exit door.

  —I’ll loan you the book when I’ve finished, V says. We can talk about it.

  Laura says, I’ve slowed it down so much I can take a deep breath between notes.

  James says, “Sunflower Slow Drag”?

  —When we get back, I’ll play it while you two talk. But don’t come stand over me to appreciate it.

  V AND JAMES SIT HALFWAY ACROSS THE LOBBY while Laura plays the piano. She leans forward so that her hair hides her face and plays notes that sound like wind chimes on a nearly still day.

  James says, I keep struggling to remember Ellen, but the pictures in my mind are so vague I think I’m making them up.

  Thief of Lives


D dragging so slow that everyone except V complained. At the dinner table, passengers kept saying, You get what you pay for. Cheap tickets mean saving on coal by creeping across the ocean at a walking pace. But V traveled in a mood happy to foot-drag. She had never seen the North Atlantic so blue and glassy. The ship’s library held quite a few good books, and every day she sat on deck and read and breathed long and slow, counting three Mississippi both in and out.

  If she allowed her thoughts to move beyond the present moment, toward her destination, she clenched in the diaphragm and her breath pinched short. Her homeopathologist in London had recommended Aconitum napellus for vague fear and panic sweeping in strong waves, sleep disturbed by dreams of the dead. And Kali arsenicosum for the opposite, which V found confusing. Opposite of fear? Opposite of vague? Of strong? Of dead? One or the other potion was also supposed to help with fear of crowds and with sinus congestion, but the scrip didn’t clarify which one. She took both, and nothing happened, so she took opium in her wine.

  A FEW MONTHS BEFORE HER VOYAGE toward America, she had traveled all the way across France to visit a doctor in Karlsruhe, where Winnie was now in school. She’d imagined Karlsruhe differently. Jeff had settled Winnie into school there, and he had given V the inaccurate impression that the Rhine flowed right through town and snow-covered mountains towered just to the south. As it turned out, the town’s main attraction was that it lay a day away from actual interesting places without being one itself. She found a room in a guesthouse with a partial view of a tall church steeple.

  V had not written to Jeff in a while—months, in fact. Before long, a note came, forwarded from her London apartment: How are you and where are you?

  In Karlsruhe Winnie was busy with school, so they mostly saw each other on Sundays, leaving V free to visit Doctor Richter three times a week. He was a few years younger than V and had become renowned for his ability to diagnose mystery illnesses. One of her doctors in London had said her poor health was no mystery—when she felt so washed over with panic and terror that she couldn’t breathe, she was having a heart attack. Richter, though, began seeing her with no preconceptions. He checked her reflexes with a rubber hammer and looked into her eyes and listened to her internal sounds. With various large and small calipers, he measured every dimension of her head. But mostly he was awfully interested in her personal life and emotions and history. They talked for an hour or so each visit.

  He asked, When was the bottom? The worst?

  —Impossible to say.

  —Try, please.

  She told Richter that most people would probably say it was when she and the children lived fugitive on the road like escaped convicts. But the truth was, the shape of her life wasn’t a deep U or a sharp V that you went down into and came up out of. It was a saw blade, jagged and dangerous from end to end.

  Doctor Richter had a big upholstered chair in his consulting room, and V sank into it very comfortably. His voice was quiet and even, so soothing that most days she dozed off for a few seconds as they talked. The children interested him—the dead ones and the live ones equally.

  V told him she had always tried not to define Maggie as a Davis and Winnie as a Howell, but that’s how it was—a correspondence of personalities. V loved Maggie, but at heart she was smart, chilly, serious, mercantile, single-minded. Maggie and Jeff were always very close, so much alike. Winnie, though, was a Howell—smart, funny, emotional, impulsive, open-minded. She and V were alike in most ways, except that Winnie loved everything about boarding school—the girls, the teachers, the classes, the dormitory and dining hall. V, on the other hand, couldn’t name one redeeming moment of her months at Madame X’s.

  She told Richter about Samuel and Joe, their very different personalities. She guessed Samuel would have been a Howell had he lived. After Joe was born, she fell into a deep depression because he looked like a Davis, and as if that hadn’t been bad enough, Jeff wanted to name him after his brother Joseph, who had been cruel to V from the time she was seventeen until middle age. They argued and Jeff would not relent about the name. All V could do was pray little Joe would not share all the Davis traits and might outgrow looking like one, though whether her prayers were answered remained unclear at the time he fell off the balcony.

  Jeffy was the most Howell of all, probably too much so. Nothing interested him more than jokes and having a good time. If he couldn’t find trouble to get into, he created some. He was still finding his way in life after trying out a number of schools and colleges. Billy, though, had a personality totally his own, and Jefferson thought he would be their great success, except he died at ten of diphtheria. Those hopeful messages in bottles she had sent out during the dark times before the war—so many washed back.

  Some days Richter wanted to talk about Jeff. The sources of their attraction, the sources of their disaffection. V told him about Florida’s Big Bear Theory, about her own romantic sense of marriage at seventeen—the woodcutter and the plump heir. She said, Jeff seemed like all of those things back then. And it wasn’t his fault she saw her choices so simply.

  One day Richter floated fourteen syllables out to her during one of their sessions.

  Mania = Fury

  Melancholy = Fear

  He recited the words, his voice rising in pitch, tentative and with a hint of a question mark at the end.

  —It’s like a poem, V said.

  —What I’d like is for you to think about the equations, and if seeing them as a poem helps, then fine.

  AT THE END OF HER TIME IN KARLSRUHE, Doctor Richter announced his diagnosis like he was Newton under the apple tree.

  —You suffer from misplaced malaise, he said.

  V said, Well, malaise of course.

  But even leaving the war out of it—looking back at the loss of children, marital challenges, lack of a home for a decade, financial ruin, recognition of fundamental moral failure—how exactly was her malaise misplaced? Which horror had she emphasized too much or too little? She certainly hadn’t lost track of it like a house cat that wandered off.

  Richter got fussy and prideful at her question, her challenge. He didn’t want to debate. He prescribed walks in fresh air, a diet heavy on bread made from Graham flour, doses of valerian and laudanum alternating every eight hours.

  She told him that since the age of thirteen, under doctors’ orders, she had taken every amount of opiates from feather-light to locomotive-heavy, sourced from dirty traveling-show tinctures to white pharmaceutical purity. And yet malaise persisted, impervious, and right in its usual place. With two fingers she tapped the center of her chest three times.

  V NEVER WANTED TO SEE THE SOUTH AGAIN. But she had run her string near its frayed end. She and Jeff always got along best apart, even back when she was young and he was middle-aged. When geography separated them, their letters became sweet. Months passed, a year, and time bleached them clean of resentment. He sometimes sent her pressed flowers from special places. Harebell growing near Sir Walter Scott’s grave, jewelweed blossoms growing along a path at The Greenbrier, accompanied also by Mary Chesnut’s love and the good wishes from so many old friends summering at that beautiful Virginia resort, all of them suffering together in the depths of their poverty. On her side of the correspondence, V mostly documented her worry about his eyes and his diet. One time, when she was in London, he came across the Atlantic to see her, but when he got to Liverpool he decided on a spur-of-the-moment tour of Scotland and some of the northern European countries alone. Another time, she agreed to join him on a ship back to America but changed her mind after a rough crossing of the Irish Sea and kissed him good-bye in Dublin and went back to London for her health. All that time of wandering, he traveled Europe as a man with no country, no papers, just his own recognizance to get him across borders. V mostly enjoyed his letters and believed she and Jeff could live happily married for decades caring deeply for each other by post, eventually receiving death notices by telegram. But the surviving children didn’t work that way. At some p
oint it was go back or be forgotten.

  BALTIMORE. HOTEL BARNUM. Dickens’s favorite American hotel and V’s too. Also meeting place for Harpers Ferry conspirators and Booth’s gang of assassination plotters. V stayed as long as she could afford, which amounted to only a week.

  As soon as she registered, V learned what a mess she had sailed into. Waiting for her were numerous letters from friends welcoming her back to America and informing her that Jeff currently lived in Biloxi with a woman, Sara Dorsey. The widow Mrs. Dorsey. Great glee in sharing the news.

  V had been in school with Sara for those few months at Madame X’s in Philadelphia. All she remembered of Sara was her membership in a huddle of malicious thirteen-year-old girls who entertained themselves by commenting on V’s shade of skin, her unnecessary height, her pride and precision in translating Greek and Latin.

  Halfway through the stack of letters, V opened one from Jeff informing her of what she already knew, that he no longer called the Peabody Hotel home and had also changed plans on renting a house in Memphis. He was enjoying the hospitality of their mutual friend Mrs. Dorsey. V should plan on joining him at her home, Beauvoir, on the Gulf near Biloxi. He reminded her that she had once loved Biloxi’s beaches. As she was surely aware, Mrs. Dorsey was a novelist of some reputation and offered considerable help to Jeff in composing his memoir.

  V ripped open all the rest of her letters hoping to find a cache of money, a forgotten bank account, or an inheritance from her New Jersey people allowing her to turn right back across the Atlantic to London and see if 18 Upper Gloucester Place, Marylebone, was still available. Had she been a man she would have walked out the front door of the Barnum and spent the night in dives drinking, losing her last dollar in card games trying to win a stake, a bundle of getaway money.

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