Varina, page 4
V sat very still, soaking in the coal smoke, fog, rattle and thump of carriage wheels and horses’ hooves, the shuffle of feet and murmur of talk below the windows. Why would she ever want to go home? Home had ceased to be. She had acquired and shed four or five houses filled with fine furniture, paintings, decor in Mississippi, Washington, and Richmond. But now those names represented only the vast category of things that come and go. Impermanence.
RICHMOND NEVER RESEMBLED HOME. During the war years, living in the president’s mansion, which V preferred to call the Gray House, every day brought its own crisis—life lived to the sounds of blaring bugles and alarm bells. From a cold, gray ocean away, that past blurred. V remembered clear days, observation balloons of the Northern army hovering to the east of the city like great malignant bulbs hanging high in the sky out of reach of the guns. At night the multitudes of Northern campfires lit undersides of clouds hazy amber. During periods of fighting, the sound of artillery rattled windows, even in the Capitol itself. One such day the senators spent most of their time debating how many newspapers should be delivered to their desks, how often spittoons ought to be emptied. The war—sold to the people as a collective fantasy—became daily reality, a constant condition of life—death and strange days stretching from the present instant to the farthest horizon you could imagine or even dream until at some point of weariness, war rests quiet in the mind.
SOMETIMES, LOOKING BACK, she wanted to claim—as Euripides and Stesichorus did of Helen—that she had nothing to do with the destruction and tragedy of war, that an eidolon took her place. Their radical variant of history proposed that the true Helen sat out the brutal messy years of the Trojan War in Egypt. V would have preferred London. Let her phantom deal with Richmond, its fall and the desperate flight south, let its blank mind deal with prison and the guilt of the war and the waste and cost and loss for everyone. One late night or early morning toward the end of the war she said as much to Mary Chesnut. Mary held her stem carefully between thumb and forefinger and lifted her glass to the ribbon of yellow-and-blue lamp flame. She studied and adjusted the dark liquid, establishing plumb and level. Mary sipped and said, The Trojan War wasn’t fought over a woman. Or are you still as romantic as ever?
BEING ON THE WRONG SIDE of history carries consequences. V lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terrible way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue. Redemption becomes an abstract idea receding before you. Even if your sin—like dirt farmers in Sherman’s path—had been simply to live in the wrong place, you suffered. Didn’t matter whether you owned slaves or which way you voted or how good your intentions had been. Or how bad. You might suffer as much as the family of a great plantation, which was maybe not completely just. But if you were the family with a great plantation, you had it coming. Those were times that required choosing a side—and then, sooner or later, history asks, which side were you on?
The first sound of a culture collapsing from its highest steeples starts as a whisper, a sigh. The rattle of windows in their frames. Nobody listens until it thunders, when its structure—all the massive weight held in air as by a magician’s trick depending on sleight of hand, misdirection of attention—collapses to its foundational sins. And after the steeples have fallen, warred-over landscapes lie burned and salted as thoroughly as Troy after the Greeks sailed home. Nothing left but frail and temporary and untrustworthy memory to image what stood before. Even near the end, many in the capital and elsewhere remained unsure whether they were engaged in a grand experiment or a pathetically inept confidence game, projecting boundaries of a new and uncertain country onto the landscape. North and South like grotesque reflections of one another in a carnival mirror.
SAD AND STUPID. And yet . . . what?
That London evening, sitting in the armchair with the stain where many heads had rested, V felt not at all happy, but calmer. Irresistible gravity settling her into place. How lovely to live alone without the constant pull against attention, the strong outgoing tide dragging concentration away. Husband an ocean away and the children happy in school—the boys in America and the girls across the Channel learning French.
V began writing a letter. She first thought to spill out pages of recollections and resentments, tracing how their lives had year by year ramified beyond prediction or even the prophecy of nightmare, moving like a river in reverse, flowing from the mainstream out into so many branches that not a drop made it down to the sea. How they had lived rootless, homeless as fugitives until they became actual fugitives with an entire nation in pursuit. But instead she wrote:
Of course I live to serve you & children. All loved & missed beyond excess—goes without saying. But still, to be alone in this beautiful dirty old city after the calamity of the past years, and feeling nothing but a lift from letting go the faded glories. Letting go youth & desire & hope. Yet to sense a possible future rather than only a lurking ending—that thing with the weight of a great black riverboat and its stern-wheel beating like a scythe & the added force of a booming Mississippi current that bore down on us for years and finally swept us under. So, right now, I wish you every day a happy day & good appetite, warm feet, good friends & everything but forgetfulness. I do not think I would have longed for, or used, the water of Lethe. Memory is truly possession sometimes. Stay away from me until autumn & then see if we may feel we have a future together.
Devotedly, your wife,
* * *
V scans a pair of pages in James’s blue book and says, My name in print always arrests my eye. Listen to this: A little mulatto boy had been sent to General Saxton by Mrs. Jefferson Davis, and now the question came up, what was the best thing to do with him. He was about seven years old, but small for his age; was a very light mulatto, with brown curly hair, thin lips, and a defiant nose. When brought before us he looked around suspiciously and fearlessly. When Mrs. Saxton called him he walked calmly up to her; but when I held out my hand to him he folded his arms and stood still, straight as an arrow, with his head thrown back, without meeting my friendly advances. It was comical to see the cool indifference of this tiny scrap of humanity.
V stops and says, Scrap of humanity? Where did she come up with that? Dragged it out of nowhere. You were an intense little boy and more than covered the ground you stood on. And you were not small for your age, and you were not seven. And also, I didn’t send you away. I did the best I could in a horrible moment. I’d kept you with me all the way from Richmond, every mile. We were being held on board the William P. Clyde at Hilton Head, prisoners not knowing which prison awaited us.
She describes to James the Tuscarora lying alongside the Clyde with big guns aimed to blow them out of the water in case the prisoners commandeered the ship. The prisoners included V and the children and sick, skeletal Jeff and Vice President Stephens, who weighed ninety pounds and looked like a mummified child and was called the Pale Star of Georgia by some of the papers. Also Clement and Virginia Clay. Clement had been both a U.S. senator and a Confederate senator. Late in the war Jeff sent him on a spy mission to Canada. He came back looking like a hollow-cheeked killer, face like an axe blade and greasy hair to his shoulders, not at all like his plump, young face on the one-dollar bill. And of course Burton Harrison was a prisoner, Jeff’s private secretary through most of the war and V’s friend, companion, ally.
They’d mostly taken different paths from Richmond to being prisoners on the Clyde. Jeff had stayed in Richmond until hours before the city burned, and then he escaped by railway with the cabinet to Danville and then Greensboro where they set up government in people’s parlors. From there Jeff traveled on horseback through the Carolinas and Georgia, plotting most of the way how he could prolong the war. Burton, though, had stuck with V from Richmond all through the horrible flight south trying to get to Cuba. Horses and wagons, camping in tents or in the wagon-beds if it was raining too hard to set up camp.
—After they captured us, V tells James, they hauled us back north through Georgia and then east to the coast. They paraded us through jeering crowds in Macon and Augusta and Savannah. At the last minute before the ship departed, they pulled you away. The children and Ellen and I were screaming and crying, leaning over the rails of the Clyde. Ellen and I tried to convince them that you were her child because you were both about the same color, but they wrestled you onto a skiff. You fought and tried to jump into the water. Virginia Clay was crying too, and she tossed coins from her purse down into the skiff. I remember at some point Jeffy fell to his knees and held his cap over his face, not wanting to see what was happening.
I begged them to send you to General Saxton in Charleston. In Washington before the war he often dined with us. One night when it seemed that war was the only course our politicians—including my husband—had left open, I joked with Rufus Saxton that if he came to Mississippi leading an invading army, I would vow to see that his grave was kept clean. I believed he would honor that old friendship and take care of you. There was a young Northern officer there who hated me and would have tossed you out by the roadside just to punish me. I had to keep you out of his hands and did all I could in that moment. Otherwise, I pictured you wandering through the chaos starving and alone, put in more danger by being with me.
James Blake says, I only remember boats, gray water, and blue sky. Silver coins flashing and tinkling in the air and splashing in the water.
V SAYS, A hundred thousand tragedies played out in the spring of 1865. We’d bet everything on anger and angry ideas, and we lost. Lee once wrote Jeff a letter—during a particularly nasty little moment of decision—in which he advised against action that he feared would bring down the reproach of our consciences and posterity’s judgment. But by then, it was too late to apply Lee’s advice more widely because we were in the middle of trying to pull apart a country to protect the wealth of slave owners. There was no going back. Bad, angry decisions left behind a huge cost in life and suffering for the entire nation. And utter loss of wealth for the South. But not for the North. Plenty made fortunes off the war. Give a real Yankee one little dried pea and three thimbles and he can buy groceries. Give him a boxful of cheap, shiny pocketknives and pistols to trade and he will turn it into a career. But give him a war, and he’ll make a fortune to last centuries. It’s not something they learn. They’re saturated in it from birth. End result—we lose everything and they create thousands of new millionaires.
—Bitter feelings still, ma’am?
—No. The people who beat you get to take you apart however they wish.
—Certainly sounds bitter.
—It’s reality. We lost. I’ve lived in New York City for more than fifteen years and it’s been good for me. I’ve made much of my living writing for the papers and have learned a great deal there. And in London too. It does your mind good to talk to people different from you. Especially instructive in regard to opinions about owning people and trying to kill a country. I’ve come to accept that our debt may stretch to one of those generational Bible curses. Unto the seventh son of the seventh son. Born on the seventh hour of the seventh day.
—I don’t believe that’s from the Bible.
—I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, V says. Seven is a powerful number.
JAMES SAYS, IN SOUTH CAROLINA—the Sea Islands the year after the war—I announced that Mr. Davis was a fine man, and the black children I was in school with fought me, backed me up against a wall. And then before long I was in a northern school with nothing but white children—Massachusetts—and when I said Jefferson Davis was a fine man, they called me every derogatory racial name they knew and fought me. It’s all here in Miss Botume’s book.
—I’m certain you stood up and fought back. You were a strong-minded child. But I’m sharing personal memories with you, and all you’re doing is telling me things from a book. So please tell me something you remember that’s not from the book.
James pauses and then says, Pictures mostly. Steep steps and high ceilings. A big room with the other children. Tall windows looking down to a lawn. A fierce red rocking horse bouncing in a frame with four big metal springs, and I pinched my hand in a spring and bled. I picture children sitting on a staircase, looking down through balusters to a party with people wearing black and white clothes, listening to music—a piano and a violin. An enormous green field, all of us running and spinning and blue sky whirling. Another time, a room and a fire, loud flashes of lightning, people yelling, babies crying.
—Yes, V says. Every bit of that.
—THE DAY YOU FLED RICHMOND, some might have kissed me good-bye and sent me on my way. Back to being a stray.
—Maybe so, but I held on to you until I realized keeping you with me was worse for you than letting you go.
—That long trip south, James says. I wish I remembered more of it.
—Oh, I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Write a book if you feel like it. Everybody seems to be inventing their own history and finding a publisher. Just don’t write a tiresome biography—they all end the same way. But it’s getting late, and since Albany is so nearby, we might reconvene to talk more next Sunday.
—Come about noon. I’ll arrange lunch here, or maybe we’ll picnic at the races. I like to see the little jockeys in their silk clothes and the green grass and white fences and big trees. But mostly I love looking at the horses beforehand more than the race itself. I rode well when I was young and can see things in their eyes and facial expressions and deportment that tell me how they feel about running that day. Sometimes I just know it’s their day, a feeling not like a wave raging and breaking but a smooth swell almost ready to curl over. I bet a few dollars at a time and win more than I lose. I pay for my entertainment.
As James stands to leave, V says, When I was younger, I might have dreamed your arrival beforehand like I did that place where we were all captured. Every feature of south Georgia landscape exact—the road, a swale down to a creek, pine trees, fallow fields. Even the placement of the tents on either side of the road. But that gift or curse left me soon after the war. I still have vivid dreams, but now they never correspond with reality.
THE SARATOGA RAILWAY STATION PULSES WITH RACE-DAY foot traffic, the energy of hope funneling people out the doors and toward the track. James Blake, blue book in hand, weaves his way to a clear space at the end of the platform. That scream down the hall of The Retreat repeats in his head. He’s tried all week to decode the tone, whether it arose from some specific marital fight or from general anger, anguish, fear, frustration with life.
He raises a finger to a redcap porter and asks the man about The Retreat. What kind of place? Surely just what it appeared, an exclusive resort hotel?
The redcap is about fifty, not tall but big shouldered from shifting baggage all day for thirty years. Brass buttons shined bright down the breast of his uniform jacket. He is darker than James by several degrees.
He studies James carefully and says, Looking to take a room?
—Good. You’re not close enough to passing to test them. Sundown’s probably their borderline. Like little towns bragging no black man ever spent the night there and lived to tell it. Except polite about it. Plenty welcome during daylight hours to build roads, lay brick, plow gardens, clean houses, swing nine-pound hammers.
James says, Last Sunday, about this time, they let me sit in the lobby. But they made sure I knew it was grudging. I’ll be back for the six-thirty-five to Albany. I just need to know what the place is.
—Hotel. People stay there because it’s nice. The view and the food and the service. But they’ve got doctors. Guests can get treatments.
—Treatments for what?
—I couldn’t tell you what ailments those people come down with. Tired of living, ma
James laughs and says, Thank you, sir. You’ve set me straight.
He reaches out a coin, and the man pinches it out of habit but then lets go. He says, Save that for The Retreat. Might need it.
THE OPHELIA in the guests’ upcoming production of Hamlet—a woman of twenty or so named Laura—stops by V’s room. She doesn’t knock but opens the door and drifts right in without a word. She wears a thin nightgown and light shawl and goes barefoot though the day is coming toward midmorning. Her hair, a beautiful blond tousle, holds light from the window in an aura around her face.
She is the youngest daughter from a cigarette-paper fortune, and her skin stretches over her bones pale and thin as the diaphanous rectangles that pay for therapy to ease her only two defects—which are that she sometimes seems to be hearing conversations different from the ones actually taking place, and that she sometimes becomes excessively demonstrative in her attraction to men.
She comes to V’s chair and without a word climbs into her lap and wraps her arms around V’s neck and rests her head on V’s chest. She draws a long deep breath and hums a bit of “Sunflower Slow Drag,” her fingers twitching to press imaginary keys. Soon she falls asleep. Her bony body relaxes and settles deep against V. Her skinny feet hang almost to the floor. V brushes her lips against the mass of blond hair and tries to shape her mind still as a mud puddle on a windless day. Tries to sit and wait quiet inside her head until the particulates settle to the dirty bottom and the water becomes clear as glass. But no matter how much she instructs her thoughts toward stillness, they circle, loop, and repeat, churning against themselves, whitewater climbing and spraying over rocks already passed.
When V returns to New York she plans to seek instruction on this topic from a Yogi or some other Eastern mystic. The city is full of them lately. Or maybe she’ll find a piano teacher to remind her how to play, and she’ll sit doodling repetitive minor key largos for a couple of hours a day to shape her mind in a helpful calm direction.
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