Monday, July 16, 2012

Reconstruction in Glass

Here's the conclusion of the Civil War-related tale introduced last week (in the blog post just below this one):

IV. Contrabands

Now in the scorching late summer, he works among wraiths. When he moves, the humid air clings to his flesh; and when he is still, his spent breath and rivulets of sweat condense on the burned glass plates overhead. He sees coils of shadows drifting within
grays of shifting shades… hears always the clamor of guns and terrible cries of the wounded, the proud insistent voices of freed slaves calling out: “Freedom! Freedom will reign, come heaven or come hell!”

And Jefferson finally shouts, “Let be! Yanks nor Rebs got no truck with me!
‘Federacy make me out a monkey man, say I belong to whoever pay to run me… but the Union come down on Spivey land like Pharoah’s army. Trample my garden! Strip out the smokehouse. Torch the Big House jes’ to hab themselves a cook-up… till nothin’ lef’ but columns an’ the chim’ly.

“I was true free then, me an’ thousands other black folks, could tag on after Sherman man-army. Call us Contrabands ‘cause we could join on in, burn an’ loot some ourselves, tie those Yankee rails into ribbon-bows.

“But I ain’t that--I quit an’ I walk to here. What I want with some dam’ war now?”

V. Dreams

The shadowed, sullen plants rest, listless in the heat. And one night he dreams…

A younger, taller Jefferson walks, alone, through swathes of lobelia and loosestrife and feverfew. He breathes honeysuckle and sweet magnolia. Massive white columns stand blocking the sun, and in their shade the sightless bodies from the glass move as easy as Jacob’s ladder in a breeze--swaying, talking among themselves, their bodies full of light now, wounds radiant, bright as noontime; only their dark-streak faces resist…

The many voices blend one into another, a chorus puzzled, angry, mourning: Where is this? Who am I now? What did we die for? No one remembers. Our graves lie ill-tended. Our only memorials are glass. Discarded.
Forgotten. Sold as scrap. Where we wait now, the sun bleaches out blue, and black, and gray, rain washes our stories away, the years erase all detail, from the imperfect surface of our lives, the fading record of our deaths… in heart’s ease we disappear…

And he wakes to a crisp fall morning.

VI. Clear Glass

Ghosts and memories gone silent, he cuts away dead blossoms, prunes sagging stems, tends the mulch of summer’s end--chopping old beds, turning the composted heap. As he labors row on row, he speaks softly to the stilled growths: “Crop field or
battlefield, garden or grave, what I do here is what you are. Whatsoever get lef’ behind as waste still turn to chalk and good humus.”

He takes a deep breath. Autumn’s rich, ripened smells rise fresh in his nostrils, and he imagines the final breath of every soldier fallen in the War, collecting in drifts of cloud, changed to air again by the Lord’s own greenery. Squinting up at the blurred glass, he lets black loam slip from his fingers. Saying:

“This the light too, the darkes’ part. See, life be only what the light make of it, and every kind of pain melt in the sun. Jefferson Spivey, free man--that’s me. And when I pass, this earth here remember you, your scars and hurt come to clear at last.”

He re-turns the soil.

Fans of Ken Burns' Civil War series may recall a brief sequence near the end when the Narrator mentions glass negatives showing battlefield scenes that were sold as scrap, many of them ending their days as replacement panels in greenhouses—where the sun would burn away the negative images. The story haunted me until I wrote this… fragment of a short story, or prose poem, or historical remembrance. (Next time: an Asian Adventure becomes... Haute Culture?)

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