Saturday, July 7, 2012

Panels Toward a Reconstruction of Glass

In honor of July 4th and “The Colonel,” my father, USAF officer E.G. Leimbacher—who would have turned 95 yesterday—and another USAF Colonel, our younger son Christopher Michael Wilcox, I offer this fragmentary short story, or prose poem, or historical remembrance, occasioned by a brief passage near the end of Ken Burns’ magnificent work The Civil War. This is the first part of two, and I’ll say more about the source next time.

* * * * *

I. 1872

Late that summer he became aware of shadows, ghostly figures flickering, blotches of black and gray stippling the lilies and hothouse blooms.

The glazier’s man had come, knocked out the cracked greenhouse panels, and replaced them with panes of glass so strangely patterned that Jefferson finally scaled the garden ladder to learn their secrets. The streaks muddling the glass, the marks and
shapes that ruled the humid air below, up close proved translucent: soldiers in uniform, all grays and silvers, their faces the burnt-cork black of minstrelsy. A few stood in formal poses, frozen in a dark time, but more lay sprawled and torn, limbs mangled, the unknown dead on bloody ground, their hollow-eyed skulls staring a thousand years.

It was the War again.

II. Baltimore

A man free and whole, he had walked all the way north from Georgia, shedding each clot of red clay as it dried, clear on to Baltimore… where he just stopped. Saying right out loud to no one: “This’d be far ‘nough.” Thinking: Lord hab mercy, some Union towns look close-on South.

Plain “Jefferson” he’d been until the day in ’64 that Bluebelly sergeant said he’d need a second name to gain a share of forage. So he added “Spivey,” reclaiming the ground that held his people fast for a hundred years.

Thinking: But I was actual born that first day, January 1863, when Mist’ Abraham reckon every one of us, house or field the same, free forever. An’ I know it right then. I could read some an’ shape my slave name letters too. But be free? I dassn’t yet. Bossman dogs speak louder.

III. Seasons

“Our conservatory is rich with promise,” said Mr. Caldwell, “and my wife’s gardens annually blessed with God’s bounty. We cultivate order, Mr. Spivey; we ask that you
help maintain it… A beautiful setting, is it not?”

“Yessuh, it surely is.” But thinking, surprised: It don’t come up to home.

He buried that notion in moist loam, to toil among beech trees and roses, attending each summer’s inclinations and, within the glittering hothouse, shaping off-season riots of color from roiling orchids and flowering japonica. He made each early morning his green-up time—hard at work before the heat inside turned all hellish, and while the light (“my Southun light,” he’d insist with a grin) was all a glory. The glass magnifying yet attenuating, he’d chase that changing light day by day, packing dark soil down to the roots, snipping bits of green shoots and buds, grafting plant upon plant in unusual pairings, growing bulbs and exotics… and older, seven years almost, his life as ordered as the gardens in their cycles.

IV. Contraband

Now in the late, scorching summer, he works among wraiths…

(To be continued)

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