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Authors: Dennis McFarland

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BOOK: Nostalgia
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The appointed day of the match started dark and rainy, causing among some men grumbling, among others a dejected silence. But as if heaven meant to offer a small solace in a world of mangling and unnatural death, the skies cleared a half-hour before match time. Birdsong and the awakened scents of the forest charged the air. Since the army had recently begun sending officers’ furniture to the rear (apparently headquarters was at least
battle), it took some effort to secure for the colonel a lolling chair; once found, the chair was placed near the home base, where the colonel, in a fine mood and freshly groomed in his frock coat, situated himself with a lap desk and a pipe. First he assigned one of the sleepy drummers the task of keeping Banjo, Company D’s stray foxhound, off the field of play. Then he presided over the toss of a coin, which determined that the Bachelors should go first to the bat. Vesey—who’d insisted on going first in the order and who wielded a great pudding stirrer of an instrument nearly four feet long—swung at the first ball, missed, glared at the Twighoppers’ pitcher, and the match was under way. Vesey swung at the second ball and missed, likewise the third, and, quick as that, went out on strikes. Amid a mix of applause, cheers, and laughter, he returned head down to his mates, pausing briefly to draw his forearm over his whiskers.

Hayes, kneeling nearby in the dirt and sunshine, watched him, a large and able competitor, utterly surprised by defeat. The big man’s
trousers, altogether too tight on him, fell short around his ankles, too short even to blouse inside his socks, and Hayes smiled, his heart full of a warmth he might have called love of the game.

Shyness had prevented him from making it known, but this April afternoon was Hayes’s birthday. He’d turned nineteen years.

, he has fallen asleep despite his resolve, but not for long, never for long. The noise of his dreaming, as usual, awakens him, and as usual, he begins to tear at his clothes in an effort to expose his injuries. Soon he is naked, his trousers crumpled at his ankles, and he twists round and contorts, trying to explore with his hands the two wounds, one high in the middle of his back, the other along the back of his left thigh—each the bad work of shrapnel. He can achieve no position that allows him to see the wounds, though they recurrently burn like the heat of a hundred needles and sometimes soak his clothes with blood. If he could only see them, he might breathe easier, confirming by sight they’re not mortal. He draws back on his trousers and shirt but leaves off with any buttons or buckles, for his hands have started again to shake, violently, the most irksome of his strange physical alterations.

His hearing has returned almost fully, though the fierce ringing in his ears remains. A high-pitched sizzling whir, it revives in him a sickening regret and sometimes vibrates his skull. He has noticed a soreness at the crown of his head, and when he touches the spot, he feels what’s left there of a scab; he has no recollection of what caused this particular injury, but thankfully it appears to be healing.

When he is able to sleep, he most often has the old dream-come-true, which he first had about a week before the brigades began to cross the Rapidan: he’d startled awake in his tent one warm night near the end of April, crying out and rousing his bunkmate, Leggett, for in the dream his comrades had abandoned him on the battlefield. Now when the nightmare comes, it comes with the mechanics of memory, and he generally continues to doze till he is awakened by the popping dream-din of musketry, the gut-thunder of artillery, or, by far the worst, the grim fire-yelps of men dying. For a few seconds, the scent
of gunpowder lingers in his nostrils, or the sweet coppery stench of charred flesh, and he begins again to tear at his clothes.

He rests in rocky soil beneath a bridge; this much he knows. The stone arch overhead spans a creek of about twenty paces in width. He doesn’t know the name of the creek. From the sunlight that slides through the pines on the opposite bank and agitates on the brown water, he judges the time of day to be around six in the evening. Regarding his whereabouts, he knows only that he is most likely somewhere between Culpeper and Washington City. In his bread bag are some leftover rations—two worm castles, some sugar and pickled cabbage, the stub of a candle, and a strip of dry lucifers; in his knapsack, the book sent to him by his sister, her letters, his Christian Commission Testament, and a varnished, inscribed base ball. He figures he has averaged eight to ten miles a day, slipping footsore along streams, crouching through woods and fields, venturing onto roads only after dark. Though he has done no wrong, he must play the fugitive; though he himself was the one deserted, he is certain to be taken for a deserter and has no paper to prove otherwise. Even if he were to try joining another regiment, he might be arrested, perhaps quickly tried and executed. He has heard that the streets of Washington teem with soldiers of every stripe and condition, and he thinks that there he might escape scrutiny while he arranges, somehow, a return to Brooklyn.

His bunkmate, Truman Leggett—a garrulous and morbid man of thirty who possessed the minimum number of teeth necessary to pass the army’s physical examination—was keen on telling terrible stories. Around a campfire, Leggett would recount how he’d once come to the rescue of a neighbor woman whose house cat had crawled into a wall and given birth to kittens. The mother cat had abandoned the kittens, which cried at all hours of the night. Leggett took down some molding boards to gain access to the litter, and when he reached into an unseen cranny of the wall to remove the kittens, what he withdrew was a wretched furry thing with five heads, twelve legs, and a single tail, five kittens fused by nature into one grotesque beast. “Like something out of a Greek myth,” said Leggett, wide-eyed in the firelight. “Had to put the poor thing out of its misery.” Then he reported in
careful detail his slaying of the kittens, his crushing one head at a time with a mallet. Another of his favorites was an account of a deserter’s execution, which he’d witnessed in a different regiment earlier in the war. This tale he could draw out at great length, and Hayes observed that Leggett generally added an item or two with each retelling. The deserter, brought to the place of his death in an open wagon, followed behind another cart that bore his coffin. The troops, assembled to witness the execution, watched in silence as the gloomy cortege passed—musicians and clergymen, as well as the twelve soldiers who composed the firing party. Whatever shape the man’s desertion had taken—an unchecked impulse to go home, Leggett said—he was clearly sorry for it and begged the forgiveness of the troops and Almighty God. The captain covered the man’s eyes with a handkerchief, and the firing party took its position six paces away. The deserter, suddenly too weak to stand, sat down on the coffin. The order was given to fire. “They shot him clear to pieces,” said Leggett. “He perched for a spell without moving there on the edge of the box, then he quaked a little and slid to the ground.” Unfortunately, the poor fellow was still alive, and reserves had to be summoned to finish the job. Afterward, the troops were required to file by the bloody corpse and take a good long look. Leggett supplied a vivid description of the man’s several wounds, with special attention given the shots that penetrated his face and brain.

Now as the sun sets behind the trees, and the woods and the water grow slowly darker, Hayes recalls Leggett’s explaining how the firing party’s arms were prepared—one of them contained a blank cartridge, so that afterward no soldier could say without a doubt that he had fired the shot that killed the man. And he recalls Leggett saying of the deserter, “I never in my lifetime saw a man more forlorn.”

He resolves to sleep a bit more and then use the darkness for making tracks. He takes a few bites of hardtack from his haversack and a swig from his canteen. Like his less material but boundless remorse—and like the sure belief that everywhere and always he is being watched—hunger has become a constant companion. It is a modest hollow spasm in his stomach, never sated, only soothed, and he has learned not to mind it, this signal that not all his organs have failed. As he closes his eyes, he hears a faint boom and roll of artillery,
a sound he has heard off and on throughout his flight, but now, as each time before, he’s unable to determine whether this deep rumble occurs in the real distant fields and woods of Virginia or only inside his head.

is the word that ushers him back to sleep. This time he does not dream of his comrades deserting him in the Wilderness but of his sister, who stands turned away from him as he fastens the covered button on her lace collar; he can barely hear the whisper of her breathing, barely smell the minty scent of her hair. When he awakens next, someone has built a fire near his feet. He is drenched with sweat, and as he pulls on the sleeve of his shirt to wipe his face, no less a figure than Brigadier General J. H. Hobart Ward, commander of Hayes’s brigade, limps heavily into the orange glow, red-eyed and stinking of bourbon. He nods sadly and looks down at Hayes with compassion. “Was it the tree limbs, son?” he asks, stroking his droopy mustache. “Is that what did you in?” Hayes is as moved by the general’s wordplay as by his show of empathy, but before he can reply, he awakens again—this time truly—into absolute silence and bathed in the light of a clear half-moon. He raises himself up and watches for a moment the creek, sable and gleaming now, coursing eerily by without so much as a tinkle. Stars nestle cold and sharp in the black boughs overhead. In the woods at his back, crickets chirp, and there is the odd anonymous click of movement among last years’ fallen leaves and twigs. He quickly shifts a few feet to one side, into the dark shadow cast by the bridge, for the feeling that he is stalked, observed by unseen eyes, sends a chill up his spine. He thinks how he would welcome the once-vexing clamor of a city now, the clanging of horsecars, the blasts of ferry whistles. Soon a rustling in the woods, small but menacing, seems to be edging toward him, and he draws his only weapon, a bowie knife that belonged to Billy Swift, the Bachelors’ half-pint second baseman. He swivels on his haunches and waits, ready to face the bloodsucker that means to collect thirty dollars for collaring a deserter.

A stirring in the dry leaves, then only silence.

After a long while, he stretches out again on the dirt, knife in hand, and drifts yet again to sleep. When he opens his eyes, perhaps only a
minute later, he thinks he must be dreaming, for staring back at him an arm’s length away, stands a red chicken. He tries to speak to it—his lips form the words
Well, hello, cock-a-doodle-doo
—but no actual sound emerges. Still, as if the chicken has heard, it blinks its yellow eyes in the moonlight, shudders, and walks right up to him, offering itself for his continued survival.

1861, little more than a week before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Hayes’s mother and father perished in an extraordinary accident far away from home, during a visit to Ireland. Some weeks earlier, they’d sailed on a steamer from New York to Queenstown and then trained up to Dublin to visit Mr. Hayes’s only living relation, his mother’s unmarried sister, Margaret. Two days before they were to leave Dublin and start their journey back to America, they were riding in an omnibus that stopped to discharge a passenger on a considerable incline, next to a bridge and alongside a canal. When the omnibus began to slide backward down the incline, the driver lost control of the horses, and in a matter of seconds the thing had crashed through a wooden railing and fallen, horses and all, into the lock chamber of the canal. All ten passengers, trapped inside the omnibus, drowned. The Hayeses had planned to be away no more than six weeks and meant to be back on Hicks Street in time for Summerfield’s sixteenth birthday in April. Because of the events at Fort Sumter, news of the tragic accident in Dublin arrived in Brooklyn amid what the local papers were calling “war excitement.”

Now, near dawn, when Hayes’s wounds pain him most severely—always, mysteriously, the two of them in concert—his mother’s face rises up in his mind, flanked by her pale, white hands, pressed watery and wavering against the window of the omnibus. He imagines that as she clawed the glass her thoughts flew to him and Sarah. She’d not wished to leave home with war looming, but Mr. Hayes had prevailed, taking a view similar to some of the rebels themselves, that no war of any significance was on the horizon. He’d heard that the former senator from South Carolina had vowed in the rebel congress to drink all the blood that might result from secession. It was very like Mr. Hayes
to be wrong and even to cite foolish supporters for his arguments. It was also like him to prevail upon Mrs. Hayes in any number of ways that went against her own wishes. It was
like him—in taking the view he did of the impending war—to be optimistic. Summerfield understood, even at his young age, that this departure in his father’s usual outlook was a convenience and born of a definite pessimism concerning things in Dublin: Mr. Hayes declared that if they did not make the journey, Aunt Maggie might die, and he would forever regret not having seen her. Aunt Maggie was not ill. She enjoyed a reputation for being strong as an ox. But of course it was inarguable that she might die, for anyone might. The real outcome of the journey, his own death along with that of the mother of his children, surpassed even Mr. Hayes’s gloomy expectations. Sarah, eighteen years old at the time, was devastated and blamed their father for the tragedy, then, and even to this day.

“He forced Mommy to go,” she’d said to Summerfield one warm afternoon in May, in the parlor at Hicks Street. Summerfield had been out playing ball after his classes; a careless batsman, overly excited at hitting the ball, had flung the bat wildly and struck Summerfield just above the right eye, giving rise to an alarming purple knot. As Sarah went on bitterly about their father in the parlor, she dabbed a cold wet cloth gently over her brother’s forehead.

With little conviction, Summerfield suggested that Mrs. Hayes might simply have refused to go.

BOOK: Nostalgia
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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