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Authors: Dennis McFarland

Nostalgia (29 page)

BOOK: Nostalgia
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He closed the book and started to return it to the drawer, but Sarah was already at his side, laughing and taking it from his hands. “ ‘Intellectual, affectional, and
oh’
?” she said.

She opened the book, found the place where he’d left off, and continued, “… 
Uses, Wants, and Supplies of the Spiritual, Intellectual, Affectional, and
—ha!—
Sexual Natures of Man and Woman, Being a Key to the Causes, Prevention, Remedies, and Cure of Mental and Physical Uncongenialities Pertaining to the Indissoluble Matrimonial
—why, Summerfield … you look as if you might swoon.”

She closed the book and laid it inside the drawer. “Here,” she said, smiling, and placed the smoking cap on his head. “We’d best have Mrs. B sort things out for us first on her own.”

She left the room ahead of him, and as he followed her down the stairs, she said, “I was passing by their door on my way to the parlor, and it was as if something called to me from inside.”

“A sense of duty?” he said.

“Oh, no, not that,” she said. “It was more like an irresistible urge to snoop. By the way, Summerfield, we have goats now. Two goats in the garden.”

He held open the parlor door for her. “Actually,” he said, “they’re in the kitchen. Jane thinks it’s too cold for them outside.”

“Oh, dear,” said Sarah, taking a seat on the sofa. After a moment, she said, “Then you’ve seen them?”

He nodded, sitting at the opposite end of the sofa. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and rubbed his hands together close to the grate. “They were bleating as I came into the house.”

She laughed, and he asked her where they’d come from.

“I found them standing at the front stoop when I arrived home,” she said. “It was as if they were anticipating my arrival. I must say they gave me the most soulful look when I said hello. And then they followed me right up the steps. I asked Jane to give them something to eat and to put them in the garden. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“You could have left them to find their way home,” he said.

“You’re right, of course, I could have,” she said. “But you didn’t see the way they looked at me, Summerfield … with those lovely little rectangular pupils in their eyes. It really was as if they fully expected me to take charge. ‘We’ve lost our way,’ they said. ‘But you, nice lady, you’ll know what to do.’ I simply didn’t have it in me to reject them. I suppose we’ll have to put an announcement in the newspaper.”

“I suppose.”

“You look very handsome in Papa’s hat.”

“Thank you.”

“So, tell me,” she said, pulling the shawl tighter around her shoulders, “why
are
you home early?”

“You know,” he said, “upstairs just now … I wasn’t about to ‘swoon,’ as you put it.”

“I shouldn’t have teased you,” she said. “It was bad form and I apologize.” She started to get up, saying, “I think you’ve caught a chill—wouldn’t you like coffee?”

“No, wait, Sarah, there’s something I must tell you,” he said, and she sat back down.

“All right,” she said, and just like that her eyes filled with tears. She took from the sleeve of her dress one of the handkerchiefs he’d given her for Christmas and cautiously wiped the corners of her eyes.

All the way from the Fulton Landing he’d steeled himself in the cold, but it seemed that things at home had conspired to undo him, and now, seeing her busy with the handkerchief, he felt the last vestige of his resolve melt away. He said, “I can see you’ve already guessed what it is.”

Now she looked up at him dry-eyed and changed, as if her natural self had quit the room and she’d left this brittle shell for him to deal with further. “Really, Summerfield,” she said, “must you turn everything into a game?”

“That’s not my intention,” he said.

Impatiently, she said, “You’re home early today because you left the shipwrights’ after dinner and went somewhere to execute a bit of business. I regret that my clairvoyant powers aren’t quite sufficient to provide every detail.”

“I took the ferry to New York,” he said.

“You took the ferry to New York,” she said, without feeling. “And in New York you visited a certain office.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve enrolled with the Fortieth New York Infantry, on furlough and staying in the Park Barracks. They’ll soon depart for Fort Schuyler, where I’m to join them.”

“Fort Schuyler?” she said. “Where’s that?”

“The Bronx.”

“Oh, only the Bronx,” she said. “Not very far.”

“From there we’ll go into camp at Brandy Station, in Virginia.”

“You said soon. How soon?”

“A week.”

“A week?” she said. “That
is
soon.”

“Yes.”

She stared for a moment at the fire. The lamps on the walls flickered. She looked down into her lap, carefully folded the handkerchief, and tucked it back into her sleeve. “Well,” she said, and stood.

She did not look at him but only moved around the sofa and toward the hall.

“Sarah, please,” he said, getting to his feet, but she’d already opened the door. He felt the cold air from the hall enter the room.

Halfway out, she paused. She returned to him, head down, still never meeting his eye. She put her arms around him and held him tight for a good long time, without a word. Then she released him and was gone. She closed the hall door behind her in such a way that it made no sound at all.

Once again, he would have his supper alone, on a tray, upstairs in the library. Once again, he would light his father’s pipe and then put it away, disappointed that he didn’t enjoy it more.

The next time he saw her was just before first light, when she anxiously awakened him and told him about the prowler in the garden. He got out of bed and went to the window, where he peered down—heard faintly the bleating of the goats but could see no prowler.

She moved to his side and then gasped as they spied a shadowy figure vanish behind the shed at the back of the garden. He raised the sash and called out, “Who’s there?”

The bleating stopped. Sarah shuddered from cold, and he lowered the window.

They stood there next to each other in their nightclothes, in the near dark, and continued watching for another minute. To the east, Venus blazed and shimmered above the black housetops and barren trees.

Sarah took his hand and rested her head against his shoulder. “How can the world be so very cold?” she said softly.

“It’s winter,” he said. “Spring will come again.”

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Renewal. And with it, renewal of the war. Renewal of the killing and dying, renewal of heartbreak and grief.”

Something stirred behind them, and when they turned, they saw
Jane and Mrs. B, with night bonnets and candlesticks, lurking in the open doorway like specters.

“They’ve took our goats,” said Jane, shaking her head. “The rotten thieves took our goats.”

“T
HE TRUTH HAS
the great advantage of being true,” his mother used to say, and now, in his dream, she has come to remind him. “However else it might be assailed,” she says, looking down at him from the open window of a red omnibus, “this quality remains unchanged. Put your faith in the truth, Summerfield. At the end of the day, it may not save your life, but it will likely save your soul.” There’s the crack of a whip, and the omnibus rattles away, up a steep incline on a cobblestone road next to a canal. Then he hears the rebel yell, the maniacal whooping from the nearby trees, and he thinks,
We did, some of us, sometimes, enjoy the killing
. He cups his hands over his ears, but the yelling swells and swells till it wakes him.

The ward, bathed in moonlight, seems unnaturally quiet—he senses the absence of some formerly reliable noise—but perhaps it’s only because of the dream-roar from which he just awakened. Walt, asleep, still sits in the chair between Hayes’s bed and Casper’s, leaning back with his head rolled to one side. His cane rests at an angle between his legs, its silver handle gleaming in the moonlight, which also falls over the muddy toes of his black Morocco boots. Hayes sees that across the way there’s a new soldier in the bed where the devoted mother kept her vigil for days on end.

And now he sees, too, that Casper’s bed is empty. He closes his eyes and thinks of Casper’s happily tossing an apple into the air and catching it in his palm.

A moment later, he hears Casper hissing, “Don’t you touch me,” and then sees him being helped back to the bed by Babb and another attendant. Soon enough they have him arranged and the mosquito curtain draped neatly around the bed; without a word, they depart into the darkness at the end of the ward. Immediately Casper cradles his stump and launches a very loud, dry-mouthed serenade: “ ‘Here’s to the maid all dressed in blue, always tidy, always true …’ ”

Walt startles awake and gets up out of the chair as if an alarm bell has sounded, then quickly moves to Casper and starts to hush him through the mosquito curtain.

“ ‘When she kisses, she kisses sweet,’ ” wails Casper, “ ‘and makes things stand that have no feet.’ ”

Walt pulls back the gauzy curtain and puts his hand over Casper’s mouth, laughing. “Shhhh, my boy,” he says, and takes a cup from Casper’s side of the table and helps him drink.

For the next minute or two, Walt talks softly to Casper, an almost-crooning sound, too low for Hayes to understand any words.

Soon the ward is quiet again.

Walt removes Casper’s cap, sits next to him on the bed, and strokes Casper’s freckled brow and hair. Hayes raises himself on his elbows for a moment and looks over: in the dim glow from the lowered lamps and the moonlight, the gray-bearded man might be a doting grandfather, soothing a sick boy back to sleep.

Walt notices Hayes, turns, and smiles sadly. He tilts his head to one side, as if Hayes has asked a question. He whispers, “Our sweet Casper’s a bit corned.”

After a pause, he loses the smile and adds, “Nobody … nobody survives pyemia.”

Hayes lets his head sink back onto the pillow and ponders the network of shadows in the white-painted rafters overhead, something like a ship’s rigging.

Oddly quiet
, he thinks, and then, after a moment, he can almost feel the ward sway to and fro as it drifts gently out to sea.

Quiet
, he thinks,
eerily quiet
, and then,
Jeffers
.

He rolls onto his side, facing the other bed. In the gloom and through the gauze of the two mosquito curtains, he can only barely discern the man’s outline—perfectly still, and silent.

H
E OPENS HIS EYES
just in time to glimpse the cone as it descends over his nose and mouth—and then Dr. Drum with a bottle: a sweet pungent odor, a stinging sensation in his nose and throat. He jerks his head back and tries to sit up, but soldiers on either side of his bed
press down hard on his arms and legs. An unmistakable voice—that of the angry captain—says, “Hold him!” and “You there … grasp his head.” Someone pulls on his ears and yanks his neck forward, he hears Casper say, “Leave him be, you bunch of scoundrels,” and then he’s lying on the kitchen floor at Hicks Street. Most odd, there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual about it, except that the floor is covered with a jumble of white bedsheets. Two goats—one with an impressive beard—look down at him, each smiling rather Christlike, which, though charming, doesn’t quite dispel the feeling that he’s in some kind of danger. A mosquito curtain drops into his face but is quickly taken away. He’s vividly aware of his body in all its parts—indeed, for the first time ever, he understands that he
is
his body, and his body is himself and made of many parts. The sense of danger, he thinks, attaches to the fact that at the moment he’s unable to move any of those parts, though the impulse to move clangs and pounds inside him like a steam engine. Someone says, “He’s under,” and he thinks,
Yes
, Under,
precisely
.

The goats move away, a disappointment he intends to bear with manly composure.

Despite his evident paralysis, there’s a great deal of internal motion throughout his body and limbs—his blood, coursing so fiercely he fears it might break through the skin. He inhales, runs up to the line, and releases the base ball only inches from the ground, his knuckles nearly brushing the fragrant grass. He exhales. The batsman swings and sends the ball straight up, high into the air. All the men on the playing field are set in motion, one way and another, and it makes him think of music.

Sarah twirls her parasol and says, “Why, Summerfield, you’re an athlete
and
a poet.”

A cloud blots out the sun. A strong wind sweeps across the whole place, bending the young pines at the edge of the forest.

A brief interval of darkness, and then the sun returns, blinding and hot.

“He’s stirring,” a man says.

“Tell us who you are,” says another.

Yes
, he thinks,
Under, and Stirring
.

Gargantuan figures, like dark mountains, emerge from the light and hover over him. “Tell us who you are,” one of the mountains echoes. “Tell us who you are.”

He tries to say, “I’m Under, and Stirring,” but cannot will his voice to make the necessary sounds.

His friend Casper says, “You bunch of scoundrels. What are you doing to him? Why can’t you let him be? This is your work, jackanapes. You wouldn’t last a day in the field. Your own men would see to that.”

“Remove that man,” says the angry captain. “Take him to the wardmaster’s room.”

“Ha!” cries Casper. “Court-martial me, why don’t you? I’m dead already, you stinking parlor soldier.”

Hayes has a terrible taste in his mouth, as if he has drunk lamp oil, and his throat feels sore and mucous. He coughs, which sparks a sharp ache in his head, which in turn sends a wave of nausea to his belly.

He closes his eyes, and the base ball comes down at last, uncaught, and thumps pleasantly somewhere off to the right side.

T
HE NEW MAN
in Jeffers’s bed might be Abraham Lincoln’s double except that he has lost both his legs, each amputated above the knee. Hayes—who feels dizzy any time he moves his head even slightly—can’t think when the man was substituted for Jeffers, or when Jeffers was moved to the deadhouse. He recalls, as if from a dream, Anne lifting the tag on the new man’s shirt and saying,
Mr. R-a-u-g-h, do you say that—“rough”?
and the man replying, in a very deep voice,
Raw
.

BOOK: Nostalgia
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