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Authors: Dennis McFarland

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BOOK: Nostalgia
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Sarah explained that their mother had been as clever as she was beautiful and that she usually managed to find paths to her own desires, circumventing their father’s requirements, often without his knowledge. But in this one thing, she’d found no path, and she’d paid for it with her life. “She gave him the illusion of always having his way,” said Sarah, “because she knew it brought him pleasure.”

“But after all,” said Summerfield, with even less conviction than before, “he couldn’t have known what was going to happen.”

“Hold still,” said Sarah. “Of course he couldn’t know. But he would have his way no matter what.” She poured fresh water from a pitcher into the bowl on her mother’s nearby gaming table, wrung out the cloth, dipped it again into the water, folded it into a small square,
and softly laid it over her brother’s brow. “It’s a pleasure of weak men, Summerfield,” she said, “always going around imposing their will on women.”

“And I guess it must be a pleasure of strong women,” said Summerfield, “always going around imposing their will on men.”

Sarah made no reply to this remark, but he thought he saw a smile cross her face, faintly, before she said, “There, at least I’ve got the dirt off it.” She made a few finishing dabs with the cloth and added, “I’ll say this for you, Summerfield Hayes—you certainly did inherit his black eyebrows. Very handsome, even with nasty lumps. You look as though you might be growing a horn. If that’s not gone down by this time tomorrow, I think we’d best send for Dr. Tilbrook.”

He was glad to have these opinions of Sarah’s concerning their parents, for what she’d said deciphered for him a paradox: he’d always had a sense that while his mother deferred to his father in practically everything, there was something weak about him and strong about her. He’d thought this odd sense might be tied to finances—Mr. Hayes, a dance instructor at a nearby studio opposite the City Hall, had little money of his own, while Mrs. Hayes came from a good deal of wealth—but Sarah’s ideas were a better explanation. The notion of his mother contriving her own happiness surreptitiously, so as not to disquiet Mr. Hayes’s vanity, made Summerfield think of the biblical wisdom that it is more blessed to give than to receive. He supposed it would apply even when what one gave was the illusion of something.

The knot caused by the blow to his head shrank in due course but never went away entirely. Though it was barely visible, he could feel the small lump with his fingers; he invariably recalled that afternoon in the parlor, and he believed that day was the start of a change in his connection to his sister. Throughout their growing up, her manner toward him had been typical of an older sister to a younger brother, what was often described as “maternal.” With the shocking loss of their parents, that manner might have hardened, yet Summerfield felt, that afternoon in the parlor, a move toward parity. In company, she was not an outspoken girl, and she would have been mortified to be overheard speaking so frankly about their dead father. If, in front of others, she spoke only lovingly and praising of Mr. Hayes,
Summerfield did not consider her a hypocrite. He recognized that there were different versions of truth and that some versions would do only for the two of them, together, alone. As she began to make a habit of taking him into her confidence—which happened to coincide with the passing of his boyhood—his feelings for her naturally began to change, from the clear thing they had always been to something else, less clear and altogether unsettling.

As he pauses at the edge of a pasture in the dim gray light before dawn, he touches his fingers to the spot above his right eye, which has the curious power to unite him to Hicks Street and Sarah. He has walked most of the night, on a road for a while, though the moonlight made him especially wary. Once, in the deadly quiet of the night, a single gunshot somewhere in the distance sent him scurrying into a ditch. For the last two or three hours he has again followed a stream, generally northeast, which has brought him at last to this open field. His heart pounds inside his chest, partly due to exertion, partly to his ongoing certainty of being tracked. As he waits here and gazes over the pasture, he knows that, at some gap behind, another waits, in the dark of the woods. His wounds burn and throb, and he believes they are again leaking blood. He longs to rest but knows he must cross the clearing before dawn. The half-moon, near the horizon, pours its pale milk over the pasture at a sharp angle, and the occasional lone tree, despite the brightening sky, casts an unearthly long shadow over the ground. An abandoned breastwork cuts through one end of the pasture, resembling a piece of frayed rope laid down not far from the smooth ribbon of the stream. Around the periphery he sees the wrecked remains of wooden fences, the bulk of the rails stripped and used for an earlier encampment’s firewood. He adjusts the straps on his bread bag and his knapsack so that they put less pressure on the wound in his back, then sets out, thinking about his sister as he goes, recalling the afternoon in the parlor, wondering if his decision to enlist in the army mustn’t surely have reminded her of their father—a journey, a separation, insisted upon. If so, she did not give him any illusion of bowing to his will. She had opposed him unreservedly and was still aggrieved.

Halfway across the clearing, he recalls the single letter from their
parents, in their father’s hand, posted from Ireland shortly after their arrival there: their quarters on the steamer had been cramped but bearable; the ship was equipped with, of all things, a barber’s saloon.

Once he gains the woods at the other side, he removes his gear and collapses to the ground, where he turns to face the field. He sees no one there, but he expects the stalker will wait until he himself sleeps, as he surely must, to take up the slack. He opens his knapsack and frees the chicken, which scrambles frantically away but in a crazy circle that carries it back very close to the spot where it was freed. From his bread bag, he takes a corner of hardtack and crumbles it into his palm; the chicken cautiously edges nearer and stands close to his outstretched hand; it gazes off in another direction entirely, and when, after a moment, it pecks a crumb from Hayes’s palm, it does so as an apparent whim. Soon, in like fashion, the chicken has eaten all the crumbs, and Hayes shoos it away. Again the bird bustles madly in a wide arc that returns it close to Hayes’s side, where it twitches its head one way and another and occasionally picks at something near its feet. Of course Hayes had thought to kill and eat the chicken, but he felt sick when he imagined slaughtering and preparing it. And besides, how could he possibly risk a fire and roasting meat, giving away his location by both sight and smell?

He lies back on the ground, thinking perhaps he has a fever. He resolves not to cry out or even to moan, though the pain of his wounds threatens to take his breath away. After a few moments, he props himself onto his elbows and sees a figure coming toward him across the field—the silhouette of a man, arms lifted in the air in a gesture of surrender. Hayes finds the bowie knife and moves swiftly farther into the dark skirt of the woods, slipping behind the trunk of a pine and pressing his cheek against its craggy bark. His mother’s face rises up in his mind—oddly, his dread and physical agony mix to make a feeling very much like longing—and he hears the
screak
of her fingernails on the glass of the omnibus window.

T
HE YOUNGSTERS IN
the drum corps never got enough sleep, required as they were to be on call at all hours, day and night. During the second
half of the third inning—the teams tied at eleven runs apiece—the young drummer assigned by the colonel to keep Banjo away from the playing field nodded off. He leaned against a barrel, his mouth slightly ajar, and his cap had slid down covering most of his face. With one man out in the inning, a batter for the Twighoppers struck a ball straight into the ground a few paces from the home base, where it lay spinning in place, and before anyone in the field could reach it, Banjo bounded forward, gripped the ball in her maw, and sprinted into the outfield, where she commenced to run in great loops, chased by a gathering number of players and spectators. A merry chaos prevailed for two or three minutes till the foxhound lit out for the trees and disappeared into the piney forest with her prize.

The captain of Hayes’s company dispatched a detail of six soldiers to track the dog and retrieve the ball, and meanwhile the batter for the Twighoppers was granted the first base and the match resumed. Soon a rumble of voices and laughter started up among the troops near the first base; like an ocean wave it spread along the margins of the field, growing louder as it went and wholly distracting the players. From his lolling chair, the colonel—who apparently had seen no reason why the reward of beer should be delayed until the conclusion of the match—cast a lost and dangerous-looking glare slowly round the lines, then stood at last, drew his pepperbox, and fired into the air. Having thus silenced the proceedings, he raised his voice to the general public and roared: “What the devil is so bloody funny?”

After some seconds, a young private was pushed forward by his comrades into the open, where he stood startled to find himself so uncomfortably near the colonel. He straightened himself up and saluted, to which the colonel responded, “Well, Private, let’s have it!”

“Well …, sir,” he said, haltingly, “it’s just that …” He raised one hand, pointed toward the woods, and said, “It’s just that somebody said that bitch, Banjo … somebody said the bitch’d absquatulated with one of the chaplain’s balls.”

The colonel, pistol still in hand, studied the soldier for a moment, unblinking. “ ‘Absquatulated with one of the chaplain’s balls’?” he said impatiently.

“Yes, sir,” said the private.

The colonel’s grimace faded as he began to grasp the joke. Then at last he lowered his head and started to quake with silent laughter, prompting a renewed uproar from the troops.

Once things had settled down and play resumed again, still with one out in the inning and the runner on the first base, the Bachelors’ second baseman, Billy Swift—aptly named; the kind of scrappy fielder who hurled himself at every ball that came near him—would astound the spectators. When Coulter, the Twighoppers’ brawny catcher, shot a rocket into the air between the first and second bases, Swift not only found the ball and brought it down on the fly—leaping nearly his own height off the field—but managed to tag the runner trying to advance, thus turning the Twighoppers out of the inning in abrupt and astonishing fashion.

As the troops still cheered Swift’s antics, a half-dozen soldiers emerged from the pines in the distance, one of them waving the dog-stolen ball triumphantly over his head, and the troops’ ovation swelled. The foxhound trotted contrite behind the group of soldiers. At that same moment a cloud blotted out the sun. A strong wind swept across the whole place, bending the younger pines at the edge of the forest. Then the sun returned, blinding and hot.

Camp near Brandy Station
Saturday evening, April 30

Dearest Sister
,

No official word has come down but I believe we are soon to move. These last few days our drills & target practice have increased three-fold & there is a universal stirring in the air. It has been nearly two weeks since all sutlers & citizens were ordered to vamoose & every day wagons of “inessential” goods & property are being sent back to Alexandria. Sometimes I imagine our low hill as seen from a bird in the sky & I think we resemble a busy colony of ants. Our river is all that separates us from General Lee’s army. They are dug in & unassailable on the other side, so we must trust our commanders to find a means of eluding them & coming at them another way. I write to you now for I am uncertain of when time
& circumstances will allow another letter. I want to let you know that my long weeks of waiting to “see the elephant” are nearing an end. Though I anticipate future misery, I feel sure of my survival. Truman says “them’s the famous last words of a fresh fish” & well they might be, but if death comes for me down here in this wasted land they call Virginia, it will most definitely take me by surprise. I know what store you set by dreams, so I tell you that my dreams of battle are decidedly unhappy, but in them I am
alive
.

The rumors you have heard in Brooklyn about our rations are unfounded. We have beef & pork, tea & coffee, bread & potatoes, sugar & molasses. I understand the food has not always been this ample or good, but now there is no cause for complaint. Please tell Mrs. B to set her mind at ease in this regard—she’ll be glad to hear we even have plenty of soap. We are having less rain & more sun & wildflowers have begun sprouting everywhere. Less agreeable is the “weather” that looms over the men in the form of their contrary opinions about our officers. Every day brings a new argument with soldiers squaring off on one side or another of this or that colonel or general. They are like children fighting over the faults & merits of their family elders, a disposition that has redoubled as we draw closer to crossing the river. Likewise, from what I hear, our commanders often do not think much of one another, though Gen. Grant seems to enjoy the admiration of more than most. The last time he came over here from his hdqrs I was farther away from him than our house is from City Hall, but I could sure hear the bands playing across the way
.

Besides my usual duties, I have been busy with base ball & writing letters for my comrades. You would be astounded by how many of our boys can not read or write. Many did not advance beyond the fourth grade. What is most satisfying is how grateful they are for my services with the pen & it is surely little enough to give. Thank you for the book, dear Sarah. One of our surgeons happened by my tent of an afternoon when I was sitting on my rubber blanket reading. He commended me for studying what he took to be my Bible & when I showed him otherwise he declared himself, like you, a great fan of Dickens. His name is Speck, though he is quite a large man & entirely visible I assure you. Also like you, he does not much care for Hawthorne. He said of
The Scarlet Letter
that it is gloomy beyond toleration. Some of my mates tease me about being a bookworm &
say they are confounded to find in me such a mix of base ball & books. They also say I will soon regret having a thing so heavy as an English novel to carry in my knapsack. These same ones then entreat me to read to them from it when we are idle. I am nearly finished with the first part & it is both a pleasure & a comfort
.

The company I take with Mr. Dickens is the nearest I can come here to having your own. Let me say that I think of you every day & pray for your safety & happiness every night. I so much want you to understand me, Sarah, not for my own sake, but for yours, should I be wrong about my survival & the worst should happen. Can you not see how impossible it was for me to go on playing base ball in Brooklyn, knowing all the while the main cause for the opportunity, that so many in our club had already put on a different uniform, in the service of Uncle Sam? As for college & the law, will they not still be there for me when I return? I am truly sorry for your loneliness & do blame myself for it though I think I am trying to do right. I am thankful for your letters even with their scoldings. My hope is that you will forgive me & that in time you will find less in me that needs forgiving
.

Thank you too for including the clipping from the
Eagle
, Rev. T.C.’s sketch of his visit with Mr. D in England. I cannot say it shed a lot of light, as you pointed out, but I enjoyed reading it all the same. We are not familiar with Mrs. Hamilton, though I trust your assessment of her & look forward to seeing for myself. I am glad you have been to the academy for I know how music has the power to cheer you. Is the panorama all it is purported to be? I am skeptical of such grand projects but gazing out across our winter quarters from Cole’s Hill I think it does sometimes resemble a vast painting in motion
.

I have had a compliment from the colonel. He said that if the army of the Potomac had a base ball officer, I would be a major general. He added that word had reached his ear that I was the worst poker player in the regiment, which is true. The captain came to my defense then, saying that I could reload a musket as fast as any man in the company
.

A fellow from Maine has taught me the game of backgammon, which is about the best sport I have ever had sitting still. Be prepared, dear Sarah, for I shall force you to learn it. You will be amused to know that I have
tried to grow whiskers, which has provided a topic of much mirth around camp. We had a chance to take an image last week & I have enclosed the results for you here, at the risk of a certain impression of vanity
.

As I have already said, I am not sure when I shall write again, though it is my plan to describe my battle experience to you in detail. Thank you for the dried berries, which arrived in time for my birthday. There is a general here called Hays but he spells it without the “e.” No relation, I reckon
.

As always your loving brother,
Summerfield

BOOK: Nostalgia
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