Mr. Lincoln's Wars
A Novel in Thirteen Stories
The Willie Grief Dear Mary:
In this troubled world, we are never quite satisfied.
-- April 16, 1848
Mary Todd Lincoln had just about taken all that she could take when Edwin Stanton chuckled at her assertion that the war had seemed like it would never end, and maybe there had already been enough dying to make the point. "There are some things that you needn't concern yourself with," Stanton admonished. Another Washington bureaucrat who knew nothing of the war besides what the maps and telegrams showed him, no doubt using it to bolster his credentials. And there he stood, in the president's office, a stout little pudge barely knee high to the lanky Mr. Lincoln, the two of them in comic disproportion.
Sometimes her husband could be so sterile. Since Willie's death he had hardly been able to look her in the eye. She couldn't recall him ever even saying Willie's name to her. As if to ensure that the subject was never broached, he began working through the night, crawling into bed under the dying light of a blown-out candle, and pulling back the covers with a cool draft that drifted over her legs like a nervous ghost. She wasn't easy to be around. She acknowledged that truth. Her days stretched long, and the nights were frightful with the knowledge that the first sprig of sunlight would reveal a new day, one more without Willie. The indulging pity wearing her down until there was nothing left other than a pleading cry to be noticed. Sometimes she wished her husband would just hold her. Squeeze the maniacal grief that possessed her. Taste her tears. Get really mad and scream out that he missed Willie like a sonabitch. They could struggle for breath together, writhing on the bed angry and sad, cursing the injustice that a man who is potentially more powerful than God cannot find peace in this world. Then maybe they could hold each other with the passion they had known in Springfield. She could tell him that Willie was still here, and if they held on long enough, he too would see the light that sometimes darted across the bedroom window and know that it was their son passing by, checking in to make sure that his mother's grief didn't fatally consume her. Instead her husband had turned scared. The fear made him cold. And by the true definition of a man, he swallowed back his emotions and threw himself into his work. As though it were the only truth.
Lincoln stepped aside from Stanton and looked down at his secretary. "Mr. Stanton," he said formally, "the first lady has been personally touched by this war in a way that you and I wouldn't understand." The office turned pallid as a passing cloud shadowed the sun from the window, reinforcing the dullness of the decor's stale antiquity.
Stanton prodded his fingers through the coarse gray bristles of his beard. His spectacles had fallen to the tip of his nose, highlighting its dented bulb and flared nostrils, and he peered his veiny blues over the tops of the frames. "Please pardon my neglect at remembering the loss of your brother."
"Sam Todd was a good man," Lincoln said. "And even if he died with a Confederate flag in his hand at Shiloh, he was still a man of principle." He reached for her hand, and held it in chivalrous mourning. "Mary's right. The war has dragged on too long. And it has bared its shame in the tearing apart of families like the Todds."
"My prayers," Stanton offered.
In her husband's hand she understood the commitment that made so many people believe in him, how the power of his fingers wrapped around her sweating palm in righteous honesty. But the death of her half brother had hardly stunned her. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen him, could barely remember what he looked like other than having the same almond eyes and symmetrically round face as all progeny of the Robert Todd seedling. There were fifteen brothers and sisters to complete the Todd set, each one as boring as the next. She hadn't liked most of them while growing up, and she had certainly lost all feeling for them when her husband had become president and they said the things they did, proving that politics is indeed thicker than blood. Her husband didn't understand that, and she hadn't bothered to try to explain. It would be beyond his comprehension that a sister wouldn't mourn the death of her brother. So he felt compelled to comfort her, and that was okay. But she didn't understand why he never did that when Willie died. Even holding her hand as he did now would have staved off a million miles of misery.
Mary's stomach started to turn light, and her hands grew tingly and shaky. The grief over Willie's death was washing through her, as it could randomly do. She saw the familiar picture of her boy, pale and consumed with disease, as he had looked desperately to her without a sense of peace or calm, as the preachers would like to believe, but with a gut-wrenching fear of feeling his life slipping away. She felt the sick helplessness that she harbored at not having the ability to stop Willie's suffering, or even comfort him -- a feeling that never went away, only sometimes hibernated if she was lucky. She ran her tongue over her cracked dry lips, and fought for air through her panting nostrils. She dropped her husband's useless hand when the sweat turned a clammy cold, and turned her head to swallow, instantly nauseated by the must and mites that inhabited the red velvet chairs of her husband's office.
Lincoln stepped away. His eyes fixed stiff and cold, as though watching a concoction of clouds turn to storm. He stepped closer to Stanton, nervously pushing the hand that had just held hers into his pocket. His big yellow teeth worked themselves into his bottom lip, gnawing and chewing, while his Adam's apple lumped in and out.
Stanton spoke in a voice of semi-authority to deliver the exit line. "Mr. President, we are expected at the State Department to review the battle reports."
Lincoln nodded too quickly, as though the patron saint of relief had just spoken, and added, "We shouldn't keep them waiting."
Mary focused her stare out the window behind her husband's desk, watching the sunlight wind its way down the wisteria vines in thin green streams, with some points just touching the edges of the shriveled brown buds with a teasing glow. The blood gathered in her stomach and welled into a fury that kicked and screamed to come out, but her exterior remained staid, padded by a thick layer of cultured gentility. "Then you better go," she said, followed by a long inhalation.
Stanton looked back, his head half bowed. "Once, again, Mary, my prayers." "Save them for a just god," she muttered. Then she said it again as he walked out the door, so he could hear her loud and clear.
Mary Todd Lincoln sat in the carriage riding backward on a slow, lonely trip up Seventh Street heading toward Campbell Hospital on the north end of town. The horses seemed bitterly restrained, barely moving, perhaps in protest at having to tug a carriage through Washington on what might have been the coldest day ever to have come sweeping down the Potomac. The sky was clear, with an icy blue edge to it. The boards of the sidewalk looked shiny and new pushed up against the empty streets. Brownstones stood tall and still, with curled whiskers of smoke winding out the chimneys, their windows frosted and steamed with hand-smeared peepholes wilting in condensation, behind which the illusion of ordinary life played itself out without tragedy.
When her grief overtook her, making it nearly impossible to move or sit still, she liked to go out to the military hospitals to visit the wounded boys. Talk to them. Maybe hold their hands. Try to feel the power of life fighting for a chance, instead of hopelessly expiring in shattered deliverance. Sometimes she took her boy Tad along and let his tiny little grip escort her through the wards as though he were a guide dog. Other times she needed to be alone, in order to not be weighted by the expectations of being Mother and having to monitor her expressions and emotions to prevent uncertainty or distress in the boy. The visits went better when she was alone. Without Tad by her side, the infirm rarely recognized her as the first lady. The anonymity liberated her to comfort from compassion and not from politics. For once she could just listen without having to indulge in her own misery.
With the road turned to ice, the carriage bumped over frozen divots and shimmied an occasional slide from side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine how the young debutante who had boarded at Shelby's and Madame Mentelle's studying French and dance, the belle of Lexington who was living proof of God's exquisite plan, had come to be this fragile shell of a woman whose soul was left pillaged by the deaths of two of her children. Her once-thick dark hair now appeared teased and light. The skin that had defined her proud jaw now pouched into little jowls, and her watery eyes were loosely set upon dark half-moon pillows. Her hands, once delicate and smooth as porcelain, were ragged and bent into odd positions, resting on a waistline that had expanded into a permanent reminder of her unhappiness.
The wards of Campbell Hospital were long and narrow. They were separate buildings made of rough gray boards and built low to the ground, with a dining area in the middle, and surrounded by a sprawl of pale landscape textured in rotted tree trunks. Injured boys by the hundreds lined the interior of each ward with their cots evenly spaced. They stayed there until they recovered. Or went to the dead house next to the Negro quarters. These boys were lonely and scared, casualties from all over the map who had been sent to the military hospital because the field hospitals had run out of treatments. Most didn't know a soul. Delirious from pain. Stunned by the cold. Starved by the rations. Only able to count on the goodwill of the nurses and women who took the time to touch their arms, or sing a mother's melody, or just tell them that they would be all right while the infections bore away their insides worse than any rebel bullet could ever do.
Mary Lincoln stepped down from the coach red-cheeked against the bitter cold, and told the driver to circle for an hour. She quickly tucked her hands under her overcoat when she felt the joints stiffen, feeling the cruel intentions of the elements.
She entered Ward 3 shamelessly aware of how free she felt from the confining burdens of being Mrs. Lincoln. Her step fell lighter as her shoes touched the plank floors, the sounds of the convalescent machine in full operation gracefully lifting her out of the silent bitterness of the bedroom walls. At home in this company of mangled strangers.
She had been here twice before, each time startled by the smell -- the stench of rotting flesh, diarrhea, and sour mold. A thin streak of bile rose up her throat and stung the back of her tongue. She forced herself to swallow it back, and marched deeper into the ward. Powerless men lay side by side on green cots spaced no more than six inches apart, pails filled with blood-soaked towels set between them. Their warm breath, visible against the cold, rose above them like hovering souls. The uniform moans of pain and melancholia made a low vibrating hum, a basslike bottom against the frantic treble of the nurses barking orders back and forth across the cots, desperately trying to gather the attention of the doctors, who looked worn and exhausted by their idle attempts to heal and cure.
Mary carefully walked down the center aisle looking for someone who seemed in need of company. A hand latched on to the back of her black coat and tugged, startling her. She turned to see the desperate face of a woman about her age, skinny and tired, with dry eyes shifting in fear. "Are you a nurse?" the woman asked Mary. "Are you a nurse?"
"I'm not," Mary said. She looked at the woman's white-knuckle hold on her sleeve. "I'm sorry."
The woman dropped her hand, letting it dangle awkwardly before bringing it up to her neck, nervously scratching a red spot. "My boy is in so much pain . . . so much . . . I'm just looking for some help, is all. Just looking for some help."
Mary had to turn away. She didn't want to see a desperate mother holding on with the fruitless belief that her terminal son might make it. She couldn't bear to see the false hope or the wishing or the naked fear. That was not why she came here. Even as she walked briskly down the row, she could hear the woman repeating that her boy was in pain. Maybe she wanted Mary to turn around with the kindness of a stranger and grab both of her hands and look her in the eye and tell her not to worry. Mary just walked faster. She couldn't handle hearing that selfish self-pity for one more second.
At the last cot in the row, a boy lay flat on his back, his ghost-white face peering above an olive blanket cinched around his neck. A pillow pushed against the crown of his head. There must have been at least 150 boys warehoused in this ward, and for some reason this nondescript one caught her attention. Maybe it was the diffident expression on his face, gone beyond resignation and self-pity into a state of nothing other than existence. His hands were tucked in at his sides, while his teeth chattered from the cold. He shifted his eyes up to Mary and spoke in a confident whisper, "They say you lose ninety percent of your body heat from your head."
Mary Lincoln took that as an invitation. She asked if she might, and sat down in one of the visitor's chairs made from whittled pine and straw -- gifts from some old man's rotary to help the cause. She self-consciously shifted her bottom from side to side to test it against her weight, then settled in. The boy rolled his eyes over to her, and kept a plain expression that was neither welcoming nor off-putting. He kept his stare fixed on her without moving an inch of his body. Maybe he was one of those boys who had been caught in the cannon fire and only survived from the waist up, with arms and legs severed from infection. She imagined the grotesque figure that would lie beneath that wool blanket, a chest and abdomen that might at first have the appearance of a strong healthy boy's, but made hideous by the wretchedly crude carvings of shrapnel and a hurried field doctor. And maybe at the bottom of the awkward and uneven torso, his penis hung nestled against his testicles, forever useless except to involuntarily wet the bed.
"That's why I keep the pillow on top of my head," he said. "Keeps me warm." He wrestled an arm out from under the covers and clumsily adjusted the pillow up over his forehead, just above his grimacing eyebrows, like a malformed bishop's crown.
"It is cold in here, isn't it?" she said, relieved to know that he indeed had arms.
"Like a witch's tit." He spoke again in that hard whisper, as though that was all that his lungs would allow. "Not one ounce of heat pumped into this joint. Stoves don't do a thing. Never even this kind of cold in Brooklyn."
Mary leaned in, almost seduced by the will of his struggle to talk, and the care he took in the choosing and eliminating of words in context with his shortened breath. "You're from New York?" she asked.
"No. Brooklyn." He tried to roll to the side to face her, arching his knee (thank God!) up for support, but instead rocked back again to his vulnerable position like a helpless beetle. His face turned a deep red as he struggled for breath, then all his features, maybe Irish or Scottish in physiognomy, contorted and contracted into one long grimace that quickly released itself. He rolled his eyes back over to her with a sigh.
"You are a long way from home, soldier."
"Go where they tell you to." The pain in his voice surrounded his words in a nearly visible warble.
"My name is Mary." She placed her hand on his chest. His shallow breaths felt oddly dry against her fingers. The pure simplicity of his life, with the only mission being to take in air, made her eyes begin to water. She began to swallow back every urge to cry, until she realized that she wasn't really sad. Just moved.
"You're not coming to sell me something, no religious speech, or anything? Fruitcakes come through that door like it's a free-for-all."
Mary smiled, and for once the smile felt genuine, not the mannered dilettante expression guided by protocol. "I'm just here to visit anybody who wants the company."
He looked her over again, then nodded. "I could use the company."
"And so could I."
They sat in the white noise of crippled screams and hollow cries. The nurses' shoes squeaking along the planks. Odd rhythms of metal clanging so disjointed that it had nearly become symphonic. The bitter timbre of hard, frozen fear. The boy never stopped looking at Mary. His eyes were sea green, deep as an untouched cove, brilliant against his pale skin. A tuft of red hair mussed out from the pillow, its luster dulled by lack of nutrition and oil. When he smiled to introduce himself, his teeth looked charred but straight. His name was Sean. "Sean Connely," he elaborated.
Mary told him it was a pleasure to make his proper acquaintance, and said the name sounded Irish.
"The name is," he spoke freely, despite his pained whisper, "but not the boy. Folks left Ireland before they were too old to leave."
"I'm sure they're good people," Mary said.
"Seamus and Moira Connely are their names. Two brothers. We all went to enlist. The folks were relieved of the responsibility. They can barely handle one another."
"I'm sure they are proud of you."
Sean turned his head a little more to the side. "Mary, could you do me a favor?" "I don't know."
"If I get you the address, tell my parents that I'm doing okay? How I am." "I can help you write a letter."
"I don't have that much to say."
"I will tell them I met with you," she said. "I can wire a telegram. I'll tell them where you are, what's been going on, and whatever else they want to know."
"They don't ask much. The caring scares them."
"I'll tell Moira and Seamus that I met with you."
Behind them the crazed mother came wandering down the aisle crying out, "Nurse, nurse! My boy needs a dusting of morphine. Nurse, nurse! Somebody help me. Him. An opium pill." Mary inhaled in contempt, disgusted at the woman's lack of humility and total disregard for everyone else who didn't want to hear it; then she exhaled, willing that woman to keep to her end of the ward.
"You hear all kinds of things in here," Sean said.
Mary nodded, embarrassed by her selfishness, and hoping it was not too transparent, because she really did feel calmness in being here with Sean. Something about the struggling will of the boy's voice inspired hope, and she wanted to just keep listening. "And what happened with you?" she asked. "How did you get here?"
"Don't really know. A battle in Virginia. Pure craziness all around, and I tripped over the leg of this clumsy pisser named Peters. Then a sound over my ear buzzing like a million-pound mosquito. Woke up here with a bullet cornered in my lung, and aimed right at my heart. Been out cold for five days." "And that's why you don't -- "
"If I move too sudden the bullet goes right into my heart." His voice was tighter, as though he could barely dislodge the words from his chest. "If I'm real unlucky, it'll push backward into my lung and drain me flat."
"What do the doctors say?"
"Hope that it works itself out."
One thing Mary hated about doctors was how they all walk around so high and mighty, like they hold the key and password to enter God's most exquisite creation, but when you really call upon them, when you need real help, they toss out some drugs and throw their hands up and use words like hope and pray, and tell you that some things are greater than man. "Maybe I can get someone here to look at you," she offered. "Not one of these washed-up army kinds, but a real doctor."
Sean didn't answer. His eyes didn't even brighten at the prospect. Maybe he didn't want to be a charity case, or maybe he just really didn't care at this point. Or perhaps he knew the real truth, the same one that kept Mary from continuing on: that even a real doctor wouldn't know shit about what to do except hope and pray.
"Is there anything I can do for you right now?" she asked.
He shook his head, causing the pillow to lose its place. "Maybe just sit for a few more minutes until the nurse gives me my morphine. Pain sneaks up on you and stabs you blind. Nurses here are psychic when it comes to needing morphine . . . Please wait. At least until the shit knocks me out."
Mary leaned forward and maternally edged the pillow back into place. She ran the back of her hand along his cheek, feeling the moist tenderness of his skin, cheeks too young to be roughened by whiskers, just the softness of the thin blond hairs he was born with. She might have broken down and cried right then, tortured by the fact that Willie was so much younger on his deathbed; instead she felt calmed and oddly reassured, as though some preserved precious moment was deliberately being shown to her.
She started to draw her hand away. Sean rolled his face over and trapped her fingers against his cheek. He didn't say anything. Just a sad childlike smile. "It's okay," she told him.
The nurse appeared by the bed. She was tall and young, her amber hair twisted and layered into a bun that she pinned to the back of her head. The beauty of her face was hidden in exhaustion, with eyes that seemed like they could care but had instead been willed and trained to professionalism, knowing the caring could destroy her. She spoke tenderly, with a trace of southern laziness that punctuated the ends of her sentences. "Well, hello, Mr. Connely," she said. "How's the chest today?"
Sean peered up at her. "Like hell, Sharon."
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a syringe, the metal dulled in fingerprints, the tip of the needle fogged from the cold.
"I'll have the usual," he said.
Sharon smiled politely at the joke she had no doubt heard a thousand times over on her rounds. She glanced down at Mary's hand tucked under the boy's face, then looked over at her. "Are you a relative?" she asked in what appeared to be a tone of genuine interest.
"Just a friend." Mary smiled.
The needle caught the reflection of a lamp. It looked like a flame. "Thank goodness for boys like Mr. Connely here," Sharon said. "Wouldn't you say so?" A lightning scream from across the ward seemed to penetrate the whole room, then died just as quickly.
Mary looked down at Sean's pale face.
"Giving their hearts and souls so we can keep our dignity." She tapped the syringe twice to remove excess air. A chemical tear balled on the edge of the hypodermic.
Without moving his head, Sean offered his left arm. Sharon squinted one eye for aim, and slid the needle under his skin. She depressed the syringe's head with her thumb in a manner so mechanized that its precision seemed perfection. "Very good, now," she said. "You rest up, Mr. Connely, and I'll check back after a couple of hours. And, remember, no sitting up. You'll rip the stitches from your chest." Sharon smiled at Mary. "Nice meeting you. Pity the circumstance." She dropped the spent syringe into her pocket, then walked into the aisle under a dull yellow light that outlined her hipless figure. Gone to the next bed. As though she was never there.
Sean's eyes followed Sharon, then settled back on his visitor. "Used to get whiskey before the shot."
"Is it better now?" Mary stroked his shoulder with her free hand.
"Springwater driving through my veins," Sean narrated. "No cold anymore. I forget how hard it is to breathe. Just lay back and go to sleep. Lucky to get to forget."
Mary felt his cheeks flushing warmer. His eyelids seemed to be swelling, with his green irises in full bloom bathed in sleepy tears. "Glad you came by," he said in a whisper that was dropping into sleep. "I'll live a little stronger. Thanks for the comfort."
Mary nodded. "Thank you for the comfort." She watched his eyes close and felt his breathing lighten against her hand. She cautiously worked her palm out from under his cheek, although it appeared that now nothing would disturb him. She pulled the blanket up to his neck and fixed his pillow back into place. She thought about kissing him, but that felt too intimate and she wasn't really sure she had that right.
When Mary Lincoln stood up, the reality of the ward came rushing over her in a tumbling, jostling wave that nearly knocked her off her feet. The cries. The writhing. The rot. The reality that this was not going to end. That she would walk out that door and go back to the mansion, and mothers would still be screaming, and boys begging for anything to kill the pain, and doctors cutting and hacking and drugging and praying, and nurses and women staking their responsibility for comfort, and in every minute of every day knowing that the pain she has felt for Willie is being replayed over and over in wards like this throughout the country. She thinks of how embarrassed she is by her last name, and that maybe she'll just go by the name of Todd because she can't bear the thought of being associated with any of the responsibility for this suffering.
A nervous humming panicked over the top of her skin. Mary ran down the hall without looking at any of the patients. Past the screaming mother. Past the weary nurses. She slammed the door of her waiting coach and turned down the bolt until she was certain that it locked.
The horses trotted their way down Seventh Street back toward Pennsylvania Avenue. Washington still felt quiet, content to be quarantined from the terror and misery that breathed beyond its borders. Mary watched the frozen city float by through the window. She had the odd sensation of feeling better. Even when she felt an echo of her own grief wash over, she noticed that it didn't hurt as much. Mary closed her eyes and tried not to understand. Just let herself be taken along by the rhythm of the horses.
She never got Sean Connely's parents' address that day. Nor did she ever go back to Campbell Hospital again. Her husband tried once or twice to get her the information, but nobody at the hospital could seem to produce that kind of detail.
The grief for Willie still washed over her.
Sometimes she thought of Sean.
Sometimes it made her feel better.
Sometimes it didn't. Mr. Lincoln's Wars
A Novel in Thirteen Stories
. Copyright © by Adam Braver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.