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Gawain Harper stood in the deep mud of the southerly road, listening. To the west, just across the low ridge, he could hear the chuff of a steam sawmill, the whine of the blade, and, when the blade was still, the unhurried voices of men. Over these sounds, and through them, wove the drowsy music of crickets in the grass, and a blue jay complaining. Gawain found the jay in the green arch of the trees, bobbing up and down, running through his litany of scorn. The bird was handsome in his black necklace and blue frock coat, up there where the sun was. Soon another joined him, then another, and in a moment half a dozen were jeering down at Gawain Harper as if he were a snake or a tomcat or a raccoon come for robbing.
"Good God, boys," laughed Gawain, and jeered back at them.
In the road lay a fat, florid carpet bag and a U.S. bull's-eye canteen. Gawain knelt, uncorked the canteen and drank. He could smell the water as he tasted ita sweet, dark odor like the inside of a gourdand smell the cork and the rust-spotted wool cover of the canteen. The tang of new-cut pine from the sawmill reached him, the reek of mud and wet leaves and the wood smoke drifting through the trees. He could smell the trees themselves: the cedars and pines, oaks and hickories, all second-growth timber but already smelling old, as if they'd stood since the beginning of the world. He imagined he could smell the very sunlight where it slanted through the leaves, and breathe of the shadows, the blue sky and the clouds that drifted overhead like little flags. And something else, toocompoundedof all the rest and better than them all, better than anything Gawain Harper had ever smelled in his life. At first he could not put a name to it. He looked around to see if he could find any one thing that could give of such a smell, but nothing was there that wasn't there before. He stood up and took off his hat and peered down the road, holding his breath, watching. The road was empty. He was alone.
So that is it, he thought. That is what freedom smells like. And he was thankful he could smell all these things together.
He stood awhile longer, breathing the air that was already hot though it wasn't yet eight o'clock, and listening to the sawmill working over the ridge. Then, when he wanted to, he picked up his carpet bag and moved on, keeping to the edge of the road where the mud was not so deep.
* * *
THE ROAD WAS changing with the season, though in many ways it still held the shape of spring, when it was churned by cavalry, deep-rutted by guns and limbers and the heavy trains of armies pursuing and pursued. Infantry had passed here too, and the mud still bore in places the printsbarefoot and shodof men who had come this way, and some of these were dead now, and some were home, and some were traveling other roads homeward. But all this impress was fading under the rains, and soon the ruts and the marks of men would collapse little by little and dissolve into summer dust. Then whatever memory the road clung to would be gone as well, as if what had happened here had never happened at all. Such was the way of roads then, if not of those who journeyed them.
The night before, Gawain tarried in the house of a second cousin who lived just beyond the Cumberland County line. He passed the evening among women and children and dogs, all of them sitting on the gallery in the summer night, watching the fireflies lift their lanterns in the yard. The cousin himself, whose regiment ended up with the Virginia army, had not come home as yet, nor any news of him since the early spring; still, the sense of him was therea dark, empty, yearning space he was, sitting with them on the broad porch among the creaking chairs. The women spoke of him only in the future tense: When he comes home.... When he fixes the well-house roof.... When he can plow or When he can clear new ground and What will he do to set things right now the negroes have run off.... And, Jamie, he will have something to say to you about the way you cut your hair, you mark my words, and Won't it grieve him to learn about Papa? and My, he won't know what to think, here is Tom growed a foot and wearin shoes in the summertime. Gawain listened and smoked and nodded his head, saying Yes, he'll be fit to be tied, and Yes, won't he though? and No, I can't imagine what he'll say to that, and never rising to the question the women would not ask, giving them nothing because he had nothing to give. He listened to them speak of the old pattern of life as if, just by talking, they could hold fast to it awhile longer. He supposed he would do the same thing himself, once he understood that it was really gone.
"How many them yankees did you kill, Cousin Gawain?" asked the least boy, his face earnest in the starlight.
Gawain flinched, then smiled at the lad. "Oh, hundreds and hundreds," he said. Then he showed them the powder grains lodged in his hand, and told something of his adventures, though not much. The women listened politely, and the children asked other questions that made him flinch, that might have led him to places he did not want to go again. So he told only a mild sketch or twoof a long march in the rain, of stealing a hog, of a snowball fight between brigadesthings the cousin himself might tell if he were able to speak. And all the while Gawain imagined his cousin in the shadows, leaning against the balustrade, his eyes warning I know what you want to tell, but you can't, you can't and Gawain saying back Don't worry, I will never tell and trying to mean it.
Once, when they'd been quiet awhile, the cousin's wife reached across the little space between them and laid her hand on Gawain's wrist. "You know," she said, "Cumberland is burned since last summer."
He nodded. "We heard that. Somebody told it back in the winter when we got down to Tupelo. The whole square, they said, and the Academy, but not many houses."
"Not many," she said. "I supposed you ought to be ready, had it not come to you. There is a right smart of yankees there even now, but not the same ones who burned it."
"I am ready," Gawain said. "I expect it." That was a lie, though he did not know yet that it was. After a moment, he said, "My daddy's?"
The woman shook her head. "No," she said. "It stands yet."
"Thank God for it," said Gawain. Another quiet space then, while he formed the question, looked at it from all sides, then uttered it at last: "And Judge Rhea's?"
This time the woman sighed and did not answer right away, and for Gawain that was answer enough. His hands tightened on the arms of the chair, and even as they did so, the woman's hand tightened on his wrist. Hers was a small hand, but strong; Gawain felt the blunt nails dig into his skin. "Don't fret yourself over that," she said. "It was only just a house."
"Ah," he said.
"I was over there in April, found them all stayin at old T. J. Carter's house, who is Ida Rhea's cousin by marriage, I believe. Carter's boy was lost at" She stopped, and moved her hand downward until it lay gently over Gawain's. "Oh, well," she said, "I don't need to tell you that."
"No," said Gawain. He searched his mind for the Carter boy's face, found he could not see it clearly. That was often the way with the dead. After a moment, he asked the wife, "You saw them then? You saw the Judge and Miss Ida? Young Alex?"
"All well," she said. "Though the Judge has aged some."
He waited. He knew that she knew he was waiting. She wanted to hear him ask itbecause she was a woman, and because he was a man and ought to ask it. Finally, he said, "And you saw Morgan? How does she fare?"
He could not see the woman blush in the darkness. "Very well," she said. "We took a stroll down by Leaf River. 'Twas the first warm day, and the old dogwoods in bloom, and the willows green, and the water high from all this rain. I recall we saw a martin scout, first one I saw this year. 'Twas pretty, Gawain. You'd of thought there'd never been a sorrow in this world."
Gawain stared out at the arabesque shadows in the yard, at the fireflies rising, blinking, illusive as the dream of two women walking among the delicate willows, clutching their shawls about them, watching the river. The vision came and went like the fireflies' light. He could not see their faces.
"She spoke of you," said the woman softly, and lifted her hand from Gawain's. "I can tell that, can't I?"
Gawain smiled himself then. "You can tell that," he said.
"She told how she had no word from you, nothing in a long time, since before you all crossed the riverwhere was it?"
"Florence, in Alabama."
Gawain lifted his hands, a helpless gesture. "I wrote her. After Nashville I wrote her, and down in Alabama."
"She had no word from you," said the woman again.
Gawain tried to remember what he had written. He could see himself sitting in the firelight, could see the page and the pencil moving. That was all.
"I think you ought to be ready," said the cousin's wife, touching his arm again. "She don't even know if you're alive."
"Good God," said Gawain.
They were quiet for a while. At last Gawain said, "Tell about the burning."
The old mother rocked forward, stabbing her pipe stem at the darkness. "Hatch!" she croaked.
"Beg pardon?" said Gawain.
"'Twas that General Hatch, the cav'ry man, that done it. You ever hear tell of that General?"
"No, ma'am," said Gawain. "Was he a bad man?"
"Oh, a holy terror he was," said the old woman. "He chased the rebels clean out of townwe seen em come right by here, that damn peckerwood horse cav'ry, flailin the pitiful things they was a-ridin I says to em, Where you think you goin? They holler, Gone to Texas, Granmaw!"
"My, how they flew!" said the oldest boy, the one who was wearing shoes now. "They horses was bony, all right."
"Hah!" said the old woman. "You couldn't of made a decent stew out the whole lot. Anyhow, they run off, and old Hatch turned his soldiers loose on the townand a good many of em was these nigger soldiers, don't you know, all aflame with strong drink that he give em. They might near burnt ever goddamn thing."
"Now, Mama," said the cousin's wife.
"Rena Brown, don't tell me!" snorted the old woman. "And that General, they said he taken a armchair out the hotel and set right there and smoked a seegar the whole time."
"Well, I don't doubt it," said Gawain, though he did.
"Tell about the church, Granmaw," said the boy.
The old woman waved her arms. "Lord!" she said.
"Them yankees!" said the boy.
"What?" said Gawain.
"Why, that man told his soldiers to keep they horses right up in the Presbyterian churchhad em right up in there, brought in forage and everythingand taken the organ pipes out and th'owed em in the street!"
"Who told you that?" asked Gawain.
"Why, lots of people. He kept em right up in there"
"Was that before they burned the church, or after?"
"Well, they never burnt the church, goddammit," said the old woman.
"Mama!" said the wife.
"How'd they get em up the steps?" asked Gawain. "There is fourteen steps up to the front door of the Presbyterian church!"
"Well, I don't knowbut they done it. They was all likkered up is how, I guess. It was them niggers."
"Well," said Gawain, and let it go. He had learned long since that the citizens could only be satisfied if the yankees who marauded them were aflame with strong drink, and perhaps it was just as well. How could anyone explain to them the random violence of a burning, or the joy that great acts of destruction brought to the soul? When a soldier, Gawain himself knew the exhilaration of torching a house, of watching the flames rise to his bidding, and in those moments (so frightening because they were so rational) he would gladly have burned buildings, towns, cities, whole civilizationswould have laid waste the earth with flames and artillery if he could. Such knowledge was not for the citizenslet them believe that only liquor brought ruin down on their heads.
But damn that business of horses in church! Gawain had heard that told in other towns time and time again, and it always irritated him. It seemed to Gawain that any intelligent person would be hard-pressed to imagine a more impractical place to keep horses than in a church, yet the citizens insisted that the yankees always kept them there. He had never heard of any Confederate cavalry keeping their horses in a church. But Gawain did not argue with the old woman. Horses in the Temple seemed to be a matter of theology with the citizens, so let them believe what they wanted, let them tell their tales, let them make whatever sense of it they could. Good God, let them hang their harps upon the willows and make their songs.
He looked again over the yard, into the thick, twinkling darkness of the summer night. Tomorrow he would see for himself. Tomorrow he would find Morgan. He tried to picture their meeting, tried to fashion it against the dark loom of the trees, out of the stars scattered in the infinite sky. But he couldn't. It's all right, he thought. I am too tired now. Tomorrow is soon enough.
"It ain't only the yankees that have played hell," said the wife suddenly. The bitter tone of her voice made Gawain look at her closely in the shadow of the porch.
"How do you mean?" he asked.
She took a long time answering. He could see her staring out into the yard, collecting her thoughts and arranging the pictures in her mind. Then she said, "When was the last letter you got from Morgan?"
He thought a moment. "Oh, way last June, I reckon. A long time."
"Did she tell about Lily?"
A dark thing moved across Gawain's heart, like a cloud covering the moon. Lily was the oldest girl, married to the circuit clerk, a man Gawain had never liked. Simon Landers was a vocal Unionist; the old Judge had disowned him and caused him to lose his position for it. But the man's politics were not the source of Gawain's dislike. He was small, petty, not worthy of Lily Rhea, though she clung to him fiercely. They had a boy, Gawain remembered. "No," he said at last. "No, she didn't."
The cousin's wife sighed, shook her head. "We had hard times out here in the country. There was some local menrangers, they called themselves, though they were nothin but common peckerwoods too cowardly to go to the army"
"That Simon Landers deserved hangin, the way he treated Lily," said the grandmother.
"Hush, Mama," said the wife. "I was comin to that."
"Oh, my God," said Gawain, rocking back in his chair.
"Yes, they hanged him," said the wife. "They burned the house, and ... and they killed Lily in the yard." Her voice caught then. "Hard times, Gawain. She never hurt a fly."
Gawain rubbed his eyes. "How you know who it was?"
"Oh," she said. "I am told they left a paper pinned to Simon's shirt sayin what all they hanged him for. Treason, it said."
"Treason," said Gawain. "Damn."
"Never did find that boy of theirs," said the old woman. "Been a year nowhogs got him, I reckon."
"Mama!" said the wife. "Still, it's true. God keep him. So that was Lily, Gawain. Best you should know."
"Of course," said Gawain. "Who was their leader?"
"Man named King Solomon Gault, a big planter down in the Leaf River bottoms. He signed the paper, what I'm told."
"I have heard of him. Is he still around?"
The woman laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes. The rangers was whipped in a big fight up on the Tallahatchie in August, some of em was hanged. That's when Gault went to smugglin. He is the richest man around, I should say. You can't touch him. Still, it's a wonder the Judge ain't killed him."
"Maybe he will yet," said Gawain.
"Somebody will," said the woman.
The news about Lily Rhea Landers seemed to wear out their talk. In a little while, the young ones went off to bed, and the grown folks soon after. Gawain had not slept under a roof in a long while; he asked to sleep on the porch where he could see the road and the light of the stars. The wife brought him an armload of quilts.
"'Tis cool enough," she said. "Maybe the bugs won't eat you alive. I wouldn't mind if you slept inside."
"I'll be all right," said Gawain. "I am obliged to you."
They stood shyly for a moment, facing one another across the pallet she had made on the rough boards of the porch. Out in the fields, a whippoorwill was calling, and a mockingbird perched high on the rooftree sang his melancholy nocturne. The liquid notes floated across the night, clear and sad.
"So much bad news, but I am glad you've come home anyway, Gawain Harper," said the wife at last. "So many haven't."
"He will come, Rena," said Gawain. "He is coming now, somewhere."
"You believe that?" she said. "Truly?"
"Yes," he said. In the dark shadow of the porch, he saw her shake her head. "Don't you?" he said.
She stepped across the pallet then, and touched his shoulder, and he felt the brush of her lips on his cheek. Then she was gone.
He was tired, but he did not sleep right away. It was the mockingbird kept him awake, he told himself, though he knew it wasn't the mockingbird. He lay under a quilt that smelled of wood smoke and home, and he studied the moving shadows that the leaves made. Nowhere among them could he find Morgan, nor even the two women walking by the river. And nowhere was Lily, dead and gone. But that was all right; shadows were not the place to look anyhow. In time he closed his eyes, and in time he slept. Then, deep in the night, he woke again to hear the geese passing overhead.
This was a late flock strayed from the big river far to the west, and voyaging long past the time for geese. All his life Gawain had marveled to see the geese moving like smoke across the stars, but tonight their mournful honking was the only evidence of their passing. Gawain imagined them in their long, wavering V's, following the rivers north. They were talking it over up there in the dark: joking, complaining, encouraging the stragglers, remembering other trips perhaps, and days spent among the marshes. Gawain smiled at the notion of geese talking, but that was the best way to think about it; the sound was too lonesome otherwise.
Then he thought about how it would be if he were a gray gander, and what he might see from aloft. He imagined the silence, the cool night air passing over himand down below, the broad land revealed in starlight, crossed and recrossed by the thin, pale ribbons of roadsall of them leading somewhere, for somebody. And all across the earth the tiny, struggling figures of men caught up in a great migration of their own, all walking out of the long night toward a morning they had created for themselves from the darkness.
Gawain moved under the quilt, stretched his body and felt the muscles tighten in his legs. It was good to be there, drowsy and at peace, with the mockingbird singing and the whippoorwill querying away out in the overgrown fields, and his own people at hand to watch after him. Then he was dreaming again, and in the dream, a door opened somewhere, the hinges groaning softly, then the creak of a board, and a smell like soap, and the soft smell a woman has when she has been asleep for a while on a summer's nightsomething in the hair, the flesh gone warm with sleeping, a residue of dreams. He woke to the sound of her settling into the rocking chair by his head.
"Dell ain't comin home," she said. "He ain't ever comin home again."
"You don't know that," he said, turning his head a little. The moon had risen, and he could see her by the pale light of it; she wore a cotton gown washed to the color and thinness of smoke.
"I had a dream of him," she said after a moment. "Back in the early spring. In the dream, I couldn't see his face."
"Dreams don't mean anything," said Gawain, but she went on, her voice in a whisper: "Then last month, I saw him settin on the bed. He was gaunted, like you are. I woke up sayin his name, but he was gone. That was the last time he'll ever come. I know that."
"Rena, it's a long way from Carolina," he said.
She didn't answer, but began to rock slowly, a board creaking under the chair. In a moment, she said, "You don't mind, I'll set here awhile."
"No, I don't mind. It is a good sound."
The moon rose, the stars burned on without heat, and under them, the whippoorwill called, and frogs in the ditches, and the mockingbird sang. At last the night grew late, and all things fell silent, and mist rose from the fields, and the road lay white in the starlight. Gawain listened to the woman's rocking for a long time and found a comfort in it. When he slept, he dreamed of high places, and clouds feathering across the moon like geese. He woke at break of day, and she was gone.
At breakfast, she clattered pots and pans around the hearth and would not look at him. Then, when the children were gone out in the yard, and the old mother sat at the table muttering to herself, and Gawain had pulled on his coat, she turned to him. She had his canteen, filled with sweet spring water, and a bag of coffee, and four biscuits wrapped in a rag.
"This is for you, along the way," she said, and lowered her eyes.
"I am obliged to you," he said. "Rena"
She shook her head to silence him. She was wearing her dress now, shapeless, of a faded brown, and her feet were bare. "Now, go on," she said.
So he went on his way, and they followed him a little distance up the road: the wife, the old mother, the three children, the dogs, a kitten, a henand the dark, empty shape of his cousin who was not home. Just before Gawain passed out of sight around a bend in the road, he looked back and saw them standing all together, the women's hands gathered in their aprons.
Now the sun was climbing toward the meridian, and the day promised hot and fair. It would be his last day on the road; when this sun went down he would be in Cumberland. The knowledge stirred in him a feeling he could not put a name to. After so long a time, he could not pretend to know what he felt about anything.