From the critically acclaimed author of The Memory Cathedral comes perhaps the most powerful, haunting, and unforgettable novel of the Civil War—or any war—ever written. Provocative, poetic, and disturbing, it introduces us to a young narrator, Mundy McDowell, whose voice rivals any in literature, bringing poignantly to life the surreal horrors of battle and its spiritual cost to human survival.
I was scarce twelve the day the damn Yankees invaded the valley. I seen a lot that day I ain't never gonna forget.
Men blown apart, screamin' and dyin' all around me. I was wandering in the woods like I wasn't supposed to and wound up right in the middle of the battle. And that's what I suppose saved me. When I got back home the main house was burning to the ground. I saw two men wearin' bits and pieces of 'Federate and Yank uniforms. They killed Poppa right off, and Mother they dragged into the front yard before they killed her too. I reckon that was the day I first got the knack of being invisible.
The spirit dog seen me right off, though. He was big and black and smelled like burning. His eyes were like red coals and everywhere he went, it seemed death followed. Him and me, we mostly traveled together after that.
I passed through midnight fields of dead and dying soldiers, reeking makeshift field hospitals worse than hell itself; climbed into the mountains where the runaway slaves hid; and walked through towns shattered by the passage of the war.
I met a lot of people, some of them living and some of them just memories. There was Jimmadasin, the slave who died on my account, and Mammy Jack, who taught me to see visions; the gallant Colonel Ashby, who let me ride by his side, and, of course, the mulatto whore Lucy, who saved my life twice.
Last but not least, there was mad but brilliant General Jackson, who was probably responsible for putting more men in their graves than any other during the Shenandoah campaign. Whether he was a hero or a demon I never did determine, but I wish I had never met him at all.
And through it all I remained silent. The power of speech left me the day my parents were killed and I first saw the spirit dog. You see, the whole time I was wandering through that valley of death I was deciding on whether to go back to being human or to become a spirit myself, and that's what this book is all about.
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1: Seeing the Spirit Dog and Forgetting How to Talk
Oh yes! Oh yes!
I been conjurin'
Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!
I been killin',
No cause, no cause, no cause,
In de worl'.
It was around the time I saw the spirit dog and became invisible that I forgot how to talk. I can think the words in my head and write them down on paper (well, you can see that!), but when I open my mouth to try to talk, I just seem to choke. Doctor Keys had a word for it, but I forget what it was. Naming it seemed to make everybody feel better, though. That's more than I've seen most doctors do anyway--except to cut the arms and legs off soldiers. I sure as hell saw a lot of that! I think those goddamn doctors killed more soldiers than all the guns and artillery put together. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Uncle Randolph says I'm always getting ahead of myself, but I'll tell you the whole story for whatever it's worth.
I could start anywhere, I suppose, but that would take too long, so I'll start right out on March 23rd, 1862. It was a Sunday, cold and miserable and cloudy.
Come to think of it, though, the only real sunny day I can remember around then was ten days before General Jackson pulled our army out of Winchester because General Banks had brought his Federals down from Harper's Ferry to invade us. Not even him and Colonel Ashby's "Six Hundred" could've held out against Banks's blue-ass bucktails. Seemed like there was a million of them. And boy, was there a commotion in Winchester! Poppa took me to town to see General Jackson, although I met him later on my own and wished I didn't. As our army started off toward the Valley Pike, all the girls and old ladies were crying and wailing that they were being left to godless tyrants, and some of the soldiers were even crying, just like their mothers, and then suddenly the soldiers just starting singing "Yes, in the sweet by and by," and pretty soon everybody was singing it, until they left. Then the town was quiet as death, I can tell you. Well, maybe not that quiet, but pretty close to it. Nobody wanted to talk. Everybody just felt like crying, I guess.
But there I go digressin' away from my story . . .
Anyway, on the Sunday I originally started off talking about, the people in Winchester had damned good reason to be caterwauling and crying because that was what they now call the battle of Kernstown, which you all know about. It was when Jackson came right back up the pike to fight the Federals, who outnumbered him two to one. And it was bad! But I'm going to write about it, no matter how much it hurts me.
Now, Poppa used to insist on going to church every Sunday morning. Although he never had a church of his own, he was still a proper minister. Usually Episcopalian. And as we also had the farm and the day school, we made do well enough. We'd usually go to country churches and prayer meetings at people's houses, where Poppa could preach the skin off the snakes, as Mother used to say when he wanted her to do something. But Poppa had friends in Winchester too, and was invited by Mr. Williams (he was the rector) to preach at the Episcopal Church on Kent Street. Mother was all excited because she loved going into town and seeing everybody, especially Mrs. McSherry, who was her best friend, but I never did like Mrs. McSherry's boys. Not much, anyhow.
Of course, I wasn't going to church with them on account of the ringworm. I had the 'ruption all over my scalp, and it itched like a sonovabitch. My father attributed my malady to hanging around with the nigger kids--he would never say "nigger," even though we had two of our own before they ran away to the Federals. He only allowed us to call them "colored people" or "darkies" or "servants." Like everybody else, I called the old ones aunts and uncles, just like I did my real aunt and uncle, those I knew like family, anyway. I never understood him about that. Christ, the niggers called themselves niggers. So he thought I caught the eruption from the niggers who lived on the next farm--we'd borrow them sometimes to help with the farm work--but I reckon that I got it from David Steward's dog. David was one of Poppa's students, and his half-dead Irish setter had a terrible case of the mange, but I felt sorry for the damned thing and petted it. David had the ringworm too, so it had to be the dog. Course, so did the niggers. Seemed like everyone but Mother and Poppa had it that season.
Mother didn't care how I'd caught it. She'd been doing her best to cure it by rubbing my head with silver nitrate medication that burned like fire and another potion she'd made up by dropping a copper penny into vinegar; and part of my hair fell out because of it and hasn't grown back even yet. And as a further humiliation, I had to wear a turban around my head "so as not to scratch the worms and infect everybody else."
"I can't go out like this," I said to Poppa when he called me out of my room, expecting me to be all shined up and dressed for church. I was in my night drawers, and I left my turban off. My hair was mussed and greasy and itchy. Poppa was wearing his best black suit and a shiny cravat, and Mother was wearing her Sunday dress and a brooch and a bonnet with a white bow.
He turned to Mother and said, "If you were conspiring with him to stay home on the Lord's Day, you could have at least told me. I would have made provisions. We could have borrowed Eliza from Arthur Allen. She'd look after him while we're gone and make sure he had a decent Bible lesson." Poppa shook his head, as if he was telling somebody "No," and said, "At least his darkies didn't run off to the Yankees."
"You know why ours left," Mother said sharply. That stopped Poppa pretty cold, and then she looked at me and said, "And how do you suppose we'd look taking Mundy with his head looking all encrustated like that? Mr. McDowell, sometimes I wonder about--" Mother would always get started and then stop just like that. Now she was the one looking guilty. She talked low now, as if she was being introduced to someone important. "Mundy will be fine here alone. I've prepared his Bible lessons to study while we're at church. Everything's all laid out on your desk. You might want to approve it, of course. And we can stop at Mr. Allen's farm on the way to church. I'm sure he won't mind sending one of the servants over to look after Mundy." She looked at me and nodded, as if to say "I told you so."
But I knew they wouldn't do any such thing. They always used to threaten me with Eliza. All she ever did though was tell me to read the "Raising of Lazarus" or "Daniel in the Lions' Den," and then she would put on all of Mother's dresses and bonnets and jewellery and twirl around like she was at a ball. But she never did steal anything.
I heard a real good blast of cannonading in the distance; and Mother got the funny look on her face that she always gets when she's concerned and said, "Perhaps we should all stay here with Mundy."
But Poppa said, "It's just the usual annoyance of the enemy," and that was that.
He limped out onto the porch to listen, though. I should have probably told you that Poppa had served in the militia as a chaplain until he got an inflammation in the bone of his leg. He almost died from the blood poisoning and brain fever, and he had to use a cane after that, and sometimes his words would get all mixed up--but never when he was preaching the skin off the snakes.
"It's just skirmishing, like yesterday, and the day before that," he said, sniffing, as if he could smell the noise. He used to do that in the schoolhouse back behind the barn, lift up his head and take a sniff, and then he'd take the switch to whoever was passing notes or whispering or not paying proper attention. "But it might just come to something. Your Colonel Ashby, God bless him, must be biting off General Shields's toes again. And I hear that Jackson's coming north. But that's all gossip. I hear the same thing most every day." He sniffed again, and sure enough the cracking of muskets started, then died, and it seemed like it would just be an ordinary Sunday, except I wouldn't have to go to church.
Mother finally came out on the porch and said, "I do fear leaving Mundy alone."
"Well, I gave my solemn promise to Mr. Williams that I'd deliver a sermon, and a man's word is his bond. You can come with me or stay, as you will."
You see, Mother would always turn everything around on Poppa. And there just wasn't any way she was going to stay with me and not go to town, even if she would have to worry about me a little. We were used to the cannonading and the skirmishing. It was nothing more, I suppose, than having thunderstorms every day. Only that wasn't true. Everybody was fearful, just nobody cared to show it.
I watched my folks go off in their carriage, but I didn't know that I was only going to see them once more in my life. Or that Sunday was going to bring more than thunder.
It was going to bring the dogs right out of hell.
I listened for a while to the cannon volleys and musket fire echoing across the hills and waited for them to stop. They always did. But then they'd start right up again like rain falling hard on a tin roof. I knew something more than skirmishing was going to happen--I could feel it--and I knew that Mother might talk Poppa into turning the carriage around, so I went out beyond the old corn house that had burned down. I went past the garden and lumber house by the edge of the woods to check the gums, which was what Poppa called our rabbit traps. I don't know why we called them that. I'd asked Poppa about it once, and he just said that's what they're called. We used boxes about two feet long baited with pieces of apple, and they worked better than noose snares, that's for sure. Poppa wasn't much with a rifle and never had time for it, so we ate a lot of rabbit during the winter. I'd catch fifty, maybe more before summer, and that was more than enough to fill out what we had of bacon, sausage, pigs' feet, and ham. It was against the rules to kill rabbits on the Sabbath, but I usually did anyway. I'd leave them hanging in the smoke house because it wasn't fair to leave them in the gums until Monday.
I knew I was fooling myself with all this business of going out to the woods to check the gums. I knew I was going to see about the skirmishing, but I just felt better fooling myself. Maybe I might change my mind and go back to the house and study the Bible.
I found only one rabbit; it was in the gum by our stone fence. It was a big one with brown spots; and as I grabbed its hind legs with my left hand, it shook like it was vibrating. I know how to kill rabbits quickly and efficiently, just hit it sharp on the back of the neck and drop it before it dies. Bad luck if it dies in your hands. Aunt Hanna--she was our servant who ran away to be with Uncle Isaac--told me that if an animal dies in your hands it's bad luck and you'll surely die before your next birthday. So I always dropped them quick.
Anyway, I was ready to hack this fat rabbit right behind the ears and drop it next to the gum when something strange came over me, and instead of killing it, I threw it right over the stone fence and let it escape into the woods. To this day I don't know why I did that. It wasn't like I felt sorry for the rabbit. Maybe it was because I knew I was going to break my word to Poppa and go out to watch the skirmishing. Maybe I didn't want to commit two sins right after the other. Angry with myself for being so stupid, I climbed over the fence and left the farm. But you know, something felt different, not right, as if just then something had changed; and yet I couldn't tell you what.
It wasn't difficult to figure where the fighting was. I just had to follow my ears, which, of course, led me just about to Mr. Joseph Barton's farm. I knew this country pretty well and cut through the woods and over Sandy Ridge. No sense walking big as life through the fields and getting your foolish ass shot off. The woods were empty because the fighting was concentrated pretty much along the pike, and it was just skirmishing, nothing much more than that from what I could tell. But I couldn't see anything much, not even from the ridge, which is pretty high and starts to the west of Winchester and runs some six miles down to the Opequon Creek. The pike's not far and runs along to the side of it.
I guessed that the Yankee guns were firing somewhere around Pritchard's Hill, and that our own were returning fire from Hodge Run or maybe below. If General Jackson and his army were around, they certainly weren't here.
Course, soon as I figured that, I heard twigs snapping all over. Then I heard what seemed like a thousand muskets firing all around me, and there seemed to be a whirlwind of balls suddenly flying around and hissing just like snakes. I could almost feel the whomp of a ball as it hit a tree trunk to my right. Somebody shouted and I heard the thud of a ball hitting something soft, and a noise such like someone just had his breath knocked out of him. And then I heard a heartbreaking wailing like a mother who'd just lost her son. "Come on, boys," someone shouted in a bluebelly dialect, and more twigs cracked as men ran through the woods.
I stayed close to the ground. It was cold and damp, and I could smell the moss on the birch and, I swear, I could also smell the sour-apple sweat of the soldiers even though I couldn't see much of them. I did see several men through the trees, and I thought they might have been our own, but I couldn't tell; they could just as easily have been Yankees. I crouched even harder against that birch tree as if I could squeeze myself right into the bark when the muskets started firing again. It was hard to tell where the balls were coming from. It didn't seem like there could be that many soldiers out here. Most of the Yanks were at least a half-mile away. Then I heard someone stepping through the woods near me calling and crying over and over in the most plaintive voice you ever heard, "Whey is my boys? Whey is my marsters?" And that voice sounded just like Jimmadasin, the McSherrys' house servant. You couldn't miss it; he had a voice that was so high and reedy, it sounded just like a woman's. But I always thought he was having it up on all of us, because when he sang his voice would suddenly get deep and full. He was responsible for minding Allan and Harry McSherry, who were twelve and fourteen, respectively. (I told you about them before; their mother, Cornelia, was my mother's best friend.)
Well, the shooting stopped, and someone said, "Get the hell outa here, you crazy nigger. Yer gonna get yourself killed." That sounded like one of our boys, but I guess it didn't much matter to the nigger who it was because he just kept on walking until he was right beside me.
And just as I'd thought, it was Jimmadasin right there in the flesh. He was wearing the filthy felt hat he always wore, pulled down right on his forehead, and though he was old, he was no bigger than me. His
Table of Contents
|An Author's Note of a Sort||xi|
|1||Seeing the Spirit Dog and Forgetting How to Talk||1|
|2||Piling Up Dem Bones||21|
|3||Private Newton's War in the Air||47|
|4||Jimmadasin Rises Up from the Dead||59|
|5||The Walkin' Boy||75|
|6||The Cave of the Baby Jesus||91|
|7||When Dixie Died||115|
|8||In Heaven with General Jackson and Abe Lincoln||131|
|10||Listenin' to the Spirits Fight||189|
|11||Followin' the Spirits through the Smoke||209|
|12||The Power of Roots||221|
|13||Puttin' Money in the Bank||247|
|14||The Portals of Heaven||269|
|A Note from Jack Dann||283|
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