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daft. I know it. All the doctors say so, but what they mean by daft
is touched by God. Take up arms against a sea of troubles. It says
that somewhere in the Bible. He speaks to me, you know. I understand
you may even be of the demon's party and in disguise, but you are
chosen to receive the tale. Even unto the Isles of Chittim and into
Kedar they would know of my fate and how I wore the avenger's mantle.
After the capture and his death, I signed the affidavit, and
they gave me sixteen hundred dollars, my share equal to the other
troopers, but I alone fired the shot. I was the chosen one, the
one with the wound.
We had just reached Front Royal, horses tired, us sleepy in
the McClellan saddles. Lt. Doherty said surround the barn, and we
did. One came out, the other dawdling back with a crutch. We could
see his shadow. Just the two of them, and the twenty-six of us,
all veterans from the 16th New York, but he taunted us and spoke
in fiendish ways till torching the tobacco barn seemed to put him
in his element.
Since the Gehenna called Andersonville God had spoken to me
directly. He said I was exchanged to bring the message to troops
on the front, so I stumped the camp and told of the she-dragon's
mission, her fetid breath. I chastised and blew the trumpet of the
Lord not to sow discord but because the Word was my fruit better
than gold, yea, than fine gold and my revenue than choice silver.
They called me the Glory-to-God Man, but Christ walked in my tunic
with me; I could feel the wounds. I moved among the sons of man
and raised my tongue for Zion. When Butterfield blasphemed, I rebuked
him, and they threw me in irons. My old injury flared, and dreams
of garish women came. My sleep was a castle of screams.
It was memory retrieved me. Some brevet major recalled how
I fought Mosby in the valley, snapping pistols till a dozen of his
ghost men retreated. That polluted Rebel mentioned my bravery in
dispatches our scouts captured, so I had that sliver of celebrity
and was set free.
Andersonville was akin to Hell, our water downstream from
the guards' latrines, maggots in the meager cush and only the ragged
shebangs to keep the Georgia sun from off our brains. Despite the
misery, I held my heart as a lamp and stooped to begging medicine
and greens from a sentry, for better a living dog than a dead lion.
I whispered gospel to those who perished and blessed their passage.
The secesh swapped me out because it was a poor-kept secret, how
the rebel infidels were treating our boys, and since I looked hale
and not a scarecrow, they thought I was one of a few who would give
the lie to starvation rumors. I took the pardon pledge and broke
it. I told all I had seen.
The curing burley caught like tinder, and he was circled by
fire the color of October leaves, though it was April. The smoke
rose, and he stood in the door port with a crutch and rifle calling,
'Give a lame man a chance.' So he and I shared the misery of damage.
Then I saw he lifted the weapon to answer our words, and that was
when the voice came back, itself a thing of smoke and the thin light
of dawn: 'You must smite the unholy in his fire as he dances.' It
was familiar, a tone my father might have used when I was English
and a boy. 'Send him to his destiny now.'
They say I shot with a revolver, but no man could have risen
to that demanding a performance with a short gun. I used my carbine,
and even then, I was off the mark. His shoulder was my target, but
he moved, himself taking aim, I now believe, and the lead went to
his neck. One detective with us said the actor was a beauty in that
moment, Apollo framed in flame. I know idolatry when I hear it.
Newspapers proclaimed him the handsomest man in America, and since
Ford's Theater, we all knew he was crazed, moved by some force beyond
the human. When I heard that voice, I knew the infernal was working
through him, that he would rend the world.
I am not a good man, only a vessel. It is the hatter's madness
makes me strange. The mercury in our felt treatment emits fumes
that take us all by the mind and turn us peculiar. Grief complicated
my situation. My wife Rachael died in giving birth near Troy, New
York, and the daughter we would have called Cass went with her.
I turned to strong drink and heard no voices to stay me, for I was
still a vile man of the earth, a brother to dragons and a companion
to owls, and when the two harborside doxies with soot in their laughter
took me to their shed, I reveled with the brimstone drink. The words
I told myself next morning were Old Testament: 'Howl, O Heshbon
for Ai is spoiled.'
You have to seek your own apt punishment, they say. I took
the scissors ' this was long before the war ' and slit the bull
sack, removed my two manly chestnuts in which the devil may reside,
then went back to blocking hats with fury. And yet, I bled. Infection
set in, and I suffered on the brink in Massachusetts General for
weeks after. At odd moments the ache comes back, and it can rise
to anguish, so I can never forget transgression, even if I am anointed.
In the saddle I am forever in reminiscent pain.
We carried him under the apple tree, and Miss Lucinda Holloway,
a local beauty, bathed his brow. We gave him brandy the color of
dawn that was streaking the east, and he spoke, gasping, already
a ghost. 'Oh, Kill me, kill me,' he said and, 'Tell my mother I
died for my country. I did what I thought was best.' He wore no
moustache, and I stood leaning against a tulip tree because I was
tired and because I feared we all had made an error, but the voice
makes no mistakes in mortal matters. That man was doomed and I the
instrument only. God told me, 'Rejoice, for you have broken the
bow of Elam.'
'Useless,' he ended, 'useless, useless,' and that was it.
Conger and Baker from the War Department rifled through his effects,
the diary, the candle-splattered compass, penknife and pipe. Pictures
of women fell out of his book, and I knew why he had been the devil's
vessel and darling. The old stain, he carried it too. The harlots
summoned him, and he answered. His end was written with a pen of
iron and a point of diamond. I have heard his faithful, those struck
by his passion on the stage, wore his hair in silver lockets. Woe
unto them, for they shall suffer in the shadow of the scythe. Akin
We were too far from the Rappahannock to hear the water glisten
that morning, but something akin to its shimmer washed over all
us soldiers, and we knew the war had truly come to its final curtain
and cost us Father Abraham's justice and our nation's soul. Booth
lay upon a straw mattress, and apple blossoms drifted down on the
slightest breeze. He looked peaceful, and somebody pinned his coat
with a new rose, but not for pity.
he conspiracy frenzy was up, everybody wanting a target for
the blame, so they arrested me shortly after, said I had to be in
league with the others, deputized to silence the ringleader. I chafed
in the chains, but God spoke how this was Babylon and I the emissary.
'In due time,' he said, and it was so. They released me and handed
over a wallet of money. I knew I was no Judas. It was the same reward
they gave my comrades. Duty to the flag and to His throne. I would
not hang myself from the redbud's limbs.
'Glory be,' I thought, and left the army.
They say I began to be a mystery, to move as an apparition,
but it is not true, for I returned to Boston, the city I was called
to like Paul to Antioch, and I set my weapons aside to resume the
hatter's humble trade in the shop of Samuel Mason. Everywhere I
stepped was filled with heathens and Jezebel women, so I spoke out
with strife in my words and promised the tribes would swallow them
up. The Lord would make that city a desolation and an hissing, but
they painted me a fool and paid no heed.
New Jersey, Ohio-I wandered then, speaking my gospel of the
New Covenant and the Second Coming, and some thought me mad, though
you can see I've come full circle, as sane as a babe. And when I
fell hungry and needed some of the ready cash, I showed my discharge
papers and the portrait Brady's apprentice made. I wrote autographs
for money. I raised my Ebenezer, then visited with Richard Thatcher
whose sweet acquaintance I had made in the stockade at Andersonville.
One cold evening in that pit he showed me an ambrotype of his sister,
and I told him they are all deceivers. Still, he saved me when I
nearly crossed the deadline in a fever. The guards were only boys,
but Wirtz had told them to shoot any man who strayed over that mark.
Dick set me up with W.W. Garritt and Sons, so I sold patent medicine
from a Conestoga briefly. It was not my calling. I was meant for
Concordia, Kansas became my wilderness, my site of trial.
So as you see, there is no Seward in my story, no cabal or midnight
legions. He had me released from the brig, but only from a distance.
Conspiracy? They make me laugh. I was there in Virginia on military
orders and God's blueprint, thus needed no self-seeker to guide
my hand. I did not know when Lincoln passed that he would be a saint,
yet I mourned him a prophet: we shared that. The coven they hanged
in vengeance was poison enough to kill a king.
I lived in the dugout outside Concordia and shunned all contact
with the weak sex. There I earned a reputation for shooting hawks
and crows. I kept sheep and went to town only for provender, but
it was '78 and Barnum came to me, offered to display me in a tent
with Jenny Lind and the Feejee Mermaid. I read him scripture and
said the curtain of his temple would be rent. General Tom Thumb
and me, indeed! I am no ordinary gelding.
Despite Booth, it is Andersonville that has haunted me, the
prisoners like so many lean kine in a pharaoh's dream. I learned
to dry pemmican on the prairie and kept it in my boot so I would
not be hungry again. I made my salves from forest plants and squaw
recipes. This pilgrim had had his fill of men, as well, their lusts
and rough talk, the addiction to swift fiddles and the scents of
Sheba, but still the voice led me upon soapboxes to preach. They
treated me roughly and would not heed the warnings. I took God's
Glory to the streets and was cast down, all to remind me of my transgressions.
And when has a man worked out his salvation? I was anonymous again.
I sent a letter east to Booth's sister Asia, who was not the
spinster I thought. She answered in calm words and said her family
considered me their deliverer, as her brother's atrocities had to
be stopped. She said I should have no regrets. Imagine. As if excuse
from coy skirt-wearers were needed when divine instruction guides
The GAR had it in mind I should be rescued. How strange that
Lincoln, once so reviled by soldiers, would become their martyr
and the amusing Booth the shibboleth. They obtained a post as an
assistant gatekeeper that I might have a sinecure, and as always
my handiwork with firearms was admired, for my eyes had not yet
dimmed. Perhaps they thought I might protect their windy orators
from other assassins. At least it was a chamber where no women ventured,
though the statesmen embraced plagues and pestilence.
The story of my arrestment is exaggerated. I never fired a
single shot that afternoon in Kansas, but only demonstrated with
drawn weapons. No one was in danger, but it was a holiday and the
pages were performing their mock session for amusement, which did
not trouble me until one preening jaybird of a fellow mocked the
prayer I myself had often been called upon to render when some veteran
was assigning the day's offices. I will not hear God mocked. I thought
to pistol-whip the whelp, but others dragged me down and wrapped
my wrists in bootlace. I spoke of Migdol and Tahpanhes and reviled
the golden calf, but they claimed I was only raging.
The Topeka asylum could not hold me a year. It was more Andersonville
than you imagine, and the warden put me in mind of that German hanged
as a war criminal for letting prisoners rot and starve. Some half-wit
postman left a horse beside the entrance, and I was up and gone,
just dust in their benighted eyes.
It was '88, and Booth himself only a rumor then, a bogeyman
to frighten children. I went north, hoping the Lord would let his
ice salve my sore groin. Minnesota. I lurked in the forests near
the logging camp at Kettle. They needed venison, and I could still
shoot. Half a decade I lived in a sod house underhill and spoke
seldom to men or beasts. I was like unto a wild ass used to the
wilderness that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure. The voice
came rarely, and then only to tell me I should stay safe in the
bosom of the outland. When the Great Hinckley Fire struck in '94,
I was wandering on a hunt, bringing down buck elk and salting them,
caching till I could return with the wagon. I saw the billows of
smoke greater than any tobacco barn and heard the rush of birds
and creatures through the brush. Rehearsal for Apocalypse. I knew
it was time again to move, though history says I stayed and became
That was when I came here, and here is where I fell ill with
the feeling of wool in my lungs. It's a smaller story than many
would suppose and no secret. I thought to make a clean breast of
my narrative to someone, dredge up the dregs, make my report, and
you seem a kind and educated man. History is in us woven with our
Creator's plan, and His Voice is the lodestone. Come closer and
I will tell you the password for the Golden Kingdom. Closer still,
to preserve my breath. It's Booth's, the last word, the key to paradise.
'Useless.' It rides the serpent's hiss, and why that is I will never
be able to say. The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we
are not any of us saved.
R. T. Smith's most
recent collection of poems, Messenger, received the Library
of Virginia Poetry Award in 2002. His next two collections, Brightwood
and The Hollow Log Lounge are forthcoming in 2003 from
Louisiana Sate University Press and Illinois University Press respectively.
He has published stories in The Southern Review, New
Stories from the South, and Missouri Review.