"Papa and I were husking out some corn... Samuel Cory come across the field...and said, 'Isaiah, they have fired upon and taken Fort Sumter.' Pa got white and woudn't say a werd. Later when he come downstares he looked ten year older. Ma wanted to know what was the trouble. Father told her and she begun to cry. 'Oh, my poor children of the South. Now they will suffer... Oh, to think that I should have lived to see the day when brother shall rise against brother.' When I heard those sobs, I lit out for the barn. Oh I do hate to see women cry."
-Isaiah Blackwell, April 16, 1861
A morning mist hung so low and thick the farmhouse appeared to be floating. Spindly-armed trees surrounded the house, giants guarding against a vague foreboding. Isaiah tried to shake himself awake. He looked at his mother. A brimming wetness glistened in her eyes.
His father, dressed in Confederate gray, seemed a stranger---stiff, sad, somber. He stepped up to Isaiah, held out a huge hand. Isaiah's words tumbled over one another, "Pa, please let me go. Mama will have Jeb. Then after I serve for six month, Jeb can come in my place..."
Papa shook his head. The laugh lines around his eyes appeared now only as shadowed wrinkles.
"Pa, I can fight. You got to..."
"Son, you will stay with your mama. That's all."
He moved to the other son. Instead of shaking the proffered hand, Jeb reached out and clung to his father with a stifled sob.
Speaking softly, papa said, "You boys're old enough now to tend the place and look after your mama. The South has held her own and with Lee in charge it mightn't be so long."
The boys stared at the ground. A huge Negro man and an older female black stood to the side. The man was so dark he looked blue. Reddish-tan scars striped his neck. He bowed and grinned uncertainly as father tipped his hat. The female's brillo hair was mingled with gray, and one iris had turned milky-tan. She nodded and curtsied awkwardly. She had served the family since the boys were babies.
The man faced his wife for a long moment. He touched her rust-colored hair, her high Irish cheekbones. His fingers barely brushed down her body, as if to memorize her shape. He hugged her, whispered something in her ear. Then he mounted his horse and disappeared quickly in the fog.
The extra work kept the boys well beyond busy for several weeks. With pre-dawn chores and steady daytime labor, by dinnertime they were exhausted. Often, dinners were dead silent affairs and dessert was a rarity. One Saturday, mother was given some Granny Smiths by a generous neighbor, and she made an apple pie. She knew big Jeb was truly tuckered that evening, when he nodded off over his half eaten pie.
It was obvious the boys were running themselves ragged, so one day mama told them she had an awful craving for fresh fish and sent them off to the brook for the morning. It was a few hundred yards from the homestead, running along the eastern edge of the property. Ordinarily it was shallow and bubbling, but now it was swollen from spring rains.
When the boys reached its banks, they immediately began rigging their favorite homemade flies---motley, odd-looking lures that they believed in religiously for attracting fish.
"Bet I catch a bigger trout than you," said Isaiah.
"Now don't get to boasting," said Jeb. "Papa took me fishing in the Rappahannock fore you even knew how to talk."
"But last time we was here I found a secret spot. The trout were splashing and fussing-- just begging me for the hook."
"You don't know nothin. When them fish hear I'm coming they line up on the bank and start rassling over who gets to come home with me."
"Remember," said Isaiah, "the one catches the biggest fish gets to sit tomorrow whilst the other does his chores."
The two separated to opposite sides of the stream and began whipping their fishing lines through the air, letting the flies rest momentarily on water's surface before whipping to another spot. Their father had spent weeks teaching them the technique. First he'd made them watch him until they were salivating for a try. Then he taught them the intricacy of knowing exactly how long to let the fly rest on the surface before flicking it. Casting was difficult to do with cane poles but the boys had finally mastered what method there was.
Years before, the boys' father had given them the poles. Now, Jeb's massive frame made his look like a hickory switch. He and Isaiah didn't even appear to be brothers. Isaiah was shorter and more striking, with green eyes and light brown hair reaching his shoulders. His eyes missed little---always digging, always learning. Jeb's face was craggy, with a reddish stubble and distinct wrinkles on his forehead. But when he grinned, hard lines softened, eyes glowed, and people were drawn to him. He wore his hair short, but everything else about him was long, thick, and strong.
After fishing in silence for a while, Jeb’s pole jerked and he cried out. He fought the fish for a bit, then pulled in a large rainbow trout.
"Got the first fish.”
"So what?" said Isaiah. "I use that kind for bait," but he edged up the bank.
"Move your parts on out," said Jeb. "This is my spot."
"Make me, if you're able." They fished in silence for a while.
"You ever think about Pa?" asked Jeb.
"I miss him joshing with us and teaching us how to shoot and whatnot."
"I think mama's missing him bad. I seen her eyes when she don't think no one's about."
"Hope nothing happens to Papa. You know, you came in the other day from planting and I seen the mud on your boots…you whistled through your teeth the way Pa does. For a second, I thought you was him."
Isaiah looked Jeb in the eye. "Pa’s not going to die. He ain't one to hang back, so he might get himself hurt, but he won’t die."
Jeb nodded soberly.
Isaiah jerked on his pole and pulled in a small one. That's how the afternoon went. Isaiah caught more fish than Jeb, but Jeb hooked the bigger ones.
When they were ready to go, Isaiah grabbed Jeb's biggest rainbow and tried to throw it back. As they struggled for it, the fish kept slipping out of their hands and flipping about in the reeds. Isaiah wrestled big Jeb to the ground, but, with a mighty twist, the older brother flipped him over, lifted him off the ground and heaved him into the stream.
The boys took every opportunity to go to town, any town. It offered relief from the obscurity of farm life. And there were lots of people, sights to see, products and foods that were either new to them or seldom seen.
One Saturday their mother announced a trip to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Usually they just rode over to Covington Springs for supplies, but there were certain items that could not be obtained there. White Sulphur Springs skirted the Virginia-West Virginia border, so it wasn't much trouble to get there.
Two stops the boys always made in town were, first, the grocery or the bakery, where they bought as much food as their meager pocket change would allow---sausages, sarsparilla, pastries---things they didn't get at home. Second, they always went to the racehorse corral. Sulphur Springs was well known for an annual race which wound in a circular route in the hills west of town but began and ended on Main Street, directly in front of the livery. The town banker had won more races with his gutsy geldings than any other citizen.
On Saturdays, some ranchers rode their racers into town to show them off a bit. The boys loved to watch the well-proportioned horses pacing the corral and they liked hearing the salty give and take as men shouted speculations regarding the year's race.
On this afternoon, as the boys watched the horses prance, something else drew their attention. Out on the street, two public orators competed loudly for onlookers' attention. As Isaiah and Jeb approached, most folks were booing and catcalling the words of one speaker. He wasn't as well attired as the other and he spoke the homey dialect of the South.
"I'm telling ya, people," he yelled, "the Southern stand is the righteous cause in this terrible war. Them high 'n mighty No'theners trying to take over. If the South loses, t'aint just slavery the Yankees against---they got it in good and heavy for us. They want to take ever'thing we hold dear. You cain't believe this West Virginia turncoat..."
The other speaker broke in. He spoke loudly but seemed calmer than the Southerner, more self-assured. "This man is a wild-eyed lunatic. West Virginia sided with the Union for good reason. These American states can become the greatest nation in the world if we preserve our union. We cannot allow these rebels to destroy a prospering democracy."
"Now that’s a big whopping lie," the man replied. "We're fighting to save our helpless women and children. It's your cruel armies that have invaded our lands and our homes. We will defend ourselves til the last brave man of the South falls under your evil fire."
"That’s foolish, sir---all this killing need not have been. If the South had been willing to dicker and deal, we could have worked out our differences without war. When the South fired on Fort Sumter, they unleashed a monster that was never dreamed of. To avoid bloodshed, Lincoln would have done anything he could in good conscience do."
At the mention of Lincoln's name most cheered, but a few tried to drown them out with a chorus of ugly epithets.
The boys' mother spied them from down the street and called. But the brothers were momentarily captivated by the speeches. Her call came louder. Finally they turned reluctantly away.
"Our President's a great and wise man," shouted the Union man. "He knows that the dream of a great nation is worth even the cost of blood betwixt brothers of the North and South..."
Jeb turned to listen, but Isaiah grabbed his arm and tugged him down the street.
That night, the boys gazed through their loft window at the stars.
After a long silence, Jeb asked, "You asleep?"
"What you want?"
"I been thinking bout what them men were saying in town.
I know daddy's fighting for the South, but that Union speaker spoke some sense. I mean, it seems like if the states stuck together, maybe we could become great."
"So what? If we can't be free to do what we think's right, I don't care bout no great country."
"I got to think on it some more."
"Daddy'd be raging if he knowed what you were thinking."
"Always taught us to do our own thinking."
"Not about this war, he ain't."
Months came and went. Jeb seemed troubled. Mother kept asking if he was well, and he stared blankly at her and mumbled that she should leave him alone. She fussed over both boys, Jeb more than Isaiah. Jeb had always been bigger and more robust than Isaiah, but down inside there were vulnerable places---places a mother knew but few others. When Isaiah's temper rose, he could get downright mean and he'd skirt close, right along the fringes of his brother's most tender places. More than once, their mother had jumped into arguments to rescue Jeb.
Now and then Jeb held hesitant conversations with Isaiah about the opposing causes. Isaiah continued adamantly supporting the Confederacy; Jeb quietly read any news he could find about specific personalities and battles.
Isaiah debated the subject too but only in his mind. He liked the idea of perhaps building the world's greatest nation. However, when he thought of his father, he knew he could never fight for the Union. He wondered how Jeb could even consider such a thing. Above all, the family had to stay together. If Jeb joined the Union, surely papa would bolt past Union lines, face down old Grant, and drag big Jeb bodily into Lee's army.
One drizzly morning while Jeb was fixing a fence the cows had pushed through, Isaiah drove the wagon into Covington Springs for supplies. He stopped at the mercantile where two old men lounged outside. They'd spent their days lounging in front of that store for as long as Isaiah could recall.
"Hey, Isaiah," said Ralf. "Hadn't seen you in Covington in a
while. How's Jeb and your mother faring?"
"Oh, fine, fine. We been busy getting ready for spring planting. Waited til our supplies almost done in." Isaiah kept trading small talk as he loaded the wagon with supplies.
Isaiah once asked his father if the pair ever worked. Papa chuckled and said that a lifetime ago the two had tried to run an all-purpose, novelty store in the tiny town. Despite every wheedling sales trick in the books, the store had barely kept the men clothed and fed. Finally they'd done everyone a favor and shut the place down. Citizens seemed so grateful to be no longer harassed that they took it upon themselves to make sure the pair had the necessities.
The mercantile became the codgers' permanent roost, and they readily began outdoing certain town women as gossips of the first order. However, ever since the war began, they’d turned their full attention to ferreting out every stray fact about it that they could dig up.
"We was just discussing the chief battles of the war," said Amos. “Maybe you can talk a little sense into Ralf. We both agree that the Rebs whipped the Yanks at First Battle of Manasses, and he’ll admit that the Yanks took Nashville and made Beauregard retreat at Shiloh, but he thinks we won the Peninsular Campaign and Antietam.”
“I’m right, you slab-sided pine-rooter,” said Ralf, “plus we won at Fredericksburg, Stones River, and Chancellorsville.”
“Fool, your mama must be ashamed,” Amos said, licking tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth. “At best, Antietam and Stones River was stalemates. And though it cost them Yanks dearly, Gettysburg and Vicksburg was not Rebel victories.”
“But we wupped em at Chickamauga. And we’ve still got Lee up here, Johnston in Carolina, and Sherman and Forrest down Mississippi way. What you turning into, a Yank abo-li-tionist?”
“Don’t you accuse me, mister. I just ain’t one to soothe my mind with sweet tasting lies.”
Isaiah knew better than to take sides in this argument.
He asked, "It true Lincoln thinks the next six months could mean the final crushing of the Confeder'cy?"
"Yessir, can’t believe the killing's been going on for even this long," said Ralf. "At the beginning, they figured the Secess'd surrender once we saw a few hundred of our sons lying dead on the hills."
"We done surprised everybody," Amos said. "But now it's getting so's Lee can't fill his ranks as his boys fall."
"How long's your pa been gone?" asked Ralf.
"Just coming up on two year."
Ralf slapped a mosquito and wiped the blood off on his overalls.
"Know you boys've stayed out of the war cause your mother don't think she could drive the farm without you, but this'd be the time to join up. You two boys could join your daddy and help the South drag home the bacon. "
"It's something to think on," said Isaiah. "But I don’t think Ma would hear of it."
A hunched man stepped out of the livery. He wore butternut pants pulled high above his waist, revealing flappy feet and calfless legs. Isaiah turned quickly and made as if to enter the store, but it was too late.
“Hey, boy,” the man called, “ain’t you going to comfort your uncle in his time of grief?”
The man came toward him in awkward lurches like a headstrong marionette. His face was narrow with cadaverous hollows and a mouthful of entangled teeth. His one good eye, sunk far back under black seaweed brows, jerked here and there like a wary vulture, never meeting anyone’s eyes unless forced. The false eye was frightful---a roughly painted iris and pupil on a yellowish, uneven sphere.
“Hello, Uncle Vern,” said Isaiah. “I’ve heard no cause for grief.”
“My Harriet has passed to the great beyond,” he said. “Wouldn’t have left the brave field of battle cept for this frightful tragedy. Were here on furlough only four months back…”
“Forgive me, uncle. I didn’t even know Aunt Harriet was feeling puny.”
“T’wasn’t sickness. Daughter found her in the pond out back.”
“Now why would she go for a swim? She never did like the water.”
“Wasn’t swimming. Wearing her Sundy best. Thing I feel worst about is the judgment in store for such. She’ll burn.” He shook his head with dismal relish. “Oh, my Harriet will burn.”
Isaiah felt a heat rising. “I never knew a finer, more God-fearing woman than Aunt Harriet. Surely the Almighty will have more mercy upon her than the one that brought her to such a state.”
“I agree with the boy, Snodgrass,” said Ralf. “Seem like it takes a awful hurt to resort to such a measure to escape this life.”
“She was a weak and troubled soul. I done my best by her---give her gifts, two chil’ren, builded her a homestead…”
“That why my Pa whupped you once behind your barn? Don’t say it didn’t happen, I saw the marks.”
Uncle Vern swooped to within inches of Isaiah’s face and poked a pale tentacle hard against his chest. “A lily-livered child like you best run and hide all atremble,” he murmured in a low sing song, “and leave growed up matters to growed up men.”
Isaiah pushed his hand away. “Ain’t no child, uncle, and I know what I know.”
“You and your cowardly brother hunker down in the corn crib while all the menfolk fight for the honor of the Confed’racy. Don’t tell me you ain’t no child.”
Isaiah forced himself to step back and turn away. Amos grabbed his cane and swung it, just missing Snodgrass as the man jumped backward. The hunched man did not provoke Isaiah further, but as Isaiah left in the wagon, he did his awkward jerk-step down the street as if in pursuit.
Isaiah's trip into town meant that he had to rush through chores, and dinner took place after dark. As the three ate, Isaiah said, "I saw Uncle Vern in town. Was home on furlough cause Aunt Harriet done drowned herself. Didn’t you know about it, Ma?”
Mother looked away. “Yes, I knew. It makes me so angry I could spit fire. But I saw no reason to stir up you boys. After what your father did to Vern, I didn’t want to tempt you…”
“No reason to keep things from us, Ma,” said Isaiah. “We’re not little boys anymore.”
“I know… it’s just my thoughts are so murderous toward that wicked man.”
Jeb spoke up. “What all did he do? We just knew he shamed Aunt Harriet, and Papa beat him.”
Mother hesitated, staring down at her plate. Finally she said, “Well, I know of only one time he hit my sweet sister when it left a bruise. But I believe what he did was more damnable than a beating.”
She sighed. “He drove her to it. That’s sure what he wanted all along. He would praise her to the heavens but if she once failed in his eyes he’d drive her into the ground with ridicule. He would promise her the moon but give nothing but empty chaff. Sometimes he acted kindly for days or even weeks, but the moment she finally begun to feel a touch of cheer, he took great delight in shocking her with some word or deed so hateful it would drive her to her room in tears and nervous exhaustion.”
Jeb threw a corn cob at the wall. “I hate Uncle Vern. That’s pure meanness.”
“The day your daddy beat Vern was on Harriet’s thirty-seventh birthday. Vern had said he wanted to have a special gathering for her birthday, with cakes and pies and nice gifts. But when all the neighbors and relatives come to the house, Vern was spleenful---mean as a rabid wolf. He said there would be no gathering because Harriet was lately a sad excuse for a wife. He went on about how of late she had to nap most days, and she didn’t satisfy his manhood, and he had to buy things like candles and butter because she didn’t make them… When he was halfway through, she ran out of the house and into the woods aweeping. Your Papa invited Vern to come behind the barn, and when your uncle come out of there, he had bruises and knots all over him. That was two and a half years ago…”
“Was uncle ever nice to her atall?”
Her voice broke. “He took pleasure in mixing good and evil in just such a potion as to become the most vile poison in the world. Every time, he stroked her heart tender til the innocent thing opened up a crack; he then dashed it with a stone. Finally the heart just broke in a thousand pieces. To tell you boys the truth, I’m surprised my sister didn’t leave this world earlier.”
“Why didn’t she just run away from him?” asked Isaiah.
“The meek and timid type’s that way sometimes. I spoke to her but I think she was just too afraid to leave him.”
Jeb slammed his fist down on a biscuit, smashing it flat. “I wish I could do that to him.”
They ate for a while in silence.
Isaiah awkwardly changed the subject. “Before I about wrung uncle’s neck, uh, I spoke to Ralf Johnson and Amos Shields at the mercantile. Claims things is going hard for the South---real hard..."
"How much longer’s this fool war going to last?" asked his mother.
"Said the North could crush the South in six months if they win a few more big battles."
"I just want this horrible thing to end. I hear the Southern boys are walking round in rags. And both sides have been falling like flies."
"Mama, Uncle Vern made me and Jeb out to be cowards. Maybe we ought to do our part for the Secesh---us two’s just sitting on this farm whilst all them boys’re fighting out there---."
She shook her head and her jaw hardened.
"Wait, Ma, I spoke to Pierce Baxter on my way out of town bout his boy, Jack. Sam’s built like a Clydesdale---he ain’t going to give out, but Jack could help with things during harvest. He ain’t right in the head but he’s wiry and he does what he's told."
"No! That war's going to end the same way without you boys."
"Ma, I'm joining the Confeder'cy."
Jeb blurted, "We've got to preserve this Union, Isaiah. They fighting over slavery---treating men like dogs, making them do work whites'd spit on."
"Jeb, you taken leave of your senses? We've got Winnie and she likes being a servant and Sam’s been treated fine since Pa bought him. Things just ain't so simple. You have more learning than I’ve got, but I ain't no idiot. The North's been lording it over the South for years now. If the South don't win now, we'll forever be tromped on by them rich bosses in the North."
"What about Ma?" asked Jeb. "She grew up in Maine. Her daddy came up in the North, and her brother got his legs shot off for the Union at Second Manasses. Don't that mean nothing?"
"But Pa and all his people are from the South. Pa didn't join the Confeder'cy to fight his own sons. You ain't fighting for the Yanks!"
"I wouldn't even see Pa in a battle."
"Stop this! I don't want either one of you dying out there. You know how many decent boys they've left to rot in Virginia meadows?"
Isaiah rose slowly and stood menacingly over Jeb. Jeb stared up at him, his jaw set. "You're joining the Confeder'cy with me, brother," said Isaiah. "You ain't making a dang fool of yourself."
Jeb stared Isaiah in the eye, "I'm doing what I think's right."
Isaiah's punch came so fast and hard, Jeb flew off the bench and slid across the floor.
Mother said, "Isaiah! Stop!"
Jeb sat on the floor for a long moment, staring down. When he looked up at Isaiah, his eyes were filmed over with a hardness. Isaiah swept some dishes off the table, sending them crashing into the wall---then he charged out of the cabin. The ice in Jeb's eyes melted into a shiver of pain as Isaiah disappeared.
Late into the night, long after the two boys went to bed, Mother sat in the slatted rocking chair out on the front porch. Every once in a while she'd shake her head and sigh deeply. Then she'd creak the chair back and forth a few times in stiff little shoves. What had changed her boys in one tumultuous evening from loyal brothers to warring opposites? Would her men all die for Lee or Grant in some fateful charge, some useless defense? Men could be such stubborn asses. What was it that drew a man irresistibly to killing places---to fields of violence?
She thought and prayed and wept until the first rays of light crept over the horizon and hesitantly slid in thin shafts across the east meadow, finally reaching the porch with a half glow that would have cheered any heart on any other morning. She stood up, trembling for a moment like a heartbroken young girl. Then she steeled her shoulders and went in to cook her boys some breakfast.
At dawn two days later, Isaiah left the homestead carrying a burlap bag over his shoulder. He went to the barn, led a horse out and packed the contents of the burlap into saddlebags.
Jeb stood just outside the farmhouse, holding a pack on his back. Mother stepped out of the house wiping her hands on her apron. She gazed at both boys. Isaiah led the horse close.
"Mama, sure you don't mind if I take Thunder? You still got Sonny, and he's a stronger horse for working the fields."
"Boys, please don't do this. Don't you know you could die for no just reason?"
They both stood stubbornly, eyes downcast.
There was a long, terrible pause. "I know you're both set on going... Can't stand what this is doing tween you two." When she gave them each a hug, a sob rose from so deep in her insides it shook her body.
"Come back," she whispered. "Just come back to me."
Isaiah swung himself onto the horse. Jeb walked across the nearby field, neither saying a word to the other. Jeb waved forlornly to his mother, then turned and vanished through the trees.