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By Ben Wright
The downbeat or the upbeat, Mississippi or Massachusetts—where are my roots? In this piece of fiction, I’ve planted a seed, a magical seed, a kind that springs to life and grows into a tree if only it is nourished with the tiniest droplet of water. The tree is my family tree. The story is about civil war.
When I was eleven, my parents took me south to visit Vicksburg, my birth city, for the first time since when we moved away, after I turned two. In Massachusetts, we were close to my dad’s family, who all immigrated from Ireland and Italy to have their labor exploited by capitalists in the mills in South Kingstown during the twentieth century since the virgin birth, but my mom’s family lives along the Gulf Coast. And my first ancestor in the southern states was an Afro-Cuban man who made port in New Orleans and started a family there with a Native American woman.
In Vicksburg, we visited Nancy King, a friend of my mom’s from Ole Miss. We ate lunch with her and her husband, Richard. While my mom was catching up with Nancy, Richard was shooting my ear off about the Civil War—and guns. After lunch, he said he had a gift, a souvenir for me. He beckoned me toward his hunting-trophy room.
The room was small and musky. Its floor was lowered, indicating it was probably a converted porch or late addition to the house. The walls were covered with preserved fish and stuffed heads. Besides the dead animals, there were only two pieces of furniture in the trophy room. A worn-out lover’s seat was stuffed in the corner, aimed at a raised glass case, like one from a museum. Inside the case was an array of standing dirt stained lead bullets. Apparently, one of Richard’s hobbies was to walk around the military park and collect the bullets from the siege of the city.
He took one from the case and dropped it into my hands. It was heavier and larger than I expected an old bullet to be. I also expected the lead would start burning into my skin right away, but the bullet was blunt, smooth and cool in my hands. Still, there was an excited energy in it. Then, I asked Richard the question only too natural for an eleven-year-old, “Did this one kill anybody?”
“No. There’s no powder stains on it. See, this is a three-ringer,” he explained, tracing the three rings on the backside of the piece of ammunition with his pointer finger, “so, what probably happened is that the soldier loading this bullet was nervous, and as he cut each of these grooves into this bullet and lubricated them to load into his gun, his hand shook, and he fumbled the bullet. Must’ve done it three times, hence the three grooves. After that, there’s no more room to cut another groove, so he threw the bullet away and moved onto loading the next.”
Minding, I was an eleven-year-old from Massachusetts, so understanding Richard’s southern accent was difficult for me. But, this is how I remember what he told me, and whether he was right about how to fire old ammunition, or whether I’ve remembered correctly, I’ve never questioned or researched. For one, there were enough animal heads in that room that I suspected he’d know how to fire a rifle. For two, frankly, I don’t want to remember that exchange any differently. That’s the moment I began to invent this story. Yes, and I’d say I more-or-less finished it on another trip to Vicksburg we made when I was twenty-one.
Anyway, I asked Richard next if the bullet was from the Union or Confederate army. He said he couldn’t tell. Well, I’ve now invented the answer, and its reveal takes place at the climax of this piece of fiction, when two of the main characters are facing off during the assault along Graveyard Road on the twenty-second of May, in the year of the Lord 1863. Our characters are Robert House, who was born and raised in Vicksburg, where his family ran a small grocery and dairy store, and Charles Johnson Junior, who was born in New Orleans and raised in New York, where his mother had her roots. Respectively, these are our Confederate and Union soldiers. Our third main character we’ve already met: the old lead bullet from Vicksburg. Yes, it’s alive.
I’ve brought it to life with a little enchantment. See, I’ve always been drawn toward witchcraft and magic. I was raised Catholic, though, but that’s close enough I suppose—water to wine, wine to blood, and all that jazz…
I’ve also studied the jazz sax, and as most everyone agrees, jazz might as well be magic too. I mean, what is spell casting besides that which sends us beyond our imaginations? Whoever conjured the image of wooden-stick-waving wizards was close to understanding magic but got it wrong in the end. Yes, watch Coltrane’s, Ellington’s, Parker’s fingers, and there are the real wands. Listen to their sounds. Those are the real spells. Thinking more about it, one might say jazz is a fourth main character in this story…
Now, Robert House never wanted to fight for the Confederates. Growing up, Robert was the quiet, non-confrontational type. It made him an easy target for bullying. When he started school in Vicksburg, the children in town made up this song about him:
robbed my house.
A mouse scared him away!
It was always sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” which was a brand-new piece of music at the time. Cruel behavior? Yes. Unsophisticated? Yes. Well, that’s children. Cruel and simplistic. Children and right-wing politicians.
And what did Robert do about it? Nothing. He was too shy and reserved to make a stand for himself.
And his family wasn’t any easier on him. By the time Robert was seven, his father regularly took him out on hunting trips. As Robert’s father would say, “A man knows how to shoot, and you’ve got to be a man.” Then one day, after Robert’s eleventh birthday, his father decided it was about time for the young boy to go for his first kill.
So, early in the morning, Robert and his father took the family rifle up by the Yazoo River and perched behind a bluff on the bank. They sat still awhile, moist earth seeping through their boots. Then, a doe walked by. Robert’s father commanded, “Ready…”
Robert lay the rifle across his shoulder and straightened it along his arm, exhaling to still all the muscles in his body.
“Aim,” his father commanded. Robert obeyed, pressing his cheek on the cold, metal barrel, squinting his one opened-eye so that the tip of the rifle appeared to be laying on the doe’s chest.
“Fire.” Robert pulled the trigger.
By the way, thinking about it, one might say a gun is a sort of magic wand too, a metal and wooden stick one waves to summon a portal of smoke and lead, a portal bleeding into the world that comes after Earth…
The doe keeled over. Robert’s father slapped his son on the back, yelling, “Hurrah! First try! Let’s go get her.”
Pain from the recoil left Robert reeling. He stumbled behind his father through the riverside growth. It seemed the harder he worked to keep his pace, the more his boots sunk into the mud, slowing him down, and lugging the rifle while trying to keep it dry made the work harder.
When he finally caught up with his father, Robert found him locked in a staring contest with the animal. She wasn’t dead yet. Without breaking his gaze, Robert’s father extended his arm, and commanded, “Give me the gun.” Robert obliged, of course, himself now staring at the slowly dying creature and her semi-fatal wound.
Robert’s father wrapped his left hand loosely around the barrel, and gripped it firmly with his right, aiming the rear end of the weapon between the eyes of the doe. She blinked and started to lower her head, just before Robert’s father began churning her skull with the rifle. Blood spurt from her head and her open wound. Robert watched it pool and ooze on her chest as her breathing slowed—and then halted entirely. “Best not to waste another bullet,” his father lectured.
Robert got a second lecture that day, too. Later, at home, Robert refused to eat the freshly cooked venison. He couldn’t stomach it. As he examined the charred slab of flesh on his plate, he imagined its insides decorated with tiny skull fragments that would cut his throat intestines if he ingested them, picturing the bones poking tiny punctures through the in and out of his body, leaking his blood where blood doesn’t belong. So, that evening he asked, “Is there anything else to eat?”
Among his father, mother, and older sister, who were all dining at the rectangular kitchen table, his father was first to answer, “Boy, I did not just hear you say that.” He slammed his utensils back on the table, wiped his mouth, and walked behind the young boy’s chair. After bending his knees so his head leveled with that of his son’s, he clasped Robert’s jaw in his callous hand, turning the boy’s head so that he had a square view of his mother, who sat diagonally across from him. “Apologize for your rudeness and thank your mother for cooking this meal for you,” the man gargled.
While this was going on, Emily, who was two years older than Robert, sat shaking in place with one hand folded on her lap and her other tightly gripping her empty fork. Her face was frozen on her mother, directly across from her, afraid of glancing at Robert and her father, to her left. Emily saw Mrs. House close her eyes, lower her head, and shake it, apparently not accepting her son’s apology. At this, Robert’s father dragged him away from the table into the other room for a beating. Emily started huffing and crying. Her mother finally raised her head and opened her eyes, and whispered, “Hush, young lady. Eat your supper.”
After the barking and yelping from the next room subsided, the paterfamilias went to the porch to smoke, and the two women were left to finish their meal in silence, save for the sound of some intermittent whimpering. Too frozen with shock to liberate himself from the floor, Robert continued quivering in the fetal position with his pants down for the following hour-or-so.
And he’d regress to a prenatal posture every-once-in-awhile there ever-after, even without a beating. In fact, shortly after Robert turned thirteen, his father left the household and went to work as a pastor on the coast of Georgia and so wasn’t around to abuse him, leaving Robert unable to explain to himself why on occasion his strength would wash out, leaving him cowering on the ground.
Most often, Robert collapsed like this behind the counter of the family grocery and dairy store since, after his father left, the duty to work in the store fell to Robert, so it happened that he spent a lot of time there alone.
Now, if Robert were living in as we are now in about the year of the Lord 2017, his falling phenomena would be easily explained to him by a doctor as a symptom of mental illness, namely, in Robert’s case, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. How do I know his diagnosis? Am I a doctor? No, I’m a writer, a writer who, in the year of the Lord 2014, was heaven-sent a diagnosis of one illness among the mental variety, namely, in my case, bipolar-two-disorder.
So, like that, time passed. War loomed. Pastor House preached Southern independence from his peachy pulpit and collected church dues while his pews dumbed their parishioners into Confederate service.
And even though the pastor no longer spoke to or directly influenced his Vicksburg family, Robert’s mother gave Robert the same sort of sermons—about how it was his duty to enlist to protect the family business, property, and all that jazz…
Emily stood up for Robert to her mother. “If he doesn’t want to fight, he doesn’t have to fight! War isn’t everyone’s fate, and it shouldn’t be anyone’s!” she’d proclaim. She knew her brother was a pained, yet gentle, spirit. He had no interest in fighting nor serving the state of Mississippi, just as he was disinclined to fight the bullies in school.
Oddly enough, Robert saw that his peers who were enthused about the conflict were the very ones who so often picked on him. And by the way, the bullying only got worse after Pastor House disappeared. The Vicksburg House family got considerably poorer since they had to cut back their hours in the store to manage it, just the three of them, meaning hand-me-downs for Robert, which inspired this jingle:
wears a blouse.
His mom dressed him today!
Yes, and as usual, his instinct was to avoid conflict over teasing. Besides, he was a smart kid, and he knew he wasn’t really a robber and didn’t really see a problem with wearing a blouse. So, he just wrote off all the nonsense of Vicksburg and comforted himself by scrunching up in a ball and weeping in the dirt every now and then.
But, to his mother’s content, Robert was conscripted in the year of the Lord, Who giveth and taketh, 1862. When he found out, of course, he curled up and cried. When the family cat found him and wrapped up by his side, Robert howled, “Mr. Piggles! I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t want to kill... I don’t, I don’t, I don’t… want to hurt… Mr. Piggles… Mr. Piggles… Mr. Piggles… I…” and then hyperventilation prevented any more speech. The cat, yawned, stretched, and fell asleep beside him.
Emily heard this episode transpire, and it broke her heart. By that time, Emily was twenty-one, married, had given birth, and was working as a nurse in the hospital, the very hospital where not one hundred and thirty-three years later, my parents would be given a child with faulty brain circuitry, which severely predisposed it to illnesses of the mental variety, especially bipolar-two-disorder.
So, leaving only a note for her husband, Emily left Vicksburg to serve as a battlefield nurse for the grey army under a false name. It was the only thing she could think of that somehow, someway, maybe she could finally help her brother. And when her mother found out, she was furious, devastated, she just about stopped speaking to anyone, and she rarely ever left her house again.
Robert worried for his sister like he worried about everything. He felt maybe it was his fault she ran off, and maybe neither Emily nor himself would have had to wear the grey if his father hadn’t run off, which he worried could be his fault too. But mostly he felt glad. He felt that finally, he wasn’t alone. He knew somewhere, now, an angel was watching over him.
Pastor House kept telling people that those angels wanted humans to fight, wanted war. What do I think of his take on the Bible? Well, I’ve heard parrots that quote Shakespeare. What do I think of their take on Shakespeare? Squawk!
Although, in the year of the Lord 2013, on my eighteenth birthday, I, myself, registered for the draft, as required by law, despite my anti-war and Georgist-communist political leanings. I think it broke my mother’s heart, but in hindsight, we now know the army will avoid tapping me for service due to my mental illness.
Which, I’m not going to complain about, but I do think it’s kind of stupid. One of the greatest generals of all time, a personal hero of mine, lived with bipolar disorder, at war with it her whole life, fighting for balance between its dark side and light side. Like me, it was a force that ran strong in her family.
Yes, and my hero the general, she was once quoted as saying this: “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.” So, I will. Rest in peace, general.
In the Holy Name of the Parent, the Child, and the Ghost, Amen!
Now, Charles Johnson Junior was born free in year of the Lord 1831 in New Orleans. His father, Charles Senior, escaped slavery in Cuba by stowing away on a boat that made port in Louisiana in the spring two years prior. By that winter, the soon-to-be Charles Senior found met and married a Native American-Danish woman named Elizabeth, and Junior, as they called him, was their first child. He was also their only child, since by the time Junior was two, that is, in the year of the Lord 1833, his father had passed from cancer of the lung, despite never smoking a day in his life—a diagnosis given not by a doctor but again by myself, the writer. And after Charles’ burial, Elizabeth took Junior to Upstate New York to live with her parents.
Two is a young age to lose someone, especially a parent. Junior thought of his father often, but there was only one clear memory he had of his father, a memory of music, of Charles Senior chanting and banging on his drum. In the memory, two-year-old-Junior was yelling along with his father, without knowing all the words to the chant, jumping on-and-off Charles Senior, hammering him as hard as he could with his feet and hands and knees and elbows, cracking himself up, and when his father finished playing, snuggling himself tightly to his father’s arm and chest, smelling steamed vegetables and fish on his shirt, and demanding with giggly authority, “Play another one, Daddy!” waving his father’s arm suggestively toward the drum. This wasn’t just a memory of only one song or one occasion, since Charles Senior always obliged his son an encore—and played him a concert every night.
So, it is no wonder that as soon as he could start, Junior asked for drumming lessons, and when he turned eight, his mother signed him up for private lessons that he could walk himself to after school. After lessons, Junior would walk home and practice.
And if that wasn’t enough drumming for a day, then imagine every night, after dinner, Elizabeth’s mother, whose name after marrying became Erin Burres, would gather her husband, daughter, and grandson, and play them Onondaga folk songs.
After a couple years of lessons, Junior asked his teacher, “Can we work on some Onondaga music?”
His drum teacher, replied, “What’s that?” And Junior was devastated. He realized if his teacher didn’t know Onondaga music, he would never be able to study his father’s music in lessons either. Junior had begun to suspect this after just a couple sessions, but he now realized it consciously.
When he got home that day, Junior told his mother about his disappointment. He said, “Mom, I don’t want you to have to pay for my lessons anymore. I won’t ever learn what I want there.”
Elizabeth asked, “Oh? What do you want to learn?”
“I want to play like Dad,” Junior replied simply.
Elizabeth grabbed his arms, looked into his eyes, and instructed him, “Play your music. Stay in your lessons.” She took one hand and put it over his chest. “I’m so proud of you.”
Junior felt better and stayed in lessons, but he knew he had to keep searching elsewhere for the sounds in his memory. Where? He had no idea. But eventually, he found them on the shore of Oneida Lake.
Junior was thirteen at the time. He was walking home from lessons and decided to make a shortcut home through some woods on the lakeshore.
As he disappeared into the woods, Junior lost the awareness of any sound around him except the crinkling of autumn leaves under his feet. The setting sun weaved through the emptying branches above, sending him through shadow, then light, then shadow. He began to feel weightless. Then, he heard the soft brush of the tide. Its rhythm was uninhibited yet smooth. Junior walked to the shore, took his shoes off, dipped his feet in the water, and closed his eyes. “Play another one, Daddy,” he whispered. And the lake obliged.
Years passed. Junior moved to the city after high school and played the drums in bands full time. He married a woman named Mel. They met through her brother Jon, who played trumpet with Junior’s band. Mel and Jon made it to New York on the Underground Railroad. Now, Mel was a singer, so when she and Junior had their daughter, Liza, in the year of the Lord 1853, it was easy enough for young woman to pick up singing, piano, flute, drumming… anything!
Liza was exceptionally bright. When her parents played music in the New York City bars, she would come to the shows and study her schoolwork, and she spent all her time at home playing music.
As she got older, Junior told Liza about her grandfather and his music. Junior and Mel often took Liza to visit her grandmother, Elizabeth, or as Liza called her, “Mawmaw,” back in Cicero, New York, who lived alone in her parents’ house after they had each passed. Elizabeth loved telling Liza stories about Charles Senior and Onondaga lore.
On one fall visit in Cicero, before the war, Junior told Liza to close her eyes, he picked her up, and walked her through the woods to the shore of Oneida Lake. He whispered to her, “Listen. What do you hear?”
“Music,” she answered.
“Where would you say we are?” Junior asked.
And this piece of fiction could end there, if it weren’t for original sin. Original sin and war. So, sometime later, in the year of the Lord 1861, Junior and Jon were cleaning up after playing a set at a Midtown Cuban restaurant. Mel had already brought Liza home. “So that’s it, you’re going?” Jon asked Junior, who had just played his last show before donning the brazen blue regimentals. “Nothing I can do to stop you?”
“No, my mind is made,” Junior answered.
“Okay. But promise me...”
“Charlie, don’t aim at the black folk. I heard the greys have got our southern brothers fighting for them now. Remember you are fighting for them, too.”
“Jonny, it’s a war. People get hurt on every side, even the innocent people by accident.”
“Charlie, promise me. Keep the black lives holy. Keep life holy. Keep yourself holy. Free… For them…” Jon began hyperventilating and whimpering, a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, another diagnosis of mine.
Junior took his friend in his arms, and said, “Ok. I promise, Jonny.” Spoiler alert! He kept his promise. It wasn’t very difficult either, since Charles is fictional.
Anyway, Charles Junior left home for the army the next day. He took the rifle—a magic wand which vanishes human beings—that his Danish grandfather had left when he passed.
Yes, and by the way, get this for magic! In the year of the Lord 1995, a spell was cast on me to bar me from loafing around with firearms. The incantation went like this: An old bald man in a white robe asked my godfather, who is now a tote-bag carrying member of a club of idiots who believe our world is flat, “Do you reject Satan? And all his empty works?” I’m told my godfather answered in the affirmative, and shortly after water and oils were poured on my head, covering me in a protective seal which prevents me from handling those devil’s tools, right to ownership of which is defended by an evil hex masquerading as a constitutional amendment.
On his way out the door, Liza asked Junior, “When will you come home?”
“Soon,” he told her. Then, he left.
Liza asked her mother, “Did he lie?”
Mel couldn’t answer. She hugged Liza close to her chest, and then said, “I want to hear you play some music.” Liza ran for her flute.
Praise the Lord for making this day!
Okay, so I said I more-or-less finished this story at age twenty-one, on a trip to Vicksburg. That’s true, but more could be said. I completed my role in this story at age twenty-one in Vicksburg. I cast my final spell, one might say. But I concocted this ultimate hex in October of the year of the Lord 2014, in Providence, Rhode Island, at the office of one Dr. Wait, psychiatrist.
It was my first appointment with a psychiatrist ever, but since then I’ve seen several more. Here’s the strangest thing about a psychiatrist’s office: It is infallibly bland and unassuming. As in, this is where you’re going to crack my head open and get me to spill my brains to you? Then, you’re gonna mess around in there and fix things up while I just relax in this chair? but there are no stethoscopes, scales, sphygmomanometers, sinks, nor any other basic common medical equipment in sight. Usually, there’s just chairs, a desk, and a computer in a windowless room.
About halfway through our time together on that October day the Lord had made, Dr. Wait capped his pen and said, Okay, given your symptoms and family history, I’d say this is an easy diagnosis of bipolar-two-disorder. And I asked, stupefied, Is that good or bad? The doctor answered, Well, you’re not one of these out-of-control basket cases.
By the way, shrinks are commonly called as such because some of them can make you feel so small.
I’m going to prescribe you a mild dose of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Do you want to know how it works? I peered into one of his pupils. Here comes a severe mood swing. Possible hallucinations. I saw nothing but the darkness of the inner eye.
makes me wait…
He is bald and grey…
I kept a plain, unblinking face, answering, Yes. Tell me how this happy pill works its crazy magic. ♪
Basically, we don’t know why or how these drugs work, but this explanation is the best I can give you. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in your brain. It’s trying to move important chemical messages around up there, but something is blocking it up. ♫ The twenty-second of May, in the year of the Lord 1863, the siege of Vicksburg was on its fifth day. Grant had ordered a wide assault on the Confederate line, hoping to break through into the city. ♫ This drug increases the level of serotonin in your brain to allow more chemical interactions to happen. ♫ Sherman led the charge of the Forlorn Hope along old Graveyard Road. The Confederates had pinned them down with heavy rifle fire in no time. Among the grey soldiers that day, Robert House, and the closest target to him among Sherman’s volunteers was Charlie Junior. ♪
♪ The twenty-second of May was an average day in Cicero, New York. And that’s when Skywoman fell through the hole in the sky under the Great Tree onto Earth, and gave birth to Sapling, the god of light and life and creation, and Flint, the god of night and death and destruction. Little Liza complained, Mawmaw, you told me that part already! I want to know, was one god good and one evil? Elizabeth explained – Some people believe so, but not me. ♫ Dr. Wait pulled out his prescription bad. So, what do you say, why don’t we get those neurons of yours firing? ♫ Satan’s own magic wants were opening portals to the underworld faster than Robert had ever seen. The devil’s world and this one became stitched together by two thick rows of gun-smoke, human bodies charging through the lines and right into the life that comes after this one. ♫ I believe in good and evil. I believe some things happen for a reason and others I don’t. ♪
♪ On the Union line, Junior leaped to cover behind a hill just after a cannonball detached his neighbor’s arm. He quickly bounced up onto his knee and aimed his rifle toward the line of the grey army. ♫ So, what probably happened is that the soldier loading this bullet was nervous, and as he cut each of these grooves into this bullet and lubricated them to load into his gun, his hand shook, and he fumbled the bullet, Richard explained. ♫ Robert was in shock, almost paralyzed. He peaked out from his cover while he was loading his gun and found himself peering down Junior’s barrel. As he ducked back out of sight, he fumbled his lubricated bullet. ♫ Can you describe the symptoms of your hypomanic episodes? I lied, No. ♫ Robert was carving a second ring into his bullet to try loading it again. ♫ But creation versus destruction, I think that’s a conflict we’re all born with. When I tell people I’m sick, they run away from me. Mawmaw, does that mean we’re all evil? Am I an evil to be cast out and away? A living weapon to be feared and hated? ♫ Take your broken heart. Make it into art. ♫ Are your thoughts racing? I saw the neurons firing in the back of the doctor’s head. I answered, Yes. ♪
♪ The cannon shot from behind Robert. Startled, he fumbled his bullet again. ♫ No. No, it doesn’t. Now, listen to me closely, love. It means your compassion for yourself and others must be limitless and unrestricted. Elizabeth grabbed Liza and wrapped her in a tight embrace. ♫ Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirt. ♫ As Robert reached for the end of his rifle to finally load his bullet, he heard a gunshot so loud that, for it moment, it distracted him from the pain of the little hook into the underworld sinking into the bone of his upper arm. But when Robert noticed his wound, he dropped his gun and ammo and fell onto his back, writhing. Medic, nurse! Another soldier shouted. ♫ Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself? Please help… please help… Yes. ♪
♪ Junior heard the drum call shortly after he had fired his shot. It was a slow, even beat, the most terrible music he had ever heard. It was a hollow work, a rhythm encoding the instruction to retreat, and so Junior ran back toward camp with his head down. ♫ Any trouble sleeping? Every night. Yep. ♫ Robert couldn’t tell if his blood felt warm on his cold skin or cold on his warm skin. ♫ One is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. ♫ Robert briefly fainted several times, but his body was trying to keep him awake so that he could hurl. As the assault died down, two grey soldiers grabbed him and ran him the triage center. As soon as he was put on a medical table, a nurse began bandaging his arm. For a second, he was able to focus his vision on her face. ♪
♪ Do you ever feel euphoric, or very happy, or high, for no reason? ♫ Emily? Robert beamed with relief and laughed himself out of consciousness. We probably need to amputate. The survival rates for amputation were not good in the year of the Lord 1863. Would Robert make it through? I don’t know. If I were a doctor, I could say more. And if I were a historian, I could tell you more about the siege of Vicksburg, but this is as much as I saw in the doctor’s eye.
Know what else is magic? Unearthing the everyday beauty. For instance, in the decade of the Lord which beginneth in1860, there was a fictional street corner in New York City where, in the evenings, you could walk under an open window and hear music, smooth and uninhibited, weightless– and watch the sun set to it. Sometimes the sound would come from a flute, a trumpet, a piano, but the music would always be there.
Liza practiced every single night. She didn’t know what else to do when she felt terribly afraid for her father, but of course when she played it was like he was back home with her. Sometimes, her mother sang with her, but she liked to play alone most of the time. That way, if she had to pause and take a breath or shed a tear, or laugh, she could. And sometimes, she just loved to riff and hammer her soul into the music and make up new rhythms and sounds that reminded her of her father’s and grandfather’s rhythms.
Oh, and Charles Junior made it through the war, by the way. For a little while, Junior, Mel, Jon, and Liza all got to play their music together in bars and restaurants all over the city. Though in time, Liza’s parents and uncle all retired, and she was accompanying herself on the piano thereafter. Her solo performances were commonly hailed as spellbinding.
But on occasion, she could convince her father to come to a show and play a song with her. And then, after the song, Junior would insist that he was old and tired and unable to continue, and that the crowd would prefer it if Liza played solo. Liza would giggle at her father’s lame excuses. They both knew he’d always give an encore. All Liza had to do was smile and say, “Play another one, Daddy,” and then two of them would go on singing and banging on the drums and the piano all night.
And by the time Liza retired, New York City was juicy with the Afro-Cuban musical tradition. The Big Apple was ripe for the coming of jazz.
So, my family made a road trip to Vicksburg in the year of the Lord 2016. For a night, we stayed with the Kings.
After dinner, I asked to be excused and said that I wanted to take the car for a cruise. But I secretly had another errand to run as well. I was up to a bit of witchcraft.
I drove to a war memorial on a hill by the Old Vicksburg Bridge. The sky was red and mildly nebulous. Perfect conditions for conjuration.
I parked and walked down the sandy hill to the bank of the Mississippi River. There, I pulled the three-ring bullet, blunt and smooth as ever, from my pocket. I dug a hole by the riverside and sowed the piece of ammo into the earth. I cradled over it and shed a tear for its innocence. It is no longer a weapon but is now a seed of mercy.
It will take root as its lead leaks into the Mississippi River, and then the Gulf Coast, and spread over the oceans and evaporate into the clouds and pour over us and the heads of the children being baptized, and we will all wash in its poison. It is alive now, and it is spreading its healing.
I ran back up the hill and started the car. I sped home under the cloud-brushed red sky with the nighttime stars chasing close behind.