A Straight Clean Line
“There’s a straight clean line for you,” I had said, but not aloud. And only hours later, “Remove the dressings. By God, Remove the dressings.”
The bugler twirling his instrument in one hand had a face that reminded me of brass. I was still holding the tourniquet strap, and in the other hand, the leather surgeon’s box with my saw. I believe the bugler was making an effort to reconcile my instrument case with my insignia, mistaking me briefly for a bugler like himself, on account of the case I was carrying. Perhaps he saw the tourniquet strap in time to adjust his notions about me or perhaps he observed the brass stars at my collar, but his face shifted soon enough from jocularity to surprise to deference. I had summoned him to help me with Henry’s leg, for no better reason than because he was idle. He was also beautiful. Perhaps that is the reason after all.
“Remove the dressings!” I was shouting when I said this to the bugler, but he could not have obeyed, no more than the sun itself might be plucked from the air and respond to my commands. No. He was for breathing pure the long note or for sputtering clean the blasts.
I am sorry I insisted the dressings be removed from the dead man’s leg. Later I told him so.
For two weeks I carried that dead man’s letters wrapped in a torn flap from a saddlebag I folded around them to keep them dry. It had been a long, wet march, and not even the stalwart among us relished the exchange of our small camp in those hills for the ruins of Richmond.
“Take the cots around to the front,” I shouted when on the morning after our arrival I saw the mule wagons laboring up the slope, and vainly I swatted at flies until I gave in and let them swarm.
We would be quartered in Richmond I knew not how long. Alongside the portico, such as it was, a legless man rolled himself gallantly on a low wooden platform, and his head was on a level with a muck wheelbarrow pushed empty up the hill to greet the mule wagons. The driver of the wheelbarrow did not look down at the man who shared his forward rhythm. I recall torn cloths hanging from the lower branches of the bordering trees, and iron pokers resting against the porch railing, and a gazebo beside which a mountain of sand had been poured for what reason I don’t know. If a man had approached me leading an elephant by a rope I may not have bothered to note any incongruence with the scene–a straw-strewn plaza of boxwood rows overtaken by animals and tents, fires encircled by stones or bricks, steam rising from the basins of boiling water, cripples spitting or cursing, and the turbaned wounded roaming as though sleepwalking.
The white house with porch and columns, erect and stately as any soldier in a picture book, this house was no longer a house. It was our hospital now; that was all. And we were beleaguered with flies. That was the worst of it and the least of it.
I took Henry’s letters along to the far end of the portico where I had been told I might find the Postmaster and such services for posting them. He was a foul-tempered fellow, and may have been under any conditions, the sort of man who gazed accusingly once in greeting and then refused all commerce with his eyes even as he spoke. His hands on the desk were placed palm down each one, with elbows locked, as if to signal a native resistance to any movements one might request of him, and I regarded him as one might regard a penguin who had blubbered in from Antarctica, forever gestureless and frozen by wrong winds and circumstance. It was with some urging that I was able to make him understand my queries, or if he had indeed understood me, then to move him towards some intention of turning and walking, which he did, until he groped from some drawer hidden from my view the sealing wax and ink which I had demanded.
Henry had a voice like no other man, and unlike Father Donald who could turn the swirling rhythms of the psalms into a dry flat list, Henry could tell of a white mule amongst brown mules in the field and it was tuneful when he told it. At least I thought so.
I recall a wet night and a long march in winter, and the hills trembling ahead of us in rainfall, and on the main road there must have been a tavern, for out far across the meadow where we were marching to no victory a voice was flung of a man consumed with drink perhaps and mournful and alone on his way home, or that is how I have arranged it in my mind, as though it were the truth. There floated out to us as we marched, stamping and flapping in wet and heavy woolens, the loosened voice of someone sad or solemn but not numb to the freeing powers of his own throat and lungs. I was pricked into awareness where I would have otherwise been numb myself, and cold, because of that man’s voice carrying so across the meadow, and I am left with the sensation –ever present in my recollection—of men grouped and walking, wet, in rain and towards the wish for warmth and sleep.
It is almost impossible to speak of collateral tenderings, but as there are collateral afflictions brought by cataclysms, injuries, war, and inherited circumstance, in the same way there are collateral tenderings, those providences yielding one upon another in sequence, like some gathering motion meant to prevail. I say this because that memory was upon me as I held the letters. That night in the wet winter darkness, Henry had begun to sing. A hymn or ballad song, he sang, one verse upon the other, until others took up the words and sang. I did not feel the least temptation to sing with them myself. I was alone and silent in myself—but I remember it as surely as I remember the cold, and then, months later, even now, the flies.
Procuring stamps and sealing wax for those letters did not seem unreasonable, however, for such was my purpose that first morning in Richmond as I made my way amongst the feed troughs and flies, the boxwood and wooden crates, stacks of them, stenciled with words half visible through the film of dust. It was a dry prominence, this hill with the house turned hospital, a dry ruined garden terrace with an outlook upon the river somewhere beneath the haze where more encampments must have lain along the banks in that haze and shroud of air cast up by the flailing river thickened along its edge with vines. Crossing the river presented itself as a fearsome activity, or perhaps merely tedious; any memory I have of that crossing, which occurred some months later, by nightfall, is vaguely eclipsed by the cloud of activities arresting us day by day, before the crossing and after, with the wounded on each side. It is fitting that I should remember the river as hidden by a haze and not as itself.
The letters were those I had promised to dispatch, Henry’s letters, and I will not deny that I had read them, each one, before folding them and returning them to the marked envelopes.
Dearest Augustine, began one, addressed to a friend or acquaintance to whom he had no apparent need to recount his exploits or disappointments in the field. Within all the lines of ink he penned across three pages not one word or phrase called up the experiences I knew us to have shared –no mention of the battles, no names for the generals, no tally of deaths or victories, no weapon, not even a mention of the hills or trails or clouds that may have shaped themselves ready for description, this way or that, on a particular day. Instead, to this Augustine, he discussed concepts of proportion –something qualifying as the rule of thirds—and this as though delivering a lecture on a podium and not speaking warmly and intimately, but replete with complex analogies (“just as a line dividing the rectangle….so……; therefore consider the axiom….”).
Henry knew geometry. He could explain the whole world in terms of lines and circles. Of course this was a good thing in the field, not because he could position his tent pole more perpendicular to the earth than the rest of us, but because he could satisfy that need for relief from tedium by his long discourses on the hypotenuse. He might begin by loosening the strings of his boots and lighting his pipe. Then he might toss a question to see how it landed, like a hook in water, obliging us carelessly to wait until he took up the answer himself more times than not. We tended to silence. “What is it that unites the snowflake and the honeycomb?” “Geometry, of course.” I had little patience for these questions, until he required one of us to draw in dirt the hexagons, and then the triangles within them, neatly so that you could begin to imagine invisible lines of contiguous squares, moving outwards from the forms. I preferred those invisibilities to his rapturous story of Pythagoras with his golden thigh, blessed by Apollo or some ancient god, at which point I might drift into the sound of his voice. It pleased me to imagine that Henry’s Augustine may have once listened more deliberately to his axioms.
Beloved Emily, began the second letter, in which he wrote only of the leftover taste of chewing tobacco on his lips, and of the garters he still wore unmended. He gave some words to that march through rain when we were south of Fredericksburg, but he did not describe the yowling from the tavern nor did he regale his Emily with the eruption of songs that filled the air and left me—perhaps only me—with a delicious comfort in the dark before we arrived at last many hours hence to raise our tents, for sleep. He described for her a barkless stick he was whittling, and how it was becoming ever more a knife, and might soon become a beechwood letter opener, “providence willing,” he wrote.
I admit I was scanning these letters, almost unconsciously, for my own name, some reference to myself in my office, such as “the surgeon, whose…” or “Major told us…”, or “Johnson is a fellow who…,” as though the sight of my name among the relics in these last letters of Henry’s last words –tobacco, juice, stick, knife–might secure for me the sense, otherwise tenuous after his death, that we had endured a private contest together, as two people are united, even without speech, because their eyes are turned towards some common theme. He was no surgeon and I was no mystic mathematician, but I realized I had always felt my being reflected in his, if one dares to make such claims, as in no other man.
Dearest began the third letter, to his wife. Before I read the letter, (which I did, but only after some reluctance arising not from any scruples about conjugal intimacies but from my aversion to decipher the script so fine and small, crowded line upon line on each paper), I studied the envelope. Mrs. Henry Robert Reed, and the words “Orchard Hill Farm” where he had crossed a line through Orchard once, and then written the word again, exactly as before, so that even as I write the word now, and say it, I am unsettled. An orchard meadow lined in fruit trees refuses summons. The word has become an object in itself such that the letters follow each other one after the other in sequence and the whole word barely stands as one thing but rather as a sequence of individual letters that run from left to right.
Standing on the portico of that ruined house, where alongside the boxwood the mules were stomping or braying, and their clapsaddle drivers were cursing, I read those letters. I do remember waiting every now and again to hear the emptiness keep hold of itself amidst the commotion. This habit abides with me. I do not name it silence that I listen for, but distance, and when I hear it I reassemble myself proper to what is required of me in my vocation, a certain scope and stillness as I use my knife upon a small measure of flesh.
“Dearest,” I continued, listening for that unknowable Orchard Hill. I read of matters domestic and hopeful, and I do not recall the particulars. It is what he wrote in closing that I remember, every word of it: “I pledge I have told no one what you know. It is secret with me.” He signed his name Henry with a flourish. He went with it to his grave, that secret. But she would have the letter and the promise.
What she would not have is what was mine: a flattened piece of tin, bent and battered where his molars had been grinding away for relief, that’s what my assistant pulled from Henry’s mouth. It is surprising what they do, the injured men, to create distraction from the misery.
I recall a young standard bearer who had been shot at close range with a musket. We were just south of Sperryville, and someone had set up the cots under a grove of hemlock trees close to a stream, which was perhaps a welcome station for so many men unable to turn their heads this way or that. Looking up they’d see the arch of branch and the green fringe and the haze of resin through which the sun or cloud or wind might cast a sunbeam or a fragrance, and, sharing this, the men might feel as though they were indeed attended or attending, or at any rate, together held in congregation. The hemlock depot we called it, and though it was only a couple of days in place, I remember those injuries, and those peculiar men, most vividly, the way one remembers a settling habit.
About the young standard bearer under the hemlocks, whose wounds I was to tend, what I was meaning to say involved that method he had found to keep his misery at bay. He had begun counting the branches as they protruded from the trunk upwards. And to keep his tally, he had bit the flesh of his one unfastened hand, such that what appeared a barbaric cannibalizing—teeth marks upon each other, flesh torn from his good hand–, was in fact a civilized and orderly response. I realized it almost immediately. The musket explosion had blown away much of his left arm at the shoulder, and the socket of bone was torn like a loose tooth from gum, as I remember seeing it. Not by lying on a cot does a man have courage. It is only in actions that he can feel the call, deliver the response. That standard bearer, I believe he counted those hemlock branches to defy death once, then once again, then once again, and so on. I believe he bit his flesh to suffer once and survive, then suffer again, and again, suffer, and survive, until by counting he believed it. This may or may not be true, what I have told you about that standard bearer. I do know this: he had his fist in his hand when I approached him, and he spat out skin and blood. And his eyes did not stray from those hemlock branches—he seemed to climb them with his eyes, though I soothed his forehead with cold water before we placed over his face the cloth with chloroform.
So I recall the bent tin from Henry’s mouth, something he must have bit down on again and again until the surgeons arrived at his side, and I allow myself to imagine, it was courage. I put out my hand. Give it to me, I said to my assistant. And so it is mine, and I have it still, from Henry’s mouth, not his last words, but that flattened piece of tin.
It was not quite a year before Henry’s final misery when one night after the bugle’s Tattoo Henry called to me from his tent. I had been listening to the howling of one dog and the yapping bark of another while trying to keep my attentions on the notes I was writing in my log as the day’s work required, but I could not command the needed inner silence. The animals tend to obey their own needs for conversation in the dark, for it was less a warning, the one dog’s incessant bark and the other’s continual howl, and more a trite and dumb commotion. Such beasts as we are to exercise the noise we can make against blessed silence. The single virtue of written letters is that they may be composed and read in silence. “Major,” I finally heard as a clear word from out in that darkness and I realized it was not the first time he had called. I pushed away from my writing table and walked with the candle to open out the canvas flap, but beyond my tent was only the shadow and glow of other tent forms. “Major,” I heard the voice again, and this time I knew it was Henry.
“Henry?” I called out with his name so he would know it was I whose feet rustled close upon his tent.
“Your defense, sir. I need your defense.” If his voice had not sounded so cool and without quaver I might have gone straightaway into his tent, his request notwithstanding. “Should I bring my revolver?” I asked him. But he did not reply. Perhaps he did not hear me above the dogs.
This, however, was not the first time Henry had called to me from his tent, just before the final call to extinguish lights. I recall one occasion in early April, when we were quartered on the grounds of a ruined gristmill and farm near Fredericksburg, not far from the north-south turnpike. The fields at night were fragrant with the ferment of old corn and barley wheat, and it was not a far leap for the imagination to situate the aroma in a more amiable and fearless setting, such that before long,–and I imagine I was not alone in this–, we would be all be yearning for taverns and ale, cornbread and gravy, suet and mincemeats, and whiskey from stoneweare jugs. Henry had called for me at least twice, once to show me a sketch he had made of his house, with particular detailing to the roof. The house was delivered in precise lines as seen from above, as though one were regarding it from atop a nearby knoll. He wanted to show me the roof he would construct on the main house when he returned home, a gambrel roof, he explained. I do not know why he chose me as his witness for this project, for I had shown no prior interest in carpentry or in any matters domestic. What had no bearing on our daily customs in the field, these topics I took care to avoid in conversation. “So that is a gambrel roof,” I said, conscious of my habit of consigning ideas and inventions to the realm of nomenclature, particularly where I was ignorant. “And so it is neither a hip roof nor a regular pitched roof,” I said. Henry proceeded to explain the advantages of such a gambrel roof, and as he did so, he drew with his pen the onslaught of rain upon it at an angle, so that by the end of our brief session I found myself considering whether I might not fabricate such a roof at home myself.
The other time I remember attending to Henry’s call was to settle a dispute. In his tent were gathered three or four officers. I believe they were smoking pipes, and they were huddled with a fierce intensity around the candle flame that burned on the camp table beside his cot. On the center of the table, beside the guttering candle, was a map, printed, not hand drawn. I was surprised to see it was not of these parts but of the southeastern Orient. The one officer pointed to the mountain range and declared with utmost certainty that those hatch marks depicted on the map of India were the highest mountains in the world.
“Tell him,” Henry said. “Tell him.”
“Tell him what?” I asked. I was completely useless, for I did not know geography except as it pertained to human anatomy. Why four soldiers should be arguing about the status of mountains in the Orient was merely proof that we had not overspent our energies in battle. The resourcefulness of men encamped too long without a siege, this is a virtue, perhaps.
“I do not know the Himalayas,” I replied. “Ask me about the height or width of notches in the vertebrae.”
I do recall their laughter then. It was generous of them to laugh, for I believe they had been gambling and were neither sober nor entirely reasonable.
But upon this other more recent occasion, when Henry summoned me into his tent, this occasion when I brought along my revolver, I was certain he was sober, and I hoped he was alone.
I kept my revolver in its case on the floor beside my cot. The case was not so much a case but a wool felt wrapping cloth sewn with single silk ties at each end, and the fabric was not square but cut to fit the piece. I recall not knowing whether I should make haste in untying the strings to unwrap the revolver. I had no notion either way about danger, to me or to Henry. But he might be up against something that would require discharge from my weapon. I did not give it more spacious thought, and merely record now that I responded with some hesitation about speed and purpose. I chambered two bullets and went out, distracted with a wave of meaningless embarrassment by not being in full uniform underneath my cloak.
Though I had not til that point had occasion to discharge my ordnance, I was fully prepared, I believe, to deliver defense with the weapon. Surely I had used my saw often enough to defend a man against his death.
Henry’s tent was barely the outline of itself in the shadows, and I was holding my spirits and my revolver ready as I knelt to enter. Forthwith was a rasping as of a breath inhaled over phlegm, rather like a vortex of river water sucking over shale rocks, and I held my hand on the tent canvas without pulling it open yet, just as the tent cloth became for me no different than a man’s shirt which must be slit and opened before inspection of the wounds. I was afraid, I am sure. Henry? I almost called again, but I did not; rather I knelt with the revolver nuzzled close against me and turned back the cloth with my free hand and tasted gristle and bile and barley in my throat. In I peered, but in the dark tent I could see nothing.
“Henry?” I called, and with the revolver tight in my grip, I was afraid I would be shown up to have been afraid for nothing.
“Yes, sir,” he said, without a twist in his inflection but still I imagined a salute with the words, a salute of outright mockery.
I did not like the game, if indeed it was a game in the dimness.
“Henry?” I asked once more. Surely he did not call me into his tent to show me up the fool.
“Sir,” he said, and I wished I had been in daylight for the rest: “I am afraid I will die.”
It sounded like the plain truth. But I could not sort out whether he had an ailment he thought would kill him as he lay there on his cot, a dreadful ulcer perhaps, that had him leaping with his mind to the worst assumptions, inspired surely by what he had seen on the field–the torn ulcerated places in fabric and flesh–or whether he was confessing to me his fear of being a mortal, subject to perils and accidents of illness or injury in war.
“What?” I said. “Is there a pain?”
“No pain, sir. I am afraid. I cannot move or sleep. I am afraid I will die.” He said it plainly and not breathlessly or like one who is in a fever.
It was mirthless dark, the tent, and of the signs I am wont to read on a person’s face, the slackened skin or the pale perimeters of the eyes or the sweat on a forehead, these were not for me to consult, so I had only conjecture to keep me persisting, conjecture, and also, a bared and open consanguinity.
I admit I considered replying with blustering contradiction: Of course you shall not die, my man. Don’t worry any more about that. But that has never been my way; I have not the spirit nor the evidence. Instead I said, “Yes, Henry, you will surely die.”
And long I sat then in silence with the man, useless with my revolver, unable to speak, unable to leave, and unable to comfort him, Henry, who would be buried two seasons further that same year.
Refineries of maggots support the decay of organic material, they loosen and distribute, and they also correct the direction of decomposing things gone wrong. Amputated legs, for example, wounds open and puking pus. Maggots can be bred in clean conditions, or they can be scooped from earth if one is careful to avoid places where rust fragments corrupt the balance towards tetanus. A handful of maggots can be placed inside a large wound. Cleaning and tending the lesion is a task made easier for nurses out in the field with the maggots at work, consuming the dead skin cells, consuming the muck.
I would like to say I had invented the idea myself. But I did not. Astor learned it from an Indian, he said, and I believed him.
A man can stand in a wheat field with a blade of grass in his teeth and cock his head this way or that, without drawing attention to his form as a scarecrow, depending upon his posture and age. I saw a man in a tin type perched straight up in a field–he must have been looking into a box camera, which means there was another man with him in that field and maybe others–and small were the grains and whiskers of the wheat grass dangling from his lips, small but clear to the eye. The tintype was small, the standing man, smaller. The wheatgrass is what caught my eye, and then afterwards the man, who was straight up, but because of his cocked hat, and his angled face, I remember him too as dangling. It occurs to me now that he was not alone, though up til now I thought of him as standing in the field and looking that way at no one but me. It was I who had moved to that field, not he to my hand. So it has been in my mind all along, that I had been in a wheat field one time, alone with a man with his teeth on a whisker of grass. So was the truth of it, or so it seemed, even while I held the tintype in the palm of my hand.
In terms of proportion, a single maggot is larger than that man’s head, if you laid the maggot on the flat gray plane.
That’s a straight line for you is what I had said, not aloud, but still, I’d said it to myself and I regret it. That’s a straight clean line for your geometry. I was still gripping his thigh as I paused for that discourteous reflection upon the final separation, still no more than a line I had created on his own bare life, a clean straight line above the knee through bone.
Night after night, the hills rose up black in the distance far out from the fields, rising and falling as that rhythmic line against the glowing sky. So as the evening brings to me notions of curves and as the black curve reminds me of stars, so also do the fields in dimming imminence remind me of the bugler holding my saw in his hand, and of Henry’s leg, unwound to the air, the stump of it, sounding of brass.