In Reconstruction, award-winning writer and musician Alaya Dawn Johnson digs into the lives of those trodden underfoot by the powers that be: from the lives of vampires and those caught in their circle in Hawai’i to a taxonomy of anger put together by Union soldiers in the American Civil War, these stories will grab you and not let you go.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from the title story from the collection, publishing January 5, 2021 with Small Beer Press.
(For Susie King Taylor)
In January of ’63, my boys shared camp downriver from Beaufort with the 54th Massachusetts, who had among them a gunner of an intellectual disposition. Having been born free, he’d learned his letters young and read diligently of whatever improving literature he could find. He helped me teach the men their letters that winter, as we celebrated the passing of Lincoln’s Proclamation into law. He had developed what he termed a taxonomy of anger. The gunner, called Flip, liked to expound upon his theory on watch or when we stayed up late on cold nights, drinking moonshine whisky and blinking back smoke from a damp fire of Spanish moss and live oak. As a woman, nominally the company laundress, I never warmed myself after a turn at the pickets with Flip, but I did spend a part of most nights around that fire, so that even all these years later, I have only to smell a bit of brackish marsh and burning pitch to remember more vividly than my present time, the men laughing, and Flip saying in his serious young man’s voice, “The first, and best, is righteousness, that anger which speaks divinity.”
You could pick the officers from the infantry by noting the slow, considering nods which greeted this observation. Their heads dipped before the fire, grimly pleased at their unexpected reflection. They had long since learned to harness that purer flame, these veterans of many engagements who knew they must face yet further.
Flip had primary care of the sow the men called Piggy, a guinea hog of pneumatic mammaries who had come to us as an adolescent and now behaved in camp like an oversized dog. Clarence, a drummer boy for the 1st South Carolina, had been known to ride Piggy into evening praise meetings with Flip leading the charge, much to the general hilarity of the men, and the ire of Billy Brown, a corporal in the 1st South Carolina who was fixing to become a preacher when the war ended, and took to the praise meetings as though he’d already been ordained. I had reason to know the hopping choler of “My Father” Brown, as he had kept his eye on me all spring and summer of ’62, believing it my womanly duty to reward his attention with my favors. This ranked fourth in Flip’s schema, as “affront, that which pricks at one’s pride but not one’s dignity”—though it seemed to me that this unduly privileged Billy Brown’s perspective on the matter. His second and third—fury and vengefulness—switched places often over the course of that long, still winter. After some rebs snuck past our pickets and killed ten men in their sleep, Flip joined the retaliatory mission led by Sergeant Major Whittaker, a young black officer of mysterious origins who had come to us early that summer and whom Colonel Higginson quickly came to hold in much esteem. All that fall, Beau Whittaker had taken to picking the herbs I liked whenever he found them outside camp, but he returned that winter night with nothing in his haversack but a rattle of teeth, cracked and bloody at the roots.
“We did for them,” he said, observing a molar seamed black with abscessed caries. Some reb’s jaw had hurt like hell, but not anymore—in dying he had passed that burden, somehow, to my kind-eyed soldier. “Twelve, hiding in the mud by the estuary, white rats. Brought two slaves with them—Flip has them now.”
And days later, the 1st South Carolina’s two newest soldiers were drinking the sweet nectar of freedom—which had, in this case, the salutary burn of contraband whisky. Zollie and Guillaume were brothers, natives to these waterways, though their mother had been a creole from Baton Rouge. They were laughing, good-natured boys, eager to share our fire and our stories, and nodded when Flip elevated vengefulness to the grim honor of second place.
“But those Johnny Rebs,” said the younger one, Guillaume, “they got plenty of vengefulness too. They’d string us up quicker than a Christmas turkey—” He gave his brother a conspiratorial glance, and Zollie finished: “—if they could catch us!”
Flip’s back stiffened. “Anger that grows in the soil of deprivation is a holy fruit, while that which is sewn in the soil of overabundance grows crooked and full of poison. It is beneath our consideration.”
Third, still indispensable, he ranked fury: “that berserking wrath which bursts forth after long confinement.” Flip was a freedman who had never known a day’s bondage, but with this he named and mapped the power that made the Negro regiments the terror of Johnny Reb. I felt it, too, when I stared dead-eyed at the stinking midden of disarticulated flesh outside the medical tent—a devil and a sawbones had carved my heart clean of pity and horror, and at first only fury filled that empty cavity.
But in my later years, it has been that fifth, overlooked anger who has abided and kept her step with mine after all the others fell aside. After Beau died, and Grandma came to help me with our baby, I felt her: a canker, a hard stone beneath a camp-stitched wound, turning. Ten dollars, Seneca Stone Company, read the check from the men who had killed Sergeant Major Beau Whittaker for the savings of a scaffold repair, and made me a widow at twenty-three.
“Gall,” I heard Flip say that night, across the chasm of all my deaths and four hard years, “the fifth, and the least. That bitter medicine, the grime of commonplace indignity which collects in the soul day by day and grows there, like a cancer.”
“There is a peculiar kind of sadness,” declared Beau Whittaker one morning just before dawn, when we were still wrapped in one another in the tent the boys had given me for myself at the edge of camp, “in the starting of the spring.”
I wrinkled my nose. “The return of the birds? The blooming of new flowers? Spring greens for the pot? What’s sad about that, Sergeant Major?”
He smiled and blew out a soft breath, foggy in the morning air. I saw him as though through a shroud. “I believe,” he said, “they call it melancholy.”
I had forgotten Beau Whittaker’s spring melancholy by the summer, when we had moved camp to Branwell plantation and all the talk was of rousting the rebels from their position at Fort Wagner. I was bristling, tetchy as a flea-bitten mule. I snapped at the boys I nursed through varioloid and taught their letters; I kicked at the racket-ribbed camp dogs that sniffed my cook pot. “You’ll break apart, holding yourself so tight, Sally,” Beau would tell me after some snarling fight that left nothing in our jaws but rot. I chose not to hear him. I lingered over Flip’s taxonomy as though it were the last hard tack of a long winter march. Had I not every right to my anger, its pettiest excesses? Had I not been born to slavery, like most of my boys? If I noticed the slight resemblance I bore to Billy Brown, I did not linger over the knowledge. After I refused his affections, he had loudly declared his intention to maintain his “purity” far away from the “wicked Jezebels out to tempt a holy man,” and I was happy to leave him to it. He and all the other men who’d looked at me hopefully had given way with surprising ease when Beau Whittaker came to my tent. The resentment I felt toward my boys—was I only a human, a fellow in this bitter struggle for our freedom, when I had been claimed by a man?—I folded inside my other angers like a baby in swaddling. Affront was my meat and milk that summer, though it curdled, though it teemed with flies.
The first day of June I went out at the dawn’s low tide to wade into the shallows and collect whatever wriggling bits of life mother water had seen fit to gift us: clams, mostly, and one small eel trapped in a tide pool. I picked it up by its tail and cracked it like a whip against the back of a hunching stone. My breath was heavy, my eyes stung with salt. I dropped the eel in my basket.
Across the water was Hall Island, a strip of rock and sand covered in bitter panicgrass and scraggly saw palm. Rebel pickets had been spotted there, and Colonel Higginson had ordered us to stay clear. Guillaume and Zollie flouted this order with impunity that summer. “There’s sweet shrimp in the rocks, Beau,” Zollie had said, more conciliatory than his brother, who had told Beau Whittaker that he was free now, “at least that what y’all told us, and ain’t no white man giving me any orders now—at least none that I’m taking, Sergeant Major.”
I looked the other way. I knew the hell these boys would soon face, and go back to god facing.
I returned to camp with a basket of clams and an eel too smashed for eating. I thought Beau Whittaker would find me, and I had a few words I’d been saving for him. I anticipated the fight more than the clams in my basket: What do you care for me, when you can’t be bothered to come back to the tent before midnight? You never bring me herbs anymore, you don’t wait for my cooking, you come in and out like a ghost, like you’re afraid of me. And he would just look at me, sad as an old dog with death in its eyes, before I pushed him too far. But Flip found me first, that angular, serious face filled with an energy that dropped my guts and twisted.
“Orders?” I asked. “Fort Wagner?”
Flip shook his head. “Going up the Edisto River. Colonel Higginson thinks we can destroy one of the railway bridges to Savannah.”
“Not just that.”
Now Flip smiled. “The plantations.”
Up the river, isolated among the waterways and islands of the Carolina coast were dozens of plantations filled with slaves whose masters had marched them behind the rebel lines before Lincoln’s navy took Hilton Head. They would be freed if our boys could get to them.
“They won’t be left behind, Sally.”
“Both companies are going?”
“Just volunteers. Sergeant Major Whittaker is with the colonel. He says not to wait.”
I waited. Baked the clams and fried up two mess pans of cracker dowdy in a bit of lard and then kept it all warm on the coals as the sun climbed up and back down again. As the moon rose in a sliver above the stands of live oak just beyond Hall Island, I took some dried herbs from my satchel and cast them upon the smoldering embers.
I sat on my makeshift bench—an old stump with a little rise at the back, as though the tree had been thoughtful in its falling—and drew a raw breath: blue rosemary, pale scrub sage, and a small crumbly leaf the color of the bayou before a storm. Grandmother had named them all, like Adam lonely in the first garden, but that last she had baptized with a word from her mother’s people in their place across the water. I burned it when the moon laid her ancient light upon our fragile human endeavors, when none but Flip or Clarence or Piggy might see me. Beau Whittaker was too modern of a man, too favored by the generals, to approve of my rootworking. He would collect herbs for me—or he had—but he refused to wear a sprig of life everlasting in his cap when he went to battle.
He would be going back into battle soon; he always did. “Affront,” I whispered to myself. My anger hadn’t evaporated, it had merely undressed. There it was, shivering and gulping in the moonlight: melancholy, a fresh ghost.
That July night I whispered the chant my great-grandmother had taught me while she clamped an old clay tobacco pipe between her teeth as though it were the bone of an old slaver. I had only been four years old, but I hadn’t dared forget. She had lived to eighty-four by her reckoning, a mythical age to the child that I had been. I still did not know what the chant meant, only that it was to keep me and mine safe, to remember us to the old spirits although we had traveled so far beyond them. And as at the time of that bloody summer I had no living children to pass into the spirits’ sight, I commended to them, instead, my fine boys of the 1st South Carolina and 54th Massachusetts. I sent waves of that blue and fragrant smoke through the camp that night. I wanted my boys to have a taste of that other place behind their tongues, something they could recall, perhaps, in the noisome stink of the battlefield. And if the worst happened, a quiet space, drifted with holy incense, in which to pray and wait for death.
Beau came to my fire after mother moon had climbed into her house and Piggy lay slumbering by the embers of my fire, with Clarence snuggled beside her. I was smoking a bit of hoarded tobacco that Flip had given me with quiet solemnity before he went to his tent. I felt at peace for the first time in months, as though I had made myself the smoke of offering.
Beau ate my cracker dowdy and baked clams in reverent silence, even though the dowdy had long since turned to rubber. The clams were still good, and I seasoned them with a sprinkle of my scrub sage and sea salt. I will never forget how he looked up at me from his place by the fire, smoke in his eyes. How out of place, how inevitable, that spring melancholy in the redolent bloom of summer. He and the boys would be off tomorrow at dawn. Some would return, and some wouldn’t. We would all go back to the earth in our time.
“You back, Sally?” Beau asked.
“I never left.”
“But you were hiding.”
Beau pulled down the collar of my dress and kissed down the tiny bones of my neck, twisted and sore from years of looking down at everything white men needed doing. For the first time in my nineteen years I was learning what I might do if I looked up. Now my former masters were just Johnny Rebs and we of the 1st South Carolina were united in what consideration they deserved. The world was not what it had been when I was a girl. I’d been summoned to the bed of Mr. Wentworth’s son whenever he was home on holidays from school. I had been all but twelve when it first started. Mr. Wentworth’s taste ran to the high yellow house slaves, so I suppose that I had counted myself lucky that the boy only claimed me for a few weeks out of the year. I had long since ceased to consider myself an innocent by the time Beau Whittaker crowned the company laundress with Spanish moss. I had watched my mother sold away when I was ten. I knew as well as any former slave the danger of cleaving to any but God (and take care, even with Him). Yet I found myself there: the sand-blown beaches of the Carolina islands were my own Eden and Canaan, a promised future in a reclaimed past. I didn’t know it until I had left it, so foreign was such tenderness and childlike exploration to my experience of the world. With Beau, I learned to breathe, to take his hand, to say: I am, here, yours. And he, fresh-faced, milk-fed and free, saw nothing wrong in me.
He fed me the last remaining clams. They tasted of salt and smoke.
“When this is over, will we be free?”
“You’re free now. Mr. Lincoln signed the proclamation.”
It had not freed him. Though he put about a tale of being freeborn in Delaware, in reality Beau Whittaker had escaped from a Baltimore lawyer’s household and made his way down the coast in order to join the 1st South Carolina. Mr. Lincoln’s Proclamation only applied to former slaves like myself from the rebellious south, not to those enslaved in states that still cleaved to the Union.
“No, no . . . free of this . . .”
Like poisoned water you’re too thirsty not to drink, like a thick maggot in a juicy apple, like that tar baby stuck fast to your hand, never shook loose again. (Grandma, ten years after Beau, dying to get free of some old and evil thing: What’s this worming its way up in me? What’s this I can’t get out?)
I regarded him until his cedar brown eyes lit in shared despair, warm as his palms, house-slave-smooth, on my cheeks. We laughed like two babies crying, and looked again, past the embers of the fire to Piggy and Clarence snoring in counterpoint, and then to the spare gray tents of the men. They looked insubstantial in the moonlight, like a daguerreotype on silver; I loved them, but they—we all—were already ghosts.
The boys returned a week later. Their ranks had swelled so with the new freedmen from the plantations upriver that it was hard to spot the missing faces. Only two, this time, men who I only knew by sight and whose deaths inspired, to my great shame, nothing more than a swell of relief. Colonel Higginson, flush with pride over the mission, retired to his tent immediately to write a report for the generals at Fort Walker. They had only destroyed one of the two critical railroad bridges, but the liberation of the plantations inspired even Beau Whittaker to join in the celebrations upon return. The praise meeting began at midday and did not end until midnight, though the newest ranks of freedmen all spoke the Gullah tongue of these backwaters, and our mutual understanding was a painstaking endeavor.
Flip I saw when he entered camp, carrying two babies beside their ailing mother, and not again until after midnight. I only listened to Billy Brown fulminating during prayer meeting while I helped find the newcomers places to sleep for the night and attempted to ease the half-dozen who were already sick from the dreaded swamp fever. I prepared gallons of sassafras tea to fortify the blood and gave it to all the soldiers and the newcomers who would take it. We couldn’t afford an outbreak among us. Not with orders set to come down any day for that final assault on Fort Wagner. Past midnight, I finally found time to squat on my heels in the sand and eat some crumbled hardtack and the last of the pudding I had whipped up from condensed milk rations and the eggs the newcomers had brought with them.
Flip walked back into camp as I finished eating. I thought he was Beau until his red breeches stopped a proper six feet away and I could make out the dirt and powder stains typical of a gunner. I took a deep breath of warm, salty air and looked at him through my swimming eyes.
“You want something too? I’m just as tired as you boys, and I’ve still got your messes to clean up.”
Flip took a step closer. “What have I done to offend you, Sally?” His quiet voice was weary as mine.
Anger rose up in me and buckled like a broken leg. I rubbed my eyes. “Nothing,” I said, “nothing. Just living, it seems.” I held out the pudding.
He squatted beside me and ate it with the silent quickness of a soldier recently disgorged from battle. When he had finished, he turned, lifted his hand, as though we had been speaking this whole time and he could not keep himself from hitting this last mark:
“It’s not the war that will kill us all, not bullets or cannon or implacable fever.” He drew himself into his weedy height, filled with a spirit. “No,” he said, “it is disillusion that delivers the final blow.”
“And the bullet? The cannon? The gangrene?” I asked. I could not help myself. My grandmother had always chided me for my boldness in praise meetings; I would have questioned Moses at the bottom of the Red Sea, she always said.
Flip nodded with august grace. His eyes fixed on me. I wondered who he saw. “Mere affront. The means of delivery,” he said, and then tipped his cap. “Be seeing you, Sally.”
Flip was captured in the second raid, a spontaneous action spurred on by the praise meetings and the drunken jubilee from the success of the first. This expedition up the river to Pocotaligo was under the command of Sergeant Harry Williams, making it the first all-black mission of the war, and Sergeant Williams was warmly celebrated upon his return. It was Clarence who brought me the news, as the men were preparing, at last, for the assault on Fort Wagner.
“He might come back, though, Miss Sally,” Clarence said, clacking his drumsticks in a nervous rhythm that had Piggy twitching her head, waiting for the trick. “He was living when last I saw him.”
No one was young in this war, not even a drummer boy of thirteen, and certainly not a laundress of nineteen. We both knew what the rebs did to any free Negro soldier who fell into their hands. Abomination, that was what, abomination in the eyes of the Lord. But for a born freeman like Flip—I would rather he have died. I went to that spot by the river where I had last seen him and screamed until I swooned. Beau Whittaker was not in camp; he was off rushing Fort Wagner, where he was spared by the grace of our mysterious god. The returning soldiers found me there, weedy in the rising tide. The company doctor rolled me over a barrel to get the water from my lungs, but a cough lingered. Perhaps I let it; in those gray-rimed hospital days there were times when I was sure I heard Flip’s filling voice, reciting verses of our own, newer testament.
The men and women we freed in those raids went on to the contraband camps in Mitchelville and around Beaufort, unsteady with deliverance. A few dozen of the young men stayed on with the 1st South Carolina and 54th Massachusetts and so were among the first into the field when we sallied the rebs at Fort Wagner. Nearly all of them died, along with the 54th Massachusetts’s own Colonel Shaw; nearly a thousand in all, so many that in the years that remained to the war, when I would walk from Camp Saxton to Fort Wagner, the path was littered with the skulls of those men, rebs and Union alike, grinning in the thickets of saw palms, and we never did know which was which. Perhaps that meant they had died in vain. Perhaps it meant that they had died facing Canaan. The Lord is generous even in our grief, Flip whispered to me amid the screams of the men dying in the Beaufort hospital. They would not be left behind. Is it disillusion, or illusion? Our lives on earth, our bondage, our freedom. But what, my Lord, of our liberation, our liberation, our liberation on judgment day?
Excerpted from “Reconstruction”, copyright © 2020 by Alaya Dawn Johnson