By Beth Duke
Johnny Murphy picked himself up off the playground, dusting red clay from his jeans. Mrs. Holmes signaled the end of recess, oblivious to the Fifth Grade War of 1956. He felt for the piece of lucky rock in his pocket and shot a look at Harris Henderson designed to convey one thing: after school Johnny would shut his mouth with a knuckle sandwich.
It wasn't a rock, exactly, but the fossilized tooth fragment of an ancient whale. Johnny knew only what he'd been told: the lucky rock had saved his great-great-grandfather's life through numerous battles against the Yankees, most notably when it kept shrapnel from his femoral artery at Chancellorsville.
Johnny's memories and those of his ancestors are part of my story. So are dinosaurs ripping prey to shreds and scattering bone, massive toothed whales floating above, tectonic shifts forming the Appalachian foothills and, later, me. Limestone crushed by forces so great they created the purest vein of white marble in the earth. The detritus of millions of years surrounded me, including Johnny's whale fragment.
I slept peacefully, unaware. I knew nothing until the stories they told me, the pain they infused into my being, the weight of their sorrow.
In 1867, Mary Lee Tutwiler begged her father, Horace, to do something to acknowledge her brother's death and the deaths of all the men who'd fallen in the war and were buried in faraway trenches. They had vanished, disappeared into the gaping maw of a hostile land. No government gathered their remains. No headstones marked their resting places. Mary Lee told her father it would help the grieving to heal if they had a memorial, a place to bring their flowers.
Horace sacrificed his sons to defend their home, only to see it burned to the ground by Sherman. His wife died shortly after the war began. He'd long ago accepted the only thing to live for was his lovely Mary Lee. He and his neighbors had nothing of value, no way to create such a thing, but he promised her he'd try.
For three years the mothers, fathers, widows, orphans, daughters and sons of the Alabama town held ice cream suppers, strawberry festivals, and concerts to raise money for a monument that would cost over two thousand dollars.
At last, in 1872, they could afford to summon me and watched in awe as an artist from Italy labored day and night to sculpt what had witnessed millions of years of history into history itself. Moretti and his assistants made me tall, a soaring column draped in requiem cloth, topped with a wreath. At the base of my pedestal is a dedication: To the memory of our sons fallen in service of the Confederate States.
Hundreds came to my unveiling. They wept and touched my sides, the glorious headstone for the graves of thousands of men and boys. And so I came to know their stories, with each touch, each tear that fell, every bouquet solemnly placed to wither in the sun.
Josiah was the father of a little redheaded girl named Amelia, whose widow Jenny died of a broken heart. Amelia lived with her grandparents. I saw Amelia grow up each week, always carrying wildflowers or some small object to lay at my base and step back to meet her grandmother's wet eyes.
T. J. Jones had been a blacksmith for a short time when he went to fight. He fell in love with Esther in Tennessee as he recovered from injuries. Esther promised to marry him, and went to live with his parents until T. J. came home. He did not; they watched faithfully for him to walk up the winding drive. Esther tried to find out his fate with no success. She never married and stayed with the Jones family until her death.
More and more came as time went on, some traveling from many miles away. Their stories are endless, each woven into my own with a touch, a sob, a handful of wildflowers. There were annual Memorial Days. They featured wreaths and songs and many an old man in gray uniform, dabbing away old man tears.
I saw it all.
Johnny Murphy's great-great grandfather, Jackson, was one of the few who came back to Alabama in one piece, alive and able. He brought his little boy to my side one bright April morning, squinting against the sun. He said, "Son, folks are going to tell you the war we fought was illegal. They'll try to make out like me and my cousins went to battle so we could keep our slaves. Hell, John, I ain't never owned no slave and I never thought it was right for any man, nossir. We determined to make a new country, Son. That's what it was all about for me and the ones that fought by my side. At least, at first it was." Jackson placed his hand against my inscription, tracing it with his finger. "Later on, we was fightin' to save our homes and farms and businesses from bein' burnt to ashes. So much is gone, John. So much is gone." He shook his head and pulled a three-inch-long rock from his pocket. "I want you to have this. My daddy gave it to me when I was little, and he told me it's a real piece of a tooth of a whale that swam over this land millions of years ago. Might look like just a rock, but I've always took good care of it, and it's always took good care of me. Saved my life, it did, blocking metal from openin' up my leg. I want you to promise me you'll keep it always, hear?"
John, wide-eyed, took the fossil from his father and turned it over and over in his small hands. "I promise, Daddy. Did it really save you from gettin' killed?"
"Yes, it surely did. I want it to be in our family, and I want you to tell your sons what it is and all that happened, and maybe their sons will know someday, too."
Jackson was one of the old men who came every year in uniform, hand over his heart and head bowed. The last time he made the trip he was supported on each side by his grandsons, strong young teenagers. One of them would die on the beach at Normandy. The other, Oscar, would start a family and pass down the fossil to his eldest son. They brought it with them on their visits, and the words were the same: never forget the truth.
It was a long time before Oscar's son visited me again. I was worn, decades of rain and wind making my inscription faint. This one, John again, stooped to trace the words and run his hand up my side, flooded with memories.
Oscar and his wife both contracted tuberculosis and left six children orphaned. Terrified and ignorant townspeople burned their house to the ground, believing they'd stop the spread of disease. John had rescued one thing from the ashes: the fossil he now took from his pocket and regarded as he remembered the story of his Confederate ancestor, Jackson. He walked to his car, parked near the courthouse, and returned with a wreath of brilliant blue gladiolas. He deposited it near the inscription and left, never to return.
Johnny was a handsome young man with a family of giggling girls and a toddler boy in the 1970's. His wife, Carrie, flashed a warning look at her daughters and boosted her son David higher on her hip. Johnny led his girls, Mary and Julia Lee, to my side and began to tell them the story of my history and the history of their ancestor, Jackson. He showed them the fabled whale's tooth. Mary was polite but turned to ask her mother how much longer until they got to Six Flags. Julia Lee, serious and thoughtful, came so close I could feel her breath. She placed a tiny palm over a chip in my pedestal, as though she might effect healing. She turned and ran when her parents called her away.
There were so many others. They did not cry. They rarely knew much about the ancestors who fought, only that they were deeply moved by their sacrifice, and didn't want them forgotten. Occasionally a history teacher would bring a gaggle of children and allow them to touch my smooth marble, unaware that I was listening.
I stood solitary in the darkness as men arrived with giant lights and a crane. They covered me in tarpaulins and yelled instructions to each other, anxious and hurried. They managed to begin moving me from my place. It had become those words: my place.
I felt the fracture in my base first; it spread quickly and shuddered me into three huge pieces. I fell and shattered as the men ran for shelter. They came with trucks and removed the evidence of their mistakes. They hauled me to a remote place and dumped thousands of pounds of broken marble back into a crevice in the earth.
Julia Lee Murphy stopped where the GPS coordinates indicated and stepped into tall grass at the roadside's edge. She peered down the bank until she spotted a section of kudzu that barely concealed a white mound of dust and crumbled rock. She picked her way gingerly, watching for snakes and foxholes, pulling blackberry thorns from her jeans.
She heard the cars and trucks roaring by overhead and glanced up. Julia Lee pulled the fragment of a whale's tooth from her backpack, tears streaming from her eyes. She placed it gently amid the white dust, the ashes of memory.
She would tell her sixth grade students Monday. Maybe she'd bring them here someday, to listen.
©Beth Dial Duke, 2018