(Tom’s Great-Great Grandfather’s Sword)
I will tell you of my experiences; the ones remembered, the ones not spent in dark closets and attics and once, in a barn filled with hay. The things I whispered into the dreams of those who examined me, gingerly turning me over and over, as if I were fragile. I am anything but fragile.
I was forged in Prussia, white hot and then, cold blue. Thrust into the hands of a boy, a boy who wept at night; fat tears splashing. He did not want to go to war. I never heard his name.
Sheathed at the side of his horse; he used his gun, never me. When the horse collapsed, bleeding, the older boy grabbed me and ran. He sat in the tent hours later, running his finger back and forth along my blade, a gesture of love. “Look what I got,” he bragged to his friends. I was his prize; the finest object he'd owned in his short life. He would not let them touch me.
This boy, the older one, was experienced. The first day, he ran me through the lung of a twenty-year-old private from Akron, Ohio. Pulled hard, tugging, to free me from the cold earth. Sliced another, older man nearly in two. Back in the tent, he told the others, “I killed five Yankees.” They were never men or boys. They were Yankees. And, it was two. He killed two in that battle.
There were more and more in later days, though. The boy was good; he had a feel for balancing my weight, the correct stance, the right hold. He was fast, too. His name was Josiah.
We moved mostly at night, hooves flashing in the moonlight. The boy was hungry. The boy was tired. He kept me close at hand; I was his truest friend.
At Bentonville, he was shot in the arm, a searing pain that brought him to his knees. He dropped me suddenly, but picked me back up with his left hand, running as fast as he could. Always running.
We went home to Hillabee, Alabama. By the time the boy's infection cleared, the war was over. The boy was bitter. He was secretly convinced he could have helped the South win if he had not been hurt. Mostly, the boy was hungry, and he was so very tired. He packed me away in a trunk, his ragged uniform on top. I was moved to a barn, forgotten amid tools in the loft.
In 1916, Josiah was a very old man. He wore me at his side, in a new hand-tooled leather sheath, to the Confederate Veterans' Reunion in Birmingham. He told old-man stories, patting me with pride in his trembling voice. He wept old-man tears. They pinned a souvenir medal on his chest; took a photograph. Afterward, I went back into the trunk, carefully placed by the hands of his wife. I was left alone in an attic this time.
Many years later, I was removed with murderous intent, handled for twenty minutes, turned over and over by an angry man. I was moved to a small, dusty closet. The uniform, my constant companion, was gone. I was forgotten again.
I was discovered a decade later by a sobbing woman. She stopped crying and wiped the dust from the leather, curious. She did not remove me from the sheath; she seemed afraid. I was carried into the living room and placed on a table for her husband to see. He pulled away the leather. He was excited. He told her, “I think this was my great-grandfather's sword. My great-grandfather rode with Forrest.” He was right on the first count. On the second, he was incorrect. He would never be able to find out for sure. It became the truth.
His name was Thomas. He took me to another house where I was stored away yet again, though wrapped in soft cotton. I was an object of pride, a treasure, a jewel in his hands. He showed me once, carefully cradled, to his young son. He told him of the Cause, “The war was not about slavery and its cruelty. My people were poor farmers who never owned human beings; they fought because they believed in their freedom. The war was about taxes and the right of each state to govern itself. The South was invaded by northerners who wanted to dominate our economy. And they sure did after the so-called Civil War.” He said, in closing, “My great-great-grandfather fought with this sword at his side and served with the famous general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.”
The little boy, wide-eyed, asked, “Was it ever used to kill people?”
Thomas said, “I don’t know for sure, but I would expect so. This sword will belong to you someday.” The boy nodded solemnly, touching my blade shyly, cautiously, before I was replaced in the cotton-lined box.
Thomas examined me on the kitchen table every Confederate Memorial Day, making sure there was no rust, no damage. He wondered what the war had been like. He tried to hear the cannons. He tried to imagine the killing, the pain. He tried to imagine how Josiah felt, so very young.
The boy, Tom, appeared next as a man of thirty-eight. I was cleaned and polished, hung over his mantel, gleaming in the firelight. That night, he called his son, Tommy, into the room. “What do you think what it was like, when your great-great-great-grandfather fought in the war? Could you imagine carrying this heavy thing from place to place, tired and cold and wet in the rain? Your ancestor, Josiah Edward Robinson, was injured and had to come back early because he was unable to fight anymore. Josiah's place had a big white farmhouse and several pecan trees around it. My daddy, your grandfather, visited it when he was very young.”
A crumbled chimney stands sentinel.
I was taken down occasionally; carefully, respectfully, slowly lowered into someone's waiting hands. They ran their fingers along, tentatively, lightly. Sometimes they wondered how sharp my blade really was, how many I killed, if they would have been man enough to fight in that terrible war.
All the while, I was whispering.
Excerpted from Delaney's People: A Novel in Small Stories
All rights reserved
May not be reproduced without author's permission
May not be reproduced without author's permission
Love from Delta.