Monday, December 21, 2009

How to See the Elephant -- Part III

Arriving in Cincinnati, Thetis goes to a boardinghouse where she is known from visits with her father, hoping to borrow money to get a boat downriver. She finds Mrs. Ayers, the owner of the boardinghouse, mourning her son, killed at the battle of Bull Run.

“I’ve had gallons of tea,” Mrs. Ayers held up a hand. “I’ve been thinking. I shall go to Washington and find Tim’s body. After all, they might have made a mistake, mightn’t they?”
“I mean, unless someone from the family is there to identify the body, I don’t see how they could really know.”
“But…” I wasn’t sure if she thought his body still lay unburied, or if she contemplated disinterring it.
“Until I see it, no one can say for sure that it is him.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking it unwise to disagree with her, and though she hadn’t asked after Pa I began to tell her my story:
“Pa went into the Army, too. He was wounded, and now he’s in the camp hospital in Louisville – if he wasn’t captured. We’re going to get a riverboat down to Louisville to find him.”
“That’s impossible,” Mrs. Ayers said, matter-of-factly, “No boats have run for three weeks. The river’s too low.”
“Oh. None?”
Her voice lowered to a whisper again:
“It hasn’t rained since Tim died. Do you think if I went to Washington and found his body, it would rain again?”
“I – I couldn’t say for sure, Mrs. Ayers.”
“Well, Louisville’s under attack.” She had resumed a normal voice. “No riverboats will go there. They say Bragg is shelling the city. You might get a train through Indiana, but you’d have to cross the river anyway at Jeffersonville.”
I went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. It occurred to me now that something was very wrong with the picture I had seen from the window with Sheba a few minutes before. The river was a narrow strip of white-silver. No traffic stirred upon its surface.
So that was it. Mrs. Ayers was crazy with grief and Sheba did not want to go any further. I had defied my sister, my teachers, the law, and the customs of my race over four days, slept out in the open, ridden with strangers, outraged the laws of hospitality and nearly been shot for a chicken thief, only to end up stuck in Cincinnati, a hundred miles still from my father.

No comments: