Friday, January 1, 2010

How to See The Elephant -- Part IV

Following a line of Army wagons with wounded soldiers, Thetis finds a camp on the outskirts of Louisville.

From the top of the hill, as I sat down to rest, I saw a small city, seemingly, with lamps and lights spread for hundreds of yards, and the glimmer of tents, their sides stirring in the breeze, and the sound – that mixture of roaring, singing and snoring – of men in camp, that I would come to know so well in the future.
When I had regained my breath, and found my way to the gate of the camp, I saw a sentry. Now, I had a feeling, it would begin all over again – the trek from captain to major to general, the same refusal to commit to any action, the same doubts and dissuasion – and then back to Louisville, or across the river. I had to get by him. He was no young fellow who might be bamboozled, either. He was crooked and ancient, with a sparse beard made up for by over-sufficient quantities of nose and ear hair.
“I’m going to the camp hospital,” I said, “I have supplies for my father.”
Of course I had nothing with me, except the gun, which I tucked unsteadily into the band of my skirt, far enough back to be out of sight.
He looked me up and down. “Camp hospital!”
“Yes, sir. My father’s in the 95th Ohio.”
“No 95th Ohio here.”
I took a deep breath, then reached up and tried to pull out my hair so it would flutter in the breeze. I bunched it over my shoulders, and then I pulled up my skirt on one side, just enough that you could see to the knee, and stood with my leg thrust out, turning it back and forth in the lantern light. I had put my stockings back on, in anticipation of arrival in Louisville.
“See that?”
“Hmm,” he said, staring at my leg as if it were some sort of curious animal that might have to be killed.
“Do you see that, sir?”
“I see it.”
“Well, what do you think?” I let the skirt drop and put my hands on my hips. “I’m one of Miss Tamara’s girls. General Gillmore—” I had heard this name in one of the hotels we passed through “—requested our presence, sir, at a small entertainment he is hosting for his officers. Do you understand me?” I felt I could not afford to let him pause and think through anything. I showed my leg again.
“Do you think the general will like me, sir?”
It sounds almost harmless: a lark, a high-spirited joke, a wiggling of the shoulders and a saucy wink to get me into the camp. It wasn’t. I felt terrible. I knew that my mother, if she had ever watched over me from heaven, would surely abandon me now. It was not a case of enduring something for the sake of something better. It was a willful choice I had made. I could feel a cold shame, like the reverse of a blush, creeping from my knees to my head; my innards, constricting, doubling upon themselves, rising; my head light and my own voice unfamiliar in my ears. I stood without trembling only by will – a will I’d not had enough of when it might truly have helped me.
I turned my head and leaned forward and let my hair swing out, and he touched it, first clumsily, and then playfully he wrapped it around his finger and it pulled a little and finally I laughed, a high false sound that I had not known I was capable of making, and said:
“Now, now, sir.”

No comments: