My first memory of my father was of his hands, the big callouses and gnarly palms, and smooth tiny metal latches, the dim evening in the barn and the way the evening came on. My father's money came from crafting keys, gun stocks, and figurines. But his love, secretly, were boxes, the turning of keys, the opening of secrets.
Men brought us the boxes for one reason or another. Mostly they were desperate, rich men on horseback coming from far away, bringing jewelry boxes with twisted latches, family heirlooms locked inside. My father could do the opening when no one else could. Once we unlatched a locked funerary urn containing the ashes of a decreased uncle. In the cold Georgia fall as the days grew darker he would guide me with the small cold metal latch, lifting and turning, the tiny filament sliding inside, lifting and turning, turning and twisting. He maneuvered it for hours with me, sliding into the deep brown box, the hair on my arms stiff from the cold. My father would forget to light a lamp. The lock picking was too intense for light, too proud for anything less than victory.
We would work for hours until we watched the line of the box swing open, the insides spilling forth. I saw fine jewels and diamonds on more than one occasion. Our work was done in the barn together on a wooden shelf while the cows looked over us and the wind blew through the barn slats.
My father told me as we worked that men were like these boxes, that with work you could see what was inside, but it was a long process to find it and sometimes you could not open a man up no matter how hard you tried.
By the time I was paid to kill my father I had not seen him in two years. He went north in 1862 for reasons I know not and he did not say. The rumor in our community was for a woman, not my mother. I know the truth, that he was far more adulterous than any sexual congress would allow, but to country and not to blood, and thus far less forgivable. The stories that found their way back told us he was worse than an adulterer, that he was in fact a Northern sympathizer.
All I knew was he had left our farm that fall as the leaves changed on the back of the best horse we owned. He said to me, “What makes a man is how you take care of others. Put a little money away. Take care of your mother and brothers and you'll be alright.” I was eleven at the time.
When the war came I had fought on the side of the Church and the State of Georgia. From the hillsides and the barn windows and the tree limbs a traitorous Union solider could be severed from his life as easily as from the back of an enlisted Southern horse. I watched the bodies of men explode like squeezed tomatoes. I did this for three winters, returning to farm in the time between.
It was June of that third summer when I was drunk and when Eligar Forten had chosen to diminish me. It was one thirty in the morning. There were five on his side, three on mine, he with a hunting knife and I with fists. I would not have laid down my hands alive.
But the sheriff came, Roger Wilburn. I knew I was in trouble. He was fifty but he knew how to fight. He told the others to back away. Then with one punch he laid me out. He was strong as hell.
“That was for bothering me in the middle of the night,” he said. He took me back to the jail and there he beat me senseless, until I could do nothing but submit.
He wiped the blood off his hands. I noticed he did not carry a weapon.
“Are you David's son?” he asked.
“I am,” I said.
“What's in your brain?” he said.
I said my brain wanted to kill any traitor, Yankee or Confederate, anywhere.
“It's who you follow and who you put down with your hands makes you a man,” he said. “You ready to be a man?”
“I am ready,” I said.
When I said this he put my handcuffs free and told me where to meet the tall man.
The tall man wore a dark black suit unlike any I had ever seen before. The meeting was the next night at the edge of Rikert Farm by the willow that hid our voices and faces.
“God as your witness, are you capable of this?” he said. He wore a thick mustache but unlike my brothers or anyone I had seen before, it was trimmed and clean, with edges that came to a point. Another bearded man stood behind him. He wore a cloak over his head and walked with a cane. This was the way they were in Virginia, I supposed. All the men I knew who had gone to Virginia had gone there to die.
He handed me a small box and I knew what was in it. A confederate bayonet.
I could smell the ashes of that bitch Sherman as he had marched to the sea and I said, “Yes sir, God as my witness I can.”
“Your own father, boy. A traitor. He'll have to die.”
“A traitor,” I said.
“Show us what you're made of,” he said. He handed me a bag of coins.
Three days later I was given the route and the tree and the time he would arrive. The dirt road that formed the path for the caravan was well known to me. There was a natural ridgeline along the side of the road where I would not be seen. I waited there from the time the sun rose. The bearded man was with me.
We talked only briefly as we lay in the dirt and waited. He said to me, “This is honor, son. This is what it means to be a man. Put your enemies at the end of your knife. Thus always, to traitors.”
“Thus always,” I said.
I waited as the fall leaves blew across the road and the sun emerged from the clouds. I did not mind the cool air on my head or the smell of the grass and the crickets.
In the early afternoon I heard horse footsteps and he emerged. The caravan was long, transporting union supplies, row after row of fine weapons, fine horses, feed and coffee and flour. All the things we did not have in Georgia anymore.
I saw mist settling on the noses of the horses and the cold clouded voices of men.
His face came into view around the corner. The solid chin, the brown eyes like mine. His quiet voice. My father. He had left us and now the audacity to return.
I fixed his forehead in the sight of the rifle. Seventy feet, then thirty. He had been drinking coffee that morning. I could smell breakfast and the scent of shaving lotion and hear the rattle of adornments on bright uniforms.
The tip of his cap where his scalp latched to his hairline and his brain was in the position of my rifle. His skull was mine to open if I so chose. My hands were wet on the trigger.
Then a crow called and the bearded man panicked and shot his rifle into the air believing we were under fire and the line of caravaned men and horses erupted into chaos. I jumped the ridgeline and had my rifle at my father's head. A bullet struck father's horse and it fell to the ground, crippled.
He stared at me, wide in disbelief. His hands were against his face, still those big calloused hands I remembered.
“My boy,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. The other soldiers had started to come after me but they all heard this and realized it was between father and son. They backed off but I knew if I pulled the trigger I was going to die by their bullets. But they paused, watching, their guns ready.
“You do this, son,” said the bearded man from the bushes. “You go on now. He deserves this. He's a son of bitch traitor. You do it,” he said.
I stared my father in the eye.
Then I took the silver bladed hunting knife and I sliced into the skull of his crippled horse. I put the knife through the horse's eye into the ground to show him what an animal looked like on the inside. I let the brains come out and watched the horse die. My father watched all of this. The soldiers stood by.
Then I took my father's rifle from his hands where he lay shaking and I turned to the bearded man and I shot him square between the eyes and he fell. His head exploded like the horse. Two animals lay dead on the ground, the bearded man and the horse.
There was one horse remaining and I took it and rode back for home.
No one pursued me. Neither did I kill father yet neither did I save him. As he had left us to our devices so did I leave him to his own. I did kill the man who came from Virginia, that far away land of the murdered and dead where no one returned.
The measure of a man is what is inside his brain, not what is in his jewel box, or what he takes with his fists, or who is at the end of his knife. Dishonored is the man who murders, dishonorable the man also who incites to murder, dishonorable the man who abandons, dishonorable the man who cannot think with his mind. All of these are vanity, a chasing after the wind.
The war would be over within months. Accepting none of these paths as my way I went forth to find my own direction in the world.