The letter had been delivered in the evening by a desperate courier with a cart full of casualty notifications and return mail which no longer had a viable address. Here, letters were rarely filled with happy news, and I watched with a heavy heart as my wife’s shaking hands tore open the envelope, which was dusted with ash and dirt.
She skimmed the first sentences -- looking for “regret” or “apology”, the words which dotted the letter framed on our mantle next to my eldest’s school photographs. She breathed out heavily.
“Eileen --” I started, but she cut me off. “It’s Harry. He’s fine, Jacob. He’s fine. But he’s worried about the old Fuller property.”
“If he’s alive, nothing else matters,” I replied with a gruff headshake. If this war had taught me anything, it was that anything in life could be regained but a beating heart.
“No, there’s more -- he says Sherman isn’t finished with Georgia. The battalion has been asked to accompany the General south, with orders to destroy and redistribute land as they like, permission of the president.”
“Eileen, they ain’t giving away loyal land.”
“That’s what my brother’s worried about. How will they know it's ours if there’s no-one there to prove it? His lieutenant won’t grant him leave -- says it’ll be considered treason if he goes south without the rest of the men. They’re splitting the troops and not telling anyone which way they’re headed, for fear the rebels will get wind.”
I looked my wife in the eye. “Eileen. Ain’t nothing we can do about it.”
I could see the wrinkles around her eyes crinkle, the brown irises still the same ones I had fallen in love with decades ago. Suddenly, I was sick of seeing that constant look of hopelessness on her face. I stood up straight from where I had been peering over her shoulder at the letter. “I’ll go.”
“You can’t, Jacob. I’d rather have you than that place.”
“No, I know what that old farm means to you. It means something to me too. And this war has taken too much from the both of us. Not this too, not if I can help it. I’ll come back safe, I promise.”
I could see a tiny seed of hope take root in Eileen’s eyes. “I’ll go too,” she said.
I smiled, reminded of the ferocity with which she had verbally defended the few livestock we had left from the army. “What about Jennifer? Or Ruby Belle?”
My wife frowned and I thought for a second she was going to nag me for placing both our teen daughter and prize hen on the same level of concern. Instead, she said, “You’ll have to go now.”
In the matter of an hour, I had layered every piece of clothing I owned, donned a backpack which Eileen had packed to the brim with food and a small home-made Union Jack, and set out into the November night.
I chose to take the quickest road which carried south from the Carolinas all the way to Jacksonville. It was the merchant route, paralleled by the railroad bringing industrial products in exchange for sugar and cotton. I had taken this same path every summer in my youth, walking quickly among the traffic of people and listening for the train’s whistle. As a kid, my mother would put me on the Greenboro rail with a letter in case I forgot to transfer, and I would arrive at the Savannah station to a relieved pair of grandparents. But as I got older and wiser, she’d save the train fare and I would go by foot. The journey would take me over a week of constant walking until I arrived in Georgia -- this time I hitched a ride with the first wagon I met, carrying me past Atlanta in only a couple days' time.
The driver refused to carry me any further south, instead heading west to Alabama because his deliveries were no longer needed in the remaining remnants of Atlanta. I grimly understood and continued by foot, deciding to walk overnight instead.
Walking in the dark, I couldn’t tell anything was wrong. So much had changed in the few decades since I’d taken this path in the summers -- the plentiful oak trees which I had used to rest from the sweltering sun were far and in between now, waylaid to build new tracks or make room for new plantations. The path was even less familiar with the layer of ice and frost layering the ground.
As the sun rose late in the morning, I stopped with a shudder. The earth I was walking on was soft, which I had blamed on the light snow which had accompanied me through the night. But in the dim light, I could see that the road was instead marked by ash. The pasture fences had an unnatural smudge which transferred to my gloves with a touch.
I kept moving, my joints not as content as they might have been years ago. As the sun rose higher, I could see people moving en masse down the road. In a different time, I would have met them -- but not now. I walked to the side, keeping my fur hat down over my face. As I got closer, I realized these were not soldiers or merchants but families, mostly women. Their faces were solemn, gripping small cases and wearing lighter coats than recommended in cold weather. They did not afford me any attention -- but I looked at the ragged hems of their skirts and the dark ash coating their shoes and was morbidly reminded of the prints depicting sinners marching into hell which were often included in our church bulletin. This picture of an icy hell struck me with a sense of despair. These people were desperate enough to be leaving their homes at dawn.
I took a deep breath and quickened my step. If the army took my wife’s land, we could petition for it back. But if they were burning everything they set eyes on, there would be nothing worth salvaging. I trudged through the ice and snow, thinking of how broken my wife would be if that happened.
The land itself wasn’t much to speak of, a crop field centered around a small farmhouse and a grain mill. Eileen’s parents had raised both her and her younger brother Harry there. For over a decade of summers, every morning I would come running over from my grandparents’ house across the road, ducking past my grandmother's magnolia to jump the fence. If the magnolia was still there, it would be many times my height.
To the passerby, Eileen’s family and my own were simply neighboring farmers who had chosen to be far from the nearest town for their own peace. It’s true that the Fullers grew wheat and barley, some of which they would hand off to larger farms with silos. But the rest the Fullers would bind up and sell to my grandparents.
I remember dragging grain from the Fullers back to my grandparents’ cellar, where it would be packed into barrels. My mother’s parents, lovingly called Pa and Ma Alder, had picked up the trade from a neighboring German immigrant family who had stayed with them for a few months before heading north. Unsurprisingly, beer proved a far more precious commodity than bread and drew customers from around the county.
Unfortunately, beer-making was far from welcome in the public eye, mainly due to the church and anti-German sentiment. Anyone looking for beer from my folks would knock at the door and need to give both the name of a reference and a certain phrase before the Alders would even discuss selling. Mostly it was local inns who would send carriages to haul back a couple barrels to increase local business. But there was another reason the beer was kept so secret -- it was funneled through certain people throughout the town to the surrounding plantations. The landowners would never have bought our alcohol, but their servants and slaves, the same social status in their shared poverty, did and were sworn to secrecy if they were ever caught with their purchases.
And that’s how I was raised each summer, lying to any questions asked of me by strangers and not asking any of the visitors. I was too young to realize the gravity of our situation but I knew I needed to let Pa and Ma Alder do all the talking. Whenever some client would knock on the door, I’d shake Pa awake and then run out the back door to play with Eileen and Harry for the evening until Ma or Pa came to take me back.
It was always too hot to want to do anything other than sit in the cool of the Fullers’ grain mill, even in the evening. My first summer I had been shy, sitting quietly next to the Fullers and waiting to be summoned home. But one day Eileen jumped up and offered me a small wooden spinning top, showing me how it could spin all the way to the other side of the room with a twist of her fingers. Looking back, I guess that was the moment I was bewitched. I was convinced Eileen’s one extra year of life experience meant I owed her undying friendship, even when she tried to climb to the top of the grain mill during my second summer. She fell off the first story and her parents reprimanded both of us -- Eileen for the consequentially sprained ankle and myself for not stopping her.
As we got older, our meetings became less frequent. I could finally be of some use at the brewery and Harry and Eileen were always wanted for some farm chore or another. I no longer thought of Harry as the annoying kid who would spoil all of Eileen and I’s adventures with his tattletaling or whining. During the rare mutual break in the day, we would talk about our ambitions. Harry wanted to become a doctor and attend medical school in Montgomery, where he could stay with family. I had a smaller dream, one where myself and Eileen continued the brewery business when Ma and Pa Alder retired. By fourteen, I understood how profitable the bootlegging business could be. I kept trying to ask Eileen what she wanted, but she was determined to avoid the question. I spent the time in between summers constantly wondering if she had gone off and found some other sweetheart besides me.
Neither of Harry or I’s dreams came true. Although Harry worked hard at a local school during the falls and winters, he didn’t get a place in medicine. At 22, he finally left the Fuller farm to go to Alabama anyway and apprenticed under his uncle as a shopkeep. When I was 25, Pa Alder passed away in a scuffle with a desperate alcoholic who misfired his gun in a drunken stupor. The man gave Ma Alder every last dime he had and disappeared. Instead of giving me the business, Ma Alder decided to sell the brewery and join my newly remarried mother in the Carolinas.
One part of my dream did manifest. The summer I was 18, I bought myself a suit en route to Savannah and proposed to Eileen the moment I arrived. To my relief she accepted and we were married in a tiny church in the nearby town. I helped with the Fuller farm when Harry left and then Eileen and I followed Ma Alder up to the North Carolina border. The twenty-five years following our marriage were good and we were blessed with a son and a daughter. My new stepfather had his own farm, one which we slowly took over throughout the years and, while small, kept us happy and sustained. We felt like we were in a hurricane, whirling through life and being hit with bad luck or poor mistakes. But those times seem so golden now compared to the last few years, in which so much had been taken from us.
At the start of the war, Harry enlisted into the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment along with a thousand other southerners loyal to the Union. His regiment, at the cost of over half of the men, would be almost too successful. Eileen and I felt the constant shadow of his involvement at every major battle and dreaded the knock of the courier. We were still grieving for our son, who had reached adulthood only to give his life to the army.
Now still walking through the slush and mud, I felt the fabric tied around my wrist -- the piece of his uniform which had accompanied the casualty notification. Even a year later it sent a pang through my heart.
The Fuller farm, unoccupied for the last few years while Harry was away, signaled a happier, sunnier time in our lives. Its loss would erase further ties to our roots.
Remembering the summers I had spent in Georgia pushed me to move my middle-aged joints faster. I would reach the farm before Sherman or his men did, for the sake of Eileen, Harry, and myself -- or at least return to my wife knowing what had become of it.