Rattle and Spin by Jeanette Sheppard

Random short fiction 5.7, from Bare Fictionhere’s the link.

Forget about the test. In fact, don’t call it a test. But we both know that the test must be administered. We’ve scheduled the test, the essential personnel are assembled in this room. My freedom to act, to assume my role as proxy, depends on the results. On failure. In this room on the wrong day of the week, in the wrong season, in the wrong city, and what were those three objects again? Empathize too little and you dehumanize, too much and you too start to rattle and spin, failing by proxy. Do you entertain the possibility that the sensations I summon vicariously from another’s past, the sights and sounds, the tastes and feels and smells — that they persist outside of memory, now and in this room, needing no words to name them, to align them in place and time, to embed them in meaning, to bring them to life? No? Very well, then please begin.

Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing…. It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.

The quote from Claude Levi-Strauss comes from the frontispiece of James C. Scott’s 2017 Against the Grain, a book I’d reserved at the local library and went to pick up yesterday. I put the book in my car before heading out for a walk through the schoolyard across the street. At the far back corner I saw a man approaching me along the oval running track: I waved, he returned the wave. I had veered left, behind the dugout at the baseball diamond, when I heard the man call out to me from behind. Approaching him I saw that he was wearing a sheriff’s uniform. Politely he informed me that I couldn’t walk on the school grounds until the kids were finished with extracurriculars. There were no kids to be seen on any of these playgrounds. New security precautions for the new school year. Thanks for letting me know, I told the sheriff; I’ll walk over to the graveyard, they’re probably done for the day. Smiling, he owned that maybe they’d appreciate some company over there.

I tend to pay attention to the very new headstones, the ones where the grass hasn’t yet fully merged with the landscape, and the very old ones. It took a minute to decipher the pitted engraving on a stone from the 1930s. The man buried there had been born in 1848, the epitaph noting that he had been in an N.C. regiment of the C.S.A. Established in 1861, the Confederate States of America dissolved four years later with the end of the War Between the States. The man buried in this plot would have been a 17-year-old boy when somehow he’d made his way back home from the battlefield or the prison camp or the field hospital — no telling how long he’d already soldiered. Before he died had the old man specified that his war service be commemorated on his stone, or was it commissioned by the next of kin as a recognized mark of honor on an otherwise undistinguished life?

I thought about the perplexing short story I’d read and posted on the day before. It began with a young couple jumping together off a bridge. Maybe all of the hallucinatory fireworks that followed had been another occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, enlisted in the Indiana infantry, fought for the Union at Shiloh, sustained a serious head wound at Kennesaw Mountain. In late 1913 a 71-year-old Bierce took a tour of Civil War battlefields. Beginning in D.C., his pilgrimage took him through the South to Louisiana and Texas, crossing into Mexico at El Paso. In Ciudad Juarez he joined up with Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, witnessing at least one battle in the Mexican Revolution. The day after Christmas Bierce posted a letter from Chihuahua to a journalist friend and former lover in San Francisco: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” Bierce was never seen or heard from again, his disappearance occasioning an official investigation and no end of speculation. Skeptics doubt whether he ever sent that letter, deeming it a likely fiction invented by the recipient. There is no irrefutable evidence that Bierce ever crossed the border into Mexico, ever rode with Pancho Villa: that escapade too might have been a fabrication, a story, a legend.

The man buried in the Durham graveyard: had he told his wife and sons about the War? The smell of gunpowder and gangrene, the staccato and roar of the battle and the groaning and weeping of its aftermath, the taste of dirt, the pain and fatigue and numbness, the endless movement and endless waiting, the boredom punctuated by terror and horror. Or, like the men I’ve known who had been to war, did he, save for heavily edited travelogues and amusing anecdotes, maintain his silence to the end? Where for the next of kin does duty lie: to the eulogy, or to silence?

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