Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fourth of July Fiction, Bury this Letter Deep

This is a little tale that I cooked up especially for today.

Dearest Margaret,

Bury this letter deep. My time in the Continental Army has almost come to a close. You alone know that my feelings towards King George were never anything but lukewarm; but now I can, in the fullness of time, return home to you. There are men slipping away every day and soon I shall be back in the plot on Long Hill that we purchased with your father’s money. When I return, we may start our life anew, free of all our past misdeeds.
I hope to find you and our child well. The bloody work is done, and the chains that bound us to earth have been slipped. We shall make our lives in Waterbury without fear, and raise our daughter to be a strong and upright woman. Whether we live beneath the rule of the King or the so-called Continental Congress, we shall be finally free of Jeremiah Hooker for the rest of our days.

If they say at home that the fighting has been fierce, they are not wrong. We looked to this winter for a respite from bloody battles. It has been worth the danger to secure your safety and the safety of little Emma. But the rest we had hoped for has not come. The General has marched us down near at hand to the camp of the British soldiers, and we have spent nearly a month so far in this frozen wasteland.

Margaret, if only you could see it! I shiver to imagine a winter so cold in Connecticut, for I imagine that you must always be building up the fire to drive out the chills and fevers from the household! But here we are short on supply. I pray that you sup on porridge and pork-fat, for we must make do with fire-cakes. Have you yet heard of what these so-called cakes are made? They are the most vile of all foods on this earth, water mixed with base flour, compounded and baked over the heat.

Fifteen men in my company have had no shoes since November. Their feet are blistered and aching, and they have thrown away the old worn boots they clung to. Harry Jonson has lost his left foot to the cold; it turned black as coal tar and had to be sawed off by the battalion physician.

Yet, I have dogged the steps of master Hooker through all our travails. He and I were not in need of new shoes, and I made certain that he was always well-fed. He began to rely on me as a friend, perhaps forgetting or hoping to forget the wrongs he has done us. Yes, I have even saved his life! You may scoff at that, for would not a musket ball launched by a British soldier have done the task just as well?

No, I say! A thousand times no. I have given up many of the comforts of home to watch Jeremy Hooker, and I decided I would be damned and dragged to Hell if I were not able to do the deed myself. How often have we thought it, Margaret? How often have we hoped to have Hooker beneath our hands, ours to do with what we will?

I realize that I have not had the opportunity to write to you since we moved out of Boston when the cowardly General Howe decided he could not face our artillery. Since then we have moved a great deal, and much has transpired in my own personal scope. In those days, marching to the defense of the City on the Hill, I had not yet located the miscreant amongst the men. But ever and anon as we approached I sought him amongst the soldiers and militiamen that had rallied to Washington and Hancock’s Cause. There were many men that flocked to our banner in those days, for little did they think of Howe’s ten thousand at Boston.

Now all is changed and up becomes down. There have been brawls among the men and, had I found Jeremy before then, I would certainly have made it my business to engage him in a similar such battle of fists. Indeed, I may even have ended his life quite by accident, as it were, and suffered no repercussions from the commanding officers.

Once we arrived in Washington’s chosen grounds of Valley Forge, everything became different. En route I had discovered the company which housed Hooker, and I attempted to contact him several times without success. They marched far from my own, I regret to say, and though I made all the efforts I could to reach him, I was constantly foiled by the marching order and the weather.

It was during that long march south that I developed a real plan for the first time. By God, Margaret, I had gone there so green I am surprised you allowed for it! I had no thought in my mind but the utter destruction of Jeremiah Hooker and not a notion as to how to achieve it! Even as we entered that wintry valley, my mind was roiling with the possibilities. I could, I had decided, pretending to have forgotten our differences, approach him as a friend.

As we first encamped, I made certain to find the place where he was quartered. I marked the dismal tents with my eye, for they were not far from the stone house General Washington claimed for his own. My battalion was, of course, entrenched in the forest beyond the icy meadow and we were in much more foul conditions than Hooker had to endure: another mark against him!

In all the time that we were there, I never saw any man from his company cut wood or haul it across the field to General Washington’s house. I never saw them breaking ice from the surface of the river and carrying buckets to be heated, nor did I ever see them once engage in the drills demanded by the Prussian General. All those things I did again and again, for my superiors had latched on to my dogged resilience. All that time I was hating Hooker, and he knew it not. My eye was fixed firmly on him and if it were possible, Margaret, to make a man sick with the act of hate, then Hooker would have died a thousand times in this awful camp.

At first, life in the valley was not unlivable. There was food, and water, and shelter. There were no British guns or cannon bursting on us, and there was little regulation as well. Rumor had it that the Prussian would soon be coming, but I gave little heed to such things. After all, had they not also spoken of a flesh-eating Hessian? No, the babble of the men was best unheeded. Those who fight this idiotic war are not great wise men, nor are they all gentlemen-farmers like Lord Washington.

So in those days, I did not heed the news that a new order would soon be instated. Instead, I shirked my duties and did what I could to get closer to Hooker. Soon enough, I was able to speak to him in person without glares from my superiors, for I insinuated myself amongst his company and did the little labors that no other men wished to do: digging latrine trenches, ferrying water, and all the other million tasks that are required for an army encampment to prosper.

Master Hooker did not know who I was, or pretended not to. I gave him my name and he never batted an eye. That was the first morning I met him, a false accident that I had arranged. —Oh, said I, you must be Jeremiah Hooker, a man whom I’ve heard much about.

I flattered him, telling stories of his own prowess in battle and tales that he himself had once told the town. He didn’t recognize me, or pretended he didn’t and I thanked God for his blindness. This was in the time before the first snows, though the groundwater had already begun to freeze. Every morning I would break the ice and carry water to Hooker’s camp. There we would chat idly over the fire and I would laugh and clap him on the back.

God! How swallowing that bile has made me feel, Margaret! It was like to burn a hole through me, I despised him so much! But I doffed my hat to him anyhow, as though he deserved my respect. Though the very air was laden with ice and our breath froze before it left our mouths, still I was burning with hatred. Yet, all that time I steadied my hands and kept my face from frowning or worse, bursting out into a mask of violence.

As December wore on I wrote you one hundred abortive letters. Margaret, I’ve found him! I would find myself writing. But each time I destroyed the evidence before I finished. It would do me no good, I realized, to give myself away by correspondence before the job was done.

These I crumpled and burned at my own camp, fearing that they would betray me. Instead, as the winter wore on, I found myself often invited to dine with Hooker and his men—for they were under his command! Yes, even there in the army-tail of General Washington he had that same knack for advancement. If you could but see his bearded face one last time, the way he wore his tricorn and the smirk that painted his features!

There were days, I admit, where I began to feel as though I actually liked the man. He smoke a pipe, and the scent of it was good. He was generous in his praise and even more so in his supplies: I never went hungry as long as I was with him, and when the food began to run spare I made certain to repay him the favor, though this was as much a way to thank him as it was to make certain he lived until the day I should decide he did not.

Can you imagine that he had forgotten his crimes against me? Against us, Margaret! It was a crime anew, a fresh outrage. But I allowed my anger to cool even as the season did. Winter came crawling hand and foot over Valley Forge and soon our resources were seen to be far less than what was needed.

The rumor of the Prussian’s coming was always on everyone’s lips but you could see the fear begin to creep in. That coward General Howe was no kind of opponent, but these men acted as though they had believed Howe’s ten thousand were all the forces they would ever face! When they discovered that the winter would not be a restful one, they began to change. Once-triumphant men became despondent and the glories of the earlier campaign seemed paltry.

The landscape changed as well, and every day it grew colder. The first flakes of winter began to fall through the dark sky and Hooker and I had become the best of friends, inseparable. During one of the first light snows, the General decided to send out men to harass the British position to the south.

They were then, as they are now, camped in Philadelphia. The seat of the supposed war, overrun! You’d think that the little city was a veritable fortress the way the General talked about it, marching this way and that and dictating to his men. I cursed myself for not joining the war earlier, though we could scarcely have believed this rag-tag militia could challenge the might of the British Armies. At least last year Washington waited out the winter in Morristown!

Yet here we were, the snows closing in and our supplies growing damnably low. Food had been reduced to bare rations and fire-cakes even then, with the rations dwindling as every day went on. There are, of current, no bandages or splints, or other good medical supplies anywhere in the camp so that men who lose fingers and toes to the frostbite which is everywhere hardly know what to do with themselves.

Back then we were in low spirits, but not as low as today. General Washington had decided that we were to harass the British camped in Philadelphia by attacking their pickets all along the southern borders. We had successfully driven them back at White Marsh early in December, just before we made for camp at Valley Forge.

Hooker’s men still thought little of Howe and the British Troops that faced us, while I had learned to grow more hesitant. I hardly intended to risk my neck fighting the King’s men if I did not have to. But, Hooker volunteered his company to join in this engagement and I felt hard-pressed. If I allowed him to go and he perished out there as a hero, I could hardly come home to you after all this time. No, there was nothing for it but to go with Hooker if I could.

I went to his tent alone, late the night before the attack, and begged him to let me transfer into his company. I spoke a load of lies that have never been more boldly told about how badly I wished to skewer the Redcoats and send all the Loyal lackeys packing back to England. By that time Hooker already believed me a close friend, so he put in for orders to transfer me out of my old company and into his.

This served a triple purpose! For one, I no longer had to chop or haul wood nor do any other unpleasant duties about the camp. For the second, I would be near at hand during the raid and could ascertain the wellbeing of Jeremy Hooker. For the third, and most delicious, I had caused Hooker to clasp an asp to his own chest: he embraced me with such grace and delight that I could hardly contain my own laughter.

That morning when we left, order in the camp was already beginning to disintegrate. The snow that had fallen all through the week was piling up now, the thick flakes sticking to the earth. Those without shoes (and there were many) had the worst of it. But we woke before the dawn and crept through the angry encampment. We even watched two men slip away in the dim whiteness. Hooker pointed them out, but I suggested we let them go; after all, our mission was not to check deserters but rather to go and give the British hell. Besides, we could not even be certain they did not intend to come back without following them and wasting the morning.

So south we went, filtering through the silent trees. My mind was on the Hessians that General Washington had fought the year before and the battles throughout New Jersey, particularly in Trenton, were it was said the Flesh-Eating Hessian was to be found. They called him the Horseman and said he ate the raw steaming flesh of the fallen, but that a cannon-shot had done for him outside of Morristown.

I tried to envision what it would be like to have met that Hessian on the field as we passed through that white wood. I could not. Then, I thought of myself as the Horseman and Hooker became my prey. I shadowed him throughout the morn and it wasn’t until the deadly pop of shots could be heard afar that I remembered I was meant to be protecting him.

We fought a skirmish there, red blood on white snow. Hooker would have perished at the blast of a British musket had I not thrown myself on him and flung him to safety. He thought it a mercy, but we know that it was nothing of the kind. No such thing could I give him: I was saving his life so that it would be mine, to take away as I pleased. He was beyond the reach of British bayonets or English Shot.

We slaughtered the picket after a heated battle. Hooker thought me a hero, having saved him, and I let him think it. When we returned to the camp, all was jubilation. Washington told us that the Prussian General was truly coming, as soon as he was able, and that we would spend another five months or so in the valley. This news sent my spirits soaring, for it meant for all that time Hooker would be in reach.

You recall how loathsome he was, how alone amongst all men he was beyond God’s grace. He has finally met his end, and no man shall ever know by who’s hand the deed was done. He did not himself know that it was to be his last winter, but the snows of New York shall cover him and keep him until the thaw. Let them puzzle as to the fate of a single soldier when the spring-tide comes. I shall be in Waterbury with you, my love.

The first blanket of snow had become a smothering sheet. There was no word from the Congress that any of the men heard, and the ghost of death was stealing in through the night. Every day another frozen body or fevered corpse was dumped into a big pit that had been dug away from the camp. Each night we spent in shivering fear. Want and Hunger, the handmaidens of Winter, were everywhere. I could see madness and death in the gaunt faces of the other men and I began to feel oppressed by my need.

Each night, alone in the blank gray snow and darkness, the whirling sparks of the few fires that still burned climbing their heavenly chimneys, I began to lament my choices. They seemed fearful, suffocating. The knife burned in my hand, its hot metal searing my palm though the cold surrounded me. I knew that this was a thing I had to do; I had put it off for too long, and too many ghosts were howling for the deed. I envisioned you, then, in those dark and unwholesome watches, Margaret. I saw your throat cut, our baby lying dead and dashed against the floor, and you mouthed your hatred of me then. You warned me that this was my reward for failure.

I knew I could not fail, and yet I could not move forward. It was as though I hesitated at the threshold of a doorway that I was too fearful to cross. As the sun rose, spirits flitted through the snow and drove me to insanities. I babbled and prayed to drive them away, but the dread sank deep upon me and I saw morbidities compounding. The faces of the dead men that were dumped into the woods all bore Hooker’s features. When I saw him swaying and staggering about the campfire, it was as though holes had been bored through his head by gunshot. His eyes were empty staring sockets, his jaw unhinged and his mouth crawling with graveworms.

I endured these fears and nightmares for weeks on end. Five men in my new battalion succumbed to the cold. Fights broke out every evening between men who had no food and General Washington feared to leave his commandery lest every soldier in the valley set upon him and beat him bloody for bringing us here. The British were warm in Philadelphia and we were dying in the snow like fools.

When old Horace froze to death outside my tent, I knew I had to act. I woke in the morning to find him blue-faced and cold, his fingers wrapped around his pipe as though he would smoke again. Never, I saw, would the cob touch his lips. His hat was half over his eyes so that I thought he was asleep, but when I touched him he fell to one side, all frozen and stiff like a block of ice. Even so, his eyes seemed to twinkle at me from his puffy snow-crusted cheeks and to say —You must do it now, or you shall end up like me.

I had no choice. Two evenings hence I found Hooker mooning about the campfire and wishing for better accommodations. He kept his voice low, to prevent other men from hearing his trouble. He didn’t want to sap the morale of the troops. The morale! I can think of nothing that there was to sap. There was no morale to speak of, for it had drained away with all the warmth in the world. We were the walking dead, doomed to wait in this icy Hell until Judgement Day!

I walked up to him and proffered one of the rare bits of real salt-beef that I had saved. He thanked me for it and nodded his head. I told him that I was about ready to be quit of this Continental Army and all its troubles but I did not go so far as to suggest that I would defect to the army in Philadelphia, for he was very devoted to the cause. Instead, I withdrew a small tin flask I kept on hand which I had filled with whiskey nearly a month earlier. Seeing that there would be none for the winter, I kept it close for occasions such as these.

I sloshed the contents amiably and suggested that we move away from the camp, to better prevent the other men from seeing our hidden supply. Hooker rapidly agreed with me and, lighting his pipe, he followed me into the woods.

The spot I chose was lovely, my dear. It reminded me so much of that place where first he had done us harm, it seemed to be justice itself moving me. I gave him the drink and as it passed his lips I laughed and told a bawdy joke. He laughed as well, and soon we were drinking in earnest together. It almost seemed that we could patch up our problems like a torn coat, save for the fact that I did not take so much as a sip of that damned whiskey. I touched it to my lips and mimed the drink so well that he believed me.

Hooker drank in true, and most of the flask’s load was disgorged into his gullet. I could see that his eyes were glazed. His lips moved stupidly and he babbled without sense. He spoke of Waterbury and your father, and I suddenly snapped to attention. I heard a lurid tale pouring from his mouth that sounded very alike to our own, save he was its valiant protagonist. All our troubles he turned to our own blame and all his evils to his benefit. I could not believe the filthy lies that came splattering from his besotted frame.

There was a moment, and it was alone a single moment, when I thought he might be telling the truth. Thank God it passed! He mumbled useless apologies and I knew that he had indeed recognized me. All that time! He had been dissembling, allowing me to lie but knowing the truth!

He was begging for forgiveness, in a way, telling me this tale, and I heard the whimpering in his voice. Yes, he knew his crimes and he was so happy that I had, in my long years of torture, understood and accepted all that he had done.

Still, he did not know my business. He kissed my hand and begged forgiveness and thanked me for all my Christian mercies. My other hand was busy, of course, disinterring my blade from its leather tomb.

It did not shine. Snow whirled around us, taking us up, wrapping us in its veils. The very air was deathly chill. I raised the knife to his side and plunged it once, twice, thrice into his flesh. His eyes registered the shock of pain and blood spilled freely onto the snow. I lowered him gently and kissed his forehead. —Now, hush, said I. But hush. It is over as it had to end.

I felt at once a great weight lifted from my shoulders. His movements were frantic but slowing, becoming ever more feeble. I felt as though that Hessian watched his struggle from behind my eyes, cackling his sharp-toothed cackle. I, however, was silent as Death Himself.

Taking up scoops of snow into my hands, I began to bury him. I submerged his boots and shins first, even as he uttered soft squealing protests. He sounded much like a whimpering child. When I reached his knees he tried to kick, but he was too weak to dislodge the freezing snow that I had, with cold diligence, packed onto him. When I was at his belly, filling the wide knife-wounds with snow and weighing him down with it, he began to plead.

—No, no, no, he said.

He called my name, he begged for mercy. He whispered that I had saved his life, that I was his to care for. With the greatest of care I filled his mouth with ice.

When it was all done I walked back to camp. Not a droplet of blood was there on my vest, nor was my hat the least bit crooked. No one asked after Hooker all that day nor the next. Eventually, they assumed he had vanished like the rest of the deserters, fleeing into the night.

Soon I will leave, my dear, and come home to you. Yet every night I see shadowy shapes at the edge of my vision and I wonder. Each evening as the snow falls more and more heavily I begin to take fright. There are shapes, outlines that seem to me to describe Jeremiah Hooker’s frame, and they move just far enough away from the fire that I cannot make them out. The snow holds them, keeping them tight to its icy bosom.

I intend to make my escape soon, Margaret, before I too freeze in this Hellish place. The firewood is dwindling and fewer and fewer men have strength to go out and chop more. Jeremiah has come to me in the daytime too, standing far away; I have seen him at the edge of the wood, though his head is always turned so I cannot see his face.

I will come home, Margaret. I am coming home.

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