I don’t know when we started talking about General Sherman. I don’t know when the burning started—the burning of our land, of our lake, of the island in its center, and of the tree with its dozens of bright green, almost transparent leaves. Those leaves held in them the color of fire, of unlived fall. That one season, years back, I still remember: burning took us over until it was the only word in our vocabularies, until everything we saw filled with flames. Our houses burned, down to our red-brick stoops, that summer, and we stood outside, walked on the rubble, staring up at the insulation, the tufts that remained, blackened by the fire that swept our fields.
That tree was the biggest one on the island. As a child, I gazed up at its leaves, lying back on the shores of Leaf Lake late at night, and saw how its branches made seven-foot shadows, like a giant trying to climb over my head, and its roots rumbled against my back when I turned over, onto my stomach, hoping no one would find me, hoping against hope to fall asleep.
When my grandfather chopped that tree down, our fields burned. That was the connection that started in my head, even as an eight-year-old boy, the idea that the tree’s loss meant the loss of our land as well, and of the voices that our ancestors used to use, sturdy and deep, saying the loss of a single tree could ruin us. At the time, though, my grandfather didn’t care. The season had been a poor one for harvests—that’s what he spoke of, and what seemed to matter to him—the fact that, no matter how many seeds he planted, only one fraction of those seeds shot up again. There was something awful about that big tree, he said. Its leaves looked broken. It carried a stench like old eggs slathered in ketchup.
I didn’t agree, but I didn’t complain. Even then, I could see how nothing I could say would stop him. He went out in his big black boots, carrying the axe he’d used once for threatening the neighbors when they’d staked a claim on our property lines. He went out clean-faced one late afternoon and came back two hours later, covered with branches and ash.
But once the chopping was over, and the last branches had been carried away, I ran back to Leaf Lake and stared at the island in the center. I couldn’t stop seeing the hole those deep roots had left. As I stared, something singed deep inside of me. Ash built up in my bones, too deep for me to catch. The burning of history, or the attempt. The burning of memory.
At least now, in this living room, the tree has faded. Here, the space is packed but cozy. Wood shelves bulge with hardbacks from floor to ceiling. Military books: Union victories on one side, Confederate on the other. Some say those battles were finished over a hundred years ago, but I’m of the mindset that they’re still not done. In the flags outside the courthouse, I hear our history flapping, terrible and beautiful at once.
What happens to those on the wrong side of history, those who must live down their ancestors’ wrongs? We survive but we are ashamed—perhaps. Or perhaps there's something darker, deeper than that—we survive precisely because of our shame. Shame is the only alphabet we have. We wake to it every morning, and we pray to be absolved of it at night.
If anyone understands shame, it’s not those who have committed the worst crimes, but those of us whose ancestors have. We don’t bear the guilt directly, but we have a heavier burden—we must live on with its shadow, a constant, creeping sense that nothing we can do will turn out right. That there lives, deep inside us, brokenness. It’s because of shame that nothing will grow in our gardens. Because of shame that we, and our children, cry ourselves to sleep. It’s because of shame that the tree burned and won’t stop burning. Because of shame that my grandfather had to retreat. Because of shame that he chopped the tree down.
Of course, our battles weren’t only ours, but our ancestors’ too. First and foremost, we lived out the dreams of those who came before. Take the Battle of Shiloh—in 1895, John J. Hight spoke of it as “more like some opiatic fever dream than sober history.” To be fair, that’s how I still feel about that battle, and the others—dreams from which my father, and his father, never woke from. Dreams into which I was uncomfortably born.
As a child, I didn’t know what I was born into. None of us did. We ran around and banged our fists together, and spent our time running into the church eaves to scare off the bats, tossing marbles against our great-grandparents’ graves. We tried to figure out which of our parents earned the most, and which of them had tried to earn more but failed. My father spent weekends reenacting Civil War battles with his buddies, with the base camp in our backyard, the way his own father taught him to do. We were honoring our ancestors, he said, spending days trampling through the Virginia weeds in uniform, studying battle formations so we could replicate them exactly. This was the tradition: dressing in exact resemblance to those long-dead soldiers, putting muskets to our shoulders to pretend that we too could put the Union armies in distress, that we were as testy and fierce as David, throwing Goliath stones.
As the youngest child, I had to play the Union soldier. I was always the one to get shot. Once I was shot, the reenactment was finished. That was the pact the adults had made with me. I didn’t complain, didn’t do anything but nod my bare head and believe.
In the dark grass, every Sunday, I rehearsed my own death. I didn’t mind. At least I thought so, at the time. I let myself get shot and shot again, with pretend bullets, although the sound and the powder were real. Sometimes my father shot me; sometimes another soldier did. It was all the same. I let the summer grasses singe my shirt. The hard rains cooled me. Those shots burned so badly in my ears that, in school, I couldn’t hear for days.
When you’re young, the distance between the real and the pretend—between the puppet show and the people manipulating the strings—hasn’t yet gotten solidified. That’s the glory of childhood, but its terror also, the feeling that darkness could descend on you, and shut your eyes and stop up your breath, and that it even if it’s part of a play, only theater, it would still be real darkness, as real as any absence of light could be.
That’s what I think of when I look back at how, over the years, my teachers occasionally stopped me after school, put hands on my shoulder, asked what was the matter. Where had the grass stains come from, and why did I flinch whenever any person came near? Why did the hives start at the top of my forehead and lightning-bolt down to my chest? Why, when they asked me to come to the front, did I startle and seem to have trouble breathing? Why did I fall asleep on my desk in the middle of lessons and wake up in a blind nightmare, my hands clenched into fists, my mouth gaping open, calling out to no one, “We’ve won?”
My father, before he left for Vietnam, never replied to the teachers’ questions. He let my silence speak for itself, I see now. His leaving made the silence easier. After he was gone for five or six months, the questions gradually stopped coming, as though the teachers assumed his absence was the problem. I was grateful for the lack of attention, glad to slip into the routine of church and school, sing infinitely patriotic songs, repeat my math facts, and, as often as possible, get swept up in a rush of people and sound.
The passing years, I thought, would help me forget those battles, to float along. The grocery store, the movie theater—trips back and forth would make those Civil War reenactments seem distant, melodramatic, hilarious even, like a man who throws a fit because his jeans don’t cost a dollar anymore. I’d marry and have kids, two or three, and let the sound of their voices make me forget that my family was ever obsessed with a long-resolved war.
But the Civil War grew in me the way a worm grows in a body, the way a parasite enters a lock of hair. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t leave. No matter how I ran, it ran along too. My father’s obsession became mine in turn. I read the old books, studied the contour maps, an impeccable student, unhappy but obedient. If only I could wipe those battles from me, I thought, as I flipped the pages. If only I could free myself, and the generations to come.
Now, I snap back to this living room. The light’s murky, the near-high-noon sweet light I love the best. A Sunday light, the kind I rode home in after church services, dear lords and praise Bethlehems stinging my ears. I might not be a believer, but music’s not a thing that leaves you. Chords you grow up with hang inside you, follow you through your waking years.
That was the music that hung in me about the tree. About the burning that never lessened. Only a single tree, but when my grandfather burned it, burned it and chopped it down, he started up a fire he couldn’t manage to contain. No one knew if the fire had started one night, when no one was looking, or if it died down after the tree burned, and then started again in the morning, lit by a single still-burning leaf. There is no explanation for how our entire town burned that makes sense. There was, in the end, nothing criminal, although the police apparently suspected arson at first. All I know is that, once the burning happened, we could no longer look forward. We could no longer live the way we wanted. We packed our things and moved to a foreign city. We started raising bees that buzzed in their hives. All we wanted was honey on our tongues, a little sweetness, but we soon saw that honey wasn’t an easy thing to find.
And yet, the more I read, the more the images from the past blaze up. The more it becomes clear to me, which of those images I need to leave you with. There are, as it turns out, only a few linkages, a few fires, that matter. There are fewer than twenty-six, it seems. Fewer than you could count on your two hands.
The old fires were what my father talked about: over a century back, the big ones, in Civil War times. Sherman’s doing. He told me how, when they scoured Columbia, South Carolina, the farmers had set so much cotton in the streets, tied in bales, and the winds were so high, that when those bales blew around in the blaze and the men walked outside, and the women and children ran out to escape, everyone looked as though they’d backed into a snowstorm. A blizzard of fire. A burning that glommed onto their necks, singed their clothes.
No one remarked on how it wasn’t cold. That the weather was actually quite fine. There was no time for jokes, for laughs, for irony. On the main street—so goes the rumor—in the fiery blizzard, one soldier chopped down a piano as another soldier played. That’s how the history books have it, and how my father described it to me.
Through all these years, that image has remained in my mind: one man spanning octaves with two hands, piano first, then forte, then fortissimo, while another man bears down with a saw, slicing through the strings that attach the keys, in the midst of a street of pale white fire. That’s the closest analogy to life that I know: one man playing his heart out, diving deep down into the music, while the other rips the music apart. One man lingering in the runs of Beethoven or Brahms, struggling to bring the notes alive, while the other man waits: and more than waits, actively destroys. Hero and antihero. Music rising up while the sound’s cut away from its source. Keys pinging until their strings are sawed away.