Blood and Darkness

He saw the feet first. It wasn’t until he was standing above the body that he knew for sure the man was dead; the skin was already a mottled bluish brown. Though he had encountered many a runaway moving in and out of the barn like so many shadows over the years, Charlie had never seen a dead one before. He stood staring for a long while carefully examining every part of the whole: the ragged clothing, the mangled broken hands, the distended belly, the brand of its owner burned into the arm, the pain of hunger resting like a shock on the worn black face. He reached down almost hoping, but that flicker evaporated the moment his finger poked at the skin, stiff and immovable. It didn’t so much disgust him as he might have expected. Life on a farm was one long continuous cycle of birth and death, and even this exception, this lone human being left behind, registered the same kind of feeling in him that an old horse come to its time would have and like many another matter-of-fact thing, he climbed back down the ladder, dug a neat hole and lowered the body into the earth. It was fitting to say a few words over the man, but Charlie had gotten out of the habit of praying years ago.

As he shoveled one last bit of dirt over the grave, he heard his mother’s voice rising in his mind: “Charlie,” she had said to him, “We have very little in this life, but these poor people have less than nothing, and no hope to cling to. There is no Christian love in treating another human being like this. And no matter what your father says, it is a sin in the eyes of the Lord and a day of reckoning is surely coming.”

They parted company in silence, but that man, without knowing it, had done Charlie a service in the silence of death that he could not have accomplished with a mouthful of words in life. After too many years of listening and wondering about his own role in life, some force of reason took hold of him and his direction became clear and done. He stuck the shovel in the ground and began the long walk into town.

An hour later Charlie stood in the middle of a quiet, dusty street squinting up at a canvas sign stretched across the entrance to the biggest saloon in town. It read: “Volunteers Needed for Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”

He stepped into a darkness littered with the smell of stale beer and cigar smoke. It was empty save for one weary old man sitting behind a table stacked with papers.

“Oh, no. I’m too late.”

Mr. Cady, the mayor, wiped at his glasses.

“Does your Pa know you’re here, Charlie?”

“I’m twenty, sir. I don’t need his permission to join up.”

“Well, then, you better fill these out.”

As the mayor looked on blankly, Charlie put pen to paper.

“You sure about this, Charlie?”

Charlie’s stared defiantly back at him.

“All right son. Raise your right hand. Put the other one on the Bible. Then read this.”

“I Charlie Tenney, have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the Ohio Volunteers for three years, unless sooner discharged, and I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as were, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”

“Well, that’s it then. You need to report to the camp down by the depot by seven o’clock this evening. Good luck and God bless you, son.”

“Thank you sir.”

Minutes later Charlie stood fidgeting, looking up at the only home he had ever known. The fence surrounding the small house was in a sorry state, whitewash peeling in long thin splinters at its feet, the exposed wood underneath a dismal gray. Here and there a slat had been torn off, the gaps laid bare like open wounds. He reached out and let his left hand rest on the gate for a moment, fingers absent-mindedly picking at the paint, hesitating, dreading this final confrontation. Then, like a man leaning into a strong wind, he put his head down, pushed open the gate and moved up onto the porch.

The front door was wide open on this early spring day. An unusual warmth had spread across this part of the world, a world populated by opposing factions on either side of the Ohio River. A shabby screen door barred his way. Inside in the cool darkness he could feel the weight of his decision standing between him and what was left of his family. One last argument, the worst one of all. He took another deep breath and stood, transported, into the kitchen where his younger sister Becky leaned over the sink, washing dishes, her back to him. His father Ezra was sitting at a small, rickety table reading the day’s newspaper. Charlie listened to the idle chatter and was filled with a longing to go back below the Mason-Dixon Line.

“I hear Hank Jordan’s horse gave out a filly this morning.”

"Sure did! A pretty little thing it was too! All legs and bones! You shoulda' seen it tryin' to stand up!"


Becky looked over her shoulder at Charlie.

“Charlie, watch out for Bo. He got his face in with a skunk last night and he stinks somethin’ awful.”

An old bloodhound, on hearing its name, pressed a wet nose up against the screened kitchen door eagerly wagging its tail. Ezra’s head stayed buried in the newspaper. Becky wagged a finger at Bo.

“You stay right there, mister! You ain’t comin' in here 'til you’ve had a proper bath!”

In spite of Charlie’s having been born two years before her, Becky had become the woman of the house, occupying the empty space left by the death of their mother four years earlier. Blue skies had given way to inclement weather, and an unceasing line of gray clouds dominated the horizon. Ezra talked at his newspaper.

“Says here there’s a new steamer, The Cincinnati, heading upriver. Be docking tomorrow. Biggest one yet. We ought to go have a look at it.”

“That’d be good, Pa.”

“Corn ought to be mighty good this summer.”

Becky stiffened. She could sense the storm brewing between father and son, a storm that showed up anytime they occupied the same room. She tried vainly to step into the breach.

“I went by the old Martin place yesterday. Up knee-high and it ain’t even June yet.”

Charlie stood miles apart from his father. Becky continued to prattle nervously.

“Oh, Charlie, before I forget, there’s some eggs out back that need comin’ in. We’re gonna need ‘em before mornin’.”


Ezra didn’t bother to look out from behind his newspaper.

“I saw Sam Janning this morning. Said he’d like for ya to work on his farm the rest of the summer.”

“Pa, I’ve joined up.”

Becky rushed across the room and embraced Charlie with a hopeful joy.

“I’m so proud of you Charlie.”

Ezra set down his paper and finally looked up at his son, his face filled with disgust. He already knew what Becky was about to learn.

“Union, Becky. I’ve joined the Ohio volunteers.”

Becky stepped back. She held the damp towel to her cheek, as if to cover the blemish of the slap she had just received. The cold stare in Ezra’s eyes hardened into narrow slits. His head disappeared back behind the newspaper.

“I’ll let Sam know you won’t be comin’.”

Charlie looked from Becky to the front page searching for some small measure of familial comfort. A newspaper filled with a long list of names stared back at him.

Charlie turned and took the stairs leading up to his bedroom two at a time. In the waning shadows of the late afternoon, he began to gather his few belongings into a small rucksack. Moments later he looked up to see Becky standing in the doorway.

“I don’t’s all about them darkies, isn’t it?”

Charlie stiffened.

“No use talkin' about it. My mind is made up.”

“You would walk away from your family for them? They mean more to you than me and pa?

“All men were created equal. It can’t be that some are and some aren’t.”

“You expect those animals to be the same as us?”

Charlie stops at this, exasperated. They’ve had this discussion too many times for it to be had again, as if somehow this time the ending might come out differently.

“I don't know. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. All I know is that they ought to have the same chance as anybody else.”

“My own brother. A nigger-lover. Well, damn you to hell and good riddance, Charlie Tenney.”

Becky retreated to her place in the kitchen. Charlie picked up a solitary tin soldier sitting on his bedside table, a little toy he had in his possession since time began, put it in his kit bag and headed back down the stairs, stopping just short of the kitchen door. The house and its three inhabitants seemed to be holding their breath. Charlie finally exhaled, pushed on through, heard the screen door slam behind him, then moved through the front gate and headed down the narrow, rutted lane toward the train station.