All your scarecrows are spurned in Issaquena, blighted and lonesome and gray. Listened to the hollow burs as we walked, somehow kept time to their fidgety rattle. Some soldiers, the young ones, reached down to snag one, press their fingers along the stems, as if they never saw cotton before, as if they were herding children to their lessons instead of deserters to the noose.
When we reach Mayersville after dawn, there is nothing there but age: a few old women boil coffee in front of their shacks, a small number of old men poke their heads around splintered door frames so they can sniff at the air we bring with us. There are no children here, only the peculiar noise of absence.
The soldiers march us single file to Little Sunflower River. There are five of us — four, now that Denham has fallen — barefoot and scabbed from the iron that scrapes our wrists and ankles. We walk with what remains of our shirts tied around our waists, and with our chins, we rub the sweat from our arms.
Lord, give me just a small string of words to comfort me, something to recite to myself, a testament of some weight.
I see Sergeant Rochester fiddle with a length of rope soon to be draped around someone’s neck, maybe my neck, maybe even his own. I cannot say who the criminal is, because I cannot remember my crime, and he has yet to confess to his.
Lord, she wakes me, and it is almost Christmas:
You were crying, she says.
Yes. Something about ropes and cotton.
She draws me near, and I close my eyes to her.
I don’t remember, I say.
You have them a lot.
Yes. I suppose.
Talk about it?
Not now. I want to listen to you breathe.
She laughs. Now I’ll have to think about you listening to me breathe.
She kisses my shoulder and it feels like summer on my skin.
Just breathe, I say, and I’ll do the same.
She turns off the light,
and I cling to her for warmth.
I wonder if the Christmas tree is too close to the heating vent,
and what is hanging from each branch.
An eruption of artillery, and we fall towards the sawgrass.