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Excerpt of 'Bone by Bone'


Bone by Bone

By Peter Matthiessen


Copyright © 2000 Peter Matthiessen
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-375-70181-8



Chapter One

Oh Mercy, cries the Reader. What? Old Edgefield again? It must be Pandemonium itself, a very District of Devils! -Parson Mason L. Weems


Edgefield Court House

Edgefield Court House, which gave its name to the settlement which grew from a small crossroads east of the Savannah River, is a white-windowed brick edifice upon a hill approached by highroads from the four directions, as if drawing the landscape all around to a point of harmony and concord. The building is faced with magisterial broad steps on which those in pursuit of justice may ascend from Court House Square to the brick terrace. White columns serve as portals to the second-story courtroom, and an arched sunrise window over the door fills that room with austere light, permitting the magistrate to freshen his perspective by gazing away over the village roofs to the open countryside and the far hills, blue upon blue.

Early in the War, a boy of six, I was borne lightly up those steps on the strong arm of my father. On the courthouse terrace, I gazed with joy at this tall man in Confederate uniform who stood with his hand shielding his eyes, enjoying the fine prospect of the Piedmont, bearing away toward the northwest and the Great Smoky Mountains. In those nearer distances lay the Ridge, where a clear spring appeared out of the earth to commence its peaceful slow descent through woodland and plantation to the Edisto River. This tributary was Clouds Creek, where I was born.

On that sunny day when we climbed to the terrace, my father, Elijah Daniel Watson, rode away to war and childhood ended. As a "Daughter of Edgefield," his wife Ellen, with me and my little sister, waved prettily from the courthouse steps as the First Edgefield Volunteers assembled on the square. Her handsome Lige, wheeling his big roan and flourishing a crimson pennant on his saber, pranced in formation in the company of cavalry formed and captained by his uncle Tillman Watson. Governor Andrew Pickens saluted the new company from the terrace, and so did Mama's cousin Selden Tilghman, the first volunteer from our Old Edgefield District and its first casualty. Called to the top step to inspire his townsmen, the young cavalry officer used one crutch to wave the blue flag of the Confederacy.

Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that flies the single star!

Governor Pickens roared, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to the death the honor and glory of our beloved South Carolina, the first great sovereign state of the Confederacy to secede from the Yankee Union!" And Cousin Selden, on some mad contrary impulse, dared answer the Governor's exhortation by crying out oddly in high tenor voice, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to their deaths our sovereign right to enslave the darker members of our human species."

The cheering faltered, then died swiftly to a low hard groan like an ill wind. Voices catcalled rudely in the autumn silence. Most citizens gave the wounded lieutenant the benefit of the doubt, concluding that he must have been dead drunk. He had fought bravely and endured a grievous wound, and he soon rode off to war again, half-mended.


Clouds Creek

When the War was nearly at an end, and many slaves were escaping to the North, a runaway was slain by Overseer Claxton on my great-uncle's plantation at Clouds Creek.

Word had passed the day before that Dock and Joseph were missing. At the racketing echo of shots from the creek bottoms, I yelped in dismay and dropped my hoe and lit out across the furrows toward the wood edge, trailing the moaning of the hounds down into swamp shadows and along wet black mud margins, dragged at by thorns and scratched by tentacles of old and evil trees.

I saw Dock first-dull stubborn Dock, lashed to a tree-then the overseer whipping back his hounds, then two of my great-uncles, tall and rawboned on rawboned black horses. The overseer's pony shifted in the shadows. Behind the boots and milling legs, the heavy hoof stamp and horse shivers, bit jangle and creak of leather, lay a lumped thing in earth-colored homespun. I was panting so hard that my wet eyes could scarcely make out the broken shoes, the legs hard-twisted in the bloody pants, the queer gray thing stuck out askew from beneath the chest-how could that thing be the limber hand that had offered nuts or berries, caught my mistossed balls, set young "Mast' Edguh" on his feet after a fall? All in a bunch, the fingers had contracted like the toes of a stunned bird, closing on nothing.

At daybreak Mr. Claxton, on the lookout, had seen a small smoke rising from a far corner of the swamp. His horse was saddled and he did not wait for help, just loosed his hounds and rode on down there. The runaways had fled his dogs, obliging him to shoot and wound them both-that was his story. He was marching them home when this damned Joseph sagged down like a croker sack, pissing his pants. "I told that other'n over yonder, Shut up your damn moanin. Told him, Stand that son-bitch on his feet, I ain't got all day. Done my duty, Major, but it weren't no use."

Major Tillman Watson and Elijah Junior sat their horses, never once dismounted. My great-uncles chewed on Claxton's story. The dead boy's wet homespun was patched dark and stuck with dirt, and a faint piss stink mixed with dog smell and the sweet musk of horses. "Wet his damn pants," the overseer repeated to no one in particular, awaiting the judgment of those mounted men. He was a closed-face man, as hard as wire.

"You have no business here," Great-Uncle Elijah Junior told me, not because night was coming on or because I was too young to witness this grim sight but because I was certainly neglecting whichever chore I had abandoned without leave. To the overseer he never spoke, confining his exasperation to muttered asides in the direction of his older brother concerning "the waste of a perfectly good nigger."

Major Tillman Watson, home from war, seemed more disturbed by Claxton's viciousness. "Dammit, Z.P., you trying to tell us these boys was aiming to outrun them hounds of yours? How come you had to go and pull the trigger?" He was backing his big horse, reining its wild-eyed head away toward home. "Close his eyes, goddamnit." He was utterly fed up. "Go fetch a cart."

"I reckon he'll keep till mornin," Claxton muttered, sullen.

Major Tillman frowned down on me, in somber temper. "What do you want here, boy?" (Badly enough to run out here barefoot, that's what he meant.) "It's almost dark," he called, half-turned in the saddle. "You're not afraid out here? All by yourself?"

"Yessir. I mean, nosir."

"Nosir." The Major grunted. "You're a Watson anyways, I'll say that much. All the same, you best go on home while there's still light, and don't go worrying your poor mama." The old soldier rode away through the dark trees. "Tell them niggers bring the wagon if they want him!" the overseer bawled, not wishing to be heard. Receiving no answer, he swore foully. "Niggers'll come fetch him or they won't-that sure ain't my job." He did not bother to shut the black boy's eyes. "Too bad it weren't this monkey here," he rasped, stripping the bonds from the wounded Dock, who yelped with each rough jerk of the hemp line.

Though Claxton had grumped in my direction, he had paid me no attention until this moment. "What in the name of hell you want? Ain't never seen a dead nigger before?" He climbed gracelessly onto his horse, cracked his hide whip like a mule skinner. "Nosir, I ain't goin to no damn court, cause I ain't broke no law. Just done my job." The slave stumbled forward, with the man on horseback and lean hounds behind. In single file against the silver water of the swamp, they moved away into the dusk. "You aim to leave him here alone?" I called. Out in the swamp all night? All by himself? With the owls and snakes and varmints?-that's what I meant. It sounded absurd, and Claxton snorted, cursing his fate because he dared not curse a Watson, even a Watson as young and poor as me.

In the dusk, the forest gathered and drew close. Behind me, the body lay in wait. Alone with a woodland corpse at nightfall, I was scared. I peered at the earthen lump between my fingers, retreating from its great loneliness. In the dusk he seemed to withdraw, as if already rotting down amongst the roots and ferns, skin melding with the black humus of the swamp, as if over the night this bloodied earth must take him back-as if all of his race were doomed to be buried here in darkness, while white folks were laid in sunny meadows in the light of Heaven.

On long-gone sunny Sabbath mornings of those years before the War, before the restless and ungrateful Africans were banished from our churches, I would run with the black children into the bare-earth yards back in the quarters, scattering dusty pigs and scraggy roosters to make room for hide-and-seek and tag and jump-rope games, or go crowding into Aunt Cindy's cramped dark cabin to be lifted and hugged and fed molasses biscuits, fatback or clabber, hominy, sometimes wild greens. And in those slave cabins on a Sunday morning I was always looked after by this sweet-voiced Joseph, who went out of his way to make the white child welcome.

Now that shining face had thickened like a mask with its stopped blood, and bloodied humus crusted its smooth cheek. I stood transfixed by the glare in those brown eyes. The dead I had seen before, even as a child, but not the killed. Until Mama protested, our cousin Selden, home from war, had related philosophically that the corpse of a human being slain in violence and left broken where it fell looked nothing at all like the sedate family cadaver, eyes closed and pale hands folded in its bed or coffin, scrubbed and perfumed, combed and suited up in Sunday best for the great occasion. Only those, said he, who touched their lips to the cool forehead one last time knew that faint odor of cold meat left too long.

In violent death, Cousin Selden said, even one's beloved-and here he looked sardonically at Mama, whose husband he "cordially" disliked-looked like a strange thing hurled down out of Heaven. Cousin Selden was well-read and liked to talk in that peculiar manner. Not that black Joseph had been my "beloved," I don't mean that. Joseph was guilty and the laws were strict, and had he lived, he would have been flogged half to death, as Dock would be. But Joseph had been kind to me, he had been kind. I was still young and could not help my unmanly feelings.

Damn you, Joseph-that yell impelled me forward, for in a moment I was kneeling by his side, trying to pull him straight, trying to fold his arms across his chest. The dead are heavy, as I learned that day, and balky, too. He would not lay still the way I wanted him. The brown eyes, wide in the alarm of dying, were no longer moist with life but dry and dull. I was terrified of his company, I had to go.

The forehead, was drained of blood and life, like the cool and heavy skin of a smooth toadstool. Drawing the eyelids down, my finger flinched, so startled was it by how delicate they were, and how naturally and easily they closed. Where the shock lay was not in the strange temperature but in the protruding firmness of the orb beneath, under thin petals-I had never imagined that human eyes were so hard. A moment later, one lid rose-only a little, very very slowly-in a kind of squint.

I don't recall how I reached my feet, that's how quick I jumped and ran. Joseph! I'm sorry! To the horseman, I hollered, Wait!

"Just goes to show you," the overseer was muttering as I caught up. "There is such a thing as too much nigger spirit." I did not ask what that might mean, and anyway, I doubted if he knew.

As for my fear, it was nothing more than common dread of swamps and labyrinths, of dusk, of death-the shadow places. Yet poor black Joseph sprawled unburied in the roots, losing all shape and semblance to the coming night, was an image etched in my mind's eye all my life.

My grandfather Artemas Watson had died in 1841 at the age of forty. His second wife, Lucretia Daniel, had predeceased him three years earlier, at age thirty, and my father-Elijah Daniel Watson-born in 1834, was therefore an orphan at an early age. However, the family held considerable wealth. Grandfather Artemas had owned sixty-nine slaves, with like numbers distributed among his brothers. Upon his death, his estate was mostly left to his eldest son, my uncle James, who became my father's keeper. In 1850, at age fifteen, Papa still held real estate and property in the amount of $15,000, by no means a negligible sum, but he seems to have squandered most of his inheritance by the time he married Mama five years later, mostly on gambling and horses.

The marriage of a Clouds Creek Watson was duly recorded in the Edgefield Marriage Records: Elijah D. Watson and Ellen C. Addison, daughter of the late John A. Addison, January 25, 1855. My maternal grandfather, Colonel Addison, had commissioned the construction of the courthouse from which the village took its name (and in which his unlucky daughter's husband, in the years to come, would make regular appearances as a defendant). His pretty Ellen was an orphan, her mother having died at age twenty-five, but she had been a ward in a rich household-she was given her own slave girl, and piano lessons-until the day she was married off to young Elijah. They had little in common other than the fact that their fathers had died in 1841, and both were orphans.

"Where is that honor now? In taking a dishonorable revenge in cowardly acts of terror in the night, do we not dishonor those who died? Neighbors, hear me, I beseech you. Our 'Great Lost Cause' was never 'great,' as we pretended. It had no greatness and no honor in it, no nobility. It was merely wrong!"

He yelled this into my father's face as the Regulators seized him. He was dragged down the steps and beaten bloody and left in a poor heap in the public dust. There Major Coulter, hair raked back in black wings beneath his cap, stalked round and round him, stiff-legged and gawky as a crow. I had an impulse to rush out, perhaps others did, too, but nobody dared to breach the emptiness and isolation which had formed around him.

When Selden Tilghman regained consciousness, he lay a minute, then rolled over very slowly. Visage ghostly from the dust, he got up painfully, reeled, and fell. Next, he pushed himself onto all fours and crawled on hands and knees all the way across the square to the picket fence in front of the veranda of the United States Hotel, as Coulter and his men, jeering, watched him come. He used the fence to haul himself upright. Swaying, he blinked and then he shouted, "You are cowards! Betrayers of the South! You are cowards! Betrayers of the South!" With each cowards! he brought both fists down hard on the sharp points of the white pickets, and with each blow he howled in agony and despair, until the wet meat sounds of his broken hands caused the onlookers to turn away in horror. Even Z. P. Claxton had stopped grinning. It was my father, Captain Elijah D. Watson of the Regulators, who strode forth on a sign from Coulter and cracked our kinsman's jaw with one legendary blow, leaving him crumpled in the dust.

Cousin Selden's body was slung into a cotton wagon and trundled away on the Augusta Road. In the next fortnight rumors would come that the traitor had been dumped off at the gates of the Radical headquarters at Hamburg, but nobody could say what had become of him. The District heard no more of Selden Tilghman. When Mama finally confronted him about it, Papa blustered, "If the traitor is dead, the Regulators never killed him, that is all I know."

My pride in my father's prominence that day was edged with deep confusion and misgiving. Hoping and dreading Cousin Selden might reappear, I was drawn back to Deepwood over and over. Others in our district felt uneasy about "Tilghman's Ghost," which was said to come and go in that black ruin, and so had Deepwood to myself, a private domain for hunting and trapping. Wild rose thorn and poverty grass returned to the fields and the woods edged forward, even as vines entwined the blackened house. God keep you, Cousin Edgar! When wind stirred the leaves, I imagined that I heard my kinsman's voice and its sad whispered warning.

In a voice pitched toward her husband, outside on the stoop, Mama said that before the War, his own family had belittled Cousin Selden. In adopting the New Light Baptist faith, he had disgraced his Anglican upbringing. The New Lights had not only advocated Abolition but had sought-and here she smiled-"a more liberal attitude toward the rights of women. These days, Negro men are allowed to vote, but not white women."



Excerpted from Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen Copyright © 2000 by Peter Matthiessen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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