Iowa Writes

JOSEPHINE ENSIGN
Excerpt from "Gone South" *


      I grew up surrounded by Civil War ghosts on 600 acres in coastal Virginia. The blush sand and red clay road leading to my house didn't have a name. But the closest paved road was an old twisted cow path called McClellen Road for the Union army general who lost the battle here. Early in life I learned how to ride in a car on these sinuous country roads. Bumping along at a humming clip, my mom steered the car around sharp bends, over washboard dirt road stretches, and between deeply rutted potholes. I breathed in burnt orange dust through the open car windows. As I lurched side-to-side, sometimes forward, occasionally up off the seat and down with a thump, I learned without being told that it's best to relax into the offbeat rhythm.
      The land I grew up on near Cold Harbor had been the site of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Two battles that were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. Our land was strewn with their bullets, musket balls, deep earthworks and mounded graves. From an earlier time, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered the land with white quartz arrowheads. My mom collected arrowheads and bullets along the road. She taught me how to search for them.
      There was a path behind our house that began at the swing set, wandered through holly bushes, gangly sassafras and towering oak trees, and connected with the pot-holed dirt road out of camp. Before I was old enough to start school, this was the path my mom and I walked on after lunch to get the mail. We searched for bullets along the way. Spring was my favorite time to go for walks. The wild dogwoods spattered the woods with white flowered snow in amongst the new green shoots of leaves shimmering in the sun. Sometimes my mom found flat metal buttons from soldier's jackets. Other times she found old bullets with smashed in points.
      "These are ones that hit something and got smashed," mom said, holding up a buff colored bullet for me to see.

      I grew up surrounded by Civil War ghosts on 600 acres in coastal Virginia. The blush sand and red clay road leading to my house didn't have a name. But the closest paved road was an old twisted cow path called McClellen Road for the Union army general who lost the battle here. Early in life I learned how to ride in a car on these sinuous country roads. Bumping along at a humming clip, my mom steered the car around sharp bends, over washboard dirt road stretches, and between deeply rutted potholes. I breathed in burnt orange dust through the open car windows. As I lurched side-to-side, sometimes forward, occasionally up off the seat and down with a thump, I learned without being told that it's best to relax into the offbeat rhythm.
      The land I grew up on near Cold Harbor had been the site of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Two battles that were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. Our land was strewn with their bullets, musket balls, deep earthworks and mounded graves. From an earlier time, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered the land with white quartz arrowheads. My mom collected arrowheads and bullets along the road. She taught me how to search for them.
      There was a path behind our house that began at the swing set, wandered through holly bushes, gangly sassafras and towering oak trees, and connected with the pot-holed dirt road out of camp. Before I was old enough to start school, this was the path my mom and I walked on after lunch to get the mail. We searched for bullets along the way. Spring was my favorite time to go for walks. The wild dogwoods spattered the woods with white flowered snow in amongst the new green shoots of leaves shimmering in the sun. Sometimes my mom found flat metal buttons from soldier's jackets. Other times she found old bullets with smashed in points.
      "These are ones that hit something and got smashed," mom said, holding up a buff colored bullet for me to see.
      "Hit something like what?" I asked, gazing up at her.
      "Well—like maybe trees or people—it hit their bones and that's what killed them." At night, I'd lie awake thinking of the bullets.
      On these springtime walks I pretended to look for bullets, but what I really searched for were violets. Wood violets were shy flowers, growing under the shade of young sassafras trees and cinnamon ferns, between the mossy cedar logs of the corduroy road. I loved their heart-shaped leaves, deep purple or purple-veined white flowers, and honeyed scent. The purple-veined violets were less common and were called Confederate violets, because from a distance their color resembled the faded blue-grey of Confederate uniforms.
      The day I saw my first ghost was a spring day. I was walking on the path with my mom. She was up ahead stooped over with her hands clasped behind her back, walking slowly, while gently swaying from side to side searching for bullets. I lagged behind looking for violets and found a large patch beside my favorite white oak tree. The stately tree had a tire swing that my granddad had made for me before he died. I felt sorry for the tree now because lightning had split it down the middle in a night storm the summer before. It was black and brown and dying, with the tire sagging on the ground. I knelt down to smell the violets, inhaling their aching sweetness, a scent that in the next moment became the combined essence of fear and enchantment. Beside the violets I saw a half buried bullet. As if it were one my marbles, I flicked the bullet with an index finger, and saw it had a smashed tip. In a flash, I saw the bone and the soldier the bullet had entered. I froze, feeling warmth slowly thaw my neck, hearing echoes of my heartbeat deep inside my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I buried the bullet down in the spongy earth and covered it with a mound of violets. My heart still bounding, I ran to catch up with my mom. I didn't tell her what I had seen and she never asked why I stopped looking for bullets.


*First published in Silk Road: A Literary Crossroads, Winter/Spring 2011.

more

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JOSEPHINE ENSIGN

Josephine Ensign teaches health policy at the University of Washington. Her essays have appeared in The Sun and Silk Road Review. She is writing a book Catching Homelessness, an account of her work as a nurse practitioner providing health care to homeless people, while navigating her own passage through homelessness. She is a presenter in The Examined Life conference held in Iowa City.

The Examined Life is a three-day conference in April focusing on the links between the science of medicine and the art of writing and sponsored by the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

This page was first displayed
on April 22, 2011

Find us on Facebook