The wagon lurched and leaned up the crooked road to the dry bluffs. There, on ground of splintered shale and rust-colored lichen, where bull thistle twisted between the cracks of the earth, lay the disused home of Wallace Whitton’s father. Wallace, atop the wagon with reins in hand, smiled at his son and motioned to the firepit-gray ocean, where he hoped the boy might wish to play. He tried to seem sincere in his enthusiasm, but gained no like response. The boy stared ahead and drummed his thin fingers in an intricate rhythm upon the wagon’s rails.
When they stopped before the home, Wallace kept his watery smile in place. Their former guest house had been more expansive than this, and in far better repair. He hoped his son couldn’t read his disappointment, but the boy had seen so much. How could he know one truth and not grasp another?
The son touched at his fingertips. Each looked as if it had been dipped into a rhubarb pandowdy.
Wallace caught the boy’s hands and held them tight. “You mustn’t.”
The boy watched the sky, its clouds smeared over an expanse as pale as memory.
“Do you hear?” Wallace asked.
The boy answered that he did.
“Our things are inside. Go and see.”
The boy climbed down from the wagon and made his way into the house. The dismal structure was all that remained of the Whitton fortune, enduring only because it had lain outside the field of battle. If only they had all been so blessed. Viridis, the former Savannah vineyard, had been smashed, stolen, and eaten by Grant and his Hessians. While the rumble of their march faded to the south, Wallace Whitton had knelt amongst the ruins and, with his own cultured hands, dug through the cinders of his past, the cooling ashes of his family’s legacy, to grasp Nettie’s unanswering fingers.
As Wallace hefted their last load of belongings to the ground, a plinked melody of single keys struck by a single finger sounded from the house’s corner room. The boy had found it. Wallace headed inside to bandage his boy’s fingers before they stained the ivory.
The months passed in a drab haze of impressions, each forcibly inserting itself between Wallace and what his life had been. He spent the day watching the sea and imagined Nettie reaching up from its murk. He’d pull her to safety and she’d smile. Her sockets weren’t yawning wide and vacant; her teeth weren’t blackened behind shriveled lips. Some days the boy joined him and they strolled the wet-pressed sand hemming the water’s edge, but Wallace couldn’t guess where his son’s young thoughts wandered.
On a late day in March the school master arrived and tried to persuade Wallace to do the proper thing.
“Honor his mind,” the man intoned in a deep contrabasso.
Wallace frowned at the way the school master’s beard jutted over his barrel-framed torso. He thought of boots falling like a thousand-fold hammers, the head of each poised over a coffin nail.
“You are a learned man yourself, yes?” the school master asked.
“No,” Wallace said. The school master seemed taken aback. “I know nothing of the world.”
“Do not limit your young Ernest’s possibilities.”
“Which you presume to know?”
“A proper education will—”
Wallace set a hand on the school master’s shoulder. “Come and listen.” He led him inside.
An hour later the school master exited the house. His lips trembled as he climbed back up onto his gig. He eyed the studio window where he knew the boy to be, drew in sharply, and snapped the reins. He never returned.
Wallace watched the polished carriage until it reached the distant rise and winked away like a dying ember. He turned to the house, its every window open. Worn linen drapery caught the eastern breeze in tabbying flutters.
“Loose him, and let him go,” Wallace muttered.
The scullery maid had abandoned them last week. She’d learned to avoid the boy’s studio, especially when the lad played, but that only delayed the inevitable. There had been too many touches and pinches and whispered promises from empty rooms. On her final day, Wallace had rescued the poor girl from the larder in a state of disarray and abject panic. She offered no thanks, but had slapped Wallace hard—a stinging blow that set his ears to ringing.
Wallace touched his cheek again. His wife had been the last to strike him. He’d been carousing with the hired hands after an unusually bountiful harvest had been pulled scant days before an early frost. He’d do anything to have her strike him again.
The windows closed, all of them at once. The whole house blinked.
In the studio, Wallace pushed back deep into the couch cushions and allowed himself to drift. The boy’s music had progressed from motifs to melodies to grand soundscapes. His fingers had caught up with his ambitions, perhaps—they seemed not to be lacking. Wallace relaxed and tried to ignore cool draughts that came and went without cause. The chairs had pulled away from the walls again and circled about the boy at a polite distance.
“Ernest,” Wallace said. “Can you play something—more—”
The boy pulled his hands away from the keys and rested them in his lap. He kept his back to his father.
“What I mean to ask is, my boy, can you craft something bright? Something cheery? Remember when the four of us picnicked upon the high hill?”
The boy did remember, but was his father certain he wished to hear?
“Without a doubt,” Wallace said.
The boy’s fingers again fell to the keys, building impressions around a shifting theme. Swells of melody counterpointed a sublime accompaniment. The music rose and fell. It flowed as speech and whispered like the wind.
Wallace saw that day clear before him. He felt the family’s measured pace over a wildflower hillside and tasted air sweetened with aster and hop clover. The blanket, held at a corner by each one of them, was laid under the bough of a wide magnolia. As he and Nettie reclined near one another, Ernest and Franklin explored a nearby stream. Wallace felt the mist of rippling eddies, slickened stones, and a yielding carpet of moss. It was as if he were with the boys at the waters.
“Have you ever thought of our having a daughter?” Nettie asked.
Wallace chuckled as Ernest slipped from a stone and soaked his leg up to the shin. “Have you?” he asked.
“And what do you see?”
Wallace idly wondered how the boy had heard the conversation.
“She’d have your hair,” Nettie said. “Curling and the color of molasses.”
“It hardly curls.”
“And my smarts.”
“Is that so?”
Nettie laughed. “I’d teach her to be a proper lady.”
“Are you implying I’ve faltered with—”
“Of course not. I’d make her dresses.” Nettie rested her head on Wallace’s shoulder. “Dresses of violet and buttermilk yellow with pearl buttons.”
“You can bury her in them.”
Wallace seized at the voice, not his own. The music’s memory didn’t lie. It came from right nearby. It had been a breeze before, a susurration easily ignored, yet the keys gave it voice.
“And if it’s a boy?” Wallace asked.
“Another?” Nettie lifted her head and pressed her mouth close to his. “She won’t be.”
He held his palm to her cheek. She closed her eyes and her lips parted. She kissed the sole of a desiccated foot. A series of diminished arpeggios raced up the bare leg to the bloodied and beaten body of the stripped negro hanging above them, his noosed neck snapped clean through.
“Be down in the ground, soon ‘nough,” he whispered. He spun slowly with the wind. He never quit weeping. Tears dripped from the tip of his nose. “Ain’t worth the bother.”
Wallace found himself at his boy’s side. He yanked the boy’s hands from the keys. “Stop it!”
The boy blinked rapidly and made to turn back to the keyboard.
“How dare you lie! On her memory of all—”
The boy interrupted.
“No,” Wallace said. “There was nothing. There was—”
The bough, as thick as a man’s waist, had been worn smooth at a convenient spot, at a lethal height. The boy had seen it when they arrived—Wallace had too, but had forced the fact away.
From the darkness of the studio came a low growl. Shadows shifted and the air drew close, as if Wallace were standing in a very small space. A sigh of floorboards issued from the left, the right.
“Play,” Wallace whispered. “If it keeps the Devil at bay, then play to the end.”
The music started again, spilling forth the runaway’s prophecies in forbidden chordings. They foretold the elder brother’s demise at his first battle. He would lay weeping in the mud, his body curled and fetal. As a cavalry charge churned his blood and bile into the earth, he cursed his father’s name. Later, the mother would plead with men who slouched in blue uniforms. She was with child, she cried, but the soldiers, drunk on Wallace’s own label, didn’t let that hamper them. In a fit of shame at himself and his remaining son, the father would grasp a blade, the saber of his fallen eldest, and hold it to his own throat.
“I hate this world,” Wallace said. The music yielded to his words. His each syllable fell lyrically with the meter, as if the song had been written with his interjection in mind. “Now I have nothing.”
From the darkness, a chorus hummed the tale of their own demise, cheated out of living.
“A pistolshot to the brain isn’t enough for a despot!” Wallace cried. He spun to all sides. Their cold gaze was upon him, he knew. “They should all burn for what they’ve done. If there were any justice, if Providence smiled upon its children, they would be made to suffer as I have. As we have!”
Wallace fell to the floor and sobbed. The music went on, pulsing with each inhale, metronomed to his heartbeat. The song of his failings would never end.
Cold hands tucked themselves around him and bore him to his feet. The others had heard the ballad of his past. They understood his earlier intrusion and, as brothers, they forgave. Wallace sagged forward but didn’t fall. As they dragged him toward his bedroom, his feet trailed loose over the dusty floor.
The next season arrived and Wallace sat slumped and ragged on the south edge of the porch. He watched his boy down by the waters, playing his tiny drum and marching up and down the beach. Wallace hadn’t wanted to return the instrument to him, but too much was in motion. At this point he wasn’t sure he could say no. It had been difficult to coax the lad away from the house, but the boy relented when Wallace explained the reasoning. The boy’s audience went with him.
Wallace looked up at the piano tuner, a slight man with a feminine face, one whose youth was beginning to seep into crinkled corners. The tuner leaned in the doorway and folded a long strip of felt into pleats. He placed it in a leather pouch. The tuning wrenches holstered along his belt jangled lightly.
“Are you done?” Wallace asked.
“Yeah. Fine instrument.”
Wallace nodded and turned back to the shore.
“That’cha boy?” the tuner asked.
“He’s my youngest.”
Luckily the wind carried the beat of the boy’s drum away. There was no telling what it could possess a man to do.
“Saw some of his scribblins upon the music stand,” the tuner said. “Quite remarkable.”
Wallace didn’t answer.
“It’s a long ride,” the tuner said, “and I was wonderin’. I won’t reach home ‘fore nightfall, but it would be worth it to me, I think, if you’d call him up to play.”
“Trust me. You don’t want to hear.”
“Oh, but I do!”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
“It’s not meant in jest, suh. I’ve heard things concernin’ him.”
“And what have you heard, pray tell?” Wallace glared sideways at the man.
The tuner rubbed at his fingers. He came close to Wallace and sat. “He paints with sound. He’s a genius, they say.”
Wallace scoffed. He thought of all the potential gossips who’d visited the home—the school master, the one-time maid, the delivery boys. The minister had come by once. That hadn’t gone well.
“I meant it as a healing tool,” Wallace said. “Ernest always loved music.” He scowled at the distant beach. “I didn’t think it would lead here. I thought it would help him to . . . forget things.”
“How long’s he been playing?”
“Almost a year.”
Down at the shore, the sand kicked up in a mile-long swath and the waters churned. One would think it to be an insistent gust from the sea, but Wallace knew that wasn’t the case. The air along the waters buzzed like a ball of hornets, but not on account of the weather. How many were there? Fifty abreast, sixty? How far back did they go? Wallace mentally tallied columns.
“Remarkable suh,” the tuner said. “Self-taught, they say.”
“Yes. He learned at the Battle of Manassas,” Wallace said. “He saw and he heard and it changed him forever.”
The tuner fiddled with his pipe. “I don’t follow.”
“My eldest, Franklin, joined Stonewall’s forces. He took Ernest with him, so that they could both revel in glory.”
“Yes, and done without my approval, mind you. Though I blame myself for encouraging him, both of them really. I say things sometimes I shouldn’t. My wife, she used to scold me.”
“Sure ‘nough. Bet he was good though.” The tuner gave his pipe a few strong puffs, working up a thick cloud.
“He kept their attention.”
The boy had sent the men into a frenzy. He struck out rhythms that drove them mad, turned the most sheepish into demons. It was his hand that guided each blade, his finger that pulled each trigger. By proxy, he had slain a thousand.
Wallace watched the beach. The waves washed the footprints away, but they reformed the moment the waters receded. He hoped the tuner hadn’t noticed that fact.
“After Manassas, the brass never allowed him back on the field of battle,” Wallace said. “I’m not sure, but I think they feared him.”
The tuner let the conversation wilt away. Perhaps he found it too much of a struggle to maintain his part in such an odd discourse.
“You’re not gonna let him play for me, are ya?”
“No. I like you. I want you to come back for the next time. You’re Cajun?”
“A touch. Transplanted from Baton Rouge, after.”
“I thought so. I left your payment on the front table along with a thank you Ernest wrote for you. A short sonatina, I believe. I told him to keep it light.”
The tuner’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, suh.”
“Light, I told him. If it seems off-key, you should burn it.”
The tuner slipped his tools back in his saddlebags and carefully laid the gifted pages within. With a farewell tip of his hat, he took his horse up the north road at an easy pace. Wallace felt a pang of regret. He hadn’t considered sympathetic bystanders, but then again, neither had innocence shielded his own family.
The months of music had trained Wallace’s eyes as well as his ears. If he ever again approached that lone magnolia on the hill, he would see its forgotten occupant. He’d notice that forever twisting body the same way he spied the reconnoitering troops hustling past the tuner’s mount, the same way he heard the stamp and press of the furious masses climbing the far bluff, each soul brimming with a shared rage for that which they’d lost.
The boy stood before the porch with his drum slung over one shoulder and lashed around his waist. Wallace had tried to talk him out of this and promised to have the piano tuned—a loose bribe to keep the boy here—but knew it wouldn’t work. He could say that he’d tried, though he’d never meant to succeed.
“Ernest.” Wallace placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“It’s for Ma and Frankie and everyone else.”
“For us,” Wallace said.
“Especially for us.”
Wallace’s eyes brimmed with tears. A part of his youngest had been lost with the oldest. Wallace needed to listen to the dead to hear him clearly. This young boy with ancient eyes echoed Wallace’s own thoughts, yet once this was put into motion Wallace had no idea how it could be stopped.
“Come back to me,” Wallace said. “If I lose another—”
“Naught shall touch me.”
As if in response, the double phalanx of spirits about the boy glowered out of the ether. The air burned like salt in a wound. Wallace knew they offered only the merest taste. Their true power would blister a body into paste.
“Follow the beach for the entire night,” Wallace said. “Turn in at Herring Bay and you’ll reach Annapolis by this time tomorrow.”
“We’re behind enemy lines. My scouts will guide me.”
“Yes, they will at that.”
The boy turned to his troops. He sounded a long roll upon his drum and ended with a snap. Wallace found himself sitting ramrod straight. The call couldn’t be resisted.
The boy, conductor and general, cried out, “The South shall rise again!”
A half-million boots cracked heel to heel.