“You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”
Siegfried Sassoon “From Suicide in the Trenches”
in Counter-Attack: and Other Poems, 1919
It had been a hot, humid day, one of those days when the air was still and heavy as a wet blanket. The sun shone down from a cloudless, deep blue sky. Not a breath of a breeze was moving. Even the animals were trying to find shade or water. It was just all-fired hot! Overheated and sweating, I finished my chores for the afternoon until I had to milk the cows, feed the chickens and horses, and slop the pigs, so I decided to go to the pond and try to cool off. I was looking forward to getting my overalls off for they made my legs so hot, and by then they were soaked with sweat. I strolled through the tall, swishing grass as grasshoppers and other insects leaped from my path.
The pond was surrounded by willows and had a soft, mud bottom. It straddled the border between our land and old Mr. Greene’s. As soon as I arrived I stripped off my overalls and waded in. The cows, who were cooling themselves in the water under the willows, paid me no mind. The water was warm but not as warm as the air, and it felt wonderful on my hot, sticky skin. I lay back in the water gazing up at the cloudless sky. A hawk circled the nearby field and then dove, rising a moment later with some small, struggling creature in its talons.
Finally, I got out of the pond dripping wet and lay on the soft grass, my face up toward the sun and my body already beginning to dry. Idly I thought about what was happening in the country. The argument had gone on for years about slavery. Were the slaves usually treated well and was slavery a good thing, as most Southerners claimed, or was it inhuman and wrong, as most Northerners claimed? We in Maryland were caught in the middle, and I knew that people near us were divided on the question. Some said that the coming election in the fall would decide whether or not the Southern states tried to leave the Union and form their own country, possibly causing a civil war.
Perhaps I dozed off, for the next thing I knew I heard a little giggle and then a small voice say, “Oh my. He’s beautiful. D’ya reckon he lives in the pond?”
I looked up and saw three straw-haired, blue-eyed, freckled faces of assorted sizes looking down at me and grinning. I tried to grab my clothes to cover myself, but the middle of the three faces said, “Don’t worry. Y’ ain’t got nothin’ we ain’t seen before. How’s the water?”
“A little warm,” I said, “but better than the air. Who’re you?”
“We’re the Parkers,” said the oldest boy. “We moved from Virginia and our pa just bought the farm from old Mr. Greene. Who’re you?”
“Elias Warren,” I answered standing and holding out my hand.
The boy didn’t take my hand which I thought odd, but he said, “I’m Josiah, but most people call me Josh. This here,” he put his hand on the middle boy’s head, “is Edward, also known as Eddie, and this little sprat,” he grabbed the youngest of the three around the shoulders, hugging him, “is Harry, us’ally called Tad. He’s the one what asked about you livin’ in the pond.”
There was something odd about Josiah which I couldn’t immediately figure out. Although he talked to me, he never really looked at me.
I shook Eddie’s and Tad’s hands, saying to Tad that no, I didn’t live in the pond, but on such a hot day I wished that I did. “I’m your neighbor and I live over yonder hill. Our two families share this pond.”
As I finished speaking, the three of them stripped naked and with whoops of joy Eddie and Tad plunged into the water while Josiah waded in more cautiously. I decided to jump in again, so soon the four of us were playing a game of tag which almost immediately turned into ducking and splashing one another. When I felt little hands grab me from behind I quickly turned and lifted Tad up over my head. Looking up at him I thought about how cute he was with his straw hair and his freckles and his little dangling cock, but then he spat a mouthful of pond water in my face. “Dang it all!” I yelled, and threw him in an arc as hard and as far as I could. He giggled gleefully as he flew before landing farther out in the pond.
When we tired of playing, we climbed out and lay on the grass to dry. As we all talked, I asked how old they were. Josiah was my age — fourteen. Eddie was ten and Tad was six. They were all good swimmers and they really seemed to enjoy each other.
Soon the two younger boys got up and chased each other around the field, cavorting as naked as buzzards, their little penises flapping up and down as they ran.
“You’ve got a big farm,” I said. “I ’magine you’ll not have a lot of free time.”
“I reckon not. D’ya go to school?”
“Naw, I did, but I can read and write and do sums, and I’m really bored there so I don’t see any point in stayin’ longer. Besides, I gotta work. What about you?”
He was silent for a spell before saying, “Well, I can do sums in my head but o’ course I caint read.”
I began to ask why before realizing what I had only sensed before. What made Josiah act differently was that he was blind.
He rolled onto his side with his face toward me. “Anyhow,” he said, “there’ll be too much work ta do, at least ’til the snow flies. Of course,” he continued, “there’s a lot of work I cain’t do, not bein’ able to see, but I contribute what I can.” I rolled onto my side to face him. I think I already had feelings for him, but I certainly didn’t realize it then. He was very cute. His entire face grinned when he talked and laughed and he kept brushing his hair away from his deep blue eyes. I loved his freckles and his little turned-up nose. I wondered what he could sense of me.
After we chatted a while longer, He called his brothers. Our clothes, which had been soaking with sweat, had dried in the sun, so we dressed and then Eddie, taking Josiah’s hand as though he did it all the time, guided him towards their home while Josiah put his other arm around Tad. I rather envied him having brothers. Sometimes it was pretty lonely on the farm, and I looked forward to seeing the Parker boys often. After they disappeared over a little rise, I headed towards our barn to milk the cows and feed the other animals.
When I finished the milking I washed my hands at the pump and went into the kitchen, where Ma had supper ready. We sat down, Pa said the blessing, and then we passed the food around, dishing out large portions and beginning to eat before anybody said anything.
As my eating slowed, I told them about the Parker boys. Pa said he had heard that Mr. Greene had sold the farm and moved to Sharpsburg. He said that farm property was valuable right then because the harvests had been good and there wasn’t much around to buy. We sat and talked a few more minutes while we finished eating before Ma took up some mending and Pa got out a book, something by Dickens, his current favorite author. Clearing the dishes from the table and washing them was one of my chores. When I finished, I went outside and sat on the front porch. As I watched the light fading from the sky and the lightning bugs beginning to flutter about it occurred to me that Josiah had probably never even see a firefly or a sunset. How sad, I thought. Then I thought about all the other things he couldn’t see or do. Yet he seemed happy, and I wondered how he managed that.
Finally I went inside, said goodnight to my parents, and went up to my room to sleep. Since I had no brothers or sisters, I always slept by myself in my big bed. The room was still very warm, so I took off my overalls and lay on my back on top of my quilt. I thought about the Parker boys and playing at the pond. I thought especially about Josiah. Finally, I rolled onto my side and went to sleep.
I guess I should tell you a little more about my family. Pa was unusual for a farmer because he had gone to college in Baltimore. He had wanted to be a writer, but then his pa, my grandpa, who had owned the farm, died suddenly in the fields one day, so Pa came back to the farm to take care of my grandma and his younger brothers and sister, my uncles and aunt. In time, my grandma died and my uncles and aunt all married and settled farther east, nearer Baltimore.
Later, Pa married my ma, a girl he had known all his life, and they continued to work the farm. Something, I never knew what, happened when I was born, so Ma couldn’t have any more children. She was very sad about that because she had hoped to have a big family. Sometimes I felt guilty about being the cause of her sorrow, but she certainly never acted as though she blamed me.
When I was old enough, probably about 5, I began to work the farm with Pa while Ma cared for the vegetable garden and her woman’s chores.
Our farm was in Middletown Valley, a couple of miles northwest of Middletown itself. The Valley is surrounded by mountains — South Mountain in the west and Braddock Mountain to the east. It is fine farmland on which to grow grain. We planted rye, wheat, corn, and barley, and sold much of our crops to distillers. In addition to our planted fields, we had a meadow, an orchard, and a stand of woods. On Sundays we went to church in Middletown. The mill where we had our grain ground was also in Middletown. Occasionally, for special events, we traveled to Frederick which was about 12 miles east of us. The farm was a very special place to grow up, safe yet with places to explore and play when I wasn’t working.
When I was little, Pa used to tell me scary stories about a creature called the Snallygaster, which was a thoroughly frightening, huge beast, part dragon part bird. He said that the creature flew down from its nest on Braddock Mountain screeching fearsomely and caught cows or people in its talons. Then it flew back to the mountain to devour its prey. Of course, I no long believed in the Snallygaster, but I thought it would be a good tale to tell to Eddie and Tad.
That night, lying in bed, I thought again about the coming election. I had heard a lot about it, and I was getting very excited because I believed that if Lincoln got elected there would be a war. Here in Maryland, I wondered whether the state would join the North or the South. I knew I was young, but, if there was a war, I meant to fight for the North because I thought the division of the country would weaken us terribly. And besides, I believed that slavery was just plain wrong.
Although summer was nearly over, I continued to go to the pond when I finished my work. Soon we would begin harvesting and I wouldn’t have much time to spare.
One day as usual the Parker boys were there, as they frequently had been. You’d have known anywhere that they were brothers. They all had the same, uncontrolled straw hair which hung over their ears and eyes. They all had the same freckles on the same, sunburned, smiling faces from which the same blue eyes shone brightly. When I looked at Josiah, I knew what the others would look like in a few years. I thought Josiah was a handsome, almost beautiful boy. I was sure his open, happy expression would capture the hearts of the girls in Frederick. Sometimes, when I looked at him naked while we were drying in the sun, I became aware that my cock was twitching so I’d looked away, even though I knew he couldn’t see me.
It had taken me over a month to get up the courage to ask Josiah why he was blind, for I was afraid he might be upset by the question, but he was actually very open about it.
“I was born blind,” he said, “so I never saw light. When people talk about colors I really got no idea what they’re talkin’ about, though I think colors must be beautiful. But I believe my other senses may be stronger than those for people who can see. Especially my hearin’. Eddie and Tad sometimes got no idea that I can hear what they’re whisperin’. And my sense of touch is really good. Usually I can name things by their feel and their scent, things like different berries and flowers but also things like different kinds of cloth. So I can sort laundry, for instance, and usually get it right.” Then he asked, “Elias, why d’ya always call me Josiah instead of Josh like my family call me?”
I thought a moment before replying, “I reckon it’s because I like the sound of ‘Josiah’ and also, ya somehow look like a ‘Josiah’.”
He laughed, and soon we were talking about the Big Subjects — War and Slavery. The Parkers had never owned slaves, but many of their friends in Virginia had. Josiah said that the slaves they had known were kindly treated even though he believed they were not like us. “Sayin’ they’re jest like us and our equals is a lie which anybody who’s ever worked with or talked with slaves can tell ya. Oh yeah, the ones who’re mammies to their owners’ kids are kind and the kids actually love ’em, but they’re jest not like us.” I didn’t argue but I disagreed with him, although I had known very few slaves, and even those not at all well.
That night after finishing supper and doing the dishes I went outside and sat once again on the front steps. For a time I wrote in my journal, something I often did in the evenings. When I finished I sat watching the light fade from the sky and the lightning bugs twinkling again in the dark before I went up to bed. There I took off my overalls and lay on my back on the bed. I thought about the Parker boys and playing at the pond. I thought especially about Josiah, and before very long I was hard. So I relieved myself, as I had been doing for nearly a year, cleaned myself off with an old sock, and went to sleep.
On Sunday as usual, we went to church in the morning and listened to a very long very boring sermon about slavery and how terrible it was. I knew that Josiah, who was pro-slavery, probably wanted to jump up and scream, “Yer wrong!” but I avoided looking at him.
Following church and Sunday dinner I was usually free for the rest of the day. There were thing I wasn’t allowed to do on Sunday, but Pa did let me go swimming. So every Sunday I packed a picnic supper and went off to the pond, where I usually met Josiah and his brothers, who were rapidly becoming like brothers to me as well.
One day Josiah asked if he could touch my face, saying that was how he got to know people. I was a bit shy about it at first but then he made a little joke and said he could feel that I had a nice smile and he already knew I had a funny little laugh. It felt strange, his hand going gently over my face. When he finished he said, “Ya got a real nice face. I wish I could see it.”
I was different from him in a lot of ways. Although we were both fourteen, he was bigger than I was and probably stronger. I had black, wavy hair while his was blonde and bleached in the summer so it was nearly white. My eyes were dark like my hair, my nose didn’t turn up, and I had no freckles. He was much more outgoing than I, who tended to be a little shy and reserved. But I wouldn’t have wanted him to be just like me; I liked him just the way he was.
The next Sunday I got to the pond before the other boys did. At once I stripped off my clothes and waded out into the deep water. Soon Josiah and his brothers joined me and we were all playing tag, swimming races, and diving for rocks.
When we tired, we clambered onto the shore, lay down, and let the warm sun dry us as we talked about nothing really important. Finally I said, ”I guess it’s about time I told ya ’bout the Snallygaster.”
“What’s that?” asked Eddie.
“Well, the Snallygaster’s got a gigantic nest up on Braddock Mountain. It’s part dragon and part bird, an’ it’s huge. When it flies ya can see its eyes light up and smoke come pourin’ outta its nostrils. Its scream is terrifyin’. Every once in a bit it flies down into the valley an’ grabs a cow or even a human with its immense talons and carries them off to its nest, where it tears ’em apart and devours ’em.”
As I talked, Tad’s eyes grew bigger and bigger; Eddie had a little nervous smile; Josiah who was behind the other boys, had a big grin on his face.
Tad said, “That’s not really true…is it?”
“Nah,” said Eddie, but with a slight quiver in his voice.
“Well,” I said, “cows do certainly disappear from time to time, and I’ve heard of a couple o’ people who disappeared. I’ve never seen the Snallygaster myself, and I don’t wanna, because by the time ya see it, it’s too late to git away.”
By then, Tad was looking really frightened, so I decided I needed to ease up a little. “The good news is that the Snallygaster’s nocturnal. D’ya know what that means?” Tad shook his head. “Well, it means that he or she, nobody really knows which, only comes out at night. So, if ya don’t run around outside at night, ya should be safe.”
“I’m never goin’ out after dark again!” he replied.
When Tad and Eddie got tired of talking they got up and cavorted around the field as they always did.
Josiah and I were quiet for a time. I couldn’t help but be aware of our naked bodies almost touching. I turned my head to look at him and his head was turned toward me. I realized that even in the last month he had grown and his chest was beginning to develop. I wanted to say something, and I knew both of us were hard, but I didn’t have the courage. Did he know we were both hard? Certainly he knew he was, but he didn’t say anything either.
Finally, Josiah said, “You cert’nly got Tad scared, and I think Eddie was mebby a little unsure himself.”
We both laughed before I said, “Pa used t’ scare the dickens out of me with that story. I don’t guess I went out after dark for years.”
The next Sunday after church, Tad came up and asked Pa very seriously, “Sir, is there really such a thing as a Snollygusher?”
Looking just as serious, Pa asked, “D’ya mean a Snallygaster?” Tad nodded. “Well,” said Pa, considering for a moment. “I’ve been fortunate enough never to see it, because as I’m sure Elias has told ya if ya see it, it’s too late t’ run and you’re doomed. But I do know that people here in the valley certainly believe in it. So I’d be careful if I were you.”
Tad nodded solemnly, and walked away, a thoughtful expression on his little face. When he was gone, Pa chuckled, looked at me, and said, “You devil.”
“He’s no more of a devil than you are, Old Man,” put in Ma, and we all laughed.
One afternoon at the pond as we lay on the grass drying off after our swim, Josiah asked, “Who d’ya think’ll win the election this fall?”
“Well I figger if Lincoln does it’ll mean war.”
I agreed with him, but just to make conversation and to find out what he was thinking I asked, “Why?”
“Ya see, it’s all ’bout the rights of the separate states and the rights of the United States. Most of the Southerners think that the gummint is tryin’ t’ control what the states do. Some in the North even talk about gettin’ rid of slavery, and the South’ll never agree t’ that.”
“But why would there be war?”
“’Cause the South’d try t’ break away from Washington and form its own country.”
“Nah. That’ll never happen.”
“Don’t bet yer last penny on it!”
“But Josiah, slavery’s evil. What right does a man have t’ own other men?”
“D’ya know that even the Bible approves of slavery? Besides, what d’ya think’d happen if all the slaves were freed? I can tell you. They’d kill every white man an’ woman they saw. An’ they’re not smart enough to run their own farms or businesses. How’d they eat? We’d have niggers roaming the countryside stealin’ everything in sight.”
“That’s just balderdash, Josiah.”
“Yeah? How many slaves d’ya know yerself?”
“Well…only three and I jest see them in town sometimes.”
“Well I know plenty and I know what’d happen. Besides, the folks in Washington got no right t’ tell the states what t’ do. All they’re supposed t’ do is keep an army for defense an’ help with trade between the different states.”
At that point, Josiah’s brothers came racing back saying they wanted to swim again, so back in the water we went. Finally, when we all felt hungry, we climbed out of the water, unpacked our picnics and ate a nice, leisurely supper, again letting the sun dry us. We all had to get back to our farms in time to take care of the animals before dark, so after we ate, we put on our overalls, packed up, and left.
That night I lay on my bed thinking about what Josiah had said. I certainly didn’t want a war and I didn’t want to be shooting at people who might be friends of mine. At the same time, I thought it would be exciting and I was determined to join the army if the war came, although Ma and Pa would probably try to stop me.