The Flood Coffins
I was a wild stalk halfway sprung between man and boy
in that broken October when the General died.
Our fine grey knight of Virginia quit the world in a run
of black storm and flood that swallowed whole the county.
Not many know, but it was Charlie Chittum and me
that found the man his peace.
I'll tell you how.
Lee lay in a deep fever, calling for A.P. Hill
to come on up with his troops. He must bring up the troops!
But Hill was a ghost, killed in the war's last days. Five years
had gone since Appomattox and all the blood before.
Mad rains pounded the earth while Lee dreamt of battles
he wished he'd never made. At last, the General gave
his final command—Strike the tent!—and died soon after.
The torrents had passed but the river was flooded.
I was dawdling inside Bower's bakery
munching on sweet rolls and hearing other fellows' lies.
Undertaker Koones stepped in for coffee and complaints,
said he'd got the worst of it, no evil like this one—
The greatest man in the state lies dead and, dammit,
Koones can't find a coffin.
An undertaker without a coffin? Like a priest
run out of prayers! Koones wasn't one to crave a joke.
And besides, it was R.E. Lee we were speaking of.
We told Charlie to leash his tongue. Koones revealed his woe:
three lovely new oak coffins just sent up from Richmond,
any one of them fit for the honor of our man,
all washed away from the packet landing. The flood tide
plucked them all, so what was left to hold a warrior?
All gathered in the shop agreed—the sorrows of the South
were multiplied when our best men were not granted sleep.
Was it not enough to lose a stillborn nation?
One box of three would do, sighed Koones, reaching for a bun.
"Why, hell," yelped Charlie, "General Lee can count on me.
Come, lads, let's track 'em down!"
After much clamor and declaration,
only Charlie and I took up the task.
We begged ourselves a rowboat and set off
like young Argonauts for Troy.
We had free bread and Koones' grumbled promise
of half a dollar each. We but needed
one saved coffin to call it a success.
The sky was clear, the day sharp.
We rowed a mile downstream, beseeching folks on shore,
till we learned that Widow Welk and her hired men
had hauled a big box from the riverbank just past dawn.
We pulled up and climbed a hill. I knew the woman some,
greeted her outside her house and told her our intent.
She said the box was spoken for and took us 'round
the back to see, sure enough, one casket, bruised but sound.
She had filled it up with earth and planted violets.
"But General Lee's in need," said Charlie Chittum.
Mrs. Welk spoke to us hard, "I'll tell you what of Lee.
I'd two sons and a nephew who soldiered for that man.
When Andrew died at Sharpsburg, I said, 'God's will, praise Lee.
My son fell for the Cause. May Joe and Clem be spared.'
But next year come, do you know what that madman did?
Tossed my Joe right into hell.
An open field,
a mile of Yankee target range. That was Pickett's Charge.
Slaughter. Slaughter. Useless and obscene. They never found
my Joseph. Poor Clem lived just enough to come back home
and die of his wounds. He told us how old Lee rode up
afterward and moaned 'My fault—all my fault,' but his men
shouted 'No, General, no!' Well, they were wrong—sad fools.
Lee murdered with his pride. He dreamt he was invincible
and demanded of souls more than a god would ask.
When I dragged this coffin up today, I only thought
to make a curious flower box, don't ask me why.
I did not know then what Lee required. Now that I do,
I say 'Justice rings!' Take his bones up to Gettysburg
and throw them in that meadow where my son was lost.
Back here, I'll grow my violets."
And so, we left Mrs. Welk with her claim,
and rowed another half mile or so
Till Charlie pointed out some dancing smoke
A little ways through the trees.
We moved again and in a clearing there
found old Dobb Gerrish hunched by a fire
built of barrels, crates, chunks of random wood
and some busted coffin boards.
Good lord, we cried, do you know what you've done? Lee is dead;
that's his coffin crackling there... We very nearly
drove poor Dobb to tears. He swore he never meant to harm,
had only felt a funny urge to make a fire
with all this wood the flood coughed up, roast a rabbit,
puff his pipe. "You boys both know me," Dobb declared. "I'm old,
stay by myself, though years ago I lived in town...
heard all the news... but now—I can't believe Lee's gone.
Lincoln offered him command back there in '61.
Desert Virginia? Never! Not Mister Bobby Lee.
They say he paced the floor all night, told Abe, Hell no,
and lost a thirty-year career. Crushed his heart, I'm sure,
to lead so many boys to death. A noble man.
And, tell me, who did the Yankees hold up as his match?
Grant! Perfumed with mules and rum.
He beat Lee
but never equaled him. Did you see those northern lights
a few days back? The aurora borealis,
that's what that was. It came out when the weather broke.
Legend says those lights appear when kings or heroes die.
And ain't it so? Tell you what I'm going to do—
got this rabbit here, skinned and set to cook. You boys
be my guests. We'll offer her up like a sacrifice
to the gods for Robert Lee. All those ancient Greeks
in old Spartan heaven will smile on his soul.
My, those casket boards do sure burn bright. Washed up here
two days back. They had time to dry up good. Got some 'shine
back in my cabin. I stole it from the devil.
You wait, I'll fetch it quick. Hey, can't you fellows spare
the General a toast?"
The feast declined, we gave ourselves again
to the swiftness of that risen water.
Onwards, I think, another half mile.
The sun by now was failing.
Pale silver half-light creeping through our world.
My young arms urging oars against the hour.
My comrade peering through the twilight haze
spied something on an island.
A coffin, whole and safe, the third, perched upon a mound
of grassy earth. We hastened to the spot, disembarked
and sat there on either side of our oaken prize.
We laughed and traded laurels, what mariners bold
our mothers had produced. The state would sing our names.
Soon, a silence came to us there on our small estate
with darkness waiting to be born. Knowing we must rise,
we still sat, tasting the lonesome beauty of a place,
with the breath of an elder autumn on our skins.
We listened to the tide. Then Charlie Chittum spoke,
"It's fitting and it's fate that this coffin is the one
set here in a nest between the shores. Robert Lee
was a man, that's what he was, no demon in a rage
wading through soldiers' bubbling blood. The Welk boys
may have loved him in their day.
A hero then?
I'm not the one to testify, but I'll tell you this—
He wasn't some king from heaven come to stride the globe
with lightning in his footsteps and thunder in his hands.
He was a man. Let crazy Dobb Gerrish burn rabbits
in his name, nothing's changed—he was a man. Blow away
the sacrificial smoke and Lee still ate, drank, slept
and scratched his beard. When my own mortal hour comes
a thousand miles from this day, I'll forbid my ghost
to prowl folks' dreams with tattered shroud and a sinner's scowl.
Neither as an angel, curls and feathers dripping gold.
Just let the living say, 'Charlie Chittum walked the earth
for a ramble of years, sunsets, mornings, dinnertimes
and tried not to forget that he was only one
among the very many.'"
upstream by night, our cargo awkward in the boat.
We never asked Koones for the dollar. That next day
they buried Lee. The box was a couple inches short,
so they lay him in without his shoes. Despite the flaw,
the funeral it was grand.