Is, Not Mighta Been
Some folks see the hand of the Lord in happenings that nothing but dumb chance. They say He separate people or bring them together by His own plan. Well, I say God don’t bother Hisself with our daily affairs, so if you see a man in a place you don’t expect, then that just one of them things. Ain’t no beam of light breaking through the clouds or angels singing hallelujah. Just is, is all.
So when some Yankee officer come to the cook tent and say, hey you nigga boys got burial detail, me and the others from the colored regiment pick up our shovels and head out to the battlefield. This time of day the sun be in our eyes and the air stink with gunpowder and dead flesh, but everything peaceful now the fighting’s over.
And when I see only Rebs, I don’t think nothing of it. Yanks win a battle, they bury their own and leave the rest for us to throw in a pit, or just let them rot where they fall. Rebs win, they do the same.
The officers say it fine if we take a little something for ourselfs, some boots, a coat, a brick of hardtack. We don’t get to keep no weapons, though. Like we gon turn on them. Hell, they the ones giving us freedom, whether they think so or not.
And when after a hour of hauling carcasses I see the dead white face of my old massa’s son Zachariah, I just shrug and say huh. I knowed he was gon go off to war, and here be as good a place as any to meet the everlasting. Now, Eli, my friend who escaped north with me couple years back, he get hisself all worked up. He say, well sumbitch, looky who we got here, and he kick that poor dead boy in the belly. Can’t say as I blame him. Daddy massa cut off his toes first time he try to run. And he whipped all us whenever the mood was on him, even me, who was never a field hand, cause I was the only slave could read his children to sleep.
Borned who he was, maybe Zach woulda growed up mean too, but he never gon get the chance to be one thing or the other. I say Eli, the young massa’s past your righteous fury now, you can’t do nothing to him ain’t already been done. No reason to hate him no more.
And Eli yell, he ain’t nobody’s massa! You like him so good, you can go curl right up in the ground with him. And if you wanna hold his hand till kingdom come, that be you own business. But don’t act like he oughta be forgived just cause he got hisself killed. This cotton ball be burning in hell, and I say he getting off easy.
Then Eli, he stomp away to bury other massas’ sons.
The day’s about over and dusk light be turning Zach’s white skin pink and yellow. The flies is getting bothersome and Zach got a hole in his chest the size of my fist, but ain’t no marks on his face. Sweet Jesus, he is only a boy. He don’t look evil, he look like a angel sleeping. His cheeks be smooth as silk pillows. I sit down next to him and touch where his heart used to be, and for a short spell it just him and me and the setting sun.
I say, son what make you people think like you do? What make you look like regular folk on the outside and stir you up so wrong inside? I got my own share of confessing to do, but I never owned nobody. What you gon say to the Lord? You best hope He judge a man for what he is and was and not what he mighta been.
Zach know the answers by now, or else there be no answers to know, but he just lay still, his dead fish eyes staring up into nothing.
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About the Author
Dave Hoing lives in Waterloo, Iowa. He works at a university library by day, collects antiquarian books by night, and fits in freelance writing when he can.
In 2010, he and co-author Roger Hileman published a historical novel called Hammon Falls. It’s set primarily in Iowa between 1910-1940, with spatial stopovers in Paris, Dublin, Chicago, and Buffalo, plus occasional temporal side trips into present day.
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Copyright © 2010, Dave Hoing.