Wednesday, November 06, 2013

backstory


Trace could not remember exactly the conversation during which he’d told his family about his curse. They’d been sitting in the parlor that evening—the elder Aloysius Tracy and his younger, golden-haired wife, Rachel. Jacob’s own wife, Dorie, pretty and plump with pregnancy, her auburn hair gleaming in the firelight. Probably she had been making something for the baby, whose arrival lacked only a month or so. Probably Rachel had been doing her own mending; no one’s hands were idle in the evenings. Probably Jacob had been whittling or mending tack or braiding rope, while Aloysius read aloud to them from one of his Catholic-interest newspapers or political tracts.
Jacob was thirty that year, and finally felt like a man. He’d been married nearly eleven months. He’d mended fences with his father, been welcomed home like the prodigal son, and thrown himself willingingly into the family farm. The years he’d spent on cattle ranches out west had taught him a few things about the new breeds and ways to improve stock, and Aloysius—perhaps as eager as his son to smooth over the years of ugliness between them—had been surprisingly receptive to Jacob’s ideas.
In the past year, since meeting Dorie, he had not seen a single spirit. Not one. And while some deep intuitive part of him attributed the miracle to her bright and intoxicating presence—she kept his head so turned around he hardly noticed where his feet were, much less any sinister goings-on—with his rational mind he chose to believe that he had finally grown up, put away childish things, overcome the weakness of mind and spirit that had needed to see death and horror all around him. He had stopped clutching weakness around himself like a shield, in an effort to stave off adult responsibility and keep wandering, unsettled, unreconciled to his father’s expectations.
The old man had been right, the thirty-year-old Jacob Tracy told himself. He’d spent too many years with his head in the clouds, pursuing ideas of some grand calling instead of settling to mundane reality. At least there was no more talk of his becoming a priest. Being married had put paid to that idea. And his brother Warrick was nineteen and already a corporal in the army. The irony of Aloysius’ pride in his younger son’s career was not lost on Jacob.
That was what had prompted the confession, now that he thought about it. Aloysius had been reading one of Warrick’s letters, and boasting about the younger brother’s achievements. Jacob had felt compelled to remind them that he, too, had been in the army and there was nothing distinguished about it, from an enlisted man’s point of view. That had goaded Aloysius to declare that fighting in support of such wickedness as slavery and rebellion was bound to bring on God’s judgment.
And then the familiar litany, delivered not in a scold but in a rational, triumphant tone, as if Aloysius Tracy was imparting some higher wisdom that his son was finally old enough to grasp: that defying one’s elders and falling in with unGodly companions were the first steps on the road to vice, intemperance, and insanity. It was only through God’s grace, Aloysius reminded them all, that Jacob had recovered from possession by the demons morphine and madness.
Dorothea had gasped at that, her eyes darting from her father-in-law’s face to her husband’s. Jacob felt frozen with shame and fury; he had told her little about the two years after he’d been wounded.
Rachel, alone of them, had the detachment and grace to turn the moment. “Now Al,” she said firmly—the only person Jacob had ever heard chide his father and get away with it. “You know Jacob was badly wounded. Of course he spent time in hospital. We should thank God he survived at all. And let us not discount his own character in maintaining his temperate ways. Why, even you know Father Gilham has a greater fondness for the bottle than he ought. It’s the curse of the Irish, my grandmother always said.”
“I was never mad,” Jacob said, looking his father in the eye. “I was out of my head with pain and fever, and yes, with the medicine they gave me. But I know what was what. I saw things out there on the battlefield, and for years after.”
Aloysius looked stony. Rachel seemed poised, as if to grab for a knick-knack in harm’s way. Dorie stared at Jacob, big-eyed. “What things?” she whispered.
And so he told them. About lying there on the battlefield and seeing the tear in the sky, and watching his fallen comrades march up through it. About the hospital, later, and noticing how some of the dead seemed to linger, confused, and how they began to congregate around his bed, asking him for directions, for explanations, to carry messages to loved ones. How he had argued with them and then raved at them in his pain and fever, until the nurses, not knowing what else to do, loaded him up with more dope until he could hardly move, and the ghosts mingled with his opiate dreams and began to seem like demons.
By the time he was healed enough to be moved he was already known as a derangement case (Dorie’s eyes were growing bigger and bigger) and the dope had its hooks in him. They’d transferred him, along with a few other ravers and cataleptics, to the Sanitarium at Richmond, where he eventually came to the attention of Dr. Hardinger.
But he knew it would do no good to tell Aloysius Tracy that his saving physician had been a devout Spiritualist, who had tried to persuade the younger Jacob that he’d been favored by God to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. So the thirty-year-old Jacob caught his breath and summed up lamely, “He helped me stop seein them so often.”
“But you still see them?” Dorie insisted, her eyes darting around the room, as if reconsidering all the shadowy corners.
“No,” Jacob said, taking her hand. She was a delicate little thing—afraid of horses and lightning and even overly-large dogs. It was one of the things he loved about her—that she made him feel brave and strong. “Not for some time now. Certainly not since I met you. You think I’d let anything evil near you?”
“But you did see spirits,” Aloysius persisted, “after leaving the hospital. I saw it in your eyes, when you came here. The Devil’s curse was on you, and his imps pursuing you.”
Anger boiled up in Jacob. “Yeah, Da, they were. And you gave me no respite from them. You threw me out of here like Cain—“
“Jacob,” Rachel interrupted. “Let it be. Your father has long regretted his treatment of you. Don’t undo the goodwill you’ve built between you. And this quarrelling isn’t good for the baby.”
Jacob glanced at Dorie, who had a hand spread over her belly and was looking rather white. Instantly contrite, he helped her out of the chair and to their room, where he spent another hour or more assuring her there were no ghosts in the house, no demons coming to harm her or their baby.
But three weeks later they were all dead.

1 comment:

Shirley, surely said...

This is great! Not that they all died, of course, but it's giving insight into Trace and how he's come to be the way he is. I'm not sure where, exactly, it belongs in the whole story, but I like it. Especially after reading about various happenings since Ms. F. sunk her claws in...