To Jacobs astonishment, armylife suited him. He was surprised by how simple it was to reinvent himself, by how relieved he was when everyone assumed he was just another farmers or cobblers or dockworkers son whose reason for enlisting was nothing more than a deep love of country combined with a deep need of cash. That summer and autumn he suffered through several battles, as shocked and silenced by them as everyone else. But one night when spring returned, he was called to the officers headquarters on an evening when a rumor had spread that the general was visiting the camp. He was certain that he was going to receive a promotion. And when he entered the room on that cold evening and saw the major, the colonel, and the general seated at a table before him, each with a pipe in his mouth, he felt even more certain. He could hardly stifle a smile as he waited for the major to address him, while the general blew a cloud of smoke into the air. But it was the general who spoke.
Sergeant Mendoza has reported to us that you have relations in New Orleans, he said, resting his pipe in a wooden holder on the table. Specifically, a Mr. Harris Hyams. Is that correct, Rappaport?
Jacob paused to breathe, tasting the smoke of the officers pipe. The mention of Sergeant Mendoza made him slightly uncomfortable. Abraham Mendoza was twenty-one, also from New York City, also a Hebrew, but a sixth-generation American and embarrassingly proud of it. Jacob found him insufferable and assumed the feeling was mutual. Yet one night in the camp, when Jacob was exhausted and lonely and very slightly drunk, he had confided in Mendoza, speaking for the first time about everything he had left behind. Mendoza had been curious, and Jacob had indulged him, grateful for the relief of telling the truth. But then Mendoza had gotten nosy, asking him all about the business, about his fathers friends, about his aunts and uncles and cousins -- and Jacob, irritated, had finally told Mendoza to leave him alone.
Yes, sir. Mr. Hyams is my uncle, sir, Jacob said.
By blood or marriage? the general asked.
Marriage, sir. His wife is my mothers sister, Jacob replied, both disappointed and baffled. It seemed unlikely that an announcement of a promotion would commence with a review of his family tree -- and with Harry Hyams, of all people. Jacob hadnt seen Harry since he was fourteen years old, but he remembered him as a kind man, one who for years had brought him toys and books and candies from places he had traveled, entertaining him with exotic stories about ghosts who lived in the Louisiana swamps. Now Jacob looked at the officers before him and tried to suppress a shudder. He thought of his parents, and delusion took over: he imagined that his mother had somehow written to her sister to have him sent back home.
The major noticed his trembling, and smiled. At ease, he said, taking up his pipe.
Jacob put a foot to one side and folded his hands behind his back, but he felt even more uneasy than he had felt before. He grimaced slightly as the general continued.
The officer noticed. No one is holding you accountable for your relatives south of the Mason-Dixon line, Rappaport, the general said, in an almost fatherly tone. The officers voice was soothing, comforting, and a familiar relief seeped into Jacobs shoulders. It was a feeling that he had once associated with closing the door to his fathers office after a difficult client departed -- with being, at last, among family. He breathed as the officer spoke again. We simply wondered what your opinion might be of this Harris Hyams.
It occurred to Jacob then that perhaps this was a promotion after all, simply preceded by a test that he needed to pass. The illogic of this idea -- that a visiting officer would ask him these questions in order to promote him, or that such an examination would require a special visit to the officers headquarters at such an odd time of day, or that these questions were in any way pertinent to his future in the regiment -- did not occur to him. He didnt even think of Harry Hyams; the man himself was irrelevant. Instead he thought of the countless patriotic speeches he had heard in the nine months since he had enlisted, and smartly answered, Harris Hyams is a slaveowner and a Rebel, sir, and therefore deserving of every disdain.
Copyright 2009 Dara Horn. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Co.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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