Walt dreamed his brother's death at Fredericksburg. General Burnside, appearing as an angel at the foot of his bed, announced the tragedy: "The army regrets to inform you that your brother, George Washington Whitman, was shot in the head by a lewd fellow from Charleston." The general alit on the bedpost and drew his dark wings close about him, as if to console himself. Moonlight limned his strange whiskers and his hair. Burnside's voice shook as he went on. "Such a beautiful boy. I held him in my arms while his life bled out. See? His blood made this spot." He pointed at his breast, where a dark stain in the shape of a bird lay on the blue wool. "I am so very sorry," the General said, choking and weeping. Tears fell in streams from his eyes, ran over the bed and out the window, where they joined the Rappahannock, which had somehow come north to flow through Brooklyn, bearing the bodies of all the late battle's dead.
In the morning Walt read the wounded list in the Tribune. There it was: "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore." He knew from George's letters that there was nobody named Whitmore in his company. He walked through the snow to his mother's house. "I'll go and find him," he told her.
Washington, Walt quickly discovered, had become a city of hospitals. He looked in half of them before a cadaverous-looking clerk told him he'd be better off looking at Falmouth, where most of the Fredericksburg wounded still lay in the field hospitals. He got himself on a government boat that ran down to the landing at Aquia Creek, and went by railroad to the neighborhood of Falmouth, seeking Ferrero's Brigade and the Fifty-first New York, George's regiment. Walt stood outside a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, somebody's splendid residence converted to a hospital, afraid to go in and find his mangled brother. He took a walk around the building, gathering his courage, and found a pile of amputated limbs, arms and legs of varying lengths, all black and blue and rotten in the chill. A thin layer of snow covered some of them. He circled the heap, thinking he must recognize his brother's hand if he saw it. He closed his eyes and considered the amputation; his brother screaming when he woke from the ether, his brother's future contracting to something bitter and small.
But George had only gotten a hole in his cheek. A piece of shell pierced his wispy beard and chipped a tooth. He had spit blood and hot metal into his hand, put the shrapnel in his pocket, and later showed it to his worried brother, who burst into tears and clutched him in a bear hug when they were reunited in Captain Francis's tent, where George sat with his feet propped on a trunk and a cigar stuck in his bandaged face.
"You shouldn't fret," said George. "I couldn't be any healthier than I am. And I've been promoted. Now you may call me Captain Whitman." But Walt could not help fretting, even now that he knew his brother was alive and well. A great, fretting buzz had started up in his head, inspired by the pile of limbs, and the smell of blood in the air, and by ruined Fredericksburg, all broken chimneys and crumbling walls across the river. Walt stayed in George's tent and, watching him sleep, felt a deep thrilling worry. He wandered around the camp, and as he passed by a fire in an enclosure of evergreen branches piled head high against the wind, he met a soldier. They sat down together by the fire, and the soldier told Walt hideous stories about the death of his friends. "He put his head in my lap and whispered goodbye to his mama," the soldier said. "And then he turned his eyes away from me and he was dead." Walt put his face in the evergreen wall, smearing his beard with fresh sap, and thought how it smelled like Christmas.
Ten days later, Walt still couldn't leave. He stood by and watched as George moved out with the healthy troops on Christmas Day, then idled in the deserted campground, watching the interminable caravans of army wagons passing and passing into the distance. Near at hand, some stragglers crossed his line of sight a large young man leading a mule that pulled a wagon, on top of which perched a fat man cursing in French. When all were gone, and the campground empty, Walt went up to the brick mansion and made himself useful, changing dressings, fetching for the nurses, and just sitting with the wounded boys, with the same excited worry on him as when he watched George sleep. Back in Brooklyn a deep and sinister melancholy had settled over him. For the past six months Walt had wandered the streets with a terrible feeling in him Hell under his skull bones, death under his breast bones, and a feeling that he would like most of all to life down under the river and sleep forever. But in the hospital that melancholy was gone, scared off, perhaps, by all the shocking misery around him, and it had been replaced by a different sort of sadness, one that was vital, not still; a feeling that did not diminish his soul, but thrilled it.
Excerpted from Gob's Grief by Chris Adrian . Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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