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How We Ate During the War

The storm broke. It little mattered I was beneath several layers of leaves. I kicked Dorothy gently in her sides and we raced towards the opposite end of the hill, then downward.

When I arrived, Benjamin was on the porch, sitting in a heap curled inward, not unlike a dead spider. “Miss Clary,” he hailed me. I dismounted and went directly for the door.

Five soldiers coming down the road -- five, no more, and dressed in grey. My mother called me “eagle eye” for good reason: though I’d been perched far above the road, I’d been able to make out a raggedness about the men. They were deserters, I wagered, and near-starving. At best, Christian charity would govern us to forgive them, and house them and - far more difficult - feed them; at worst, it could mean simply destruction -- of our foodstuffs, even our lives, and I didn’t want to think what else before.

“What’s wrong?”

Lost in thought, I hadn’t snubbed Benjamin fast enough. “Where is my mother?”

He might have tried to raise his shoulders, for there was a long pause. “I don’t know.”

I moved to open the door.

“Anything the matter?” he asked again.

I turned the doorknob and stepped inside. “Mama?” It’s strange how hard it always was to find her, though only she, myself, and Benjamin were left here.

Benjamin had come to us about four years ago. We were looking for an overseer, and word must have gotten around town about it. So he’d arrived at our home, with seemingly nothing but a small trunk and no mention of a history.

Everyone knew that my father had a greater notion of philosophy than of everyday life. He’d taken Benjamin into his study and spoken with him for a while. “I like the boy,” I remember him saying when they’d emerged a short while later. And he was given the job, and that was all.

For a while, things had gone well. Benjamin was young, maybe only ten years older than me, but he knew how to manage things, and so my father felt free from worry, and able to concentrate on his reading.

But one day, this deceptive peace ended. I was strolling idly on our front lawn, when I saw Benjamin on one of our horses, riding fast in my direction. Even from a distance, and though a rain had started to fall, I could make out something heavy that he carried on one side under his coat. As he approached, I realized it was the century-old chest that held our family silver.

“Stop!” I’d called out, with no real hope of a result.

To my surprise, though, he’d slowed the horse to a walk. “Well good afternoon, Miss Clary.” He’d spoken so easy and gentleman-like I’d almost believed there was no trouble going on.

I’d decided to reply in kind. “And what might you be up to, Benjamin?” I’d kept my voice and manner sweet.

Strange enough, he’d grinned at me. It had felt oddly as though we were playing a game, then, and he knew it, and I knew it, but we would never say.

A noise interrupted our friendly conversation. My father was returning on horseback from town, where he’d no doubt gone to buy another book. At the sound of the hooves on the wet earth, Benjamin spurred on his own ride, and sent her into a furious gallop. And I remember I’d stood there, caught somewhere between my father returning on the path from the road, and Benjamin fleeing in a direction perpendicular, out towards the pine woods that bordered the valley on all sides.

“Pa!!!” I’d started to yell. I’d yelled over and over. Benjamin had already reached the gate at the end of the field. But his horse took the jump badly: he flew from her back and landed several feet away from the gate. Beside him, the box of silver thudded to the ground and exploded open. Forks, knives, and spoons of various sizes soared in all directions. When they, too, had landed, Benjamin remained there among them, prostrate, and as still as the box they’d come from.

When they’d brought him back to the house, and what silver they could gather along with him, he still didn’t move. He opened his eyes but didn’t speak. My father ordered someone to ride to town for the doctor.

The doctor quickly understood: just as there were forks and spoons that would never be found, so Benjamin would never regain the use of his legs, nor of his left arm.

Lucky for him, his mind, and, finally, his mouth, still worked, and he spun such a tale as I’m glad I wasn’t in the room to hear it, something about catching a marauder in the act of stealing the silver, and running with it to safety. My father decided that, seeing as Benjamin had no family of his own to care for him, it was our Christian duty to keep him with us, especially since he’d lost so much in trying to save our family heirloom.

And so he’d remained here, even when the War had come and my father had ridden away to defend the Confederacy; even when everyone else had deserted us, or (as food had gotten scarcer) been let go. He stayed on the porch, mostly, looking out at the landscape as if there was something to decipher among the trees. When he needed to move, he used a chair my father had made him with wheels attached to the bottom, his right hand holding a large stick that went to the floor to drag the rest of himself along. He did this all day, and ate our food, and drank our water, and neither my mother nor I knew what to do with him.

By now I’d searched the house and the garden, and had come back around to the porch. Again he was talking to me. “Miss Clary -- ” I opened my mouth to tell him to keep quiet.

And then " “Hello ma’am, maybe y’all have somethin’ we might eat?”

It was the deserters. They looked half-mad.

I tried to be pleasant. “Why, we surely do. If you gentlemen will kindly wait here, I’ll go get y’all some biscuits.”

One of them grabbed my arm, and I spun to face him, furious in spite of my sense of self-preservation. “And what about them chickens there? Cook one of ‘em up nice an’ good for us, too, darlin’.”

Some time later, we were all seated around the dining room table. They ate their meal -- one of our last chickens -- as you’d expect, chewing loudly, picking their teeth, fighting over every morsel. My mother, Benjamin, and I only watched.

Then it was night.

“Well,” my mother said, “you folks’d best be movin’ on now.”

“I don’ know as that’s what’s best at all, ma’am. Y’all’ve still got some chickens out there, and I reckon we’ll be hungry again tomorrow.”

For three more days we lived at the mercy of the deserters. They passed their time asleep, with one at a time keeping watch at an upstairs window. My mother stayed to herself, as always, looking through her account books (my father liked to say that these were the only books that interested her). Myself, I took rides. But I couldn’t stay out long. I was worried with her there unprotected.

On the fourth afternoon there was rain again, as heavy as it’d been when I’d first spotted our new guests on the road.

By now they’d become more particular in what they wanted. I was out in the vegetable garden, trying to figure the least amount of everything I could put into a soup. It made me ill how hard we’d worked to glean and plant the few seeds that had sprouted here, and how we’d learnt ourselves little by little to make meals, like babies taking their first steps. Benjamin was, as always, slumped in his chair on the porch. He looked out over the fields as though nothing was different. The rain poured down.

Suddenly -- a pair of hands around my waist. “Maybe you could be our supper today,” one of them breathed. A sloppy pair of lips sought out my cheek.

“Now,” I said, “let’s not forget you’re a gentleman.” The hands’ grip grew tighter.

I heard laughter, and mumbling; they must have all come outside together. I struggled and choked at the man’s stale breath as he pulled me toward the porch, with his friends behind us.

A hand lifted the back of my skirt.

And at that moment, I saw the strangest thing I ever could see in my life. Benjamin had dragged his chair so slowly to the porch stairs that even I hadn’t noticed. And he now took a breath and, pushing with his stick, he hurtled himself through the air.

The men were as surprised as I was. The hands loosened slightly around my waist. A few of them cussed.

Benjamin didn’t land on the ground, but on the man who was holding me. This one fell back, and I ran a bit, then turned, and saw Benjamin through sheets of rain, his one working hand in a fist beating the fallen man’s head. Then he turned and lashed out that same arm at another one of them. This one fell, knocking down another companion. Faster than anyone could have thought possible, Benjamin crawled over the pair, blocking them from standing up. The two others stared for a few seconds more, then came to help their comrades -- Benjamin flung out his working arm like a viper, hitting one so forcefully in the gut that he fell down, winded.

“Eliza!” For the first time, Benjamin called me by my Christian name. “Run to the stables and bring rope!” He reached over and grabbed the last man standing by his ankles. “Now!”

And so I ran, hoping that some of the speed that had possessed him had seeped into my legs. In the mostly unused stables, I remembered where there was a large coil of rope, and I took one end of it in my hand, and, racing against all resistance, I dragged it across the dead earth.

When I reached Benjamin, the last man was still down, the others hadn’t risen up. Benjamin drew back a little, and gave each of the two beneath him a hard blow to the temple.

“I brought the rope,” I said over the rain-filled silence that followed.

He stared at the soil, trying to catch his breath.

“Mama!” I screamed. I screamed over and over. She didn’t come. “Mama!” I called out finally, “it’s safe!”

In a minute or so she appeared at the door.

“It’s Benjamin -- it’s a miracle. Help me tie them!”

We had no time to lose, because each man was breathing and who knew when he’d wake? We got them hog-tied without thinking of it, though we’d never done such a thing before. Benjamin rested on the ground, able just to lift up his head and see beyond the two fallen bodies he’d been lying on.

My mother and I rode into town. We had no carriage and no way to carry him, so Benjamin stayed behind.

When we returned, we breathed easier. The men were still unconscious and tied. Benjamin was in his chair on the porch where we’d left him. We’d brought back a captain of the guards and some others with us, and they soon rounded the deserters up into a wagon, and led them away with the barrels of their rifles. They’d take them all the way to the jail, get what information they could from them, and, I knew, in a matter of days the men would be executed, and never again would they be seen on the dirt road.

By evening, the rain had let up, and Benjamin lay as always, a pile of limbs like something in a bin at a rag shop.

That night, we tried to eat as little as possible, but my mother gave Benjamin a far larger portion than she normally would have.

When he retired to his room, my mother leaned conspiringly towards me. “You know,” she said in a low voice, “I always thought that boy was a burden. But now, I see that he’s quite the opposite.”

The next morning when I awoke, she rushed out of the library at the sound of my footstep upon the bottom stair. Normally it was Benjamin or myself the first awake in the house; my mother seemed, in fact, to have not slept at all last night.

“My dear Eliza,” she came to me smiling. “Please take this letter to town and post it.” I did as I was told. When I returned, Benjamin was on the porch. I nodded at him and went into the house to start my chores.

A little while later, my mother went out to speak with him. “Good afternoon, Benjamin”, I heard her say. “Please come to the library; we have something to discuss.”

She came inside to our dark foyer, and he wheeled and dragged himself after. I watched from the parlor, not sure where I was meant to go.

Benjamin couldn’t close the library door behind him, so I heard every word. It was time, according to my mother, for Benjamin to pay his debts. It was time for him to do what he could do to support our family. “Miss Eliza and I are near-starving, you know,” she added. And what she proposed was so incredible, that I couldn’t help but admire her and her steel will and her ways of being quick-witted about making a profit. They left the room after about an hour. I could perceive a fire in my mother’s eye, but Benjamin was past me before I could see anything much of him. 

A few days later, a knock on the front door woke me, and when I came downstairs to answer, there was a crowd of people trampling the grass of our lawn.

My mother breezily came past me, and opened the door wide as if to let the sunlight over the threshold. “Welcome, everyone,” she said. “My, what a crowd! Please take a seat on the lawn. The show will begin shortly.”

A rough, strong-looking man I’d seen once in town, came to the door and he and my mother nodded at each other. “Collect the money,” she said.

He went around as she’d ordered, taking coins from each person once they’d settled themselves on the grass.

Benjamin wheeled out of his room at the noise, unsurprised. Once they were outside, my mother called to the strong man and he lifted Benjamin --chair and all --and placed him on the path. Then, he stood in front of him, and yelled threats and insults.

Well, if you live anywhere within a hundred miles of our old house, I’d say you know what happened: with the same extraordinary strength he’d shown a few days before, Benjamin hurled himself out of his chair, and onto the man, who (perhaps not entirely involuntarily, I’ll allow), fell to the earth. The crowd cheered and roared.

In a week’s time, we found ourselves in a sunlit field just outside of town, with another strong man facing Benjamin down. This time, my mother had procured a grey uniform from somewhere or other, and someone had sewn together a mock-up of a Union one. Benjamin wore the grey, and at my mother’s command, he launched himself at his foe costumed in enemy blue, and beat him directly, to wild applause.

This all continued for a while, taking us farther and farther from home. I got new clothes, my mother did as well, we stayed in the finest hotels and inns, and ate more than our fill. She had playbills made up, with medallion images of Jefferson Davis in each corner, and in the center, an image of what was supposed to be Benjamin, but what looked to me more like a strange comet or star, flying fast towards the chest of an immobile enemy.

But eventually, novelty fades. Within a month or so, my mother made another decision: let people volunteer to fight Benjamin. I would have thought there would be hesitation, on account of his being a cripple, but always there were two or three who came forth. And now it got harder, because these men, unfit for war, were searching for glory any way they could. They fought hard outside in the stifling heat. They didn’t always fall at first, and Benjamin scrambled and flung his legs at their torsos, hanging from their necks by his good right arm.

Often, he lost. He came out of each fight with bruises, or bleeding from some part or other. Months passed, and he was thinner than usual, though there was always so much food on our table, and when he was in his chair these days, he didn’t look out -- though now there was so much more to look at. He kept his eyes lowered, and said even less than before, though he always greeted me when I came into a room, with a “Hello Miss Clary.”

One morning I looked at him across the victuals-laden breakfast table. His right hand brought food to his mouth so slowly. It was sunny; he would fight this afternoon. Often I wondered what had given him the strength to fight that first time, and all the fights after. He felt my gaze and his eyes rose almost to meet mine.

I turned and looked at the sky outside the window, hoping for rain.