Burying Detail by Steve Batson
Cold and wet. It was very cold and very wet along the Columbia Pike. The false autumn
had passed quickly, like the army that followed it into Tennessee. December in Tennessee
comes hard and lasts long. The small boy was dressed in huge pants and a long worn
overcoat. Rags adorned callused feet that were sore and swollen from walking and work.
They had come many a dangerous mile since leaving Nashville. He swung the pick, a tool
that was as large as he was, at the cold hard ground.
"I don' like it Pa, he said, Why Pap send us off up here in the cold."
"Pap got his reasons," the huge man said, "You knows it and I does too.
Yes sir, Pap got his reasons and he got the sight. So it best you always listen to him. He
sent me to take care of you and you to use the sight to know what we come to do."
"Yes sir, I knows, I just cold and tired," said the young boy, "You
reckon we ever gonna cross Jordan, Pa? Don't you think that we just oughta go on back to
wherever we come from and light? Seems like I ain't never been nothin' but hungry and
"Yes sir you right. Seems like we been hungry and cold forever, but best I can
reckon, that a lot of what freedom is boy. Hungry and cold and half-naked and empty.
Nobody to tell you what to do and nothin' to do but die. But Pap say it's worth it and I
reckon, he right" said the big man.
"What you think Pa, is it worth it?"
"Is it deep enough yet?" the big man asked.
"Yes sir I reckon so."
"Laudy me," said the big man, "I ain't never seed so many boys dead in
my life. Good thing for cool weather if it gotta be. Well, we just about to the end. What
you say? Is it time yet? Is this the place?"
"Seems like it to me" the boy said. "I seen em right off the first day
we was here, but . . . Yes sir. Now is the time."
"Which ones is it?" the man replied.
"Them two boys over yonder by the dirt wall. You know I called them the brothers.
The one holding the others head like that. C'mon Pa, I don't know why but that who Pap
sent us to Tennessee to find. Them two. Once we buried them, then we can go on back and
The big man went over to the two boys frozen in death. "Lordy me, they just boys,
not much older you child. I reckon we lucky not to be born white if it comes to this. We
ain't never gonna get them apart son. Move them gentle over to that hole we done
The rigid bodies held together like a beautiful statue. Both long dead, The one with
his head in the other's lap had died from the slow leaking hole in his chest. The other
one sitting . . . his back shot to pieces from the fire storm of lead that engulfed him as
he protected the head of the other.
"Say the words boy," said the man, "the words Ma taught you to say for
"In my Father's house are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you,
I go to prepare a place for you and I will come again . . . Into your hands we commend the
spirit of these men. Go with them and bring them unto your hand." The boy began to
sing, but his eyes moved to the ground. "Look Pa, on the ground here under 'em . . .
two little sacks and six marbles. I don't know why Pa, but this is what Pap sent us
"Pick 'em up boy and let's get these boys laid down as best we can."
The boy picked up the marbles and put three in each sack, he knew just which three went
in just which sack. Boy or not, he would never play with these toys. He would tell no one
but Pa and Pap about them. He would need them in the future. He could not say when, or for
what, but he would need them. Pap had taught him that much about the sight. Sometime you
just know what to do, only later do you know why and you never really understand it. But
that was how it works. He prayed then, thanking God for the sight like Pap had taught him
He carefully put the two pokes in his pocket and hid them down deep. He went over to
the shallow hole. He picked up the two hats his Pa had laid beside the grave and put the
paper in the hats. It was all done the way the man on the hill had told them to do. He
would remember these boys and their faces until he died.
On the day he died, he could still see the small rivulets of blood that ran down their
ragged arms and legs . . . the checkerboard shirts and worn-out pants and coats. He had
buried many men and boys and women and girls in many places, but never had he seen two
faces better saved. He could not understand it. Must be the cold, but they were soft like
the faces of angels. Maybe they were.
They filled the hole with the earth and Pa headed over to get a stick to mark the site
and hang the hats on.
"No Pa," he said. " Not these two. Get the ax and go over to that tree
and cut a cross with the arms reaching up to heaven like Pap taught us. These two is
Pa understood the sight and did as he was told. It was still early morning and if somebody didn't get some help up here they would be burying people when judgment come. A few of the townsfolk and some wounded Confeds was working but Lord there was dead men as far as the eye could see. He roughed out the cross with the ax and banged it into place at the head of the grave. He took the papers, showing great care not to read them, for he could read. Ma had
taught him that. He folded the papers inside the hats to keep the weather out.
The man on the hill had told them how to do that and secured them to the cross. The man had said to work all day and he would feed them. He had not asked who they were or where they come from. They were in Confederate lines now and needed to be very careful although most of the men he had seen were like the one on the hill . . . empty eyed, all of them. Most missing an arm or a leg . . . Da Lord done brought these people low he thought and it was sad that everyone
seemed to suffer so. "Lord please don't ever set your hand on my people the way
you done to them, "he prayed, but he knew it was a vain prayer, for the Book said the
Lord set his hand against the way of man way back at Eden and God weren't about to change
on his account, but he wished it didn't have to be so.
"Pa, can we head out to find Pap now," he said.
"Not just yet," said the big black man, "Tonight after sundown. Where he
say that the people going?"
"Pap said he and the people going to follow General Sherman. Say he going to a
place called Savannah. Pap said don't tell nobody else that 'cause not even General
Sherman know it yet. Jus' like Pap said for us to go to Nashville and when da furst big
fight over, leave out and go to it fast. 'Cause Johnny Reb still be coming on. I knowed
then I was to bury someone. Didn't know who til' we got here. Don't know why now. Is all
life like that Pa?"
"All life worse than that boy. Most folks like me, we got no sight. Got no vision a'tall. A world full of folk and most all of 'em blind, just wandering 'round blind, looking for somebody else's vision. Lordy ain't it a mess?"
"When we go to Pap? I ready to go since we got what we come fur. Dis hear is a
terrible place for the spirit."
Tonight boy," said the man, "We go to find our people, tonight and we got a
mite of burying to do before nightfall and that meal. Yes sir, a mite of burying and a
mite of praying for all these sad folk and families. You know Pap is right . . . folks is
just folks. 'Shame we gets so full of ourselves . . . let it come to this."
About the author - Steve Batson
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