Place of Peace

  • KATHERINE E. YOUNG

 

Shiloh National Military Park
for Alexander

i.

Mississippi’s an enigma: the road
unrolling car-free, wooden crosses cluttering

close-clipped lawns. Those small, mournful towns
with odd, exquisite names: Senatobia,

Toccopola, Geeville. Courthouse squares
where the lone Confederate soldier

achieves apotheosis. I order coffee
in Corinth without meeting a living soul

besides the woman at the counter who startles
from her magazine when I rattle the screen.

At the local Civil War museum, maps
show how the rail line south to New Orleans

bisects the main track east, right here, in Corinth:
the battle’s object, the whole point of the thing.

ii.

The point of any pilgrimage: to ask
why. Crossing into Tennessee, I find

all the cars missing along the highway
congregated in the parking lot;

I stand in line for tickets, for bottled water.
Near the reconstructed Meeting House,

boys punch one another: sharp, feral
jabs after hours in a minivan.

Like other pilgrims before us here, we mark
our passage on this land, rutting the hills

with the wheels of our SUVs, commingling
ancient with modern, pretzel wrappers, earbuds,

bug spray with the eternal question, why,
as if answers might lie in the trees, the stones.

iii.

Trees and stones: campsites, split rail fences,
country lanes. Age-old armies spring up,

arrayed along the ridges, clustered among
the fields. Ghosts abandon their bivouacs

to jostle among us, here and not here,
past blending into present, it’s almost

effortless. Sudden chirp of a cell phone:
electronic shiver rippling the grass.

Without even thinking, I answer from
a sunken trench, connecting to a woman

states, time zones, whole centuries away.
Just casually, in passing, she asks about

a man she doesn’t know was once my lover,
doesn’t know blindsided, mesmerized me.

iv.

Who doesn’t desire to be mesmerized by love?
Last night beneath small-town streetlights, I watched

girls in strappy sleeves, strappy sandals,
strappy thongs trail their ponytails as they

sashayed past. Tanning bed to marriage bed:
soon they’ll root, swell, grow bulbous with life.

Their lovewords linger on the breath of beebalm;
I feel my own drawl flex, bend, purr-

once more I’m Madonna of the Magnolias,
Dewey Dell Bundren, Lena Grove hitching

one last ride. Once more he calls me whore.
Remnants of his madness tattoo my skin,

ripen, swell, turn yellow-pink, and linger;
once more I fear the shadow of his hand.

v.

All my life’s been lived in shadow, pattern
pieced by someone else: daughter, mother,

lover. Whore. Back home, in the house of slow
and patient death, my mother waits for me

to chat companionably about carpet moths,
Ollie and Janet adopting a dog,

the kitchen fire that flared three houses down.
There’s laundry in the dryer, dirty cups

beside the sink. Slouching down the hall
in his baseball gear, my nearly-teenaged son

deftly sidesteps questions he seems to lack
the words to ask: why his mother layers

scarves around her neck, trails broken-winged
across the bleachers, sobs the whole way home.

vi.

Across the Tennessee from Pittsburg Landing,
a man squats on a strip of sand baiting

fishhooks for his daughters. Cicadas whir.
Lizards scamper across the wagon trace,

carve a path uphill from the Hornet’s Nest.
Raising an umbrella against the sun,

I pretend I’m an overripe Southern belle
who’s driven out to see the spectacle

with a picnic basket and a lady’s maid
for propriety. I watch the shades of boys

unformed, inarticulate as my own son
colliding on this accidental field:

bullets fly through the Peach Orchard, dropping
snow-white petals on the dead, the dying.

vii.

So many battles are accidental. Love,
my son, when it finally comes — unlooked-for,

savage, bursting riotous into bloom,
stunning us while we lie dreaming — love’s

the only thing worth fighting for. Its absence
is the wound in the heart, slit in the skin

of the universe through which we fall and, falling,
are lost. What we mean when we say evil:

hammer-cocked, breath-holding moment in
the young and unstained orchard. Iron fingers

tightening around a rifle stock,
tightening around a woman’s throat.

Sudden spatter of gravel as a car
skedaddles down the petal-flecked road.

************

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