After the Civil War
We are layered beings, you and I. Starting from a place that may have no beginning, built from existences spanning who really knows how long. Ending in a place we hope will be heaven.
I do not like war, but I do understand it. Some of my grandfathers say war within our race will always exist. I disagree with my grandfathers; I think the wars can end because they must.
This is a tale of the relationship between my brother and I. There was something we did to each other in the Civil War that neither of us was very proud of. It’s a story of something that arose from deep within our minds, destroying almost everything our parents wanted for us. It is something that can never happen again.
August 5th, 1866
Jeb was the first born of the two children. He was proud of the day his mother and father introduced him to his baby brother Thomas for the first time. But over time, Jeb grew jealous of the attention Thomas received.
He was two years older than his brother and swore Thomas was always laughing at him behind his back. Jeb had no ill intentions at that young age of ever bringing harm to Thomas, at least not with any conscious intent. His subconscious, however, was always working overtime on his thoughts about such things. Every time his mother or father would order him to do this or that for Thomas, Jeb found it a struggle.
"Yes, but you’re older, Jeb, you have to look out for Thomas," Mother would always remind him.
Jeb would go outside, if he wasn't already, kick a rock or two around, maybe pick up a stick and whack it on a tree a few times. But he always made sure no one was looking. It had only taken one good lickin' from his father for him to recognize one didn't complain about one's youngest brother in front of his mother.
One day, down by the creek Jeb and Thomas were fishing. Jeb was about ten years old now, Thomas eight.
"Jeb," says Thomas, "how come you don't like me so much?"
"Cause' your always gettin' in my business, Thomas. You’re like a dog beggin' for scraps. You throw em' a bone and he wants the whole cow."
"You keep it up, Jeb, and one of these days I'm gonna get big enough to knock your head off with this here fist!" Thomas exclaimed, rolling his hand into a fist and trying to get large knuckles to show through.
"You and whose army?" Jeb laughed.
Just then Thomas walked over to Jeb, reared back and walloped Jeb right on the back of his head, and thus the war began.
This fight took place on the dusty bank of the creek, beneath the shade of massive pecan trees, and subsided after a time with both of them crawling out of the mud and water.
"You wait ‘til I tell Mom," Thomas cried.
"Well, you be sure and tell her who walloped who first, Thomas."
But it really didn't matter. Jeb knew he would be the one to get in trouble.
Night came and went, days passed by and in a few years they were fishing again, beside the same creek.
"You remember that day I walloped you on the back of the head, Jeb?"
"You remember that beatin' you took after you walloped me, Thomas?"
"You remember that spankin' you got after I told Mom."
"I do," Jeb replied.
They both laughed.
"Jeb, what say you and I make a pact just between us to never let that happen again. Don't nobody have to know but you and I."
Jeb thought for a minute, his eyes looked at the water in the creek down past his fishing pole. He squinted as the sun reflected off its surface. Then he heard Thomas spit and he turned to see Thomas' hand extended.
This wasn't an easy decision for Jeb. Hiding behind that face that appeared so innocent before him was the same brother who had told Mom about every little infraction that had ever taken place between them. But there was still something there, some kind of link between them that he didn't pretend to understand.
"Okay, Thomas." Jeb replied spitting in his own hand and shaking Thomas' hand. "But just this one time will I make this promise to you. Ever you go back on this promise, Thomas, and I will never forgive you for it. You understand me?"
"I understand." Thomas replied.
So it was that they didn’t fight again; until the Civil War
Jeb should have already been sent home. He had lost an eye in one battle with Union soldiers, but the war was drawing to a close and the Confederacy needed men. In this current battle against Union soldiers, the conflict had escalated into a hand-to-hand scuffle.
Jeb could see one Union soldier coming right at him. They exchanged fire at the same time. Jeb felt more than a sting as the “minnie” ball ripped through the outside of his thigh, missing the bone. His own shot also went wide of its mark, glancing off the skin of the right arm of the Union soldier running right at him. Bayonets clashed.
Despite the confusion, for the briefest of seconds the two soldiers recognized each other. But the madness overruled.
“Damn you, Jeb!” Thomas hollered trying to fend off Jeb, but Jeb didn’t listen. All the years of jealousy building up inside exploded.
When the fighting was over, they had beaten each other to a pulp. Thomas lay in the dirt whimpering just like when they were kids, holding his hands to his face. Jeb struggled to stand. He stared down through his one good eye at an eye he now held in his hand. Jeb had dug the eye from the now bleeding socket on his brother’s face at some point toward the end of the struggle.
Jeb threw the eye into the dirt, picked up Thomas in his arms, and started carrying him to the surgeon. All around them were men who realized what was going on in this war, in their war. Two brothers fighting on opposite sides from the same family; it didn’t seem right. One color uniform now carrying the other left the men shaking their heads and laying down their arms and taking off their hats.
"We have to stop this, Jeb,” Thomas managed to say. “We have to stop this war."
Jeb fell to his knees still holding Thomas tight.
"I’m so sorry, Brother,” tears were rolling down from Jeb’s good eye as he placed Thomas on the ground.
"Do you remember, Jeb? Down by that creek where we swore. We swore this would never happen again."
"I remember, Thomas. I remember everything now."
"Why did it happen, Jeb?" Thomas whimpered. "Why did we forget our promise to one another? I don't understand what happened between us. What turns brothers against one another? What turns a whole country inside out? Who split our family into so many pieces? Was it the Devil, Jeb?"
"There is no devil, Thomas. We did this, all of us did this to each other."
The Early 1900s
I often wonder if any of us are to be measured by what we become in the best and worst moments of our lives. I watch our grown children together now, Thomas' boy and my boy. They asked over and over how it was that each of us is missing an eye. Sometimes we told ‘em with a laugh we were born that way. Inside we told ourselves they really don’t want to know. Often I asked myself if perhaps I was too much a coward to tell them. We wanted them to grow up in a world that didn’t have to experience what Thomas and I did. We wanted them to grow up with the notion that their fathers are more than their mistakes.
Eventually, the boys did find out. A story like ours tends to get around. Some people come by to hear the tale from time to time; others write letters of their own indignations. Several asked me how we learned to prevent what happened to us from happening in our own children. Layers, I told them. Wrap them in love just like you would protect yourself from the cold; layer, upon layer, upon layer, upon layer.
June 26th, 1908