Hello, friends and family, readers and writers. Here in the States, it is officially Presidents’ Day, a date crafted to celebrate some of our most-respected leaders of the past two-hundred odd years, namely George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born in February.
Having looked back at a 4th-grade social studies paper of mine, I’ve been thinking about history a bit lately, and how it, too, is subject to the interpreter’s perspective. As an armchair historian (probably not the best terminology; perhaps a history aficionado is better), I pose to you a few questions: can we ever intellectually believe, fully, any account of a past event or leaders, especially those events and personages long-since gone or are we doomed to view it through some lens of subjectivity? Of course, some historical accounts are much more trustworthy than others. What do you think–can one write nonfiction that is wholly noneuphemistic? As fiction-writers, what debt do we owe to historical accuracy? For myself, when I write about a historical person or event, I make every attempt to be accurate and hew to the evidence base, but the rub is knowing when to break the rules and writing conventions. For instance, I picked up Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over the weekend; I’ve been reading the opening pages of a lot of novels lately to get a sense of what great literature does to hook the reader by the mouth or other appendage. Obviously this work is an alternate history, a “what-if” writ large. But it is peppered with enough details that we are familiar with, I think, to draw us into an uncharacteristic story that at least bends the rules.
So, this round-about discussion is a way to introduce a short(ish) historical fiction piece that I’ve been writing over the last year-and-a-half or so. I have purposefully kept the president’s identity vague, but those history buffs and professionals among you will likely guess it straightaway, if not from the portrait, then from the text.
Please let me know what you think about this or other writerly issues. And thanks for reading!
An Uncommon Solace
©Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014
The wan, gaunt figure who folded out long legs and arched over the scientific paper and magnet–laden desk in my small office seemed little like the portraits or newspaper accounts—or Washington gossip, for that matter.
“Doctor Henry, my wife . . . she sees things at night, in our bedroom. Things which I do not.”
“Is that so, Mr. President. Would you kindly elaborate?”
“She sees our dear lost son, she says, standing at the foot of the bed, smiling sweetly at her. It gives her solace, so I am not much inclined to divest her of that comfort. She does get so vexed, thinking he’ll be all alone in ‘the immensity,’ she calls it, without her motherly hand to guide him.”
“How long has this . . . apparition been manifesting to her?”
“Now that July has almost dawned, it is drawing nigh a year and a half, Henry.”
“And how is it that I might be of service to you and your grieving family with this troubling matter?”
“She has a sitting planned for tomorrow evening, in the White House. Now that we have had the chance to speak and you know my skepticism on the matter, I was hoping that you might offer your expertise for tomorrow. That is, that you might attend as an observer. As my science advisor, you have that right, if I request it.”
“I would be most pleased to be of help, Mr. President. As you’ve related to me, you know something of the observations of Lodge regarding electromagnetic waves. I myself am disinclined to believe in spiritualism.”
“All I am conscious of at this trying time is my poor power to bring succor to Mary for our son. When I was younger, she used to put each infant in a wagon and I would walk with him until it was time to take leave for my office. ‘Pretty business for a lawyer’ one neighbor called to me. What I would not give to have that sweet commerce of him perching upon my knee now, amid this terrible war. Oh, the burden! My dear Will is gone. Gone, gone, gone!”
He choked back emotion, such that I saw his racked chest heaving, before beginning anew. “Would that I had been around more for all the boys.”
This man, our leader, had seen our Republic through the best of times and the worst, and, so, it was all I could do to offer some comfort in my own small fashion.
“Mr. President, you mustn’t blame yourself. You have had three difficult roles—husband and then father to your sons and to the nation. I shall be ever grateful to assist you with this pressing issue.”
That woman! The thought of her fears flummoxed the president on the carriage ride back to the White House. Her bull-headedness shall uncouple me yet. His eyes drifted to the teeming streets, where a watermelon-seller hawked his wares, flinging shouts from a rickety cart like waste from a chamber pot into the Potomac.
As he watched the tableau, his mind fell in step with the rhythm of the horses’ hooves meshing with the wheels’ dusty symphony. The sounds floated another raft of memories forward. He didn’t know he’d closed his eyes, but he was already traveling. He reflected back on the bold men in Poughkeepsie yelling, “Where’s the Missus?” They did not yet know her as Mary or as Mrs. President, for it was the president-elect’s inaugural train ride. He made another stop at a now long-gone trainside speech in Ashtabula. To the throngs gathered to set eyes upon him and the entire family, clamoring for Mary to make an appearance, he’d talked about her stubbornness. I’ve always found it very difficult to make her do what she did not want to, he’d said.
He was alone, and so he laughed aloud—an uncustomary joy, of late, in these sticky summer weeks.
Before his mind turned to practical matters, he lamented all that he’d put her and the boys through. The anonymous letters addressed to her, marred with macabre skulls and crossbones and promising her husband’s assassination. Even 7-year-old Tad, dear boy, had received a repulsive black-faced doll, which was meant for his father, at the post office.
Reviewing weather reports with Stanton was on the slate for later that evening, but the president could not turn the force of his intellect away from the idea that a different kind of storm was bruising the clouds above . . . ready to not only burst forth upon the country, but to besiege his own domestic environs. For Mary abhorred storms.
After making arrangements for the next evening, I sat down with a stack of papers that young Mr. Thomas had gingerly brought in. I think the boy was petrified of me. “Yes, Doctor Henry,” was the most that usually issued from his lips. His eyes were perpetually downcast as he bowed and slunk back out of my office here in the Castle.
I eagerly surveyed the volunteers’ monthly reports of weather observations, including chartings of daily wind conditions, precipitation, and temperature, as well as their predictions for the first week of July. I paid particular notice to the data from Pennsylvania, in hopes that this information would prove valuable evidence to the president on how to proceed in the future.
As I came into the bedroom that late afternoon carrying correspondence to be read and a trail of woes besides, she beckoned me near at once. I thought she meant to scold me, but for a moment the jovial Mary returned. She had me stoop so she could smooth an errant shock of hair, blanched though it was becoming around the ears.
But instead of kissing me in the sensual way only she could, after she’d made her adjustments to my physiognomy, she began in again about her premonitions.
She seldom hesitated, in private, to remind me of her childhood prediction that had come to fruition, or her ominous predictions, delivered oftimes from the land of nodding-off.
“Mary, darling, what would you have me say? I loved . . . him as much as you, even with all your motherly love.” I allowed my voice to break here, in our inner sanctum.
The woman’s blue eyes fell at the mention of the child in the past tense. Does he not still love our handsome lost son?
Recollections crowded into the man’s mind, like the throngs that cheered him along the trestles. “Do you remember the time he and Tad went to the candy-pull? They were covered from head to toe with molasses candy! I’ll never forget it!” The president made a motion to slap his knee convivially, but halted.
The redhead pursed her lips. “You were there that night Willie came back to us. I would have you say that you saw him, too. That you believe. Perhaps Madame Mina can help you to see that–”
“I have expressed my view on that charlatan Madame Mina! Doctor Henry will attend . . . ”
“My husband! This is not about trifling science or one of my sittings! This is a matter of the heart, a concern of the soul. Did you not see our dear Willie? Can you not believe that something, anything is utterly beyond your apprehension in this world?”
I had not seen the child–our beloved missed son!–at our bedpost.
“My dear, your heart is full, and I dare not dispute you. Your love well hallows his memory. That is all I need see. As long as I have my memories—our memories—he shall never perish from this earth. Please trust in what I say, that it is the truth.”
I waited, though the sound of rain as it drilled drops into our window made me rush forth again.
“Now, let us retire a bit early, my dear.” I implored, showing my lawyer’s skill in swaying. “This storm that seems to be at our window may be a portent of the coming evening. Shall we call off the gathering? Madame Mina can wait one more day, can she not?”
I embraced her with all the fervor I still possessed. It had been a tumultuous year so far, and July promised no better.
I could not conceal my joy when she consented to return the embrace, and we stood entwined despite the lightning struggling with the shadows, or perhaps because of it. I imagined not a grotesque chiaroscuro in the nearby garden as the statuary seemed to move in the light-not-light, but a flaring of human effort and knowledge, of the seeping of our countrymen’s blood rendered somehow both beautiful and preternatural, all united in the crucible of strife. I warred with myself, as I often did these days: Were these men, and their wives and women-folk as well, too good for this earth, just as our dear, departed Willie . . . and what right had I to call for such sacrifice?
As the light ricocheted unpredictably around our bedchamber, I remembered how our darling Will, usually given to darting about with his bosom buddy and brother, Tad, had hidden, under Mary’s skirts, perplexed at the teeming crowd that beckoned him from trainside. In that instant, I almost felt I saw a change in the shape of the light next to my desk as it took on a strange, yet familiar, form.
Perhaps there are some merits to Mary’s sublime imaginings after all. What she sees as . . . . spirits, I suppose you might say . . . who can know what to call them, they of the strange land and tongueless head that none but the most attuned can hear?
That she consented to call off the séance and instead stay with me that evening attested that the foundation of our marriage-bond remained steadfast. As for everything else, I would only have to wait, hoping that the earthly unity of cheer and good-will would someday return to our bereaved house and the nation.
I am indebted to the following as I undertook research on this brief piece:
- The Smithsonian magazine, on Lincoln’s whistle-stop journey to Washington
- Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean Harvey Baker
- Mr. Lincoln’s White House (Web site), on notable visitors such as Joseph Henry
- Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Joseph Henry Papers
- The Abraham Lincoln blog, on the inaugural train trip
- Smithsonian Institution Archives, on Joseph Henry’s background in meteorology
- Abraham Lincoln Online, on the death of Willie Lincoln