Durham, North Carolina. Staying in front of the weather, driving the interstate through country the memory of which I used a couple of novels ago. Civil War central. As often as not the names on the exit signs are the names of famous battlefields—Manassas, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania—all once quite ordinary places transformed by the blood and gore of young men into historic landmarks. Now, through many of these suburbs the multi-lane highways are enclosed between high walls, streaming human aqueducts, cut off from everything besides their destination.
From Some People Talk with God (#2 of the Dominick Chronicles):
There wasn’t much to Fort Ward. It was billed as the best preserved Civil War era fortification for the defense of the capital across the river, but time had dissolved its significance. A half dozen painted black field pieces pointed out over a citadel-pointed earthen embankment. It was a park now. Gay couples walked apartment-appropriate dogs. Everything had to be kept on a leash. Fort Ward had never had to face an enemy. Now it looked to be defending itself against the interstate just to the north and the Catholic middle school campus off to the west. The screams of a girls’ soccer game blended with the freeway traffic growl through the spring-bare trees. The most symbolic thing about the place was the way the mouths of all the cannons had been sealed shut with cemented-in cannon balls. Of course that was only to keep them from filling up with trash, like the little bags of poodle shit that the leashed humans carried.
Dominick had never been here before. He had only recently discovered his interest in old battle fields and abandoned forts. One of the fine things about such places was that he usually had them pretty much to himself. This was true of Fort Ward on a Saturday morning. There was always a silence in these places that was different than other silences, as if even the birds kept their mouths shut out of respect or fear or shame, as if the place had a memory. In 1861, after the disaster of First Manassas, there had been just sketchy emplacements like this one to halt a Confederate drive on Washington. What if the war had started and ended that way with a first move checkmate by the rebels?
Dominick had brought his camera, but there really was nothing to photograph. He was glad for that. The mood he was in, any photos would have come out bad anyway; and the weather had changed, a low front rolling in and blocking the sun. He debated driving out to Manassas, less than an hour away. But what was the point if it was going to rain? He did not want to return to the feminine den of his mother’s house, that occupied territory. Alexandria had been the longest occupied city in the civil conflict, seized and held by Federal troops from the beginning to the end of the long war, the War of Northern Aggression. By the end of the war half of the city’s population would be freed black slaves. “Contraband” they were called, as if giving them a made-up name would somehow disguise them as just property.
What Dominick liked about the past was that you could move around in it, take your time, linger and ponder, even go back to look at things again with second thoughts. Not like the present where you were always being hurried along lock-step, caught in some involuntary race to keep apace, or the future, populated with the ghosts of what-might-become. You could live in 1861 as long as you chose to. He wanted a camera that could take pictures of the past, sepia-toned photographs of men in rumbled clothes leading wasted horses through a blasted treeless landscape. A siren passed on the interstate, whooping like some android Indian. Or was it a digitalized rebel yell? The past was also soundless. He couldn’t remember the sound of his mother’s voice. No one ever spoke in his dreams. Only the present came with a soundtrack. He wondered about deaf peoples’ sense of time without that parameter.
“Hey, you, come down from there. You can’t walk up there.” A black man in some sort of uniform was yelling at him.
Dominick had hiked up to the top of the fortification’s earthen embankment, trying to imagine vanished geography.
“That there is one hundred and fifty years old. You can’t walk up there.”
“I am descending,” Dominick said, then he snapped a photo of the man. A combatant, he thought. Contrabands had built most of these places. It began to rain, big random drops the color and size of bullets.
We race for Richmond and beyond. Our speed locked in by those around us. For the hyper there are express lanes. Twenty cars pass us for every semi we leave behind. But the country opens up into America, and the poetry begins to creep in through place names—Scratch Kettle, Red Toad Road, Powhite Parkway. Sometimes names on the land are all that is left to awaken us from time’s coma, the present.