Contraband

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Contraband

by Eric Janken
Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 2: Summer 2016

I could not bring myself to warn Joe, doing so would cause his legs to give out, his heart collapse: you told me every life is sacred.

Army of the Cumberland
February 5, 1862, cold and snowing

Dear Father,
More pitiful than packs of feral cats
the horde staggered into camp,
their black faces smothered in clay,
arthritic fingers mangled with dirt,
echoes of tobacco juice still embedded
in their palms. A few naked children skipping
ahead of their pregnant mothers.
Old men, about thirty, supported by their sons.
These indigent creatures are a different breed
than Frederick Douglass,
the shame he would have over this sight.

One man I’ve christened Joe
stumbled by my fire using a splintered
space as a crutch, the metal shedding red snow,
the blade duller than his sweaty forehead.
He says he wants to dig breastworks.
(I have not determined
if his slow speech is due to the mountainous
scar across his brow, each gnarled peak
birthed by blows of weighted hemp ropes
or by a simple lack of intelligence.)

I cracked Joe a piece of tack.
When he groaned at the sight of the saltpork
I let him snatch a slab, watched his swollen gums
fight the tough meat, all the while knowing
Colonel Phillips will command B Company
to return to the property its rightful owners.They will be marched in pairs,
guarded by two peachfuzz privates
as they ford familiar rivers,
drag stubborn feet across frozen mud
back to the arms of native fields.
Phillips will order the six women,
twelve children and innumerable men
not to go in chains.
“We do not have iron to spare,
those are for deserters.”

I could not bring myself to warn Joe,
doing so would cause his legs to give out,
his heart to collapse: you told me every life is sacred.
I could not bring myself to tell him my first name,
“Address your superior as Lieutenant King,”
for I heard idle chatter among the blacks
the name used to address him was
Thomas.