Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When They Put Thomas Smith's Body in the Ground

Washington, DC
May 29, 1838

The wind was coming from over the sea when they put Thomas Smith's body in the ground. The waters of Washington Bay were stirring, and banks of fog came off the Atlantic, rank upon rank. The carriage came up, drawn by two horses, one with a rider, one without, and stopped by the gravesite in the midst of the National Cemetery. Thomas's mother, Liberty, stood there cold and thin and pale as the dead; she gripped her husband's hand with such fierce strength that her fingers were pressed bloodless. Thomas's father, Daniel, was a large man, and usually a happy one; but his face was drawn and his hands were limp, and he seemed stricken and confused. Thomas's younger sisters, Courage and Unity, both in their early twenties and still unmarried, held hands and watched the casket with no expression, occasionally glancing towards their older sister, Freedom. Freedom only watched the casket.

Behind them were the rest of Thomas's kin -- specifically his uncle, George Pledger, and his wife and children and their families. They stood silently. They did not know Thomas well, so their sadness was more distant. George had seen a lot of danger and death in his own military service, and was most concerned for his sister Liberty; he had never seen her this way before.

The chaplain and various officers exchanged salutes, and the flag-draped casket was lifted off the carriage and brought to the grave. The flag was adjusted and straightened. The chaplain spoke.

"In the Bible," he said, "God is often called the Lord of Hosts. Today we are gathered to return to God one of his soldiers..."

All during his talk, Daniel listened, and took what comfort he could from the well-worn words. Liberty's gaze flickered back and forth between the chaplain and the open grave. Freedom stared only at the casket.

"God gives the strength of soldiers to few men," said the chaplain. "They so love their home, that they travel far away to fight for her. They so love freedom, that they give up themselves to servitude so that others might be free. They so love self-sufficiency and self-worth, that they give up themselves to their nation. They so love life, that they ready themselves to die. God gives such strength to few men. Thomas Smith was one of those."

At last Freedom's eyes left the casket and looked around, as if she were awakening from a dream. Her younger sisters looked at her in surprise, but she didn't notice them.

"Jesus holds soldiers dear to him. Did he not tell the Roman centurion, 'I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel'?"

Meanwhile George's son, Zeb, ran his finger around his collar. He was uncomfortable. He did not know Thomas particularly well, and could not imagine a military life for himself; and he knew that Thomas had died during the military's removal of the Yakut Indians -- one of the Civilized Tribes! It was an atrocity. Not that Thomas deserved to die, of course...

He shuffled his feet and looked at his wife Abigail, who appeared to be staring at her hands, listening intently. He knew she had been hesitant about coming to this funeral, since she had never even met Thomas, and while Thomas's family had always been polite to her, she was unsure of their true feelings, since she was half-black. But Zeb had insisted -- they lived so nearby, it would be rude not to come.

Zeb risked a glance at Abigail's mother Placid. She was a tiny woman, dressed in black with white lace, buttoned up and taut, her black shiny skin gleaming in the gray light, her eyes laid piercingly on the chaplain. Technically Zeb owned Placid, but that was just until he could get the paperwork of her release finished. In reality no one had ever owned Placid, except possibly Jesus.

Zeb's sister, Purity Dare, had her head on the shoulder of her husband John, her eyes closed, her hands folded. She was pregnant again, and far along this time; perhaps she would bring a baby to term at last. John Dare was staring out to sea.

"But this is not his true body. As Paul said, ye know that if our earthly housing, this tabernacle, were dissolved, we still have a building of God -- a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

Freedom now looked restless and excited, as if she'd had some tremendous idea that could barely be contained. For a moment she seemed as if she was ready to dash off at that moment, but then settled herself quietly again. She looked back at the casket, but she was smiling now.

"Lord," said the chaplain, giving his closing prayer, "we seek Your strength in the coming days as we come to accept the loss of Thomas Smith. We know You will walk with us. We obey You though we do not understand Your timing or purpose. We thank you for the privilege of Thomas's brief time on Earth, and we thank You for the promise of life eternal through Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus, in Whose Name we pray, Amen."

The chaplain stepped back. The honor guard fired its gun salute. Arms were presented, and the rifle volley given. The bugler played as the flag was removed from the casket, lovingly folded, and handed to the chaplain, who handed it out toward Liberty. Liberty released her death-grip on Daniel's hand and took the flag with tremendous tenderness. Daniel cried silently, but Liberty did not.

Silently the family walked down the hill towards their waiting carriages, each with their own thoughts. As they reached them, the smell and sweat and sound of the horses, and the light talk between the carriage drivers, and the sun breaking through the fog, broke the spell of the funeral, and they began to speak of tea and family gatherings and what a good ceremony it was. Even Liberty smiled when John Dare offered to help her into the carriage, though she clasped the folded flag to her chest like a child. And Freedom turned to her sisters and said, "I have had a fantastic idea. Listen. We are going to have the most amazing adventures."

No comments:

Post a Comment