:: Article

Fat of the Land

By David Peak.


One-hundred and fifty years ago, a famous battle from a great war spilled blood on the fields behind my family’s home. Now, these long summer days, we chase away men wearing dark baseball caps and bulky headphones, metal detectors swaying wildly at their sides. Other days we crack off pistol-fire into the air and watch as they retreat to their little cars, great clouds of dust dispersing over the roads as they tear back to town.

These men are searching for relics—unexploded and wood-wicked cannonballs, faded brass buttons, bullets the size of a human thumb, the rare stand of grape—because they want to hold a piece of history in their hands; they want to feel the weight of it, experience a touch of long-imagined glory.

Not long ago, I stumbled into a chance meeting on my property near the crooked black locust tree. It was early morning, the crepuscular hours of rabbits. Burdock, our wizened Irish-mix lurcher, smelled him first and I simply followed his lead. The grey-faced dog’s gnashed teeth and the sudden sight of my shoulder-strapped .22 must have spooked him something bad, the barrel of his snub-nose a quaking black hole in my vision. I averted my gaze, a glimpse of the trowel near his feet, the immaculate cuff of his khaki pants hastily bunched around the black-leather ankle holster, and told him to go, that he was on private property. As soon as his back was turned, his running steps receding, I grabbed hold of the dog’s collar, commanding him to quiet. The only thing more unforgivable than raising the barrel of a gun to another man is doing so in vain.

Days later came the anniversary of bloodshed, the day tradition dictates we lay wreathes around our town’s single and modest monument: a thin slab of limestone depicting two rifles, their barrels crossed, and below them, in pounded Roman numerals, the year of the battle. The passing seasons have stripped the stone of any relief and from a distance it almost looks curdled.

It was there we gathered, my friends and neighbors, to pay homage. A familiar-faced reporter stood before a camera. The gas lamps glowed amber in the early evening shade.

Two women, each dressed in memorial black, sat in small black folding chairs before the monument. The one with the cello wore her hair long, over her shoulders, the other, with the violin, had hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. Together they swept into long-fingered music of immense skill and communion. The notes unfolded slowly at first, languidly, then picked up. It seemed that as soon as I had a handle on the shape of the music, it further escaped me, altering itself into some new blank memory. The violinist plucked strings as the cellist bowed impossibly labyrinthine scales. It lasted all of five or six interminable minutes, and in that time I must have drawn as many breaths.

As the years goes by, the relics stripped from our lands will only increase in value, their very rarity accelerating their endangerment.

Many of our dead were lifted from these fields on canvas stretchers, piled high in rank horse-drawn wagons. Many of them had been left unburied for days, no more than dusted with a shovel-full of dirt to hide away the sun. All of those silver and pristine photos in history books show battlefields stitched with tight lines of compact white crosses, as neat as cornstalks, stretching endless and perfect. But those books aren’t taught in our schools, not to our children, no. Children—children need to know their roots.

David Peak is the author of The River Through the Trees, Glowing in the Dark, and Surface Tension. His fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism have been published widely in print and on the web.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 20th, 2013.