How you scalp someone is like this. Cut a small round down to the bone beneath the hair on top of the head, near the front. Put your foot on the back of the person to be scalped, pull the hair at the edge of the hole. The whole skin comes free easy enough, easier than skinning a deer.
Jamesie my son you once asked me how and I refused to say at that time but I do not see why I should keep it from you any longer, now you are dead. If you are listening. But perhaps you cannot hear me, perhaps you do not wish to.
In the bad times in the Yadkin Valley, we found two children with scabbed patches of bone on the tops of their heads, left to sicken or starve after their parents and houses were burned and their hair was taken. Some can survive it. I saw a man done at the Monongahela River. He did not survive I believe, but I do not know.
Some other children were taken captive. I do not forget that. So many people shifting about, bought and sold and traded, this country is full of their tracks.
I have wondered, too, about the sound of the skin surrendering itself up and how the head left behind must feel. I have seen the hair dangling from the dried skins stretched on hoops in Indian villages. And black Indian hair turned in by English scalpers for Governor’s money.
No scalps here where I now am. None that I have seen. It is a quiet place at this time. The snow makes things quiet and still.
I could do it if I had to, as I know. For a time I would have done it hour after hour and day after day had I only had the opportunity. The slave Adam told of the terrible things he heard despite having stuffed his fingers down his ears. I did the same at night for months.
James asking for help. For Daddy. For death.
I can hear it now, his poor voice thickened and without words at the last. The echo of it spreading out across the night country, shivering like wind over water or over the grasses of Kentucky. For ever. The father, which is to say I, only two miles away, did not hear it then.
My brother Squire told me the bodies were left in garbled ruins but not scalped. They do not take white scalps in peacetime.
I force my breath into a rough laugh. I chop at a tree. Pale chips fly back at me. I let them blind and choke me. Someone speaks to me in a friendly way but I am tired to the bone and I do not understand or wish to. I am not alive.
For a time, I used to try to picture the murderer’s face but it has fallen away like a mask, leaving behind black nothing. I used to ask him in my mind what point there is in killing boys for sport, without a fair fight. What point there is in killing a boy you know to speak to, but a boy you know nothing of otherwise. Aside from the fact that he did not like to smoke. And that he was my boy.
I now let bears get too near before I shoot. I let deer get too far away.
If I were really to see the face, what is there that I might do? I have thought of every burning and ripping and carving up there can be. There is nothing else. I can think of nothing. I can think of him no more. And Jamesie is hidden also. I cannot see him. I did not see him dead, I did not go back for him with the burying party. I did not wish my brother Squire to tell me anything about his body. I see my boy’s fair hair against the earth but not his face.
I will not think of the murderer’s name, I will carve it out from my brains. And I will not think of you Jamesie, I cannot allow myself to speak to you now. You are gone, and the fault is mine and I am not alive but not with you. I do not know where you are. I do not know the time you died. I cannot write it in Granddaddy’s record and my heart breaks and breaks for it. Every minute, my heart is dying but it does not stop though I tell it to. I do not know how it can go on.
In Kentucky the first time, my friend William Hill once promised he would come back from the dead and speak to me. Well, he is still alive so far as I know. He sends no signs regardless. When Hill prodded him later, Squire said he would send me a sign if he went first. But there is nothing from him either. And nothing in this place from Jamesie. No. I will not let myself think any more of my boy, now dead through my fault.
A few of these people gather and watch me chopping. They think I am showing off my strength, they murmur approval or laugh. I chop in my boy’s straight rhythm, clang, clang, clang, I cover his crying voice, I try to make my hands into his. It comes to me in my sister Hannah’s soft words that he is like Christ, exalted by the suffering, sent straight to Heaven like a shot from a gun. So far away that I cannot hear him now, and he has no need to hear me.
But this is little comfort. There is none. I believe in the human agony on the Cross. I have seen what people will do to one another. And I believe in the story of God being unable to help his son and therefore not being much of a god at all.
I will say that after the attack I wanted to go on with our journey. My companion Russell turned back straight away, his son dead also, his face fallen in and his neck shrunk into his shoulders. The Mendinalls went, having lost two boys as well. So did half of the others. The rest I dragged on for a day as though Kentucky would blot out everything and rewrite it all beautifully. Terrified and half-starved people will go anywhere looking for someone to follow. Then I dared to look my wife, Rebecca, in the face. It was a terrible face, a painted wall holding itself up. She did not look at me once after she handed me a sheet to send back for Squire and the others to bury him in.
Nobody spoke. We turned back. The women huddled the children together and covered the babies’ mouths. Beside Rebecca, her sister Martha stared the way she has always stared at me, she stared a hole into my back. My brothers Squire and Ned and my remaining boys walked the cattle and hogs with their guns ready. I pushed ahead of everyone. Snow began.
And back in Virginia, I was dead. I worked the fields again, dead. When a company agent came asking me to lead a road building party into the wilderness, into Kentucky, I said I would. On my dead legs, I dragged the family out again behind me with all the rest of my dead followers. I told Rebecca we were going, we would not be stopped, we would not give in. I told her Jamesie would wish it. The words had a sour taste.
She said, How can you use him for what you want? How can you?
She did not speak to me again through the journey. But I had no wish to speak.
Others came, some of the first party who had sold up and had nothing left here, or who thought the adventure of it worth the while. I rode in front. I axed and hacked at the brush and the trees. We all did, a great broad road we built, we let the rest of the world in. My country was already a ruin and so why not? Kentucky is salty with the dead, the salt is old blood seeped out into the ground. The beautiful grass all growing out of blood and bones. I found the place for a fort near the Kentucky River. A great, spreading elm in the centre of a meadow. This will be it, I said. This, here.
No one questioned me. We set about building, and my old friend Hill appeared again. He had taken it upon himself to write to the newspapers in Virginia about our murdered boys. These took up the story. He was breathless with tales of some there who took it upon themselves to avenge us. A Cherokee woman, sister of a chief, axed through the belly, her unborn child dragged out and left planted upon a stake. The rest of the party killed, too, and strewn about in pieces. Hill set his grey eyes on me like guard dogs. He had hoped to find a certain one to kill himself, he said gently. He gave me a newspaper to keep. It was thin and soft in my hands, worn like a skin. I could not think. I cannot still.
This was many months ago.
Here where i am now, a prisoner of the Shawnee, there are shooting contests. There are fights. They provoke me gently to fight, they take my arm and offer me fights as if they are healthful remedies. I do it but I dislike it. I do not trust my excitement or my pulse. I do not like the feel of my body trying to act as if it is alive. I fight a thickset man with thick arms, we near kill each other, but we catch each other’s eyes in the midst of grappling and both see that it is a stupid false thing to be doing, though we do not stop until I let him push me down into the snow and that is that. I feel myself to be drunk all of the time, though there is no drink.
My hands are tired now from my mad tree chopping. They ache and keep me awake tonight. The lodge is covered with sheets of elm bark and flecks of moonlight get in all speckled. It is like living under a hen. They do not watch me so close anymore. I would prefer to keep outside but they do tie me in at night.
The woman sighs and turns. The little girls rustle constantly. The man is a silent sleeper. He has the look of a grave, a mound covered to the forehead with a blanket. But many things make me think of graves.
I try instead to think of home, which is meant to be a comfort to the desolate.
Home? Ah Martha, now I see what you meant when you spoke of home as nothing but a tale. Home now is a makeshift, half-built, lazy fort. It bears my name: Boonesborough. Thinking of it twists my gut. The raw splintery stockade unfinished, the place wide open. The well no deeper than a leg, step into it and break your own. Someone called it the ha-ha and the poor joke has stuck, just as the well is stuck at that shallow depth. The fort is a heartless place. It half-encloses the huge beautiful elm and for nothing. It makes me sick. Well, perhaps they have fixed things by now but likely not. Who is there to fix it?
Well. My wife is there. And Martha. I think of her big swallowing eyes. I think of being above her nervous pale body at the edge of a new small field outside the fort wall. Her skirts up, her face open, trying to bare itself down to bone, hoping for something out of me. Corn all around again, just starting. I will tell you that I gave in to her in the end, for she was trying to offer comfort and nothing mattered as it seemed to me.
For lack of anything else to do in this long night, I imagine a small flickering trail like a cannon fuse licking its way along through the woods, all the way back to the fort. I will it to keep going and not go out.
The fire is down to the last embers. My spine aches and shivers up through its core. I squint into the dim. Nothing has changed. The cooking pot is squat above the embers. The shapes of corncobs hang like icicles from the thin beams. A chicken murmurs once on the roof. I am such a fool that I laugh aloud. It is only this life, however long it may yet have to run.
One of them is awake. The voice is almost tender from beneath the blanket: No more. Sleep now.
And I suppose it is pleasant enough to have the kind thoughts of those who might kill us any morning.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada supported the author of this story.
America the Beautiful by Don Gillmor
Reflections on the decay of the US mystique