by Steve Himmer
What he can’t help but remember are the snows that swallowed a man to his heart if he stood still to let the storm rage. Those last silent seconds — save wind and save wolves and save echoing explosions of branches with ice in their veins, save tooth-grinding chatter and snorting hot horses and rattling canteens and rifles of a detachment at last come to rest — those last silent seconds he saved for himself. On the threshold at Presque Isle in his frozen greatcoat, preparing to knock, to announce himself as if those inside didn’t already know he was there. Composing his speech with words rough in those days as an uncarved bit of blowdown picked up and brushed clean and used in lieu of silver spoons.
Then ushered into rooms where the old world of Paris sat transported to the wild Ohio — velvet and silk, perfume and powder — and into negotiations that led straight to war in language not one word his own, his mouth full of commands from afar to push the fort-building French off the map: The Lands upon the River Ohio, in the Western Parts of the Colony of Virginia, are so notoriously known to be the Property of the Crown of Great Britain …
Nothing to say for himself and no need to say it; he wasn’t there to sign his own name. He accepted reply and turned back to Virginia across those ridiculous rivers and swallowing snows. Along a route that made sense unfurled over wine stains on some London table but here on the ground, where wine was blood, that map offered one invitation to death on the heels of another: horses crashing through ice and dragged down a river, men lashed to canoes and wading the shallows in wet woolens stiff as wooden suits, wild wolves and cougars and how many eyes out of sight. A scalped settling family of corpses at Murdering Town, and the Iroquois Half-King recalling the father of our messenger’s father, with whom he shares the best part of his name — Conotocarius, they called him, devourer of towns — with his own bloody trail through the Ohio, savage memory written onto the land and its people in print too fine to be read from London. None of which lay flat on the map, but he held his tongue and his surveyor’s pencil along the haul back to Virginia, where he wrote it all out for the papers, filled in the dark corners and empty places, and ever after he had a name.
“I have been particularly cautious not to augment,” he wrote before his life or his Nation were yet on the map, in his account of that Ohio excursion. Years later in these waning days his words are still blowdown, polished to a shine and a shape that seem almost deliberate, at least. Better to keep his mouth shut altogether: so much accomplished in Congress by waiting for others to say what he would, so much reputation intact behind his clamped teeth.
They know — they all know — what he wrote, what he told, and a man is what the world thinks he is, his character another man’s word. They know his failure at Necessity and of that other winter at Valley Forge, of men starved and blackened and bared by his orders, only corpses if they trailed bloody footprints out into the snow to be found. His life is in print, the volumes of letters and command declarations collected and copied by clerks grinding nibs into nothing downstairs. Loss after loss, loss after gain, and unending requests to engrave him on this or on that, the snake oil and schemes he is ever invited to pin his life to — as if they could turn his mere face into money.
He recalls the Half-King’s confidence born of having all the land’s life at his lips — the GREAT BEING above allow’d it to be a Place of Residence for us — in faith his voice would be heard over the rushing waters of the Ohio as far away as Virginia and London beyond. But who remembers the Half-King, the Iroquois, now? Who can say what the Great Being allowed?
Hardly a man speaks that loudly. Hardly a man is heard in his own words, however carefully chosen. He learned that the first time he let his life lie on the page; still he places his trust in this new document carefully scripted, his own will and its posthumous act: to speak in his own voice, the voice he wishes had spoken up sooner. He tried to rid himself of his Ohio holdings to finance the freedom of lives bound to his, the families who lift up and weigh down his farms. He tried but no one was buying, so he speaks only now — or he will speak in death — with his signature across the white parchment landscape and the dark territory of boundless bodies. As ever he stakes his name on the future.
Busload after busload they wander in after wondering at the slave quarters and ask for the teeth, expecting a mouth carved from deadwood and let down, somehow, that poor mouth didn’t suffer as much as they’d hoped (though the ranger says it may have been worse). They ask if his dentures were carved from that cherry tree, and sometimes ask, too, if the cherry still ripens on this property — as if the two things could be true at once, never mind that neither one ever was; somehow the tree should both be there and be gone like Adam’s own rib.
They make do with souvenir magnets of a man’s broken mouth — hippopotamus ivory, cow molars, and springs, rewritten in molded plastic. Parents let children hand over his image, crumpled and torn, and later, at home, they will pin their own words behind those locked jaws— report cards and tax forms and water bills, deeds for the past and the future and all the trappings of nation.
Steve Himmer is the author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade and the ebook novella The Second Most Dangerous Job In America. He edits the webjournal Necessary Fiction and lives just down the road from the home of John Adams. Read the next story, JOHN ADAMS, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.