Clyde: Hallowed ground

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 30, 2022

The gate was ajar. The late October day turned cold as the sun fell like a great pumpkin. Twas brillag and no one was there to see the slythe toad cross the path. Unlatched, it seemed to say ‘push me’ to enter. Myrtle leaves in shades of umber and rusty orange spread like icing on a cake over the curved brick work. It seemed to call to a secret garden circled with a border of dark jade cedars. A few bright monarchs lingered on milkweed wisps to blend with the first few steps he took inside. Without looking for any overhead dangers, something seemed again to call out, again ‘come in: with the gate behind, the safety of the place seemed to overshadow the visitors’ fears.


What you don’t see won’t hurt you. Lonely limbs hung like real ones, hands dripping with knuckled fingers. Within his view, a bespectacled caretaker stood silently in the distance, watching the interloper delving into his garden lot. As he came within reach he called out “looking for Mr. Temple’s Gazebo? It’s not here anymore.” His two-tined pitchfork tool stood upright. He looked younger than his years due to hard labor in the dirt. “You know,” he quietly offered, “This spot was on the road to the old Confederate Prison and the old Garrison house that stood outside the main gate. Soldiers came through here daily to get water from the backyard wells. Sometimes even the Yankee prisoners herded here for a fresh drink because the wells inside the gate had gone dry. They were a sad looking lot. You can follow their footprints through Dixon Cemetery. Even now experts come from Salem and beyond with deep penetrating metal detectors to find the smallest piece of something that a soldier left behind; A drop bullet, a hotel tag, a bit and brace, a starburst button, a three ring bullet or even to eyeball a clay marble pea dauber.


They go over by Mr. Horah’s cornfield where he gave land for the prisoners who died. Little did he know that they would become trenches to hold more than anyone in Salisbury could fathom. Far away from their beloved homes – no next of kin – sometimes a brother or cousin they knew; their lives twisted into the stench of life with no bed or even roof over their Kepi covered heads. Every day after 4 P.M., the fellow inmates were told to load the wagons from the dead house; as many as 200 a day. “Like cord wood” piled high to begin the last trip to the trenches, shoeless and shirtless to their heavenly home.


Rev. Jethro Rumple might have prayed for their tortured souls. Where was hope? Now walk over them and count them. Eighteen trenches 200’ long. No markers, no names. 12,844 by some counts, who multiplied each section of mass graves exhumed after the close of the war. “Now, the big cast iron gates are open for you” he said quietly, “but they close at dark, don’t be there at midnight. I can’t tell you why.” Too long, the tourist stooped and read silently each name on each recorded stone and thought about their families without them.


Walking up the hill to the big white Vermont marble obelisk, it seemed to glow in the dark. It was the full moon from over the railroad tracks that seemed to illuminate the face of the monument. It was getting a lot later than he knew when he stepped in a slight hole that turned his ankle and he fell face first into the sod of the cemetery. He lay there for a while to see if he was alright, when his ear fell to side onto the earth. There were faint moans that came up through the soft damp grass. Quickly he jerked his head back, only to lay it down again and it was even louder, almost a voice that called out. He strained to listen now, and as clear as a bell, the words came up “We burned the prison.” As clear as the moonlight. “We burned the records. Come for us if you can.”


The intruder tried to pull himself up, but like dead weight in a dream, his legs were paralyzed. Would he be forced to join them? He pulled for his life and he could begin to feel his feet and hands as he pushed himself up. Without looking back he ran for the front along the street and just as he came out, the high iron gates came closed right behind with a slam. Boo!


… and the empty commuter train whizzed by headed north into the first light of day.


Clyde is an artist in Salisbury.