Digging Up the Past
by John Mara
In 1889, behind a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, Samuel tossed a shovel aside and unearthed a miniature coffin. His father, Sam Sr., had buried the box twenty-four years earlier, not so much to hide his Civil War artifacts, but to entomb forever the vestiges of a dark past.
Sam Sr. heard the shovel clank and stomped out of the farmhouse. “What’re ya diggin’ up the past fer?”
Samuel mopped his brow with a silk handkerchief and then, with a hammer claw, jimmied the coffin. “There’s easy money to be made out of this box, Pa,” Samuel said. Samuel had returned home a day earlier, after flunking out of law school in Philadelphia. Rather than learning the legal code, he’d spent more time in a gentlemen’s club learning how to make a fast buck.
“Ain’t no money in that coffin. All’s I buried is pictures, maps, and whatnot,” Sam Sr. said. “From Pearl Buford’s farm in Virginny.” He winced at the distant thought.
“Lots of Virginians never recovered after the war. They’re selling land now to survive. And that’s where the money is!” Samuel said. He pulled a wad of hundred dollar bills from his vest pocket and riffled it under Sam Sr.’s nose. “Like the smell, Pa? It belongs to a speculator I met in Philadelphia. He buys Reb land, like Pearl’s, on the cheap and sells it later for a tidy profit.”
“What’s his speckilatin’ got to do with me?” Sam Sr. said.
“Virginians don’t trust Yanks, that’s what. But you worked the widow Buford’s farm for two months back in ‘64. You, she’ll trust.”
“I’m warnin’ ya, son. Diggin’ up the past is diggin’ up trouble. Leave the past buried, I say.”
Sam Sr. was a man stranded in time. His clock stopped in 1864, and what happened then governed his thinking, manner, and dress from that time forward. Decayed Civil War boots and patched britches from 1864 still adorned his hunched form. To hide from the world of 1889, Sam Sr. kept his hair long and beard unkempt. Yes, he trapped game and tended a vegetable garden, but not as a means to live. He did so more as a means to wait — for his day of reckoning at Saint Peter’s gate.
Samuel scraped the dirt from a new pair of leather boots and said, “We’ve got bills to pay, Pa. Help me turn this one land deal. Or move out.”
Sam Sr. tugged his oily beard to mull the options. “Alright, I’ll guide ya there, but that’s all.” He crossed his arms. “I won’t face Pearl Buford, no sir. On that, I ain’t budgin’.”
“If you get me to Pearl Buford’s farm, I’ll charm the old lady from there.” Samuel ran a comb through his hair.
“Then pack plenty of that Philly charm, son. More happened at the Buford farm in the ‘60s than ya think,” Sam Sr. grumbled and then lumbered back to the farmhouse.
From out of the box, Samuel pocketed a map, a few pictures, and a heart-shaped amulet on a chain. I’ll give this amulet to Pearl. It’ll soften her up for the kill, he thought.
With blisters erupting on hands unfamiliar with work, Samuel left the shallow hole in the ground unfilled. He strode into the farmhouse to pack for the trip — and for his father’s reluctant journey into the past.
* * *
Two days later, Sam Sr. stopped his son’s horse-drawn buggy at a familiar crossroads in Northern Virginia. “She’s up the hill and around the bend there, son. Remember now, don’t go tellin’ Pearl yer name, or there won’t be no speckilatin’.” They both climbed down from the buggy.
“Pick me up here at noon tomorrow,” Samuel said. “I’ll have the Buford deed, all on short money.” Cocksure, Samuel slicked his hair with pomade and started up the hill to find his mark.
As Sam Sr. rested the horse at the base of the hill, he noticed a gravestone. The stone was chiseled,
Returned to Her Maker
September 30, 1865
But Pearl’s grave was open, with fresh soil piled nearby. His eyes got big.
Sam Sr. circled the vacant grave. “Samuel!” he called up the hill, but Samuel was already out of sight. Should I go up there to warn him? He tugged his beard to solicit an answer. No, I still ain’t going. Besides, that grave don’t matter none for gettin’ the deed, one way or t’other, he reasoned. He jumped onto the buggy and galloped the horse into the nearby town.
On the hilltop, Samuel dragged his father’s moth-eaten carpetbag around the bend and across the years. A derelict Buford farm came into view that belied the idyllic 1864 photo in his hand. Just as I hoped. The house and barn were dilapidated, with rotting clapboards and broken windows. The farm’s fertile soil lay fallow. Gobbling up this place will be an easy meal, he thought.
“Hello there, you must be Mrs. Buford!” Samuel flared a wide city smile. Even in the growing darkness, he recognized the woman waiting on the porch. In appearance, dress, and countenance, she could’ve stepped out of the 1864 photo.
“Here you are, Sam!” Pearl said, as though she’d been expecting him.
“How do you know my name, ma’am?”
“Come on inside. It’s dark.” She motioned Samuel into the farmhouse. “It’s time to fix all what was done back in ‘64.”
“Indeed it is, Mrs. Buford,” Samuel said. “Virginia fought honorably for a lost cause. I’m here to reconcile all that happened.”
Inside, Samuel pulled the amulet out of his pocket and readied the chain to drape around Pearl’s neck. “Let’s light a lantern, sit down, and talk awhile, my friend.”
Pearl noticed the amulet. “I’m awful tired, Sam. We’ll do the talkin’ and fixin’ in the morning.”
“Yes, that’s when it’s best. May I sleep in the barn then, ma’am?”
“No need. There’s a spot for you right up there.” She handed Samuel a candle and pointed him up a dark staircase.
Upstairs, Samuel plunked the carpetbag on the same dingy bed sheets where his father had dropped it twenty-five years earlier. Tired from the long ride, he kicked off his leather boots and fell asleep, still holding the amulet chain.
At midnight, the chimes of a grandfather clock startled Samuel awake. Without warning, his windpipe constricted, and he struggled to breathe. The amulet chain was tight around his neck.
Pearl yanked the chain through the posts of the brass bed. With a broomstick, she turned and tightened the chain like a garrote. “It was twenty-five years ago tonight you was here, Sam,” Pearl said. “Time to fix what needs fixin’.” She loosened the garrote only when Samuel was about to faint.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He gasped for air. “I’m a duly appointed reconciler of—”
“Quiet!” She tightened the chain. “I’m the reconciler here, not you.” Pearl managed the garrotte to ration his oxygen and to keep him alive.
With Samuel constrained, Pearl strapped his arms and legs to the four posts of the brass bed. “I wait on the porch every September, Sam,” Pearl said. “To one day face the devil what soiled me.”
“Soiled?” Samuel wheezed. “I’ve never been here before.”
“I never forgot your eyes. Or what you done to me on this bed the night you headed north. ‘I’ll be back,’ you whispered. And here you are, Sam, all dressed up like a dandy.”
Samuel recalled being told a hundred times growing up, “You’re the spitting image of your Pa as a young man.” He gulped, “My father was here, not me.”
“Father?” Pearl said. “Look at us. We’s both the same age.” She lit a lantern, and its rising flame haloed her face.
Can’t be! Her face wasn’t a day older than the one in the 1864 photo. She should be fifty!
“You put the seed of Satan into me that night,” Pearl said.
“I swear I—”
Pearl tightened the garrote again. Samuel’s body flailed and his bulging eyes begged for a solitary breath.
“You gave me the devil’s child. I know, because after the little demon was born, the devil came and took it from me.” She pulled up the ruffles of her sleeves and flashed the razor tracks in her wrists. “That’s when I cut myself good. My grave was dug, yes, but I wouldn’t rest proper until I reconciled what you done.”
Pearl untied the garrote. Then, thumping the broomstick into her palm, she circled the bed.
The purple drained from Samuel’s face. Barely conscious, he whimpered for mercy. But Samuel’s silent pleas went unheard, as did Pearl’s on that night a generation earlier.
Brandishing the broomstick, Pearl climbed onto the bed, ready at last to administer justice for what she’d endured twenty-five years in the past.
* * *
In town, Sam Sr. worked a plug of tobacco at the hotel bar he often patronized back in ‘64.
The barroom talk turned inevitably to Pearl’s rape in ’64, and the veteran bartender led the chatter. “It happened twenty-five years ago this very night, September 30,” the bartender related. “Pearl Buford hid a Yank by the name of Sam in her barn, even though her husband was killed by Yanks at the Battle of the Wilderness. Said she’d seen enough killin’, God bless ’er. Well, this fella Sam helped around the farm. Until one night, that is,” the bartender said and then interjected, “Another round, boys?”
The patrons crowded the bar for their new drinks. Except for one; Sam Sr. surrendered his seat and retreated to a table in a dark corner.
The bartender tallied the take and then wiped the bar. “As I was sayin’ boys, he helped around the farm. But one night, the Yank up and violated the widow Pearl, and then the scoundrel ran away. A Reb night patrol spotted his horse down at the crossroads. They chased that Yank all the way to the Pennsylvania border. And that’s the last we’ve seen of him.”
The patrons began to scatter, but the bartender reeled them back in. “It don’t get any better from there, boys! Pearl went and killed herself one year later, on September 30, 1865. That was twenty-four years ago today.” In the shadows, Sam Sr. recoiled at the news of Pearl’s suicide.
Then, the bartender leaned in confidentially and whispered to the rapt crowd, “Sam told Pearl he’d come back, and some ol’ timers in town say Pearl — or what’s left of ’er — waits on the porch for the Yank’s return this time every year. But I don’t believe it.” The crowd started when the bartender bellowed, “Another round, boys?”
Slithering behind the crowd and toward the door, Sam Sr. toppled a chair. When Sam Sr. turned to meet the patrons’ stares, the bartender angled his head to study the stranger’s face and then furled his brow.
Sam Sr. went upstairs to his room. But he didn’t sleep. He lay awake all night, envisioning the vengeful bar patrons, led by the bartender, tightening a noose around his neck.
* * *
At sunrise, Sam Sr. decided he’d better skip town early. Downstairs, the barroom stragglers were still trading stories about Pearl and wondering about the fate of the Yank named Sam. In the morning sunlight, the bartender gave Sam Sr. a probing glance as he slinked out the door. Sam Sr. drove away along a back road to escape any more suspicious eyes.
At the base of the hill, he paused again at Pearl’s gravesite. The vacant grave he’d seen the day before was newly occupied, and the headstone was amended to read,
Returned to Her Maker
September 30, 1865
September 30, 1889
Now how can that be? Sam Sr. wanted to tug his beard for an explanation. But, in a hurry to bolt Virginia, he charged the horse up the hill instead. Won’t be facin’ Pearl, at least.
“Samuel!” he shouted from outside. “Samuel!” Samuel gave no response. Sam Sr. rushed into the farmhouse to get his son and scram, land deal or not.
Upstairs, in a familiar bedroom, Sam Sr. found his son’s purple corpse lying on blood-sodden sheets. Samuel’s vacant eyes glared accusingly at his father.
The fetid smell of death filled Sam Sr.’s nostrils. He vomited the previous night’s whiskey and, with a swooning head, retreated to the window to gulp fresh air.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Sam Sr. recognized the amulet lying next to his son, and it flashed him back to his return trip to Pearl’s farm. At long last, Sam Sr. told Samuel the truth he’d kept buried for twenty-four years. “I came back here, son, in ‘65, a year after what I done to Pearl. I brought this here amulet, hoping to somehow fix what I done. Pearl was asleep that night, with a baby next to ‘er.”
Weeping, Sam Sr. splayed himself across Samuel’s body. “I stuffed the baby in this carpetbag and slipped out before she seen me. That’s right, son. It was me that took you away from yer Ma.”
After decades of regret, Sam Sr.’s catharsis gave him a moment of relief. Using a time-worn bed sheet, he covered Samuel’s body with an air of finality.
In time, Sam Sr.’s survival instincts took over. He packed the map and pictures in the carpetbag next to the hundred dollar bills. Wiping the amulet clean, he put it in his pocket. Unlike his last trip here, though, the specter of a lynching convinced Sam Sr. to leave his son behind.
Back outside, as he stowed the carpetbag, Sam Sr. took a final look at the Buford farm. Its desecration laid bare, all at once, the full extent of his earthly wrongdoings and a heavenly debt that loomed. With shoulders slumped, he climbed onto the buggy and headed around the bend.
At the base of the hill, still tallying the debt he’d accrued, Sam Sr. halted the horse. He resolved, at long last, to face Pearl.
With feet shuffling, he stood before her grave. The warm sun, the fresh air, and a tug of a beard gave rise to a rare moment of self-reflection. “Back in Pennsylvania, Pearl, I could only touch the skin of what I done. But, like a possum I trapped, it ain’t so perty once you get close and slice it open,” he said.
He looked back up the hill. “Yup, comin’ to Virginny made me slice open what I done. And I seen all the pain and misery I wrought. To you, yer farm, the town. Maybe the whole gol dang South! And now to my son — yer son.”
Down on both knees, Sam Sr. looked skyward. “I wish I could make it right, Lord, while I’m here on earth. But there ain’t no changin’ the past.” Sobbing into his beard, he managed, “I’m terrible sorry, Lord.”
He searched for an adequate token of his new-found remorse to leave behind. “This here don’t tip the scale none, Pearl. But it’s the only penance I got.” He pulled the amulet from his pocket and draped the chain over Pearl’s gravestone.
Disturbing the morning calm, the sound of hoof beats in the distance ended his moment of self-reproach. In town, a group of horsemen were gathering to track the stranger the bartender had recognized.
Forever on the lam, Sam Sr. leaped onto the buggy and took the reins. “Hayuuh, Getyup!” Turning onto the road north, he whipped the horse into a full gallop. “I’ll face the devil’s fire someday, Pearl, but I ain’t swingin’ from a Reb’s rope today,” he said.
As a Reb patrol had done twenty-five years earlier, the town posse tracked Sam Sr. along the same main road, all the way to the state border. But, always one step ahead of his fate, Sam Sr. changed course and, yet again, deferred his day of justice.
* * *
The next morning, Sam Sr. pulled up to the Pennsylvania farmhouse, a pilgrimage to the past complete. Before watering the foaming horse, he attended to the carpetbag. He took the bag behind the farmhouse where, next to the shallow hole, the miniature coffin awaited the return of its artifacts.
He assigned the Civil War map and photos to the box. He stripped off his tattered shirt, soiled with Samuel’s blood, and deposited it as a new memory for the coffin to conceal. “That’s what speckilatin’ done to us, son,” he lamented.
As a measure of redemption, Sam Sr. added the dirty wad of hundred dollar bills to the coffin. When the Philly land grabber comes sniffin’, I’ll tell ‘im some ol’ Rebs robbed and kilt Samuel on our way into Virginny, he thought.
Sam Sr. doubled the nails that secured the coffin. He buried it, deeper than before, to once again entomb his even darker memories. As though making the tomb impregnable, he broke the shaft of the shovel over a knee. With a spray of tobacco juice, he marked an end to the solemn proceedings.
Shirtless, a bit more stooped and contrite, he tramped to the farmhouse, ready to continue the long wait for his inevitable day of judgment. “Best to leave the past buried, I say, this time until I face the heavy hand of the Lord,” Sam Sr. said. “I warned ya, Samuel, didn’t I? Diggin’ up the past is diggin’ up trouble.”
Copyright © 2020 by John Mara