October 15, 2012

What Ifs are the Purview of the Charlatan


What Ifs Are the Purview of the Charlatan
by Jessica Willis


He named his rifle Persephone after Susanna’s favorite fruit of myth. Later, the blood and teeth he saw on the field stubble reminded him of the seeds of that fruit.

He didn’t name his knife anything because the knife was an extension of him. The knife was kept sheathed at his hip or at the small of his back. When he wore it on his chest with the handle pointing down and to the left the other men looked at him but didn’t say anything. When he wore the knife this way he was telling the heavens that he was bored to tears and needed to return to the place of silent breathing and the enemy not six feet away unknowing he was there to take what was most precious.

The knife was numbingly sharp and could cut transparent layers of wood and grass and anything else. He loved Persephone but he loved himself more. Covered in dead leaves and lying like a boxed corpse or striding from the wood as an apparition he could gather anything: lives if he cared to, but most precious of all was information. He could travel on information, and some of the most powerful men in the army were starting to notice.

Early September the heavens rewarded him. He was given orders that would take him away from the cavalry and send him out alone, on foot. Any other kind of man, he thought, would have been frightened or at the very least insulted by these orders, which isolated him from all the others and probably guaranteed Susanna’s widowhood. This was the sort of mission that would bury another kind of man.

James Pike thought these were orders of the most fragrant variety.

He squeezed his eyes shut and saw Susanna’s shoulder and neck. The smell of June sun on a snarl of hot leaves. Boys kicking dirt on him because he was fifteen and not five feet tall. What was he fighting for. To spill the reeking pearly guts of every butternut within his reach.

He named his rifle Persephone for the girl who comes up from the sky blue mouth of death every March.


The man sat on the porch, legs crossed tight at the knee, arms folded tight against the chest. His eyes were closed and the corners of his thin mouth were turned down in a deep frown; Pike wasn’t sure if he was asleep, resting, or simply displeased.

It was a warm late October day but the man looked cold. Pike thought the man was Sherman but he couldn’t be sure. He had never seen a likeness of the general and he imagined Sherman as the type of leader who would be constantly surrounded by aides and always in motion. This man simply looked tired and old. His dark hair was thinning and seemed to have been cut by a dull knife. His chin and cheeks were stubbly. His blue coat was open at the throat, obscuring any stars or sign of rank that could prove to Pike that this was the Uncle Billy of legend. He was too far away and the man didn’t move.

Pike didn’t know what to do. He was exhausted to the point where he had to carefully balance upright in his boots and wobble in all directions at once so he wouldn’t collapse flat on his face. The past ten days he had spent in a canoe on the Tennessee, getting shot at by guerillas. Everything, including his cartridges, had gotten soaked at the bottom of the canoe. His stomach had stopped growling days ago. He wanted something to eat and he wanted praise. Something told him that General W.T. Sherman was not the man to give him such things.

Pike stroked his matted beard, shifted his weight slightly, and cleared his throat. “General Crook sends his compliments, sir,” he said. His voice was a croak and he couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken.

The man on the porch shifted his weight slightly, uncrossed his legs, and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. When he dropped his hand to his knee his dark eyes were open and fixed angrily on Pike.

“I did not hear your approach, sir,” the man said. He stood up, slowly slapped the dust off his trousers, and glared at Pike. “I cannot place your accent, sir, or your mixed dress. Are you here to help me or run me through?”

Pike dropped his gaze to his filthy coat, which did indeed look gray from the dust and dirt. His wide belt was cinched tight against his hunger; tied now, not buckled. The knife sheath, smeared with blood, was strapped to his breast. He took a deep breath.

“Are you Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, sir, commander of the fifteenth army corps?”

The man walked down the porch steps and stood close to Pike. “I am not, sir. Tell me, how did you get past my picket lines?”

“Can you direct me to General Sherman, sir?” Pike thought the man’s face looked ancient; it had been scrubbed clean like a high-ranking officer’s face, but the creases were filled with dirt. He knew that some men called Sherman a lunatic. He also knew that in the month Sherman had lost his young son to typhoid. Maybe he had gone mad.

“Where are you from, son?”

“I was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, sir. But I moved ar --”

“The birthplace of General Grant,” the man said. “I was born in Lancaster.”

“Sir, are you General Sherman?”

“I am, but as of one hour ago, I am no longer in command of the Fifteenth Corps. Let you be the first soldier to congratulate me in person on my promotion to Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. The theater of war has become a safer place and the enemy will surrender by Christmas, by God.”

Pike pretended he didn’t understand the sarcasm. “Corporal James Pike, Fourth Ohio Cavalry, sir.” He saluted quickly, didn’t wait for a return salute, and reached into his bag for the two messages. He handed them to Sherman, who stared at him for a moment and then took the torn pieces of paper out of his hand.

Pike watched Sherman read the messages and waited to be dismissed. Or offered a place to sit and rest. Something to eat. When he realized the general was forthcoming with none of the above, he waited and studied the man’s face as he read. Pike knew what the messages said.

One was a telegraph from Grant which had been sent through by Crook. It was an order to drop all work on the railroad, cross the Tennessee River quickly, and head east toward Bridgeport. The other letter was in part a character reference from General Blair, who had written that Pike was a man deserving of the most complex and delicate missions.

“In conclusion: If you are reading this letter, General Sherman, you may regard the man standing before you as a truly gifted scout and ranger,” Sherman read aloud.
Pike bowed. Sherman cleared his throat.

“Your footfalls didn’t wake me and you avoided being detected by my picket lines. You paddled a canoe down the Tennessee River over Muscle Shoals with no ammunition and received not so much as a scratch on your person. Or at least no scratch that I can see. You’re a singular character, Pike. What can I do for you?”

“Give me something to eat, sir,” Pike said. “And then I will tell you what you can do for me.”



He had been offered a horse and a change of clothes. He accepted the former and declined the latter. Two nights into the march toward Elkton, Pike was summoned to Sherman’s tent.

Pike had the gift of silent movement and obviously he knew it. Although he didn’t know why he was so blessed. Most of his young life was spent shouting above the clamor of the newspaper pressroom while his father occupied the quiet corner office upstairs. He didn’t stay in the business long enough to become deaf.

He watched Sherman write at his desk. Pike was not five feet away from the general and yet the older man did not know he was there. Pike wasn’t surprised; a few months ago he lay under a broken bridge while what seemed to be Stuart’s entire cavalry made valuable plans inches from his nose.

Now Pike breathed low and deep, mouth closed, feeling his lungs expand effortlessly. His heartbeat slowed to a whale’s pace. By watching the movements of Sherman’s hand, Pike could decipher what he was writing: The child that bore my name, and in whose future I reposed with more confidence than I did in my own plan of life, now floats a mere corpse, seeking a grave in a distant land.

The man’s hand paused above the paper. He took a deep breath and started writing again. I ask no sympathy. On, on I must go, to meet a soldier’s fate.


Sherman carefully set aside his pen. “You did it again, Pike. Have you not announced yourself to my aide?” More humor than anger this time.

“I’m not certain where your aide is,” Pike replied. “Permission to enter.”

“Granted. Have a seat. And answer me this.”

“Yes sir.”

“Your accent.”


Sherman adjusted the lantern so he could see Pike’s face. For a moment both men were silent. “Permission to speak candidly, sir,” said Pike after a moment. Sherman nodded slightly.

“As I like to say sir, I don’t speak like an Ohio man because I am only from Ohio on my mother and father’s side. I always wanted to be someone different. So I trained myself to speak different. So I could keep myself company. Give me two seconds with anyone sir, and I can speak in their manner. Perfectly.” Sherman’s diary entry moved him and he considered telling him about Susanna’s accent. Then he thought better of it.

“What is your favorite accent?” Sherman asked.

“It’s not really an accent sir, but I enjoy speaking in the style of Chaucer.”

“Ah,” Sherman said. “Can you imitate all of the southern accents?”

“Rebel accents? Easily, sir.”

“I have been thinking of a mission for you, Corporal. There are many variables, but one thing is almost certain – you will fail. You will be captured and jailed, at best. You will be hanged, most likely.”

Pike’s smile was wide and avid. Sherman looked at this smile, confused for a moment, and then continued. “There are many … how do I put it? There are many ‘what ifs’”

“What ifs are the purview of the charlatan,” Pike replied.

Sherman considered this for a moment and then dropped his head back and laughed. A dry, one note ha.

“Thank you for that, Pike,” Sherman said, looking at him again. “I note that the more dangerous the mission, the more desirous you are of earning it.”

“It’s true. I want to do something bold, sir. I want to be a hero. I want to be remembered.”

“Are there heroes in this war, Pike? Will we be remembered? As the men we were?”


His orders were to burn the bridge crossing the Savannah River at Augusta in order to create confusion in Johnston’s army. Pike was to wait for news of Sherman’s mobilization toward Atlanta and then he would act.

Sherman had estimated that the odds were three to one that Pike would be caught. Pike thought his commander was being too generous. The odds were much worse and for that he was grateful.

Sherman wanted Pike to take a companion and disguise himself like a refugee from East Tennessee, work his way over the mountains into North Carolina, float down the river and burn the bridge.

He had refused to take a companion and so found himself alone on a raft in ragged butternut, lying on his back in the sodden summer heat, looking at the stars. Persephone was long gone and yet this was her time to be walking the Earth, was it not? Pike had time to wonder about the things he had lost in the past three years alone. Boots, horses, rifles. Teeth. Where were they now? What of Susanna and Frederick his hound. Would they know him. If he followed his orders properly he would be unrecognizable to the very end.

When the enemy called to him from the river bank he would sit up and holler back as someone else.

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Jessica Willis is a high school teacher who lives in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Ideas come when I'm running long distance. They also come when I read memoirs and design lesson plans.