I went to a hypnotist’s show once, here in New York. It was years and years ago, around 1870 or so. My wife was always very superstitious, and she was the one who wanted to see the show. But I was the one who ended up on stage. The hypnotist told me and the other volunteers to close our eyes, and I felt myself swaying back and forth as he lulled us into a trance. Then he told us all that we were musicians in a conceit hall, about to play the opening notes of a symphony. I later found out that I was the only volunteer to take up the violin. When I had finished the first movement, the hypnotist dismissed the others and continued with me. By the end of the evening, I had played a dozen other instruments, traded neckties with a man in the front row, barked like a dog and kissed a woman who wasn’t my wife. In the final act, I climbed up to one of the box seats just beside the stage, where I fired an imaginary pistol and assassinated an imaginary president. The audience adored it.
It is an odd thing, hypnotism: a pure replacement of human will. It sounds horrible, debased, that anyone would demean himself enough to voluntarily succumb to the desires of others. But the truth is that it is a relief. To play whatever they tell you to play, and hear everyone applaud. From the moment I undertook my first mission, when I was seventeen years old, I sustained myself on such applause. And it wasn’t until decades later that I understood my mistake. I thought they were applauding me, but they were actually applauding the hypnotist. And I was merely the hypnotist’s slave.
That first mission was elegant. The officers removed me from the company, provided me with a real Rebel uniform (borrowed from a particularly punctilious enemy corpse who had had the gentility to bleed almost exclusively on to his hat) and then drilled me for weeks on how I would be carried by gunboat to some Mississippi island, where I would then have to insert myself into one of several barrels to be passed along to smugglers, who would then transport the goods the remaining hundred miles to New Orleans, where I would pose as a refugee from a decimated Rebel company, looking for the only kin I had left in the entire South. Once I reached my mother’s cousin’s house, I would have to convince her and her family that I had joined a Rebel unit and betrayed the Union out of loyalty to my parents, whose whole business was run on cotton, and in particular to my mother, whose beloved cousins had been suffering in New Orleans—and of course my mother hadn’t been able to tell them about me, because of the censoring of the mail and the blockades; in fact, no one in the family knew where I was, and now that my regiment had been destroyed, I had nowhere left to go, and had been given furlough by the command to spend an evening with family before reporting back to the nearest headquarters to be reassigned.
The goal, it was decided, was to get me to New Orleans in time for Passover—which coincided nicely with the navy’s plan to capture New Orleans. This part of the plan, I’m proud to say, was my own idea. (The officers had suggested Easter, but I explained to them the limitations of that possibility.) It happens to be true—I freely informed my superiors—that every Hebrew in the world is obliged to celebrate the Passover holiday at a table with other Hebrews, and there’s even a part of the Passover service right at the beginning of the meal where the head of the household has to open the door and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. The officers were quite thrilled to hear about that one. Hebrew hospitality would save the Union yet. And an uninvited guest was exactly what I would be in the home of Henry Hyams: cotton and dry-goods merchant, husband of my mother’s cousin, member of the Louisiana State Legislature, relation and confidant of Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America—and, of course, a repulsive traitor to these great United States. I hadn’t seen him since I was nine years old, but I remembered him as a kind man, one who brought me toys and saltwater taffies from places where he had travelled, always attaching a story to each gift about what a rare treasure it was, or how the candy shop by the seaside had been about to close when he convinced the candyman to sell him the very last box of taffies. When I was a little boy, he used to lift me up high in the air when he walked through our family’s door, until I was looking down at his sideburned face, laughing loudly at my new view of the world, where the adults were far below me and I had triumphed over them, all by his raising me into the sky.
My mission was to kill him.
There’s a knot that you feel in your stomach when you’re about to do something dangerous—when you become a bit anxious, say, about the fact that you’re about to cross enemy lines and enter a place where you will enjoy an excellent chance of being not only caught, but also hanged—and then there’s a different knot that you feel in your stomach when you’re about to do something wrong. When you are seventeen years old, you are accustomed to believing that you simply don’t know things, that there is an entire world of considerations and complications that you aren’t obliged to concern yourself with, and so you tell yourself that one knot is the other knot, and that you are just terrified of being hanged. But you know the difference.
Let me tell you something about what it’s like to be folded into a barrel in the back of a smuggler’s boat with nothing but a small canteen of water, an even smaller tin of gruel, a chisel and a packet of poison. For the first six hours, your muscles paralyse you. For the second six hours, your thoughts paralyse you. But for the third six hours and beyond, your spirit is set free into the wide-open spaces of memory and imagination, and you start to see visions. By the evening of the second day, you have become a prophet, and by the evening of the third day, you rise from that coffin-barrel as the Messiah. I was prepared to resurrect myself and redeem the world, but unfortunately the journey from Ship’s Island in Mississippi to New Orleans was only two days long.
Those first six hours inside the darkness of that barrel, into which I was folded like a message in a bottle, were agony. But it was a physical agony, which was at least a relief from the knot in my stomach, whose real origin I knew better than I could admit. After the first six hours passed, with their tortures of neck and knees and the insistent smell from the rags that I had stuffed into my uniform’s crotch, my mind freed itself. I began to understand why my teachers had always insisted on rote memorization of poems and speeches and the like, and I wished I had paid more attention to my Hebrew tutors, or even to my English ones, because the ability to entertain oneself with memorized passages from the Bible (or from the Farmer’s Almanac, for that matter) is indispensable to anyone stuck in a barrel in the bottom of a boat. I tried to recite the passage from the Torah that I had chanted at my bar mitzvah, the Song at the Sea from Exodus, and imagined myself as a new Moses, sent downriver in a basket into the heart of Pharaoh’s dominion. I would enter Pharaoh’s territory, I imagined, kill an Egyptian taskmaster (a slave owner, I told myself again and again, who was planning to kill Lincoln! How could I possibly be more just, more right?) and then flee back north so that God could reveal himself to me in the burning bush of Union pride. This was just the journey in the basket, the trip down the Nile. But these were false thoughts, and I knew it. Instead, as the second six hours gave way to the third, I tried to remember everything I could about my mission, except, of course, for Henry Hyams himself. And I found myself thinking back to how it had begun.
The previous autumn, we had observed the Day of Atonement in the camp. I know it sounds improbable, a Yom Kippur service in the Union Army, but it happened. It was Abraham Mendoza’s idea. Sergeant Mendoza was twenty-two years old, dark-eyed and olive-skinned, also from New York City, and, as he was thrilled to tell anyone who asked (and even those who didn’t), his forebears had come to the North American colonies in 1699, after being banished from Spain in 1492 and spending the intervening centuries in some godforsaken place in Brazil—all of which made Mendoza himself a sixth-generation American, and embarrassingly proud of it. Unlike most Jews of his background, nearly all of whom had disappeared like a lost tribe into the wilderness of American Christianity, Mendoza was a bookish, traditional sort who had committed most of the Pentateuch and half the Psalms to memory in Hebrew, English and even in the Spanish-Jewish jargon, and he would quote chapter and verse about proclaiming liberty throughout the land and walking through the valley of the shadow of death any time he was giving any kind of order, oblivious enough not to notice that everyone was snickering at him behind his back. I found him insufferable and I assumed the feeling was mutual.
But one evening in the camp, I noticed him waiting behind me for the latrine. Because I was trying to ignore him, I was of course attuned to his every move. And so I heard him quite clearly when he mumbled in my direction, under his breath, ‘Amcha?’
It’s a Hebrew word, amcha. Technically it means ‘your people’. But for Hebrews, it is a code—a simple word whispered in a stranger’s ear to see if he recognizes it, at which point the question is already answered. It’s a perfect code, because if the person asked fails to respond, it might just as easily be disguised as a cough. And what makes it even more perfect is that only a Hebrew can use it, because no one else, except perhaps some Germans, can pronounce the guttural ‘ch’. Mendoza’s name and complexion gave him away immediately, of course, but I myself am quite fair, and rather tall too, not to mention that I prefer not to divulge my ancestry to everyone I meet. So he asked.
‘What an eloquent sneeze,’ I thought of exclaiming. Instead, I thought of my parents and lowered my own voice. ‘Amcha,’ I replied.
‘Wait for me on the left side of the barracks tomorrow, at eighteen hundred hours,’ he said.
Before I could ask why, the line behind me had forced me to enter the latrine; by the time I was finished, Mendoza was gone.
I went to wait for him the following evening, more out of curiosity than anything else. When I arrived at the spot, I was surprised to see two other soldiers already there—Isaac Calderon and Benjamin Gratz, two sixteen-year-old enlisted men. Before I could even speak to them, Mendoza had arrived. ‘We’ve been excused this evening,’ Mendoza informed me, ‘for the eve of Yom Kippur.’
Yom Kippur! I had completely forgotten about it. But Mendoza hadn’t. I saw now that he had a small prayer book in his hand as he led us outside the borders of the camp and began the service in an open field. There were nineteen of us, it turned out, including some men I had never met and a few faces that surprised me. Mendoza planted his torch in the ground and lit it, and turned to the company. He announced that the service would need to be abridged. We nodded our assent, and he opened his prayer book to begin.
After the prayer was finished, we all breathed in that fall air, now dark with the first starlight, with relief and renewal. The year was fresh, unstained and beautiful as the rattle of the crickets in that open field on that cool clear night. As we returned to the camp, Mendoza began talking with me, and, unblemished by my prior loathing, I answered him. We talked about our families, our relatives near and far—holiday postcards received from distant cousins, pranks played by our fathers, foods cooked by our mothers, and all the other small details of home that lonely soldiers remember. The service that night, strange though it was, was a piece of home, and now, as we casually spoke of our mothers and cousins, Mendoza was family.
Several months later, I found myself called into the tent of the major himself, on an evening when a rumour had spread that the brigadier-general was visiting our camp. I was certain that I was going to be told that I was to receive a promotion. And when I entered the tent on that cold spring evening and saw the major, the colonel and the brigadier-general himself seated at a table before me, each with a pipe in his mouth, I felt even more certain. I could hardly stifle a smile as I greeted them and waited for the major to address me, as the brigadier-general blew a ring of smoke in the air. But it was the brigadier-general who spoke.
‘Sergeant Mendoza has reported to us that you have relations in New Orleans,’ he said, resting his pipe in a wooden holder on the table between us. ‘Specifically, a Mr and Mrs Henry Hyams. Is that correct, Rappaport?’
I paused to breathe, tasting the smoke of his pipe. ‘Yes, sir. Mrs Hyams is my mother’s first cousin, sir,’ I replied, both disappointed and baffled. It seemed unlikely that an announcement of a promotion would commence with a review of my family tree. And then I tried to suppress a shudder. I was only seventeen years old and my immediate thought was that my mother had somehow written to her cousins to have me sent back home.
The major noticed my trembling and smiled. ‘At ease,’ he said, taking up his pipe again.
I put a foot to one side and folded my hands behind my back, but I felt even more uneasy than I had felt before. My stomach shivered as he continued.
‘You are hardly the only Union soldier to have family relations south of the Mason-Dixon line, Rappaport,’ the brigadier-general said, as if reciting from a book. ‘We wondered what your opinion might be of this Henry Hyams.’
It occurred to me then that perhaps this was a promotion after all, simply preceded by a test that I needed to pass. The illogic of this idea—that a visiting officer would ask me these questions in order to promote me, or that such an examination would require a special visit to the officers’ tent at such an odd time of day, or that these questions were in any way pertinent to my future in the company—did not occur to my supremely arrogant adolescent mind. I didn’t even think of Henry; the man himself was irrelevant. Instead I grinned and smartly answered, ‘Henry Hyams is a slave owner and a Rebel, sir, and therefore deserving of every disdain.’
The three officers smiled. At seventeen, I could not yet tell the difference on strangers’ faces between admiration and condescension, and I did not yet know that I ought always to expect the latter. I suppressed a smile of my own, certain that I had triumphed.
Another puff of smoke. ‘What does he do, this Hyams of yours?’
I winced at the ‘of yours’. And then I felt a memory, the sort that one senses physically in the body instead of envisioning in the mind. At that moment my body was a small boy’s, and strong hands were reaching down to lift me up. I felt the grip of those hands in my armpits right at that moment, and the breeze at the nape of my neck as those hands hoisted me high in the air. I pushed the memory aside. ‘I haven’t seen him in years, sir,’ I answered, still hoping to pass the test. ‘My father’s shipping company worked with him on occasion. He was a cotton dealer out of New Orleans.’
The brigadier-general chewed on his pipe as the three of them eyed me from what now seemed like a judges’ bench. When he spoke again, his voice was slow and deliberate, enunciating each word. ‘It seems that his professional aspirations have changed since you and he were last in contact,’ he said, with a slight smirk. I was disturbed to notice that the two other officers smirked along with him. I began to suspect that this wasn’t about a promotion at all. With deliberate, slow movements, the brigadier-general placed the pipe back in the holder, letting the smoke weave itself into a smooth veil before my eyes. Then he looked back at me and said, ‘Henry Hyams is a Confederate spy.’
He might as well have told me that Henry Hyams was the emperor of Japan. ‘A spy, sir?’ It couldn’t possibly be true. Was this another test? But no, the test was about to come.
‘A very highly placed one, in fact,’ the brigadier-general said, and tapped a finger on the table. ‘With ties to Judah Benjamin.’
‘What—what ties, sir?’ I asked, barely able to choke out the words. The name itself had nauseated me: Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jew to serve in the United States Senate, and now the first Jewish cabinet member in history—but one who had chosen to devote his talents to, of all countries on earth, the Confederacy, where he served passionately as the Secretary of State and was the closest confidant of Jefferson Davis himself. Every Hebrew in the Union blanched at his name. As for me, I nearly vomited.
‘It seems that Benjamin is his first cousin. But not yours, apparently, your being related through the wife, of course. We’re quite pleased about that.’ He smiled again.
For the rest of my life, I will be ashamed to remember that I smiled back. I mark that smile, now, as the beginning of the end, my first relinquishment of my own will, the moment when I began to succumb.
‘Hyams has been in and out of the border states in the past few months,’ the brigadier-general continued. ‘As you know, he used to do frequent business in the North, before the war, and has many contacts there.’ He paused, looked at me. Was it a reference to my parents? I couldn’t help but look down, dodging his eye. ‘He’s also slipped over the border itself many times, and now we have managed to intercept his communications with Richmond. There is a dire plot afoot.’ He paused, waiting for me, which I resented.
‘What sort of plot, sir?’ I asked, though I did not want to know.
‘An assassination plot. Against President Lincoln.’
‘That’s—that’s not possible, sir,’ I stammered.
‘Why?’ the major asked.
I saw that he and the others were genuinely interested, certain, it seemed, that I had something to say to them that they didn’t already know. I wished I did. ‘Mr Henry Hyams is—he’s not that sort of man, sir,’ I said. But even as I said the words, I knew they were irrelevant. It was impossible, I knew, but not because Henry wouldn’t do it. It was impossible because no one would do it.
‘We could show you rather convincing evidence to the contrary,’ the major said. ‘I hope that will not be necessary.’
‘But—but it’s impossible,’ I insisted. I began babbling about the strength of the Union, the chivalry of the Confederate forces, the respect for the rule of law even in the South. It was impossible, I concluded, because he was Lincoln, because this was America, North or South, because no one had ever assassinated a president, because no one would ever dare.
‘That is precisely what we propose that you ensure,’ said the brigadier-general, still smiling, ‘by assassinating Henry Hyams before the plot can progress.’
Surely this was some sort of mistake. The three men watched me, grinning. The blood in my body began draining into my shoes.
‘Are—are you suggesting that I kill my cousin, sir,’ I said slowly. It wasn’t a question, of course. The three of them continued grinning at me. Perhaps it was still a test, I then thought. Perhaps I was being tested by God.
‘Your actions would do honour to your race,’ the major said.
I stared at him. My race?
‘Do—do you mean my country, sir,’ I stammered, this time trying to make it sound like a question, but without succeeding. I had not yet recovered from his proposition. I will be a murderer, I thought to myself, I will be my own cousin’s murderer. I was theoretically aware, of course, that simply enlisting in the army had automatically enrolled me as a potential murderer—a role which the insufferable seventeen-year-old boy I was had been thrilled to embrace. But this was different. I wasn’t merely cannon fodder; I was a bullet. And they were planning to fire me at will. At Henry Hyams. In my memory those hands held me under the armpits again, but now my body would not move.
‘Both your country and your race, of course,’ the brigadier-general said brightly, warming to his theme. ‘Judah Benjamin and his kin have done your race a great disservice. Every Hebrew in the Union will reward you if you undo what he has done.’
The three officers looked me in the eye and, under their gaze, I realized what they saw. While I looked in the mirror and saw Jacob Rappaport, a tall, blond, seventeen-year-old American boy, the three men at this table looked at me and saw Judah Benjamin. And I suddenly knew that I would do anything not to be him.
The three of them continued speaking, their words buzzing through my brain in a blur. As I listened, numbed, to the cadences of their voices, it was like that evening years later, when I stood on stage before the hypnotist and played the violin. I smiled again. And then I felt, like the tug of sleep, the ebbing of my own will.
‘It is dearly hoped that this is not a death mission for you.’
‘Though if it should prove to be so, we are confident that you would not refuse the call of duty.’
‘It is essential that it appear accidental.’
‘Shooting is no good.’
‘No one should discover that it was you.’
‘You shall be pleased to know that a plan has been devised.’
‘A dose of poison would be placed in his drink.’
‘Subtlety is essential.’
‘We would provide the lye.’
‘If you were to be captured, you might consider using the lye yourself.’
‘You would never consider disgracing yourself by returning without success.’
‘If you succeed, the entire Union will immortalize you.’
‘Lincoln himself shall thank you, on behalf of your entire race.’
‘We know you are no Judas Benjamin.’
‘Imagine yourself written up in the history books.’
‘You would be another Hebrew spy, like in Scripture.’
‘But don’t bring us grapes. We prefer corpses.’
‘It is essential that it appear accidental.’
‘Shooting is no good.’
‘Judas Benjamin has done your race a great disservice.’
‘It can all be corrected with a little lye.’
‘We would provide the lye.’
I don’t recall saying yes. But it didn’t matter. Their words enveloped me, became me. And then I disappeared.
The barrel was removed from the boat and hidden in what I later discovered was a stable near a dock in New Orleans around midnight on the second day, and I waited a long time before prying my way out. With my arms numb and my hands shaking, it took longer than I expected to force the barrel open. And then I emerged, standing on my crimped and shaking legs, and crept out of the stable, free at last in the empty southern night.
It was a warm and very humid, though of course I was already soaked with sweat. The breeze on that almost-full-mooned night was pure freedom. But my ecstasy at feeling my limbs unfold faded quickly as I remembered that now the real horror would begin. I hurried out on to the street and then past the end of the dock, where I climbed down on to the river bank. It was a few hours before daybreak, and despite this being cosmopolitan New Orleans, no one but me seemed to be out, not even any drunks. I stripped, buried the filthy rags from inside my trousers under a rock by the edge of the grass and then immersed myself in the water of the mighty Mississippi. I’m a city boy, of course. But never have I felt more pure than when I slipped beneath that murky river water on that moonlit night. I immersed myself again and again, unable to believe that I was still living, then floated on my back and admired the stars. I emerged from the water like a newborn baby. Then, after putting the uniform back on, I slept for an hour or two there on the river bank, knowing my own nerves would wake me before dawn, and they did. I watched as the first hints of sunlight greyed the sky above the mile-wide river, and I saw the sky seethe into full daylight as the first few people (smugglers, probably) stepped out on to the docks. I ate the last scraped bits of gruel from my tin and finished off the water I had been so carefully rationing out of my canteen. As the daylight broadened into morning, I reached further into my little bag and pulled out a paper sign which I hung around my neck. The sign had been my own brilliant plan. It read as follows:
Please excuse this HERO,
Who has been rendered
DEAF and DUMB
by YANKEE CANNON FIRE,
Tho’ the Tune of ‘DIXIE’ rings in his Ears.
If you are wondering how cannon fire could render someone dumb, rest assured that such a suggestion merely renders those who read it even dumber. Once I had freed myself from bondage, this ingenious sign not only prevented me from becoming involved in awkward conversations with anyone thrilled to see a man in uniform on the street, but also allowed the Rebels themselves to reimburse a Union spy. By slackening my face into an idiotic smile, pointing to my sign, bowing grandly to the ladies and holding out my Rebel army cap (collected, I should mention, from a corpse who had been less than punctilious about the blood on the rest of his uniform, but very genteel when it came to his hat), I managed to amass a small fortune in alms. In this fashion I collected enough Confederate money to provide for whatever needs I might have during my time in the haunted ghost town that is New Orleans.
It was hot. I had never felt humidity like that. The whole city was dripping with sweat. I mean that literally. There were beaded droplets of sweat on every crooked porch railing of every house in town. And everything, everything drooped. The wooden porches of every house, even the newest ones, sagged in the centre, as if giving up on life. Low, heavy trees drooped their long, willowy branches almost down to the sidewalks. In the streets downtown, where I strolled for a bit before heading uptown towards the Garden District, the air was thick with pipe smoke, sweat and sloth. Even the people drooped.
After passing many drooping houses and many elderly men saluting me as I walked along my way, I came across the Hebrew cemetery. Cemeteries in New Orleans are like small cities of the dead. The ground is too soft and flood-prone for subterranean graves, so the departed are instead interred in above-ground stone mausoleums, some of which are rather grander than the homes of the living. But these necropolises are not the Hebrew custom; our forefathers insisted on our being buried in the ground. It has something to do with desert life, I suppose. But because they lived in a swamp, the Jews of New Orleans, as I discovered upon entering the Hebrew cemetery, had developed a unique custom. Forced to bury their dead in ground too soft for burial, the Hebrews had created a necropolis of their own, where each of the graves consisted of a small mound of earth covered in a layer of grass; raised mausoleums made to look like part of the earth. Each plot was like a grassy plateau, marked with a modest stone plaque, a city of small truncated mountains: small hopes, small fears, small triumphs and failures, all. I walked among the graves as the sun sank over the drooping trees, and it wasn’t long before I came across the Hyams family plot, at the very edge of the cemetery, under a vine-draped tree. A generation’s worth of Hyamses lay waiting for the messianic age beneath this small piece of soggy land. I paused above them, and began, out of force of habit and fear, to recite the memorial prayer. But then I saw the empty space to the side of one of the graves, blank sod, and I realized that I was the only person in the world who knew precisely who would occupy it.
I glanced up at the sky, where the sun was setting, the tops of the trees on fire. If I were a braver man, a wiser man, a man in full possession of his own will, I would have asked God what I was doing, why I was doing it, how I could possibly escape. But I wasn’t brave or wise. Instead, I looked at that sun and merely realized that the hour was getting late, and that it was time to continue, to do as I was told. And then, turning away from that disappearing sun, I hurried out of the cemetery and continued on to St Charles Avenue, remembering to remove my idiotic sign just before I reached the large and decrepit wooden mansion that was number forty-six.
A slave opened the door. I don’t know whom I was expecting—Henry Hyams himself, perhaps, presenting me with a dagger to insert into his chest?—but this narrow-eyed Negro took me by surprise. He looked to be about forty years old, and he didn’t smile. Most of the Negroes I had seen in my life had been in entertainments and the like, and of course they had all been quite jolly, or had acted that way, playing their imaginary violins onstage. But this man was clearly cross, levelling his narrow eyes at me. Looking down to avoid his stare, I saw that he was standing with one foot bent to the side; I had wondered at first why a slave his age wouldn’t be working on a plantation somewhere, but a cripple must have been a discount as a house servant. He eyed my uniform, letting his gaze roll up and down my chest. Then he looked at me with an expression of astonishing contempt, sweat beading on his forehead. Here was a man who was done pretending to please. And I, just beginning to pretend, was already used to absorbing contempt. I narrowed my own eyes and grinned.
‘Mrs Henry Hyams, please,’ I said. I didn’t know whether Henry Hyams would be home at that hour. And even if he were, I wasn’t ready to look him in the eye.
Beyond the doorway, I could see an ornate foyer with carved, painted mouldings and pale, square patches on the walls between the sconces; I wondered if paintings had been sold.
The Negro looked at me again, his gaze crossing my chest, and for a moment I imagined that he could see the poison in my pocket. ‘Who’s callin’?’ he growled. I saw that he was eyeing my uniform, and suddenly I imagined how my ancestors must have viewed their taskmasters at every moment until this very night, Passover eve, three thousand years ago. I’m a sentimentalist, really. Though I know how absurd it was even to think it, I wished I could whisper an ‘amcha’ in his ear.
‘Jacob Rappaport,’ I said. After playing the deaf-and-dumb war hero, the sound of my own real name astonished me. The truth was like a gulp of cold water on a hot, hot day.
The Negro stared again, and for a moment I thought he might be about to spit at my feet. Then he turned his head. ‘Miz’ Hyams!’ he shouted. ‘They’s a soldja heah! Mista Rappa!’ He grunted, and then, as if dismissing me himself, turned and went into the house, letting the door drift closed behind him. I caught the swinging door with my foot and watched him progressing down the hall with an agonizing limp, until I could see an enormous blue dress moving into the foyer. As the dress approached, I saw a woman’s head affixed to the top of it, hair piled in a tower adorned with shoddy-looking false pearls. Presumably there was also a face somewhere, though the place where it would be was obscured by an enormous fan made of turquoise peacock feathers.
The peacock feathers moved towards me as if the bird itself were strutting in my direction, waving its gaudy tail in a delicate mating dance. ‘Rappa? Who is Rappa?’ a voice behind them asked. The feathers slowly lowered, and I saw her face: the pale green eyes, the full-lipped mouth stretched into a society smile, the guarded greeting and the kindness lurking far beneath it. And then I almost wept, because in the face of Elizabeth Hyams, I saw my own mother standing before me.
It had been many years since we had seen each other and I know I looked quite different than I did when I was a boy. But I do look like my mother. People have always told me so, especially when I was seventeen and barely able to grow a beard. Elizabeth Hyams must have thought so too, because she didn’t even say hello. Instead, she looked at my eyes and said, ‘Dear God.’ And then she fainted.
‘Clearly I wasn’t expecting you.’
Elizabeth had recovered quickly, with me raising her off the ground and the Negro man limping to the kitchen and back with the smelling salts. I was surprised by how frail her body felt in my arms. Her voice was my mother’s, with a Southern accent. She looked me over. ‘And in our uniform! But—but you’re a Yankee!’
‘There was no way to tell you,’ I said, and tried not to sicken at the words. I then began reciting the story the officers had fed me—the long and tediously sentimental tale of how I had so courageously chosen not to betray my parents’ relatives in the South, the name and number of my supposed Rebel regiment, the vague imaginary battle where I had lost my comrades-in-arms, how I had walked all the way to New Orleans, et cetera, et cetera. I had practised this monologue so many times, even in the barrel, that I could perform it without the slightest thought. What I hadn’t prepared for, though, was giving this speech while being watched by my mother.
‘So tell me all about everything—what you’ve seen, all of it,’ she said, her eyes full of compassion. She had believed every word.
I tried to remember not to pity myself. But I thought of my mother and had to swallow a sob. Elizabeth mistook my muted sob for a sign of my own painful past, rather than her own painful future, and I had to swallow another sob as I saw tears gathering in her eyes.
‘Oh, you don’t have to speak of it,’ she said, grasping my hands. ‘It’s so cruel of me to ask. It’s just that I’m thinking of our boys. Please forgive me.’
The knot in my stomach tightened as her rings dug into my fingers. Again I told myself that it was nerves. And again I knew it wasn’t. But then I remembered the mesmerizing words of those three men in the officers’ tent, and I put myself into the act. ‘We’ll rout those Yankees yet, I assure you,’ I announced, and swallowed bile.
‘I’m delighted to hear it from you,’ she said, with genuine joy. ‘The newspapers have been so gloomy. Everyone is gloomy, I suppose. Even Henry.’
Henry! No, I wouldn’t think of him now, I told myself. There was no point in thinking of him now. Luckily Elizabeth herself was able to distract me. ‘How are your parents?’ she asked.
It was a relief to tell the truth. ‘Not ruined, which is saying quite a bit,’ I replied, with my first genuine smile. Although I hadn’t always succeeded in not thinking about Henry during the past few weeks, I had done an admirable job of not thinking about how this mission would affect my parents. In my mind, they were preserved innocently, seated around our Passover table in New York, opening the door with earnest eagerness to welcome me home. It did not once occur to me to think otherwise. ‘They’re doing more business with Canada now, but it has been difficult,’ I told her. ‘Of course, they have been so concerned about you.’
Elizabeth flapped her fan, and I saw her looking at the floor. ‘Oh, we are all fine, really quite fine,’ she said, and I heard her first false note. I glanced around the bare, shabby room, then back at her, and was astonished to notice a small hole in the toe of her shoe. ‘Though we’re always worried about our boys,’ she continued. ‘All three of them are away, of course. Everyone’s boys are. For the first time in my life, I’ve envied those mothers with daughters, the ones who used to envy me.’ She smiled. ‘But how glorious to have you here, a fine substitute for our boys! Henry will be so pleased to see you,’ she told me, fairly chirping. ‘And in our uniform, too! He already has such admiration for you.’
One fancies oneself a real man for failing to show emotion, for succeeding in pretence. I stared down at the hole in her shoe with my lips pursed, in an attitude of what I hoped would come across as modestly hidden pride. I looked into her eyes, but I closed my ears and let my mind wander, trying to think of anyone or anything but her. My memory landed on the previous autumn and Mendoza, whom I now loathed all over again. What a traitor he was, to take a private conversation and hand it over to the command, and suddenly here I was about to murder someone in my own family, all because of Mendoza! But then I wondered if perhaps this mission really was a mission from God, if Mendoza had in fact been God’s unwitting agent, if I really was about to save the life of the President of the United States, to save the entire Union, to be a second Moses, a young Moses, if Mendoza’s petty betrayal was actually an essential step in the repair of the entire world. And wasn’t Henry Hyams a small price to pay for the repair of the entire world? But I didn’t see it that way, then. All I saw was my mother’s cousin doubled over in grief, as she would be that very night, if I succeeded. I wasn’t Moses. I was the angel of death.
‘Judah shall be here, too, I’m sure you shall be pleased to know, though he said he may be late,’ I heard Elizabeth say. Her words halted my dark thoughts in their tracks. ‘I don’t imagine you ever met him before. His sister is ill, so he shall come alone. His wife and daughter live in France.’
‘Judah?’ I asked. My face showed only gentle curiosity, but I couldn’t believe my luck. Could it possibly be?
She looked at me as though my brains had spilled out on to my uniform. ‘Why, Judah Benjamin, of course!’ she announced. Her cheeks reddened with pride. ‘He’s Henry’s first cousin. Oh, I see why you’re confused,’ she said with a laugh, though I was more astonished than confused, and then I worried about why I ought to be confused instead. ‘He married a Catholic, of course,’ she said, in the low voice that society women use to tell you that someone has had a disease, or an affair. As a Rappaport, I had heard that voice many times. ‘But that was just for the show of it. Hardly even for the show of it, actually, since he barely shows it. He often comes back to New Orleans for Passover.’ She beamed.
I found this nearly impossible to believe. What secretary of state abandons his president in the midst of conflagration, travelling for days on end, just to celebrate a holiday? Benjamin may not have become a Christian, but it was impossible to believe that as a Hebrew he had suddenly become devout. There was another reason for this visit. And I rallied as I realized what it must be. Then I had another thought: that the poison in my pocket might be given to Benjamin instead, surely a more worthy target. But I was too paralysed by my hypnotists, too horrified of doing something horribly wrong. Henry was expendable; Benjamin was practically a head of state. I had to maintain the plan. In the meantime, I waited for the sun to set, made small talk with Elizabeth about my mother and Elizabeth’s sons, and dreaded the moment when Henry Hyams would come home and join us for the evening meal.
Just half an hour later, he did. To my great relief, he came in the door with ten other people in tow, which mitigated my need to speak with him more than was bearable. Of course, he nearly passed out himself when he saw me standing in his foyer. But I was the one holding my breath. ‘My dear boy!’ he exclaimed, doffing his hat in my direction. ‘The young Rappaport scion—a real man now! And a Yankee turned Rebel! I never would have guessed it!’ He was taller than me, over six feet high, and the top hat he tipped in my direction reminded me of my father.
‘I would never have guessed it either,’ I replied, and Elizabeth began rattling on about how I couldn’t bear to betray the family and so forth. I must admit I was relieved not to have to repeat the story again. I had to work hard enough not to tremble. Henry absorbed the lies, and grinned.
‘Tell me, son, do I look older?’ he asked me with a laugh.
‘Not a bit,’ I told him. And when I dared to look more closely at his face, I was surprised to see that it was true. I suppose one always imagines that people are preserved precisely as they looked when one last saw them. But in Henry’s case he actually was. The war, which had so clearly aged his wife and nearly everyone else I had crossed paths with in the past year, seemed to have had the opposite effect on Henry Hyams. Unlike everyone else in America, who had become haggard and ill, Henry Hyams appeared even younger than when I had last seen him. His arms and legs and even his stomach looked lean and muscular. But more than that, it was the look in his eyes. They gleamed, as though they saw more than they would let on, like a boy playing a prank. When I was a child, that look had intrigued me, making me think of him as a boy in man’s clothing. But now, as I stood before him in my Rebel uniform stolen from a corpse, I saw that gleeful look of his and felt sickened, sensing, for the first time in my short life, what it means to be a boy in man’s clothing.
‘I must admit, Jacob, I never imagined that we would see each other again. Eight years, has it been? How life has changed. How the world has changed.’
I smiled at him as he kissed my cheeks, and wondered what on earth I could possibly say.
An old man standing beside him removed his hat. ‘We’re proud of you, son,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘This isn’t the old kind of war. My father was a veteran of the Revolution, and always spoke of how war should be about principle. I know up north they think it’s about principle, but it isn’t, son. It’s about land. Our boys are seeding this land with their blood.’
Never in my life—my city life, my life lived in carriages and on cobblestones, lived with my parents and their business partners and the rest of their merchant friends—had I heard anyone talk about land. No one in my family had owned land for the past twenty centuries. But now I realized that many of these men did, and they meant it. I had to stop listening, I realized. The more I listened, the worse everything would become.
Fortunately, that was when Elizabeth began ushering us into the dining room for the holiday meal. As I followed the other guests, I saw Henry turn to Elizabeth. I expected to hear a friendly greeting, or even see him kiss her hand, but he didn’t. Instead, I heard him say, in a voice so harsh it shocked me, ‘Where is Judah?’
‘Late,’ she whispered back. ‘He told me he would be late.’
‘He had better come,’ he said.
Elizabeth smiled. ‘Oh, he’ll be here. Be patient, you old fool,’ she told him.
Henry grumbled as Elizabeth hurried past him to the table. This astonished me. All of my memories of Henry were of a cheerful, boyish man who was impossible to annoy. But those were a child’s memories. After so many weeks of trying not to think of Henry, I decided to watch him, to listen, to see what kind of man I was plotting to kill. I took a seat towards the end of the table, with a good view of Henry’s place at the head. And then the service began.
I’m not sure if there’s anything stranger than sitting down to a Passover Seder, the feast of freedom, with every part of the meal served by slaves. But that’s exactly what happened at the home of Henry Hyams. It was a good thing a fair amount of the service was in Hebrew, I suppose, because it was a whole lot more comfortable without the slaves listening, though there were plenty of awkward passages about freedom that Henry read proudly in English from his seat at the table’s head. The limping Negro who had answered the door, along with a Negro woman (the lame Negro’s wife? Or—I forced myself to imagine—had his own wife been sold elsewhere, and this woman was a new household purchase, a stranger?), were the ones who carried the platters of matzo and bitter herbs in and out of the somewhat shabby dining room while we sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing us from bondage. I was the new Moses, I reminded myself—not the Moses of leading the people out of Egypt (that was the president whom I was about to save), but the young Moses, the Moses who murdered the Egyptian taskmaster and then fled, saving the future of the older Moses in the process. The others, I saw, avoided eye contact with the slaves who delivered their food and dishes. But I made sure to look at them each time. The woman avoided my gaze, but the man stared back at me, with a look of strange and vicious triumph. It frightened me even more than Henry did. I looked away.
Henry Hyams led the service, rising from his seat to raise his first glass of wine and recite the opening prayers. As he sat down and slaves began to pass around the basin and pitcher for the ritual washing of hands and then platters of green vegetables, Henry introduced every man at the table, each of whom seemed to be the owner of some large plantation or mercantile concern. And then he came to me. ‘And this,’ he said, raising his glass in my direction with a wink, ‘is my cousin, Jacob Rappaport, the greatest turncoat of the century.’ I had to force myself to laugh with the company, but luckily not for long, because a moment later Judah Benjamin entered the room. And then everyone stood.
Every Hebrew in the Republic was fascinated by Judah Benjamin. Southern Hebrews saw him as the messenger of the Messiah, the herald who would proclaim liberty throughout the land to anyone who had ever felt that Jewish fear of power. Northern Hebrews saw him as the horrifying beginning of a descent into an American Jewish hell, and whispered secretly at Friday night tables that if the Confederacy were to prevail, the rot of centuries would eat through even the freshness of America and the Jews would be blamed again. My parents had shared the Southern Hebrew smugness about him, proud as could be. But after spending the past few months reading everything the officers gave me to read about Benjamin, I found that my every thought about him put me ill at ease, and it was only at a length of many years later that I was able to understand why.
Judah Benjamin was a clear American genius, one who had achieved nothing through birth and everything through self-transformation. Born on some godforsaken Caribbean island before his family relocated to North Carolina, where they sold fruit on the docks, Mr Benjamin had been admitted to Yale Law School at the age of fourteen, despite his name, lineage and utter lack of funds. Leaving Yale after being accused (falsely, I am convinced) of stealing, and unwilling to return to his poverty-stricken parents, he decamped to New Orleans, where he quickly took advantage of being the cleverest man in town by opening a law practice, getting himself elected to the state legislature and then graduating to the United States Senate. Along the way he acquired a gorgeous wife from the city’s French elite and later his very own plantation, a fine prelude to becoming the second most powerful man in the entire Confederacy. It was American genius, plain and simple. His entire life was an elaborate refusal to be the person he had been born to be. The problem was that it was all a sham. He was a lawyer without ever having finished law school, a planter who knew so little about farming that he travelled to France to learn about seeds, a patriarch of a Catholic family who would never dream of believing that Jesus was a god, a man married into the Southern aristocracy whose wife and child had permanently traded the South for Paris. And everyone who looked at him remarked that they had never seen such a Hebrew face.
He stood in the doorway for a moment without advancing towards his seat. He was short, not much more than five feet tall, with rounded, smooth cheeks like a boy’s, dark skin and dark eyes. I had heard of his perpetual mysterious smile, but it was a shock to see it in person. His eyes roamed the room, pausing at each face, and the smile on his lips wasn’t an invitation to friendship but a guard against it. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking and unnerving to try. ‘It is a pleasure to be here, Henry,’ he said slowly, as Henry hurried to show him to his seat. His voice was careful, articulate, with only a very slight drawl. ‘It was so gracious of you to include me this evening.’
I watched as Henry drew out his chair for him, with a slight bow. The entire company, I saw, avoided his penetrating gaze. It was as though we were in the presence of a king. Benjamin took his seat, and it was only when Henry returned to his place and announced the next part of the service that everyone felt the freedom to smile. And Benjamin gave each person his haunting smile back, opened his book and followed as Henry continued leading the service, chanting along with the company that we had once been slaves in Egypt until God took us out with a mighty hand. It was extremely odd. My memories of Henry were of a grand presence, a man who filled a room. But here I saw a different Henry: timid, diffident, waiting for permission. As he continued reading the service aloud, he seemed under a spell.
Since it was my great ambition, at seventeen years old, to achieve the kind of victory that Benjamin had achieved at becoming an American hero, I observed him across the table for the rest of the evening, looking for clues from the master as to how to pretend. I watched very carefully. And what I saw was that there was something odd about him, though I couldn’t quite place it. It was obvious that he was fiercely intelligent, for everything he said was a sort of aphorism, though I didn’t know whether or not they were original. When one of the guests asked him, rather jovially, what new plans Richmond had in terms of strategy, I was disappointed and then frightened when he looked straight at me and said, as though quoting, ‘Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.’ The company seemed to find this witty, and when everyone laughed, I joined in, hiding my fear. For the rest of the meal he seemed friendly enough, always smiling. But he had a certain awkwardness about him that made me even more uncomfortable than I already was. He answered questions put to him, but didn’t inspire one to continue the conversation. It was as if every word he said were carefully parsed out in his mind beforehand, after he had decided whether it was worth saying. While he was silent, he would smile at you—a strange smile, as if he were laughing at you without your knowing why. The newspaper articles where I had read descriptions of him had always attributed his oddness to his race. But as a fellow member of that race, I found him odd as well. The more I thought about him, the more I wondered if he just might be the sort who was, well—well, a man’s man, shall I say. I had been around enough soldiers to know how a lonely man talks about women (his own beloved back home, or just about anyone else’s). Yet when the conversation turned to families, it was clear that this gentleman cared not at all that his own wife had lived in France for the previous twelve years, and that he had sought no substitute for her in her absence. When he was in New Orleans, it appeared, he lived with his sister, and when those around the table asked him about his social life—even when Henry insisted, ‘Judah, let us put the war aside now, shall we?’—I heard him mention only one name: ‘Mr Davis’, ‘Mr Davis’ and ‘Mr Davis’. At one point, to my astonishment, he even referred to him as ‘Jeff’. A man’s man, and I wondered if the Confederate president himself were the man.
But this train of thought was just a distraction for me, an indulgent escape from the riveting personage of Henry Hyams, imminent murder victim, seated before me. I trembled my way through the text of the service, with Henry Hyams reading aloud and then offering his own commentary, which made the knot in my stomach tighter. Instead, I tried to concentrate on the story being told as we chanted the liturgy around the table, describing the anguish of our ancestors, slaves in Egypt, and the vast vindications wrought to set them free. It is one of the few moments of Hebrew glory in all of history, perhaps even the only one. But I often imagine how terrible it must have been to live through: the tortures of slavery, and then the horrifying vindication of the angel of death, slaying the firstborn of Egypt so that the Israelites might be set free. And now I wondered: what did the Israelites feel as the great cry went up in Egypt, when there was not a single household where there was not one dead? Victory? Vengeance? Or horror at their sheer power, through the will of their God, of determining life and death? Did one of them feel, perhaps, that still, small fear that I felt as I listened to Henry Hyams, with the poison in my pocket?
‘In every generation,’ Henry chanted from the book in his hands, ‘each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.’ Henry read with the alacrity and expression of someone who didn’t just recite the words, but felt and believed them.
‘We ourselves shall come out of Egypt soon enough,’ Benjamin said cheerfully when Henry paused. ‘I have good word of it from Richmond.’
The company laughed aloud as the lame Negro—unnoticed by the other guests, glaringly present to me—came to serve the small dishes used for the bitter herbs.
‘But I thought you said it was all a secret,’ Elizabeth replied, with a playful air. It was even more painful for me to look at her than it was to look at Henry.
‘Victory is no secret, but an inevitability,’ Benjamin said. ‘The means may be hidden, but the ends are there for all to see.’
The people around the table cheered. There was something mad about this, I saw, hypnotic. Every person in the company was in his power. Soon the meal was served, and the conversation consisted almost entirely of compliments to him, prodding questions about war strategy, which he consistently refused to answer, and sad laughter as the women shared stories about their sons who were away and, though I was the only one at the table who could imagine it, quite possibly dead. The delusion was grand, glorious, and they were all part of it. But I was under suggestions of my own.
The service would continue after the meal, but for the time being the company had retired to the rather shabby parlour, to relax and circulate before returning to the table. By then it was quite dark out; the crippled Negro had lit the lights. I tried to make small talk with Elizabeth and some of the other guests, but positioned myself with my back just in front of Henry when I saw him moving to a corner to speak with Judah Benjamin. I kept the small man in the corner of my eye as I stood beside Elizabeth, letting her babble on about her army boys while I listened to the conversation behind me.
‘Judah, I know you have abandoned your fathers’ faith, but perhaps you would be willing to join me in the drawing room for a discussion about the meaning of freedom,’ I heard Henry say, his voice low.
I could hear the grin in Benjamin’s voice as he replied, ‘in fact, a good pipe is what I’d prefer.’
Henry let out a puff of breath. ‘Alas, I must report that my wife is a bit more traditional than I, and will not tolerate smoking in the home during the holiday.’
‘It is only on the Hebrew festival of freedom that one feels more liberated after returning to everyday life,’ Benjamin proclaimed. ‘An oppressive tradition if ever there was one. I suppose we shall have to retreat out of doors.’
‘A brilliant idea.’
‘The idea is brilliant, but its execution must not be. Brilliance requires no subtlety; but if we are to succeed in our transgressions, we must take to the least brilliant corner of the property.’ The man spoke like he was writing a book.
‘Out past the house, then, by the latrine.’
‘A less-than-brilliant idea, Henry, unless you mean upwind.’
‘Indeed, I do.’
‘Good, then.’ Benjamin turned, and for a moment he stood staring me in the face. His expression was a blank; it seemed he hadn’t thought he had been heard, or if he did, then that he thought nothing of it. He clapped a hand on my shoulder. ‘We have great admiration for you, young man,’ he said. ‘It’s a rare man who sees his kinsman’s plight as you do, and comes to his aid. A true loyalty to one’s own.’
It was a hard compliment to accept, especially coming from Judah Benjamin, Jewish prince of the Confederacy, but I thanked him heartily and shook his hand. It was easier than looking Henry in the eye. Then the two of them excused themselves and headed for the back of the house. I listened a bit more to Elizabeth’s pining for her boys, then excused myself in turn, even indulging in a slight bow, leaving Elizabeth with three women who had been anxiously awaiting their turn to speak with her. And then I hurried through the halls to the back of the house, in pursuit of my prey.
The moon was bright and round, as it always is on Passover, like a coin resting on the moist black velvet of the spring night sky. I waited by the house until Henry and Benjamin had rounded the corner of the wooden shed, then proceeded, softly, to the open door of the latrine. It was easy to walk undetected on the ground. The drooping tree branches drifted in the wind. I entered the latrine soundlessly, securing the door behind me, then leaned over the cesspool against the shed’s back wall. Their voices came through clearly, over the stink.
‘So we’ve come to discuss the meaning of freedom, then?’ Henry asked. I could hear his smile. ‘I must admit, I find it hard to believe that I am the only reason you are here.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ Benjamin spat. ‘Perhaps you haven’t heard that the delta is surrounded? All of New Orleans could fall in less than two weeks. Trust me, you are a very minor part of my business here.’
I heard a match being struck, then struck again, then silence. In the fetid shadows of the latrine, I imagined Benjamin’s dark face lit by the sudden flame, his black eyebrows illuminated from below like a Christian devil in hell.
‘I’ve come to confirm that the log will be ready for the axe,’ Benjamin added after a few breaths. ‘In the manner we discussed.’
Log, I had been told, was the coded term that Confederate agents used when referring to President Lincoln. It had something to do with the President’s log-cabin birth, or his height and posture, or perhaps both, I don’t recall. I heard the word and held my breath.
‘Oh, there’s nothing to confirm,’ Henry replied, almost breezily. ‘The axe is in place.’
For the first time, I realized that it actually was true. The bare ground in the latrine was soft, like all the ground in New Orleans. Henry’s entire house was built on a swamp. I listening, sinking in.
‘You are certain that you are ready,’ Benjamin said, more question than statement.
‘I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country,’ Henry quoted, with an unmistakably unctuous tone. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I hated him.
So did Benjamin, it seemed. ‘You aren’t the one who will be giving his life,’ the Secretary snapped. ‘You will give only a bullet. Two at most.’
‘But if I should be caught,’ Henry said, ‘it is something to consider.’
‘It is something to consider only if you do not follow the plan exactly,’ Benjamin replied, and I could hear how his jaws were clenched. ‘I hope you don’t have any secret ideas about firing shots in the air, or shouting public proclamations about the death of tyrants, or any other such nonsense.’
Henry cleared his throat, and I could hear the regret in it. But Benjamin continued, and I heard his voice rise in what I imagined to be his attorney’s tone. ‘Glory isn’t for the Jews, Henry,’ he said. ‘Just think of me. If I am to be remembered at all, even if we are to triumph, it will be only as one who designed the plans that were heroically executed by someone else. We can be slave owners, we can own whole plantations, but as far as everyone else is concerned, you and I will always be slaves.’
I was astonished to hear this from Benjamin, who, as much as I detested him, had certainly appeared to be in a position of glory. But now I knew that what he said was true. And what was worse, I knew that it also applied to me. I listened, sickened, as he continued.
‘American honour,’ he said, in his aphoristic way, ‘the hard unseen labour that raises a country from dust—that can be yours, and you deserve it. But American glory, that belongs to someone else. And besides, Henry, you aren’t suited for it. No one wanted you for this, but you wanted it yourself. And if I let them choose you, it was only because you didn’t seem like the sort to have a death wish. My task tonight is to confirm that.’
A pause. ‘You doubt me,’ Henry said at last, his voice exacting and composed. ‘You shouldn’t. I’ve been supplying that camp over the Maryland border with all the rum they could dream of for the past six months. I’ll be on my way back there again next week. The log visits once or twice a month, and they do a parade for him. They always warn me when he comes, to make sure I’m not intercepted with goods on hand. I’ve even gone to the parades before, to see where the log sits. It’s a public parade; the people from town crowd right up to him. Even the officers know me by sight. They’re thrilled to see me. They’re only concerned about the rum.’
‘And how will you do it?’ Benjamin said, like an impatient father reviewing his son’s schoolwork.
‘I take my place alongside the seats they have for him. I wait for the part of the parade with the gun salute. I keep the revolver under my cloak even when I draw, and I time my shot to correspond with the salute,’ Henry recited, like an obedient child. For a moment, I felt ashamed for him. And then, as I recognized how familiar that obedient voice sounded, I felt ashamed of myself. ‘No one hears where the shot came from, and before anyone even sees him fall, I slip out of the crowd.’
Benjamin’s voice was languid. ‘You slip out of the crowd,’ he repeated. ‘Not, for instance, by jumping in front of the parade and waving your revolver in the air while draped in a Rebel flag.’
Henry sucked in his breath. ‘You doubt me. But you know that no one can do it but me. There’s a reason you need me to do this. I’m the only one who still goes there without anyone raising an eyebrow. I know every seventeen-year-old imbecile in that camp. No one will suspect me. For anyone else it would be a death mission.’
I was another seventeen-year-old imbecile, I knew, feeling lightheaded. I barely breathed.
‘I don’t doubt your capacity to carry it off,’ Benjamin replied. ‘I doubt your capacity to carry it off without glorifying yourself in the process. Remember, glory will never be yours. Or mine either. Save your dreams of glory for the world to come.’
Someone knocked on the door of the latrine. Startled, I nearly tripped into the pit, catching myself on the side walls and turning around on the soft mud. I realized I had to make my escape back to the house. There was something I needed to do at the house, in the dining room, and now, for the very first time, I wanted to do it. Behind me, through the wall, I could hear Henry making some kind of reply; neither man paused when I creaked open the latrine door.
To my surprise, the person behind it was the Negro cripple. He stared at me with what I thought was again that look of contempt; it was difficult to see in the dark. But then I saw him waving one arm, almost frantically, gesturing at me to go back to the house. When I stepped forward, he took his other arm and pushed me, soundlessly, out the door, urging me on as he waved the other hand towards the house. I assumed he had a desperate need for the latrine, and wondered if slaves usually used the same latrine as everyone else. But as I hurried back to the house, I glanced over my shoulder and saw him flinging the latrine door open and closed, back and forth, then turning around and limping back to the house himself. Whatever he was doing, it certainly distracted the two pipe-smokers behind the latrine. As I closed the door of the house behind me, I saw Henry and Benjamin emerging from the other side, Henry yelling something at the slave. Both of them were too focused on the crippled Negro to notice that I had been there. I slipped back to the empty dining room, tore open the packet of poison and poured it into Henry’s empty glass, which I then refilled from the decanter of wine, stirring it a bit with Henry’s spoon. I was shocked by how easy it was, how little of anything I felt at all.
As I was replacing the glass, the crippled Negro entered the room. He looked at me with a strange expression that I couldn’t quite decipher, as though, perhaps, he were laughing at me. Then he picked up the decanter and began filling the other glasses around the table, humming one of the Hebrew tunes that we had been singing. And then, horrified, I retreated to the parlour, just in time for Henry to call the company to return to the dining-room table.
The second half of the Passover Seder is either tedious or triumphal, depending on how much you drink compared with how much you eat. Most years, the feast is a feast in every sense, and people drag themselves back to the table tired, sluggish and ready for the whole evening to be done with. But in war-stricken New Orleans, that wasn’t the case. Food wasn’t yet scarce, but it had become harder to come by; liquor, on the other hand, had been laid up for years. Even at the shabby, genteel table of Henry Hyams, the food had not quite been balanced by the drink, and so the tone that night, after everyone made their way back to the table, was triumphal: most of the guests were more drunk than full, and it showed. The guests sang the grace after meals loudly, with gusto, the older ones even singing aloud the parts usually chanted to oneself. Afterwards, before Henry rose to read the next passage, some of the older guests began laughing about Elijah the Prophet, messenger of the Messiah, for whom one opens the door at the end of the evening—joking that perhaps Elijah might arrive this year in the form of a swarm of mosquitoes full of Yankee blood, or perhaps even General Lee himself. I would have expected to be nervous at this point, to be thinking about Henry, or even my father or my mother, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was impatient. I stared at Henry’s raised glass and tapped my foot on the dingy floor as I waited for him to bring it to his lips.
Henry pronounced the blessing over his glass of wine and I watched, riveted, as he drank it. When he put the glass down, he made a face and leaned back on his cushioned chair, turning to the side, where the Negro was waiting.
‘Badly decanted, Jim,’ he called. ‘Bring another bottle, will you? There’s something peculiar about this one.’
The Negro muttered and then wandered off, returning with another bottle that he began to serve into fresh glasses around the table. I watched Henry, ridiculously—hadn’t the officers told me that results wouldn’t be immediate? I began to feel as though I myself had been poisoned, but Henry showed no other signs. Instead, he rose to his feet, holding his half-empty glass before him. He was slightly drunk. Steadying himself on the table’s edge with one hand and raising the glass with the other, he began to read aloud—in English, this time—the cry of vengeance from the very end of the Passover meal. He drawled out the words slowly, pronouncing them each with a firm and almost terrifying passion: ‘Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You, and upon the nations that do not call upon Your name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.’
At all of the Passovers in my short life, I had heard those biblical words recited dutifully, by happy men with full stomachs who rushed through this passage so as to finally reach the evening’s long-awaited end. But in Henry Hyams’s voice, I suddenly heard an unexpected tone of real and horrifying rage. He looked up from his book and around at the company, and smiled a cruel smile. For an instant, I felt that I was the Jacob who had been devoured.
‘I would like to dedicate this fourth glass of wine to the Union,’ Henry said, in a loud and angry drawl. ‘May it go the way of all tyrants. May our dear Judah Benjamin lead us as we pursue the Union hosts with anger, and may we destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.’
The company broke into applause. Judah Benjamin applauded too, modestly at first. But then the applause began to escalate, becoming louder and wilder than even he could bear. The room roared. Everyone stood, raised their glasses, banging them with their forks.
And then, to my astonishment, Benjamin’s composed face changed, reddening with passion. ‘Death to the Union!’ he bellowed, his voice louder than I could ever imagine it. Soon everyone took up the chant. It was the drinking, I was sure—or so I believed, until Henry Hyams cried out, ‘Death to Lincoln!’
The company echoed him, man to woman to man, cheering for the angel of death. I stood with them, of course, banged my glass like the rest of them, and in the wave of passion that circled the Passover table, I was washed clean of all remorse. When Henry turned to face me, I didn’t even wince.
‘My dear boy, Jacob,’ he said, with the hardened edge still on his drawl as the company’s chants died down, ‘would you please do us the honour of opening the door for Elijah the Prophet, may he arrive speedily and in our time.’
I smiled, bowed to the ladies at the table and turned around to walk towards the door. But when I reached the hallway, I heard a horrid sound, a kind of rattled, muffled gasp. I turned in my tracks, a Yankee facing a table full of Rebels, with Henry at the head, looking straight at me. And at that moment, Henry Hyams poured out his wrath on to the dining-room table.
I never imagined it would happen so quickly, or that it would be so supremely terrible to witness. The commanders must have given me something other than ordinary lye. Henry’s eyes rolled back in his head as he vomited black bile on to the silver trays in front of him. He vomited, and vomited, and vomited: his entire life poured out of his mouth before the heavens of the Lord. As the women at the table began to scream and the men rushed to his side, I turned back around and walked, slowly, towards the door. I opened it wide, for the Prophet Elijah. And then I ran out into the moonlit Southern night.
Image courtesy of VinceFL