A Prayer for the Swamp Phantoms, 1865

Allison Pinkerton

Our boys didn’t come home to the swamp after fighting the North, but James did. He came back with a phantom limb, believing he could feel the clench of the muscles that had been amputated in a surgical tent, bloody saws and chloroform rags and dirty knives. When news of his phantom limb slithered through our church sanctuary at the edge of the swamp, the young girls buzzed, lust-heavy and Eve-vexed, around him. When James used his condition to walk a different girl home from church every Sunday, we rallied.

Rumor was he’d made a pact with the Devil—life for limb. Our sons hadn’t stooped so low. Parts of us wished they had, that Ezekiel had promised to fish with one arm if he could come back, that Noah had promised to play piano with his feet if he could be spared. Our anger (at James, our sons, ourselves, the war) scorched our throats.

We spread rumor of the pact; we gave ourselves reasons to exorcise. We’d cast out demons before, and gathering evidence would be simple. (We’d done it with the boy who had fits, and the girl who claimed the Devil forced her to lay with the baker’s son, the blacksmith’s son, the grocer.)  Sniveling James, weak boy, we sang quietly during “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Our husbands frowned. We frowned back. A mighty fortress was our rage.

Our boys would have helped on the farm even with two phantom limbs. At night, still enough to remember, we dreamed of our sons. Armless yet alive, they moved eggs with their minds from beneath the hens into golden baskets.

We woke sweaty and ashamed of our dreaming selves, our Sunday magic leaked from us. We prayed—Jesus, keep us from Beezlebub’s clutches—just as fervently as we had prayed for our sons’ safe return from Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, when we thought we were owed safety for being good people.

Then, we heaved from bed to milk the cows, and we pretended their warmth was our sons’ warmth. We leaned our heads against the cows’ sides as we milked, steam rising like prayers to the haylofts.

Wednesday, Pastor went to Orange City for a baptism. Our Sunday magic recharged, our rage reignited. Without him, we were Jesus’ front line. He would disapprove of laypeople (laywomen!) casting out demons. But, garden-banished ourselves, we had to bring one back to the fold.

We charged past the orange packinghouse and through the marsh to James’s family’s house on stilts at the water’s edge. Their orange groves reigned just inland, the smell of citrus strong on the breeze. Barely out of the tide’s reach, James and his father repaired a boat resting bottom up on a sawhorse. James sanded and his father wiped up the sawdust. Horseflies buzzed at their knees and James’s father swatted his son’s legs. The horseflies darted away, returned.

We practiced our prayer: Heal him, Father. Cast them out, cast them out, cast them out. Our hands hummed. An egret swooped low over the water.

“Yes?” James’s father asked.  Sawdust clung to his beard. The war scar beneath his eye quivered. We walked forward, watching for cottonmouths. James’s hands shook. He’d heard the rumor we’d spread. He’d heard that we’d attempted to exorcise others before, our work dismissed by the bishop. The boy had died, the girl had run off—but we were blameless Lord warriors, despite the bishop’s dark looks.

James dropped his sandpaper. He crouched behind the boat and tried to stifle howl-cries.

We stopped advancing, an imagined war bugle commanding us to stillness. We’d assumed the returned boys more strategic than our boys, more willing to barter their souls. Fate or luck couldn’t be in play. Jesus faded at the possibility of the random meaninglessness of our boys’ deaths. The Devil got brighter, stronger. We wanted vengeance.

Had our boys howled like that? In the crater at Petersburg? At Manassas?

“Please,” James said. He told us he’d given our boys the last of his water, letter-writing paper, beer. “And to Ezekiel, my tin cup. And to Noah, my dry socks.”

Tears fell when we shut our eyes against him.

James wasn’t possessed. He was broken. If we cast out the Devil, would the rest of his spirit follow? We thought of our boys’ lifelight dimming. Unbidden, up rose the surgical tent, the wounds the doctors couldn’t fix, the salvations they didn’t attempt.

If we laid hands on James, exorcised the absent demon, we would damage him. The girl had withdrawn before she ran. We might empty James’s father like we had been emptied. James’s father would sit by the window, looking out over his oranges. Our visions would haunt him, too—crumpled bodies, trampled white flags, pocket watches and daguerreotypes and boots. 

Tension left our fingers. “James? Can we pray for you?”

He stood up behind the boat. His father whispered something we couldn’t hear. James put his forehead to his father’s and we looked away, the intimacy twisting our stomachs.

James wiped his cheeks on his shoulder with the pinned sleeve. He grimaced. Maybe his phantom arm really pained him. Did our boys’ faces contort like that in the surgical tent? When they looked sideways at the field from the table, the world on end, cannonballs defying gravity?

We moved forward. Our boys rose up when we touched the sun-peeled skin on James’s hand, the sour fabric of his sweat-soaked shirt. We moved to envelop James, but his father’s hands, fingers splayed wide and rigid on the boat bottom, warned us to keep our distance. Then, a blessing: without inhaling James’s sawdust citrus smell, we could fool our minds into feeling our sons’ muscles in James’s shoulders, seeing their worries in the lines on his forehead.

“Keep the Devil from this boy, Father.” The last of James’s trapped howlings quieted. James’s father’s palms relaxed, turned up on the boat bottom, beseeching God with us. Our sons’ prayer, we longed to know what they’d closed their eyes on—a sunset, we hoped, a field of men whispering into the purpling sky.