Monday, 17 March 2008

I hurry amain to reach the plain, Run the rapid and leap the fall

heather I was stricken with hypochondria at a very early age, and I blame the Civil War. When I was in the first grade some high schoolers came to my class to talk about north Georgia legend Sidney Lanier. They showed us some pictures of him and told us that in addition to fighting for the South in the Civil War, Sidney Lanier had also been a writer. His most famous work was called Song of the Chattahoochee, a lyrical little poem about our leaping, lapping, frolicking river. The Chattahoochee and Sidney Lanier had in common that they were both dammed. Well, no. The Chattahoochee was dammed by the Army Corp of Engineers to become Lake Sidney Lanier, a source of drinking water and flood control for Georgia, Florida, and Alabama; whereas Sidney Lanier was damned (with an "n") because he contracted tuberculosis in a Civil War prison.

Sidney Lanier's words came to life in me during the presentation, but what I couldn't shake—and what the high schoolers themselves seemed preoccupied with—was the tuberculosis. Basically he coughed up his lungs, one of the boys said. Coughed them up outside his body. Lungs. Outside. His body. My mother, my father, my sister, my doctor: no one understood why—after that presentation—I thought I was a goner every time I got a "cold" or the "flu" or a "sinus infection." Didn't they understand that tuberculosis started with coughing!

No, they did not. And I suppose that's how Sidney Lanier became my imaginary friend.

One day I came home from a doctor's appointment and there he was—the poet and war hero himself—sitting on my front porch. My mother couldn't see him, but I sat down beside him anyway. I saw no point in beating around the bush. "I'm dying of tuberculosis," I said to him.

Sidney Lanier said, "I know."

I looked at him real good, all dapper in his gray, wool Confederate uniform. "My best friend is a black boy," I said to Sidney Lanier. "His favorite Kool-Aid is grape, and he can palm a full-size basketball."

"I like grape Kool-Aid, too," Sidney Lanier said, and I knew we had an understanding.

I convinced my dad to buy me a gun. I told him I wanted one just because, but the truth was I wanted to play war, and Sidney Lanier had him a 58 Springfield Rifle Musket. We were in line at K-Mart with a genuine BB gun, when my dad chickened out and made me get a toy gun instead. Sidney Lanier didn't much care that my gun was a fake. Every time we went out to the woods, we had a good talk about why we had to defect over to the North. "Sherman's done burned down Atlanta," I'd say to him. "And I know Scarlett and Mammy are about starved to death. But slavery's wrong, Sidney Lanier. It's wrong and the sooner we get folks to see it, the sooner this god-forsaken war will be over."

Sidney Lanier was the first person I ever swore in front of. Oh, I grew up in a good Christian house. There was no drinking or cussing to speak of; we were Baptist. But we had HBO, so I knew a thing or two. I was chopping down some trees with an axe one afternoon when I missed and hacked right into my shin. "Son of a bitch!" I shouted, hopping around on one leg. "Son of a damn hell shit ass bitch!"

Sidney Lanier just chuckled and kept on building our fort.

Some days we'd fight in the war for hours, but some days we'd just sit in a tree and read Archie comics or make up poems. I was a much better rhymer than Sidney Lanier, even though he had written books. I told him about arguing with my sister and how mad I'd get when my mom and dad shouted at each other. Lucky for me, every time I was about to be a big, dumb girl, and start crying, we'd get attacked and I'd have to go whacking at soldiers disguised as trees. I memorized Song of the Chattahoochee, because that's what you do when your best friend is a famous poet.

I didn't think about the tuberculosis when I was with him, and one day I was just cured. He was pale that day when we met in our fort and I knew what he was going to say: I've decided to fight for the South. "I can't see you no more, then," I told Sidney Lanier. "But I ain't gonna shoot you neither."

"Thank you for the grape Kool-Aid," he said.

I said, "It's alright. But go on now, Sidney Lanier. Get on out of here."

He was as handsome as ever when he left my fort. And as he walked toward the sunset I whispered

The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay,
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.

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