A Flame, a Burst of Light
By Douglas Glover
Of the reasons for our lengthy and fatal sojourn in the swamps of Sandusky, there are several theories. 1) The Americans wished to exact vengeance for atrocities committed by Capt. Crawford’s Indios on the Raisin River. 2) The Americans wished to prevent the men from rejoining their regiments before the close of the summer campaigns. 3) To supply the want of souls in the afterlife.
We were seven hundred dreamers starving and shivering to death in this gateway to the City of Dis.
Of the reasons for our deaths, there are no theories. Ague, fever (quartan, intermittent and acute) and the bloody flux carried us away. Old wounds, opened from damp and lack of common nutriment; pneumonia, dropsy, pthithis, galloping consumption, gangrene and suicide account for the rest. An alarming number of walking corpses attended the fallen like Swiss automatons in a magic show, then tottered off to expire face down in the bulrushes.
In the swamps of Sandusky, there were more corpses than souls. We had a surfeit of bodies. They were difficult to bury in the washing ooze.
Kingsland and Thompson, wraiths and daredevils, murderous on the day with Springfields we borrowed from the Americans at Detroit, mounted amateur theatricals though much bothered at delivering their lines on a stage of sucking mud. Sgt. Collins, of Limerick and the 41st, took the female roles, warbling a sweet falsetto. I mind he scalped Kentuckians with his razor at the Battle of the Raisin, along with Tsenkwatawa’s unspeakable Shawnee.
At Long Point in October, when we land, whaleboats and cutters rowed ashore by negro slaves with superior airs, a barefoot girl in a wedding dress skips down the cliff path after regimental medical wagons and surgeons on horseback. Over night, mist froze on the sails and sheets and shattered down on us like broken glass. We skate on the slick decks as the ships slide by the dunes and ponds along the point, mysterious and blood red from rotting sedge and fallen leaves.
The cliffs are dun-coloured clay banks undermined by the fall storms with great half-dead pines like ships’ masts toppling down and thin cows and hobbled multi-coloured horses grazing on narrow zig-zag paths, low roofs and chimney smoke from a cluster of mean log and slab board houses above. We watch the girl, brown as a monkey, with ankles flashing beneath her dress, eyes wide at the sight of us. Preceding her, the medical wagons are like mastless ships with their iron kettles, great stirring spoons, and boxes of spirits and medicaments clanking listlessly. Clouds of geese and ducks, their wings flashing, lift and swirl over the point and settle again behind us.
I think of rhumb lines and wind roses and portolan charts. I imagine a map that indicates the vast populations of the dead, the departed souls like smoke spiraling up from the cemeteries, cities of corpses, suburbs of despair. The bodies of the newly dead make mournful humps of the sailcloth shroud spread over the deck. The boats roll and creak dolefully in the cold rain.
Read the rest of the story in The New Quarterly, Number 118. See also, in the same issue, “On Writing ‘A Flame, a Burst of Light'” by dg and a short story “Shine” by NC book reviewer and aphorist Peter Chiykowski.