Authors: Patrick McGrath
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #Travel, #Reference, #General, #Contemporary Fiction
For Peter Carey;
and, as ever, for Maria
I have been in the town, a disquieting experience, for New York has become a place not so much of death as of the
of death. Many houses are deserted and from those which are not drift the fumes of preparations intended to protect the living still within. The streets are silent but for the faint wailing of the newly bereaved and the rumbling wheels of the melancholy death-carts hauling their loads to Potter’s Field. In one square alone I saw five of them, each at a different door. Here and there can be glimpsed one of the few brave doctors who remain to minister to the sick. They hurry from house to house, the black bag in one hand and a camphor-rag in the other which they press to their faces to ward off the contagion. The docks are quiet. No shipping comes up from the Narrows now, indeed I have heard it
said that New York is finished as a seaport, so vulnerable are we to disease, being a crossroads for all the world. I see a skiff pushing off from the end of the wharf, a sail being run up, three children in the boat, two women, a few boxes. They are striking out for Long Island, intending to escape the contagion in those green fields. Vain hope, for wherever man goes, there goes the Pest—why flee? Better by far stay in one’s own place, and there prepare for the end. That is my policy. It is the Fourth of July, 1832, fifty-five years since my mama died, and I have no doubt but that I will follow her before the week is out.
All my life I have lived in New York. I was too young properly to understand the events which preceded the Revolutionary War, but I can still recall an innocent time when Manhattan was a place of farms and tranquil orchards and it was said that visitors
the island even as their vessels came beating up through the Narrows, our wild-flowers and fruit trees.
At the southern tip sat the town itself, a trim assembly of step-gabled brick buildings on cobbled, shady, tree-lined streets, with roofs of tile and shingle painted every color under the
sun. Deep-drafted trading vessels from all over the world docked at our wharves, our merchants prospered and with them a host of associated trades. My father was a cabinet maker who had steady work in the years of prosperity and only fell on hard times when the port was closed. Soon after that he enlisted in Washington’s army and went north to join the troops besieging the British in occupied Boston.
Our house was on the west side of the town, on Lambert Street, behind the old Trinity Church—in the very
of Trinity, so it felt to me, for as a boy I liked to wander alone among the tilting gravestones which in places encroached upon the back garden where my mama grew vegetables and kept her chickens. I loved that house. My papa built it with his own hands and though I know it was a modest house, to the small boy I then was it seemed a mansion. To the north lay swampland and open fields with low bluffs hanging over the river and oyster boats pulled up on the banks below. Cattle grazed in the pastures above Warren Street, and in summer the grass grew as high as a man’s waist. To the south lay the harbor, and often I crossed the island with my
mama to watch the big ships come to their mooring at the East River wharves.
From an early age I was taught by my mama to regard the British as cunning tyrants whose sole design was to abase and enslave the American people. Lately, in moments of nocturnal sentiment, in back of some South Street grog shop, and disguised in liquor, I can still regard the Revolution as a struggle in which the cause prevailed because our destiny demanded that it do so; our
, yes. Though in the chill light of dawn that follows my illusions fade like a mist off the harbor and I remember a quite different narrative, one far darker. For the Revolutionary War was a time of horror and I for one recall those days not with pride but with an abiding sense of shame.
In the spring of ’76, when I was ten, it became known that the enemy had evacuated Boston and put out to sea. Washington’s soldiers, my father among them, came streaming back into New York and at once set about tearing up the cobblestones and digging ditches in the streets. Our trees were cut down for barricades and cannon were mounted on every promontory which overlooked the water. Soon the town more resembled a fortified camp than a thriving
Atlantic seaport. For some time our trade had been shut down, and the mud in the docks gave off horrid vapors at low water, this in addition to the unwholesome stinks from so many people in so small a compass all packed together like herrings in a barrel, many diseased with the Itch, the Pox, the Flux, what have you—the town now stank.
The world was turned upside down.
Their fleet arrived at the end of June and dropped anchor in the Lower Bay. We climbed to the top of Pitt Hill, I remember, and I was awed at the sight of so many ships together, all that white sailcloth billowing in the sunshine and their masts as thick as trees in a wood. But I damn near fouled my britches when my brother Dan told me they were King George’s ships and had come with their cannon to blow us all to smithereens!
And yet for weeks they did nothing. They settled themselves on Staten Island and we waited to see what they would do next. Then at last came news: we heard that they had crossed to Long Island. That was where Washington fought them. He was badly beaten and lost many men. The next morning as we sat at our breakfast in a silent, fearful house, in
limped my father with his pack and musket. He was a small, troubled man, my papa, and that day his troubles were great. He was unshaven and dirty, his clothes were torn, and his head was bound with a blood-stained bandage. He told us they had been surrounded by the enemy and many died as they tried to get away. Some were drowned in the swamps along Gowanus Creek and some who wanted to surrender were stuck through with bayonets. He said he saw men clutching their bellies to keep their innards from spilling out, others collapsing from loss of blood and drowning in a few feet of water as their friends rushed past them, not pausing in their panic. It was a bloody massacre, he said. Those lucky enough to escape pitched up on the high ground just back of Brooklyn village and entrenched themselves as best they could.
All this he told us as he sat at the kitchen table barely touching the plate of food my mother had put before him. Then had come a storm, he whispered. The thunder and lightning was dreadful, and we were soaked to the bone. That night the two armies could not see each other though camped not a hundred rods apart. We were trapped, he said, what was left of us, up
there on Brooklyn Heights. Nothing for it but to surrender.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and looked at us, nodding. He drank off some ale.
—So what happened? said my brother Daniel.
—What happened? He saved us.
Who? Even I knew who!
—Most of us was ferried across in the night. The last came over at daybreak, and the General the last of all. If we hadn’t got away it would all be over for us, and Washington’s head in a noose.
I was shocked, this I do remember, at the thought of General Washington with his head in a noose.
So now with rumors flying that the redcoats would soon come ashore at Kips Bay our men were retreating up the west side of the island in hopes of holding them off at Harlem Heights. We all cheered when my mother kissed our frightened papa at the back door, then took his shaggy head in her fingers and told him that when he came back she would be waiting for him. She turned away, wiping at a fugitive
teardrop, and then he was gone. That was the last I saw of him.
My mama was the only safe and stable element in this upside-down world. She worked from dawn to dusk. She made soap, she wove cloth, she dipped candles. She grew fruit, she fattened pigs and chicken for the table, and gave birth to child after child though only three of us survived infancy, of whom I was her favorite, being the small, sickly one. I believe she thought she might not have me for long. She was a proud, strong woman—the way she argued with my papa, prodding his chest, and him a man of at times violent temper—especially when in drink—but she never yielded an inch. She was obstinate and blunt-spoken, and fiercely protective of her own, a big, handsome woman with broad shoulders and a thrusting chin, her neck a column of flesh the color of marble—
But let me not speak of her neck.
Before me on the table now I have her skull. It is curiously modest in scale, though in life it appeared large, for a great mass of auburn hair was pinned atop it in an untidy bun from which strands drifted loose as she moved about her kitchen and her garden. She was a true patriot
and I never once saw her fearful, as I had seen my poor papa. None was more ardent in their devotion to the republic, nor did she lose heart as so many did when New York was invaded. She worked for the cause from within the occupied town and her flame burned bright even if it burned but briefly before being snuffed out like a guttering candle.
As for my papa, it is hard for me to provide any more distinct picture of him beyond what I remember of him that last breakfast he ate with us after the Battle of Brooklyn. He perished at Valley Forge. He died of a malignant bilious fever contracted from sleeping in dirty blankets. But though I barely knew the man, I revere his memory. Each year I drink a glass of wine in the observance of the anniversary of his death.
I have drunk the last, God help me.
When the bombardment began—two weeks after that last breakfast with my poor papa—my mother led my brother Dan, my sister Lizzie, and me along the familiar path through the graveyard and down a flight of old stone steps into the Trinity vaults, where we found our neighbors taking shelter. In a state of acute distress I sat in the gloom and listened to the
muffled roar from the warships in the East River. Every explosion startled and terrified me. I was sure the roof would at any moment fall in. The vaults were cold and my nostrils soon filled with the fetid smell which issued from the tombs all around.
My mama sat in the shadows with her back straight and her head held high, her hands clamped tight upon her knees and her expression grim and unchanging. She said nothing. I buried my face in her skirts, and absently she stroked my head. I was shuddering, I remember, and sobbing in my terror. I begged her to take me out of that stinking place but she only put her finger to my lips. I stared at the roof of the vault as though I would learn there the extent of the devastation being wrought above our heads—cannonballs hissing through the streets, bouncing off walls, smashing into buildings and cellars—thick smoke drifting over the houses, shells whistling in the air—muskets cracking—
Even as I sit here some fifty years later, pen uplifted, high above the death-carts and the quicklime, I am yet again roused to a tired rage at the memory of what was done to us. It is a backward-looking rage, for I was a child and did not altogether comprehend the enormity of
the insult. After the bombardment the town was much changed: buildings smashed up, many still burning, soldiers everywhere, and people taking to the streets to welcome them, the fools—they made of it a carnival!
I was on Broadway with my sister Lizzie the next day, walking down through the destruction to the harbor when all at once a troop of redcoats emerged from a side street and came toward us at the run. Sunlight gleamed on their bayonets like sheets of fire and the dust rose in clouds beneath their feet. At the head of the column rode a stout man with a large curved nose which resembled the blade of a scythe. He was mounted on a tall bay mare, and though I had seen plenty of English gentlemen on the streets of New York, and not a few officers, somehow he was not like any of them. His skin was white as chalk and his lips were scarlet and he wore a plumed silver helmet and a pale blue coat edged with gold. As he rode by I saw how he sat his horse with the reins held limp in his fingers as though he were in a chair in a drawing room making conversation to a lady, indeed he
like a lady, and on his plump face played a haughty smile as he glanced down at the cheering townspeople.