The First Man Dead


You were always asking me what it was like to have my hands inside the body of a woman. What it felt like. Was there blood. You wanted to know about the babies I pulled into the world, those that lived and those that died, and the Mommas who passed during the hard ones in the days before doctors. You were always asking. Ever since you could form words of your own there wasn’t a time when you didn’t have questions. There was always something you wanted to know way before your time. That’s what makes you who you are. The fulfillment of a prophesy. The child of dreams. Remember when you asked me who was the first person I ever seen dead? You were less than five years old and I wouldn’t talk about it but you just kept asking.

Was it a woman or was it a child, Granny Bates? What was the color of its eyes? You wanted to know. When a person crossed over into death. How it was. What is was.

And I never did say.

But I’m going now to that place yourself and now I’m going to tell you. The first person I ever saw dead was neither woman nor child. The first was a man, a soldier, who was just a boy really, and his name was Gabriel Snead. He was from the state of Maine, a fishing town called Woontocket off Cape Hudson Bay, and he had himself a new wife just seventeen years old by the name of Bonnie Lee. I was five the day he stumbled in through the hog stall, but I remember it all as if it happened last night in a dream.

They’d been fightin’ all night on the hill above this very house, up where your own house stands now. They was the first blue Yankees I ever seen, but Momma told me not to worry because they were green and out-numbered and doomed. All night long I heard the guns popping and them shouting to each other for cartridges and such. But in the morning it was quiet and Momma came to me in my bed with a look in her eye like I never seen before.

Don't you touch him, she said, don't you go near that man.

And told me to fetch water and that’s when I went outside to see. I found him lying with old Kate the hog. I never seen a soldier up close and I sure never seen a man die. He was breathing a raspy sorta breath with blood coming out of his mouth even I knew he wouldn’t last. When Momma came back she gave me her look again and then we took him inside. He was hurt so bad that he wouldn’t stop crying the whole time. I could see his insides through his coat. He held himself together with his hand. And blood was all over Momma's bed and it was on the floor in a puddle. He had his eyes closed but he was awake and talking fast. I came close so I could hear what he was sayin' and he took my arm. He pulled me so near I could smell his guts, and he called me Bonnie. He called me his darlin’ Bonnie. He told me he was sorry for runnin' off like he did. He told me he was scared but not a coward. He said lots of things I didn't understand, and he knew the bible too, he knew Isaiah like he wrote it himself. But what stuck with me was a story he told about a boy he saw in a vision he had lying up there on the hill, a boy born here on the mountain. A child of the hollows, a child of the mists. This boy, he said, would have a Daddy who was a snake-preacher, with the eyes of a reptile himself. He’d be born outside of Leatherwood, in a great storm, when the Sequatchie river would jump its banks and kill folks by scores. Gabriel Snead said the boy would be a gift left by that storm, baptized by blood and rain. That’s what folks call a Holy Ghost baby. A prophet who’d be scorned before he was understood.

You’ll know who he is, he said. Look for the boy with a big eye who can see through the heart of a man. He’ll talk to Jesus, this boy, and see the dead. His dreams will foretell the future, his visions will come from God. He’ll tame serpents, and drink poison and pull cancer from a body without drawing a drop of blood.

This was the vision he had. During the fight, he said he could see the boy, even when he was awake. In the heat of the fighting he saw him, out there on the hill, and he went to him. He got up and walked straight toward the line where our boys were waiting and he took a bayonet under his ribs. He stumbled all night through the woods until he came here, to my house, where I found him in the hog-stall with a dagger clutched so tight in his hand we had to bang it out with a mallet. Momma and I, we did what we could but there was just too much of that man destroyed. He died in my arms that very day while Momma was out for the milk.

He told me to keep my eyes out for that boy. He promised he’d come, and I waited and waited. Seventy-seven years. I never gave up hope. But then it rained and kept raining. And that river did flood, and those folks did die on the Oakburg bridge. And that boy did come, as you now know. For that boy is you, Jacob Flint, and now all my years of birthin’ babies and healin’ has come to its glorious end and I too shall pass.