A Flame, a Burst of Light
History into fiction
“A Flame, a burst of Light” is a short story based on a bit of Norfolk County history, not something my mother told me, but an incident I stumbled upon trying to fill in around her stories. One day I was reading Cruickshank’s essay “The County of Norfolk in the War of 1812,” just a fascinating thing to read. Cruickshank devoted a few short paragraphs to the repatriation of some prisoners of war, disembarked at Long Point Bay, men and women, in such bad shape that despite the presence of British medical troops, several died on the beach. This was in September and October, two batches of returned prisoners, of 1814.
About the end of the same month, part of the British prisoners taken at the battle of Lake Erie and during proctor’s retreat were landed at Long Point, having been purposely detained for more than a month in an unhealthy situation at Sandusky, to prevent them joining General Drummond in time to take part in the campaign. They were almost naked, most of them without shoes, and many of them suffering from ague. The surgeon sent to meet them reported that very few of them would ever be fit for duty again.
“At the first sight of our poor fellows,” he wrote on October 7 , “it was with difficulty I could repress my feelings of pity at their miserable condition and of indignation at their treatment which was the cause of it.
“The further we advanced, the scene of misery deepened and from wretchedness in appearance we arrived gradually to the very essence of everything miserable, nakedness, uncleanliness, disease, and death.”
A month later the remainder were put on shore in much the same condition. Major Muir wrote on that occasion:
“On the 25th October  three vessels anchored in the bay and a boat came ashore, and I was informed that the prisoners were on board, but many of them were sick. Soon after the boats arrived at the beach with some dead, others dying, and one half of them unable to help themselves in any manner whatever. In short, we lost six men and one woman that night…”
This sounded both horrific and intriguing. Also completely surprising, since our family stories never touched on it. (When my father died, I found among his things a War of 1812 medal for the Battle of Detroit. He had never mentioned it.) Over some years, I gathered research. In late 1813, there had been two emphatic defeats for the British-Canadian side. The troops in the forward positions at Detroit and beyond depended for logistics on ships going up Lake Erie from Niagara (roads were not yet a practical option). On September 10, the American fleet under Commodore Perry defeated the Canadians and British at Put-in-Bay, eliminating the British presence on the lake and taking hundreds of prisoners.
Cut off from supplies, the British and Canadians had to withdraw from Detroit, which set up the next battle, the Battle of Moraviantown or the Battle of the Thames. Americans caught up with the retreating rear guard and forced a fight on October 5. The great Shawnee warrior and diplomat Tecumseh tried to hold the line and was killed. Once again the Americans took hundreds of prisoners, in this case these included women and even children, wives and camp followers.
Strategically, this meant that the British abandoned all of southern Ontario to the Americans, withdrawing to the next defensible line at Burlngton Heights near present-day Hamilton. My ancestors in Norfolk County were, of course, inside the abandoned zone and became prey to marauding American troops coming by water or on land, though no attempt was ever made to take the place over.
The prisoners from these two battles were concentrated in a stockade called Camp Bull near Chillicothe, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River. They remained there until July, 1814. Before they left, they were called out to witness the firing squad execution of four American deserters. But things began to go very badly after that. Some arrangement had been made for the exchange of prisoners, and the Camp Bull people were marched to Sandusky where they were to be met by ships detailed to carry them across the lake. When the ships failed to arrive as planned, the prisoners were confined in swampy waste ground near the town, without pre-built shelters or supplies. Many died of fever and malnutrition, the rest were severely weakened. So that when the ships finally got to them in September, some died en route and others when they reached Canada.
This is the history you don’t learn about in the textbooks.
The narrator of my story is fictional, but Sgt. Collins of the 41st was real (though I have absolutely no evidence that he was a crossdresser). He survived his POW experience and died fighting the Americans a month later (I have another story about that incident). Surgeon Kennedy of the 41st was also real and left a description of the condition of the returning troops. “At the first sight of our poor fellows, it was with difficulty I could suppress my feelings of pity at their miserable condition, and of indignation at their rascality [sic] treatment which was the cause of it … The further we advanced the scene of misery deepened … we arrived gradually to the very essence of everything miserable – nakedness, disease & death.”
All I knew was that the prisoners debarked at Long Point Bay, so I placed their landing at St. Williams, my ancestors’ home, the place where my mother used to spend her summers with her grandmother and maiden aunts. In order to intensify the drama, I juxtaposed the arrival of the prisoners on the beach with a wedding in the village. All fictional. The compositional principle runs something like this: if you have an event but not a story, try adding a second, simultaneous event and see what happens. I rather like what I did with the demonic Sgt. Collins and the fearless bride from St. Williams. Their meeting on the beach has a touch of the epic. Collins returns to the war and death. She, altered forever, abandons her one-day husband and leaves with the troops for a life that is open-ended yet framed in tragedy.
I am giving you a chunk of the story, not the whole thing. It’s in my collection Savage Love, still gloriously in print. Also in John B. Lee’s anthology An Unfinished War. It appeared originally in The New Quarterly (No. 118).
A Flame, a Burst of Light
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, phthisis, galloping consumption, gangrene and suicide accounted 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 Tenskwatawa’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. Overnight, 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, multicoloured horses grazing on narrow zigzag 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 spiralling 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.
There are women among us, taken with the baggage at Moraviantown, who have lost all delicacy and shame due to the general deliquescence of bodies but yet display a pathetic dignity while voiding with the men or caring for their loved ones.
Except for a lucky few, we are all languid and ethereal, almost fleshless, pure soul, distilled by the elements and long steeping first in the Camp Bull prison and then the Sandusky swamps by Lake Erie (shoreline of ill fate). We all suffer tormina and tenesmus associated with the flux. We gripe and strain and evacuate little balls or blood or pus and then evacuate again, thinking what a way to die.
Or we suffer the shivering chills, sweats and hallucinations of the ague.
Those who can lift their eyes to the grey cliffs and the medical wagons and mutter encouragement out of habit to the others. Some weep at the sight of the medical officers on exhausted horses plashing along the beach, other ranks in scarlet coats at the double, without arms, hardbitten veterans of long campaigns in France and Spain and Canada. Music on top of the cliffs, dried-up wild grapevines like nets or veins against the clay, exploding milkweed pods, and a spruced-up boy in an oversized homespun tailcoat with clodhopper boots, a red rag tied round his throat, loping down the track and jabbering to the brown girl in the wedding dress.
There is a girl in my boat dying, left behind by a husband in the Provincial Dragoons who went down at Sandusky before our fatally delayed departure, went down in the water, shaking himself to death and weeping in his girl’s arms, terrified to die, cheeping for his mam, the girl overcome with adoration and embarrassment for him and running away to shit when her guts cramped so that she was away when he died and in despair — half dead herself from despair — when she returned to find the camp gravediggers already wrapping him in a canvas shroud they used over and over to preserve the dignities.
She is beside herself, shaking with the ague or shock, no pulse, almost a ghost, not a tear in her egg-like eyes, sunk in the dark socket of bone and lash.
As we are all beside ourselves, stumbling trinities of I and not-I and the world beyond that presents only a curtain of sensation, all fluffs and billows like a linen sheet next to an open window in a gale.
We have the Americans to thank for enlisting us in the army of saints, yes, to thank for our education in asceticism and otherworldliness, for helping us to disentangle ourselves from the flesh as the desert hermits of old, our immediate state of dis-ease being a sign of something invisible that beckons.
In Sandusky, the energetic and the mad used their hands to dredge the swamp and construct islands for sleeping and standing, and there was some attempt to keep up drilling in a shallow pond otherwise a home to bustards and ducks.
Sgt. Collins, always the wit, said, “I don’t wish to die and go to Heaven. I have a fear of heights.”
I REPORT TO Surgeon Kennedy of the 41st, whose dun stallion, name of Clarify, knocks me over in its prancing. Kennedy leaps down, striding along the sand, chewing a clay pipe with a goat and horns on the bowl, ordering fires built, the kettles on, stooping to speak to the prisoners, making signs to his aides.
Already soldiers walk up and down with fresh apples and knives, offering slices to suck, rain falling the whole time, cold and dismal.
“Peruvian bark is wanted,” I say, breathless at keeping up, teetering on my pins. “Charcoal and laudanum to bind the bowels and for pain. And blankets, man, blankets. Dry clothing. Clear soup with blood and plenty of water and salt, shreds of meat, not diced, pulped vegetables.”
Surgeon Kennedy, saturnine, gloomy, sees the body as a flame, life as an explosion. He nods and nods and quietly gives orders to his aides. He has a year at Edinburgh. I have no teaching at all but cut off a man’s leg with a hatchet after the Raisin and sewed the flap with binder twine and, by God, he was strong enough to survive, which is as good as a medical degree. The rest is bedside manner and prayer, I believe.
“Not five in fifty will see active service again,” says Kennedy, measuring the ruined men.
“For God’s sake, don’t try to bleed anyone,” I say. “They’ll go off in a nonce.”
“And who might you be?” he asks.
“Surgeon’s Mate Netherby, sir!” I say. “Of the 41st. I am a little altered in condition, not up to scratch. I tried to save as many as I could —”
“Good lord,” says Surgeon Kennedy, a gleam of recognition under his scrutinizing brow.
“And brandy,” I say. “I could do with a stiff toddy. Or something mulled, all hot with raw brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon. Have ye any cinnamon in the apothecary stores?”
“Go and lie down in the wagons,” says Surgeon Kennedy.
THE BROWN GIRL dashes from one only slightly animate bundle to another, dodging the skeletal perambulants who importune her with fatalistic courtesy.
“A mite to sup, Miss? — Have ye a hankee or a bit of rag for a blanket? — Hasty bint, ain’t she? Always rushing about. — She’s very clean. Never seen anything like it. Fancy she’s just been to a wedding?”
Soldiers shake out blanket tents, anchoring them with bayonets, and one of the new-style canvas round tents, snapping the cloth like cannon shots, strumming the guy ropes with their fingers. Fires blaze, fierce with snapping pitch, roofed with spits and sides of beef, night falling and the fires like the hecatombs of Greece glaring on the cliff face. Everything quiet and efficient. Quickly, quickly, for the dead are anxious along the shoreline where the Lake Erie waves slap indifferently.
The fiddle music has stopped. A line of villagers troops down the S-curve of the wagon track where rainwater dashes in rivulets. Smell of meat roasting. The dragoon’s wife lies in the sand wrapped in an officer’s wool coat, her husband’s busby, much trod upon and muddy, clasped in one thin, languorous hand. But for Sgt. Collins, who attends her microscopically, she would be dead already, has wanted to die.
Death has become an image of release from suffering. It beckons us all like a sultry lover, a whore in a basement cot, promising forgetfulness and release.
Her name is Edith, pronounced in the French way, Eh-deet. Her husband was a magistrate’s son at York who enlisted in the dragoons because he could afford a horse and liked being above everyone else. But his death was violent, gross and humiliating. He was so full of bright life (a flame, an explosion). She loved the youth of him.
“I shall go to him,” she said, quoting King David, “but he shall not return to me.”
The brown girl falls to her knees in the wet sand next to a dying soldier boy and begins to pray. Her bumpkin husband, the tailcoat boy who followed her down the track, dabs at her hair with his red kerchief.
Sgt. Collins, heady with fever, leans down, his voice resolved to a hoarse croak. “Ye won’t do him any good with that,” he says.
“I am not afraid,” she says to the tall, gaunt, black Irishman hanging over her.
“Ye should be,” he says.
Then he says, “This one was from Cork, with a sweetheart named Red Brigid Delaney. He won’t know the difference. Can ye be Red Brigid Delaney, or are ye a useless whore?”
You can see her mull this over. On the one hand, prayer and everything she’s ever been taught; on the other, the murderous transvestite Irishman, with his body courage and practical pity. No one has ever seemed as alive to her in that moment as Sgt. Collins.
“I can,” she says with a steady look.
She has suddenly changed from the wild child skipping down the track in the rain, the near horizons of house yard and stump fence obliterated. Always the mystery of the boundless mercury-coloured lake and the local stories of witchery, seer stones and underwater monsters attracted her.
I remember the firing squads at Camp Bull along the Scioto where the river runs in reptilian loops by ancient mounds the provenance of which even the Indians have forgotten. Camp theories are divided as to their being raised by Egyptian or Phoenician travellers or whether they were remnants of once-great indigenous civilizations now gone to dust.
Geography reminds us that each fevered and urgent moment of meaning will pass and that the wind of time is a cancer that destroys us all.
Four American deserters in dress uniforms, bottle-green coats with black facings and shakos trimmed with braid, standing at attention like tall green candles (explosions of light) with their backs to the lazy river and their coffins, painted black, open before them.
One man harangues his executioners, another sags at the knees then recovers, a chest heaves, puffs of smoke spit ragged down the line, the musket reports drift over the broken ground to the curious prisoners, the speaking man jerks, his shako topples neatly into the coffin. One man jumps up shrieking. The reserve squad steps forward smartly and shoots him again, yet he lies there still living, his body twitching and heaving till the blood is all out. The others rest quiet. Steam rises from their wounds. It is a chill morning. Mist rises from the river.
Next spring the freshets will drag the coffins out of their graves along the riverbank, necessitating reburial.
At this stage, we have not begun to go off in great numbers. Our guards die as often as we do. Yet death is always an event of note, a mass execution being a dramatic occasion, a theatre of fatality, death as entertainment and diversion.
The camp hospital was at first chock full of the detritus of two lost battles, Erie and Moraviantown, the wounds of the lake fight being the worst: bodies smashed under falling spars or loose cannons rolling along the deck, wounds filthy with shreds of sail or wood splinters, lads waiting patiently to get their bits cut off and then turning themselves out, like candles snuffing, equally patient, quiet as lambs.
It gives you vertigo to think. Everyone’s life is a centre of a universe that evaporates at the moment of death.
But I do love a neat amputation.
And we bury our dead in the Indian mounds, mixing their bones with the bones of ancient men.
SGT. COLLINS STUMBLES into Surgeon Kennedy, both reeking of spirits. Kennedy has stripped to his shirt in the rain to operate, every gesture spare and perfect and strong. His body a furnace, the damp steams off his shoulders. He pokes lint stoppers soaked in gin up his nostrils to combat the stink, steeps laudanum in a teapot, tipping the spout to his lips from time to time.
Collins wears his pantomime frock, burst at the waist, grey with filth.
Kennedy: “Sgt., why are you dressed like that?”
Collins, reeling: “With permission, sir. Not my colour, I know, sir. There was a want of blue taffeta in the camps. Cruel treatment for a poor industrial wheezer like me, sir.”
Kennedy: “Yer a bold squireen, Sgt. Collins.”
Collins: “Nought can touch me now, yer honour, sir.”
They are old friends from fights on the Ohio shore and at Moraviantown, when things went south for us, but Kennedy orders Field Punishment for the sake of form. Five strokes with his wrists bound to a medical wagon. Cut down, Collins drops on his knees, shakes himself like a dog, then staggers back to the sick looking refreshed, the flame inside burning fierce and hot.
At the Battle of the Raisin, Collins was on detached duty with Capt. Crawford’s command, Shawnee savages dressed in scraps of stolen American uniforms, with Springfield and Kentucky rifles, hatchets and knives made of stone, sharper than razors. He conversed with Tenskwatawa and drank home-brew whiskey with the Potawatomi skin-changer Crippled Hand, men whose style of bravery was mystical and unearthly cruel.
He was like Saul dancing among the prophets, and when he returned, he was not the same.
“I am not afraid,” the girl says.
“You should be,” says Collins, more strange than human, more alive than the rest of us. “I am conjoint with Death,” he says The brown girl’s soldier boy dies at her breast. For an hour she commits adultery, becomes his lover, vows she will meet him in Paradise, kisses his cracked and infected lips, whispers dirty endearments in the shell of his ear where her tears catch, and presses his lank, algorific fingers between her legs to warm them.
She forgets herself in her pity, gives everything fiercely, a strange, grim joy in her heart.
She knows she has become a guide to the Land of the Dead. She knows the way.
Her present groom, centuries behind her in his naïveté, looks sickly with the recognition of the unknowable risen up in the heart of his gamine lover. A pot roast man, clever with his hands, no imaginative throw, dull as a trivet.
She covers the boy’s face with a blanket tail and turns to the next.
The first man she helps evacuate makes her gag, but she cleans him gently and thoughtfully, pouring hot water from a kettle, washing herself in the lake.
Sgt. Collins blows on a horn spoon dripping blood soup, picks out the solid bits with his fingers, and lifts Edith’s head on his arm. Her thin blue lips refuse to open. But her eyes widen in fright. She does not want to be brought back.
“I shall go to him,” she whispers.
The rain is turning to damp, feathery snowflakes.
I limp past the horse lines, climb into a canvas-topped wagon out of the rain, and nod off sharpish after wriggling into a sailcloth bag lying close to hand. Smell of sawdust and rotten meat in my nostrils, two coffins stacked on end, peaceful as a grave.
Wake up when they start to pile fresh corpses above me.
A drummer boy with a pencil and a list, look of terror on his face, says, “You b’aint dead.”
I am paralyzed, wedged in, the wagon suddenly crowded with fatality. “I’m not dead,” I say, testing the hypothesis. Corpses like cordwood on either side and on top, stiff and cold. I recognize old comrades, including Kingsland, the amateur thespian, hugging me in his bare blue arms, teeth bared in a snarl of rictus. The icy skin of a dead man is always a surprise.
“You were talking,” the drummer boy says. “I was sheltering and I heard voices in the dead wagon. I thought the dead was talking.”
“Can you get me out?” I say. “I’m really not dead.”
“I told you,” he says.
I crawl out of the dead wagon in time to watch great steaming drays lean into the incline as the first drafts of returning prisoners ferry up the cliff track and off on the road to Burlington, where there is a real hospital…