Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “Scorcher”


You saw Sherman’s body, his uniform, give up flame. You saw the bark of trees come away from his touch blackened and charred. You marched among his men, yourself now free, and you heard some speak of fire and some speak of smoke and some speak of ash. You pulled up rails and heated them in order to wrap them around trees. You watched with his men as Sherman rode off alone, smoke rising from his shoulders. As you helped tear Atlanta down, you watched the man murmur to himself, his lips chapped and dry. You woke in the night to find Sherman in the tops of trees, whispering a woman’s name, and when you awoke again in the morning you found piles of ash beneath where he perched.

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You ate of hogs that had eaten of the dead on the battlefields. You watched as his men strove through Atlanta, their faces blank and mechanical. You asked one man if he had seen Sherman walk into a wall of fire and the man replied, We all been down in the hellfire, and we’re all trying to climb our ways back out.

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You found burned bodies of animals. You went to a river one morning and found Sherman in the water, steam rising from his body. He saw you and asked you to join him. The river was hot. Sherman placed a hand on your shoulder and your skin burned. His eyes stared off into nothing as he asked if you found in love the possibility of salvation. You walked back to the company. Listened to the crackle and snapping of leaves and twigs beneath his feet. Saw the ground come away charred.

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In Savannah, you thought Sherman’s decision to spare the city was a sign you should stay. You dreamed of building a home. You thought of the vulnerability of wood, of stone. Of how everything crumbles. You thought of the men who built in the cities and the ruin left behind in your wake. You heard men and women speak of Sherman in the same breath as the names of the devil. You saw him walking streets alone at night and you followed in silence. You wondered how a man sought out desolation. You wrote in a diary only one line: The march is a funeral, the sea a coffin.

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The day Savannah was given over, you rode with Sherman to the beaches. He went into the water and again asked you to join him. There, the bodies of jellyfish swarmed around you and followed you as you both swam. Walking out of the ocean, you watched as the bodies of the jellyfish washed ashore, burning.

∘∘∘

Later, after the war, you would tell her late in the night of the bodies of those jellyfish burning on the shore. Of the man himself bathed in fire. She kissed your forehead and wished for your bad dreams to go away. She said she wanted you back in the light. You told her that light was only evidence of the reach of flame.