Outside, the makeshift camp spread before him with its canvas tents and roughly constructed timber huts. Metal shovels and hoes were propped against the sides of wooden wagons. From the corner of his eye, amidst the din of men lining up for food, uniforms and a place to sleep, Jacob spotted the man with the torn coat, a fife now clasped in his hand.
Following closely behind was a little Black drummer boy, underfed and perhaps no more than ten years old, tapping out a steady beat.
Dressed in a dark navy coat that was far too large for him, his tattered Union cap slightly askew, to Jacob, the sight seemed almost like a scene between a father and son. The drummer, with his dirt-smudged face and the snare's leather straps hanging low from his tiny frame, smiled as he played in unison with the man.
As the notes and rhythm melded between them, Jacob was at once soothed by the duet, yet also deeply saddened by their playing, for it brought on an unexpected nostalgia for those distant afternoons long ago, when he had played with his brother in the family's cramped living room in Yorkville. The apartment's single window carrying a breeze from the East River, and their harmonies filling the air.
His father had emigrated from Germany with nothing but two suitcases, a violin, and a nineteen-year-old bride, Kati, who shared his love of music. For as long as Jacob could remember, their crowded tenement was always rich with song.
His mother had taught him and his brother, Samuel, to read music before she herself had learned more than a few words of English. Music was a balm for her in this new country, where her accent and foreignness embarrassed her and the city's streets were filled with unknowns. For Kati, the violin was a refuge, a place of beauty to return to when her days felt enveloped by shadow.
With only one actual instrument between the four of them, the first gift Jacob's father gave to his young family when his import business began to expand was the opportunity for his sons to choose secondhand ones of their own.
He brought the boys to a small, ground-floor shop on the corner of Eighty-Third Street and Lexington Avenue, where the windows flashed with the brassy light of trumpets and French horns and enticed with the elegant shapes of the strings. Inside, a tiny man with delicate hands lit up the dark interior by showing the brothers how each instrument possessed its own richness and tone.
Jacob had opted for the cornet, lovingly buffed by the prior owner. He loved the brilliance of its sound, the joy that came out of its silver bell. His brother, on the other hand, had stayed faithful to what he had always known, the violin.
Looking back on it now, his brother's selection had enabled Samuel to remain closer with their mother. She enjoyed gently correcting Samuel's intonation and reminding him to maintain his posture. But while these little cajolings could seem pesty at first glance, Jacob knew it created a stronger bond between them, another layer of love.
Now in the gauzy Louisiana twilight, as he headed over the dusty path toward his unit's campsite, Jacob wrestled with homesickness. He missed the touch of his wife, the scent of her freshly washed hair. The peacefulness of hearing Lily practice her harp in their living room. The sight of her fingertips rippling over the strings as she leaned forward, her legs slightly apart, was a vision he always returned to when he needed comfort.
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the last correspondence from Lily. The thin paper had been folded and unfolded more than a dozen times over the past few days. He read the words under candlelight before he went to sleep, and then again when he woke and sat down to eat his rations. He had nearly memorized each sentence.
My dearest husband,
I hope this letter travels true and reaches you safely. It has been challenging not having you here by my side. I miss so much of you. Your warmth and your smile. Your tender words and your music. Today, the only comfort I could find was in my harp. There, within Bach's beautiful Sarabande, I discovered you again. I hope if you close your eyes, my notes will float through the sky, above the heavens, and land in your ears, softening the peals of war.
While I do miss you terribly, I have tried to keep myself focused on my work and to support the movement in any way I can. Ernestine reminded me at our last meeting that I must embrace a feeling of pride and confidence for the noble choice you have made. She, too, is so impressed that you are using your musical skills in leading our brave Union troops and contributing to the fight to end the evils of slavery. When she learned that your brother, Samuel, had joined the Rebel forces in Mississippi, she lauded your courage and conviction even more.
I have not received any news of his fate since our last letters. While I abhor his position, I will keep Samuel in my prayers because he is of your blood, though it remains unfathomable to me that he and his wife continue to defend slavery.
But I choose not to waste any more space in this letter about things I cannot change with your family, but rather to tell you again how proud I am of you. Today, I will join some women from the Sanitary Commission who are trying to find ways to help support the Union wounded, raising funds and sending necessary supplies. Although it is a small contribution in this war compared to men like you risking your lives, it bolsters my spirits knowing I'm contributing, however small.
Your devoted wife, Lily
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday, August 22nd, we begin the book Mystic Wind by James Barretto.