Fiction

Prizewinner, 2005 Blodgett Waxwing Prize in Literary Fiction - Second-Place

 
from Summer 2005 [Issue No. 7]

 

Dogmata of a Blockade Ratter ▪► Lynn Veach Sadler

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Lynn Veach Sadler

     

I believe I was fated to become a member of the famed Blockade Runners by the situating of my forebears in “Cottonopolis,” of northeastern England.  Was not cotton, with tobacco and naval stores, the great commodity we took off from Wilmington, my home, particularly after that closing down of the ports of Charleston and Savannah in the original “Paper Blockade”?

I also believe it is time I take up my heritage as cause and speak as eloquently as I can manage in homage to those I was fortunate to dwell among.  I thus both breach from the deep, like a leaping whale, and bound into the breach, baying, which is to say, take the dogleg toward setting the record straight.  I am not just a dog at heel to be exiled to the doghouse.  My mother, though a bitch, would not have it.  No, my very canines must drop saliva for my sharpness in opening the case to you.

THE LOST CAUSE was far more than dogfight.  To show my lack of malice, I cite President Lincoln:  “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  I choose the more formal dogmata for this “poor thing” that is “mine own.”  No stigma but stigmata aplenty.  I confess that the continuous condemnation of OUR GREAT EFFORT forces these barks.  I judge the climate right to plead for bigger bones than my case may be deemed.  Justice, alas, will never come to THE SOUTHERN CAUSE, but its plight puts the dog-vane on this weather gunwale that I might bark.  And bark I do.  I mean to go doggedly after truth and right and maintain that the bona fides thus unfolded are not mine only.

To be honest (as one must be in such a telling), I am not the first of animal kind to be so invested.  Felines have served with me (if not alongside).  I am not antipathetic to cat kind.  Are cats not also ratters (well, mousers at least)?  Sailors are a superstitious breed and will not utter the “c-word” aboard ship (except exigently, as in cat-o'-nine-tails), but do not understand that, would they simply watch cats closely, they would know when to jump ship themselves.  That is, being able to read the future, cats do not remain afloat when another ship will collide with theirs, a storm will sink it, a torpedo explode it, or a reef bash it.  If the ship’s cat is lively, a storm is brewing.  To cure the doldrums, place Puss under a basket on deck; the wind will soon rise. 

A similar superstition prevails among our sailor friends in Nova Scotia, where so many of us went during and after THE LOST CAUSE.  These good persons would never say pig outright and referred to p-i-g as “Mr. Gruff” or “Mr. Dennis” or plain old “curly tail” (though I heard “hog braces” used by them).  They averred as how this aversion to the pronunciation of the term had to do with the ability of the p-i-g to whistle up a wind.  And these good Nova Scotians also warned against permitting luggage or ladies on board.  But, for our part, how could we have denied the beneficent Madame DeRosset and her sweet infant daughter Gabrielle passage to Nassau?  Did not that very lady organize her sisters in Wilmington to minister to the convalescent soldiers passing through on trains to their homes in the Southland?  Did not we Blockade Runners assist other famous Confederate lady benefactors and agents, as Mesdames Grinnell, Baxley, and Boyd and, as best we could, the unfortunate Mrs. Greenhow?  (I was present when the last was laid out; she was as beautiful as reputation had painted her.)

Other creatures, too, were present, if momentarily, upon our Blockade Runners.  I did not see—or hear—him personally, but it passed for truth that one seaman’s pet game cock had to be throttled when it decided to crow as its ship passed the enemy fleet in the dark.  Even the binnacle lamp would have been screened against the prying eyes of the blockading fleet.  Perhaps said rooster chanced to look through the one small peephole open to the outside, for steering purposes, and thought that, day dawning, he must be about his habitual task. 

There were times, of course, when political expediency kept poor creatures from being so summarily dealt with.  I reference the fine Arabian sent by the Southern agent in Egypt to Nassau for us to get through the blockade to Wilmington as a present for President Jefferson Davis.  I suppose yon steed was so glad to smell land as we neared it at last that he could not forbear whinnying.  I quickly dragged forth a feed bag to be placed over his head and quiet him, but we were nearly caught.

Having committed fairness upon the animal world at large, I turn to my own kind and case.  Union dogs, including two terriers, have had their day and due.  Not so our side, with the slight exceptions of President Jefferson Davis’s “Traveler” (not to be confused with the famous horse of General Lee) and “Stonewall,” Jack Russell Terrier of the Richmond Howitzers.  As for me, even if mixed, I am descended from the purest strain of water-loving ratters.  My line stretches, if Macbeth will forgive me, beyond “the last syllable of recorded time.”  (I do quibble with his desire to “Throw physic to the dogs:  I’ll none of it” but take no umbrage from it.)  I bore the black and tan (slight in my case) of the Manchester Terrier, which was depicted in The Hours of the Virgin, dating from the early sixteenth century and described by that meticulous gentleman of Wilmington, a Blockade Runner in his own right, Mr. Jeremiah Spruntling, Esq.  My ancestors worked for rat catchers at first and competed in the infamous rat pits, which you will assuredly have seen depicted in art with one of my relatives “pitted” against a pack of rats.  Along the way to me, we intermingled with greyhounds and whippets and so are fast not only for chasing rats but rabbits.  In my past, too, are the “hard terriers,” and I am pleased to acknowledge acquaintance with same in my beloved Wilmington, where they were imported from England by members of two great families bent on aggrandizing local fox hunts.  Alas, the shrouds of THAT TRAGIC WAR darkened this vision also.  But I know for a certainty that, prior to THE CONFLICT’S shutting down of Wilmington’s social world, some of these dogs showed their prowess of being “hard” enough to venture underground in pursuit of Monsieur Reynard. 

I loved salt water and wandered often to the strand to look upon it, also finding my blood rising at the very sight of those giant wharf rats bounding unceremoniously and unconcernedly upon Wilmington’s wharves and ships.  Cut off from my aristocratic family by a ravishing hurricane, I returned to my beloved docks and was taken in by a colorful old salt, bent and coiled like the knots he endlessly practiced.  It was he who taught me my general aptness for the naval world, as in its eating “dog’s body” and drinking “dog’s nose” (and hair of the dog), as in, also, “a bad case of dog-eat-dog but better than dogfish.”  I am also grateful to Old Picot, as he was called, for taking me with him aboard my first Blockade Runner, though he was far more mercenary than patriotic.  But Blame submitted to the hard and wily master, Speculation, I understand, when the profits from two “runs” were great enough to pay for a ship.  Cotton was purchased in our Confederacy for three cents a pound in gold and sold in England for forty-five cents to a dollar per pound.  Nevertheless, I placed my paws over my ears when Old Picot and his imbibing fellows took up that less-than-seemly toast:  “Here’s to the planters growing Mr. Cotton, the Yankees blockading it, and the Limeys buying it!” 

To me, my beloved Wilmington was the ENTREPÔT OF THE CONFEDERACY, whose entire Commissariat was sustained by what we Blockade Runners brought from the West Indies—not calicoes, silks, oranges, bananas, wines, and brandies, if some of these still, but medicines and the munitions of war, including cannon, muskets, and Whitworth and Armstrong guns.  And, yes, that less-than-perfect “Nassau bacon,” which even I could not stomach.  We were the Confederacy’s final gateway into the world.  THE GREAT LEE himself was obliged to say that, if Fort Fisher and Wilmington fell, he must evacuate Richmond.  And, when they did, OUR POOR ARMIES OF THE CONFEDERACY truly famished, if still proudly tigerish, pressing some to write that the grand failure of OUR BELOVED SOUTH was neglecting its Navy. 

Forgive my emotional lapse.  I do know we had flaws.  In addition to our neglect of the needs of the Navy, I cite our inability to value the railroad rightly; our cadres of prancing majors; even, alas, our DEAR STATE’S private Navy.  I refer, of course, to Governor Zebulon Vance’s refusal to give up his “state’s rights” to its ships and cargoes.  I wonder if he once took thought for the poetic justice of his fleet’s “star,” the Advance (eighteen times successfully through the blockade, once in full daylight), being taken by the Union’s Santiago de Cuba when it was forced to burn bituminous coal and ran not only too slowly but too visibly.

To my sorrow, my master, Old Picot, died.  His demise, though honorable, was horrific.  To wit, he was frozen in the sudden blinding glare of rockets and Drummond lights, and the crossfire literally set his clothing ablaze.  I found but one fault in that decent man.  He caused me to be commonly, if widely, known as “Tinker,” the name he had given me—and common it was!  Yet pause to remember that many in those days were addressed by humbler appellations.  I offer as one example the Don’s Captain Roberts, née Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, third son of the sixth Earl of Buckinghamshire, a post captain in Britain’s Navy, who took a leave of absence for the glory of testing himself as a Blockade Runner.  He later served in the Turkish fleet, becoming known as “Hobart Pasha” from the title bestowed by the Sultan.  He ranks with Lord Nelson in British naval tradition. 

As to the name Old Picot bequeathed me, it was intended, I am sure, with a certain gentle playfulness.  In old Scotland, tinkers were roamers in general, romantic Gypsy types, I like to think, not domesticated peddlers of wares and menders of pots.  Besides, before I was through, no Yankee would have accepted that I merely “tinkered” with Blockade Running.  If I do say so myself, I was to this “manner” born!  I “dogged” the enemy as much as I dogged the footsteps of my current master, standing by his heel, nay side, in the fiercest moments of battle.

My forebears were famously companionable (to those worthy, at least), though suspicious of the stranger, and we are constantly alert.  No sailors seemed surprised that I had certain . . . powers.  The higher-ups among them were pleased to say that it was always dog watch with me on board and that I never had to be “unleashed,” was always “straining at the leash,” as it were.  My abilities were natural enough, to be sure, for my kind is known for keen senses—smell, hearing, and sight in particular.  Why, then, should I not have been able to sniff out the enemy before my shipmates had the least notice of their nearing?  Why should I not have been able to sense progressive failures in aspects of our vessels?  Why should I not have inspected the longboats before each voyage, lingering longest, as was said, over that of the Captain, our leader? 

I was devoted to blockade running.  I like to think mine a case of the dog being the catcher, though my side always was the “underdog”.  I was of some small use at least.  But I accompanied captains and pilots of stature.  Some were daring enough to pass through the blockaders of Fort Fisher and Wilmington by hoisting the ensign of the United States and pretending to be one of its fleet.  Some deliberately donned the British flag to run the cordon near Nassau and Bermuda.  Mighty men they were, one and all.  But still and verily, every crew among whom I served came to look upon me as a work of living holystone, whose very presence cleansed and sanctified their decks. 

I became widely known and was photographed in Bermuda, if not in New York, but my picture was sold there, as that of an infamous Blockade Runner, to the United States authorities.  Fortunately, I was never confined, like my human compatriots, in its Ludlow Street Jail; nor was I sent to Fort Lafayette to await the end of the war.  I must say, however, that it was easier for the pilots and captains to go in disguise than for me to.  A bounty upon me was assuredly set, for it was believed, on both sides of THE GREAT FRAY, that I brought more vessels safely into the protective bosom of the guns of Fort Fisher than any sailing master could do alone.  A selected few were privileged with the knowledge to pilot Blockade Runners past the torpedoes our Confederates had anchored in channels of the Cape Fear, but I, too, knew the secrets of these minefields and, on three occasions, nosed our ship’s way through when the Captain was no longer available.  And no one need feel out the inlet with a deep-sea lead when I was aboard.  Was my last naval “owner” not offered $500 in gold to permit me to accompany a newly promoted commander on his first running of the blockade gauntlet?  Was it not commonly believed that, when my master and I left a ship for a new assignment, the one we had left behind would be captured or destroyed by enemy or natural disaster?  I must insist upon impunity here from rats deserting a sinking ship.  I am ratter, not rat.  Do not look to dogs for such “doggerel.”

May I also point out that, when Captain Mike and I set sail for Wilmington from Bermuda in the steamship Rattlesnake towards the end of THE WAR OF NORTHERN AGGRESSION, we learned on the way from others who had turned back that the forts at the mouth of the Cape Fear had been captured.  A friend of the Rattlesnake’s captain told his wife not to worry over her husband’s fate because I, Tinker, was with him, and his ship must thus be safe.  And so it was, but not entirely by my shrewdness.  The Rattlesnake’s master was keen enough to appreciate my uneasiness, for I sensed that our way was too easy and began to pace back and forth and nip at his legs.  It transpired that my leaping instincts well-warned me.  When Fort Fisher was overcome, our signal-book fell into the hands of the enemy, who could thus draw us in and take us over without having to fire a shot.  In our case, however, because of my uneasiness and contortions—I knew better than to give way to noise—, Captain Mike turned and slipped away before the Yankees could stop us.  And many of Captain Mike’s fellows were cut from such cloth.  The great John Wilkinson was famous for his utilization of smoke screens and decoy signal rockets, and it was only a Canadian betrayal that kept him from breaking out our Confederates imprisoned on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. 

In truth, too, I must confess that our enemy was also wily (and far less bound by gentlemanly dictates).  I was aboard one ship bound from Wilmington to Nassau when a Union master gave chase and followed us so closely along the coast of the Island of Eleutheria—and well within the neutral zone—that we finally could only run her aground, his shots arching all the while over our ship and into the pineapple fields along the shore.

But I, as stated forthwith, tell truth, and one correction I must not fail to administer to my saga.  It was reported that, when THE CAUSE became LOST and there was a cessation of Blockade Running, I gave in to low spirits resulting from the loss of my occupation and quickly sickened and died.  Not so!  I did not die of idleness.  I was eaten alive by the teredo of sorrow, as the very sea-worm had gnawed the North Carolina until she sank at her moorings.  She was our proud ironclad ram anchored off Smithville as a guard vessel commanding the entrance to the Cape Fear at the Main Bar.  Oh, I was desperately unhappy—that I admit—but I, too, was a proud Southerner and Wilmingtonian.  I could not be defeated of spirit.  No, the truth is, I would not be taken to be made sport of as THAT POOR INSTRUMENT OF THE SOUTHERN CAUSE.  Like Captain Nathan Algren, who, let it be noted, fled the Northern cause from disgust, we chose to leave the scene.  My master decided to flee to England to look for work as a mercenary. 

As for me, think of four years of war in dog’s time!  Try to imagine.  I had willed myself not to sicken when we were quarantined fifty days at a stretch by Yellow Jack, and our victuals were down to salt pork and sardines.  I received my share, I hasten to add.  Well, think what is said—that a dog returns to his vomit.  Not this dog!  Not to the black vomit that was the final mask Death so often donned aboard our Blockade Runners. 

On that last voyage, I willed myself to hold firm until we were beyond Halifax, Nova Scotia, into whose bosom bodies from the Titanic would seek refuge in the future.  When we were at length in the North Atlantic, I knew the very moment and spot.  I folded my front paws, laid my muzzle upon them, and breathed my last.  My master and all the ship’s good crew stood at attention, uncovered their heads, saluted.  Those Men from the Colder North would never take me.  I defied them again, slipped away among mighty icebergs to wander, as long as necessary, the Polar Region off the great North Pole, lifting as I went a last song of lamentation for THE GREAT CAUSE LOST. 

Oh, why was our Southern Destiny deemed a crime to freeze the world in ice?  That cause was Colossus, was shape, was wonder.  Why did it become mere glacial thing in me, lowly creature floating in ice, becoming ice?  I confess its faults, sorrow for them.  But to think that those—the GREAT LEE not alone—who once dallied with Scylla and Charybdis were grown but clods of ice in my similitude!  For that CAUSE LOST, my tears dropped, grappled, grasped, formed iceberg grottos.  I floated for Dogger Bank, would ring the world, not missing Patagonia’s steppes.  Glistening, glinting, iridescent—grotesque!  palsied!  People, from their ships, saw me enlarged with ice, thought me cave where great whales were a-breeding.  I was emblem of the Once-Giant-Now-Ice, THAT SWEETEST CAUSE, crumpled into craggied bergs.  Most of what it was you never saw, never knew.  Those greats who had sung the thunder tame plainted now in shrill and piping pops!  Could I work their penance out?  Giant of naught save ice.  Oh, that Lot’s wife had mated with them to grant surcease, let them deliquesce!  Oh, why was the salt of earth scanted to us, OUR CAUSE?  Why were we destined to supplant the Children of Israel as THE SCATTERED NATION?  

I prayed that the record would be set straight upon the Great Assizes.  But, even as my prayer lifted, I remembered that, more than once, it was the coastal saltworks themselves whose swirling mists and rising clouds had saved those Blockade Runners forced by the tides to give themselves to daylight.  I felt the salt begin also to work this ice that froze me.  I felt the onset of my apotheosis but could not say if the miracle were mine solely.

On the Blockade Runners, I was the opposite of myself and my kind.  Like our great ships painted black and gray and burning smokeless anthracite to effect invisibility, I must be dark as Erebus, silent as lost-tongued Lavinia, the companion of mist and shadow.  But I became, at length, Sothis, that Sirius whom you call the Dog Star.  I am of the constellation Canis Major, the brightest star in the sky, some 8.6 light-years distant from Earth.  And I do beg you, Gentle Reader, when next you hear or think upon the exalted term Blockade Runner, look up—past cold men, cold world, cold skies—look up and give a small thought, please, to me, Tinker—Blockade Ratter!  And to . . . that . . . CAUSE LOST!

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