From the front porch, Jakob Emig could look across fields where his winter wheat greened nicely. An old man now, with sons gone off to war, he lived mainly in a woman’s world of married daughters and daughters-in-law on farms scattered nearby. He himself lived alone, widowed now for two years, hard work during war-time finally having taken its toll on his wife’s constitution already weakened by a series of illnesses. She’d borne him seven living children, and he was remembering her now on the front gallery as Old Shack lay at his feet, nose outstretched on paws and wrinkling eyes upward to his master. There would be no hunting today, though the hound eagerly waited for any sign of preparation.
Jakob was remembering back nearly forty years ago when he and his Polly first began farming these fields and built this house. It had started log-modest and been added to over the years. The old one-room cabin with fireplace large enough to stand in had eventually become the kitchen onto which he built a four-room house. When the girls came along, he’d also made shed-room additions. He and Polly had lost four babes to sudden fevers and unexplained illnesses. The Lord’s will. They buried them in the hillside plot and grieved. It was to these lost little ones and to Polly, fresh and young in her homespun linen, that his mind returned mostly, of Polly and himself in the wagon going to church the first Sunday after their marriage, sitting together that day in the little sanctuary where men and women always sat apart for worship. Newlyweds had this privilege for a time, and he remembered how the congregation wished them well, out of full hearts. These were his neighbors whom he thought of now in turn. Some who had died; how the years had treated others. How they were bearing up in these evil and trying times. Remembering then the first-born, taken from them with fever that first spring, and how Polly took it so hard it was like to kill her too, and he so low that the planting dragged on forever. But they had had to put it aside and carry on, for they were strong folk and meant to make a go. Their people before them had done the same on the same land under hardships far worse than these. Too, Providence had given them special powers and strengths that would always prevail against the forces of evil.
It was in the middle of these thoughts that he saw the first column of smoke. It rose slowly and distinctly like a dark stain on a linen white sky. Though it was far enough distant, he knew that he must soon rise now and see to the livestock. He would need to hide it as best he could in the surrounding woods. He must also see to putting the meal and hams in sacks for burial. When the second and third columns rose to right and left of the first, he knew he must be stirring. Old Shack whimpered. There was something in his master’s movements that made him anxious. Jakob’s mind was far from the hunt, and he rose stiffly from the split-bottomed chair to go first to smokehouse, then to kitchen. He worked with method, efficiently and deftly, but without hurry, tying the cords stiffly with old-man’s hands. The hams went into canvas bags that he had made several days ago for the purpose.
He had already dug his holes the week before on a dry hill in the proper thickets where they could be covered with leaves and brush. It was a matter of only a few hours until he had hitched Hans to the wagon and, with Shack at his heels, had buried four fine hams, three canvas-covered barrels of meal, and one of flour.
This would see him through the rest of the winter, and his boys and daughters as well. The boys, God willing, would return one day soon; their farms were not faring as well as his own, having no grown menfolk to take the proper reins. The gals ploughed well enough, but there was too much to be done, and the oldest grandson on any of the farms was ten. Yes, there would be hungrier mouths to feed than now, and a long time till harvest. God only knew what these next six months would have in store for them. He could only trust and do all in his power.
His feet made icy prints as he went about his early work. There had been a heavy frost this February morning, and by eleven it was still unmelted. The white sun’s rays seemed to have no force in them; he could not feel them on his shoulders. The columns of dark smoke now rose everywhere in the pale sky. They were close. The one to the immediate left was, he knew, in the direction of his eldest son Johann’s, some three miles distant. He raised a prayer for Christiana as he bridled his mules and led them from the lot. He just could not be with them all and prayed God to hold them in His hands.
He had wanted to call them all together under his protecting wings but knew they were too independent and practical for that, wishing to care for the homesteads which their husbands had left in trust to them. Old Shack, the two milk cows, the three sheep, and two beeves, he tethered and hid as best he could in the distant woods. He muttered a few words in a foreign tongue over them. As this was accomplished and he was returning home, he saw the smoke from his barn and caught a glimpse of blue men on horseback switching and swirling in his yard. It was time for him to think about himself and his own safety.
Smoke seemed to ring him. Somewhere to the distant east, the woods had caught fire. The sky was raining soot and cinders and was pitch black. The world itself seemed to be on fire, and the white sun seldom shone through the breaks of smoke. Jakob could now hear the intermittent pop and crackle of occasional musketry, and the laughs and shouts of bearded mouths. Somebody seemed to be having lots of fun; he knew it wasn’t him. He would have to exercise all his strength to keep himself from defending his farmstead with the rifle that rested impotently over his mantel, but common sense and the ring of smoke taught him that such an attempt would be pointless.
He had little fear for his own safety, for he had tricks up his sleeves that even Satan-helped Yankees wouldn’t believe. Theirs were the powers of darkness over which light would prevail. Their element was Satan’s dark fire and they brought death, ashes, and destruction. He himself exercised powers as ancient as theirs and more fearful by a longshot. He needed neither torch nor rifle. They would just see who would come out better here.
Jakob had that reputation. Both he and his Polly practiced what the good farm folk of the area called using, or Brauchen in the old German tongue of their ancestors. He was known far and wide for his wizardry in a community in which users were numerous and properly respected. Folks even came from far off to seek his help. Among users, he truly had no equal. All acknowledged that he was in a class by himself, and he himself knew it. Were it not for his gentle nature and trustworthiness, he would have been universally feared. His own recognition of his powers, however, went almost as far as pride, which Jakob was always heedful of having to guard against. It was his one real weakness, and he knew that too. Just where these mysterious strengths came from, he himself did not comprehend. He only knew he had them; and as a special gift, he had learned early that he must take care to practice them humbly, sparingly, and only for the good. That they must be practiced so, must have been a requirement for their potency, for the one time that he sought to do otherwise, he failed and failed miserably to his own considerable physical discomfort. (But that is another story.)
This time, and in these circumstances, he knew he would not fail. Hell was flaming around him, and Satan’s emissaries were brandishing torch and sword. He eased closer to see their devilish work, to the orchard within a hundred paces of his burning bam. Near him the blue men were having carnival in the glare of the fire, emptying his smokehouse. One soldier was stringing ropes of sausages around his neck like a necklace of pearls. Another wore a dead chicken on his head like a great feather bonnet. What they could not carry off, they were intent on destroying. Jakob looked on sadly and his only solace was that Polly was not here to see what was happening to the fruits of many years of careful planning, struggle, and hard work. But still Jakob was sure he would yet have the last word, and properly so. He knew his strength, if only he managed to practice it humbly, with fitting restraint, and without anger.
Before he could put his plan in motion, however, he felt a cold barrel pressed to the small of his back and heard the sinister double clicks of a hammer readying for fire. He had been captivated by the Yankees, sure as shootin’, and was being marched into his own yard a prisoner. Where was his gold? He had no gold. Where was his silver? He had no silver. Where were his shiny jewels and valuables? He had none. “We will just see about that for ourselves,” they assured, “and if you are lying, you will surely die.”
His house was already being ransacked from garret to cellar. He saw his old faithful rifle being carried away as booty. Polly’s quilts were being strung on horses for saddle blankets and the rest were being tom, sabred, and trampled. Every chest had been brought into the yard and knocked apart. The furniture was likewise brought outside and made the targets for both rifle and sword, then smashed and ridden over by the horses. He looked on with stunned amazement and sullen disbelief.
They had not found gold, they said. Where was it? They would shoot him if he did not tell them where he had hidden it. They knew he lied, they said; but he did not. Soon, soon, now, he would have to use his power against them. If only he could remain cautious and humble so as not to anger the Almighty.
They took him to his barnyard, near his burning barn, and into his poultry lot. Here, every creature had been decapitated and those not taken away for camp dinner, were still strewn about in twitching and headless state. His old peacock, his wife’s fondest pet, lay shot through the head near its favorite perch. A sad sight, but he had always been a proud strutter. A soldier had been annoyed by his pride and loud cry as if mocking the Great Blue Army.
Jakob looked on patiently. No, he did not lie about the gold; so they placed him with his back against the poultry house and began to shoot musket balls about his head to force him to tell them where it was. A minie ball came close to his left ear. Its sound was like the buzz of a big green fly or an enormous mosquito. Splinters from the fractured wood brushed his cheek. He could not tell them where nonexistent gold was hidden, so they were about to kill him. For his own self, it did not matter overmuch; but there were his children and grandchildren who would need his help in the lean months ahead. Their farms were at this moment, he knew, being laid waste in the same way as his own, as truly they were. The ring of fire around him was from the lands of his closest kin.
The right ear now, pop and buzz, and the next ball would likely take his life. As he watched the blue man with the red beard pull trigger and the rifle flash its long orange streak, he lined the ball as it issued from the barrel, as it aimed and sped for his forehead, slowed it, and struggled with it to twist it out of its path so that when it resumed its velocity, it went flying at a 45 degree angle into a great black iron washpot. There it spun round and round making a tinny sound, till it stopped silent. The blue men were amazed. One walked to the pot and picked up the bullet. Jakob stood calm.
He served a second, third, fourth, and fifth bullet in the same way. Each time the ball went “phling” into the giant washpot. Several different men tried with different muskets, but each time, the bullets went “phling” into the giant washpot. By now, there were many blue men gathered. The thirteenth bullet clanged and spun “phling” into the pot and was retrieved in the shape of a tiny silver cross. This ended the experiment at once. Most of the men began to fear. However, the first soldier, the loud and red-bearded man who had been drinking, was angered rather than frightened.
He fumbled at his left side and fixed his bayonet, then made to lunge at the old man. As Jakob lined the bayonet which was aimed at his heart he fought with it with his eyes and froze its motion within a foot of him. The red-bearded soldier writhed and twisted behind the bayonet frozen in mid-air, trying to move it, then tried to free himself from it, but found that his skin was stuck, as if to ice. He thrashed about in all manner of grotesque motions, comic to behold if they had not been so desperately performed. It was at this moment that he of the red beard looked Jakob in his steely gray eyes. Jakob’s eyes calmed him, transfixed him as on the point of a bayonet, and froze him in mid-struggle. There stood red-beard, with glazed eyes fixed on Jakob, one foot lifted from the ground in the motion of plunging forward, his hands frozen to the instrument. To Jakob, he looked for the world like Old Shack on his most famous point when a larger than usual covey of partridges would fly into view.
It was then that the other blue men began to fear in earnest. A few had heard that such wizards existed in this strange backwater land through which they passed. In their march of burning, they had just yesterday seen three tall gaunt sisters dressed in flowing black garments come onto the porch of an old farmhouse nearby, chanting and wailing in an unknown tongue. These weird sisters had caused shivers, and the blue men passed them in quiet, sparing their house from their usual pillage and burning out of an unreasoned fear. What, then, were they encountering here? Was it more of the same wizardry and craft? Thoughts of gold and silver vanished.
Meanwhile, Jakob stood silent and calm in the strength of his powers. He no longer spoke. He was no longer spoken to. As he moved for the first time, taking a step to the side of the frozen bayonet aimed at his chest, the semicircle of blue men shrank back from him. They opened outward to let his gaunt form pass. Jakob then walked the short distance to his house, gazed at by all, but molested by none.
The home, now having been completely plundered of booty, was about to be burned. As Jakob approached, a black-beard on a roan horse accosted him with sword uplifted. Jakob fought with his eyes and froze both man and beast, the man with sword uplifted and eyes glazed. The same he did with two men on foot, struggling with their eyes, and freezing them in mid-stride.
There was another red-beard with torch in hand about to fire the dimity curtains of the front parlor window. He looked at Jakob as he was about to apply the torch and caught his calm steely-gray eyes. Jakob struggled with the red-beard’s frantic eyes in which the fires from the torch reflected, and froze the man in calmness. The torch fire melted into water which froze as a long icicle that dripped from the soldier’s outstretched hand. (In after years, the figure would have reminded you of the frozen iron statue of a cold gray lady, torch in hand, in the great harbor of the Northmen.)
These scenes were witnessed by more than a few, who now shrank back from our wizard, who went about his business calmly and serenely. The woods had caught fire from the burning barn and smokehouse. These threatened with their sparks the very house itself. So Jakob, now given wide berth, especially since the presence of the five frozen statue-men attested quite graphically and persuasively to his powers, was able to move undisturbed. He slowly circled his and Polly’s dwelling, once, twice, three times while using with the incantation long taught by his ancestors. The blue men watched his every move and looked on in astonishment akin to horror as Jakob went about his ritual. The three weird sisters of yesterday could not hold a candle to this, though the pair of events had the result of reinforcing one another in potency in the excited brains of the strangers. Like most bullies, these men were cowards and with danger to themselves now a possibility for the first time, they hastened away, some leaving chickens roasting on spits, some in the middle of looting the springhouse.
The booty wagons on which the goods from his house had been piled now hastened to pull out. With a glance of his eye, he locked their wheels, as if an iron bar had been thrust into them. The men on them fell forward with a jolt, quickly dismounted, cut loose their horses, and fled afoot. The wagons sat quiet in the lane with a golden sheen of enchantment spread over them like one of Polly’s best yellow tulip quilts.
Jakob was soon again alone with five statues, but not for long. As was usually the case during the great march of destruction, the conquerors came in waves. It was not long until another, bigger band of blue soldiers, this time headed by General Judson Kilpatrick himself, rode into Jakob’s yard.
Jakob had charmed the fire so that it burned to the magic circle, and it did not cross this line. The charred and smoking weeds ran up to the unburned grass to form a perfect ring. Further, no man but Jakob was able to enter it. His house was thus saved; his livestock and goods were secure in the charmed woods where no foot could enter, and frankly he was a bit weary from all the commotion. Too, using exhausts a body so. And this new red-bearded one on the great black horse Jakob correctly knew to be Satan himself; the smell of Lucifer matches and burning sulphur was about him; and Jakob had sense enough to know that even using powers had their limits. His eyes could not struggle with Satan’s to extinguish their myriad fires, and one could not look into the doors to the Red-beard’s burning abyss without being affected somehow for the worse, contaminated in some sort of central way of spoiling and wounding. The Scriptures always had taught him to leave evil alone, to give it distance. So Jakob thus rightly felt it best to avoid this man named Kilpatrick and his blood-red-bearded twin brother Sherman, himself seen in the wizard’s inner eye as he skulked somewhere in the nearby shadowed woods of burning Fairfield. Kilpatrick and his men could do no more damage to him after all, and Jakob must be careful not to overstep the bounds into pride in his powers. So he, with a wink of his left steely-gray eye, the one with the yellow flecks in it, turned himself into a great log by the garden palings. Here he could witness the conclusion of the little drama in which he had up to now been the central actor.
There, as a sturdy and solid oak log, he was feeling comfortable, smug, and superior. You might say he was even coming close to pride and vanity, so to chasten him, the Almighty (felt Jakob) brought him low by having Judson Kilpatrick sit on him to eat his midday meal while he puzzled over the deserted, frozen, and well-filled wagons and the five blue statues that used to be his men.
Long years since, when Jakob, now grown to a truly venerable age and an honored patriarch in the land, would tell from his spot in the chimney comer the tale of this day to the thrill and hushed amazement of his legion of great-grandchildren, he would recall that of all the losses he had suffered, and of all the troubles and trials of the day, the one thing that stung him most was having Satan’s backside imprinted on him. The Almighty caused it to happen, however (he was quick to tell the children), out of an infinite wisdom not to be questioned. Jakob had saved his meat, his hearth and home, but Satan had shown an awesome power before which he could never more be either too proud or vain. It was truly a lesson worth the learning on a par with how to use power aright,—even if he had to be pressed by Satan’s backside to fathom it.
This article was originally published in the Fourth Quarter 1989 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.