The Great Myths #11: The Holy Grail Comes to the Civil War (To the House of the Sun)

& he’s brought out & led down a dim hallway to a small room & a little table to sit next to the hunched old man—& the old fisherman smiles, but he’s dying:

& he looks to the door—& two young men enter. Conrad’s age—& twins—one wears a grey uniform & the other blue:
& the Union boy wears a faded-blue infantry jacket with lusterless buttons & a pair of matching faded light-blue trousers:
he wears a forage-cap with a broken buckle & a cracked black-brim, on its front the crossed-sabers of cavalry:
he wears a cheap haversack over a shoulder & across his chest & a belt with a buckle & two brass letters—US:
& he wears a cap-box on one side of the belt & a saber & scabbard on the other:
& he wears a high pair of shoes that rise to his ankles, worn metal plates attached to the toes & heels, while the leather’s original brown peek from be-hind a hasty application of bootblack:

& the Confederate boy wears torn trousers & a nine-button grey frock coat, the state insignia on each button too worn to be identified:
& he wears a collar & shirt-cuff with stripes of dark blue:
& a forage-cap in worse shape than his brother’s, a cap the color of burnt grass, the brim weathered & wrinkled & its crown restitched so many times no readable numbers or letters remain:
& he wears a pair of brogans made of dirt itself, the laces curls of stone & the cracked soles beaten rock:
& he wears a belt whose buckle-plate bears the only two letters that can respond to his brother’s—CS—
while at his side is a revolver & holster with a bullet-mold & a shortsword & a scabbard with a rusty & bloody handle:

& both boys are missing an arm: one his right, the other his left: & their empty sleeves hang like limp flags, while with their remaining arms they carry a platter between them, a platter on which lie two bloody bayonets which still gush a slow stream of blood—& they place the platter on the table, & sit opposite the two of them:

& neither boy speaks:
& the old man begins to cry:
& so do his boys:
so do his sons:
so does his blood—

they cry even though their eyes never lose their gaze or their hatred for each other:

& now an old woman appears with another platter: & on it is a battered & empty old mess kit, smaller than a child’s toy bucket, & lacking even a lid—& it’s set in the middle of the table:

& beside the platter of two bayonets & the mess kit, is a bowl of water: & this is passed round, so the old man & Conrad & the woman can wash their hands & dry them:

& when it comes to their sons, they take grudging turns, one washing & drying the other’s hand, & then the other doing the same for his brother:

& the old woman holds up the mess kit: & it’s now full of steaming rabbit stew, overflowing with potatoes & carrots & onions—& the meat glistens amid it all:

& only the smallest ladle can fit inside to dish the food from the tiny container, but the old woman is able, impossibly, to pour a plateful apiece for her & her husband—

& when she asks Conrad what he wants, he immediately says the first meal Peter had after he went off—& she pours bean soup into his bowl:

& before he can ask any questions she passes it to her sons—& one holds it while the other digs the food out with his spoon: & both receive the same food & the same portions, but they still spoon it onto the other’s plate, not their own. & both receive sad attempts at beef steak & beaten biscuits that drop with a solid thud: & both re-ceive bad onions & old herbs, the biscuits closer to bricks:

& “Is that what you want?” Conrad asks the boys, but the old man speaks for them:

“You get what you want at this table—reach out your hand, & you’ll find it ready, warm food or cold. If you want nourishment & blessedness, it will be here for you:”

& Conrad looks round & now sees dressing for every dish: gravy & pepper sauce: fruit & broth—the table is loaded with all this wealth, as if furnished in passing by some hand circling the room:

& the old man holds his glass up & tips it till it touches the mess kit, & he nods for Conrad to do the same: & both glasses are filled from the bottom to the top, the old man’s with wine, & Conrad’s with the mulberry juice Mother made him as a boy:

& “What do they want?” Conrad asks: “can they not talk?”

& the old man & the mother & two sons glance at each other:

& the old man says “They can’t talk because they’ve nothing to say: he’s a Union man: & he’s a Rebel—& that’s all they ever say. & they came at each other in a place called Jericho: & they broke ranks & ran to each other & fought till they were pulled apart—but not be-fore they did the damage you see here:”

“They should have let us fight” one says: & “They should have let us fight” the other says. “We didn’t break any ranks:” one says: & “What rank is there but to kill your own brother?” the other says: “& if you shouldn’t fight your own brother, you shouldn’t fight a stranger. But if you’re allowed to kill one, you should be allowed to kill the other:”

& Conrad smiles: “If you want to stop two men, you have to stop two hundred: or twenty thousand: & that’s impossible—”

“You would rather they be dead?” the old man asks.

“A man can’t kill his own brother forever—”

“Until they’re dead—”

“But who of us truly dies—who of us really disappears: who of us is ever completely gone? & who isn’t your brother? Should I hate you or kill you all or take joy in your pain, just because I’ve only known you a day?”

“But they do—& they’ve known one another all their lives. & you: you want to do worse: you want to kill your own Father:”

& Conrad smiles: “Perhaps I do—perhaps I never will—but if it happens, it won’t be a triumph: if it happens, I won’t parade with his head on a pike—it will be a necessary thing, a terrible thing, a fearful thing—& all this blood is a necessary, terrible thing:
& tell me a tide hasn’t been coming at this country for years:

tell me we don’t deserve it
& tell me it isn’t necessary,
despite its being terrible:
& tell me it isn’t terrible because of what we did to deserve it:
& tell me the affection that makes it so terrible
isn’t as powerful as that fear:
& tell me honestly these things are avoidable—
but don’t describe the perfect world—
tell me they’re avoidable in this one,
where both food is abundant, but blood is on the table—”

& the platter with two bayonets has overflowed, & covered the brothers’ side of the table. & the blood is all on their clothes: & it’s on their hands & food & faces. & Conrad looks to the parents & only now sees they’ve been testing him:

& with their help he washes their faces & hands—
& they clear their side of the table & put down a new cloth:

& he invites the two brothers to his side of the table:
& he gives his seat to one & their father gives his seat to the other:
& the parents now sit at the two heads, their sons between them:

& rather than the awful food they deserve, they are given the food they need:
they are given food out of paradise:

& as sons & brothers, they are given the food of Heaven—
& when their cups are drained dry, they fill themselves:

& the family all put their hands to the good things that lay before them. & though the sun has set outside, the light (as if from two suns) comes from all the windows, & fills the room. & Conrad takes his place where the two of them previously sat: & he eats nothing,

the generosity before his eyes feast enough:
the generosity of abundance in the face of barrenness:
the generosity of love in the face of hate:
the generosity of acceptance in the face of disgust:
the calm silence in place of a room filled with rancor & ugliness & every opposition, down to the pettiest:

& his eyes feast on this grace:
this grace neither brother deserves but is given,
this grace that may remove their malice in time.

– Tim Miller, To the House of the Sun, Book 10, 112-117

Read the other Great Myths here