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La Piccioletta Barca - Issue 19
Dust

Dust

It engulfs every inch of this world. Every surface, every face, every bit of once-blue sky. It is infinite. Never ending, never ceasing to cloud the air. Ash and grit from things burned so long ago, reminding us of our failures. Reminding us of why we deserve it’s presence. It forces our lives to accommodate it; we wear masks to protect ourselves from it and become sick if we don’t. It gets in your eyes and in your hair, our teeth grey from eating the ash-ridden food and our skin dark from the endless accumulation of it on our bodies. It infects our children, our friends, ourselves. Our food is bleakly mixed with it’s dying color, our water murky or even black and clumped into slush. We become sick without the proper devotion of time and attention to these ceaseless elements, and even then, the dust still comes. Even with precautions, prayer, devout suffering, we find ourselves coughing the impossibly present dust from our lungs until the brown specks turn red and our bodies begin to submit. We begin, painfully, to return to the earth we damned so long ago. The dust is a god, an equalizer, a reaper. It steals those we love in the night as penance for our sins. We hold their lifeless bodies and cry to a god that cannot hear us through the ashy sky, and pray to never forget the soul that dust has stolen from us. We bury them in the hardened earth, knowing the dead soil will not retake them. We know they will fade, slowly, until they become themselves but dust, trapped beneath our feet. And by then, those many years later, we will have forgotten their faces, knowing only the bleak place in our memory where they once were.

We worship the dust, in this way. We devote time to it every single day of our lives. Each morning is spent pushing it from your belongings and picking it’s specks from our food. If we ignore the dust, it will punish us, forcing us to atone for our ignorance to it’s power. We spend years trying to fight it, thinking there is a better world with a better god where no dust exists. If only we could push through this world long enough, we think, the dust will retreat from the air and free us from it’s grasp. We think in our youth that our forgotten world might return, cleansing the ash from our streets and the dirt from our lungs. We believe the sun will punch through the clouds and once again return it’s light to our grimy, unworthy faces. That we will fall to our knees with joy and the cruelty of the world will be over at last. Our water will run clean, our bodies will be washed and laughter may once again be heard in the air. We dream of the food from a forgotten world, that which we read about in molded, dirty books found in basements and cellars. Food which glistens with grease and fat, shared with friends and neighbors at it’s bountifulness over laughter and camaraderie. Food that we don’t fight and kill one-another for. Food that doesn’t kill us for eating it and starving us for not. Our youth gives us this terrible hope. We carry the hope with us into our adult lives, trying to smile at the dim sky and think of the better world on the horizon. Our youth makes us ignorant to reality. The reality that dust will never leave us.

I’ve perched myself on the doorstep of a structure from another world. A place where thousands passed from their lives to their work in the days of the blue, clean skies. People too busy to think or live or find joy in their clean, dustless world. Our parents tell us these buildings were one filled with people, too many to count, and they sat at desks and worked on machines where their words could be heard and read around the world. If only now, I thought, we could ask the world for a cure to the dust. A way to clean it from our streets and lungs and lives. If only I had one of the machines in my parent’s stories. I could ask the world to bring my friends from their graves. Somebody, somewhere, I think, has the answer to our struggles and a solution to our damnation. I rest my head against the splintered concrete of the wall and close my eyes, as if I could pull the knowledge of this place from that forgotten world. As if I could ask those careless people to help us. Had I been younger, I may have tried. I may have come here and begged the beings and their machines from another time to save us from this pitiful world. But I know these people were thoughts, their machines fantastical stories parents tell their children to brighten the darkest of nights. Nobody knows what these ancient structures were or whom filled their walls. I know that time spent hoping to the past for a solution to the future is futile. I know they cannot help us.

When I open my eyes, the light has dimmed. The sun is recoiling for the day. Leaving us to fight for ourselves in the blackest of nights. My legs are weak from exhaustion, but I stand and shake the dirt from my clothes. I reach to the back of my head and tighten the cloth tied around my face, pulling my hat down further to protect my patchy, thin hair. I pick my rifle and my pack from the ground and turn to face the structure. The building that cannot save us. The people wiped from the earth. Good riddance, I think, and I turn to the street and leave it.

My ankles begin to bleed before I stop again in the night. The ashy sky which dims our world makes our night as sightless as the void, and I do not know if I am surrounded by buildings or a dense, green forrest. No light finds this place. I stop walking and begin to unpack my bedding, placing my belongings at my feet in a small pile. Unable to see the small shrine I build before me, I know I am building a tribute to the ash. I meticulously place my tins, pack, and clothes before me to be coated by the dust in the night. When I wake tomorrow and see the layer of filth from the air and the sky upon it, I will give thanks and know the dust has not forgotten me. I will know that although entirely alone in the world, dust and ash will always be with me. I will walk with them everywhere I go, and when they are ready, they will take me.

I remove my boots last, the drying blood in my socks breaking away as I do, replaced quickly with warm, fresh blood, trickling down my feet into small pools on the ground. I reach to my small pile of things and pull a stiff bit of cloth from my pack, moving it to my wounds. The longer I hold the cloth at my torn flesh, the softer it becomes, soaking and warming from my blood. If I could see, I know by now the crimson cloth would be soaked-through and my bare ankle carelessly streaked with red. The hard ground would have drips of my life for miles back, useful to a hunter in finding their prey. A trail leading directly to my small pile of treasurers. I turn my head and stare into the nothingness, imagining my face in the crosshairs of a bow or rifle a mile away. I close my eyes, welcoming the release my hunter offers, ready to be returned to the dust. But the wind howls and my hair flows loosely in the night and no bullet or arrow comes. Maybe tomorrow, I think, and I pull myself into the small sleeping-sack. I push the soaking rag into my mouth and gnaw on it, drinking whatever I can pull from the fabric. The warmth and the copper-taste are a delicacy. My growling stomach quiets, believing that I am finally submitting to it’s cries for nourishment, and I lay in silence as I enjoy the only thing i’ve ever found to not be soiled with dust. But this fact is as untrue as the machines and people in my parents stories, for the rag I use and my mouth are coated and caked in ash, and so I lie to myself and to my stomach as I drift to sleep.

I dream of running water, pumped from deep within the earth, running freely in a stream. The water is surrounded by green, full grass and it runs quickly, breaking itself upon stones where it splashes into the air. I am standing beside it, watching, wanting nothing more than to fall to my knees and push my face into the water and let it fill my mouth and belly. But I cannot move, I can only smell the clean air and listen to the quick, trickling water. I am alive in this world, free of sickness and hunger and pain. I wish to stay here forever, content being frozen in place. But the world begins to grey and the water stops running and the dust pulls me awake. The dimly lit world retrieves me from my conditional paradise and returns me to my enslavement. The cloth in my mouth is now hard and dry and I reach under my mask to retrieve it, slipping it into my pocket. I turn to my small shrine of things and find my morning gift from the sky resting peacefully upon it. The dirt and ash in a thin layer, disguising my things as forgotten, abandoned possessions from some lost owner or a traveler returned to the earth. I climb from my sack and stand, slowly spinning to take in my surroundings. I am in the air, on a road lifted on pillars from the earth below. I have never been this far from the earth in my life, I think, and I look over the edge to the dead ground. My eyes drift across the landscape, childishly hoping to spot the oasis from my dream, but I see only the dead planet, coated in ash dust for miles. I return to my pile and begin my daily devotion, clearing the ash from my empty rifle and shaking the dirt loose from my pack. I remove my mask and beat it with my blood-soaked boots, knowing it will not help, but justifying the lie to myself as a motivator to push forward. I begin to walk again, leaving only drops of blood and a spot in the ash behind me. I walk in the air, high above the ground, until the road gradually sinks and returns to the landscape below. Returns me to reality.

I am alone with my thoughts. I think of the book i’d found as a child with the pictures of farms and hills and people. The stream in my dreams. I think of the map i’d read and the places I must have passed. Places gone, forgotten, engulfed in flame. The names of the states and how many I would have to walk through to reach the haven in my dreams. My legs remind me of their exhaustion and my stomach once again begins to churn, angered at the lie I told when trying to nourish myself with my blood-soaked rag. I retrieve a hard biscuit from my pack and chew it as I walk. The biscuit feels like a stone, the only taste being the dust set into it from time and a rare appearance of dull-green mold. Each bite causes my teeth to wiggle in place and pierces some sore nerve, my eyes welling and tears spilling onto my mask. I don’t stop, hoping the pain might push me forward. Hoping I might be rewarded for my suffering. But the dust does not reward me for consuming it, and by mid-day, I have collapsed.

I am sitting in the soft, green grass. My clean, bare feet rest in the stream and I smile as the cool water runs through my toes and specks of water splash my ankles. My palms dig into fresh earth and I lean my head back, the sun beckoning onto my face. I’ve never touched the water before this, and I think I may finally have reached my paradise. I’ve suffered enough, and the dust has rewarded me for my piety. I breathe in, smiling, taking the cool air down into my lungs. I hear the laughter of friends and, for the first time in so long, feel no hunger. I turn to greet them, but find only the concrete of the road against my face. My eyes slowly open, and I see the ash-covered path beneath me, my biscuit strewn forward and now coated in a layer of dust. My head throbs and my legs beat with pain as I sit-up, staring into the dense, clouded air. My mask lays flat on the ground in front of me, and I do not retrieve it. I remove my hat and place it down alongside it, feeling no further need for it. Blood runs from my nose and lip, thick with the ash from the ground. My body begs me to stay, to remain here with the dust and the broken ground. I plead with myself to lay down and rest. To pick up the biscuit and continue eating it and to drink the water I have and stay here. I know that I may never leave this place. I may fade away, become another man’s meal or sink onto the ground and be covered with the ash and dust that I will surely become. My head throbs. I want to see the creek and the grass and drink the clean water. I want to hear the laughter of my friends and hold my loved ones. But I am tired. And the dust tells me that I have to stay. That I cannot leave. That I belong to it now.

When I stand, I realize that I can no longer carry my pack. The weight is pulling me down, toward the earth which seeks to destroy me and turn my body to ash. I retrieve my water from the bag and a single can of beans, stuffing each into my pockets. I do not make a shrine today. My rifle lays on the road by my biscuit, and I leave it there. Empty when I found it and empty now, the glorified club would remain where I had fallen. My boots came next. I pulled each tattered, red boot from my feet and threw them from the road, hoping no person would ever find them. No being deserved to spend even a moment in those god damned boots.

I looked at the grey road ahead and smiled. A real smile. My feet had gone numb and I felt as though I were floating above the ground as I began to walk. I breathed in the cool air from the stream and held it deep in my lungs as I pushed onward toward that happy oasis. The wind pulled and pushed my thin body and the dust smacked into my skin and made it’s way into my flesh. But I was not a prisoner of these terrible elements any longer. I knew how close I was to that special place, to that home where I would meet my children again and never go hungry. I would love and laugh and cry with joy. I tore down the exterior this world built upon me and let myself feel as a child did. I looked to the reward of the world ahead and knew that I would be there soon.

When I looked back, the dust had covered my rifle and my pack and blood. The world had allowed me to leave and pushed on without me, claiming the offering I left behind. I pulled the tin from my pocket and ate the beans and drank my murky water as I walked. I left their empty shells on the ground behind me. My stomach settled and the blood ceased to run from my broken nose. The pain had mostly faded and I walked until the world slid from view. The sun recoiled again and I walked through the blackness of night, closing my eyes and holding my arms out in front of me, laughing at the thought of what I must look like. Laughing at how my friends and family would greet me when I approached the creek in this way. Laughing at nothing. Laughing at god. And when my laughter ceased and my ams fell to my sides in exhaustion and I fell to the ground with numb legs, I rolled on my back and listened, happily, to the empty world.

I relished in the cool breeze of the night, fading from life, the world a still void from where I lay in the dark. And as I began to slip away, leaving this void behind, I listened to the faint, distant sound of running water. That peaceful, trickling stream. I listened, softly, and smiled. For all the pain and the blood and the endless dust of this world, I could finally rest, and be at peace. For the first time in my life, I was truly home.

 

 

Colby Torbett is a Criminology major and a Senior at UNCW, currently enjoying his fourth semester at the University. Before becoming a Seahawk, Torbett obtained his Associates Degree in Arts at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College. First published in La Piccioletta Barca in 2019 for a biographical essay on the life of Robert Shaw, Torbett has since began to write short fiction and hopes to continue submitting to the journal in the future.

 

Robert Shaw’s Watch

Robert Shaw’s Watch

On May 25th, 1862, Robert Gould Shaw watched with his comrades in the Second Massachusetts Infantry as Stonewall Jackson defeated General Nathan Banks at the First Battle of Winchester. General Banks with his 6,500 Union troops would meet Stonewall Jackson’s near 16,000, where the federal’s would suffer massive losses before their retreat. Jackson’s offensive resulted in the loss of roughly 2,000 Union troops, with 62 killed, 240 wounded, and over 1700 missing in action. Of the 62 Union killed that day, Robert Shaw was nearly among them, for the ball from a confederate musket struck him in the breast. Surprised that he had not been knocked off his feet and surprised further that he had not just been killed, Shaw found that his pocket watch had stopped the enemy ball and spared his life. This moment, unbeknown to Shaw or any other man on the battlefield, would go on to change history and help shape a national acceptance of an entire race held in bondage during the war. Shaw would go on to lead the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as their Colonel, the first volunteer regiment of African American soldiers ever organized in the United States, and would endure the hardships of close-minded comrades, superiors and civilians as he fought for the opportunity to prove that his men were just as good a soldier as any other, and far braver than most.

Shaw entered the Second Massachusetts Infantry as a Volunteer officer and spent his time observing the effects of things such as morale and proper drill on the men, and how it impacted them both in combat and in camp life. A character of the discipline he had observed and strived for, Shaw’s superiors commended him for a “coolness under fire,” despite being new to the field of battle and commanding men in combat. Shaw was eager to have his regiment proven in the eyes of the Union after his regiment suffered two losses and over 200 men killed in action in just four months, and his wish came true in September, around the same time Lincoln had prepared the Emancipation Proclamation. Shaw and the Second Massachusetts marched under General George B. McClellan on September 17th, 1862, when the Army of the Potomac clashed with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle of Antietam is still the single bloodiest day in American History. With 87,000 union troops clashing into 38,000 confederates, a combined number of 22,700 men were killed, wounded or reported captured or missing and Shaw, once again, was just narrowly spared. A spent musket ball hit Shaw in the side of his neck, leaving a bruise but not managing to break the skin. Much like his first brush with death, Shaw heavily downplayed how close to being killed he was in his letters home, but letters from his fellow-officers to their families recorded both incidents as they were: near miracles.

Five days after Antietam, Abraham Lincoln announced the emancipation proclamation. While Slavery had been one of the direct causes of the war, the North’s objective absorbed the responsibility of freeing an entire race from bondage and in early 1863, Shaw’s father approached him with the offer to take command of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts; the first all-black regiment in American history. Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts had petitioned for the raising of black troops to fight the rebellion since early in the war and inquired with Shaw’s father about finding a commander for the regiment should it ever come to life. Francis Shaw did not hesitate to recommend his son for the position. Robert was not only an abolitionist but now a veteran and battle-tested leader, worthy of taking the reigns of his own regiment. When Shaw’s father approached him with the offer, Shaw initially declined out of loyalty to the Second Massachusetts, though felt honored by the proposal and didn’t want to accept the position solely out of his sense of duty to do so, especially if he couldn’t do the job justice. Shaw had a sleepless night as he reconsidered his decision, and in a letter to his wife, wrote that he felt as though he had made the wrong decision almost immediately after his Father had left. Shaw telegrammed his parents that he had changed his mind, and in doing so became Colonel of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Shaw wrote to his wife, days after accepting the position, “I shall feel that what I have to do is prove that a negro can be made a good soldier,” and in time as Colonel would find that the practices of discipline he’d learned from marching with his men in the Second would make his troops into as fine a soldier as any. Colored troops were not embraced by all with open arms, but Shaw did not care about the popularity of his regiment, nor what would be said about his reputation or his men. The volunteer regiment filled with men eager to fight for the Union, and Shaw had every intention of training and readying the Fifty Fourth for the same combat which he witnessed during his previous campaigns. Many of those in charge of the Regiment’s movements sought to have the Fifty Fourth assigned solely to manual labour tasks, while others figured the regiment should simply exist as a spectacle for morale. Colonel Shaw was stubborn in his leadership and refused to treat or train his men any differently than white soldiers, drilling them just as hard and refusing to accept the idea that they should never see combat. The men had signed contracts during enlistment to be paid the same rate as the rest of the Union army, at thirteen dollars per month, but Congress failed to fill this promise and offered the Fifty-Fourth’s colored troops an inferior ten dollars instead. Shaw, whom had been drilling and training his men just as hard, if not harder, than any other soldier in the entire northern army, refused pay along with the entire regiment until Congress agreed to correct the decision. This boycott of salary would continue until long after Shaw’s time as Colonel, and from nearly the conception of the Fifty Fourth he and all his men went without pay.

When sufficiently trained and drilled, Shaw and his regiment were dispatched to South Carolina, where Shaw would find the first obstacle preventing his men from proving themselves in combat. The Colonel was no stranger to wanting his men proven in a fight and having to wait a long time for it, as he had in the Second Massachusetts, but the stakes were far higher now than simple soldiers pride. With black men and women now free from chains, Shaw understood the nation would have a long journey to accepting these freed people as equal to themselves, and the proof that colored soldiers could fight for the flag just as valiantly, bravely and mortally as their white comrades was an instrumental factor in that struggle. Arrived in South Carolina, Colonel Shaw and his men were paired with James Montgomery, a Colonel from Ohio leading the Second South Carolina Volunteer Infantry; a colored regiment like Shaw’s elected shortly after the fifty fourth. Shaw, at first surprised to see another colored regiment, was quickly upset at the lack of discipline in Montgomery’s ranks. James Montgomery was an abolitionist, no doubt, but still a firm believer that african americans were inferior to whites, and spent no time training or drilling his men. Instead, at Shaw’s disgust, he would simply order his untrained troops to pillage and burn towns along the South Carolina coast. Montgomery was also known to shoot any of his soldiers whom he deemed out-of-line. One of the first times Shaw rode with Montgomery, their regiments marching together, the Ohio Colonel ordered Shaw and his men to aid in the burning of the town Darien. Shaw refused, but Montgomery was set on destroying the town, civilian-occupied or not, and carried out the burning anyhow. Backlash fell upon Shaw almost immediately, as newspapers hailed the action a barbaric one and attempted to cite the incident as proof that black soldiers should be unable to carry rifles or fight for the union. Shaw was heavily disheartened by the event, worried his men wouldn’t get the chance to prove themselves now that he’d been associated with the actions of Montgomery, but on July 15th, 1863, opportunity shone on Shaw’s men, and his spirits were lifted. While serving on picket duty in James Island, South Carolina, Shaw’s men were charged by an unexpected Confederate force and managed to stand their ground, preventing the enemy from flanking both themselves and a neighboring white regiment. This feat in battle proved the Fifty Fourth as worthy of their uniforms and, in Shaw’s eyes, “wiped out the remembrance of the Darian affair.” With Montgomery reassigned to another task and Shaw’s victory earning him credence among fellow officers, his ability to grasp opportunity broadened severely.

The defense by his men in James Island was a major step in Shaw’s eyes, but he knew it was only the first of many that would be needed for americans to recognize this race of people as equals. Whether Shaw knew this struggle would continue for centuries beyond his life is unclear, but in the time he was given, he carried this push forward more than any man in his shoes may have. Still gleaming from their victory, Shaw wasted no time grabbing the next available opportunity laid before him to prove the worth of his men. When commanders in South Carolina expressed the need to seize Fort Wagner from the confederate army, a seemingly impenetrable fortress only attackable by one regiment at a time due to it’s position on the coast, Shaw volunteered his men for the assault.

History had proven to the spectator that Shaw’s life was brought to this point by an unfathomable amount of luck and chance. Not drafted into the military, but rather a volunteer, Shaw set his own path to this moment out of his sense of duty to the Union. His parents happened to be abolitionists and raised him to abhor the institution of slavery, accepting these men in bondage as no different and no lesser to himself even when most of his friends and company preached of their inferiority. Colonel Shaw’s initial rejection of the opportunity to lead the Fifty Fourth could have been the end of his connection to the regiment, but in a last-minute change of heart, Shaw took fate by the reigns and forced the American people for generations to understand a little clearer that this race of people forcibly brought to our nation and enslaved were no lesser than any man or woman, and that the color of their skin did not define their quality or their spirit. The Fifty Fourth Massachusetts would have still been conceived without Shaw, but as leaders like Montgomery have taught history, it is just as likely the first all-black regiment would have landed in the hands of those undedicated to the strive for proving the equality of these men, and instead into the hands of some contempt with using them for manual labor or pillagers of secessionist towns. Shaw trained and drilled his soldiers as hard as any white regiment, conditioned them to the same discipline which he endured himself as an enlisted man, and took them into battle with more heart and ferocity than most soldiers could muster. When Shaw volunteered his men to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, he knew very well that many of his troops would fall during the assault, and decided to lead the advance on-foot at the head of his regiment instead of at it’s rear. Whether the attack failed or succeeded, Shaw knew the country would learn of the first african american regiment’s sacrifice that day, as soldiers and equals to their countrymen, and carriers of the country’s flag.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw fell during the failed assault on Fort Wagner in July of 1863. He was twenty five years old. The fateful charge on the confederate stronghold resulted in the loss of nearly 250 members of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts with another 900 wounded and 400 missing in action. The battle, an overwhelming confederate victory, did not dampen the north’s views on the regiment, but instead glorified it, making the fallen Colonel a martyr for the Union and the perception of colored troops as men worthy of the uniform and due the respect of the Nation. Robert Shaw gave a foothold to post-slavery african americans in proving their equality to a close-minded white nation, by fighting for their opportunity to defend the North. Had it not been for the watch in his pocket when struck at the First Battle of Winchester, Shaw would have never lived to see the conception of the Fifty Fourth, and the nation could have emerged from the war between the states as close-minded to their newly freed countrymen as they were at the start of the conflict. Due to the sacrifice of the regiment that day, our country was forced to see the men as they were, regardless of pre-established prejudice or opinion, and the fifty fourth sacrificed their lives for the Union, with Shaw at their front, pushing the country closer to acceptance than ever before.

In a letter to his mother in 1862, Shaw wrote home in response to news that his cousin had been killed in combat, serving under a separate regiment, “why should he be killed a month after leaving home, while I have been out for twenty months without a scratch? It must be all chance; for if he had lived, he would probably have done more good in the world than I ever shall.” Colonel Shaw was spared an understanding of the scope his actions would have upon the nation, and was killed before he could witness the effect it had. When Shaw’s body was found by southern troops amid the corpses of his men, they stripped his sword from his person and buried him in a mass grave out of disrespect for leading colored soldiers. Confederate General Johnson Hagood told a Union prisoner of war that had Shaw been in command of white troops, his body would have been returned, but “as it is; I shall bury him in the common trench with the niggers that fell with him.” After the war, Union forces set-out to recover Shaw’s body from the mass grave in order to give him a proper burial. Shaw’s father, upon hearing of this effort, telegrammed Union officers to cease this action immediately. Thinking only of his son’s commitment to his men and the sacrifice he’d made for them, he wrote, “we would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.”

 

Colby Torbett is a Criminology major and a Senior at UNCW, currently enjoying his third semester at the University. Before becoming a Seahawk, Torbett obtained his Associates Degree at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College. Torbett has always found great fascination in the American Civil War and hopes to continue learning and writing on it’s many extraordinary stories in the future.

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