Thursday, August 22, 2013
A flash of light, his body spinning in the darkness, a glimpse of the rainy night sky followed by the stinging slap of the water’s surface and the numbing grip of coldness.
Oh, Lord, I am in the water, sinking! I can’t breathe—must get to the surface! Isaiah stretched his neck, his stunned arms and legs slow to move in the icy cold waters of the Mississippi River. His lungs screamed for air, demanding his legs to kick. A thumping, crackling sound permeated the swirling cold darkness as Isaiah moved to the surface. He coughed as if he were expelling his insides; water ejected out from his nose and ears. He gasped the cold night air as if it were life itself. He sank again, rising, spitting, and wiping the muddy water from his eyes.
Off in the distance the Sultana, the over-crowded paddle wheeled steamer loaded with Union prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba and other Southern Civil War prisons, blazed like a fireball in the darkness. The waves of the cold Mississippi River, swollen by torrential rains and a massive snowmelt upstream, stretched endlessly into the distance, its brushy, tree-lined shorelines covered by the highest water levels in a decade.Consciousness flowed fully back into Isaiah’s mind. He looked around and realized that he had been blown off the boat by an explosion.
The officer’s coffin on which he had been forced to sleep on the crowded deck was bobbing off to his right, its hinged lid opened by the impact with the water. The corpse’s head and arms draped over the side and the dead man’s embalmed face stared at him as if asking-- “Did we make it alright?”
As Isaiah watched, the coffin sank below the surface, dragging the officer, recently killed in a guerilla attack outside Vicksburg, to his final, if unplanned, watery grave. Air bubbles escaping from the coffin burst to the surface. They were his final benediction.
Isaiah wiped his throbbing eyes, trying to push the blurriness aside to focus on the disaster about two hundred feet away. The fire grew in size, its blazing light revealed people jumping off the sides, others screamed as the fire demanded they jump or burn. In the water around the dying boat, heads bobbed like hundreds of apples in a huge tub. Above the hissing and crackling of the flames, Isaiah could hear screams—cries from men, women, and yes, children. Oh God, what other glimpses of hell are you going to give me? First the war, then prison, and now this? No more, Lord, no more….Isaiah closed his eyes and began to sink. Calmness came over him as he said a final prayer. Images of home came into view. His angelic mother surrounded by a halo of light, went to the door, and opened it. Hiram Terman stood there, his skeletal thin frame holding the Bible Isaiah gave him before Hiram and his friends left the dying Isaiah at Andersonville. As Hiram handed the Bible to his mother, she turned, looked to her right. There stood Janie. Immediately the warm light departed and was replaced by the cold water of the Mississippi. His arm thrust to the surface. His hand felt the rough bark of a floating log.