The Philosophical History of Corpus Christi, Mississippi
This is how the world begins
World begins world begins
This is how the world begins
At 2 a.m. in the morning
2 Mississippi, 1884.
3 The Colonel lay in his bed alone and quaked with the fever. Thin trails of steam rose from his pale, boiling face. He was forgotten. His young wifestill a virgindied at his feet. The temperature in his brain cooked his vision and he saw fantastic things, frightening things. He mumbled to himself, his eyes wild and wide, his sight behind them now, detached from his sense.
4 He reached for her, as if he might brush against her here, in the darkness, as if he would know it was her, should he find her here, in the darkness. This small two story housesmall for a man like the Colonelwas a strange place to remember.
5 The last words she saidto him, always to himwere words he couldn't hear, because the fever had already taken hold. "Remember," she said, "we're all going to die."
6 And if he'd heard it, he'd have laughed. Unbelievable. Death forgets its way this far south. The walls of security, of pride and tradition, are too high. We all run the race and we're just so fast. Better things to think of than death.
7 The last words he heard were words of idle conversation"It's so quiet up here," she said. Thus his last thoughtbefore the fever mastered himwas of the silence. The town outside groaned in silence, the stunning silence of grief.
8 When there should have been the wail of lovers separated, of mothers without children, the low strong masculine wail of fathers fighting the always lost battle against time and frailtythere was nothing.
9 The town was not real.
10 Just days before the town had been real, vibrant with life, secure. Now it crumbled, humbled by the fever, everyone called to account to death. In this wake all the survivors could offer was the silence. This was the affirmation of all they knew. This was the affirmation of what they had been taught. This was the lesson that cost everything and gave nothing but silence. It seemed to him, in his last hour, a fitting defeat. He cursed them, masters of denial, and swore in his pride that he would not bathe reality in the sweet deception of silence.
11 Three weeks previous he had returned like a conquering Caesar to his town. He had stepped off his horse into the arms of his plump nymphonic bride.
12 "You seem faint," she said.
13 "Merely the heat," said he, but he did feel queasy.
14 "Your face is flush."
15 He looked down at her with compassion and all the words he had planned to say to herwords of beauty and elegance and mystery and lustpassed and he fainted, collapsing into her on the lawn.
16 The doctor confirmed the fears of the town. The Colonel had brought the fever back with him from Yazoo. He would have to be isolated, bled regularly, prayed over by the town minister.
17 But all the prayers and blood in the town would not, could not have stopped it. (History is a tale of swamped and static fate).
18 The fever had taken hold. The dense Mississippi air transmitted it effortlessly, joyously, from house to house. Every day people died and every night the houses danced and swayed in the light of fire. The fire grew, the burning sheets, the burning clothes. The crackle of burning was the only noise the Colonel heard, save the whining of mosquitoes, who had organized and agreed on exterminating the whole human race, if only they could evolve bigger wings.
19 In the last few days his bride was valiant. She would not leave him, though she knew she was weak with the fever, hurling towards death herself. Soon she was not waiting on him, but laying next to him, listening to the burning crackle.
20 The community was quarantined, left alone, and the doctor left town quietly. There was no one left living, only those still not dead.
21 Hey, they joked.
23 You look alright.
24 I feel a little pale.
25 Mm. Me too.
26 I always wanted a white girl.
27 They joked.
28 Silently, they had thoughts of consummation, of intimacy.
29 They lay and watched each other die, without the strength to consummate, unable to achieve unity, the oneness promised them by divine ordinance. She remained alert but he, lit up with dreams of the future, slept and shivered. She lived for the moment each day when he would wake and come to his sensesthis man she didn't knowand when he would he put his hand through her hair.
30 She died content as he lay, his eyes wide open, his mind somewhere else. In a fit he knocked her to the floor and that is where she stayed (who can bury the dead).
31 All are dead. Who has the arrogance to mourn. The town decayed, and each one worried about himself.
32 When death overruns a society the pretenses must go.
33 The Colonel shook his bed with violent sobbing, the dark hatred of his visions. In his visions he was transported to the future, transported to death. Even after he died he shook and moaned, next to his decaying wife, dreaming dreams of truth.
34 His new sight was better, brighter than ever, the waking realization that this life, this whole life, was a sleepwalk, the final reality coming in the crackling quiet of burning, his final thought how quiet it truly is and then the fever mastered him.
The Colonel woke to the blazing heat. Hell, where am I. Hell, it's hot. Hell.
2 Strange that his senses should be so alive, that his separation from the body would prove still so physical. He was still in his upper room, his bridal home in the center of Corpus Christi, the town of his youth. It must have been 1887, and he felt just fine. Like he'd been asleep for a very long time.
3 This is how it goes for the ghosts of Corpus Christi. They are free to run, in and out of time, to the future, to the past.
4 The Colonel found his way around. He met other ghosts. He discovered that he had more power now than he ever had in life. He soon discovered the stickiness of the past, and more and more often frequented the future.
5 The other ghosts comforted him. They told him it wasn't that bad, being dead. But the Colonel was a bitter individual. He knew he was dead. He watched the decimated town repopulate, saw the immense forgetfulness of its people played out over and over and over.
6 He missed his bride, couldn't figure out where she was, why his love was relegated to life alone, and not to all times. He watched the town and he hated it, this town he had decimated with death.
7 The towns of the south, and especially Corpus Christi, were towns soaked in forgetfulness.
8 Thus, the Colonel learned that in a town with such bad memory, the dead speak truer than the living. The dead hold sway in this kind of place, using it as they wish.
9 Most ghosts left the town and never came back, preferring the bright lights of New Orleans or Memphis. Several went to Vicksburg and remained there, weeping with one another. But the Colonel stayed in town. He had influence there over the forgetful people, and it was his comfort. He used it out of hate, because he hated the town. He hated it because it was the place his wife died, the only love he could have, as dead people cannot love, his living love fully unknown, unrealized, from where he stood, unreal. He hated himself and he hated his name, the name his wife never got to call him in mornings when the coffee would have been black and the bacon fresh and the Azalias in bloom and they would have walked in the shade down the empty streets, arm in armbefore it got humid, the sun burning off the dew.
He built up the town after the dictates of his will.
2 He built it up to foster this forgetfulness, and you will see traces of him all over town, traces of death and fragmentation.
3 History is a fluid thing, he told himself. Create create create. His lies growing from his fear of the past which he never visited.
4 He worried only about the future.
The Colonel sat, as was his great joy and leisure during afternoons, with the ghost of William Faulkner.
2 He worshipped Faulkner.
3 They sat and sipped whisky and talked of things far and wide, and they wondered, as dead people do, about the nature of words.
4 It is the unique insight of the dead that their words are different than the living, that there is a mysterious connection between a living person and living words, and so they talked (dead as they were) in muted tones, their words sticking in the air like rotting flesh.
5 William Faulkner talked in immensely long and confusing sentences.
6 The Colonel hardly understood him, but he hated drinking alone, and he worshipped Faulkner, and he tried to keep up.
7 Language is a curious thing, Faulkner said. The way it comes and goes, the presence and absence of it all.
8 Sure, said the Colonel. I remember my wife, the way we used to talk, laying there in bed. Words seemed so sweet then, such a gift.
9 Faulkner said, Far as I can tell, an author doesn't last very long. The way signs relate to things, you see, it all gets blurry.
10 Faulkner took a sip of whisky.
11 Faulkner said, The correspondence is what I'm worried about. Here now, in Corpus Christi, you've got a situation to confront. All these historians, all these people sunk in daily life, thinking about everything else but what's there, in their face.
12 The Colonel said, She used to get in my face, talk to me. She thought I couldn't hear her, but I did. I was dreaming, sure, I was high on the fever. But I heard her. I knew she was talking, because she would come to me, in my dreams, talking in a fuzzy voice.
13 Faulkner said, You look at all the books I wrote. The spark of my soul. You look at how they're used now. The author of those books is dead.
14 Faulkner laughed to himself.
15 Faulkner apologized, said, Sorry about that, it was a bad pun, must be the whisky.
16 It's just that language seems to be so important. Look at that fool at your University English department, talk talk talk, everything about language, and he can't figure out a word of it.
17 Go far enough back, when Plato thought words related to ideas. That's an important thing. No one reads Plato anymore. Words related to ideas, and there was a possibility of truth.
18 Come up, then, to Descartes. Am I losing you?
19 The Colonel said, I lost her, Bill. She's gone.
20 Faulkner said, Descartes thought the relation of thought to language, self to the world, was a simple thing.
21 Descartes was a fool of a smart man.
22 I am the generator of meaning. It's a tempting doctrine, when you're alive. Get past words, straight to thought, you'll be getting somewhere. You may avoid error, get to truth.
23 Their problem was the same as most people's, though, that I create meaning, that I'm the autonomous author.
24 The Colonel said, Ain't that a crock of [rubbish]
25 You're a good man, Colonel. It certainly is. Their problem, you see, was that they had no theory of meaning. Meaning was assumed. Your people, they can't do that anymore. Language isn't clean. It's a community's indoctrination. The south should understand that.
26 If language is just about thought, and thought is innate ideas, the way we structure the world, then what is the world? Not our mind. It's something else, something we can't know apart from our mind. Hence, all is just ideas.
27 The Colonel said, I had some crazy ideas, when I was sick. You should have seen the stuff I saw. Crazy.
28 Faulkner said, But what if our language tells us about innate ideas? That's something different. Then language might tell us about meaning.
29 But I'll go ahead and tell you, Colonel, language doesn't tell us about meaning.
30 The only way signs can relate to things is if there are things. We have no way of knowing that. We're slaves to language. These random binary oppositions we make, me the subject my speech the objectseems arbitrary, especially now.
32 You're dead and drunk, the Colonel said.
33 Maybe so, Faulkner said.
34 But if meaning must come from my consciousness, then my consciousness must come from something, or we're in the same trap, as in, the death of the author and the death of the book have to relate to something, namely, the death of God.
Faulkner rose to go.
2 Colonel always good to speak with you, he said.
3 So soon, the Colonel said.
4 Faulkner said, Things to do, in death as in life.
5 About that, said the Colonel. Do you think you could start calling me the Colonel of death? For the Colonel was always wanting to be known as the Colonel of death, wanting responsibility and lasting fame somehow for bringing the fever back to Corpus Christi. This was especially humorous to the writers from the Delta, who knew all about death.
6 Faulkner smiled at the Colonel with pity.
7 Naming something doesn't make it so, Colonel, he said.
8 The deep need of man is to find permanence, as I told you. To posit something stable, such as his own ideas, or the meaning in words, or language itself. It's the same [rubbish] always already.
9 The Colonel took an especially large sip of whisky and winced. Bill, I don't know if I follow you. And he almost fell out of his chair.
10 Faulkner began to walk away, and he thought to himself, what an ignorant town.
11 All of them deluded and always deluding themselves, blurring reality with these dreams of stability and self-righteousness.
12 The Colonel called out to Faulkner. Where are you Bill? His sight worsened by the year and now that Faulkner was out of sight, he wondered if he was coming back. He worshipped Faulkner, and didn't want him to leave. And Faulkner, developing a mean streak after his death, loved playing small pranks on the Colonel, especially playing on his diminishing sight.
13 Help, Bill, I can't see you. Bill, I can't see at all.
* * *
Josh Shepherd lives in Jackson, MS, with his wife. He is pursuing a Masters of Divinity and working part time at a small baptist church.