Norfolk, Virginia, 1864. Charlie Brewster arrives to recruit African American soldiers for the Union. He is recently returned from three years of service, and though he's physically uninjured his psychological battle scars run deep. He survived the war...can he survive the peace?
Tensie Stevens' husband is at the front. She cannot read or write, and wants to send him letters, so Charlie offers to put her words on paper. She has never known a white man show this much kindness. As a former slave she is scarred, too, although some of hers are physical. She helps him recruit other soldiers and he writes letters for their wives as well. So near to the world of war and men he starts to learn about intimacy and women.
Charlie felt ill. He had a fever, his nose ran and his bones ached. He sat in his office, unmoving. He had been like this for three days.
Charlie wondered what had happened to David. He hoped the lad had settled well. Had he found work or enlisted? Or been caught and taken back to his master?
Charlie’s throat was dry. He coughed feebly. It hurt. He took a sip of water. Someone knocked on his door. Peter was at the store. Charlie heard the knock again. He didn’t call out.
Rap rap rap. Then a voice. Mildly familiar now. “Marser Brewster?”
The door swung open slowly.
“Ya’ll here, sah?”
He sat at his desk. Still he didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak.
“Ya’ll feeling all right, sah?”
“It’s cold,” Charlie rasped.
“Ya’ll let the fire go out, sah.”
Without invitation, she entered and began to reset it.
“Had worse than this,” Charlie told her.
The winters under canvas. Fighting in mud and storms.
“Sure ya’ll had worse, sah.”
Not mocking him. Kind and compassionate.
“Letter came for you.”
She smiled at him.
“Ya’ll send a message. That’s why Ah come, sah.”
He remembered. “It’s nothing to worry about. From your husband.” He sorted through the stack of mail. Found the one he was looking for. “Thaddeus,” he confirmed.
She smiled. “Ah’ll continue with this here,” she said, indicating the fire.
She lit the paper. Smoke billowed for a second, then was caught by the updraft of the flue. Although starting small, the flames grew quickly bright and strong.
Charlie read Thaddeus’ letter.
My dearest wife,
We faced the enemy yesterday, and I have asked Henry to inform you that I have survived intact. We met them around ten as we stormed their breastworks, which they heavily defended with musket fire and shells and swords. We fell back once, twice, then stormed forward again under the leadership of Col Edwards, who fell in the attack. I saw some horrible sights, but then, perhaps mercifully, an explosion lifted a stone into the side of my head and caused me to pass out unconscious. When I awoke, the field was ours. Lucas Merriweather and Timbo Clarke rejoiced to find me and bring me around, fearing me dead.