February 2015, Columbia, SC in response to the Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Burning of Columbia
My granddad’s house burned down when I was young.
I remember the family huddled around a table,
my uncle stunned, my aunt doing what she could,
and later going over to see the smolder
of what was left: a concrete pad beside
the road, smoke rising over the black
ashes, surrounded by morning and empty fields,
everything lost but for the clothes they wore.
A few years later, a tornado slammed a town
just south of us—a night my mother said
We need a storm cellar—we could hear it
at the house, the wind’s angry whine.
We drove over the next morning to see
houses smashed, debris thrown across
the fields, clothing waving like surrender
in the stripped trees. Blackville was rebuilt
though never the same after, few people
left behind, and one house left to rot,
left to bindweed and trumpet vine and rain.
My grandparents moved to a house in town.
That winter, back then, Columbia was a city
of cotton and wind, bags of cotton cut open
and carried into the trees. And the streets
looked as though covered in snow, a city
thick with cotton, waiting for Sherman.
That night the air was filled with sparks, pieces
of blazing shingles, a perfect shower of fire,
the effect of which was to light the whole city,
like something biblical, a city smitten with repentance.
The sparks were falling so thick, it was said,
the nuns fleeing the Ursuline Convent had holes
burned in their veils, burned in their black dresses.
Hundreds walked out from under burning roofs
into the cold and smoldering streets, and when
the sun came up, it was the next day.
And then the next day, and then the next.