Family Reunion

by William Fargason

The morning after the reunion, my father and I
drove to the family grave plot outside a small town
in south Georgia, across a set of train tracks,
which looked smaller than it should’ve been,
as if the train that rode them was only one
built in the imagination. One headstone
displayed the family name, as if the entirety
of my lineage was bound to that tract of earth.
Next to it, my great and great-great grandparents,
uncles, aunts. Names I never knew, or names
I was named after. My father and I posed
for a picture, which, even at the time, felt wrong.
I didn’t smile. No more than fifty feet across
our plot was a confederate soldier memorial
filled with smaller headstones, pointed at the top,
and a red and blue flag waving on its pole
in the hot August air. The limestone looked washed
in grey, and the plot was shaded by cedars
like our family’s. My father didn’t want to stop
and read the plaque with me, so I read by myself—
fifty-one soldiers were buried here, but among
the uncounted, one black hospital attendant.
The headstone read Unknown—as if the only thing
remembered was their race and their job,
buried behind enemy lines. Every other headstone
had a tiny confederate flag stuck in the dirt
in front of it—the kind a small child might wave
as a parade passes. But this unknown attendant,
who cared for the wounds of those fighting
to keep them enslaved, had an American flag
in front of their greyed headstone. I wanted to
kneel down, pay my respects to someone whose name
was erased by those who didn’t take the time
to learn it before burying them. I wonder if they
stood in the morning light and looked out
at the sun rising through that hospital window
before pulling the stitching thread as fine
as a spiderweb deftly through the air, then wrapped
the wound like a present. And then onto
the next bed, the next man wincing against
the pillow as the attendant brought the ether
to the surgeon, then held the man down
with four others as the man’s leg was amputated
just above the knee. I wonder if the man
on that bed knew who was saving him. I wanted
to rip every red and blue X out of the ground,
but I didn’t. My father calls this history, just
what happened.
I knew my family, and one day
myself, would share the same earth, eaten
by the same worms and feeding the same trees
above. I knew that someone long before me
chose this plot across from this memorial,
that I could never dig each relative up and replant them
somewhere less shameful, the train tracks
would always go from one direction to another,
the cedars have already grown from what was buried.

William Fargason is the author of Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara (University of Iowa Press, April 2020), winner of the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. He received two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a 2018-2019 Kingsbury Fellowship. He earned a BA in English from Auburn University, an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland, and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University, where he taught creative writing. He is the Poetry Editor of Split Lip. He lives with himself in Tallahassee, Florida.