01 Feb The Penance of Captain Silas Jacobson
This is likely the last thing anyone reading this needs to hear, but in the interest of posterity, we’ve had quite a rough go of it lately.
The first realization that struck me in the pandemic’s and subsequent shutdown’s early stages was that I desperately needed a hobby. All the complaining over the years of not enough hours in a day had upset the cosmos, I suppose. The universe has called our bluff.
The second realization is one I think many of us came to. Maybe “realization” isn’t the right word in this sense. “Reckoning” is, I think, more appropriate.
I am in the unique situation of actually being able to watch the chaos engulfing the country I grew up “from above”. My family and I live on a ridge in the Appalachian mountains in West Central Maryland. If I had lived even 25 or 30 years ago, I would be completely ignorant to the Great Unmasking taking place around me. Mother nature has backed us into a corner, and rather than combining our strength to fight her back, we’ve abandoned dignity and decency in the name of tribalism, and genuine hatred. The kind that only hundreds of years can cultivate. Regardless of where you stand politically, it is disheartening to say the least.
For once I was happy to have grown up in the social desolation of the mountains. Aesthetically speaking, I can see the appeal. Especially if only staying at most a few weeks at a time. Many come to the mountains to feel soothed or “at one” with Mother Nature, whether it be during a rigorous 12-mile hike or a leisurely swim at the base of a small waterfall. But the longer you spend up here, and I’m talking years here, you learn that you’re actually being lulled into a false sense of security. Every step you take is met with a crunch or a snap – one that alerts a truly remarkable number of fellow creatures to your presence. Rodents, deer, birds, bugs, you name it. It’s got eyes on you. The landscape, with jagged edges and rugged paths, seems to go out of its way to keep us on our toes, more so than other dangerous environments. It’s all a reminder that we are visitors, and will be thrown out as such if we misbehave, or disrespect our hosts.
Hiking isn’t a “hobby” out here. Hiking is all about exploring new places; I knew the ridge and every forked path by the time I was a teenager. God knows I tried, but my wife has had to point out to me that eating is not a hobby either. The same went for drinking and smoking; those were less funny conversations. But I’m glad she’s looking out for me.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m still up here, if I don’t care so much for it. Many of you will understand this, and many of you will find it inconceivable, but there comes a time when your parents need your help more than you need theirs. It just doesn’t usually happen in your late twenties.
I hate to complain about it. I love them dearly. They didn’t ask me to stay. But they didn’t ask me to leave either.
My father was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He’s been retired for a few years but my mother has very much a full-time job. It worked alright for a few months after the diagnosis, but my wife and I eventually learned to see past the facade. We offered to break our lease in the NOVA area and move into their basement; dad took some convincing, mom did not. Our plans – buying our first home, starting a family, and seeing the world once it’s safe to – are on pause, and that is sad from time to time. You can’t choose your family, which is why it’s so important to hold them close. They’re irreplaceable. But I think I should be able to say this isn’t where I want us to be.
My dad, retiring when he did, also had to learn the importance of a hobby. He’s a Marine, once and forever. A man so accustomed to and comforted by order learned the hard way that retirement, and the empty hours it ushers in, is a challenge in and of itself. Being a history buff is helpful, as there really isn’t a limit to what you can learn or read into. He took rather quickly to genealogy, and made himself into quite the historical detective. He’s managed to track our family back some 500 years, and done the same for extended family and even friends. He even published a few books, all using hundreds of pages of transcribed journals of combatants of the Civil War – a topic which has eternally fascinated him. It’s a topic that has become increasingly difficult to discuss lately, for reasons we don’t need to re-litigate.
My father is the smartest, most compassionate and caring man I’ve ever encountered, in any capacity. Which is why his insistence in specifically telling the stories of long gone confederate soldiers has baffled, and sometimes disappointed me. The way he explains it, you can tell it’s at least coming from a place of good will. He always reminds me that those men in particular fought in a large sense because they had no other choice, and that many of them likely either detested the institution of slavery or had no thoughts on it at all. I suppose that makes a lot of sense. But I believe we need to be careful with our sympathy. That was a war of right and wrong, and good versus evil, as much as any fantasy novel is. My way of reckoning with this is by doing what emotionally unavailable men of a certain age do best – pretending it doesn’t exist, and drinking beer. Tried and true.
But of course dad’s new affliction meant an end to that hobby. Writing and typing are no longer second nature to him. We may not say it, but we love each other dearly. That being said, we don’t share a ton of interests at our respective ages. I needed something to pass time, I may as well do something to bring him some degree of joy. I offered to assist with his research, despite my objections to his subjects. This mostly involved taking notes to sort of keep him on the right track, and completing transcriptions for his final book – an oral history of the 1st Virginia Cavalry’s involvement and movements during the Battle of Antietam. Scintillating stuff, I know.
He’s accumulated hundreds of old newspaper documents and journals over the course of the last few years through a myriad of means. We take for granted the sheer amount of written historical data around just our immediate area, let alone the whole world. To process all of it in one lifetime is unquestionably impossible, so many of us make no effort to even begin. I thought the objective thing to do would be simply starting with the first journal that caught my eye. I shuffled through a few stacks and found the winner.
It was a truly unbelievably old journal. The pages had an amber tint, and they looked quite stiff, as did the faded black leather cover. Dust had settled into several layers atop the front of the journal, but not thick enough to cover what grabbed my attention. The top corner of the cover was missing, and in its absence appeared what looked to be the edge of a drawing on the first page. When I flipped the cover, I realized it wasn’t a page attached to the book at all. It had been inserted there. The drawing was unsettling, even though I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I think I do now. It wasn’t something I would’ve expected to be in a book like this.
It looked to be a figure. The general shape of a human, save for the exaggerated length of its limbs and torso. The way it had been drawn, black graphite recklessly filling it the vague outline of the shape, it looked as though a toddler had been asked to draw a shadow. Or perhaps asked to draw something they’d seen in a nightmare. I became anxious the longer I looked at it. I felt as though I had just or was just about to receive bad news. The feeling amplified when I noticed a single word, written in a sophisticated juxtaposition to the drawing. It looked like classic Antebellum era cursive handwriting. While cursive is not a strong suit of mine, the word was clearly, “Repent”.
I asked dad how this had come into his possession, and if he knew anything of the drawing.
“Oh wow,” he began, somewhat incredulously.
“Some bozo tried to pass it off to me at a roundtable meeting once. He tried to tell me it was the most important artifact of the Civil War era, and that someone with a little more influence in the publishing world would be better off with it. He was a real nut…sounded a bit too southern to be from around here. He said the journal was proof the Union had been aided in the war by the Devil, or something sinister along those lines. He was a real “the south will rise again” kinda guy. A few of us asked that he not come to meetings anymore and I haven’t seen him since. I guess he must’ve stashed it in one of my boxes on the way out.”
He scoffed when he looked at the drawing. He passed it off as the scribbles of a mad man and left it at that. But his story had piqued my curiosity.
“Be my guest,” he replied upon my asking to give it a read. “Just don’t waste too much time on it. It won’t be making the final draft…”
I have no doubt the man my father met that night is a nut, a bozo, and a deplorable racist. But after reading the contents of the journal, I think he’s onto something. I can’t be sure what I’m about to disclose to you is real. This man would have had to go to a lot of effort to write this entire journal and age it to look so authentic, but I suppose it’s possible. If it is real, it is at the very least, important. It may not change the way we look at or remember the war. It certainly doesn’t change the outcome. I guess I can’t really explain the significance of it myself, you may have to gauge it on your own. But at least for me, it will haunt me until I take my final breath.
From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the following is allegedly the journal of Captain Silas Jacobson of the First Virginia Cavalry, chronicling his experiences during and after the Battle of Antietam – the bloodiest single day in the history of the United States. I will transcribe it exactly as it is written.
September 17, 1862
Sarah, my love, should this journal somehow find itself in your possession, I ask that you put it down now and read no further. That you remain steadfast in your love for me may be all I have left to carry on. I hope to see you again in the next life, though I fear we shall never meet eyes, hold each other, or share a kiss for the rest of eternity. Please, remember the man I was. Before this madness. That man is forever yours.
I, Captain Silas Jacobson of the First Virginia Cavalry, leader of the finest regiment in the Confederacy, am a coward. I have abandoned my men, who I have promised directly to their face their safety on many occasions. It is for this reason I feel my soul has passed a point of no return. I betrayed my men, as Judas did to Christ. But I will only be exchanging one Hell for another.
The battlefield I’ve fled is unlike any I have experienced in my entire military career. It is akin only to what we’ve been told in Revelations. A swamp of bodies, animalistically twisted and contorted beyond recognition. All those men – my men – wandering aimlessly in shock, each of them the last to realize they have been stolen a limb. Boys as young as 15 years, with frozen expressions of regret of a life they have not even yet lived. Indiscriminate carnage, among all sides of this war. And for what, I ask?
I hate my enemy only because he hates me. And he hates me, for the same reason. At times I too struggle to recall why the fighting began. And each time I remember, my shame deepens. That we are fighting to keep men of God, just as we are, in chains and servitude, is what sickens me most when I gaze across the apocalyptic landscape of battle. We have done as the Egyptians did to God’s people all those thousands of moons ago. And I fear we will meet the same fate.
In any case, I have been guilty of a great sin. I have taken refuge in the rugged terrain of the Appalachia to the west of the conflict. I am accompanied only by my steed, Gabby. We have made it a considerable distance from the fighting in Antietam. It is only now, amidst the serene nature of God’s creation, am I able to reflect upon my cowardice. If any of my men still live, they will be deserved of the justice my capture will bring. They will certainly be looking for me. I intend to return to the site of my betrayal, and hope to face the noose as a man who has repented his sin. I believe this will be my only salvation.
September 18, 1862
It seems the fatigue of battle has rendered me a bit disoriented. I have wandered the path I believe I arrived by from dawn to dusk, but feel as though I am exactly where I began this morning. The trees of the forest appear to stretch as far as an ocean. I have begun to announce my position, in the hopes I may be intercepted by a passing regiment of either side. But I have not heard a noise besides the quiet bustle of the wilderness. Perhaps I have not respected my mental state after the battle and subsequent need of rest. I will retire for the day for this purpose. All I shall do in the time I have left, is pray. I do feel His presence with me here, in His creation. These mountains have either hosted battles, or men on their way to battles, for so long; I had forgotten how astoundingly beautiful the region was before the war. I will regret my cowardice for the remainder of my short life, but I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy a final evening under the stars. Camps of either my brothers or my enemy could not have gotten far in a day’s time, if the battle has even ended. I will find them tomorrow to face my judgement, as I was not able before.
September 19th, 1862
I would not have earned my title of Captain if not for my tracking skills. I have and will continue to call the Blue Ridge my home, and have never had an issue travelling paths previously untouched by man. But I cannot find my way out of this wood. Gabby and I rode again from dusk till dawn, all in the direction I knew to be East. We must have traveled at least 50 miles of wilderness to no relief. She is tired. I am tired. The mountain is not to be underestimated. This evening, I shall make note of the North Star. I must have become so disoriented the day prior that I’ve driven Gabby and I far deeper into Appalachia than I care to be. The woods are aware of my presence. I feel as though the eyes of each of God’s creatures are fixated upon me, and my shame. My rations will last only a few days more, and while water is plentiful in creeks and streams, I worry dehydration will take effect soon, if it hasn’t already. For a brief glimpse, only moments ago, I believe I experienced a hallucination of sorts. In the midst of the never-ending fauna surrounding me, a lone tree appeared to take on a deep, black color. It’s appearance has filled me with an unease I have not been successful in shaking in the moments since. But I cannot locate the black tree at this time. I cannot determine whether my fear is of the tree itself, or its proof of my impending madness in these woods. I pray this is my final night here.
Evening of September 19th, 1862
The sun descended hours ago but the stars have not appeared in their stead. It is as though a thick wool blanket has been silently and instantly unfurled across the sky. I will continue to monitor, but I fear I must prepare for a reality in which my sense of direction is rendered completely useless.
September 20th, 1862
Madness is setting in. The North Star did not appear to me, as it did to the wisemen that glorious evening, and I am left with no idea of where I am, or how I can leave it behind. Gabby is becoming restless, as though she knows what will happen if we do not find civilization soon. Perhaps I have no right to do this to her given what I have done to my men. She didn’t choose to flee, I did. If I am to save my soul, I am of the mind I must not allow Gabby to become victim to my poor judgement.
September 22nd, 1862
I am left with one thought; one explanation after the trials of my last hours as to my inability to escape these woods. I use the word “trials” as this is what I have come to. I am not alone in these woods. Gabby is gone. I set her free. It was my hope that a selfless act such as this would end my suffering; I would be finally granted the peace of the grave should I repent my shame by sparing Gabby’s life. But she accompanies me no longer, and I remain here. What has replaced her are continued visions of a lone, tall absolute black tree, stalking me no matter how many miles I’ve traveled. It is with me. It moves with me. It sees me. I can feel its awareness of me. It is deeply unsettling. Because of these visions, and the endlessness of the wood, I believe I find myself in a sort of Purgatory. I am not met with the wails of millions of tortured souls, which is some saving grace. If I am in Hell, where I know I belong, it is nothing that the scriptures foretold. No…I am being tested. Faith is the only tether to reality I retain. I must persevere; I must continue to repent. Freeing Gabby was not sacrifice enough. I will suffer as long as God wills it, if it is a means to his Kingdom in the world beyond wherever I am now.
September 27th, 1862
I believe, but cannot be sure, this is the 10th day of my trial. I cannot begin to imagine the amount of distance I feel as though I have traveled. I feel I have traversed enough land to cover the great state of Virginia, dozens of times over. This is most certainly a trial, but I am no longer convinced it is a trial from God. My visions have been not of a tree, but of an entity. It is long, foreboding, and angry. It is as though a shadow of a man, the moment before the sun descends, has risen from the ground and taken physical form. I have tried to communicate with it. It will not respond. Only stare. The entity has no features upon its pitch dark face, including eyes. But I feel its sharp gaze at all times. This is what has trapped me here. It is eternally 20 yards behind me, in any direction.
I have not eaten or drank anything in 3 days. My stomach aches and my mouth and throat burn with dryness, but death will not greet me. I am no longer certain I am even alive, or if I exist in any sense. The thirst and hunger should have overtaken me long ago. I have not encountered a single living thing that I could gain some sustenance from. No rodents. No deer. No birds, Not even a single ant has crossed my path since I last saw Gabby. I miss her dearly, but am hopeful she is not suffering the same fate I have. I hope she has not encountered the same or similar entity. It is evil. The feeling it instills in me is proof enough for me. Please, Lord, grant me mercy. I know what I have done and I know I must suffer. But I need to know You can still hear me; that You can still see me. I need to know this entity is of Your creation. I need to know I still walk in what is Your domain.
October 10th, 1862
Perhaps this is the fate that befalls cowards such as I. Banishment to a place that exists outside of God’s reach. I do not know what else to make of this mountain. The entity no longer looks on from a distance. It lumbers over me, encompassing the entire direction of every move I make. I am unable to move towards it myself; unable to defend myself against it in any capacity. But it can get as close as it likes to me. I believe it has begun to tease me. If I close my eyes, only for a moment, so as to embrace a darkness I can actually understand, I am met with visions which fill me with a dread I cannot describe. I see who I believe to be my wife. I can’t be certain. I’m not sure I can recall her name. The joy her appearance brings me is instantly stolen from me by that Evil. She is with a little girl. My little girl. The girl is crying; her mother is not. They are standing by a crudely put together crucifix in the ground. They are alone. I know this is my legacy.
As soon as I begin to grow numb of what’s become of my name, I am forced to bear witness to a vision of something far greater in scope. I’m returned to a battlefield, a place I feel a brief spark of comfort in its familiarity, before it is ripped away by violence and carnage on a scale I thought only possible in nightmares. The field stretches in two directions as far as anyone can see. In the other two directions, the field ends before being engulfed by a perfect black void. In the field I see men brandishing weapons I have never encountered; weapons capable of evaporating their enemies in an instant, and collecting casualties at a rate I simply cannot fathom. Others are viciously stabbed, shot and gutted. But even these men continue to fight, as though they have not been so much as scratched. I feel the pain of each of their wounds as the violence dances around me.
Lining the edges of the field, just before the void, are what look like families. They huddle around each other and look on in sheer horror, many of them shielding their children’s eyes. They are black, white, brown, and any race in between, but the emotion on each of their faces is identical. I feel their pain as well. But it is a pain which no physical wound could bring. I feel that they have been made to watch this mess for an eternity.
I cannot take these visions any longer. I have held out hope for my soul for too long. Any salvation I was hoping to find here will never materialize. I have reached for my knife several times now to gauge the entity’s reaction. It does not move. I’ve held the knife in my hand, and still the entity remains. Upon completion of this entry, I shall take my own life. I hope this will be my final entry.
October 15th, 1862
I cannot determine why I have been allowed to continue to write in the entity’s presence. I believe I am being made to feel hopeful, so that I can have it taken from me as it has every other part of me.
The entity allowed me to believe for one beautiful second that I had taken my final breath. I dug the blade into the base of my neck, and drew it directly across my throat. I felt my blood run down my chest as I fell to the ground. My vision began to fade. It was euphoric.
My sight returned in full as an intense burning sensation consumed my throat. I looked up at the entity, which had manifested a crude impression of a hand at the end of its sinewy long arm. It gripped me by my throat as smoke billowed from my mouth. The entity was cauterizing where my knife had sliced. It will not let me die. It will not allow an end to my suffering. I am completely powerless against it. This is my Hell. The same Hell Judas encountered upon his betrayal as well. This is the fate that befalls those who turn their back on God. I have led myself and my men into battle against those who would rid others of chains. I’ve betrayed my men in fleeing, but led them each into a grand betrayal of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I would pray that they not suffer the same fate, though I know it will never make it to God from this place.
This will be my last writing for some time. I see no point in reliving what I’m experiencing here if I do not need to. The entity seems completely indifferent to it. If it simply exists only to curse me with these visions, then I suppose that is what will happen. If it wishes for me to write of my suffering, I am sure I will do that as well.
January 14th, 1881
I am sure I am meant to write now. The entity blessed me today with a final vision of my wife before she succumbed to the cancer which ravaged her. I was given a wonderful, brief moment of what I remember to be joy, as I looked into her eyes as they closed forever. She was beautiful. Though I know this peace she was given means she has gone to a life I cannot hope to ever know.
March 11th, 1918
The entity has graced me with a new vision; a generous vision which allows me foreign feelings of love and joy, while punishing me in a way only I deserve. I am returned to the battlefield and immediately met with the presence of my daughter, but she is an old, sharp looking woman now. It is this moment I feel the swell of relief in my heart. She has grown, so she has lived. She lives ignorant of what happened to me. But my relief is soon terminated. The battle makes its presence known, though in this battle, one man is forced to fight untold thousands of waves of enemy combatants. I can see my daughter again, but she is far more distraught than any previous soul to line the edges of the battlefield. She is wailing; a wail which reverberates up and down my spine, twisting each nerve along the way. I look back to the poor soul being brutalized in the field. He is young, no more than 16. His body is hit by molten hot lead in droves, but his body remains intact. He has a familiar, innocent face. This is my great-grandson. His life, and his grandmother’s, are consumed by battle as mine was and remains. My shame has brought a price to their doorstep, all these decades later. Yet still in that time, I have not grown numb to pain as this.
July 1, 1936
A father never bothers to imagine the death and burial of their only child. But had I, I’m certain I would not have felt the joy and pride I felt today, as the entity allowed me to see my daughter lowered into and returned to the Earth.
Her interment could not have been more different from my own. Her death has been met with anguish, as mine was met with indifference. Scores of men, women and children of every age, and every color. All steadfast in their admiration for my daughter. My true legacy.
It was the longest funeral I have witnessed; dozens of attendees eager to give my daughter a memorable eulogy. I learned of her deeds which led to this reverence. She spent decades fighting in a manner far more effective than I ever could. She has labored to build something truly meaningful out of the ruin of what I’ve left behind. A world in which all of God’s children can bask in His creation. I cannot truthfully remember what drove me to fight in the first place. A sense of duty, most likely. But it was not with this world in mind. I do wonder if it was my shame that drove her to live this life. For a moment, it does not feel like shame.
With my daughter’s passing, all life I knew during my own has gone on to the next. Whatever the entity will show me next, I do not feel compelled to log it any further. It stands over me, still. The sun never rises above its visage. Perhaps in a hundred years, it will communicate with me. Perhaps in two hundred years, it will move away from me. Perhaps in a millennia, I will be freed of my limbotic state. But for now, I can only assume my hope will be stolen away, by visions I cannot imagine. But I will cherish this vision as long as I can remember.
July 2nd, 1936
The darkness of the entity seeped into the sky around me, until it had completely enveloped anything my gaze had graced. This was only moments after I had set my journal to the ground. Before I could process fear, the void shattered in a thunderous clap which shook my whole being. The blackness evaporated and I was greeted with something I had not seen in decades of this Hell. I saw the edge of the wood. I could hear the rustling of leaves or the chorus of the birds. I was sent into a state of shock by the Earth’s sudden wonder. Finally I was met with what I have yearned for all these years. An unfamiliar hunger and thirst; one which caused me a pain I had forgotten. I am dying.
I grow weaker each second. I write now only because this record suddenly exists in a world in which it may be read. If it is, I beg you burn it. It is my hope that my daughter is all that is ever remembered of me. It is with that peace I can finally enter the next life. Perhaps I will see her soon.
Not that it matters, but I burned the journal immediately after initially transcribing it. I can only hope the wind took the ashes closer to the women he loved in life.
I’m not sure I have the right to publish this. Even now, my heart races as I hover over the post button. Captain Jacobson is at rest, finally, but I do feel he would want to know if the horrors he experienced changed anyone or anything for the better. I know they should. I hope they might.
But I fear that they won’t.