"Every Night for a Thousand Years" by Chris Adrian Originally published in the October 6, 1997 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Chris Adrian’s short story “A Tiny Feast,” about Oberon and Titania stealing a human child to raise as their own but who ended up having leukemia, was one of the highlights of my reading last year. It was unique and very emotional and plain old well-written. It might sound “too clever” but it is written in such a way that you forget it’s a fantasy: the fantastic elements seem normal, the ordinary elements are made extraordinary. I was happy to see Adrian on The New Yorker‘s list of “20 Under 40” (being born in 1970, he just made the cut). I went back to see what his first piece published in The New Yorker was. Published on October 6, 1997, it is “Every Night for a Thousand Years: A story of the Civil War.” Incredibly talented at age 27, Chris Adrian shows here that he isn’t all quirk and that he has known how to make his story softly emotional for a while.
When the story opens, I thought it might be quirky and somewhat surreal, despite the fact that we learn up front that the main characer is just dreaming:
He dreamed his brother’s death at Fredericksburg. General Burnside appeared as an angel at the foot of his bed to announce the tragedy: “The Amry regrets to inform you that your brother George Washington Whitman was shot in the head by a lewd fellow from Charleston.” The General alit on the bedpost and drew his dark wings close about him, as if to console himself.
When the forty-ish Walt Whitman woke up (already the author of Leaves of Grass), he was so upset that he set off for Washington to search for his brother in the hospitals. As it turns out, his brother is well:
A piece of shell pierced his wispy beard and scraped a tooth. He spit blood and hot metal into his hand, put the shrapnel in his pocket, and later showed it to his worried brother, who burst into tears and clutched him in a bear hug when they were reunited in Captain Francis’s tent, where George sat with his feet propped on a trunk and a cigar stuck in his bandaged face.
But rather than return home, Whitman stayed in Washington and began helping out at the hospitals. All of this is based on truth. Upon seeing the name “G.W. Whitmore” listed as dead or wounded in the New York Tribune, Whitman feared it was actually his brother and went searching for him. Whitman really did end up sticking around to help out.
As did “A Tiny Feast,” “Every Night for a Thousand Years” deals with a child facing death while the adults are powerless to put a stop to it and must simply show love. Here we and Walt Whitman meet Henry “Hank” Smith, a wounded boy travelling as part of a transport Whitman is taking back to Washington.
With every jolt and shake of the train a chorus of horrible groans wafted through the cars. He thought it would drive him insane. What saved him was the singing of a boy with a leg wound. The whole trip he sang in a rough voice indicative of tone-deafness. His name was Henry Smith. He’d come all the way from divided Missouri, and said he had a gaggle of cousins fighting under General Beauregard. He sang “Oh! Susana” over and over again, and no one told him to be quiet.
Hank still has his leg only because he pointed his daddy’s pistol at the doctor about to cut it off. His leg has been getting better at the hospital, but his fever keeps coming back.
This is a beautiful story, full of peaceful but lonely moments, like when Whitman wanders around Washington at night, going up and down the Mall, finding that he’s again at the foot of the Capitol, passing the President’s house where “[o]nce he saw a figure in a long, trailing black crêpe veil move, lamp in hand, past a series of windows, and he imagined it must be Mrs. Lincoln, searching forlornly for her little boy, who had died two winters ago.” Whitman has dreams of California and comforts Hank with myths of that state.
Again, this is a beautiful story. I have read only two pieces by Chris Adrian, and they have both been so strong, so well crafted in the way that you just can’t tell there’s a craft, so devestating and yet it’s that kind of devestation that makes you stop and look around in reverence. Which brings to mind the apparent source of the title, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote:
If the Stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smiles.
That glimpse at beauty that we take for granted, that beauty which if it came just once every thousand years would instill in us such a reverence for it — that is just what I’d say Adrian has captured here.
It’s obviously time for me to read more.