Image from: http://www.encounter-america.org/bump/ProducerwebSeenanElephant-Pg1.html
Seeing the Elephant is a phrase first heard in the 1840s American southwest. According to George Wilkins Kendall, an “old campaigner” in Texas told him, “I had already seen ‘sights’ of almost every kind, animals of almost every species... and I felt ready and willing to believe almost anything I might hear as to what I was yet to see; but I knew very well that we were not in an elephant range, and when I first heard one of our men say that he had seen the animal in question, I was utterly at a loss to fathom his meaning.” Kendall was confused until another man told him, “When a man is disappointed in anything he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set about himself, he has ‘seen the elephant.’” (The Civil War Monitor, “Seeing the Elephant,” Tracy L. Barnett, posted 1/04/2022, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/seeing-the-elephant)
In Book 4 of the Saint Maggie Series, the old boarding house family has “seen the elephant” in one way or the other. Even though Maggie and family return to Blaineton after their difficult sojourn in Gettysburg, they still are dealing with their experiences during the battle. Once in New Jersey, they find that their town also has changed. Josiah Norton, an industrialist, runs a textile and uniform mill sound of the town. To its north, the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane has opened.
When writing the story, I stopped and wondered what it was all about. At that point, I imagined Eli standing in front of me. He grabbed my shoulders and shouted, “It’s my story, dammit!” It was so totally Eli. And he was right.
So, Seeing the Elephant is mostly Eli’s story. He is struggling with what we now know is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and fears that he might be going mad. We meet his issue head on in the first chapter, when we enter one of his nightmares. This really is not one of my favorite scenes, but it is a crucial one.
Eli Smith was inside the house. It had been eerily quiet until someone or something began to keen. He frowned. That had never happened before. Who or what would make a noise like that? And why? He went down the hall and as he did, his heart began to pound, and his breath came short.
He’d been there before. He knew what he would see. But he opened the front door anyway.
Outside was a horrifying sight. People, horses, and wrecked wagons were strewn everywhere. Knees shaking, Eli stepped onto the porch. He hated this place. Even though it resembled his old family home in Gettysburg, it was completely alien at the same time. It was his fear made manifest and palpable.
I don’t want to look, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Don’t make me look.
But he knew he had to. He had to see it.
He turned to his right and his breath left him.
His stepdaughter Frankie was collapsed in a rocking chair. The chair was still, though. That was because she was dead.
The haunting keening started all over again. It raised the hair on the back of his neck. What was making that noise? It couldn’t be a good sign. Its newness, its otherworldliness caused panic to rise.
Oh, God! Make it stop! Make it stop!
Eli shut his eyes again and clapped his hands over his ears.
And then, suddenly, there was a strange rustling sound, and something moved, brushing his right arm.
Eli’s eyes shot open in panic. It was pitch-black. He could still hear that God-awful wailing, though, and his heart thumped against his ribs. Oh, God, where was he? Was he dead? Was this hell?
He was startled next by the sound of scratching. It was short and sharp, like someone striking a match. The noise was followed by the smell of sulfur and a yellow glow gradually grew, splitting the darkness.
In the dim light from what he now realized was a lamp, Eli saw Maggie walk across the room. Breathing heavily, he tried to work things out. What was she doing walking around? He managed to croak, “Maggie?”
“It’s all right, love. I’ve got her.”
Then he saw his wife bend and lift something up. It was Faith, his daughter, their beautiful little girl. He watched as a smiling Maggie cradled the wailing baby.
That’s it, Eli thought. That’s the keening noise!
Was this a dream? Was the other a dream? Which thing was real?
Eli drew a shaky breath.
“Shh,” Maggie was cooing to Faith as she returned to the bed. “Just because Papa slept through your cries, you needn’t be angry.” Propping up her pillows, she settled against them and placed the baby upon her stomach. Once she opened her gown, she brought Faith to her exposed breast. The infant immediately stopped crying and, latching on, began to suck. Maggie smiled. “All is right now, isn’t it?” When she glanced at Eli, she saw that he was breathing rapidly. “What’s wrong, love?”
“Another dream,” he said.
Reaching out, she caressed his arm. “The same one?”
Maggie said nothing but kept her hand on his arm.
Eli squeezed his eyes shut. “I hate this damn war.” He wanted to say “God-damned war,” because there was no way war ever could be God-blessed. But he knew his wife would disapprove of using God’s name in vain, so he softened the expletive to a simple “damn.” Tears burned his eyes. “What’s wrong with me, Maggie? Why do I keep having this nightmare over and over again?”
“I don’t know,” Maggie patted the space beside her. “Come and snuggle up.”
Her husband edged over. Propping himself up on an elbow, Eli touched Faith as she squirmed and sucked and stared up at her mother. The five-week-old infant was blessedly warm. He had no doubt now that this was the reality and the other had been a nightmare.
No, not just a nightmare, but the nightmare.
What will happen to Eli? What will Maggie and Emily do with their rambling new home? How will the others start over again in Blaineton? And what about Frankie, who is determined to work at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane?
You’ll need to read the book to get the details. But I’ll be back with one more scene next week.
Practice peace, friends, be understanding, and love others.
Janet R. Stafford
Tin Bath Tub image from: https://www.decorhomeideas.com/tin-bathtubs/, DH Ideas: 10 Amazing Bathtubs for the Best Farmhouse Decor. (You have no idea how hard it was to find a photo of an old tin bath tub!)
The Naked Truth?
I love this scene because it is rather goofy. Here’s the set up: the family is still in Pennsylvania, divided between Gettysburg and Middletown (known today as Biglerville). Capt. Phillip Frost (Union Army) has a growing attraction to Maggie’s eldest daughter, Lydia. Frost is attached to Camp Letterman, a tent hospital for soldiers wounded during the battle at Gettysburg. When one of the wounded Confederate soldiers at the old Smith House turns up missing, Frost immediately believes that Lydia and her family were somehow involved. They were – but he has the wrong soldier and wrong accuses Eli of being involved, which he wasn’t. Eli ends up in jail in Gettysburg with an appointment to go before the District Provost Marshal.
In short, the matter is cleared up at the hearing and Eli and the family return to the Smith house in Gettysburg.
Having been in a jail cell for several days, the men need decent food and, of course, a good bath. However, what should have been a relaxing soak for Eli turns into… well, I’ll just let you read about it.
After dinner, the two men were given the opportunity to get cleaned up. Lydia, Emily, and Nate saw to it that baths were filled – one in a bedroom in the annex for Gideon and the other in the back parlor for Eli.
Eli stripped down and put his glasses and cane next to the bath. As he sank happily into the large tin tub, the warm water began to ease the persistent aching in his left leg. For the first time in days, he was mentally and physically comfortable. To top it all off, Carson had presented him with a celebratory cigar, which Eli lit. He contentedly blew out a circle of smoke and watched it dissipate into nothingness, symbolizing his troubles vanishing into thin air.
“Thank you,” he said to the air.
He was lucky – lucky and blessed, whatever that meant. “I am grateful from the very bottom of my soul,” he said to Whoever or Whatever might be listening in.
There was an abrupt knock on the door. Before he could ask who was there, it flew open, and Frankie strode into the room.
Eli squawked. His cigar fell into the water. The stogie submerged with a hiss as he put his hands over his privates and tried to disappear into the water. Frankie squealed in horror and, putting her hands over her eyes, spun away from him.
“Egad!” Eli sputtered. “When you knock on the door, you’re supposed to wait for someone to answer!”
“I didn’t know you’d be in the bath.”
Hearing the ruckus, Lydia entered, took in the situation and, averting her eyes, plucked the large towel from the floor by the tub and passed it to her stepfather.
Eli grabbed the cloth, quickly spreading it from one side of the tub to the other to hide his nudity as he growled, “Did you not hear Matilda telling me that the bath was ready?”
“It’s all right,” Lydia told her sister. “You may turn around now.”
Frankie did so but avoided looking at her stepfather.
“The last thing I need,” Eli muttered, “is you seeing me in my birthday suit! Egad, I’ll never be able to meet your eyes again!”
“I didn’t see anything. I just saw your shoulders – nothing else.”
Relieved, Eli calmed down.
“And,” Lydia announced, “I’ve seen enough naked men to last me a lifetime.” She smirked. “And that includes you.”
“After you had been shot. Who do you think removed your clothes and prepared you for surgery?” She pointedly added, “However, I scarce remember a thing. One naked man looks very much like all naked men, don’t you think?”
Eli went bright red. “This discussion is over!” He turned to his youngest stepdaughter. “What brought you in here in the first place? You might as well tell me so long as I’m covered.”
“I wanted to apologize for getting you into all that trouble.”
Frankie winced. “And for helping Caleb desert.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, nettled that they had ruined his bath. “You girls will be the death of me.”
Frankie’s voice had a little tremor in it. “Will you ever forgive us, Papa?”
He sighed and rested the back of his head on the lip of the bath. “Of course, I’ll forgive you. I’m your stepfather. You were doing what you thought was right – the both of you. How can I be angry at that?”
Her face burst into the elfin grin that always melted his heart. “Thank you, Papa!”
Eli indicated the tub. “Now, do you mind if I finish my bath?”
Remembering that he was naked under the shelter of the towel, Frankie grabbed Lydia’s hand and pulled her older sister toward the door.
As the two left the room, Eli heard Lydia laugh. “Oh, I do so love this family!”
The door shut with a firm click and Eli was alone once more. He grunted, pulled the towel away, and located the now water-logged cigar. Lifting it out, he stared at the soggy stogie for a second and then irritably heaved it into the fireplace as he muttered, “What a waste of a perfectly good smoke.”
I think Eli handled that amazingly well, don’t you? Of course, what else could he do? He was lying naked in a tub of water with only a towel to cover him.
Interestingly, 19th century folks did not spend a lot of time soaking in a tub. They believed hot water was unhealthy and advocated cold baths. Brrrr! Don’t think I’d like that. However, Eli deserves to wallow in tepid water after all he’s been through.
Until next blog…
Later, gators, and remember to be kind.
Image: A view from the Lincoln bedroom inside the Wills house, NPS photo; National Park Service, Gettysburg; https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/news/wills-house-november-2021.htm
What does the Lincoln bedroom at the Willis House in Gettysburg have to do with one of my favorite scenes in A Time to Heal (the third book in the Saint Maggie series)? Read on!
First, the scene involves some impulsiveness on the part of Maggie’s daughter, Frankie. Of all the characters, she is probably the on most likely to leap into action without thinking things through.
Here Frankie is 17 years old and has just learned that her beau, Patrick, has been injured from friendly fire and has been sent to Philadelphia to recover at Mower U.S. General Hospital. Anxious to see him and, hoping to bring him back to Gettysburg with her, Frankie packs up, sneaks off, and takes a train to Philadelphia, but leaves a note on the kitchen table to everyone know where she has gone.
Frankie makes it safely to her destination and to Patrick’s side, where she learns that he has been able to get a four-week furlough while he recovers. The two then begin their journey back to Gettysburg.
But they hit a snag when the train stops for the night in York. Patrick’s wound makes it impossible for him to find rest on the station’s wood benches, but the couple does not have enough money for a hotel. Fortunately, the night telegrapher tells them that his mother’s guest house is affordable and offers to take them there.
They are delighted to be able to get some rest. But when they arrive at the guest house, they find that there’s one other, awkward snag.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder