EVERYBODY IN THEIR BONES KNOWS THAT SOMETHING IS ETERNAL –Thornton Wilder

Posted: August 22, 2022 in World On The Edge

History of Heaven’s Gate Graveyard

How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

— Genesis 28:16-17

Some places in this world are sacred. Upon entering, one bows with respect because the hallowed lie here, one day to be made eternally whole. Just outside the fictional town of Bethel, in the shadow of Bethel Mountain, lies Heaven’s Gate Graveyard. It is much older than the town—some say as old as the Chattahoochee River that winds and bends and runs alongside it. Others say its very earth was set here by God, after Noah and the flood, as if to place heaven’s portal on earth. It is a beautiful place traced by tall trees—pine, soapberry, chinaberry, and magnolias. During summer, liriope with spiked purple blooms edge the borders, with camellias and gardenias taking their places as the seasons turn. But despite its beauty, heaven’s portal brings few people joy.

Near the end of the Civil War, there was a battle near Bethel between invading Union soldiers and Confederates, old men and boys by then, holding on to their homes. Dozens of Confederates from all around Bethel, and some Federals from who knows where, were buried here, side by side. No disagreements now. The graves all look alike. There are no flags waving above them; no one can tell the difference between friend and enemy.

Sightings of phantom soldiers are not uncommon in Heaven’s Gate Graveyard. Neither are the smells of gunpowder and awful shrieks from the pain of death. People often report apparitions of dirty, disheveled children calling for their mothers, calling for their fathers, or hearing children giggle when there are none about. The most famous reported sightings are of four children, two from the South and two from the North.

The first is a fatherless boy of twelve from Georgia who served the Southern army because he was found alone in the woods and taken by the dreaded Confederate Guard; a boy with a limp from birth who’d held the Confederate flag; a courageous boy with a mother and brothers who loved him; a boy who died in a battle that was not his.

The second is a motherless girl of ten from Alabama, who came with her father to war because her home had been set on fire, her mother burned to death, and there was no one else to watch over her; a girl who tended the dying; a tender-hearted girl who was loved by the soldiers; a girl who died in a battle that was not hers.

The third is a fatherless boy from Ohio who enlisted as a drummer and died at the age of eleven when a fragment from a shrapnel shell crashed through his drum as he played it; a boy whose father deserted him before he was born; a boy who loved his big brother enough to follow him into war; a boy who died in a battle that was not his.

The fourth is a motherless teenage girl from Pennsylvania who, while she was helping to load a cannon, saw her father lying wounded on a battlefield; a girl who ran through a hail of bullets to get to him; a girl who was shot three times as she threw her arms around her father; a girl who died in a battle that was not hers.

Those children and others, motherless and fatherless, have often been seen playing around the high statue dedicated to them—a statue of two children standing side by side and entitled, The Children of Battles. No one knows why the children are smiling and holding hands after going through such labors. And no one knows who sculpted the statue. Neither is it known when the statue was erected. It just appeared one day. The words on its pedestal read:

THE CHILDREN OF BATTLES

All the children could remember beyond the wooden bars of their cribs was betrayal.

All the children could see in every direction was the bright blue sky turning drab.

All the children could feel were rough roots waiting beneath the grass to scrape into their skin.

All the children could hear was the song they tried to sing and the slap of hands that ended it.

All the children could taste was a bitter broth of falsity from foul mouths.

All the children could smell was the stench of putrid flesh decomposing in an unkempt orchard.

All the children could imagine was a splendid gift as a reward for their struggle.

All the children hoped for was a faithful embrace, to be pressed to a breast and suckled in love.

But thats not the way it happened.

A Story Of Betrayal

THE MORE COMPLICATED THE PRESENT, THE MORE FRIGHTENING THE FUTURE, THE MORE WE REMEMBER THE PAST.

The following short piece is about the past, the Civil War. It is not in my novel, “Shooting at Heaven’s Gate.” But the destructiveness of a particular kind of war is present in the novel — those battles going on in a single human mind and fought alone.

Verbally handed down to family by my great grandmother, Sarah, who despite the excruciating loss of husband, children, land and home, never failed to use stories from her past to illustrate a positive point. This story is about the betrayal of war, and about the first child — Sarah’s child– mentioned in the reported sightings of children seen playing around the statue in Heaven’s Gate Graveyard.

SARAH’S SONS

They stand beside each other in Heaven’s Gate Graveyard, the bent old woman and her great-grand daughter, a fresh-faced girl of eleven, looking up at the Children of Battles statue. “Why do wars happen?’ the girl asks.

“Wars come from human greed, pride, and revenge; the great betrayers,” the old woman says in an ancient voice, shaking her head sadly. “Under the darkest of skies, all wars hang humanity on a cross.”

“On a cross like Jesus?” the girl asks, after Judas betrayed Him?”

The old woman nods, yes. “War is always about betrayal; of country, mother, father, child, or friend. It brings lifelong consequences, and of course, death. This graveyard has many stories to tell.”

“Tell me one,” the girl says eagerly, and the old woman smiles.

“Picture it,” the old woman says, raising her fragile hands as if they held an invisible occurrence; fingers straight as she can make them, thumbs touching. “Picture my own grandmother, your third great grandmother. Sarah was her name. See her? Picture her blue eyes, once crystal-lit, now drab from sorrow. It is 1865. Wilkinson County Georgia near the end of the Civil War, after General Sherman’s men have ravaged home after home. Sarah stands in the corner of the dining room of her war-battered house, little Patrick clinging to her skirt, as she watches the latest band of ragged, boyish men around her table. Three of them.

“Yankees?”

No, they are faces she’s never seen before yet knows well. They are not Yankees. They are from the feared Confederate Home Guard, but in the minds of many southern women, they are almost as bad. They’ve been sent to capture any deserting Confederate soldier, and worse for Sarah, to gather young boys for the dwindling Southern Army. Boys like her headstrong son, twelve-year-old Frank, born with one leg shorter than the other, and a limp he would never get rid of.

Picture the elbows of the hungry Guard, angled like the wings of chicken hawks guarding the prey in their bowls, while they eat and eat. Thin fingers, like talons lifting flesh. They eat hurriedly, cautiously, as if Sarah might take it all back; the last stewed apples, the roasted sweet potatoes, the cornbread made from the last handful she has left. They are Confederate sons, like her own, but Sarah feels no empathy. She knows why they have come.

 One of the soldiers–he finishes first–wipes a grimy forearm across his mouth adding sweet potatoes to the mud on his homespun shirt. “Thank you, ma’m,” he says, and winks at Thomas Marion who is staring at the soldier’s left thigh. The thigh is wrapped with a dingy, cotton cloth. There is some staining on the cloth, red brown, like the clay Thomas Marion helped his big brothers till when they put in the patch last spring before the enticement to war overtook them, that luring decoy to manhood and glory. But the red staining is not from clay. They are blood stains. The notorious Confederate Home Guard has its troubles, too.

“How old are you, boy?” The soldier shifts in the ladder-back chair with a grimace.

“Nine.”

“Well suh, too bad you ain’t just a mite bigger,” he grins. “We’d take you with us to fight the Yanks.”     

“I got big brothers fightin’ the Yanks,” Thomas Marion says. Sarah’s body stiffens. Don’t talk about your brothers, she’s thinking. Please don’t mention Frank!

“Sure ‘nuf?” the soldier teases. “How many big brothers you got battling for the cause?”

“Three.” Sarah sees pride puff up in her son’s face, a face pretty enough to have been a girl’s, and prays, Please don’t mention Frank!

“Where they at?” another soldier asks.

Thomas Marion turns toward the soldier and shrugs his slim shoulders.

“Well, who’re they fightin’ with?”

“The Rebs,” says Thomas Marion.

The men laugh. Thomas Marion’s pretty face pinkens.

“I mean what brigade they in?” the soldier chuckles.

Sarah speaks at once. “They were sent to Virginia, on the train, to Atlanta. All three of them.”    

No one asks the names of her sons, and she does not ask for the names around her table. Tonight, they are simply Confederate soldiers that she, as a southern woman, is expected to trust, expected to feed with food she cannot spare.

“We ain’t been to Virginia yet,” one of them says. He watches Thomas Marion remove a bowl from the table. Thomas Marion circles a finger inside the blue-flowered porcelain, but the soldier has already done that himself; there is nothing left. Thomas Marion looks coldly at the soldier, and sniffs.   

The soldier with the bound leg asks Sarah in a kindly tone, “Your husband gone to Virginia, too?”          

“My husband fought in the Battle of Atlanta with my oldest son. They are dead now.” She unwinds Patrick’s arms from around her skirts, and squeezing back tears, swings the thin, little boy to her hip, and speaks softly; Thomas Marion does not yet know the fate of his brothers. “My fourteen and fifteen year-old sons were killed, too, at the Battle of Chickamauga.” She emphasizes their ages, thinking that if the Confederate guard should find Frank, they would have pity on her, and see that she’s already sacrificed enough.

“Sorry,” the soldier says. He clicks his tongue against his front teeth and shakes his head slowly. “You wimm’in folk are the real soldiers. You runnin’ the place by yerself?”

Sarah nods, yes, thinking again of Frank, thinking of the daily sweat on his brow and the nightly ache in his bones, doing the work of three grown men.

“I guess you waited a while ‘fore ya had them two? He tilts his head toward Thomas Marion, then back to Patrick in her arms.

“A while,” Sarah says.

Except there is Frank, hidden in the woods; twelve, and too tall for his age. Tall enough to carry a gun, the Confederate Guard would say. Those were Frank’s words, too. He wanted to sign up. He wanted to fight. Sarah forbade it. “I’ve already lost a husband and three sons. I will not lose you, too! You are still only a boy.” Except, he is more than clever, his limp never deters him, and he runs the farm like a man.

A slight clap of thunder snaps in the distance and a cooling breeze flushes the still air from the dining room. Sarah faces the open window. Through it, the fading light of a sinking sun dims the faces of her sons, and the sons of the Confederate Guard. She lights the lamp. Please Lord, don’t let them find Frank. And if they do, make him resist. Don’t let him get it in his stubborn head that he should go with them.      

“Reckon it’s starting ter rain, agin,” one of the soldiers says, his words without expression, his voice as routine as the rain has been. “You got an old barn we could sleep in ’till mornin’?” He looks toward the soldier with the wounded leg. “We ain’t go’n find no recruits tonight.”

The wounded soldier says nothing; he watches Sarah and waits for her response.    

She knows they’ve seen the barn. They had to have passed it on their way in. If she lets them stay there, they’ll take what’s left of the corn to feed their haggard horses. Yet they expect her extended hospitality. The injured one has been taught well though. She sizes him up as one who would not ask for extra favors. He will allow her to offer the use of the barn, knowing that she will offer it.

“Down past the hill,” she says. “You’re welcome to stay.”

Sarah, Thomas Marion, and Patrick watch from the porch as the soldiers lead their horses the half mile down to the barn. The wounded soldier rides. He bends over the tangled mane and lays his face on the horse’s neck, stroking him, as if apologizing for being its master. Beyond the barn are the woods where she has hidden Frank. He must be still, must be quiet. Don’t let them find him!

She will not be able to get to him until after the soldiers are gone. And now it is raining again on the already soaked ground. She is certain her boy is cold and hungry, but she prays he will not move from beneath the big live oak where she leaves him, almost ritually now. Last week, four evenings out of seven, she has been right. Tomorrow will be no different. More soldiers will come, mostly General Wheeler’s men, still believing in victory, that it’s not a lost cause. So, daily, she will hide her son in the woods and feed the soldiers until they leave the next morning with bellies full as they can get them on the meager food Sarah has left.

The next morning, Patrick wakes her. He is crying for food. Thomas Marion comes in, hungry, too. She gives them a little corn meal and water, then makes some for Frank. From the window, she can see that the soldiers are gone, so, Sarah and her young ones set out for the woods where she hid her boy beneath the live oak. He is not there!

“Frank!” she calls and circles the trunk of the great tree, once then twice. “Frank! No! No! No!”

Did the Confederate Guard capture him, or had he volunteered to go with them? Either way, she is betrayed, not only by the now-divided country for which her ancestors fought in the American Revolution, not only by the Confederate Guard, but perhaps even by the son she adores. She drops to the ground, holding onto her last two boys, and cries, deep, deafening howls that would ransack any heart.

There are several moments of silence after the old woman finishes the story when her great-granddaughter does not speak. The girl is too young to remember any of these people. Still, Sarah and her sons were family members, and their story brings tears to her young eyes.

“Let it be a lesson,” the old woman tells the girl. “Be careful where you put your faith. Even someone you’ve been told to trust can betray you. Sarah shouldn’t have trusted those soldiers, even if they were Confederates. They were as threatening as the Yankees who’d already razed her fields, stolen her pigs, and left her only one cow. The Home Guard didn’t give a hoot about her. She was only the means to a meal or two, and a place to spend the night. And then they left, taking another piece of her heart.”

“Do you think Frank chose to go with them?” the girl asks.

“No one will ever know if he chose to go, or whether the Guard found him and simply snatched him up, but he ended up carrying the Confederate flag for Georgia’s Seventh Regiment, limping all the way. The Confederates called it their final effort of the War. And it was surely final for Frank. He wound up in Petersburg Virginia where he, and hundreds more, were killed.”

“But then, the war was over,” the girl says, always hoping for a happy ending.

“There is no end to war, except for the dead. By then, much of the south was in ruins.”

“What happened to Sarah?”

“She scratched a living from the ground for her two remaining sons because she was strong-minded, and lived to be an old lady like me. She didn’t forgot those she’d lost, or the betrayers on both sides, but in the end, she forgave them. “

“I would never forgive them!”

The old woman smiles. “You might change your mind when you’re older. I was your age when Sarah told me the story I’ve just told, and I said the same to Sarah, “I would never forgive them!” Then Sarah looked back at me through very old eyes. ” We each have our crosses and particular battles to bear, but Jesus forgave His betrayers as He hung dying from His Cross. He calls us to do no less.”

The girl looks upward, her eyes anxious. The shadow of Bethel Mountain falls over her face, then sweeps over the graveyard. The old woman wraps an arm around the girl’s slim shoulders to pull her close. “But remember, Jesus rose from His tomb. And one day, you will rise from yours. Everybody in their bones knows that something is eternal. So, don’t be sad, little angel. Life on earth is a hard climb. The devil is always at your heels wanting to trip you up. You’ll have many betrayals, crosses, and struggles on your way to Heaven’s Gate, but after you’ve entered it? Well, that’s when your real life begins.

Sarah’s Sons, copyright 2022, Kaye Park Hinckley


P.S. The song title and these beautiful lyrics are perfect! Can’t believe I found them. Produced by Kevin Costner, and his daughter, Lily Costner, is singing. Season 2- Ep 7 of YELLOWSTONE features the track “Heaven’s Gate” (feat Lily Costner) it will also be included on KCMW’s upcoming release “Tales From Yellowstone.” Writing Credits Lily Costner (Lily Mae and Margerie/BMI) Teddy Morgan (Teddy Morgan Music/BMI, Admin by BMG) Jack Williams (Songs of LGME!/ASCAP, Admin by Ole Music Group)

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