The Tale of Old Silas
The most troubling thing about his nightmare was that it never ended the same way twice. If there had been some sense of continuity, some sticky end he could anticipate with dread each time, then it might have been easier to bear. But, no. One night it was the simple, profound pain of seawater flooding his lungs; the next it was a great white whale swallowing him whole; and the night after that it’d be the plank, walking the plank and plunging into the embrace of the shark below, feeling his flesh torn asunder, watching his foot and his boot float off toward the shore. Yes, the conclusion was revised each night, the only common theme his untimely demise. Which was what made this night’s version all the more troubling. In this one, he didn’t die.
Silas sat up in his bed in the attic of the old colonial, its drafty windows clattering in the strong winds of a November gale. He drew the thick wool blanket tightly around himself, hoping that, like the armor of Achilles, it would protect him from all comers. But still he shivered. Still, he wept. Now that he’d pulled it up over his head, there wasn’t enough blanket left to cover his ankles, his heels.
The ninth to bear the name, Silas Odysseus Silver was the first of that long line to fear the sea; the rest of them had actually worked it, had actually made their names as the pilots of English, and now American, sailing vessels. But the trade was already at the beginning of its steady decline on Cape Cod; by the dawn of the next century—the twentieth—most of the business would move north to Cape Ann, our cape’s rocky, inhospitable cousin. His brothers-in-law, once commanders of the grandest of ships, and travelers to exotic ports of call—they had traveled as far as Canton and the Sandwich Islands—would soon be reduced to cultivating the lowly cranberry. Thus, there was no need for a young man who actually shrunk at the sight of the slippery seductress he was meant to tame, not time anymore to wait for someone like Silas to overcome his particular psychosis. Maybe in some other, earlier age. But not now.
Rain lashed against his window, like a vengeful sprite trying to force its way in. The boot, the boot, the boot. It all came back to the boot. For the boot had been there this time. But not like before, not like before. Because he wasn’t in the jaws of the shark this time as he watched the boot borne off on the waves—this time the embrace was far warmer, far more…
He was an infant when it happened, the incident with the boot. Too young to remember the details of it himself, he knew the story only through the lens of his sisters’ own fractured memories; their mother refused to speak of it. And perhaps it was worse, knowing the story only this way, knowing only with the distant and often contradictory embellishments of three young women who were barely old enough to remember that day themselves.
Silas shook harder beneath the blanket now, so vivid was the horror inherent in his vision of that fateful day.
It was in the twilight of 1844 that his family’s own twilight began in earnest, a blustery December morning that brought two fellows down from the very tip of Cape Cod—Provincetown—through the snowy streets of humble Harwich. Silas was in the arms of his mother, and, along with his sisters, watched, from the window above the kitchen sink, the two men trudging through the freshly fallen snow, the wind whipping off of Nantucket Sound so fiercely that it nearly toppled them and their terrible burden. They carried with them a burlap sack containing all that was left of his father—a boot which had washed ashore, into the dunes that ringed the Race Point lighthouse, and within that boot a severed foot clod in a tattered stocking, stitched with the poor man’s initials in the sole.
While his sisters served the weary travelers tea and biscuits, it was said that Silas himself, a mere babe, could not take his eyes off of the stocking—minus the foot now, of course. He pointed at it, and struggled to wriggle from his mother’s arms to touch the object of his newfound obsession. But he would never touch it, just as he would never again feel the rough, stubbled face of his father pressed against his cheek in a silent farewell before heading out to sea. The sock and the boot would be burned. And the foot—well, nobody could remember what had happened to the foot (or, at least, nobody would say), but Silas suspected that it had been burned, too, whatever small part of it there was, for the smell of burning flesh, no matter if it were the flesh of a pig, or a cow, or a lamb, still churned his stomach to this day. Even the smell of his own sweat, his own skin after a day in the sun raising a barn or a house—even that was enough to make him sick.
His stomach churned now, somewhere beneath the dark folds of the blanket, at the thought of he and his love basking under the noon-day sun on that distant shore he had dreamt for them, she paying no attention to the bandaged stump at the end of his left leg, where his foot had once been, as she asked him, “Do you love me?”
“O heaven,” he moaned as she ran her hand down along his chest, along his stomach. Down, down, down. “O heaven, o earth, bear witness to this sound, and crown what I profess with kind event if I speak true! If hollowly, invert what best is boded me to mischief! I, beyond all limit of what else I’ th’ world, do love, prize, honor you.”
And how she cried then, thick sobs punctuating her speech as she said, “I am fool to weep at what I am glad for.”
“Wherefore weep you?”
“At mine unworthiness, that dare not offer what I deserve to give, and much less take what I shall die to want. But this is trifling; and all the more it seeks to hide itself, the bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning, and prompt me, plain and holy innocence! I am your wife, if you will marry me; if not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow you may deny me; but I’ll be your servant whether you will or no.”
“My mistress dearest. And I thus humble ever.”
“My husband then?”
“Ay, with a heart as willing as bondage e’er of freedom. Here’s my hand.”
“Ay, but where is your foot?”
“My foot, my foot, my kingdom for a foot!”
And that was how it ended this night, his terrible dream. For all the world truly was a stage, and they merely players. But he was no Ferdinand to her Miranda, no matter how often they read the play together. No, he was the boatswain and this was his exit. Forever would he have the dream, but never would he have the lady.
This was his exit, his terrible exit. He stared out from under the blanket, across the dark blue murk of his room. “Oh, I am fortune’s fool,” he said to himself then. “I am fortune’s fool.” Closing his eyes, he thought to himself that he would much rather have seen the terrible dream through to its inevitable conclusion than to be facing the waking nightmares which were plaguing him now, the visions of musket fire piercing his arms, his chest, of a cannon ball taking his legs out from under him. The thought of his last words, of his fellow soldier holding him in his arms, clutching him to his breast, whispering, “Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.”
And his reply, “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”
Of course, yes, all of this is conjecture—I’m making it up; I couldn’t possibly know what this ancestor of mine was thinking on the day he took his leave of Harwich and made his way off of the Cape to do his duty, to serve his country. I’ve had to build this scene from precious little evidence, but I think it does the man justice, even in its more melodramatic moments.
Little is known of the younger days of the man who would be the last Silas Silver. In his later years, he became a man of few words and of much disdain for the company of others. To paint a picture of his youth we must rely on a single photograph, taken the day before he and the rest of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry departed for Annapolis, 9 December 1861, and his well-documented obsession with the works of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, a contemporary of the last man in the Silver line not to be called Silas. Aside from the fact that most of the few words the old man spoke in his later years were cribbed directly from the Bard, there is the surviving collection of Shakespearean drama which is the pride of our family’s library to this day. The pages of those old volumes are dog-eared and riddled with the chicken-scratch of our Victorian ancestor, and they betray a truly all-encompassing obsession with the work.
The photograph betrays that he not only knew of tragedy in a literary sense, but that he had experienced it in his own life, as well. Reflected in his eyes, which are cast off to the left, avoiding the steady gaze of the foreboding contraption about to steal away forever a part of himself that he wasn’t sure he was ready to give up, a careful observer will see an overwhelming sadness, and a sense of resignation at the hand that fate has dealt him. In the slouch of his shoulders one might identify the weight of his family’s good name bearing down upon him, the weight of obligation. And in the tentative grasp of his hands around the musket, how could you not see doubt and fear?
Microfilmed copies of the town records of Harwich confirm that there must have been a young lady on his mind at the time of his enlistment. Silas and his sweetheart, Tamson O’Rourke, had filed their intent to marry just weeks before Silas’s enlistment. But no record of the marriage can be found. Indeed, the next documented evidence of Tamson O’Rourke is her death record, filed in the waning years of the war. She died in Boston, of consumption, and, according to the record, had never been married. Her occupation—actress—was not common in the puritanical Beantown of the mid-nineteenth century. A check of the newspapers of the time, and of available programs and posters, finds no record of any headlining performance, but it is possible that she worked under an assumed name.
What is certain in all this uncertainty is that she was actually more than Silas’s sweetheart. She was also his cousin, his first cousin.
So it’s not hard to imagine why this romance, which had probably gone further than the old Widow Silver would have liked, was never consummated. It’s not hard to imagine that Silas’s enlistment in the Union army was a convenient way to get him away from that hopeless dreamer of a girl, the daughter of the family’s black sheep and her worthless Irish husband. It’s not hard to paint a picture, our grandfather used to tell us, when the palette you’ve been given is so vast, and so full of possibility.
So, Silas went off to fight in the war of the rebellion, torn from a girl whom he loved deeply for all the reasons his mother loathed her. A tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: Beauty and a man who would soon become a beast. The 24th Massachusetts Infantry was involved in both decisive victories and losses in and around the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In February of 1862, they took the strategic point of Roanoke Island, assaulting the forts along its narrow waist in a victory that helped tighten the blockade of the rebel city considerably. But they lost just as decisively in Secessionville in June of that year. All wars, I suppose, are like a yo-yo—the incessant back and forth—but when you’re fighting yourself, as our country was then, it seems to me that the fruitless nature of it all could only be more amplified. Punch your own arm and sure, there is a momentary sense of triumph, but then there’s the pain, and pain, in my experience, lingers for far longer than pleasure. Soon they would be engaging in useless displays of machismo, burning the stockpiled grain of the enemy in July of 1864. And, not long after that, receiving what later generations of American soldiers would call a million dollar wound, Silas the Ninth would be discharged and sent back home, back into the bosom of an old widow who was drawing her last breaths.
The last of the Silver males, Silas was charged with the propagation of the family name. It was the dying wish of old Widow Silver that the ninth Silas Silver make it his life’s mission to beget the tenth. And Silas, well aware by now that his long lost love was truly lost, made up his mind to remove love from the equation. He set out to find his bride with the same sense of blind, systematic determination with which he had tackled the collected works of Shakespeare.
He married first, in 1865, the only daughter of a local cranberry baron, a girl named Patience, who did little but try his. When she succumbed to influenza five years later without providing him his heir, he married again. And when that woman did nothing but steal away two decades of his life before catching her death of cold, he married again. And again. For one wife, once a woman of ill-repute, who claimed to be half-Wampanoag, he tore down his mother’s home, which his bride claimed was beset upon by evil spirits, and built in its place a sprawling, garish Victorian that left so little land exposed on the property that you couldn’t properly call it a lawn. And though he had bedded her in every one of its eleven rooms, only his libido had been sated, never his desire for a son.
It was in the summer of 1913, just six months shy of his seventieth birthday, that Silas Silver met Annie O’Reilly, the teenage daughter of Irish immigrants, whose sparkling green eyes, from across the room, seemed to reflect the one aspect of old Silas that women of all ages still found attractive. Widows and spinsters who had lived long enough to know both women would note in their journals the more than passing resemblance that the young Miss O’Reilly bore to the long dead Tamson O’Rourke. And one must assume that that resemblance was at least one reason why the shriveled organ of Silas’s heart may have began to beat more strongly than it had in years.
They met at a barn dance, that bastion of the Cape Cod social scene. And it was Mister O’Reilly, not his daughter, who made the first move, making his way across the dance floor with a proposition for the entranced Mister Silver.
“I see you fancy my daughter there, Mister Silver,” said Mister O’Reilly, smiling, clapping Silas on the shoulder. “And I hear you’ve a desire to spread your seed, as it were.”
“This is quite a vulgar conversation, sir,” Silas grunted, turning to leave. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Mister O’Reilly grabbed hold of Silas by the shoulders then and held him steady, seething in a near-whisper. “My daughter’s borne the bastards of no less than three of this town’s less-than-desirable sons. I have no room left in my home for any more and no explanations left for how my wife continues to bear children even as her hair grows more silver than a storm cloud. If you would be so kind as to help us alleviate our financial burden, I would consent to offer you my daughter’s hand.”
And so it was that Silas Silver came to marry his seventh wife, the young Miss Annie O’Reilly. And so it was that, in the spring of the year 1914, Silas’s wish for an heir was finally granted. At Annie’s wishes, because she claimed the name Silas was now “out of fashion,” they named the child Elijah. “A good Christian name,” Annie said. Ten months later, before dying in the delivery room, she gave him a second child, Dorothy. Dottie, for short.
In some earlier age, perhaps Silas would have been a passable single father. But things had changed, as things are apt to do, and Silas not only couldn’t empathize with his children; he couldn’t understand them, either. Elijah took up, not the professions of his cousins—lawyers, politicians, and bankers all—but became, instead, little more than a traveling minstrel, blowing on his horn wherever it took him. He eschewed the classics in favor of dime novels, hornswaggled his way out of the second Great War while his cousins bled to death on the beaches of Normandy, then courted and married some poor Polack’s daughter.
And the girl was even worse, living the life of a harlot, calling herself an artist, living in sin with one man after another until finally, in the fall of 1944, she got what she deserved—consumption—and found herself, like her father down the Cape, shivering beneath the covers of the last bed she would ever sleep in.
Elijah came to Silas then, in his bed at the Cape Cod hospital in Hyannis, to plead for Dottie’s dying wish—a spot in the family plot in Harwich. “All she wants is to be next to Mum. It doesn’t have to be…”
Silas cackled between hacking and wheezing and he said to his son, “You’d sooner catch a weasel asleep than convince me to allow that strumpet’s corpse to pollute the eternal resting place of my family.”
“I should never have come,” said Elijah, heading for the door. “Dottie thought that age might have softened you, but I can see that, even after a century spent on this Earth, you’re still a no good son of a bitch.”
“I would live a hundred more years,” Silas screamed at his retreating son, at that coward, that dog, “if only to see that the two of you never tarnish my family’s good name… A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES!” he screamed, through the phlegm that was nearly suffocating him.
But Elijah, the man would become my grandfather, had never read Shakespeare. He didn’t get the reference. And he would leave his father’s room that day thinking that the old man had simply gone mad.
Which, in a way, he had.
The last Silas Silver would not live another hundred years. He died that autumn, just after his daughter. And his attendant would make a call north that day, to summon that last scion of the Silver family south for the funeral, a call eerily similar to the one I would have to make some fifty years later.
Originally published in Commonthought 2009 and now available in the collection All He Left Behind