By Renee Branum


True Story, Issue #08

Growing up encamped at an 18th century French fort isn’t easy. For a teenaged historical reenactor, costumes and customs blur the already confusing lines between past and present, and between make-believe and reality.

Part I: History

Begin with history. The year is 1757, and the French are still here and still building. They’ve stripped trees of their leaves and bark and stuck the naked trunks upright to form walls that will keep out unwanted forces, including wind and weather, hostile Indian tribes, and British soldiers. The river is full of canoes, and the canoes are full of pelts. When the fort is built, it is given a name, “L’Ascension,” which two years later is changed to “Massac,” the name it still bears today.

Beyond that, I know very little. I know that I was happy here. I know that I wore striped bodices laced with ribbons and white cotton caps and a petticoat that once filled up with angry bees while I was playing in the moat that surrounds the old fort. And the bees and I moved together in fear back to camp, where a man I didn’t know very well took a plug of tobacco from his cheek and broke off small wads to place over the stings, and the juices ran down behind my knees in brownish-red stripes.

 So it’s a place, like other places. The river can be seen from the walls, from the blockhouses, which smell like you’d expect: buckskin and wool and gunpowder and candle wax. These are good smells. In those days, my father was a French marine. My mother was the wife of a French marine. During the day, I ran wild with the children of other French marines, and at night, fires burned, cards were played, tobacco was chewed. The days were sharp-edged; each began with the raising of the flag and ended with the lowering of the flag. Sunsets were tallied by the firing of the cannon from the steep bluffs that rose above the riverbank. And yes, there were battles, but even defeats did not stop us from celebrating; from raising and lowering the flag, loading the cannon with powder and letting its noise seep and strain toward the river’s opposite side, toward the wilds of Kentucky.

And each and every night, when the glass panes of the lanterns were opened and the candles lit, when darkness had fully fallen and the crowds of spectators had gone home, we would lift the canvas cover that hid our family’s cooler from sight, and inside, nestled among gas-station ice: the glistening bodies of 2-liter bottles filled with Dr Thunder and Grape Crush. We poured the soda into tin cups, into baked clay mugs, into goblets carved from polished bone. The plastic bottles were then returned to the cooler, and the canvas was pulled over it, and the dull dream of the past rushed back, history undisturbed by this one small infidelity.

The soda was a shared secret. It broke through the magic of the past to remind us of the ugliness of our cars in their distant parking lots, of the Walmart Supercenters where we bought our beef jerky and our boxes of matches and our Dr Thunder, but it also reinforced the magic. It spoke of our ability to exist in two eras at once, to navigate them, to feel the fizz of soda on our upper lips while wearing tricorn hats and carrying powder horns across our chests—to engage with the past without abandoning the most cherished modern tokens that kept us separate from it.

Everything modern or contemporary was kept hidden from sight, so that what appeared to the naked eye was the world of the past, while beneath was an invisible underlayer of the now. Inside the cluster of twenty or so canvas tents that made up the French camp, nylon sleeping bags were covered over with deer skins or wool blankets. Some women wore spandex shorts beneath their petticoats to keep their thighs from rubbing together in the heat of the day. No woman I knew wore authentic underwear, although there were rumors that a few went commando, and this was acceptable; several sported corsets over their chemises, which were long white shifts worn under bodice and petticoat.

This reality required a lot of careful craftsmanship, a lot of collecting, in order to maintain the fragile balance between worlds, between 1759 and 1999. When my family first joined this community, my father was told by a more seasoned participant that his eyeglasses weren’t “authentic,” so he ordered brass frames from a catalogue and had prescription lenses inserted at the Walmart Vision Center. My mother bought hand-embroidered tea towels from thrift stores and sewed them into “pockets;” these were small cloth sacks with a slit in the center, worn on a ribbon around the waist. According to one woman in the French camp who claimed a master’s degree in historical costume, “pockets” were traditionally concealed beneath petticoat and apron if the woman was married, or worn outside if she were single to showcase the marriageable young lady’s sewing prowess—a tradition we maintained even though, at age thirteen, it grossed me out that in the 18th century, I’d be considered marriageable. Inside my pocket I kept a small wad of cash for the food vendors and a sticky paper bag of rock candy, lemon drops, straws filled with honey. Inside my mother’s pocket were breath mints, hand sanitizer, a digital camera, car keys. She jingled slightly as she moved.

• • •

Fort Massac squats above the Ohio River, tiny at a distance, like a child’s stack of Lincoln Logs. I-24 snakes past the last town on the Illinois side of the river, and if you are looking, if you know it’s there, as you cross the bridge into Kentucky you can make out the shape of the fort tucked back on its low bluff—a little leathery brown whir of history above the water before signs for Cracker Barrel and IHOP begin to flick past. It is easy to miss.

Most weeks, this place sleeps. Maybe a couple of locals come with buckets of KFC when the weather is good, to sit outside the dull wooden walls and watch barges drowse on the river. But twice a year, for a week in June and a week in mid-October, lines of cars packed with canvas tarps and long wooden tent poles arrive. My family’s was among them every year of my childhood, from age seven well into high school. During those weeks, the place would wake, stir, hold us in its rickety frame. It covered us with its smells, smothered us in fry bread and wood smoke.

My father was born not far from here, ninety miles due north of the fort, along a crumbling two-lane highway. He moved to California with his family when he was nine or so, and he grew up there, met my mother in a college art class. My parents moved us to Southern Illinois when I was seven and my sister was thirteen, and I think my father saw the fort as a way to enter back into the history of his birthplace, to engage with the past by becoming an active, living part of it. The rest of us tagged along as we always did with his hobbies: kite flying, trail biking, model train expos, vintage car shows. Most were short-lived, but this hobby stuck. And we all got swept in its pull, mixed in with these strange history buffs, seamstresses, and rednecks excited by the prospect of carrying a musket around and not bathing for a week. These were people who dressed in costume, camped in canvas tents, cooked in cast iron skillets over an open fire. It was all in the name of fun and for the sake of history—touching up against it, making some claim on its daily goings-on, trying it on, taking it off again like a garment.

• • •

Begin with history. We’ve inserted ourselves somewhere in its sprawl. It is sometime between 1757 and 1763. The French and their Indian allies are battling the British for control of the Ohio River Valley and its rich fur trade. But this hardly concerns us. It has already been decided. The British have already won, and the fort has been abandoned by the French, has been burned to the ground by a band of Chickasaw Indians, has been rebuilt, abandoned, then rebuilt again and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, we dress up. We convert tea towels into pockets and make judgments about the authenticity of each other’s outfits. We build small fires and drink purple soda from tin cups and play Bullshit and Crazy Eights and talk about things that have nothing to do with history, although sometimes, they seem to. We talk about the things people talk about when they are gathered around a fire and the stakes are low and there’s gossip to be spread about the drinking and debauchery that goes on in the British camp, about the ignorant questions we were asked that day by spectators (whom we, the costumed elite, refer to as “flatlanders”), and later, after the adults have gone to bed, about the kissing that is rumored to go on between the teenagers who gather beneath the George Rogers Clark statue, and about the drummer boy who lost his virginity beneath an overturned canoe.

We pretend to exist “authentically” in spite of our soda and our spandex and our zippered sleeping bags and plastic coolers and digital cameras. We pretend because the pretense builds a blister of magic around us, as if by wearing the clothes, by firing blank cartridges from replica muskets across a “battlefield” marked off by hay bales, by dressing fake wounds and eating fry bread and stew, we know what it means actually to be here, existing, fearing for whatever life has been allotted while fighting a war that at its heart is all about territory and commerce and vague promises of prosperity. And a very small part of the shared magic resides in the sly feeling, the sneaking suspicion, that we can exist here, in a historic space, in our costumes, with our guns, and still have no fucking clue what any of it means.

Part II: Fighting the Good Fight

After history, there’s whatever is left over. There are men and women, boys and girls. There are fathers and mothers and my sister and me. My father was a soldier. He trained to move in formation with his fellow soldiers. He learned how to load and fire his musket. He responded to commands shouted in French. At night he made cartridges by hand using thin tissue paper and raw gunpowder, rolled up like a cigarette with both ends twisted so the powder wouldn’t leak out. He carried these in a leather cartridge box embossed with the emblem of the fleur-de-lis. My father also carried a powder horn; into the bone, he hand-carved a map of the Ohio River Valley, because a man must remember what he is fighting for.

On Saturdays and Sundays, battles took place. Shots were fired and men fell. When this happened, nurses that we called “mollies” would run onto the field carrying baskets full of strips of torn cloth, pre-bloodied with a mixture of cornstarch and red food dye, too bright like in a bad movie. The mollies would approach the fallen man and ask, “Are you dead or are you injured?” If the man made no response, she would move his tricorn to cover his face and scurry over to the next fallen man. If he said, “Injured,” she would ask, “Where?” and he might say “Ankle” or “Stomach” and she’d set to work staunching the invisible flow of blood and placing a flask to his lips. If he could walk, she’d help the fellow off the battlefield, while he limped dramatically, arm slung across her back.

Near the edge of the battlefield, a few hay bales were grouped together to form a “surgeon’s table.” A man everyone referred to simply as “Doc” appointed himself as surgeon, and no one argued with him because Doc was a collector of historical medical tools, which he carefully arranged on a canvas tarp. Doc prided himself on his extensive knowledge of medical practices of the time. He gave presentations on amputation and archaic surgical procedures to groups of horrified schoolchildren who were brought to the events by the busload. During battle, a lot of ugliness occurred on the surgeon’s table, involving the kind of fake body parts anyone could purchase at a Halloween store. But this was war, and war is always ugly.

At thirteen, I made a horrible molly. I was slow and clumsy and didn’t like the intimacy of bandaging the “wounds” of strangers. The surgeon’s table disturbed me, the gunfire was loud, and I was made especially uncomfortable by the element of acting. Once, Doc instructed me and another girl my age to weep over a wounded soldier who had been helped off the field. The solider was a man I scarcely knew at all. We were told to cry out, “Papa! Papa!” while he lay on his back near the surgeon’s table with his hands clutching his chest and Doc said solemnly, just loud enough for nearby spectators to hear, “There’s nothing to be done for him, mes filles.” When I looked down at this stranger’s face, his eyes closed and chin tipped back to reveal a dusting of crumbs in the tangle of his beard, I could think only, This is not my father. I was insulted by the idea of pretending, even for a moment, that this man, this scrawny stranger named Sonny, was in any way similar to the man who sat at our kitchen table for hours, meticulously carving a map of the Ohio River Valley into a hollowed-out steer’s horn. I looked around at the spectators gathered to watch the battle. It seemed impossible, ridiculous, that any of them would believe that this man and I were family. We looked nothing like each other, had no single shared memory in common. It wasn’t believable, wasn’t authentic.

 I stared at the man on the ground in front of me. The girl beside me hid her face in her apron and shrieked. I did not shriek. I did not call him “Papa.” To do so seemed like a betrayal.

And just then, my father, my actual father, hobbled off the battlefield with a bandage wrapped loosely around his knee and lay down in the grass by himself. A flutter of recognition went through me. This was the man I knew, who did everything quietly and purposefully, who built kites from fabric scraps, mowed our lawn, made huge pots of chili that lasted through long mid-winter weeks, and brushed the dog and threw the excess hair into the yard so the birds could use it for their nests. And no one was weeping over my father. No one was crying out “Papa” for him. What had Sonny done to deserve two mourners while my father had none? But my father seemed unaffected by the unfairness of this, didn’t even notice his daughter watching him across the surgeon’s table. He just looked sweaty and contented, pleased with his performance in the battle, pleased to be sitting on the sidelines taking slow and steady swigs from a canteen. I kept very still and watched him: my father, Papa, Dad. I don’t know if I was proud of him—fake fighting the fake good fight—but I did feel a sense of deep acknowledgment. I knew him, knew that sometimes he snuck up behind my mother while she did the dishes, sometimes marched through the house while singing: The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. But there was a painful space opening up between what I knew to be true and what was “real” in that moment: that a stranger was my father, and my father was a stranger.

On the hour-long drive to the fort that year, my father and I sat side-by-side in the cab of our truck, saying nothing. My mother and sister were driving up separately, and the truck was full of gear: tent poles, huge canvas tarpaulins, wooden boxes packed with food and supplies, cast iron skillets, and trunks bursting with bulky costumes. I flipped through a book about World War II fighter pilots, and my father glanced over at the pictures occasionally, and the radio was a cluster of static, and we kept our thoughts to ourselves. This was not unusual for us; we liked to be quiet together. At the time, I appreciated the silence, the fact that speech wasn’t necessary between us. But later, watching my father across the dense air of the battlefield, I wondered: did we say nothing because we didn’t need to say anything—or because we didn’t know how?

Sometimes, my father died. He fell on his side with one arm extended, his musket beside him and his glasses askew. He kept very still. He was good at being dead. I watched for his side rising and falling, a barely discernible lifting of the white wool coat he wore. If he was tired that day he might choose to die early in the battle. If he was enjoying himself, he might not die at all. The battle’s victor was pre-determined by coin flip; heads for the British, tails for the French, and the troops were instructed by their commander, “We’ll need to lose twenty men in the last third of the battle.” Beyond that, it was up to you when and how you chose to die. There were times, in the noisy confusion, when a single shot fired would fell two men at once. A commentator narrated the battle’s movements over a loudspeaker so that the spectators could get a sense of what was going on, and once the battle had ended, the field littered with motionless bodies and the smoke beginning to clear, the commentator would say, “All right, ladies and gentlemen, the only thing that can bring these fellows back to life is applause. Give them a hand.” And the spectators clapped their hands and the dead began to stir, and my father picked up his hat and his musket, smiling wide as if he’d just performed a trick. And, of course, he had.  

• • •

The fort stood like a beacon among a sprawl of white canvas tents. Toward the parking lot and easily accessible to spectators, the food vendors set up their stands. There, the smells of meat pies, kettle corn, turkey legs, fry bread, homemade root beer, and an authentic deep-fried pastry called a “pippin” kept spectator and participant alike in a near-constant state of hunger. On windy days, a breeze might lift the mouthwatering smells and carry them 300 yards westward toward the pungent row of blue porta johns. Waiting in either of these lines—toilet or tasty treat—was one of the only opportunities for spectators and reenactors to mingle freely. A woman with many-tiered petticoats and elaborately ostrich-feathered chapeau might stand in line directly behind a skinny teenager in muscle t-shirt and cut-offs. We were always polite, even when asked ridiculous questions like, “During the battle, where do the bullets go?” or even, once, “Are the campfires real?”

To the north, the battlefield was bordered by hay bales that served as both boundary markers and seating for the spectators. When there wasn’t a battle, the fife and drum corps or regimental bagpipers marched and played tunes that, over the years, became so familiar they almost went unnoticed, a ceaseless white noise that after the week-long encampment lingered in the ear, like tinnitus.

The French made their camp in tidy rows along the fort’s west-facing wall, a tiny neighborhood marked by hand-stitched banners of gold, white, and blue. Along the wall closest to the river, the much rowdier British camp sprawled less neatly. Over the years, they gained a reputation for drinking, late-night carousing, and a lot of off-color jokes involving kilts. At dusk, musicians shouldered fiddle and bagpipe, stomping their feet until just shy of 2:00 AM. As I grew older, I sometimes looked longingly toward the British camps when their whoops echoed rhythmically out over the water, their cries as wild and songlike as the lowing barge horns.

Other than at Saturday night dances, there was generally little fraternizing between the British camp and the more family-oriented, early-to-bed French camp, although occasionally the two communities would collaborate to stage a military kidnapping. The victim was almost always a shrieking woman, slung over some burly soldier’s shoulder, feigning hysteria and barely masking her delight. Representatives from each camp would meet to solemnly negotiate her ransom.

Sometimes this took place for the benefit of the spectators, who might even abandon the turkey leg line to watch these surges of spontaneous action. But it seemed that, just as often, a kidnapping would occur after most spectators had gone home for the day. It was its own source of fun for the participants themselves, a dramatic game of pretend that heightened the stakes, passed the time, made the identities formulated within this place seem all the more real.

Part III: Men and Women, Boys and Girls

Surely it doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that this environment fostered a lot of romantic feeling. Men were “dying”; women were wearing corsets. The clothes, I think, had a great deal to do with the romance—not just the fact that gender was constantly emphasized by what we wore, but also that we were in disguise. Disguise allows a lot of freedom.

Men doffed their tricorn hats ceremoniously and bowed low, women curtseyed, and couples would walk arm-in-arm to the Dairy Queen a few blocks from the fort, exiting the world of the past in order to eat ice cream and attract stares from flatlanders, and to flaunt our game of pretend. We loved to wear our costumes into modern spaces: Big John Grocery Store, McDonald’s, the snow cone stand on Main Street. Little kids would gawk, and sometimes the jokers among us would bend toward the open-mouthed children in fake confusion; looking around at the bright cereal boxes on shelves, at the stoplights and steady flow of evening traffic, they would feign amazement like a dazed time traveler and say, “Pardon me, young lad. Can you tell me what year it is?”

At night, the fort became a maze of shadowed alcoves. Lanterns hung from iron hooks and couples kissed just out of reach of the light. You could walk along the bluffs with the barge horns echoing across the water, the campfires a far-off glow. You could hear the loud and bawdy songs that leaked from the fort, softened by darkness and distance:

 Here’s to the girl who steals a kiss and runs and tells her mother.

 She’s a foolish, foolish thing. She’s a foolish, foolish thing,

 For she’ll not get another.

 Here’s to the girl who steals a kiss and stays to steal another.

 She’s a boon to all mankind. She’s a boon to all mankind,

 For soon she’ll be a mother.

It was easy for the girls to feel beautiful in their brocaded bodices and layers of petticoats, walking barefoot over the wet grass. And it was easy for the boys to feel strong with their hair full of gunpowder smoke and battle sweat. Everyone wanted to kiss, and to sing about kissing.

It was not rare for couples to pause on the stretch of open grass above the river, at the foot of the statue of George Rogers Clark, leader of American troops’ Illinois Campaign against the British during the Revolutionary War and brother of famed William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition). They’d pause and steal a kiss, as the song said, and then stay and steal another. It was slightly rarer (though certainly not unusual) for a preacher named Randy to read from the Book of Common Prayerand marry a few of these couples on that same stretch of open grass, beneath that same statue.

And in the midst of it: I was thirteen, and the only time I felt beautiful at all was when I was wearing those clothes. At the end of an encampment, everyone would change into jean shorts and T-shirts to pack up our cars, and we’d all become suddenly ordinary again. We’d look around at one another in the harsh afternoon light, and we were all so glaringly plain and androgynous; fish-white ankles above tennis shoes, faded cotton sweat-bleached around the armpits, and we’d work as quickly as possible to pull up tent stakes and roll sleeping bags, our eyes on our hands. Girls avoided the eyes of boys they’d kissed. Boys seemed shrunken and small in their loose cargo shorts. It became the test for the force of one’s affection. If you could see your crush in his “flatlander clothes” and still have feelings for him? Well, then, maybe you really had something there.

And knowing that the moment loomed when the ribbons and stockings must be shed, fostered an urgency in all the walking and talking we did, gave us a sense of mission. In four days, in three, in two, we’d all be ugly again. We had to act while we still had the chance.

So we taught each other card tricks, our hands lingering on the deck, turning each card over slow, drawing out the moment. We told each other ghost stories: the phantom funeral procession that was rumored to cross from the fort to a nearby abandoned cemetery every year. Local legend dictated that the ghostly apparitions of horse-drawn hearse, mourners, and pallbearers would appear if and only if the Fourth of July fell on a night when the moon was at its fullest; would appear at the stroke of midnight if and only if two couples—two men and two women (or two boys and two girls)—were present.

So we paired ourselves off: Libby and Daniel, Sarah and Aaron. We cast about desperately for someone to await the ghosts with. We made plans. We waited to be asked as if to a dance. We rejected and were rejected. We listed aloud every young militiaman, drummer boy, grenadier. By the time the Fourth actually came along, none of us seemed to care about the ghosts anymore. It was merely an exercise in coupling, in who-likes-who, in the magic of pretend that permeated everything.

And in the midst of it: there was a boy named Justin.

Justin was not a soldier. If anything, he was a dandy, but he referred to himself as a “gentleman.” And he was certainly gentle, soft-spoken, kind and polite. He wore lavish velvet coats with embroidered “skirts” (a historical term for what we might refer to as “tails”). He was a pianist with a pianist’s hands and played accompaniment for his church’s choir. He had lush brown hair and a delicate face and was three years older than I, and I channeled every ounce of my adolescent feeling for him into the task of relentlessly teasing him at every turn. I made fun of him for his peach-scented shampoo and for the striped pajama night-shirt he occasionally wore around camp after hours; I called him “Choir Boy” and “Fancy Boy,” and he took it all in stride, laughed loudly at himself, let himself get beat soundly at cards, held doors open for me, tipped his tricorn hat, sang ballads in clumsy French, read aloud from volumes of eighteenth-century poetry—all of which I used in my arsenal of insult and all of which thoroughly charmed me.

It was a shock, at the end of the encampment, to see him in his green sweatshirt with “Wheaton College” printed across the chest. But to me, the ordinariness of his modern attire only emphasized the secret we shared: for a week each summer, we were beautiful. Our costumes represented what was real about us, and the sweatshirt and jeans were the actual disguise.

I was thirteen; he was sixteen. I never dared make any hints to him about the George Rogers Clark kissing post, or about the Fourth of July ghosts, but we did dance together on occasion, and, of course, he was an accomplished dancer.

Part IV: The Dance

The dances were held on Saturday nights. Flatlanders were strictly forbidden. A band played reels and jigs and waltzes. We reeled and jigged and waltzed. Everyone wore their finest. Everyone waited anxiously for the broom dance to begin, but it was saved for late into the night because once the broom dance began, who knew when it would end.

The broom dance went like this: everyone would form into two long lines—a line for the ladies and a line for the men. At the head of the line, a lady stepped up and grabbed the broom and two gentlemen approached to stand on either side of her. She glanced back and forth between them, deciding which she’d like to dance with. She handed the stick to the fellow she didn’t want to dance with and went off with the fellow she’d chosen, dancing and spinning between the two lines down to the end where they parted ways and got back into their respective lines. At the front of the line, two ladies came up to stand on either side of the fellow who was left holding the broom, and now it was his turn to choose. And so it went, on and on, choosing and being chosen and getting left with the broom.  

For us adolescents, there was a lot of shame associated with the broom dance. A boy or girl we considered particularly homely might be described as “getting left with the broom.” We allowed ourselves to be cruel in our choosing, never considering the pain our rejected partners felt while gripping the broom handle, until it was our turn to either be chosen or passed over.

It was, I guess, a miniature of everything else, just as the world of the fort was its own miniature world outside of time. And because we dangled, always, somewhere between past and present, we felt, perhaps, less accountable than in our ordinary lives outside the fort.

What I remember is Justin. Whom he chose, who chose him. On the particular night I’m thinking of, it seemed like I’d been up and down the line dozens of times and still hadn’t had a chance to dance with him. Everyone whooped when I chose a man named Bear who wore a kilt and spoke in a Scottish accent (whether or not he was actually Scottish was up for debate). My mother chose my father. My sister chose a boy named Daniel, who had a reputation for lifting you bodily from the ground and twirling you around so fast that afterward you were too dizzy to stand. My mother approached me where I stood in the line and asked, “Have you danced with your father yet?” I shook my head. “Pick him if you get the chance,” she said. “I know it would mean a lot to him.”

This is how we spoke of my father, knowing as we did that he was quiet and took things seriously, that his feelings were fragile in spite of his uncomplaining silence. But I was not thinking of my father then. I nodded when my mother spoke and said, “Of course,” but I was thinking of Justin, his lightness of foot and the clean sweetness of his peach shampoo.

And it wasn’t long after that, when my chance finally came. Justin was left holding the broom, and I was the next girl in line. He stood up very straight—his posture was always excellent—and his shoes were polished brighter than usual. I moved to stand on his right, and the girl in line behind me stood at his left. The other girl, I knew, was sixteen. Her name was Lauren; she was plump with full breasts and seemed to smell always of bread. Justin looked back and forth between us, grinning broadly, grinning a ridiculous and exaggerated grin. He handed the broom to me, and I reached out to take it mechanically, my grip loose around the handle, my face already beginning to sag. I watched him dance, graceful and quick, down the line with the other girl. At the end of the line, he bowed deeply, sweeping his hat from his head, and she curtseyed and laughed daintily. I was destroyed.

The past does stay with us, sometimes small and ugly, like a splinter beneath skin. Our own histories don’t seem any smaller, or bleed any less, just because they happen in the context of a larger history. Those days, in costume, forced us to question what was real. The sleep in our sleeping bags was real. So was the stew we ladled onto tin plates, the soda in our cups, the songs about kissing, and the flutter of hurt when I was left standing with the broom. The game of pretend included a lot that was tangible. In 8th grade, I did my History Fair project on the French and Indian War, because I considered myself an authority. I had lived through this war, which determined the language future generations would speak and the lands they would occupy. But in eighth grade, are you really an authority on anything? On even the textures of the wooden broom handle against your skin? On the things that will stay with you, the splinters you will carry, pulsing and dull beneath the uppermost layer of flesh? On where the lines are drawn between what is real and what is pretend?

But it wasn’t Justin’s rejection that stayed with me for years afterward. It was what came after.

I was standing with the broom in my hands, and the next two men in line came up to stand on either side of me. One of the men was my father. The other was a stranger. It was my turn to choose. Everyone was clapping in time to the music, laughing and jolly. All eyes were on us. They waited. My father and the stranger waited. I couldn’t seem to move.

In conversation, as adults, we sometimes drink wine together and ask about a moment we would return to if we could change one thing. I don’t know why I always think of this moment, but a little trapdoor in the brain springs open and I can see my father, the sturdy shape of him. I watch the expectancy on his face, a kind, reddish haze beneath the hanging lanterns, a flood of recognition as the thought moves through him visibly, This is my daughter,and a small blush of relief because he is shy and quiet, reluctant to dance with strangers. A smile flits around his mouth. He is proud that we are a part of one another, and that other people here know that he is my father and I am his daughter, that I am thirteen and already the top of my head reaches his chin, that I look fresh and pretty with my hair braided like that. He breathes out a calm breath, starts to move toward me. He is thinking, This is my daughter and she is about to dance with me.

And then I watch myself hand him the broom.

I wish I could take it back. But the fact is so simple, so straightforward, so much a part of the decisions we make and the pasts we build either recklessly or meticulously, like the carving of a map into bone. And the fact is this: I can’t take it back.

Yes, I was flustered. Yes, I was embarrassed. Yes, it was really a small thing when you think about it. Fathers and daughters, throughout history, have done much crueler things to each other. But you did not see my father’s face when I handed him the broom.

Sometimes the scale of betrayal is really quite intimate. And this, too, is a fact: there was a brief instant, before handing my father the broom, when I delighted in my power to cause him pain. When I rejoiced because the hurt I felt at being rejected by Justin could now be given an outlet. I could receive hurt. And then I could dole it out.

I danced down the line with the stranger. He wore a green felt cap and smelled of mushrooms, an earthy damp smell that was overwhelming and horrible. He spun me around, and I knew my father was up at the head of the line gripping the broom just as I had moments before. And I thought of how I’d watched him on the battlefield, how I’d been unable to pretend to be someone else’s daughter, unable, even for a moment, to dismiss my knowledge that I was the daughter of this strange and solitary man who could sit beside me in a car for an hour without speaking but whose thoughts and feelings ran deep, even as he sat apart from all the other soldiers with a little dribble of canteen water running down the front of his uniform, or as he stood up in front of everyone with a sad slump to his shoulders, gripping the broom until his knuckles went white, as if it could save him from what had just happened.  

After the dance, when the last waltz had been played and we’d returned to camp, I lay in our tent watching the canvas billow like a soft and steady breathing, and I could hear my mother just outside asking my father, “Did you get to dance with Renee?” And his simple response, “No. But there’ll be other chances.”

Part V: History (Again)

Begin and end with history. We are swollen with it. The year is 1999, and my mother and father and sister and I are camped along the Ohio River in celebration of the past. We celebrate by wearing the clothes and eating the food of the past. We do this because we have the power to easily blur the lines between eras, to fight battles that decide nothing, to clap our hands and watch the dead rise. To create a version of the past that makes room for us. We fit tidily there.

Beyond that, I know very little. I know that at times it seemed ridiculous, misguided even, to live that way. To call men our fathers who weren’t our fathers. To pretend death when death was nowhere near. To cook over the fire and then, when it suited us, to walk to Dairy Queen. To live a different life that wasn’t really different at all.

After a week at the fort, we reeked of cannon smoke and cooking fires, and even after changing back into shorts and a T-shirt I didn’t want to wash that smell from my hair, wanted to carry it with me back into an air-conditioned world. It was a sacred smell, and on the drive home from the fort, I’d still feel swollen with its magic.

As the years began to add up, my parents started wearying of the mess of it all—trying to set up a wet canvas tent during a rainstorm, the early morning cannon fire that jolts you from sleep, the sweat and lack of privacy. Or maybe the untidy stress of returning to the real world after a week in the past began to outweigh the pleasure of pretend, like a sudden surfacing from a great depth. We became “outskirters,” dressing up for the day and then, instead of camping, driving home at dusk. This halfway role, the constant wavering between eras, was not sustainable, and eventually we stopped going altogether.

Of my family, I was the sole hanger-on. The last time I went to the fort, I was nineteen. I went alone, driving six hundred miles from my college in Virginia to attend the thirty-second annual Fort Massac Encampment. I went because I missed the rows of lanterns hung from tent poles, the soft noise of moths trying to enter that little world of flame, just as moths have been doing for centuries. I missed the pockets of firelight that touched the sides of faces, bathed them in something ancient. I missed the dances, my feet refusing to forget the movements of the reels. I missed the noise of the river, how its murmur would so quietly outlast us.

At the time, I didn’t know that would be my last visit to the fort, but I did know that no matter how reverently and insistently I might strive to reach the past, I would always fail. I would still, years afterward, open the trunk of costumes in my parents’ closet and smell the woodsmoke and gunpowder in my father’s wool coat, find a loose breath mint in my mother’s pocket. And I would still wish I could go back into whatever innocent wildness there once had been, knowing that it is because we can’t reach the past that we keep loving it with such simple abandon.

About the Author

Renee Branum

Renee Branum is a former historical reenactor currently working toward her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Montana. She received a MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2013.

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