I suppose you would have said the man across from me was something of a dandy if it weren’t for the stains on the knees of his trousers and a burn hole in the silk lapel of his jacket. Overall, I’d say his aspect was dyspeptic, his face reflecting some inner distraction impervious to the jostling of the train. I’d seen the look many times on the faces of men who’d participated in what many still insisted on referring to as the late unpleasantness, though it had been awhile since I’d seen the emotion animating that look with such unfettered clarity. The years had softened the look for most, but this man’s wounds were still fresh, as though he had just crawled off the bloody fields of Antietam. He was much too young, though. He would have been no more than a boy when the cannons stopped roaring, if he’d even been born yet. I glanced at my watch, only to find I’d forgotten to wind it, and then looked up again to find the man staring in my direction. I gave him a polite nod and reached for the newspaper on the seat beside me.

“You can see me?” the man asked, leaning forward and gripping the edge of his seat with both hands. A gargoyle in the flickering shadows of the oil lamp, he seemed about to launch himself at me. I reached for my walking stick before remembering I’d stored it in the compartment above.

“It is rather dim in here, but I’m not blind. Of course I can see you.”

“It’s April 14 again?”

“Well, it has been a year since the last time we saw that date,” I said, wondering if I might not find another cabin more suitable.

“What year is it?” he asked, turning towards the window. Outside, trees raked at the moon as we dragged it along with us. It told him nothing.

“1894, of course. Are you ill?”

“29 years! And the time?”

“I’m afraid my watch has stopped, but I’m certain it is after ten. Would you like me to call a porter? You seem distressed.”

“My time is short. I have only until 7:22 to convince you,” he said, his fingers tapping a frenetic beat on his knees.

“Convince me of what? And why before 7:22? We’re not scheduled to reach Springfield until eight.”

“Springfield! Always Springfield!” He said, throwing his head back and raising a fist to the ceiling as though admonishing God. For the first time, I noticed the bloodstains on his collar. I rose and had started toward the door when he caught ahold of the hem of my jacket. “Please. Don’t leave me. Hear me out.”

I sat back down and waited for him to compose himself. After about a minute, he looked me up and down, sighed, and slapped his hands against his thighs.

“You have the bearing of a northern man. Did you fight for the Union?”

“I was too young, but my brother died at Petersburg fighting the rebels.”

“Forgive me for bringing up unpleasant memories. The gray in your beard led me to mistake you for an older man, and I thought perhaps that scar on your cheek…”

“What’s all this talk about the past? That was 30 years ago! I harbor no grudges.” He raised a brow and studied me, intrigued by my outburst.

“I’d like to believe that,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe enough time has passed now. Maybe I can be forgiven. Maybe you will forgive me.”

“I don’t even know you. How could you have possibly offended me?”

“Your forgiveness is the condition for my pardon. Without it, I shall never get off this damn train.”

“I awoke to find you in my cabin when I understood I was to have private accommodations,” I said, rising. “I’m not one to be the cause of unpleasantness, so I determined to make the best of it and say nothing, but this is too much. I’ll not be burdened with a mad man for the rest of the journey.” I flung open the door and had begun to venture into the passageway when I jumped back. Nothing! Beyond the door there was only a white, empty void! Holding onto the door, I peered out into the abyss and sought the floor with the toe of my shoe. Nothing!

“Satisfied?” My companion asked. “I tried to warn you.”

“What have you done?” I shouted, rushing to the window. Thinking he had lowered the blind, I reached out to raise it, only to discover it was already up. Beyond the glass there was only white, empty space. “Let me out of here!”

“I can do that,” he said, “but first you must look upon my crimes and judge me. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I shall at last be free to face a higher judgment. If not, I am condemned to ride these rails until a new year brings another hearing.”

Not knowing what to say, I nodded and stepped aside as he rose and reached for the door that had slammed shut. His hand on the latch produced different results. The hallway had been restored, only not quite as I remembered it. It was narrower, with unfamiliar fixtures and carpeting. It appeared I was no longer on the train I had boarded.

He led me down a corridor draped in black bunting and out onto the platform in the rear of the car. On either side of the tracks, scores of people studied our progression by torchlight. Men, women, and children of all ages, white and black, stared at our train as though trying to peer through its walls. They leaned upon each other, eyes full of mourning.

“I took him from them,” my companion said. “I expected to be hailed as a hero, but they give their tears to him, leaving me only scorn. Think you can jump to the next car? If I’m to receive absolution, it must happen there.”

I stared down through the gap between the cars. Seeing only darkness, I made the leap.

“That’s a good man!” my companion shouted over the clacking of the wheels against the rails. “Now hold out your hand and take mine while I swing myself over. I’ve only one leg equal to the task.”

I pulled him over and we stood facing one another. My teeth chattered with the vibration of the platform upon which we stood, but he seemed to have mastered his environment and was as relaxed as in the comfort of a well-appointed drawing room.

“I see you favor your left hand,” My companion said, grasping my right arm. I jerked away, but not before he got a feel of my withered muscles.

“An accident when I was a youth deprived me of full use of my right arm, not that it is any of your business.”

“Forgive me,” he said, taking up a lantern he found suspended from a hook by the door. “Shall we proceed?”

I followed him into the darkness of the car and covered my face with my sleeve.

“The smell is a bit much, isn’t it? I never cared for lilies,” he said, setting the lantern down on a large platform of some kind and striking a match. As the lamp shed its light over the room, I saw it was no table upon which it rested. It was a coffin set up on a black draped bier. A smaller, less ornate coffin sat by its side.

“What is this place? Where have you taken me?”

“None of us are innocent. We all have secrets we keep hidden, even from ourselves if we can manage it. My sin was I committed my unforgivable crime before the whole world. I cannot run from it.”

“You murdered these people?”

“I am free from blame for the bones in that sad little box,” he said, sweeping out his arm to gesture at the smaller coffin. “It was God who took the child, disinterred to be buried alongside his father.” He stared at the small coffin for a moment, lost in thought, then chuckled softly. “God separated them. I reunited them. Who is the real monster?”

I thought of my mother. My brother had no coffin, nor a grave my mother could be lowered next to when her time finally came. My brother’s bones rested in a pit, mingled with the bones of those who fought beside him, those who hadn’t heard the blast of cannon and the shrieking of the rebels and ran.

“What is it you did for which you would seek absolution? Perhaps if you could find it in your heart to forgive me, you could forgive yourself.”

“I have not been charged with the task. It is not my role to judge or to forgive.”

“But it is!” he said, pounding upon the coffin. “You would not be here otherwise. Please! If you have any mercy at all, consider my plight. They took my life. That should have been sufficient recompense for that which I took, a life for a life. Instead the life I gave was deemed worthless when weighed against the one I stole. I have been condemned to ride this damn train for all eternity, my only companions the corpses you see before you. If I am consigned to hell, then so be it, but don’t force me to make this journey any longer.”

I felt pity for him, and would have granted his request but I had to know who he had slain.

“Open it. Open the coffin.”

The top was not screwed down and had been cut so the portion over the face and chest could be removed while leaving the rest intact. My companion sighed, lifted the lid to his chest, and stepped back.

“No!” I shouted, burying my face in my hands. “Not him!”

“He was just a man, no different than you or I, though some considered him a tyrant.”

I was back in Petersburg, fighting alongside my brother. He rose to peer over the edge of the trench we occupied and then slid back down into the mud and affixed his bayonet to the end of his Spencer.

“They’ll be on us soon,” he said. “This fight is gonna be close and personal.”

“I didn’t answer. I was staring at a scrap of paper I’d clipped from Harpers. It was ragged and pretty faded, but you could still make out the stately form of Lincoln, addressing the crowd at Gettysburg. Of course, it was only a drawing, but to my mind it was a fine one.

“Old Abe ain’t gonna hear yer prayers today, boy,” said a grizzled sergeant with his arm in a sling. “I doubt if God himself would be much help, though you might be see’n him soon enough if ya care ta make a complaint.”

No sooner had he uttered this blasphemy than he was gone, reduced to a red pulp by an enemy cannonball. Though I could hear nothing but the ringing in my ears, I could tell my brother was screaming as he rushed to me and scooped clods of wet mud onto my burning sleeve. The flames extinguished, he grabbed me by the shoulders and tried to shake me out of my stupor. He was shouting something when his countenance turned ashen. He’d heard something. I heard it too, even above the ringing. It was a hideous collective shriek, growing louder by the second. My brother picked up his rifle and laid it across the edge of the trench. Still in a daze, I looked around for my rifle, but couldn’t make any sense out of my surroundings. Confused, I slid up next to my brother and gazed out at the field before us. The sight of the avalanche of gray thundering towards us was a slap in face. I snapped out of my delirium, my every nerve alert to the danger descending upon me. I ran. I left my brother and bolted into the woods in the rear of the trench. A captain on horseback castigated me for being a coward and ordered me back into position, but a rebel bullet knocked him off his mount, allowing me to continue on my intended course. I never once looked back.

I lowered my fingers and gazed at the tranquil bearded face in the coffin. The embalmers had erased all traces of Booth’s crime, so he appeared as though he would awaken at any moment. What would he say to me? What would he say to a man who abandoned his own brother and his country to gain a handful of meaningless years for himself? I was no better than Booth. Perhaps I was worse. He at least had acted on his convictions. My honor was buried in a pit in Virginia with the bones of my brother.

“I cannot forgive you,” I said, unable to look Booth in the eye after gazing upon his handiwork. “Perhaps he could. Perhaps Lincoln would forgive both of us if your bullet hadn’t deprived him of his voice. I cannot. You have not sinned against me. I forfeited my place among the aggrieved when I turned my back on my country.”

Booth replaced the lid on the coffin, stepped back, bowed at the waist, and faded away to await his next performance.


They found me on the floor of the dining car the next morning about 40 minutes before the train rolled into the station at Springfield. After assuring the porter I was fit enough to disembark of my own volition, and that the railroad was in no way responsible for any malady I may have suffered, I collected my bags and stepped onto the platform. The air was unusually crisp for April and I pulled my collar up to block the wind as I fancied I heard the wail of a train in the distance, heading back to Washington to begin its journey all over again. Imagining Booth might be staring out the window of his invisible prison, I nodded toward the empty tracks before heading off, hopefully to complete my own journey at a particular tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.