Chapter One: Long Trail Home
“Who do you think was the first man to have such an idea, sir?” Matthew asked Jonas Taylor, the literature teacher whom he had come to see as a surrogate father when he had been sent to Stone Hill.
“I don’t know, Matthew.”
Normally, having someone call him by his given name would have provoked the boy. But when Taylor did so, it seemed as natural to him as his own breathing. Sometimes, the boy wondered why it didn’t bother him. When he thought about it, it made no sense. Like so many other things in his life.
“What kind of man could do that? Make a slave of another man.”
“That’s an interesting question. This world is full of men who act without consideration of the consequences of their actions, with little appreciation for the past or for the future. They don’t see much beyond their own circumstances or how their actions give rise to things.”
“It seems to me it would take men who are cruel and greedy. Men who only want to get what they want out of life.”
“I suppose that’s true much of the time. Men, human beings that is, are strange creatures, Matthew. They can’t see themselves very well. I think many men are simply reacting to what they see before them as the opportunity to be happy or secure or respected. Most of the time they are just unaware of how the pain and difficulties they they cause others. They don’t see how we’re all connected. Sure, there are those who know it and simply don’t care. But God save us if that’s true of all of us.”
“I’m not sure God cares that much about us, Mr. Taylor. If there is a God.”
“I suppose it’s a fair concern—wondering about both, I mean.”
“From what I’ve read, during the War both sides thought God was on their side. He sure wasn’t on the side of the Confederacy.”
“Probably not. I don’t know. I’m not sure God chooses sides. Maybe, he just allows us to be our own worst enemy, sometimes. I guess men want to believe in their own causes so strongly they can’t help but convince themselves there’s an almighty hand on their side,” said Taylor. “But I suppose God is as dismayed over the actions of men, the things they do in his name, as you are.”
Taylor knew enough of the boy’s past to realize his struggle was about more than just how God’s role might have played out in the War or making slaves of men. But he knew better than to challenge the boy about it in that moment.
“You know Matthew, slavery, it’s a terrible thing. The worst. But you know men can be enslaved to all kinds of different things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, men can enslave themselves to liquor, gluttony, even to their own pasts—even their fears. And sometimes to their view of the future, forgetting who they are while planning to be who they think they are supposed to be.”
Matthew gave Jonas Taylor a wide grin.
“Mr. Taylor, I enjoy your literature classes, but respectfully sir, I suppose I’d just as soon leave the religion and philosophy to the Chaplain.”
Taylor nodded and laughed, “Probably good advice, Matthew.”
“I have to go to class now, sir.”
“You should, Matthew. You should,” the man said. “Pay attention,” he added, “and try to learn something,” laughing as he said it.
Taylor’s laugh ebbed as the boy walked away. To him, the boy was a puzzle to be solved; a boy who wondered about things most grown men never considered. The teacher stood there, waiting for Matthew to disappear into the building, shook his head and winced over the grief that had befallen the boy.