They were singing in the colored regiment.
It was an oddly joyous sound, accompanied by a rhythmic foot stamping and hand clapping, all the singers swaying along to the beat as they marched down the dusty road to town. Josiah longed to join them, to partake of their singing, of their living, for he was sick to his bones of the dying. But he had no energy to move, no soul to move with; all his soul had been taken from him in his prayers for the dead, in giving last rites to the dying, with raging at God within the silence of his own head and hearing nothing in reply.
Well, he would accept the silence no more. He and God were through.
The singing changed, shifting to a more familiar noise. He'd heard the song before, after the battle yesterday, when he'd anointed the face of a dying boy, and prayed to a God he no longer believed in. A young stretcher bearer had been singing it, as he'd wiped away the blood and sweat from the face of a soldier who'd been even younger.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul…
Josiah slowed down and let the singing men outstrip him, until they were no more than a distant noise, the words lost in the tramp of feet and the rattle of the supply wagons. But though he could no longer hear the song, he was still acutely aware only of the way the words seemed to mock his pain, his loss of faith, and he heard the mocking hymn with each step he took as he resumed his own march.
"You don' hold wit dem songs, hey?" a cheerful voice said, and there was a twang to the voice that Josiah didn't recognize. "Me neither."
Josiah looked up at the old black man who stood in front of him, smoking a thin, black cigarillo and wearing butter-colored gloves. "I'm sorry?"
"Dem songs. Dey ain't my songs no more. Oh, dey used to be mine, but dey ain't no more." The old man spat to one side and shook his head. "Whole damn t'ing's gone rotten, like ev'ryt'ing in dis land."
"Not everything," Josiah said, and he gestured at the Army he marched in, all the brave soldiers dressed in blue. "This is still good."
"You mark my words, boy. Dere ain't not'ing in dis land that don't go to seed." The old man eyed the cross around Josiah's neck and added, "Even your god ain't above de rot, though he done hold out better den most."
Josiah stopped walking and stared at the old man, mouth agape. "Who are you?"
"Oh people in dese parts, dey call me a whole lotta things. Reckon I like Mister Nancy best, though." Mister Nancy glanced back at Josiah. "You gonna stand dere all day like yo' feet made of tar?"
"Okay, Mister Nancy," Josiah said, and he laughed and started walking again. There was something about the strange old man that cheered him up immensely, though he didn't know why, when the man was spouting such doom and gloom. Perhaps it was simply the way the man smiled as he spoke, as though he was on the verge of sharing some great joke, some cosmic prank, with Josiah. He pulled a bottle of purloined whiskey from his pack and tilted it at Nancy. "Fancy a drink?"
Mister Nancy took the bottle and drank long and deep. He wiped his mouth when he was through and handed it back. "Ain't rum, but ain't bad neither." He blew out a long stream of pungent smoke and winked at Josiah. "Now you jus' find me a big old high-titty woman and I be happy as a pig wallowing in shit."
"Wouldn't we all," Josiah said. He drank from the bottle himself, then replaced it in his pack. He watched Mister Nancy for a while, watched the way the man beside him moved. Mister Nancy seemed to scuttle more than walk, though he kept pace with Josiah easily enough, despite the fact that Josiah reckoned he was at least twice as tall as the old man.
"Why are you here, Mister Nancy?" Josiah asked, at last. "You're too old to fight, surely."
"Oh, I ain't too old yet," Mister Nancy said, grinning. "Ain't young, but I ain't so old I can't still get me a pair of tiger balls. You ever hear that story? 'Bout how Anansi tricked old Tiger out of his balls and left Tiger with not'ing more den a pair of shriveled little spider balls?"
"Can't say that I have," Josiah said.
Mister Nancy sighed. "Good story. You ask around sometime, get someone to tell you de story."
"Why don't you tell me?"
"Ain't de story I here to tell. Ain't de story you mean to hear, not from me."
Josiah raised one eyebrow and smiled down benignly at the funny little man. "Oh? And what story am I supposed to hear?"
"Well, I reckon you best be told de story of how Anansi tried to steal all de wisdom in de world," Mister Nancy said, and he took another puff on his cigarillo. "You see, all de stories, dey Anansi's stories. But some stories, dey more Anansi's stories, den other ones. And in some stories, Anansi, he be de bravest man in all de world, even though he be only an itty-bitty spider. And other stories, well, Anansi, he don't fare so good. But dat's okay, 'cause even when Anansi be trapped in tar, or when he be droppin' dead 'cause he ain't so clever as he t'inks he be, it's still an Anansi story.
"Now, in dis story, Anansi, he got all de wisdom in de world in a pot. And he love lookin' in dat pot, and learnin' diff'rent t'ings and seein' all de wonder of de world. But Anansi, he be a greedy one, and he don't want to share de wisdom in de pot, so he say to himself: 'I goin' put dis put way up in de trees where no one but me can see it.'
"So Anansi, he tie dat pot to himself, and be climbin' and a-climbin', and de pot, it be a bouncin' and a bumpin' against his tummy, and Anansi, he be growin' more and more angry with de pot, with de way de wisdom be gettin' in his way all de time. And he be cursin' and growlin' and way down below him, his little children, dey be watchin' der daddy climb dat tree. And at last, Anansi's littlest boy, he call up to Anansi and say: 'Tie de pot to your back, Papa, and it be eaiser to climb de tree!'
"Now Anansi, he normally don't listen to his littlest boy, 'cause his littlest boy ain't so bright. But he be tired of de pot hittin' his belly, so he do as his boy say, and wouldn't you know it! Anansi, he make it to de top of dat tree lickety-split!
"But now Anansi be mad, 'cause it be his idiot boy dat figured out how he should tie de pot to his body, and not Anansi, who been lookin' at all de wisdom in de world for a long, long time. So Anansi, he untie dat pot from his back, and he throw dat pot from the top of dat tall, tall tree, and as he throw de pot he shout: 'Dat idiot son of mine have more common sense den me, and I have de pot of wisdom!'
"And de pot, bein' a pot, it fall down to de ground, and it break in a million pieces, and it scatter all de wisdom in ev'ry direction where anybody can pick it up and take some home to deir family."
Mister Nancy paused and looked up at Josiah with dark, bright eyes. "So, you see, dat's why nobody have all de wisdom in de world, and why folks everywhere, dey share dere small piece of dat pot when dey exchange ideas."
Josiah threw back his head and laughed, a deep, booming laugh. A finer parable he had never heard, and he was brought suddenly back to his youth, to the burning longing he'd had to learn everything under the sun.
"That," he said, as he turned to look at Mister Nancy, and then the worlds failed him, for the man walking beside him wasn't a man at all, but a giant spider, and at the same time a rabbit, and some insane melding of the three, and for a moment he was afraid because he hadn't seen visions like this since his time with the Cherokee holy man. And then the fear passed and Josiah began to laugh, for the worst thing he could imagine had happened and he had gone as mad as Hannah, as he'd always feared he would.
"Why you laughin', preacher man?" the strange man said. "Somethin' funny 'bout me?"
"I've gone mad," Josiah said.
"Ain't you dat's mad," the old man said. He blew two smoke rings, a large one and then a small one that passed so neatly through the center of the first, and he winked at Josiah. "Whole damn world's mad, but you? You be de sanest person I met in a long, long while."