I had known my friend Wilfred Barnham since we were youths, and his father came from Puritan stock older than mine, yet a cloud had always hung over him due to his parentage. His mother, as I’d heard my own aunt whisper, had been a debutante from a small town south of the Mason-Dixon line, and she had died not long after Wilfred’s birth, as the couple had been traveling to his father’s estate in Providence. The rumors always seemed to suggest that the elder Barnham had been seduced by a hardscrabble woman of ill repute who intended to drag herself to the upper crust and prosperity using their child as an anchor, but Wilfred maintained–often angrily–that they had truly been in love, that his mother had been a model of Southern hospitality and manners, and her sudden death even now hung over the elder Barnham like a pall.

It was partially in response to those society rumors, and partially the same wanderlust and yearning for answers that takes hold of all young men, that led Wilfred to undertake a journey to his mother’s hometown of Calhoun, Mississppi, in the summer of 1913. It was not long after our final days at school together, and even though the postal service in the backwater bayous of that oft-rebellious state was not the best, Wilfred promised to write me as I undertook my first readings to become a law clerk.

The first news I heard of him was that August, scarcely a year before the war started, and it was surely not the news I had expected: a terse telegram informing me that Wilfred Barnham had taken his own life, hanging himself in the closet of a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, not far from the rail line which would have borne him safely home and on which his passage was already booked. It was devastating news, to be sure, but worse was to come. Through my family, I sent inquiries to the elder Barnham about attending a memorial service or perhaps arranging for flowers to be sent in my name should it be too remote. His reply was a tersely handwritten note, informing me that Wilfred had been promptly cremated and his ashes scattered, that I was better off saving any funerary monies for a worthier cause, and that he would speak no more on the subject. This I attributed to what must have been overwhelming grief on the old man’s part, Wilfred being his only child and the only reminder of the lost Southern love he had once cherished.

And there the matter rested, until two weeks later. A letter arrived at my address in Providence and was forwarded to me at my lodgings upstate; as I had feared, the post had delayed Wilfred’s missives so much that the news of his death had arrived before the news of his life.

“WE ARE THE DREAMS OF A DEAD GOD,” the letter declared in a ragged hand recognizably Wilfred’s, “AND OUR CITIES BUILT IN THE BLEACHED BONES OF ITS MAJESTY.”

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