Washington thinks McKonkey’s Ferry sounds smutty, and he smiles whenever he says it or thinks it, which is often. McKonkey’s Ferry. McKonkey’s Ferry. He occasionally snorts when suppressing his laughter. McKonkey’s Ferry. What is wrong with me? Washington wonders. I am forty-four years old, not eleven. I am definitely not eleven. McKonkey’s Ferry. Snort.
Washington is a tall fellow, a long drink of water, taller than most (if not all) of the people he has ever known and possibly ever will know. Despite of or because of his length he believes, now, that he will never feel warmth again. God should only damn Winter. Knox is speaking. How long has that fat git been talking, and to whom? “What do you want for Christmas, General?” Knox asks him for the umpteenth time. “Some fucking heat,” Washington replies.
Two soldiers squat around a puny fire and try to concoct a nourishing stew of twigs and frozen earth. “What’s he got to smile about?” asks the first soldier. “That’s the General,” says the second soldier. “I know who he is,” says the first. “I just want to know what the bastard’s got to smile about.” He stirs the pot. The stew actually looks good.
Washington striding, boots crunching snow. A map of the area in question, illuminating Washington’s progress and general perambulations, resembles, at first squint, a side view of the female reproductive system, such as it is. Washington hovers below the navel, just brushing the northern crest of the pudenda. He adores maps. He cannot understand them, entirely – yes, left, right, up, and down are west, east, south, and north, not that that ever makes a hell of a lot of difference when you’re standing in the middle of a field taking a leak – but he adores the maps because they suggest other things to him, things that don’t often (if ever) come up in polite conversation: naked bodies, private parts, animals, piles of poop. His adjutant mentions Assunpink Creek. Washington smiles. Who comes up with these names? The adjutant (which one is this? Reed? Is he back already?) pronounces Creek as Crick. Assunpink Crick pushes Washington over the edge; he doubles over, laughing uproariously. Good God, that’s hilarious. The adjutant, irked and alarmed, retraces his steps back through the fallopian tubes, leaving Washington to his fit of mirth.
The soldiers, having been informed of nothing, eat the first Durham boat that is delivered to the camp, an act for which they are severely scolded. The soldiers express no regrets, however, as the boat was delicious, even without condiments.
Washington drowsy before the fire, a fire he can barely feel, hands so cold he can feel only bones, no flesh. Plans, plans, plans. Who is talking? Knox? Reed? Cadwalader? No, it’s the wolfhound of the house, the shaggy beast that the Keiths have had the great sense to not let out of the house, in light of the food shortage. What is the dog saying? Something. It then shits in the corner, its offal scraped away immediately by a comely serving wench. What is the damned slavering beast saying (dog, not wench)? Something about a delivery from the iron works. Washington blinks. No, it’s Gates who is speaking, not the quivering hound, which is hunched by the hutch, doing its business. Washington sits up. Damn that rum.
Across the Delaware River, Johann Rall rallies his fellow Hessians with a drinking song. Few join in. All would prefer a drink to a drinking song. They are, after all, Hessians, which is to say, “humans.”
Washington dallies with the serving wench, who curtsies after everything she says.
“Do you celebrate the day of the Lord’s birth?” Washington asks.
“Yes, General,” says the wench. “Every Christmas.”
“It will soon be upon us.”
“Yes, General, sir.”
“What do you want for Christmas, lass?”
“Oh, I want nothing, General, sir.”
“Come now. You have nothing. You must want everything.”
“They’re very good to me here, General, sir. I have everything I need.”
“Ah, but do you have everything you want?”
“I don’t know what to want, General, sir.”
“You are a comely wench.”
“Thank you, General, sir.”
“The nights are cold.”
“Freezing, General, sir.”
“My bed’s big enough for three.”
“Three what, General, sir?”
“Four, if you get creative.”
“Four what, General, sir?”
The comely serving wench smiles, eyes downcast, upper teeth drawing in her lower lip. “And what do you want for Christmas, General, sir?”
The soldiers wonder not what is being read to them, but why it is being read to them. They break from their regularly scheduled starvation and cluster around the fat fellow with a voice like a rusty cannon. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he is saying, reading from a sheaf of pages. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot…” he blathers on. The soldiers remember words they’d forgotten: summer, sunshine, love, woman. The fat fellow, red in the face, drones on: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” The soldiers learn new words: pamphlet, Hamlet, omelet, doublet. Their minds wander. A few snowflakes fall, then more. They stand about, catching them on their tongues, listening to the drone.
Across the Delaware River, Rall assists in fashioning angel wings for his Hessians. They are not very successful in this endeavor, as they’ve no material on hand that could be sacrificed to the effort, Weihnachten or no Weihnachten. They find a family of frozen woodchuck corpses and set about boiling them, filtering and then cooling the tiny gizzards, drinking the liquid as beer. Rall, alone after meals, wraps himself in himself for warmth and curses the British, whom he didn’t like to begin with. The Hessians, momentarily fortified by the woodchucks, keep him awake with their songs. Now they sing, Rall thinks.
Washington writes, in a letter to his wife: “I’m afraid that whenever I think about the element of surprise, I think the other fellow is thinking of the element of surprise, too. I think it would be surprising to do one thing, and then I think that the other fellow will be thinking that I’ll be thinking what a surprise that would be, and so, therefore, there is no surprise. The surprise, my lamb, would be that if neither of us thought of surprises. We should just do what we are expected to do; in other words, attack or retreat. If I could get the other fellow to follow my line of thinking, this war would be over in a matter of days – a fortnight, tops. But I can’t meet the other fellow; I won’t see him until he’s bearing down on me in a murderous rage, the blade of his sword making straight for my troubled bosom. Perhaps I should surprise him by not using my sword, just show up with my troubled bosom and invitation to him to regard our situation for what it really is: all or nothing, basic and without surprise.
“The men are well, and happy. A much-needed delivery of blankets caused them to croak in unison (the frightening lack of sustenance leaves them a little less leather-lunged and robust than usual), and a great feast was prepared, of which I, naturally enough, did not partake. Blankets, my ewe, are filling, and I’ve got to fit on that horse.
“I am traversing an area, my doe, that, if seen from above, would resemble a side view of your pelvic region and nether bits. Naturally, I think of you every moment. The torture is great. I hope this finds you – if it finds you – well.”
A greasy group of lesser higher-ups gather without the benefit of Washington’s presence. They smoke pipes, scratch their stockinged feet, belch, fart. Gathered around the Keith House hearth, they warm themselves with a fire built for Washington. The rickety wolfhound keeps its distance. The gentlemen discuss, in slow motion, many things; chiefly, the comeliness of the serving wench, who seems to be absent. When not appraising the pleasing ripeness of her personage, they curse the Delaware River and the filthy foreign beasts whom they imagine are cavorting, fed and jubilant, on the other shore. The body of water, naturally, must be crossed. An adjutant points out that Washington suggested this weeks ago, but nobody had listened to him. Much harrumphing. The adjutant is sent to the kitchen and instructed to perform coitus with himself. The gentlemen then draw straws to decide to whom will fall the honor of steering (gently) their commander, by the proverbial elbow, in the right direction. Straws are plucked from a broom; Knox stuffs them into his fat fist. Each gentleman draws a straw. A pin, if dropped, would be heard. The final straw is drawn. Each straw is the same length. Somebody screwed up. Cruel, derisive epithets are hurled about, as no one can remember, now, who plucked the straws from the broom in the first place.
Washington, standing on the shore. Wondering about his legacy. When’s the media going to show up? Unholy sots, always there when you don’t need them, never around when you do. Washington tries to fix his gaze on the opposite shore, tries to see miles and miles into the enemy camp, tries to see them at their pagan revelries, stripped naked like fresh meat and dancing, genitals a-bob. Washington can’t see that far. He returns his concentration to his legacy. He figures if he stands there, on the shore, long enough, he could feasibly freeze and, frozen solid, be taken for a statue, a monument. He thinks that would be nice. He strikes a noble pose: right arm crossed over chest, fist clenched, chin jutting at the unseen heathens. He stands there, like that, for some time (three minutes). It is bone-rattlingly cold, for shit sake. Overhead shot: Washington marching back to the Keith House, in a moderately straight line up through the uterus.
The soldiers are reminded by their superiors, at dawn, that it is Christmas. They mutter Merry Christmas to each other. They see the boats, roped off and with a sign in front of them: DO NOT EAT.
“It’s one thing when your enemy speaks your language,” Washington says, “but another thing entirely when they don’t.”
“The British speak our language.”
“I meant the other bastards.”
“Are we fighting somebody else?”
“We’re fighting the British and the Hessians.”
“Never mind. It would take too long to explain, and I’m not completely sure I understand it all myself. I see you don’t bother to address me courteously anymore.”
“You told me I shouldn’t bother.”
“When did I say that?”
“Do you want the exact date and time?”
“Don’t be snippy.”
“Could I have waffles for breakfast?”
“You know damn well you can’t.”
“Here we go again.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say to you half the time.”
“Don’t say anything, then. I’m not particular.”
Washington, supine, rigid, silent. The wench rolls out of bed, covers herself. She really needs some sun, Washington thinks.
“It’s now or never, General,” a shadowy figure whispers to Washington. The soldiers stand, waiting. The snowflakes fall, two, then three, then more than anyone can count. “You exaggerate,” Washington says. “I agree it could be now, but never? No, it’s now or tomorrow. Now or next week. Now or a month from now. Or, to really micromanage this thing, it’s now or ten minutes from now. Now or five minutes from now. Now or forty-four seconds from now. Do you see what I mean? Or do you want me to go on?”
There is an uneasy shuffling of feet as another helping of silence is passed from man to man. Washington stands, poised, at the center of the labia, eyes on the distant shore, unseen in the wintry black, looking, looking.