My name’s Orville. Orville Turpin. I was four in 1862, the year the Union Navy hung Pa for piracy in the Dry Tortugas. Ma said that was a dirty lie. She told me he was a hero who crewed on the Confederate blockade runner Sumpter.
When I was six, we moved from New Orleans to Uncle Buford’s orphan asylum near Hopefield, Arkansas. Well, I did anyway. She left me there and went off to work on the riverboat Sultana to make ends meet. Nobody ever talked about what she did there. Life at Uncle Buford’s wasn’t too bad as long as Ma kept sendin’ him money every week. I got fed pretty regular, and had a mostly dry spot in the barn to sleep. There were usually about twenty of us kids there—fathers off to war and mothers away doin’ whatever they had to do. Most sent Buford money when they could. He took us all in, sayin’ it was his human duty. Many slept in a big shed that sorta leaned against the back of his house. All worked the farm.
My first winter there, some Hopefield folks kept stealin’ Union boats and suchlike along the river. To discourage that sort of thing the bluecoats burned the town down one day. We was far enough away that they pretty much left us alone. They took our mule, though. After that, all us kids had to take the mule’s place pullin’ Uncle Buford’s plow and cartin’ corn to market. Thank goodness there was a whole bunch of us.
I was seven, right after they shot Lincoln, when the Sultana blew up a little north of Buford’s farm. Bodies and junk was washin’ up for weeks afterward. He had me’n Willie—that’s my cousin, Willamina. She was six that spring—out every morning lookin’ along the river bank for victims an’ valuables. She was scared of the swirling water, so I held her hand to make sure she didn’t fall in. Buford searched the bodies for gold teeth an’ went through their pockets, then sent ‘em off to the morgue. I got a lickin’ on the days we didn’t find anything. Willie cried a lot that month. Bein’ a year older and all, I didn’t. They never did find my Ma. My status as favored kin declined some after her money stopped.
Buford decided the goats needed my sleepin’ spot. He said I could use the old slave barracks instead. His slaves—six of ‘em—had all left when the bluecoats came. The barracks had actually been a henhouse until he’d lost all but one of his birds in the great fowlpox outbreak of ’49. The roof was too low for the goats, an’ it still smelled like a thousand dead chickens. One sorry old one-eyed rooster we called Squat still lived in a bramble bush behind the coop, peckin’ at whatever it thought it could see. Buford never bothered to feed it. “Waste of good corn,” he said. The decrepit bird only went inside when it rained at night. Then it liked to sleep on my face.