President Buchanan Visited by Guilty Dreams by Douglas Kolacki

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President Buchanan Visited by Guilty Dreams by Douglas Kolacki
Illustration by Sue Babcock

July 16, 1859

Today I have a most curious entry to make–my dream of last night. Thunderation! Now I know all the agitation of late is getting to me. I can thank the Almighty that Mr. Garrison knows nothing of it; he would howl with glee and slap me onto the front page of his Liberator. I can see it now: “President Buchanan visited by Guilty Dreams.”

After most of a day and three bottles of old rye, only a few sensations still linger. I still remember wading in the knee-deep water, warm like a bath but by no means as clean. The mud, just as warm, oozing between my toes; that’s one of the clearest. The stifling sun I remember most of all, baking me even in my straw hat. My skin was deeply tanned and I must have weighed fifty pounds less. Working in a rice field, with others like myself all around me.

By “others” I mean white men. Severely browned, to be sure, but white.

And here is what would make Mr. Garrison and Mr. Helper and their ilk dance with glee. We were not farm hands, but slaves. A driver watched close by, and he was black–solid black, indigo-black, like a wall with legs, and a head taller than any of us. He treaded back and forth and, to complete the picture, carried a whip. He did not, however, apply it to anyone’s back.

Sipping this morning’s cognac, I have considered a great deal what might have brought this dream about. If I keep it to myself, it is because the agitators would miss the point. Such a thing could not be real because of the unsuitability of the climate to white workers; this is well-known.

Perhaps I am making too much of this.


July 17, 1859

The dream returned.

I write this down in the morning, when the memory still lingers. At my summer home I’m three miles from the stench of Washington, the muddy slop-splashed streets, the fish and oyster peddlers tooting their horns on every corner. This is up on a hill, where fresh breezes blow. Yet in the dream, both before and last night, odors just as powerful dominate my brain, if not as noxious: grass and mud, and unwashed bodies.

Details returned and even jogged my memory, like how the driver’s hair was tied back into tight braids. His lips were as full as to be expected, his nose broad, his eyes hard (as if he resented us for forcing him to be there) with a never-varying attitude of suspicion.

Perhaps I should not have mentioned yesterday that his whip remained unused, for this time he did use it, savagely as if to make up for his forbearance of before, on a man who fell and claimed heatstroke. Now I am more careful about what I’ll record, in case this second dream proves not to be the last one.

The driver also spoke–and of course shouted–at the unfortunate recipient of his lashes. The language was nothing like English. While he was busy at his task, I inquired with my nearest neighbor about this.

“This is Madagascar, friend,” he said.


July 18, 1859

Same dream again–same rice swamp, same men working around me, and certainly the same sun. More drivers, rotating in and out, all tar-black but thankfully most not as massive or intimidating as the first. Him I did not see at all.

This time most of a day transpired, from about noon to dark, and I made my way with the other forced laborers to my place of residence. That it turned out to be a one-room shanty came as no surprise. What surprised me was that I had a wife. Not Anne, God rest her soul, but a smallish creature nearly wasp-thin at the waist, who had a habit of wringing her hands. And not only this, but two small girls ages five and seven, who flocked and shrieked around me in cotton shirts that reached to their knees.

There was also a grown son, but he had been sold and I had no way of knowing where he was. Nobody told me this; my imagination added it without benefit of anyone’s speech.

Such was the shock of these surprises that, for the first time in my life, I realized I was in the middle of a dream. With this, everything changed. All this was generated by my own imagination and thus under my command; in reality I was the master.

As Hettie–my spouse’s name–fretted and danced around the dinner-pot, I made myself comfortable on a pile of straw and asked her the history of this milieu, just to see what words my wayward subconscious would put in her mouth.

She looked at me as if I’d gotten too much sun.

“Beg your pardon,” I said. “I’m growing rather old”(I retained my advanced age in the dreams), “and my memory is failing me, I’m afraid.”

“Weh’d you learn to talk like dat?” she asked.

Ah, yes–slaves do not speak like Roman statesmen. The negroes here probably spoke fluent…African. But I digress.

From what she spent the next hour telling me, often breaking into inane rants, I deduced the following. The world’s most advanced nations were African nations. They discovered the wheel; they mastered iron and gunpowder; wars between them spurred their progress. They sent out explorer ships, in the manner of Spain and England.

Evidently America in this world was still at the colonial stage. There was no way of telling the year. I doubt in any case that the African calendar would correspond much with ours. But as it happened, someone got the idea of capturing whites. Whether they hunted them like beasts, or took them with the help of white entrepreneurs in America, Hettie did not know. Poor thing, I asked her so many questions, and often her eyes lapsed into confused blanks.

Had this happened in real life, of course, we would quickly teach the Africans the meaning of war. But Hettie told me one other thing. She said that God lived here–as far as I could tell, this meant the Almighty as we know him–“across the river.”

“It never rains here, never any clouds,” she said. “His heat burns the sky clear. They dug ditches to get water from de river.”

How long had “God” lived here among men? I asked.

“Always,” she said, and for the tenth time gave me her curious look. Then she served me some sort of fish soup in a wooden bowl, and cornmeal baked into a cake worth about two bits. The taste was still in my mouth when I awoke.


July 19, morning

As I’ve come to expect by now, that persistent dream returned.

Hettie did not return with it, as I was back out in the fields. This time I did not stay long–in fact only for about five minutes.

Happily I retained the previous night’s awareness that I was dreaming, that this was all an insanity spun by my imagination. Therefore I did no work. I waded out of the water and sat down in a grassy spot, musing on what would occur this time.

The driver was upon me in an instant, shouting down at me in his native tongue. This was the human wall of the first day, and he cast a shadow over me the size of a whole room; I could have enjoyed a cool nap in it.

I waved him off. “Be quiet. You owe your very existence to my overactive subconscious, my ghost friend.”

He seized my hand and slashed his whip down on the palm. The pain was blinding, and I could not keep the cries from shrilling out my mouth. I awoke in an instant, thank God, back in my bed.

The pain, however, but not vanish along with the dream. My hand still stung. I looked at it, as I am examining it now.

There is an ugly, purple welt running from my thumb to the base of my ring finger.


July 19, afternoon

I sent my carriage for Dr. Foltz. When he arrived I showed him the welt, told him it was a “small mishap” and offered no details.

Like Hettie, he spoke more than I expected as he went about his bandaging. “Quite a few people seem to be getting these.”

“Like the National Hotel disease?” The intestinal malady that sickened myself and so many others…and took one of my favorite nephews from this earth.

“No, nothing like that.” After asking for ice from my icebox, he wrapped it in a cloth and pressed it to my hand. The cold seeped into my skin.

“How so?”

“Last week at dinner, a friend of mine showed me such a mark, also on his hand. And I’ve heard of someone with stripes criss-crossed across his back, like a man flogged, and a woman whose wrists were chafed raw with no apparent cause. She had dreamed she was in shackles.”

I watched his face. “Dreamed?”

Either the woman had been very talkative, or the story had been considerably embellished by the time it reached the doctor’s ears. She described a reversal of roles similar to my own, cleaning a mansion belonging to her masters–black masters–in a hot climate that could have been South Carolina, Georgia, or Madagascar.

If local citizens are experiencing this, then what about in Virginia, the cotton states, out west–could this be happening to everyone?

The woman even mentioned the Almighty dwelling “across the river.” I maintained an impassive face and debated whether or speculate if National Hotel disease might affect the brain as well.


Something else followed.

Out on my daily walk with my hand bandaged, I saw a man carrying a copy of the aforementioned Liberator. The headline said something about “writing on the wall.” Those words remained in my head like the pain in my hand as I continued.

I’m as familiar as anyone with the book of Daniel, where the great finger of the Almighty burns a telegram for the king of Babylon: “Mene, mene, takel, upharsin.” The entire message I don’t recall, but I do know the beginning:

God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it.


July 19, late evening

I write this as I prepare for bed.

The pain has ebbed, the bandage is off (contrary to the doctor’s advice) and my insides are nicely warmed with old rye.

I was meant to see those words, I’m certain of it. If not in the newspaper, then in a shop window, or reflected in a street puddle, or bellowed by an oyster peddler. The comparison with Babylon unsettles me. “Babylon?” Are we not more like Israel, claiming our promised land? Do we not evangelize the natives and the negroes? I will remind the Almighty of the Christian education we give them, whereas in their own land they would remain forever lost. If we were the slaves, could we ever educate them so? Is this indeed what I suspect and fear, that he means to make this our reality, serving pagans who have no hope?

I could simply pray to him here, of course. But, no–I must seek him out, in that world. Speak with him face to face…if any man can do so and live.


July 20, 1859

Five-forty in the morning. I awoke, crawled out of bed and gulped three glasses from the Jacob Baer Distillery cask. (Always amusing, that visitors see the “J.B.” on those casks and think the initials are my own.)

And now for the previous night’s dream…the last of the dreams. Neither I, nor anyone else, will have them anymore.

I found myself in the rice swamp, and ran from it. The drivers shouted in their African language, set dogs after me. My legs pumped blindly, I tore through tall grass, I went mad with fear at the thought of their teeth. But I reached the river, splashed in, and managed to swim across. Surprisingly–fortunately–it was not that wide.

I needed not wonder how to find Him. On the other side He was everywhere, His light, His heat shuddering my wet skin. His presence numbed all my senses. I sank down on the riverbank and bowed my head.

He bade me to stand on my feet.

My arguments were all ready, but I never spoke them. He knew every word, of course, and He brushed them aside before I could even give them utterance. It was the Almighty who owned the interview.

He said that if I considered us like Israel, then I should look to Israel’s king, David, when he offended God by numbering all the people. I’m not sure why that was wrong, but America’s offense against the “oppressed”–He used that word–amounted to far worse.

But I was–I am–grateful He reminded me of that analogy, for it gave me an idea. My mind was reeling. Understand, he was pronouncing sentence on our nation. Pronouncing sentence! So calmly and so irrevocably did He hand down one staggering intent after another. My dreams were about to become reality. For myself, for Hettie, for all who were now masters or free with full privileges. (I did not think to ask if this included the abolitionists.) God’s pronouncements transcended the dream world. He is ruler of all worlds, and He has spoken.

How will this ever come about? Has He ever done it before? It matters not in the least. America will become a nation of slaves.

I had only my idea. I threw it out, babbled and sobbed and slurred my words–but I got it out.

“Lord God! You mentioned your servant David’s offense. Did you not give him a choice? Seven years of famine upon him and his and, or three months fleeing his enemies, or three days of plague? This nation that you raised up and blessed, to whom who have shown such favor–must it all be thrown away now? Is there truly no other way?”

He considered. Once again, he spoke.

Yes, he said; if I cared to accept it, there was.

I listened. As President, I made the decision. America will go on. We are not doomed to be reduced to the unhappy state of the Africans.

But there is a price to be paid, an extraordinary and unprecedented price. It means nothing less than all our nightmares coming true. The present schism of North and South will escalate until it explodes into the unthinkable. The nation will most assuredly tear itself apart, and the two factions will most assuredly hurl death and violence at each other in a national apocalypse past imagining.

More American men will die in a single battle than in all our country’s past conflicts combined.

The dead and the wounded will litter the fields, limbs blown off or heads split open, their brains bulging out and dropping off in strings, moaning for someone to end their misery. Many others will suffer the sawing off of arms and legs, having to be restrained as they scream. And this will be repeated with every clash of the long, long conflict.

In the South, wives will be left in droves to care for farms and families, preyed upon by food speculators, starving until they riot and break into bakeries.

America, at war with itself until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil sinks, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash is paid by another drawn with the sword.

When? I asked. He said I would finish my present term first.

No thoughts, then, of seeking reelection. And I fear my remaining time in office will be little more than sleepwalking through my duties.

May God have mercy on the poor soul who succeeds me, whoever he is. How can I tell him any of this? He would think me mad. But by the time he is inaugurated, it will surely all be plain. And on that day I will say to him, that if he is as glad to enter this house as I’ll be to leave it, he is a happy man indeed.


BIO: Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, the Lorelei Signal and Aurora Wolf. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.