So Far Back

A Novel

Pam Durban


Walking Tour of the Historic District Charleston, South Carolina Site No. 1
This is the Fireproof Building, current home to the South Carolina Historical Society. Designed in the Classical Revival style by the young architect and native Charlestonian Robert Mills, and completed in 1827, it is a fine example of the late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century ideals of balance, order, and harmony. Notice how every element is repeated and complemented by another—gracefully curved steps on the left and right climb to a porch topped by double doors of rosewood—and in this way, symmetry is achieved, symmetry and repose. Place each element of this building on the pans of a scale and when it was done, the whole would hang, perfectly balanced.
Beauty, permanence, safety: Those are ideals this building was designed to express. The building is fireproof—stone floors, walls, ceilings, stone window casements and sills—because fire was a constant threat in this city in the Colonial and antebellum eras and well into modern times. Imagine this narrow peninsula crowded with wooden buildings. Imagine candles and lanterns and oil; open flame was, of course, the only source of light and heat in this city for close to two centuries. Imagine paper and straw, drunken sailors, the careless and unruly poor, the campfires of plantation Negroes who traveled here on authorized and unauthorized errands. Imagine braziers in the market, cotton on the wharves, torches and strong winds from the Atlantic to fan the flames. The great fire of 1740 destroyed 334 buildings in less than four hours. The fires of 1835 and 1838, and the colossal fire of 1861, also caused widespread damage. Some of these fires were deliberately set. We are speaking of arson here, deliberate and calculated acts of destruction. Imagine a city of slaves (antebellum census figures show a city more black than white) who slipped through the streets after curfew. (How to keep them all safely confined to their masters’ houses and yards? How to know their whereabouts, their activities?) Imagine also a large population of free blacks in whose homes and illegal grog shops the slaves could hear about the success of the slave revolt in Santo Domingo, or study the Bible with Denmark Vesey, that notorious inciter of mayhem, who glossed for them the twenty-first verse of the sixth chapter of the book of Joshua: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” Imagine the city burning, the entire peninsula from the Ashley to the Cooper rivers in flames and the Fireproof Building untouched in the middle of the inferno; at worst, it would lose only its utterly replaceable roof, doors, window sashes.
Now, at this same building that has stood so long and served so many so well, you climb the curved steps and ring the bell beside the rosewood doors, which open, and a young man asks, “Yes?” bowing slightly, smiling. Not “Come in,” or “Welcome,” but “Yes?” a question you must answer. What is the answer? If you’ve been brought up in the South, you will know instantly that you are being sized up. If you are not from the South, you will still recognize, somehow, that though this door leads to an institution, there is something personal about the way you’ve been greeted, as though this were still someone’s home and the maid had been told not to let in a Fuller Brush salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness or any other pushy individual with a hustle and a smile, and you will understand that this is being decided about you as you state your business.
Inside, you sign the guest book on the hall table; nonmembers pay a five-dollar admission fee. As you hand over your money, you may feel the need to smooth the bill, perhaps to blow on it discreetly or to wave it in the air to dry it; it is damp, isn’t it, from being folded in that nylon wallet and mashed against your flesh all day? It might even be a little soiled; one person’s money is not the same as another’s, and even if it were, you could have all the money in the world and still not belong here. You can’t buy your way into this town.
Our memories, you see, are very long, and we refresh them regularly, and in that way, the line remains unbroken, and the circle, too, which is why we love the old stories with their rounded edges, their completeness. It is why we love spring as well, when all is reborn and renewed. Spring is clean; spring is light and sweet—the season this city was made for. It is bougainvillea and wisteria, tea olive and the azaleas all in bloom against the pastel houses. Sometimes in spring, the air snows blossoms and, passing a garden behind a brick wall, you will hear the trickle of a fountain. Spring gives us back the sweet landscape in which the old story unfolds; it is the stage on which the beautiful old drama plays again.
Notice the flag in the sealed case above the stairwell. That is the Banner of Secession, famous flag of defiance. To this day, there is a dinner given for the descendants of the signers of the Ordinance of Secession, that momentous and incendiary document. Housed within these thick stone walls, down in deep and spacious acid-free boxes, rest some of the most significant collections or documents and memorabilia in this state’s history. These are the rules: Only pencils allowed in the reading rooms. All bags and coats are to be stored in the lockers provided. We have had our share of thieves and vandals, even here. Please present your requests one to a card, with call numbers and other descriptive information clearly and correctly printed. A young man or woman will take the card and bring back the box you requested and hand it to another young man or woman at the desk in the reading room, who will then check out papers, photographs, et cetera, to you, one item at a time, each item to be returned and checked back in before you will be allowed to check out another.
Please handle all papers briefly and carefully, as the oil from your fingers will damage the fibers. Close the lid of the box each time you remove or replace an item, in order to keep sunlight from fading the papers. This is not a preserving climate. Salt air, thick heat, and glaring light all work to hurry the downfall of things we’d like to keep. This is a softening climate, a loosening, rotting climate. Every living being—man born of woman, for example—and whatever is made from a living thing—paper and wood, cloth and thread—is subject to its laws. Among the ancient coastal tribes, whose sea-level existence made burials difficult, it is said that a man was appointed bone picker, his job to strip the flesh from the bones of the dead. But let us not dwell on heat and illness, on death and despair. Let us return to the comforts of permanence and solidity. The irreducible elements still keep their shapes, even here, as do elements hardened by fire. The slate of old sidewalks. Potsherds and arrowheads. Oyster shell. China and bone. And even the perishable can be rescued and fixed if the climate in which it is stored is controlled. Control is the key to preservation, always.