Summer Writing Resident Simon Rodberg: What Was Virginia

Simon Rodberg is the first writer of the Summer 2022 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


Read on for a peek into Simon's experience below. You can also read more about Simon and his fellow residents (past and current) here.

 

Finishing my week at Woodlawn, I wonder: in five hundred or a thousand years, what will be here?


I spent the week revising my novel, which is set far in the future in what used to be Virginia. When the story begins, life has gone back to normal. A pre-industrial normal, a normal without much technology, but still: normal. One might imagine it, for instance -- I did -- a bit like what Woodlawn was like in 1799, before this house was built. Or maybe 1779, when the form of government of Virginia, and the rights of its residents, were very live questions. Live questions, about democracy, and equality, and how the economy would work, about who would rule and who would serve, and how much violence would be used to maintain control or necessary for revolt….


Anyway, a few hundred years in the future, but much like the 1700s, and much like today.


I sit at a desk upstairs (kindly loaned by a Woodlawn staff member) and take out my pages. A Zoom light lay at the back of the desk. Plastic and metal: I can imagine pieces of this light (the LED beads shattered, the plastic circle cracked but intact, the clamp recognizably solid) surviving, long after Zoom and the internet and COVID-19 were forgotten….I work on my revision.


Later, in the Underwood Room, I marvel at the lovely fireplace, and picture, a long time from now, the marble shattered into pieces, ground down. Will this beautiful house itself last hundreds more years? Does historic preservation require continuity of history, a stable society, a people that sees itself in its past and sees that past, still, as usable? The brass frontpieces and the iron grate inside the fireplace: if there are archeologists, if there is enough of a society to provide for archeologists, they’ll find that brass and iron, at least. If there are metalworkers, they’ll find some use for the iron. The same for a different heating implement, the radiator across the room: I don’t think it’s historic, but unlike the painting of Senator Underwood, unlike the teal paint on the walls, the radiator, cast iron, will surely survive. If people far in the future have electricity to power the radiator. Otherwise, they’ll find some other use for the metal.



I take a break and walk around the house. The most meaningful part of the property, to me, is the smoke house. Partly because it’s so recognizably what it was and yet so unlike anything I know, at least in my urban life, today. The bedrooms have beds and somebody could sleep in one tonight…but how would somebody begin to go about smoking some meat in this smokehouse? More, though, the meaning of the smoke house is as a space that, in some sense, belonged to the enslaved people -- their enslavers wouldn’t have spent much time there -- and, in another sense, exemplified their inequality: the meat smoked here wasn’t, except for the discards, meant for them.



I stare at the hooks still in the rafters. They were for meat, I know, not for men, but Black people have been hung in this country, including in the most picturesque places, and this smokehouse where enslaved people labored is part of exactly that history, too…



The iron hooks have survived a long time. They’ll be here a thousand years from now, even if the smokehouse itself has fallen. Will we have learned to treat each other better? Or will the long human history of oppression, even of slavery -- not just Virginian, not just American -- just take a different form?


Woodlawn, and this American republic, have persisted for more than two centuries. I hope the house stays up for many, many years, and that the arc of history bends toward justice. But nothing about the future is given, including what we’ll do with the past.

 

Excerpt from The 99ers by Simon Rodberg:


Sometimes, with Ellery, it seemed possible he could leave behind his weary past. They laughed together. They lay late into the morning, in and out of sleep, books by their sides—one thing they still had enough of was books—or sometimes open in their hands, to share a line, then let the book slip back, to doze a little more. They held hands, or he rested his on her hip, enjoying its curve. Sex was rare, which he didn’t mind, his needs diminished over the years, but he liked to feel her fleshy warmth, the muscle as she shifted. Still alive. These were the good times at the Camp, in bed, with the morning sunlight dappling through the cracks in the makeshift walls, sunlight still sunlight even if the shack wasn’t a house, even if the hollow wasn’t home, even if his idle train of thought could suddenly rattle, remembering what they were, remembering how phony this scene was. It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be love.

He sat up. She turned towards him, found his hand and held it to her cheek. She’d arrived at the Camp early and built the shack long before Cole arrived. He moved in after sleeping a couple of years in his own lean-to. In addition to him, She cared for a broken-winged bird she’d found somewhere in the woods that hopped around the shack as the feral cats spied hungrily, though they did not enter. When the bird hopped into her cupped palm, its little chest pulsing fast, she lifted it and cooed into its ear as if she spoke its language. Ellery had a slight tremor in her hand, which she told Cole she’d had before the Hunt, before she knew she was a 99er; maybe an early sign of Parkinson’s, but of course it did not progress. The tremor did accentuate, ironically, when she tried to be still, as when she held the bird, so the rhythm in its chest and the shake in her hand seemed to match. Cole wondered if the bird recognized how trapped it was inside the shack. Ellery refused, he thought, to know.

They weren’t, of course, trapped inside the shack. When they heard the first whistle for the Recitation, they roused themselves, and stretched, and pulled on pants and tunics. They downed some water from a jug, and rubbed some over their faces. They could go outside, unlike the bird, and they did. Trapped in other ways, he thought. Another Saturday morning at the Camp.

Winnie, who slept in the tent across the clearing, emerged at the same time as they did, pushing aside a flap and blinking in the sun. She waved at Cole and Ellery and turned to inspect the piles of books she kept under a plastic tarp next to her tent. Beyond her, Adria and Cara, who shared a lean-to—long planks interwoven with twigs and rushes propped up against a giant tree—were walking down. The path was joined by another that led deeper into the hollow, where caves provided shelter for those who could stand the constant damp and extra darkness. Books didn’t last in the caves, so the cavers kept their books in other plastic-covered piles along the path, and, whenever they passed, checked to make sure nobody had removed a treasured volume. In the other direction, the path led down, past forks and branches where other huts and shacks and lean-to’s crouched, to the center of the Camp. Past that, eventually, out of the hollow, into the river valley. Almost none of them ever took the path that far or left the hollow, just like they did not build large fires or bang metal on metal. They had chosen this place—not just the hollow but this section of river valley—for its seclusion, but that did not mean that no one ever passed by who might notice activity, the presence of the Camp, and by that noticing doom them. Through luck and care, they had escaped the Hunt and lived this long, and, for most of them, continued preservation was the goal. They couldn’t see anything to do but persevere. The Camp was as safe as seemed possible, so it was their entire world.

Down the path, the man they called the Prophet sat cross-legged on the leaves. He was the only one in the Camp, most weeks, who did not join the Recitation. His contribution was to call out to each person or small group that passed, as he did to Cole and Ellery: “A blind horse makes straight for the pit.” Most folks didn’t acknowledge him or respond. To Winnie, a few steps behind: “If the ox knew his strength, the world would be done for.” Abney joined up with Cole and Ellery from one of the branching, smaller paths, a few steps further towards the center, though Cole knew she lived back up almost near the caves; she must have gone around to avoid the Prophet. He knew, also, what she would say, or at least the kind of thing:

“I can’t bear to listen to him,” said Abney. “We’re about to hear the Recitation, and he just keeps on with his silly sayings.”

“He means well,” said Ellery. They had this conversation almost every Saturday along the path.

“We don’t need prophets. He needs to stand himself up, follow us, and join in.”

“Maybe he will a bit later,” said Ellery.

“Hah. Maybe in a century,” said Abney, her voice a combination of gloat and spite. “I wouldn’t even welcome him, for one. I’d turn my back and say, ‘where were you?’” She called back up the path: “Where were you?” The Prophet looked at her, then away, and said something to another man passing, who nodded but did not pause. “Hah,” repeated Abney.

How many many times have I heard her spite, Cole thought. How many more, in perpetuity. She nodded and trooped ahead of Cole and Ellery, uniting with a small group at the entrance to the larger clearing at the center of the Camp. As he did each week, Cole followed along, because he couldn’t come up with anything else to do.

Long ago, at a time of spring when the insect and bird noises would provide some cover for the hammering, the folk of the Camp had built a shelter large enough to cover all of them during Recitations. They modeled it on the park shelters Cole remembered from his childhood, where families would hold cookouts and day-camps would pause for lunch: poles raising crossbeams a bit taller than the tallest among them, a gable frame resting on the crossbeams, roof-planks cut from the longest trees. They had few saws, so the work was painstaking and slow. In that early time of the Camp, the project brought them together. They had arrived in pairs or small groups, slowly over time, the survivors of the Hunt; they had nothing in common other than unnatural longevity and the resentment, hatred, and fear of those without it.

Like Cole, most had spent years or decades on the road, shifting places if they felt suspicion growing, leaving behind anyone who knew the truth about them. They felt the aches and soreness of middle age, walking the road or trading manual labor for food, but they did not age further, and they were not susceptible to cancer or contagion. Other hazards, though, could trap them: violence, in particular, whether self-inflicted or in fighting, which is why more women than men survived to make it to the Camp. Perhaps the women, too, were better at recognizing other 99ers, through long memory and the stares they grew accustomed to. (Others, whom they called Mortals, or Hundreds, or Normals, or just folk, looked for physical markings or skin-weathering that signaled perpetual middle age—there were no such signs, the 99ers agreed eventually, discussing it when surrounded by so many of their kind at the Camp.) Eventually, when they met again, in a different village or Hold, their looks unchanged except for the deeper anxiety in the eyes, they confessed in the darkness, bodies tensed and ready to run. After years, again, of traveling together, they gathered more like them, and heard the secret of the Camp, and came to settle and stop running. Cole had met a trader he’d already met many years before, who turned out to be a scout from the Camp. Grateful to be wanted, he’d come. He’d stayed, of course, and stayed, and stayed.

He and Ellery found their usual places under the shelter. Near them stood Hewes and Leon, Peyton and Sanjay, Betsy, Drayton, Luisa, Adams and Jennings, Naila. Drayton and Luisa were whispering fiercely, likely about Bernice, standing as far across the shelter as possible, herself fiercely whispering to Gita, likely about them. Sanjay shifted the book from his right hand to his left to shake with Cole: Sanjay liked formalities. A raucous laugh from the center of the shelter: Opal, probably, she often laughed at inappropriate times. Several nearby hissed at the breach of decorum. Sylvia stood at the side, arms folded, showing herself above all this, as usual. They settled down.

Sanchez and Cora came forward, holding a stitched-together cloth, one small strip blue, one larger white, with rust-colored drips splotched at regular intervals across the white. Under one of the cross-beams, there were log sections set up as stools, and Sanchez and Cora each stood on one, to reach hooks hung into one of the beams holding up the roof. They fit the grommets on the top two corners of the flag into the hooks and climbed down.

Wesley’s voice began, and the rest joined in, or at least stopped their gossip momentarily: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands, one nation, with liberty and justice for all.” Early in the Camp’s existence, there had been a multi-year debate, with study groups and factional conflict, about whether and in what form to say the Pledge. A small circle wanted “under God,” for tradition, though they couldn’t make an argument for the need for the numinous in a community where, as far as they could tell, everyone would live forever. Others thought even the Pledge ridiculous: the republic no longer standing, even the irregular summit of states in Kansas City that had lasted a couple of decades long gone now. The flag itself—well, creating fifty exactly-equal stars frustrated the best of the mediocre tailors among them. But enough wanted something like the Pledge they’d learned, before the pandemics, and still knew by heart. They settled on the current version. There was still a rump faction that wanted the full wording of their childhood, and another set of dissenters—they usually kept their mouths closed during the pledge, but at least didn’t interrupt—who would have rejected the whole thing. They showed up anyway. Cole mouthed along, wishing he meant it.

Wesley opened the book he held, and throughout the shelter, others opened theirs, or shuffled the sheaf of papers they had brought. Ellery shared hers with Cole, the words hand-copied into the large margins of pages torn from an oversize cookbook, alongside lists of ingredients no longer findable; printing presses were a distant fantasy, but paper, if not wet or burned or sun-bleached, survived. They took care of the paper they had and re-used it when necessary. Once again, Wesley began, and the rest joined in the Recitation: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…” Everyone knew not to whisper during the Recitation, but some voices drifted in and out through articles and daydreams. Adams and Jennings stood close enough that the sides of their bodies touched. Ada scratched her head ferociously but did not miss a word. Some had the whole thing memorized. They were mostly admired, though, partisan as always, a few saw them as obnoxiously elite and turned their own pages loudly as if in the memorizers’ direction. There was a small faction that, every couple of years, suggested the re-inclusion of the three-fifths clause; “the Importation of such Persons”; and “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another…,” but they were shouted down and the Recitation continued as edited.

Cole had not managed to memorize more than a few phrases, but, each week, he told himself he would pay closer attention and learn more. He tried not to look around, to wonder about Ada’s itch or Jennings’ seeming contentment or why Felicia’s pitch and volume went up on seemingly random words. He tried to get swept along with appropriations made by law, maintenance of the navy, advice and consent, public ministers and consuls, full faith and credit... The weekly Recitation, when all the Camp came together, was when he felt, at alternating moments, most pulled towards comfort and most estranged, that this was now his life, that this was the best he could hope for, as the Recitation itself was in some moments a ritual of proud resolve, and in others a farce, as his lips moved, as he tried to be just like the others around him who looked as if there was nothing on their minds but reciting. Deep within, were they gripped by the same anger, the same frustrated need for change?

“In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our Names—”

Cole tried to listen to the birdsong that could now, with the Recitation over, be heard. His pulse slowed. A bit of breeze touched his cheek. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, here, in the mountains, with the fresh air, and the birdsong, and a community that had lasted a long time, and, however endangered it might be, could in fact quite possibly last forever. Ellery found his hand and squeezed. He squeezed back.

 

Simon Rodberg has been a public school teacher and principal in Washington, DC. He is the author of What If I’m Wrong? and Other Key Questions for Decisive School Leadership and articles on education in Harvard Business Review, Educational Leadership, Principal magazine, and more. He is at work on a novel set several centuries in the future along the Shenandoah River.