A farmer at the end of a hot afternoon. He has dirt on his face, sweat stains on his rough-hewn shirt and a dark cast to his eyes. He gazes across the field to his house, where his young wife kneels over the laundry basin, kneading and scrubbing. The man winces and shakes his head and whispers three words:
“I ain’t Jed.”
What does this mean? Who’s Jed? Why does the farmer look so guilty when he repeats the phrase, then adds a second thought — “When will these clouds all disappear?”
The Civil War has just ended. The farmer fought for the Confederacy, then came home feeling traumatized and confused. His wife is confused, too — their courtship was quick and they married just days before the farmer left for the battles. Years passed, and when he came home he seemed to be another man altogether; broke, dispirited, left-handed Sometimes she imagined he might be an entirely different man than the one she had barely gotten to know during the south’s glory days. All the dreams they’d held so close, seemed to all go up in smoke. Is that what he’s talking about?
“I ain’t Jed, I ain’t Jed.”
I’m listening to this in 1973. I’m an energetic but slightly off-center 4th grader, running the playground with songs in my ears and a crazy imagination in my head. But how the hell did this spooky Civil War story erupt in my brainpan? There are similar stories in French folklore (including the one that inspired “The Return of Martin Guerre”) but I was a public school student who read mostly of Henry Huggins and Encyclopedia Brown. And yet my imagination was apparently scripted by the dark-eyed madman Ambrose Bierce.
No wonder I always think of “I Ain’t Jed” as the lost fourth act to “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which the solider survives and finds his way to this familiar southern crossroads, where a house and a lonely wife waited a soldier’s return.
Soon he’s standing at the bottom of the porch stairs. His wife looks up and smiles, but her shoulders arch, her face tightens and then the smile is tentative at best. The farmer looks into her eyes, firmly but softly confirming the woman’s doubts over and over again. He’s not Jed. He’s really not Jed. So ain’t it time for him to pack up and go? After all, he has spent the last seven months pretending to be a man he’s not. Is that man a complete stranger to him, or is he the same physical presence, only now subsumed by the terrors of the battlefield?
Her eyes overflow. Is she shocked or relieved? Or both? Or maybe she doesn’t care about Jed anymore. Or cares about him so much that she can sense his essence beneath the dirt and sweat and perpetually furrowed brow. Who cares how much money you have in your coat when love feels good and true? None of this is spoken, it’s all in the tear now tracing the dusted seam on her cheek. He sees this and it spurs a gout of words, feelings he’d tried to keep hidden for so long: the sweetness in her kisses, her all-consuming beauty. He’ll do anything, leave immediately or stay forever, if she would just tell him what she wants. “Come on, baby, dry your eyes!”
The song swings to a finish. The farmer has come to life, at least for now. He clomps to the porch and she stands to greet him. They come close and he puts his hands on her shoulders, feeling her strength, but also her vulnerability. If he can do one thing right in his god forsaken life he wants her to be happy, and this requires him to be honest, no matter the cost.
As the image fades we have no idea what happens next (Very Biercian, don’ you think?). We’re left with that prickle of uncertainty, but also a glimpse at something just tickling the eastern horizon.
Maybe he is Jed, after all.
Maybe we’re all Jed.