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The Fatwa of Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Sally Carson
In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death sentence) on author, Salman Rushdie, for his work, Satanic Verses. This year Rushdie celebrates the seventh anniversary of the fatwa, alive, still in hiding, in England. He has continued to publish. Signing

Robert E. Lee laid his glasses on the desk and pushed the creaking wooden chair back for the second time in the last five minutes. He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes, stiffly. He glanced up at the portrait of Jefferson Davis that hung over Thomas Jefferson's writing desk and looked away to avoid the seemingly reproachful stare. He sighed and gripped the arms of the chair. He couldn't keep putting it off forever.

He swiveled away from the desk, purposely putting his back to the painting. He looked out at the newly repaired lawn as it lay before him, a single green blanket, the gouges and rips just a memory. His attention was momentarily caught by a fleeting glimpse of the children of the house servants. Their laughter floated up to him through the freshly glazed windows. They were able to laugh and play on that lawn because of him and his cause. His smile was ironic and bitter, as were his thoughts. Their laughter and appearance there would have scandalized the capitol a scant year ago. He shifted his shoulders irritably beneath the scratchy wool of his top coat. He longed to take it off, but he thought he'd feel more uncomfortable without it. It was only spring, but he could sniff the humidity lurking beneath the soft breezes off the Potomac.

He turned from the window, again averting his gaze from the portrait's ceaseless scrutiny, and picked up his glasses. He sat with them poised in one hand and leaning back, again wished to the utmost of his soul that the man whose portrait gazed forever implacably down at him, sat in this seat and bore his responsibilities.

At the time, it had seemed the best possible, the only, solution. The emergency session of Congress. His quick appointment. The appearance of some type of control to stem the rising tide of fear and rebellion that swept the tenuously reunited country. It had seemed as if God had turned against them with Davis and his entire cabinet blown to pieces when their steamboat exploded in the midst of their triumphal journey to Washington. Still, it had to have been God's will that Lee hadn't been with them. President Davis had demanded his attendance as the conquering hero, the savior of the country. Lee had wanted no part of it. He had witnessed too much, had felt too much, to be a part of anything triumphant. He hadn't felt triumphant accepting Grant's surrender in New York. Only despondent and disillusioned and so very, very tired that all he had wanted to do was sleep, just lie down and sleep a long, forgetful and forgiving sleep. So instead of joining a jubilant Davis and his newly appointed cabinet on their way to the capitol, he had quietly slipped away and gone back home to Virginia. Immersing himself in the workings of his plantation and wrestling with the nightmares that terrified his gentle wife, he was out in the fields with his slaves when the news came.

He once again laid his glasses gently down on the well-worn and scarred desktop, the one piece of furniture he had brought with him from home. It reminded him of himself in some ways, he smiled ruefully, old and frayed at the edges but solid underneath. Rubbing his hands over its varnished surface, he sometimes could gain, if not strength, something akin to resolve. But not today. He stared at the document on the desk. He had read it and reread it all morning. He knew the importance of it and he felt the need of it. He truly believed signing it was for the good of the nation. And yet. Yet something deep within him, within his bones, rebelled against it. For a moment, his thoughts turned back to Jefferson Davis and what he would have done. Davis, and even the traitor Lincoln, had found themselves forced to do things during The War that was personally repugnant but necessary for the good of each side.

It was a paradox, or possibly not, that Lee felt closer to Lincoln than to anyone in his administration. Even so, he hadn't been back to visit the tall, melancholic man since the evening of Lincoln's formal arrest and incarceration. It had been too disturbing to watch him, to see the pain and horror of the last four years reflected in his long, dark face, that face so long caricatured, now itself a parody. Lee had winced at the sound of dragging chains across the hard, cold floor of Lincoln's cell as the deposed leader of the North had slowly made his way to greet him. That was another matter he had put off too long; those papers, too, were somewhere on his desk awaiting his signature. The others, the Shermans, the Sewards, the Stantons, and the Grants, they all had been tried, sentenced, and hung long ago. But somehow he couldn't bring himself to sign the executive order handing Lincoln over to the hangman. His empathy with the man wouldn't allow him to pen his name on his death certificate. Besides, there was still the question of his wife and his children. He had offered Mary Todd Lincoln a quiet and chivalrous amnesty. The lady had haughtily turned him down, demanding to be taken to her husband. She had had to be dragged screaming from Lee's presence. It was yet another ugly memory. One that wouldn't go away as it had been the only thing Lincoln had asked of him as he was leaving the dank cell. "Please take care of Mrs. Lincoln and my children, Mr. Lee," the ex-president had said forcefully. "They are innocents and victims of these troublous times and need your protection. I trust you to do the right thing."

The words still haunted him. Too many people trusted him to do the right thing. The difficulty was in deciding what the right thing was. There were many opinions, all of them loudly and acrimoniously debated at each cabinet meeting. There was however, one thing everyone agreed on and it lay before him. He picked up his pen. Both Breckenridge and McClellan had reiterated the importance of the deed just last night and both men were vehement about the urgency of its execution. For the good of the country. While Lee respected John Breckenridge and his counsel, he had a difficult time accepting General McClellan's. He had a sneaking suspicion the man was nothing more than an grasping opportunist. Yet, he was popular in the North and an evil necessity, if Lee was to maintain the calm of the nation. Necessity or not, he still didn't like or trust the man.

There was a soft knock and the manservant, Jeremiah, poked his head through the double doors, his light black skin softly etched against the cold white of the doors. He quietly announced that the Secretary of State was awaiting the President's convenience.

Lee gestured with his hand, noticing the pen still clutched within it. He laid it down and once again picked up his glasses, cradling them in both hands, looking away from the doors.

Secretary of State John C. Breckenridge came through the double doors and bowed briskly towards him. "Mr. President, suh," he said in his decisive Kentucky drawl. "It's time, suh."

Lee inclined his head and rubbed his eyes one last time. Once again, he placed his glasses upon his nose, giving them a final adjustment. He knew he could put off the inevitable no longer. For one inexplicable moment he wished he had met the tiny woman, the one whose book, they say, had started the War Between the States. But knowing her or not, woman or not, he knew he could no longer allow her to continue her agitating. Not for the good of the nation. For the safety of the people, his people. He picked up his pen and dipping it in ink he quickly scrawled his signature across the paper, pushing it towards Breckenridge with one motion. Breckenridge picked it up, holding it carefully so as not to smudge the Presidential name. He began to say something, but thought better of it. He bowed a second time towards Lee, turned, and hurried out the double doors.

Lee sat silent and stared at his desk for another minute or two before he reached for the bell pull behind him and rang for Jeremiah. When the quiet manservant answered his summons, Lee asked for a basin of hot water, soap, and a towel. He had an overwhelming need to wash his hands.

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Copyright © 1996 by Sally Carson. All rights reserved.