Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

John Rodman is a Union army veteran who, in order to heal his broken body and mind, applies for a solitary life as the keeper of a national cemetery in the South. He spends his days meticulously recording the names of some 14,000 dead soldiers in a large ledger. He ruminates on the nature of being a keeper of the dead and disregards the imagined voices from the mounds saying, "While ye have time, do good to men." One night, while filling his ledger, he finds the grave of another soldier named Rodman, whom he calls "Blank Rodman" and thinks of as a kinsman.

A young black boy delivers the keeper his supplies from town on a particularly humid day. The keeper asks the boy hopelessly if there are any cold springs in the South. To his surprise, the boy indicates a clump of trees and says there is a cold spring at "Ole' Mars' Ward's place." The keeper makes a journey there and finds a house in complete shambles.

He meets a former Confederate soldier named Ward De Rosset whose servant, a former slave named Pomp, is very late bringing him food. De Rosset is ill and injured, and though he is reluctant to accept a Union soldier's help, his hunger takes over. After Pomp finally returns, the keeper leaves, intending to wash his hands of the situation.

As De Rosset's condition worsens, Pomp and the keeper move him to the tiny cottage in the cemetery where the keeper lives. Though he often thinks bitterly of his unwanted company, he realizes that he cannot leave a fellow soldier in such a state. After a week, De Rosset's cousin, Bettina, arrives and insists that the keeper leave at once.

Bettina is a prideful woman and insists that she pay for the care that the keeper has given De Rosset. Calling her bluff, the keeper demands thirty dollars. He and De Rosset both know that Bettina is incapable of paying the money and that the keeper is far more equipped and able to take care of De Rosset.

In his dying days, De Rosset becomes childishly dependent on the keeper, much to the frustration of Bettina. Though she did not directly participate in the war, she cannot overcome her animosity toward a Northerner. When De Rosset dies, Bettina sneaks onto the cemetery grounds just to be in that place where her cousin died.

When confronted by the keeper, Bettina says she is moving to Tennessee to start a new life by teaching. The keeper asks her to be the first to sign the guest register, as all the visiting guests thus far were illiterate former slaves. She refuses to sign the register but does extend her hand to the keeper, begrudgingly thanking him for all he has done.

After Bettina leaves, the keeper journeys once more to the old Ward house to find a man from Maine planning to tear it down. He sells the keeper the house's climbing vines for twenty-five cents.

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