I wonder if the site of Richmond’s Belle Isle prisoner-of-war camp would have felt so ominous if I didn’t know what had happened there. Not that anyone really knows, as death tallies from both sides of the war are radically different. But still, walking where men died under conditions of abuse and deadly filth inspires unease. Long-buried lies and all that.
Behind a free-standing brick wall, the only part of a large house still standing, the ground was uncharacteristically lush and green – tall grass, full bushes, trees with low branches. The sun sat low in the sky, but peaked blindingly through an arched doorway that led out into that splendor.
At the back end of the island, still within earshot of the James River, sit the hollow ruins of an abandoned hydroelectric plant. Somehow, the bowels of these vacant buildings all resemble minimalist latrines. Dust and graffiti coat every stall, step, ledge, and outer shell of each building.
A teenager, spotting our approach, advised us that the knotted rope descending from one iron-barred second-story window was strong enough to support someone climbing. He had not climbed, he said, because he lacked the upper body strength. The boy was rail thin, long-haired, and armed with the kind of weird curiosity that likely cast him out of the Richmond high school mainstream. He also warned us about kicking up dust, as every particle was likely coated with old urine.
When I climbed the rope ladder I was greeted by a vague smell of decay, further faded graffiti, and a blue Pall Mall pack that looked as old as the crumbling floor.