When Bevins (who is younger than both Vollman and Lincoln) enters the president, the man experiences a rush of youth, suddenly remembering his own escapades as a young man, letting his mind drift to the memory of a woman leading him seductively down a muddy path. Not wanting to dwell upon this illicit flashback during such a somber time, Willie’s father redirects his attention, trying to recapture his son’s face in his mind’s eye. To do this, he has to think of a specific time, reminiscing about when he took Willie to have his suit fitted. “Little jacket little jacket little jacket,” he thinks. “Same one he is wearing back in there, now. Huh. Same little jacket. But he who is wearing it is—(I so want it not to be true.) Broken. Pale Broken thing.”
Luckily for Vollman and Bevins, Lincoln doesn’t use the word “dead” when he says, “But he who is wearing it is—.” Instead, he opts for the word “broken,” revealing that, much like Bevins and Vollman, he hasn’t yet wrapped his mind around the concept of death’s finality. Rather, he thinks of his son as merely a “pale broken thing.” Of course, this line of thinking is flawed, since calling something “broken” underhandedly implies that that “thing” is potentially fixable. As such, Lincoln deludes himself in the same way that the Bardo-dwellers trick themselves into denying the irreversibility of their deaths.
Lincoln continues to think about Willie, wondering what has happened to his boy. “Why will it not work,” he muses. “What magic word made it work. Who is the keeper of that word. What did it profit Him to switch this one off. What a contraption it is. How did it ever run. What spark ran it. Grand little machine. Set up just so Receiving the spark, it jumped to life. What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema. God forbid I should ever commit such a grievous—” Without warning, Vollman and Bevins sense something troubling, feeling something distressing lurking in Willie’s father. As the man—and, thus, Vollman and Bevins, too—runs his hand over his face, he tries to “suppress a notion just arising,” but he finds himself unable to do so.
The troubling sensation Vollman and Bevins feel arising in this moment has to do with the fact that Lincoln is responsible for many deaths, since, as the leader of the Union, he has sent countless young men into battle. As such, he feels deeply guilty, since he has just now stated that “murder is anathema,” but then suddenly remembers that his own orders have caused thousands of deaths. Because of this, he feels like a hypocrite—a flawed leader and even an immoral man who can’t even adhere to his own belief that only a monster would “ruin such a marvel” as life itself.