Author Archives: Copperfield

About Copperfield

Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.

The Gladiator’s Lover

My dearest Min,

I never wanted it to end like this. I never wanted to say what I felt only through ink on papyrus. That is what always set you apart from my other lovers – the things I could say to you in the afterglow, things I would never say to another in this life. But there are some thoughts that even I am too ashamed to speak out loud. Thoughts I had hoped to take with me to the grave

Grimy shadows clung to the walls, hiding from the daylight above, a haven for the rats. Torches guttered in iron brackets around the arena’s dungeons. Scented sawdust was scattered across the floor, masking other, fouler odours: the stench of enraged animals, the dull aggravating bite of vomit.The metallic taste of spilt blood in the air.

A brief howl echoed through the stone walls, before vanishing back into the depths. Frightening and strident, it set fear even into stout hearts who knew the sound; it was the angry bellow of a lion, prodded and tortured and thirsty for blood. Soon, Aiolos knew, it would have all the blood it desired.

Like the vermin in the shadows, his attendants scurried about. He lay down on the armoury’s thinly padded bench. One worked on his broad back, carefully bandaging an old wound. Another oiled his legs, rubbing and smoothing the taught muscles with his strong fingers. A dull roar shook the walls, and a cabinet bolted to the wall rattled. Aiolos cursed, and his servants fled. He stood, almost brushing his head on the beams of the roof, and opened the cabinet. The bandages pulled tautly across his back, and he felt a small trickle of fresh blood run down to his wide belt.

You have never heard me question my place in the world before. There have been times I nearly lost my nerve, shook so hard I thought I would drop my sword, but I have never before asked the simple question – why do we fight?

 The answer seems so obvious – freedom! Freedom lured me in when I was a young man – freedom from my masters and the total freedom of the battlefield both.

The weapons were finely crafted, of good Iberian steel. They were his tools, with edges honed sharp enough to shave the hair from his forearm. One knife went inside his boot, the other on his waist. Lastly, he slid a plain gladius home into the leather sheath on his left hip. The protruding hilt of the short sword was unadorned, worn smooth from use. Aiolos pulled a short greave onto his left leg. Next came a linen manica on his right arm. He placed the helmet, gaping and fishlike, on his head. Lastly, he hefted a Murmillo’s rectangular shield.

He was ready.

As he left the armoury and climbed the stone stairs that ran through the wooden cages of the slave-pit, the throbbing roar grew louder. It shook sand from the walls and pulsed in time with his heart. His ascent stopped as he reached the arena’s entrance chamber, and the roars grew into a single coherent mass that dulled the senses. Aiolos knew that, once he reached the open air, the noise would pound on his brass helmet like a hammer.

It was not only that I desired to earn my manumission; the infamia that comes with being a gladiator means I can never climb the heights of the nobilitas like your husband, after all, so how much joy could I find in buying up property, statues and other trinkets? What thrill could the struggles of a normal life present me? 

The entrance chamber was narrow and oppressive, and sunlight filtered down through grates overhead. On either side of the corridor, weapons were ceremonially hung beneath inscriptions of names. The former champions of the arena were remembered here, if nowhere else. Their deeds – the number of opponents they had slain, the emperors whose favours they had gained – were not recorded. All that was written was the manner of their deaths.

A fighter waited, sitting well back from the heavy metal gates, wrapping a dirty bandage around a thin cut in his arm. His fight had already been fought. He glanced up as Aiolos’s shadow fell on him.            

‘I heard you were free of this place, Murmillo,’ said the warrior, revealling a deep spear-gash in his side as he twisted to face Aiolos. His festival season was over. Aiolos nodded his head, feeling no give in the straps of his heavy helmet. The warrior spat noisily in the dirty sand.

‘You couldn’t keep away, eh? Well, watch yourself. I’ve seen this one fight. He’s fast, and he’s got a vicious sweep.’ He stopped as a lion’s roar briefly silenced the crowd, and they both looked up at the sunlight tricking down through the grates overhead. The fight was over, and ten thousand voices briefly subsided. An announcer listed the men who would fight next, and they began to chant. 

‘I always liked you, Murmillo,’ he said, dragging himself to his feet as slaves took up the chains that lifted the gates. ‘And I’ve got five sesterces down for you to win. Don’t die out there today.’

While I was still a slave, I burned to be free. But the arena offers me complete freedom, of the most savage and vicious kind – the freedom to fight, to bleed and spill blood. The freedom to kill.

That is why I came back when I won my manumission and became a libertini, again and again. You never understood why I did it – why I continued to risk disfigurement or death once I was free and my patron no longer required it – though you thrilled each time I came back to your bed, sometimes with wounds still bleeding.

But, as my esteem and wealth grew along with my scars, I began to realize that, for us, there can be no freedom from the arena.

His opponent waited for him on the sand.

The gates jolted open. The slow chant gave way to a bloodthirsty roar. The crowd’s appetite for blood had been whetted by the first rounds, by the captives being massacred and the lions running wild. It had been indulged by the clumsy new fighters and the elaborate set pieces recreating the victories of Rome’s history. But their appetite had not been satisfied. Women sang, men bellowed, children heckled, and a barrage of noise bore down upon the two gladiators.

Amongst it all, the Emperor sat, wrapped in regal purple, finely dressed nobiles in the seats all around him. Aiolos could hear nothing within his heavy bronze helmet – the crunch of his feet, the shudder of his breath; all else was swallowed up by the crowd.

Perhaps you believed you truly meant it when you asked me to give up this life, let this contest be my last. But we both know that the only reason you took me to your bed in the first place was because I fight, and no doubt you will find another victor to satisfy you after me. The gods know the nobile ladies do not seek us out for the handsomeness of our scarred faces and oft-broken noses. Any of the thousands of commoners in the crowd would suit you better. 

Aiolos advanced, swapping shield back and forth as he stretched his arms out. The sand crunched beneath his sandals. It was raked smooth throughout the arena, with one exception – by one of the walls, a blood-mad lion lay dying, a hamstring cut, a blood-splattered spear buried in its ribs. It purred for a moment with the deep, terror-inspiring voice of the big cats, before the blood in its lungs choked it back into silence. The beast was doomed, but the groundskeepers knew to stay well away.

His opponent waited for him, patient, unmoved by the lion’s call. He was short, with the lithe and fluid carriage of a dancer. He had the weapons of the Thracian: the vicious sickle-sword, the small shield, the side-plume and the heavy mail belt. The trappings were those of a defeated Roman enemy; this gladiator, however, carried them with pride, for he had cut down more than his share of Murmillos and Hoplomachi. Aiolos wondered if they would be the last thing he ever saw, before he dispelled the grim thought from his head and focused on his breath.

He glanced up at his opponent’s master; the man sat close by the Emperor, beaming at the attention, and betrayed no nervousness in the way he moved.

Aiolos moved to the centre of the arena, drew his sword, and waited. Blood pounded in his ears. He fixed his legs to the ground like pedestals and forced out a deep breath. It whistled through the mouthpiece of his fish-shaped helmet.

The emperor signalled. The blaring horns cut through the din.

The fight began, and the crowd roared.

They could have been just like me, those sitting behind the walls. Perhaps some of them hope that, one day, it is they who will know the glory of the arena. But they do not realize that it is they that have the glory; the teeming masses that surround us are the only reason that we fight. It is for them that we endeavour and struggle. It is for their sport that we die.

Their voices rose exultantly as the two fighters moved together. The two fighters circled one another, and with each subtle lunge or hint of a thrust they gasped and held their breaths for a moment. A vicious thrill whispered across ten thousand faces with the piercing noise of the first blow, metal on metal.

Aiolos stepped quickly back as the Thracian advanced. He swung his unadorned sword, and his opponent swayed aside, but before Aiolos could recover the smaller man was stepping in, flicking the curved sword at him like it was a whip. The Murmillo raised his heavy shield, and the shock of the blow radiated through the wound in his shoulder.

He roared to match the crowd as he smashed his opponent’s blade aside and lunged forward, sword low, the disembowelling thrust of the gladius which the legionaries had used to conquer the enemies of Rome.

The blow had been his trademark move, fast and difficult to anticipate, but his opponent glanced it aside with his tiny shield, Aiolos’s blade slashing at the air a finger’s width from the Thracian’s exposed ribs. Before he could think Aiolos was behind his shield, charging, and the Thracian stepped aside from the felling blow. They broke off and began to circle once more.

The silence of the skirmish vanished, and the crowd’s roar beat down upon the warriors in full force. Aiolos kept back, lashing out probing jabs with his sword. His blood began to flow, the wound on his shoulder matched by vicious nicks from the sickle sword that began to dot his legs and arms. But this fight was not stopping for first blood. Aiolos was a head taller than the Thracian, and his shoulders were far broader, but the crowd could tell that the smaller man was quicker and had the advantage. Aiolos was past his prime.

And amongst them sit those in whose honour our lives are thrown away – the nobiles. Men like your esteemed husband, whose wealth allows them patronage over the games. The raw emotion of the crowd they are united, but it is they who moved stone and metal to build the arena, and it is they who buy and sell men as though they were naught but beasts of burden, to pit them against one another, until eventually, if they live, they may be set free.

And so long as the nobiles preside over this blood-soaked illusion of freedom and choice, the crowd loves them.

Aiolos cut wildly, and the Thracian parried the blade over his shoulder, knocking the gladius from his hand. Aiolos backed away, hiding behind his shield as he reached for the knife on his belt, but that too was knocked from his hand with the next parry. He grew still, forcing himself to breathe as he saw death approaching on the shining edge of the sickle sword. The crowd cheered in delight as his opponent moved in for the winning blow.

The lion roared as it pounced on the Thracian. The dying beast had dragged itself up, and the warriors had been too immersed in their struggle to notice it approaching or the enthusiastic cries of the crowd. The Thracian looked up and dove aside at the last second, losing his sword in his mad scramble to get away from the enraged beast. The lion’s claws raked at the back of his legs, rending muscle and tendon into shreds of meat.

The Thracian screamed. He pulled himself free with his arms, his lifeless legs dragging behind him in the sand. He threw a terrified glance over his shoulder, but the lion was finished; it collapsed to the ground, air rushing from its lungs. It had lived long enough to take one final revenge on its tormentors.

Aiolos put one foot on the lion’s corpse, pulling the spear free from its ribs. His shoulder burned with the effort. He walked over to his opponent, lying waiting on the sand. Their gazes met as Aiolos approached. The Thracian closed his eyes, face twisted in agony.

Aiolos lay the spearpoint over his throat and looked up at the Thracian’s patron. The man’s head was in his hands.

The crowd roared for blood.

The Emperor gestured.

Aiolos hesitated only a moment.

Yet even though I have seen through the illusion, I still play my part in it. And even though I am rich enough to live out my days in comfort, still I come back to the arena. For the false freedom of a normal life is no better than the freedom of the blade, and playing along with the illusion is no worse than never seeing through it at all. If that means the end for us, then so be it.

Your husband is a good man, for all the blood that is spilled in his name. May you be happy with him to the end of your days, Min.

______________________________________________________________________________

Patrick Harrison is a writer of historical fiction from the South Coast of New South Wales. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, graduating with distinction in 2011, and his fiction has been published in the Tertangala student magazine. He has also worked as a freelance copywriter, journalist, youth activist and retail worker. 

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Cobalt Blue

Wine dark waves lapped at the coast of the Sea of Marmara outside the house of Beyza the potter. The weathered beams of the house held great open windows and milk-vetch and goat’s thorn grew in tangles beneath them.

Beyza sat at her potter’s wheel behind the open windows, dark hair braided beneath a blue scarf and sleeves rolled past her elbows. Her foot moved back and forth to spin the kick wheel so that the clay spun beneath her hands. Placing the lip of the dish between the fingers of both hands she pulled slowly, steadily upward, thinning and raising the wall of the vessel.

When the height was just right Beyza began to expand the mouth. Bracing a wooden rib against the exterior she smoothed the sides, clearing away the excess water. Her foot’s continuous motion ceased and the pot spun into stillness, the surface shining dully in the light from the windows.

Beyza stopped to ponder the shape. The foot of the bowl was small, the width of her hand in diameter, narrowing as it rose. From there, the bowl expanded rapidly, with a broad basin and tall, slightly tapered walls. It was a shape she had been working with for weeks now, struggling to create better and better imitations of the work merchants in the city were importing from the Far East.

She bent down to examine the exterior curve, brushing a strand of dark hair back from her face and leaving a streak of clay across her forehead.

She was startled from her work by the sound of approaching footsteps. Looking up she saw her friend, Negris, approaching from the direction of the road. She was tall and moved like a tulip in the sea-wind, her dark red robe like the petals of a flower.

“Beyza,” said Nergis, “come away from your potter’s wheel and go to the market with me.”

“I should be working, not shopping,” Beyza said, although she stood from her wheel and cleaned her hands.

“You work too much,” Nergis said, laughing, tossing her hair over her shoulder, dark and rippling like a skein of patterned silk.

Beyza straightened her scarf and tidied away her tools, leaving the bowl sitting on her wheel, fragile in its wet state. A brush of a hand or an accidental nudge would render it useless. The carefully shaped clay would be pounded back into a lump and she would have to start all over.

She was careful not to disturb the bowl.

When her workspace was clean enough, Beyza went to the chest by the window. It had been a gift from her husband, Hayri, when they married. She remembered watching him construct it; it was made of dark wood with a mosaic in small ceramic tiles on the lid. She paused for a moment to run her fingers over them – the wood had been worn smooth over the past seven years from the touch of her hands, and the blue swirl of the sea over the tiles was so familiar to her she could see it even when she closed her eyes.

More familiar than her husband’s face, these days, for he had been buried in the hills behind the house two summers past.

From the chest she pulled a worn silk scarf. She laid it gently over the bowl so it would not dry too much while she was gone.

“Now we can go,” she said to Nergis.

The two woman began the walk into the city. They walked past fields of wheat and barley that shone gold and green in the midday sun, flowers bobbing alongside the heavily rutted dirt road. Nergis chattered away about her eldest son, but Beyza was only half listening. She watched a farmer moving between the rows of his field, examining the leaves of his plants. She pictured the golden spikes of wheat splashed across the rim of a platter against a background of smooth white porcelain.

What would it feel like to work with such fine clay? she wondered. The clay she dug from the local hills turned a toasty golden color when she fired it, like the seed pods of goat’s thorn.

The city of Iznik had expanded rapidly in the past hundred years under the influence of a steady influx of trade from the east, and it had overtaken many of the farms that had once surrounded the city. Creamy stone buildings with brightly painted faces lined the crowded, winding streets. The walk was not a long one – Beyza’s eleven year old son made it every morning to attend a school in the city.

The two women went to the Sahil Market, where most of the foreign vendors sold their wares. It was abuzz with languages Beyza did not recognize, shouting and calling back and forth to one another. Beyza followed Nergis through the market as she chattered at vendors, poring over beaten gold jewelry and bolts of cloth woven so fine it was see-through. Date rolls with cinnamon and roasted figs filled the air with a sharp, sweet scent so enticing that Nergis stopped and purchased one. Sticky bun wrapped in a cloth, they continued on, passing stalls of glass beads and strings of pearls, amber and amethysts glittering over folds of linen.

While there were many imports – tea and spices, silk and other exotic fabrics – Beyza had eyes only for the pottery. Bone white porcelain bowls with lips of cobalt blue, darker than the Marmara Sea. Fine lines of indigo swirled across platters, flowers blossomed and tigers crept around the foot rims of serving dishes. Cups so fine they were almost transparent perched on saucers that sparkled like gemstones imported from the south.

“What is it that makes their work so much more beautiful than ours?” she murmured, but she knew the answer. Iznik potters might have the skills to rival those in the Far East, but they didn’t have the raw materials.

“You seem to have an eye for craftsmanship,” one vendor said. He was a broad shouldered man with a thick, grey peppered beard and skin that had been weathered to leather by years in the sun and wind. “You’ve only picked up the finest pieces I have.”

“What about those?” she asked, gesturing to a set of dishes she had passed over earlier. They were decorated with gold, but the bottoms were sloppily trimmed and the rim uneven.

He shook his head. “Expensive, but not so well made as some of these plainer dishes,” he said, pointing out the blue patterned bowl in front of her. “You know true quality.”

She flushed. “I’m a potter, it’s my work to know such things.”

“Ah, I see. Your work must be fine indeed.”

She fingered the blue patterned bowl. The clay at the base felt like silk it was so smooth. “Not as fine as this, I assure you. Though it might be, if I had the proper materials.” Her work was well known in the city, and sold for high prices in shops in the wealthier parts of the city, but she coveted the imported wares, longed to create pieces with the same delicate vibrancy.

The vendor considered her for a long moment. “Come,” he said at last, waving her around the side of the stall. “I have something you will appreciate.”

Beyza glanced around for Nergis, but her friend had moved on to the next stall and was examining a thick woven rug.

She followed the man to the back of his stall. There were several large wooden crates in various states of unpacking, straw strewn about and heaped in the bottoms of crates. The vendor bent over and rummaged in one of the crates. From within he drew a cup, wide with no handle, to be cupped between the hands.

“It’s a tea bowl, from Jiangxe. The newest I’ve got.”

Dragons chased each other around the cup, minute scales like sapphires, the wings so delicately drawn they seemed to flutter as she stared.

“It’s an experimental technique,” the man said, his voice low. “Rumors say those Eastern barbarians grind up the bones of children and mix it in with the clay before forming it.”

His words broke her trance and she tore her eyes from the dragon to meet the vendor’s eyes. His brown gaze was unruffled.

Would it have to be the bones of a child? she wondered. If it could create such beautiful work – surely the world would take notice if she could create something to rival this elegant cup.

She pushed the thought from her mind and withdrew her fingers, which had been extended in longing to touch the smooth surface.

“How crude,” she said, although the product was anything but.

“Still,” the vendor said, “look at the grins on those dragons.”

Beyza peered close again. The dragons were indeed grinning, their sharp teeth bared. In the dim light of the stall, filtered through the red awning overhead, the fangs seemed to glint with blood.

She left the vendor and found Nergis, who hadn’t gone far. Her friend held out her hand, which now glittered with a bracelet of citrines set in gold.

“It’s beautiful,” Beyza said, although she suspected the gemstones were paste. The two women left the market shortly after, and walked several streets to her son, Deniz’s school. He was sitting in the courtyard outside, poring over a leaflet, his dark hair shining as it hung over his face.

He looked up as they approached, and his face lit up, bright smile splitting his face. “Valide!” he cried, jumping up. He threw his arms around Beyza’s waist, hugging her tightly.

He looked up at her, his dark, grey eyes like slate, a gift from his father. The smile was his too, kind and gentle and brilliant.

She looked at Nergis. “Time for us to go home, I think. I have work to do.”

The morning after she and Nergis went to the market, Beyza went into the hills. Her little house stood, nestled between two hills and just a few minutes’ walk from the river. She walked up river, away from the sea, shoes squishing in the muddy banks where the grass had washed away in the spring rains. She carried her battered leather pack on her back, and Deniz dodged eagerly in her footsteps, carrying a spade. He liked to help her when she went to gather clay.

There were three elements to the clay she mixed. The thick, sticky clay she dug from the hills – too soft to do anything with on its own – the feldspar she bought in the city market, and the crushed up fragments of her broken pots.

The sun was hot on her back, warming her dark hair as they rounded the last bend in the river to the area she had been digging for the last few weeks. Here the river was wide and shallow, weeds growing in twists along the edges. Most of the potters from Iznik got their clay from the seabed along the coast where the river and rains deposited it. Beyza, however, preferred to dig out the clay at its source.

She tossed down her pack and set to work, cutting into the dense soil with her spade. She worked up a sweat while Deniz skipped rocks across the river. She stood at last and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.

Together the two of them packed the clay into her leather satchel. Her back was strong from years of hauling clay and throwing large pots on the wheel, but even so she had to stop and rest twice before they reached home.

That night, after Deniz was asleep, Beyza went to her potter’s wheel. The bowl she had thrown the day before sat there, now trimmed and bone dry, dusty to touch. She lifted it gently between her hands and held it up in the moonlight streaming through the open windows. It was well crafted, but lacked the ethereal beauty she craved. Even the unfired clay seemed coarse and unrefined to her, before it had darkened in kiln fire.

It wouldn’t have to be the bones of a child.

The thought came to her, unbidden, something she had pushed to the back of her mind. She thought of her husband, buried two summers back over the rise behind the house.

She left Deniz asleep in bed and took up her spade. Outside the moon was nearly full, the skies clear and shot with stars like silver thread. She made her way through the tangles of milk-vetch, goat’s thorn snarling the bottom of her robe with its tiny burrs.

The place where she had buried her husband was marked with a carved stele, bleached from the bright sun. The ground that had once been a patch of bare, recently churned earth, was now overgrown. She sunk her spade into the dirt, slicing through thick green leaves.

She dug for what felt like hours, until the moon was overhead and her body ached. She thought of the look on Nergis’s face if she found out what Beyza was doing, and kept on. Nergis didn’t know what her work meant to her, didn’t understand the burning desire to create something so beautiful that God himself would take notice.

Thrusting the spade deep into the ground once more something grey broke the surface.

She knelt and rummaged in the dirt with her hands, feeling along the length of the bone, still stretched with fragments of the burial wrappings. The skin and muscle were gone, nothing remaining of his original flesh but a few brittle tendons and ligaments.

She paused, suddenly feeling the dirt that had caught under her fingernails and left a dusty film over her skin. It felt invasive, plucking his bones from the ground where she had once said prayers over his body.

But his body was of no use to him now, and she’d already come this far. She looked toward the house, half expecting Deniz to be standing there to catch her rooting in his father’s grave. He wasn’t. He was still sound asleep in the house.

She left the grave dismantled and carried the bones back to the yard outside her house. Kindling a fire in her kiln she placed the bones where she would normally place her bone dry pots and jars. The kiln was nearly six feet long and six feet wide, with a firebox in the front for her to tend and steps in the back for the pottery.

By the time the sun rose she had a blazing fire. The wind fluttered against the mouth of the kiln and the sound of the roaring flame inside the kiln seemed to mirror the beating of her heart.

Deniz came to join her much later, when the sun was already nearing its peak.

“Why did you let me sleep so late?” he asked. She shrugged, and he helped her tend to the fire for several hours. Sparks scattered every time they opened the firebox to feed in more wood the skin on her face and hands soon felt brittle and crisp. The heat that emanated from the small brick structure felt hotter than the sun.

She did not let it go as long as she would if she were actually firing her pots – just until the bones splintered. After that she let the fire die, although she knew it would be the next morning before it would be cool enough to retrieve them.

“Why are you stopping so early?” Deniz asked. He had helped her with her kiln many times and it usually took two days to run.

“The pots inside have shattered,” she said. He peered inside, looking for the cracked and broken pieces of ceramic.

After she left off tending the fire, she went inside the house and slept.

She might have slept all night, but she woke to her son shaking her. “Something’s been digging in father’s grave!” he cried, trying to drag her from her bed.

“It was probably a bad spirit,” she said, but she followed him outside to look at the mess she had made the night before. The sun was setting, cradled by the Marmara Sea and flaming red as it died. In the light the damage looked far worse – Hayri’s grave stele was off kilter, the dirt dark and rich around the base, obviously overturned.

“Who would do this?” her son asked. She hugged him close and said nothing.

The next day, when Deniz left for school, she went to the kiln and retrieved the fragments of bone. She ground them into as fine a powder as she could manage. It was dull grey, different from the crushed ceramic she usually mixed with her clay. She tossed it with the feldspar and went to the clay that she and Deniz had hauled back from up river. With hands strong from years of kneading dense clay, she mixed the new material into the clay body, trying to make sure it was evenly distributed. When this was done she split off a piece and molded it into a sphere.

She went to her wheel and sat, staring at it for several minutes. This could be the beginning of something beautiful. Beautiful and terrible.

Throwing down the piece of new clay, she kicked at the base of the wheel to start the top spinning. Her foot fell into a familiar rhythm, and the light streaming through the windows soaked into the dark fabric of her robe, into her bones. Warmth and light, like a kiln. Wetting her hands she placed them firmly on the clay and it spun beneath her hands, like every other time.

Just like every other time, except with the possibility of more beautiful results.

The work seemed to shape itself beneath her hands, as though guided by something within.

______________________________________________________________________________
Katy is a garden enthusiast from Michigan, graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor’s in painting and ceramics. Her poetry has previously been published through Temenos, Rising Phoenix Review and The Write Launch

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New Poetry Chapbook from J. Todd Hawkins

AVAILABLE NOW

What Happens When We Leave, a chapbook of poems by J. Todd Hawkins, has been released by Blackbead Books with the support of the Fort Worth Poetry Society and the Poetry Society of Texas. The book is the winner of the 2018 William D. Barney Memorial Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Glancy. This collection features a variety of forms such as ghazal, haibun, cento, sonnet, and free verse. It draws from pop culture and high culture, current headlines and ancient stories. Select pieces have previously appeared in Rattle: Poets Respond, Copperfield Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Concho River Review, and other publications. Signed copies are available from the author for $7.50, including postage (PayPal, Venmo, checks accepted). E-mail jtoddhawkins@gmail.com for details. The book is also available on Amazon.

Praise for What Happens When We Leave

Hawkins shows us how leaving and its intrinsic
epiphanies are essential parts of travel, both physical
and metaphysical. An insightful tour guide, Hawkins
writes poems full of details that “insist we remember,”
even as he gracefully escorts us to our next destination.
— Anne McCrady, author of Letting Myself In

Few experiences in contemporary poetry match the thrill
of encountering J. Todd Hawkins’s precise and haunting
verse. What Happens When We Leave is a dark tour of
poetic forms that takes us from Tokyo to Texas, from
extinction to eternal love, from classic painters to
country crooners. This is an inspiring collection from a
poet of powerful craft, deep sentiment and startling
range.
— Elle Aviv Newton, coeditor and cofounder of
Poets Reading the News

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Octavia Randolph

Octavia Randolph is the author of the Circle of Ceridwen Saga set in 9th century England and Scandinavia. The series, which currently includes seven books, follows the central character, Ceridwen, the orphaned daughter of a Saxon nobleman, through encounters with invading Danes and Saxon chieftains during this age of upheaval.

The first book, The Circle of Ceridwen, begins with the seven kingdoms of Angel-land before they were united into one England by Ælfred the Great. Books two and three, Ceridwen of Kilton and The Claiming, take place in England for the most part, while the fourth and fifth volumes, Hall of Tyr and Tindr, are set on the Baltic island of Gotland. Silver Hammer, Golden Cross, the sixth book in the series, moves between the two locations. Randolph’s latest book, Sidroc the Dane, is set mostly in Denmark and tells the story of the childhood of one of the main characters.  Randolph has also written two novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka, from an Icelandic saga, and a biographical novel about the art and social critic John Ruskin called Light, Descending.

Maggie Fry: What was your inspiration to write a book set in ninth century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?

Octavia Randolph: The entire sags for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just twenty-three years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness and did it extraordinarily well.  It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum to allow trade in both areas. It was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.

M.F.: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.

O.R.: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes and learned to spin with a drop spindle.  In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland, my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland. I’m so happy that, almost Twenty years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.

I feel a responsibility to adhere to historical veracity because history is so little taught today. We rely on our novels, television shows, and films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what has come down to us as received history.

M.F.: Did you get to England?

O.R.: Yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language spoke to me. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We are so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.

M.F.: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.

O.R.: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the ninth century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died — October 27, 899 — because there were scribes to record things, but there are enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. These two conflicting cultures were literally blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the gift of literacy.

M.F.: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?

O.R.: I would say that they are archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” For instance, Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, was taught to read and write. That is a believable scenario because we know that some women, like Ælfred’s mother, were literate, and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. I look at certain archetypes I find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was a great jarl named Sidroc. That was fun because the moment I saw that name, many years ago, I loved it and thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.

M.F.: Your books are self-published. Why did you make that decision and what have your experiences been?

O.R.: I never set out to self-publish because when I started writing Circle of Ceridwen Saga book one, it was 1991 and there was no such thing as self-publishing. There were traditional publishers and there were vanity presses. But I did go the traditional route, and when I completed that first manuscript, I was able to place it with an agent, who had no success whatsoever in placing it with a publishing house. That went on through a couple of years and a couple of agents. Finally, in 1998, when I first had an author website–I am very proud and happy that it is the twentieth anniversary of Octavia.net now because there are very few authors who had websites twenty years ago. One of the reasons I wanted a website is first because I wanted to share all of my research, and so I wrote scores of mini essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, and medieval life in general. I used the website as a dissemination source for people who were interested in the era. Before the advent of Wikipedia I got a tremendous number of hits. There was not a lot of information out there.

The other thing I did in 1998 was to take a page out of Charles Dickens’s book and publish serially. So jointly with my then agent, we thought if you can show New York publishers that you’ve got a platform and followers now, that may sway their opinion.

M.B.: That’s what authors are often told.

O.R.: It actually does not matter at all to traditional publishers. There have been many instances of people with enormous platforms, yet traditional publishers will not look at them or only look at them in a specific way. For instance, [they will only consider] print only deals because they don’t want the bloom off of the rose. They want to mold something themselves. Anyway, nothing kept happening. Fortunately, I kept writing the saga and pretty much had given up the idea of ever being published. But I needed to continue the story for my own sake, so I completed the trilogy. By then the world of publishing was changing, and in 2008 Amazon introduced the Kindle. It revolutionized things because it made it easier for people to self-publish.

I did not put the trilogy on Amazon until 2012. When I did, I was fortunate enough to have a body of work — three initial novels — and that was an important leg up because people could move from one book to the next and reach an almost immediate audience. It proved to me that I did have an audience and potentially quite a large one.

Armed with the fact that the books were selling well, I felt confident to continue the saga. There are now seven books, all under my own imprint. When I look at the entire dramatic arc of the characters in history that I am covering, I foresee potentially ten books or more. I am happy that I persevered, I believed in my talent, I believed in my power to communicate a good story, but also I was able to do this because finally technology caught up to the point where I could, in fact, reach the audience and bypass the gatekeepers.

M.F.: When did you found Pyewacket Press?

O.R.: In 2012, when I first published on Kindle, I wanted an imprint name. After Kindle, I very quickly got on Nook, iBooks, which is now called Apple Books, Kobo, which is a Canadian retailer which sells e-books primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Then print books followed and audio books. I have done all of that under the aegis of Pyewacket Press. I have used the name of my beloved little Bengal cat since 2012.

M.F.: One of the issues with self-publishing is that anybody can put anything out there. How do you distinguish yourself from others?

O.R.: The figure was just released that a million books were self-published in the last twelve months. A million! That’s astounding. Discoverability was always difficult, but it is more challenging than ever to differentiate yourself and to be discovered in such a crowded market. Yet there are people knowing tremendous success all the time, even in the most crowded markets, because if you are writing thrillers or romance, you are already writing to a huge existing market of voracious readers who are great consumers of books. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a crowded market. You just really have to keep high standards because you are writing for readers who have a lot to compare you against. But I think any dedicated and talented writer can make their way today. It just takes tremendous perseverance.

M.F.: Do you think self-publishing is more fan-driven than traditional publishing?

O.R.: Absolutely! In traditional publishing you have to have an and an acquiring and a marketing and acquisitions staff who all love your work. They have to become your fans, but that’s a fairly small team. Whereas if you can release your books in multiple markets around the world, in whatever language you’re supporting, you can get a much broader base, and those are the people who actually buy your book. So, yes, it’s highly fan-driven but every writer needs to have fans. And those are people who endorse and are passionate about your work.

M.F.: What obstacles have you encountered during the self-publishing process?

O.R.: Technically it can be pretty daunting. The actual publishing itself is simple; Amazon has a downloadable free guide that walks you through the steps of formatting your Kindle book. It’s more technical to set up a print book on Create Space or Ingram, but it can be done. I think the supporting technical roles of managing the business side of advertising and promotion are very time-consuming and can be difficult. Be prepared to hire the best talent possible, whether it’s for your cover or your audio book. There’s always a way around technical or time limitations, but you need to be strategic with your resources and invest in yourself, to understand that the most important part of starting a career is to put out a quality book and then to promote it properly. I don’t care if you are eating beans; it’s worth it. Seeing those initial royalties roll in and realizing you are communicating with people, connecting with people who love your work, then it’s worth every sacrifice you’ve made.

M.F.: I would assume the good part of self-publishing is the ability to control the entire process.

O.R.: I have many friends who have been traditionally published and have been driven half mad by editors, book designers and others. Even though you are going it alone and you have full veto rights on things, that responsibility is an awesome one, and hopefully you are relying on the judgment of people you trust to guide you. Yes, you do have that control. You have the control over where your books are going to be, how they will be presented, how they will be marketed, and it could mean quite a bit of trial and error because you’re foregoing the expertise traditional publishers bring, but you are able  to make one-on-one connections with independent bookstores and to make those marketing decisions as to how you are going to present your book to the public, and that’s enormous. It’s an enormous responsibility, but it is also an enormous freedom.

M.F.: Is there anything you’d like to add?

O.R.: I’m often asked to advise people who are starting out. I would say, obviously, write the best book that you can. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t rush to publication. Make sure it’s a book that you love and are proud of every word.

The second bit of advice that I give is that it is enormously helpful to have a body of work. If you have two or three books, it’s huge when you are publishing under your own imprint. If you offer book one at a low price because you want people to be introduced to it, or you’re offering it for free with a sign-up on your website, then you want to be able to give people something so when they love that book, they will be able to go on and buy books two and three at full price. If you have more than one book to begin with, that’s just marvelous. You don’t want to come out with a great book and have people say, “Oh, I love this author,” and then there’s nowhere to go. Obviously, I write series and it’s the same group of characters moving through time and space. That in itself is addictive for the reader and you want the story to continue, but even if you’re an author who’s writing maybe about an unconnected group of characters, but you form an audience in book one, they are going to want to see your next book. If you can have two or three books before you begin, that’s a wonderful advantage for you.

The third thing that I love to tell people, and I can’t say it often enough, is that, sadly, we have brought up a generation of readers who think books should be free. Free or cheap. It’s so important, and I say this over and over again, if you do not value your own talent, do not expect anyone else to do so. I’m always encouraging people to price their books appropriately within their genre. My books are expensive because people who read historical fiction will pay a bit more for the quality of the material, and I just feel that people who are going out with perma-free books are adding to the problem and not the solution. It’s alright to offer book one for free in exchange for something like building your email list, but I do feel very strongly that one must value one’s own talent and as quickly as possible build people up to paying full price. Look at an author in your genre whom you very much admire and whose work is similar to your own and price yourself accordingly. Hopefully, it is very close if not at what their Kindle book is selling for. Again, I feel we have to stop this. It should be a rare thing to have a free book. It should be a treat. We wouldn’t have the number of books out there clogging people’s Kindles if there was just more discernment from authors themselves. Much of it is desperation and driven by lack of self-worth. If you’ve written a good book, it is worthy and you are worthy of being well-paid for it.

______________________________________________________________________________

Maggie Fry has spent the last thirty years on a small hobby farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she raised sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks, in addition to rescuing cats and dogs. When she wasn’t playing in the dirt, she wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching courses in writing and public speaking at the university level. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and currently teaches in the Communications Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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The Forester’s Soup

I should have been frightened that July afternoon when the Gestapo came to my grandfather’s Bavarian home, and if I’d known what my Opa knew, I would have been. Our benefactor, Graf von Schreiber, had been shot for treason. He’d attempted to assassinate our Führer. Yesterday. With a bomb. But I didn’t know.

My father was a faithful soldier. My Opa kept me safe while Papa was gone. The sounds of war, even when they neared, snagged on the dark bowers of the forest that surrounded our cottage. Snug amid the spruce trees, there was little for a ten-year-old girl to fear in that warm July of 1944.

Still, these Gestapo were to be respected. I gawked at them from the kitchen doorway. My grandfather shooed me away. When his attention was once again diverted, I moved back to where I could see and hear.

Two of the men were my papa’s height, but their uniforms, the color of dehydrated moss, were different than my father’s tree-bark gray. The third man, the tallest, had a deep voice and a pretty face and his left fingers tap-tapped on his thigh, busy as a hungry woodpecker. The combination almost made me giggle, but Opa gave me that look of his. The one that stopped me right where I stood.

Opa offered the men chairs, but they remained standing.

“Will you be staying the night?” he asked.

“No. We’ve work to do,” the pretty man said.

“You’ll have supper though?”

The pretty man met my grandfather’s gaze for a long moment before turning toward his men. He motioned toward me and then pointed at the stairs that led to our bedrooms. One of the men walked to the stairs. The other toward me.

I shrank into the kitchen and backed against the wall. The man ignored me. Stooping over, he looked beneath the sink. I scraped at a grass stain on my dress. I’d been digging up rain worms beneath the forest’s trees. I’d found three, each longer than my arm. Opa said we’d fish with them after supper.

The man in our kitchen looked in the pantry and stomped the floors. He went out the back door. I followed and stood on the step while he circled the wood pile. I picked up a stick and poked at pungent dirt in a wooden bucket. My worms were tunneling in there. Later I’d cut them up for fish bait. The man leaned toward the forest as though listening to whispers. If he heard anything, it would’ve surprise me. I hadn’t seen deer in over a year and I’ve never seen Gämse with their funny hooked horns.

He walked back to where I waited. I asked, “Do you want to see my riesige würmer?”

Nein,” he said, pushing past.

Annoyed he didn’t want to see my worms, I followed him. I stood in the room with the policemen and my grandfather, arms crossed and feet planted.

The pretty man paced. Opa and the other two men sized each other up and decided what could and couldn’t be talked about. They spoke about papa so far away, about the war and rations. I kicked at a warped floorboard and watched dried mud fall from my shoes. We’d had such fun on our hike this morning. Usually Opa and I walked alone, and he’d point out grouse and ptarmigan. Today though, my friends from the village came with us, and—

Hands slapped down on my shoulder jolting me from my thoughts. The pretty man moved me aside. He kicked my warped board once, twice. It didn’t budge.

“Herr Hoffman,” he said, turning from me and the board. “Do you know Graf von Schreiber?”

“Me? No. I’m only a Förster.”

“You are a family friend?”

Opa laughed. “An old man like me? Friends with a count? No. I’m friends with the trees.”

What a strange answer! Just this morning the Countess von Shreiber had summoned Opa. We’d guided her boys—my friends—and their Great Uncle Max on a mountain hike. Oskar and Will rat-a-tatted machine guns made of broken tree limbs. I hid among the evergreens and spied upon my Opa. I heard Uncle Max make Opa promise to find Graf von Shreiber’s boys, which made no sense because they weren’t even pretending to hide. And oh, they were making such noise.

So now I said, “Großvater, our hike this morning—”

“Rosa. Seen. Not heard.” Opa’s voice quavered. The kitchen man smirked. Perhaps he thought Opa was afraid, but I knew better. That tremble was anger. I’d forgotten the rules. We never talked about other families. I kicked at the floorboard again.

The pretty man studied my messy clothes, his smile fierce and lovely. “You hiked this morning? Alone?”

“I walked with Opa and… and I dug up worms. The big ones. Do you want to see them?”

The man’s smile widened. He patted my head and nodded at Opa. “We’ll sit.”

Opa beckoned. “Come here, Rosa.” I moved to his side and he squeezed my hand. “You must make these busy men supper.”

“But we were going—”

“But nothing. Cook up that catfish we caught this morning.” He turned to the three men. “We don’t have much, but it is yours.”

I stared at Opa, my mouth slack.

“Don’t be rude. Go now.”

I snapped my mouth shut. I wanted to tell Opa we had no catfish. We had mustard seed, and cabbage, and some early apples. There were last fall’s Juniper berries in a jar in the pantry. They made everything taste better. And just today, after parting ways with our friends, we bought two eggs and a bit of milk in the village. I’d never made spaetzle, but I could try. Catfish though? That we didn’t have.

“Rosa, go.”

I scurried to the kitchen.

Behind me the pretty man said. “Herr Hoffman. You go too.”

In the kitchen I laid out our ingredients for my grandfather. I made the broth, rich and sweet, and added potatoes for body. Opa mixed the dough and added spaetzle one by one to the simmering liquid. He and I ate a bowlful and savored each spoonful.

“Get that catfish now, Rosa. They’re in the bucket outside. I think the two larger ones will do. We’ll use the other later.”

I giggled, finally understanding. “But Opa, why?”

“Someday, you’ll know why. You’ll know why these men, why this day. Right now, no more questions.”

While the men smoked their cigarettes we washed those worms carefully, as though they were new potatoes and we’d be eating the skins. As the men drank from silver flasks and poured over local maps we chopped our worms into little pieces and added them to the broth. The men talked in whispers while the soup simmered a long, long time. My grandfather tasted the wurmsuppe, and said. “More juniper berries I think.” I crushed them and stirred them in and he teased, “Sehr gut. Take a bite, Rosa.”

Our visitors suspected nothing, although the pretty man commented, “One can never fully hide the taste of muck when catfish is caught during July’s heat.” Still, they emptied their bowls.

After daylight gave way to new-moon dark, the men stole past the bucket with its one large worm and taking the path that led to our friends’ village, they disappeared beneath the bowers of the forest.

So, I ask you, what was there for a ten-year-old girl to fear that torrid July in 1944, with juniper berries for bitter soup, and spruce trees for hiding, and Opa to keep me safe?

______________________________________________________________________________

Barbara Rath writes prose poetry and fiction in the dark hours that surround full-time technical work. She has been published in the online journals, The Birds We Piled Loosely and The Scarlet Leaf Review (August 2018)She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the University of New Hampshire, holds memberships with Boston’s Grub Street and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (NHWP), and just finished a stint as host for NHWP’s craft and publication webinars. Ms. Rath’s writing journey is chronicled at http://barbararath.com.

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And Anathema

I always think fondly of my old master, Hubrecht of Ain, on cold clear evenings such as this. Evenings when the pall of smoke from a thousand cook stoves hangs pungent in the air and the black velvet sky with its endless spattering of stars seems not far off but mere inches above our heads. The old ones believed that the via Lactia, the Milky Way, was caused by droplets of milk spilled from the breasts of the goddess Hera. They had wondrous imaginations, those ancients.

I remember how Hubrecht’s deep voice rang in the Observatorium, that chilly stone cupola in the high Alps where we passed so many nights. There I sat in darkness as rich and black as the soot from a tallow candle and scratched numbers on waxed panels, using a sharp stylus tipped with the finger bone of a mouse. We could not rely on ink because it would freeze solid, so the ancient tabula rasa had to do. And he, Hubrecht, would stand still as death, his yellowed eye pressed unblinking against a bubble of glass at the small end of his far-seeing tube, as he muttered numbers and degrees to me, all the while ooohhing at each new marvel.

Today, Hubrecht seems like a figure from legend, a giant of a man from a more heroic age. It brings up my hot-blood to recall the ways those priests hurt him in the name of faith, humiliated him. He was not a mountebank or a necromancer but a man of science, a pillar of wisdom.

Above us in those Alpine latitudes was a sky exploding with stars, crisscrossed with bright streaks of meteors. Some nights I dreamed that I could travel to those stars, as one would take a mail boat to the next town. With unbelievable clarity, I saw a stout vessel, a colossal metal shaft rising on a column of fire, bound for the heavens. When I told my dreams to the master he drew back his hand to strike me. Then his wrinkled face cracked and, a miracle, he laughed and nodded. Instead of a blow, he patted me gently on the head. Perhaps he had dreamed of this too? We never spoke of it again.

Now, as I open his notebooks, some parts of them in my own hand, I am warmed by the old man’s wit, his scholarship and his crabby complaining. We shall miss him forever. On a page with a torn edge, he writes:

It is a structure of such heavenly magnificence that it eludes description. A Ring! Gigantic, incredible. Surrounding the planet Saturnus! Each night subtending a slightly different angle; its movement so small as to be unknowable without the finest markings on the quadrant.

If this ring truly exists, it will overturn a thousand years of false astronomy. The great crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic sky will shatter like a drunkard’s jeroboam. And even better, won’t those whoreson Jesuits scream like they’ve been scalded—the rogues.

Here, at the perfect center of a 1000 cubit square, even one candle is forbidden because its glow will confound and dim our sight, much as octopodiae stain clear water with their ink.

Night after night I fix myself in place, gazing through this brazen tube, its greater glass and its lesser in perfect conjunction with mine own eye. Here I stand, seeing farther than any man who has ever lived, Popes included. Seeing into the very heavens, perhaps into the mind of great God himself.

After a lifetime of pondering the changes in the seasons, the puzzling rise and fall of the ocean’s tides, the slow aging of rocks, the alchemy of water as it thickens into ice, the flight of birds large and small, I have been given a gift beyond price, a treasure. Even the sharp needles in my knees and old elbows cannot dim my great joy. I must clench my fist to warm it and to keep from shaking the tube.

I was thought a fool as a boy. And I have been called a madman more than once. But they had to treat me differently after I taught the Duke of Parma how to aim his cannons. Now in my dotage, I shall have my triumph. No one shall gainsay my labors, deny my result, my Saturnus. My place, my glory….

Here he breaks off writing. And I know why—for I stood next to him. At that moment the mossy-cheeked ‘prentice, Guilliam, no more than twelve years old, ran into the dome of the observatorium, his eyes wide with horror, his clothes torn. Blood redder than Mars ran down his face from a deep cut in the forehead. When he saw our master, he stopped and screamed.

“Run my lord… the Inquisition!”

How I wept as they took Hubrecht. How I ached from the beating I received defending him. He shouted to me in coded Latin to save the tube, his precious far-seeing tube. Of course

I did. The next entry in his notebooks is almost three years later. And the hand which writes it shakes, badly. They tortured him, beat him. He did not speak a word, would not confess or recant his science until, cruelest of all, they arranged that he should not be able to see the night sky.

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Gregory Von Dare is a writer and dramatist specializing in forward-leaning theatre and fiction, often with a humorous or ironic twist. He attended Chicago City College and the University of Illinois. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Armed Forces Radio and Fox Sports. Recently, his fiction appeared on the Soft Cartel, Out of the Gutter, 50 Word Stories, Rejected Manuscripts, Silent Motorist, and Horror Tree websites. One of his mystery short stories will be published in print this fall by Flame Tree Press in England. Greg is an Affiliate Member of Mystery Writers of America. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.

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New Copperfield Review Honors!

Hello friends. Great news! The Copperfield Review has been named among The Top 35 Historical Book Blogs, Websites and Newsletters To Follow. Here’s the link at Feedspot to see the article. Be sure to check out the other great places for our favorite genre, historical fiction.

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Women’s March on Versailles

‘Cécile, Cécile!’ Victoire’s voice sounded more like a whisper instead of a shout. The roars of the women who had gathered on the market place reigned over the usual tones that governed Paris. Vendors muttered into each other’s ears rather than yelling the latest prices of cabbages and onions. The clicking of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles was buried underneath the clanging bells of the nearby Sainte-Marguerite church.

‘Cécile!’ Victoire shouted again while the woman next to her yelled that they must march to the city hall before going to Versailles. The king would listen if they had weapons.

Victoire tried to remember when she had last felt her sister’s soft hand holding her own dry, cracked skin. The child had been standing next to her when she had accused the baker’s wife of hoarding grain to drive up the prices. Twelve sous! For bread that was blackened, hard enough to hammer every nail back into the crumbled walls of the Bastille. Then Cécile had been playing with a worn-out doll on the pavement while Victoire manoeuvred underneath the red parasols of a café, gulping down someone else’s wine. She could still taste the watered-down flavour of red grapes and cherries on the tip of her tongue. Victoire remembered going back to the baker’s shop, Cécile holding Victoire’s hand, hiding behind a group of outraged water-carriers, waiting until the baker’s wife would make a mistake. Cécile had wanted to say something, but Victoire had shushed her, and when the well-fed woman was about to blunder, Cécile was gone.

‘Have you seen a girl?’ Victoire asked a thin woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. ‘She’s nine, grey skirt, ginger-brown hair, missing all her front teeth except one.’ The woman shook her head.

The newly formed national guard whistled and clapped when the market women began their march towards the Place de Grève. Vendors started to load their wares into wagons.

Victoire looked inside an abandoned carriage, behind a heap of empty barrels, underneath a market stall, and behind piled up cages holding chickens captive. She even had the courage to step over a dead cat and peer into a small alleyway.

Victoire placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. She had wanted to leave her sister at home, but she had not forgotten yesterday, and neither had Cécile. Glass shattering on the ground, a faint fragrance of jasmine filling the room, the only bottle of perfume Victoire had ever owned. Wasted. Broken. She had slammed her fists on the wobbly kitchen table, pulled at her sister’s hair and locked her out of the mice-infested chambers Victoire rented in a five-storey building. Victoire had yelled at her sister, telling her that she was a plague, while Cécile sobbed in the hallway. This morning when Cécile had asked to come, she had wanted to say no, but couldn’t.

Victoire ran to the other side of the square. Tripping over a raised cobblestone, she fell into a stream that flowed into the marketplace from under the gates of the butcher’s inner courtyard, its red colour gluing itself to her plain blue dress.

‘I can scrub that off for you, only two sous.’

Victoire shuddered. She recognised that croaky voice. She was skilled in avoiding the bony figure and grey sunken eyes that accompanied it. Victoire and Cécile called her Mme Macabre, Cécile being convinced that she must be at least two hundred years old and had crawled out of one of Paris’s overcrowded graveyards. Mme Macabre lived in the same building. She always sat in a chair, blocking the doorway with a woven laundry basket resting in her lap. The same one she was carrying now.

‘I’ve lost my sister, have you seen her?’

‘Escaped, has she? I would have run away sooner.’

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

‘If my sister fell into the Seine, and drowned, or was hit by a carriage, or trampled upon by the mob, or I don’t know what, it’s your fault.’

Mais non, she was eating cheese and went that way.’

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

‘Very well.’ Mme Macabre walked away and sat down on a taboret. Victoire sighed. She gave Mme Macabre her arm without looking at her, while the laundry basket was pushed into Victoire’s other arm.

Mme Macabre led Victoire to the Place de Bastille, her sour-smelling hair blowing into Victoire’s face every time there was a gust of wind. Her long nails piercing through Victoire’s cotton sleeves.

Victoire felt as angry as the men who had fired at the fortress some weeks ago. She remembered the smoke, the heat, the sound of cannon balls flattening the walls. She had heard every command Stanislas Maillard had been yelling at his fellow citizens. She had seen his every movement, his nonchalant way of loading his musket, throwing his liberty cap into the air when the Bastille was taken and the tired scowl on his face when only seven prisoners could be found within its damp walls. She had wanted to embrace him, kiss him, tell him that he was a hero. Instead she had gone home, answering her sister’s silly questions while Victoire chased a mouse with a broom.

Mme Macabre pointed to the Rue St Antoine. The usual stench of fishbones and rotting lettuce mingled with sewage made Victoire wish she had no sense of smell at all. This street went to the Place de Grève. Cécile must have followed the market women to the city hall.

‘You can manage on your own,’ Victoire said as she put the laundry basket on the ground and walked away as quickly as she could. She had already passed the now barricaded drapery shop when she heard that croaky voice call her back.

‘I’m acquainted with those aristocrats you play housemaid for. And you’re a little thief, aren’t you? Stealing rouge from Mademoiselle’s boudoir to hide those filthy smallpox marks on your face.’

Victoire clenched her fists. Five years had passed, she still went to the Notre-Dame every day to light a candle for her parents. She stamped her foot on the ground and returned. Mme Macabre flinched when Victoire grabbed her arm.

‘You’re French. Not a savage,’ Mme Macabre said while she stroked her arm as if Victoire had inflicted her with a mortal wound.

‘I don’t like spies.’

‘I’m not a spy. You’re just not very good at keeping secrets.’

Mme Macabre looked behind her after every five steps, scrutinising every alleyway as if she expected masked men to rob her at any moment.

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

Victoire untied her stained shawl and wrapped it around Mme Macabre’s shoulders.

‘Look, there’s a bench, wouldn’t you like to wait, while I get my sister?’

‘I lost my husband sixteen years ago, never found him.’

‘Oh, is that why you always sit in the doorway? Waiting for your valiant musketeer to return? Better hope he brings something to eat.’

‘Here, have this.’ Mme Macabre gave Victoire a small slice of bread. Splitting the bread in two, Victoire put one half in her pouch, the other in her mouth. She almost choked when she swallowed the thick crust. She felt as if she had forgotten how to chew, forgotten that bread was supposed to be soft, tasting of salt and butter, not leathery or dry.

Something shiny sticking out of Mme Macabre’s laundry basket caught Victoire’s attention. She took it out.

‘Some deranged plan to kill Madame Deficit?’ Victoire asked holding a large breadknife in her hand.

Mais non. We’re not English, we don’t kill queens.’

‘I would be honoured to take you to the asylum at Charenton, I’m sure they’ve got clean water, and nice soft sheets.’

Non, It’s for him.’

‘Your husband? Poor you! Whatever did he do?’

‘He exists.’

Victoire put the breadknife back into the basket while Mme Macabre covered it up with a foul-smelling petticoat that had been half-eaten by moths.

Mme Macabre told Victoire all about her arranged marriage, how her husband used to gobble when he ate, how he used to snort and puff in his sleep, how he used to strangle all of the air out of the room, and how she lost him at a market stall selling apples. Apples! Something else Victoire didn’t remember the taste of.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him ever coming back,’ Victoire said as their footsteps echoed in the empty archway of a church. She tried to quicken her pace when the cheers and drums of the crowd came closer, but every time she did so Mme Macabre fastened her nails even deeper into Victoire’s flesh.

The crowd on the Place de Grève was larger than Victoire had expected. A group of women were hauling a cannon out of the city hall, while others ran around with muskets and sabres. She told Mme Macabre to wait next to some bourgeoisie-dressed ladies who were debating what should be done with the quartermaster who had tried to stop them from taking gunpowder.

‘I will not be left alone,’ Mme Macabre tried to grab Victoire’s sleeve but Victoire was too fast. Seeing her sister nowhere on the square, she ran into the city hall. The many wooden clogs stomping on the floor made the candles hanging in webs of colourless crystal tremble. A statue had fallen on the ground; its head had rolled into an open broom cupboard.

She had to squirm her way into the next room where a strong smell of burning paper made her take out her handkerchief and cover her nose and mouth. No Cécile. She went upstairs. A group of women were running down, pushing Victoire against the bannister while throwing papers into the air and ripping them to shreds.

Victoire pulled at her bodice to get some air. White dots were dancing before her eyes, obscuring the heaven scene depicted on the painting opposite her. She sat down on the marble steps, wanting to cry out when someone stepped on her hand, leaving a red boot print on her pale skin, but no sound would leave her lips. She was aware of cloudy voices muttering in the distance, of being lifted, of feeling too hot, of feeling too cold, of having something forced down her throat, of drizzle falling softly on her cheeks.

The dots ceased dancing. She was leaning against the rugged bricks of the city hall. Something with a bitter, yeasty taste was stuck between her front teeth, she moved her tongue to remove it. A small hand was holding hers.

‘You looked like a ghost, and a man carried you outside, and I gave him my cheese, and he gave it to you, and he said you would get better, and you are better now, aren’t you?’

Cécile’s eyes were red and swollen. Victoire pulled her closer. Holding her as tight as she could, she kissed her on the forehead, only letting go when Cécile started to wriggle.

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

‘I did not. I was waiting for you, like she said I should, and I did, and you didn’t come.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

Cécile stared at the ground, rubbing the hem of Victoire’s dress between her palms.

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

‘We’re going home.’ Victoire swayed when she stood up. She saw Mme Macabre’s bony figure speaking to a group of women. They laughed, shook their heads and walked away. Mme Macabre tried to grab someone’s sleeve and was rewarded with a raised fist, after which, she attempted to climb on one of the carts, changing her mind when the owner’s black dog bared its teeth.

Victoire sighed. She tried to figure out if she should pity or despise Mme Macabre. She gave Cécile the piece of bread she had saved earlier, while the crowd shouted, ‘to Versailles,’ and raised their pitchforks and pikes into the air.

The crowd started to leave the square in a long procession just when large raindrops began to fill the grooves between the cobblestones. They looked just as disciplined as the king’s royal army.

Victoire descended the steps of the city hall. Attentively listening to the sound of Cécile’s clogs clacking behind her, she tapped Mme Macabre on the shoulder.

‘Don’t you ever leave me alone again,’ Mme Macabre said.

‘Who do you think I am? Your wet nurse?’

Mais non. No harm done, but we must not dally. We must follow. Quickly.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

‘Versailles is farther away than the next street corner, you know that, don’t you?’

Bien sûr, and I know where the royals store their bread.’

‘By the time you are there, there won’t be anything left to ransack.’

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

‘Please,’ Cécile said while she was licking bread crumbs from her fingers, ‘I want to go too.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Victoire dragged Cécile away from Mme Macabre, ignoring the old woman’s threats about those aristocrats she worked for, and the stealing and the rouge.

‘That’s him! He gave you my cheese,’ Cécile pointed to a man with an untrimmed beard, his hair partly hidden away underneath a hat, the red-white-blue cockade of the revolution pinned on his dark brown coat. Maillard.

Victoire moved closer. This time she would have the courage to speak to him, thank him, perhaps even kiss him on the cheeks. She stopped when she overheard him complaining to another revolutionist about this miserable army that he was forced to lead. Victoire had to suppress the urge to slap him. Whispering instructions into Cécile’s ear, she gave her sister the last four sous she had. Cécile disappeared.

The raindrops had changed into a rainstorm. Victoire smiled. Only last week she remembered running inside a shoemaker’s shop, pretending to buy something until they chased her out. Now she wiped the rouge she had so carefully applied this morning from her cheeks. It didn’t matter anymore.

Cécile came back with a cart, pulled by two women. Victoire went to Mme Macabre who was watching the marchers leaving the square.

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

Mme Macabre revealed her yellowish-brown teeth, thanking Victoire three times while she loaded her laundry basket on the wagon. Victoire seized Mme Macabre’s wrist. She had wanted to pinch her, but the widening of Mme Macabre’s grey eyes and her trembling body deterred Victoire from doing so.

‘Use my sister against me again, and I’ll find a use for that breadknife of yours,’ Victoire whispered in Mme Macabre’s ear.

‘You wouldn’t have come if I had asked,’ Mme Macabre said in a weak voice.

‘You don’t know that,’ Victoire paused. No, if Mme Macabre had knocked on her door this morning she wouldn’t have opened it, but now she wasn’t so sure, ‘you’ve succeeded in making me feel responsible for you.’

Victoire helped Mme Macabre climb into the cart. Cécile crawled beside Mme Macabre who took the child’s hand and lay it in her lap.

‘I was a cook at Versailles once,’ Mme Macabre said, ‘no need to let those wretched children starve, I thought, the king didn’t think so. I slept in the dungeons for giving his surpluses away.’

‘Men may have stormed the Bastille,’ Victoire said, ‘women will do more than storming Versailles, we’ll eat the king’s bread and take him back to Paris, where he belongs.’

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

Signe Maene is from Belgium where she lives in Ghent. She studies English literature at the Open University UK. Her first language is Flemish.

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Cassandra of Troy

Listen soldier. Your master may have told you rumours of my madness, or he may have told you nothing at all. Agathe here has been my handmaiden for many years now, she will vouch for my honesty when I ask of you what I am about to ask. The three of us here, locked together in this room, are the last hope of Troy.

Agathe, take this message from me and give it to – your name, soldier? Belos. A fine name. Give it to him. Read it soldier, please. I may be your prisoner but even prisoners have the right to be heard, no? Ah, they never taught you to read.

This is what the message says: that this offering of peace is not what it seems. The behemoth now standing inside our gates is no mere statue, no mere toy, but a vessel for a veritable army. In it, enemy soldiers lie in wait. They are listening to the people of Troy celebrate the end of the war. But when the jubilations end, when the people of this city put their heads down to sleep, these vipers will strike. They will cut with their steel, they will rend flesh from bone and our streets will to rivers of blood. All of Troy shall know the sound a soul makes as it slips it bonds.

I can see by the set of your brow that you do not believe me, Belos the soldier. No matter. I am not sure that I believe myself. All I know is that terror has possessed my heart, that I must speak while I have a throat and a mouth with which to speak. I must speak lest I scream. I ask this of you because of my fear for Troy and those who rejoice within its walls. I am its princess, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. You must believe that I have only the best interests of the people at heart. Mark my words: there is no safe place for you soldier, unless you do what I ask. You will die come the dawn when they strike. It will be you who is struck down when the great warrior Agamemnon comes to take me as his prize.

How do I know what will befall us all? Because I remember the future. This is my malady, my curse. You laugh. No matter. These pictures in my minds, they are like the memories of dreams, and they have the quality of a dream.

You refuse me. Who are you to refuse me? I may be your prisoner, for now, but I am still your Princess. And you must obey. You say that I am mad.

Agathe, is my madness known throughout the land? Don’t stay silent. Tell me. I know I must seem mad, given what I have just done. Agathe, you were not there so let me tell you. I went to the public square by our city’s grand gates, having heard the rumours of the Greeks’ great gift to our people, a token of their surrender. I had a fear on me, that something I had foreseen long ago had finally arrived. And when I saw it, a huge wooden horse, that fear gripped me so totally that I screamed. All in the square beheld their mad princess as she grabbed an axe from a nearby workman and ran for the behemoth, hoping to crack it open like a great egg, to reveal the soldiers within. I was grabbed, pulled at, arrested, my royal dignity taken from me. Doubt not – I am here in my rooms in the palace but I am a prisoner. I am your prisoner.

Belos, Agathe here was a mere chattel slave when my family rose her up. Now she is a slave-maiden of the palace, vassal to those of royal blood. And yet she – and yet you refuse to answer my question, ungrateful girl – ah, she speaks.

See, soldier, listen to the girl’s words. It is not my madness that is known, but my gift for prophecy.  Fine then, my claim to prophecy. Yes, some have come true.

Agathe, water.

What do you think of this fair maiden? Is she not a beauty. More, Agathe, there is a great thirst on me. More. Enough, sit.

Do you not think her beautiful? I can tell that you do by the way you looked at her when you locked us in. She is well-fed, fair. Young. All a brave soldier such as you should want as a reward for your sacrifices in the name of Troy, for your heroism. Do this last deed for me and you will be rewarded; I will allow you to take her in marriage. You will be given land and wealth, a title even if you desire it. Ah, now your hilarity has failed you. This is well within my power and you know it.

Agathe, stand for the soldier. Stand! Turn for him, let him see all of you. Yes, you do have to obey me as long as you stand within these walls. Disobey and suffer. How would you like it if I let the soldier Belos have you without having to marry you first? You would be disgraced and you know it. Soldier, she is a fine prize, certainly worth what I ask of you.

You will not go? But see her slender neck, her fine hands. See her hips; she will bear you many children if I command it of her.

From where do you come? A farm boy, I see. So it is not just Agathe who has been raised up by service to the crown. You too have benefited. Therefore, is it not your honour-bound duty to do as I ask?

Your lord’s commands do not outstrip mine! Your war-lords answer to the crown, they answer to me. They may hold me in this room, they may bar the door, they may run me with a sword but they must obey those who veins run with royal blood!

When those foreign hordes come there will be no commanders, no lord and ladies, no King or Queen. No Princess… no Agathe, leave me be. I am not tired, I am not desirous of sleep. My eyes are terribly open. Take my message, soldier. Time slips out grasp every moment you delay. Go. Go.

He will not. He will not.

What’s it to you if the stories of my madness are true or exaggerated? Surely you value your life. Then you should take all precautions to guard it. How can a corpse fulfil its duty? Go then, go with my message. If I am right you will be saved. If not, then all will be well.

Believe me now, I beg of you. If you do not believe my prophecy, because I fear that that is what it is, believe my terror is real. Let your charity guide you from your post, to your commander, to one who can help us. Let your soldier’s gallantry propel you with my message in hand. See, the stars outside are smouldering as they always have in my memories of this night.

* * * * *

I didn’t hear you, Agathe, say it again.

Oh, Belos doesn’t want to listen to a mad woman speak, does he?

I remember the future. They rise the way silt rises through water, when disturbed at the bottom of a pond – hazy, partial, yet distinct. I mentioned the temple. Yes, that is when it began. Myself and my brother, taken by that child’s sense of adventure, of freedom even though we were of the palace and therefore had no freedom. We ran past the guards, who clunked after us in their armour, giving good chase but not good enough. Down the winding streets we went, passing our subjects. Groups of children at play – I longed to join them but knew I could not. Those urchins had no choices, most would die soon, but in a strange way they were unburdened too, whereas we would inevitably have to return to the strictures of royal life.

At least I knew this. But Helenus ran like a wild goose among them, until his clothes were torn and dust-choked. He almost looked like one of them, except too well-fed to be poor. His eyes glinted with joy; there was no hint then of the stern warrior he would have to become.

Among the crowded stalls and tables we found a small white horse, finely carved out of wood. Look, my brother said, delighting in it. I loved it, wanted it. But we had no money with us, so we left it behind. I kept thinking about that horse and said to Helenus how much I had liked it. He vanished into the crowd, leaving me bewildered, abandoned and worried about how I would get by on my own. Then he reappeared: he’d stolen the horse for me.

Guiltily but glad of it, I buried it away in the folds of my robes and we ventured on, through the maze of streets. As afternoon became evening we knew that those in the palace would be fearing for us, that we must begin our journey back. Circling back, we saw the steeple of the temple of Apollo rising over the rooftops – let us go there, said Helenus, the adventurous one – and he ran ahead of me, shouting at me to race him there. I darted after him and by taking a side street overtook him, and I was the first to blunder, breathless, up the stone steps and to heave open the ancient doors into that hallowed hall of silence.

I feared the houses of the Gods. I may be a princess but I was conscious that I knew nothing of the world – so how could I know the deities’ obscure workings, the calculations they made about the weight of our small mortal lives? Looking back, Helenus had still not arrived. In the temple stood a statue of the god himself, standing proudly and gazing upwards lyre in hand, and at his feet a wreath of laurels and quiver of arrows, all hewn out of stone, their points blunted by the hands of many worshippers.

Helenus appeared behind me. What are you looking at? He asked. It’s just an old statue, they’re everywhere. I ignored him, a strange feeling had arrested me. It seemed that the statue had turned its eyes downward to regard me, and I swore I could hear the music of His granite lyre… then I was standing on my balcony, looking down on the streets of Troy – all were filled with defiled corpses. Everywhere the city was burning and filled with death – in the distance I perceived the proud head of a giant horse, like my toy grown into hideous gigantism, and the night was filled with the screams of the dying. I recognised some of those corpses as my brother and sisters, members of the court, of the upper classes, lying dead next to the peasants and the beggars, the merchants and the thieves, the landlords and the ladies, the travelling bards, all united finally by death.

Then, Helenus was kneeling over me, shaking me awake, fear in his eyes. I managed to stand, dazed, unsure even of where I was. I dropped my horse – when he tried to give it back to me I screamed, struck by a terrible fear, and a terrible knowledge.

When we finally left the temple to make our way back to the palace, I looked back at the god, but his eyes were turned away.

Helenus had called for guards. They got us home – but it was no more a home for me. Home stopped existing then, as I had seen its end. But at all times I was assailed by doubt – what had I seen? Was it a vision or just some sort of fever dream? I could still hear that music of the lyre, or imagined that I could. I imagined that it had wormed its way into my ears, opening them up to new sounds, new vibrations. I would hear things, see things, that no one else could.

Look. The night is no longer black, but grey. Dawn begins its approach. The revellers are going quiet. The city’s sleep begins.

Yes, fine Agathe. You may sleep too. I want for nothing now. You will not sleep, guard? Fine. That is your decision. Is there no convincing you? I doubt myself but that does not mean I do not want to take precautions. If there is any chance that the sleeper in our midst is a harbinger of the death I saw all those years ago – then I want to take it.

No. No, I see that you will not go.

There is no hope now. A darkness has come upon my heart, that same night of the soul that descended on me in the temple of Apollo. I have spent many nights in doubt, questioning myself and the truth of my memories. I wish I could ask the future whether I should keep trying, or whether I should leap now from the balcony and be done with it.

I don’t need to tell you that no one has believed me, in the same way that you don’t believe me now. Even when my memories of the future have been realised, become present realities, then retreated into past, I was doubted, questioned at every turn, my prophecies explained away as mere chance.

When I was recovering from that incident in the temple, my mother, the Queen Hecuba, came to see me. I tried to tell her what had happened, but she simply brushed my cheek with the back of her hand – warmly, but insistently. I imagine she was afraid of what I might say.

My child, she said. She called me the brightest, most imaginative of all her children, the one who ran to her in the morning with news of my dreams…

When spring came, it was decided, on whose decree I don’t know, that I was free to wander the castle again. But everywhere I was watched. I was not allowed to leave the halls of the palace. A girl from the kitchens who had been my friend, in spite of the distance put between us by our station, was glad of my return and eager to tell me everything that had been happening in the palace. But as soon as we embraced I remembered her death. I remembered that she would grow from an awkward, gangly child into a beautiful, elegant woman, an appealing target for marauding soldiers. I tried to tell her, to warn her, but she pulled away in horror – as if it was what I wanted to happen. As if I, by foretelling the terrors of the future, was awaiting them too.

And so I was tarred: the dreamer of dreams, the one whose mind had broken, the mad daughter of the kind and queen of Troy.

I remember what will happen to you soldier. I remember the glint of the blade, the panicked eyes of the Greek soldier that will kill you by the very door you now guard.

What? The message is on the floor there by Agathe, she dropped it in her sleep. Oh, now you will take it for me? Look, it is almost dawn. All of our chances have passed us by. It doesn’t matter. I remember what will happen to us: all must die. No future I have seen has not happened. Here is the rest of what I remember: the invaders will tear through our city’s tender flesh and render it to dust. Who would have thought that something as permanent as a city could be so frail? It is so hard to imagine – the end, death, destitution. It always happens to other people, and it seems so abstract, until it finally comes for you. I do not remember dying here – I must be taken as a concubine for the warrior Agamemnon as his reward for his bravery in battle, his military genius. And there, his wife, his vengeful wife will kill him, and kill me too in consequence. Did you hear the stories of what he has done? He sacrificed his own daughter to the Gods so they would grant his armies safe passages to our shore.

I have no foretelling of what death is like. That remains as much a black mystery for me as it does for all others. I only hope that I may meet Apollo finally and demand answers from him, demand to know why he has cursed me so.

Listen! Do you hear that? Agathe, awake! Do you hear? It sounds like – yes, it is the clash of swords. A scream! A cry for help! Look – they grey dawn is glowing red. The fires have begun. Oh, the yells of terror! It is happening, it has come. Oh, terrible dawn. Why did I have to be right? Why couldn’t I have been simply a mad girl!

Hear that – that is the palace door being torn down. That is the sound it makes as it crashes to the floor. The streets are filled with fleeing people – come to the window, look at what happens – there is no hope for any of us. No, leave me to my despair! I tried, my whole life I tried. I tried to save us but no one listened.

Agathe: fear not. Your death has not come for you. You will be among the saved but – listen, quieten down. There will be a price for your life. You will be wedded to a foreign invader and taken to a foreign land. Decide now whether this price for your life is worth paying. You will never see your loved ones again, everyone you know now will be dead or far from you. If you do not want to pay this price, leap now and take control. You have been a slave all your life. This is your only chance to control your fate. No? Fine, that is your choice. I choose to meet the end I have foreseen, that has always been laid out for me.

Hear the clash of steel, of armour outside? Your fellow troupe has all been killed. They are bashing down the door! The future has come for us all – well, I am here, standing, to meet it. I have my certainty now, and none may take it from me.

______________________________________________________________

Cathal Kehoe grew up in County Laois, Ireland. After studying English and Film in NUI Galway, he moved to Dublin where he currently lives. He works in Marketing and runs a regular group of like-minded writers who meet every two weeks in Dublin City Centre. In addition to the 9-5, his job on the evenings and weekends is to write short stories and work towards completing his first novel. He has previously had work published in Headstuff.org’s Fortnightly Fiction series. 

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The Magician

In early 1860s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.

Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah, but he owed his freedom to them. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle. Determined to never see a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people.

Shortly afterward, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. But being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. But, the amputation took place too late. The infection had spread throughout his body and killed him.

A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.

She raised Rachel on her own and had a red schoolhouse built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes were allowed to attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, leaving Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.

Though always courteous to the other townspeople, Miss Rachel was thought standoffish. She kept to herself and never displayed deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. Like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them right in the eye. Some folks said she acted that way because of her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder-length black hair. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.

Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. She was never seen with a suitor. Folks said you could set a pocket watch by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was some speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But in truth, they’d only sit in her parlor talking, their behavior and mannerisms having more in common with siblings than lovers.

It was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. After arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d always ask after Samuel. Once Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick.

As he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do magic. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced his technique until he mastered each trick. Mr. Bart then started buying special tricks from a shopkeeper in town to give to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d perform it with Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel serving as his audience.

Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one-room schoolhouse, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she had him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel began performing as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.

To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. They’d dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head with hardly a glance. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d put them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them beneath saddles to ensure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish.

At daybreak, on the day of a show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, his head would swivel left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleys.

Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Samuel kept his performance clothes and freeman papers in the saddlebags. A second set of the papers lay neatly folded in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.

As Toby and Samuel made their way into town, Samuel stopped for a moment in its center. After staring at the makeshift wooden scaffolding for hangings that would serve as the stage for his evening performance he continued on his way. When he reached the far end of town, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. While Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the saddlebags’ strap. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. Then he removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with some of the trough’s dark stagnant water. Next, he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. After drying himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, he slid on his good black trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. He slipped on his socks, then set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair. Then he brushed his thick kinky hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as it could.

With his toilet complete, Samuel started rehearsing. With the patter designed to disguise his feints and misdirection going through his mind, he started with close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. After crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into his fist and opened his hand, revealing an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in one hand, he jerked his wrist downward, and they reassembled into a single solid rope. The practicing continued until Samuel had successfully completed every trick intended to distract and confuse the audience, save two.

With the sun sinking in the sky, the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered. Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform carrying a lumpy canvas bag. As he set down the bag a hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Expecting their reaction, Samuel leaped down into the crowd and pulled a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch the show.

Retaking the stage, Samuel did one trick after another, building suspense while allowing brief interludes for applause. Once all the standard tricks had been completed, it was time for the finale. To begin, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men in the audience and asked them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This would be one of the two special tricks he never rehearsed.

With the crowd hooting, hollering, and laughing at the somewhat sheepishly looking men, Samuel knelt and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. Handing them to the men, he instructed them to bind him well. Children balanced on the tips of their toes and strained their necks to see as a grave quiet fell over the crowd.

The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body as tightly as they could, the chains digging into his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation. And when they were done with him, he asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body, and on thirty, he spun around. As the chains fell to the stage, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped down into the crowd. Hat extended, he accepted the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.

When everyone was gone, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He climbed aboard him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it. All was safe.

As Samuel crept further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. Drawing closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes. Many had beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. A few who regretted leaving behind loved ones or were unable to conquer their fear of the unknown relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. Others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.

With the decisions made, Samuel offered a pregnant woman a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing to an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel helped the old man onto Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom.

They moved under the cover of darkness in silence, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. Being stalwart Christians, the slave owners’ would only delay pursuing their property until Sunday morning church services had ended. Then the tracking hounds would be loosed. Noses to the ground, they’d scamper between the hooves of the horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways and recover what they deemed rightfully theirs.

Despite hiding by day and traveling only at night, the runaways were almost caught many times. It was at those moments that Samuel steadied his breath and prepared to do the secret trick he held in reserve, the illusion of making himself and those around him invisible.

For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through dense forests, tall grass fields and swiftly flowing streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. Finally, on the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst and their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.

“Samuel?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Ma’am.”

“Jim?”

“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”

“Good.”

Samuel crossed the room to the bed and bent his head down. Miss Rachel cupped his face between her frail hands and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the house, and to the old abandoned schoolhouse. There, they gave the knock code and Jim opened the door. He received a kiss from Miss Rachel, then stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.

“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”

The group of runaways crowded around her. One by one they each took her small hand in theirs and thanked her for rescuing them. Tears trickled down the old woman’s face, the conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.

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J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.

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