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.

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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