Category Archives: Fiction

Sons of Jonah

By Judith Joubert

Twelve year-old Diego ran past the men and dipped below the hatch before anyone saw him. The gun deck was darker than he remembered. The animal fat candles in the lamps cast a smaller light, and the outreaches of the deck remained in darkness – wet places where the luminous green eyes of rats were always on the look-out for the unguarded toes, fingers, and ears of the slaves. A phlegm-filled cough from a child’s throat, shallow restless water, and the sound that had woken him last night, the hitting against the side of the ship, only feebler and with longer intersperses. The candles meant to mask the human smells added the smell of unseasoned cooking to that of sweat, urine and faeces in the close air. There was also the absence of sounds: the chains chinking or dragging across the deck as the slaves moved. They were no longer packed in rows but were seated in heaps and groups, open spaces between them. Some stood about on listless legs, the black water covering their feet, anchoring them in the sewerage until they grew roots of their own. The offspring of their seed would never be haunted by memories of home.

“Boy,” Cudjoe’s chest whistled as he breathed. In his hand was a bone.

Diego stared at it, “Where did you get that?” he asked.

“They threw – it down. It’s mine.” It was as long as one of Cudjoe’s hands with two perfect depressions on top where the cartilage used to be. Probably one of Cortez’s bones – the pig they slaughtered before the storm started. The orphaned ship’s boy had named him Cortez – he used to stroke the coarse hair on the pig’s neck as it ate. With his small fists, the boy punched the quarter master’s legs as he slit the screaming pig’s throat. Bright red blood splashed on the deck, ran into pools and congealed. The rest of the day, the boy had sat next to the rail and cried. The sailors must have thrown the bone below after picking it clean to watch the slaves fight over it.

A strange odour escaped Cudjoe’s lips each time he breathed out, like mildewed sponge. “You’re sick,” Diego said, backing away from him.

“Everybody sick. The air – rotten,” the irises of Cudjoe’s eyes merged with the black skin next to it as he searched the full spaces around him for the other slaves. Diego could see only the white orbs of marble in his head and it reminded him of a story that Shorty told the sailors in the forecastle, a story about the walking dead, of how all those killed at sea walked the ocean floor on fleshless limbs, eyes without irises upturned, looking for the hulls of ships passing overhead. They climbed on board and ate the flesh of the living in search of the life they lost. Shorty himself had once seen such an empty ship drifting into port, not a living soul on board. But, Diego could never ask him about it (he was not supposed to be in the forecastle that day, hiding under a bunk and listening to the common sailors talk). Riff-raff, Senhora called them.

A hollow hammering was heard below them and Cudjoe sucked air into his slime-plastered lungs, “They’re fixing the galleon. We’re making for shore.” Diego felt the slaves’ dirty water seep through his shoes and stockings. He’d have to take them off and throw them overboard before anyone found out he’d been there.

“Shore?” Cudjoe asked, the fingers of his long hand touched his temple and moved away, palm up.

“Shore. Land,” Diego said.

“There land here?” Cudjoe leaned on the last bone of Cortez and rose to his feet.

Diego nodded, “We can’t see it yet, but it’s not far.”

Cudjoe pushed his back against a supporting pole, unable to straighten his abdomen. “You have to ask. Them let us out.”

Diego shook his head, “It’s better for you here, up there is rain and wind.” Diego realised that rain and wind above decks sounded better than disease and death below. “You’ll get in the way, they’re busy fixing.”

Cudjoe clutched the pole, the bone dangled against the wood, “We are worth – many cattle – to your father?”

“We don’t trade in cattle, we trade in gold,” Diego’s voice was small. His experience of Portugal was on a par with that of the slaves. What he knew of Portugal was what others had told him. His father described beautiful buildings of many storeys, cathedrals as big as palaces, music performances in opera houses, streets of cobbled stones and terraced walkways. Diego tried to imagine what life would be like without a fort, a place to go when neighbouring rajas and natives attacked. Papa said there was no need for a fort because nobody attacked Portugal and there were no natives, the Portuguese were native of Portugal. Diego had asked if the cobbled streets did not hurt the feet of the elephants. Senhora laughed and said silly boy there are no elephants in Portugal.

Again, Cudjoe’s white sclera shone in the dark as he peered at Diego, “Your father – can sell us – and get – much gold. Let us out – at night. Ask!” he pointed up at the hatchway with the bone. Diego turned about and his foot touched something soft. He recoiled when he saw a woman lie in the water on her side. It covered her one eye, her nose, her one breast, the fingers of the one arm slung over her hips. It slopped around her navel and her calves. “She dead,” Cudjoe said, sinking down with his back against the pole. Diego darted up the ladders before her flesh fell from her bones, before she joined the walking dead on the ocean floor, the whites of her eyes staring up as Cudjoe’s did when he said to ask if they could go up.

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Judith worked as a proofreader at the newspapers for three years and has since been a writing housewife. Her writings have appeared in Vision Magazine, Ancient Paths Christian Literary Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper and Munyori Literary Journal. Her current project, a historical novel, has been approved for funding by the National Arts Council of South Africa. The local literary fair recently invited her to share her material on stage with the likes of award-winning authors such as Fred Khumalo, Yewande Omotoso and Harry Kalmer.

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A Lesson from the Life of Mary Boykin Chesnut

By Philip Hanson

I am always studying these creatures. They are to me inscrutable in their ways and past finding out.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War                                                                               

The Lesson: What You Feel May Be Truer than What You Know

I was willing enough to speak to [the de Saussures’ slave man], but when he saw me advancing for that purpose, to avoid me he suddenly dodged around a corner. . . . His mistress never refused to let him play for any party. . . . He was far above any physical fear for his sleek and well-fed person. How majestically he scraped his foot?as a sign that he was tuned up and ready to begin.

Now he is a shabby creature indeed.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, March, 1861                                                                               

Richard sat out at the edge of the porch just around the corner of the big house, out of sight. He knew exactly how much you could see from that corner window on the porch. You take your rest when you can get it, since you never know how long they might keep you on your feet at any one stretch. Dear old Richard, never misses a beat. Never have to tell him twice. Just the sort of fellow to drop dead standing behind some half-blind old white lady at the table some night. Loyal as a tick hound. Old Richard had taken two fingers of that twenty year-old Scotch, then watered it to make up the difference. He felt fine as the sun reached a point that signaled the onset of dusk. How come blood don’t tell? Ain’t it unerring? You take a drink of that watered down Scotch, ain’t all them generations of aristocratic bloodlines supposed to gather up and scream out the liquor’s been watered? Blood’s failed the test. Maybe a Richard in the closet a generation or two back.

Way off down the road Richard could see a little swirl of dust rising. Course no one bothered to tell Richard maybe a wagon full of relatives was on their way in. Maybe, maybe not. You could not be Richard and not be patient. Now he would have to watch out of the corner of one eye for any movement out of the house, as he had been doing, and watch out of the other for when that swirl of dust started turning into a carriage of some sort. No question whoever it was would be sure to report on seventy-one-or so-year-old Richard stealing his master’s time resting. Richard could just make out a gentry coach of some sort, and he was on his feet and on his way into the house. “Folks comin’ down the road,” he announced before Missus Elizabeth had actually spotted him. Already Missus Nancy and Master Henry were here visiting. Now more. Richard went into the big kitchen, where Marcy had laid a row of plucked chickens out on the cutting board. Some of that was for Rennie’s boy, George, who lay in his cabin with a fever. Missus would go down there later with a flock of gabbling children, black and white, to tend George. So there was some slack. George could have meal? probably wasn’t even sick anyway. Soon Uncle Edwin entered followed by a young black man carrying a pair of dusty travel bags with an air of importance. He crossed directly to Richard and extended the bags. Without outward sign of resentment, Richard took the bags and before he had turned around Rennie’s boy, Carter, was there with an alarmed expression and arms extended. Richard melted into the shadows and listened. As he listened he tallied up. Another face to be shaved. Another room to be tended. An outside African to be watched. And he was in the middle of that inlay work on the windows.

In the morning Richard hovered over Master John with a straight razor. On a table beside him lay his brush, scuttle cup, and shaving soap. Young Master Henry and Uncle Edwin sat nearby, waiting their turns.  In the doorway, behind Richard, Edwin’s boy, Jarvis, hovered. Master John spoke and Richard’s razor hovered, still, patient, just at his throat.

“Chesnut might form a company, I hear.”

“If I had my health,” Edwin replied.

“No one expects you to go.”

Richard could feel Jarvis lean in. He watered his brush and swirled it in the soap in the scuttle cup. He unobtrusively applied the soap to the old man’s cheek. He moved the razor as though he were drawing a feather across the cheek. After he finished with Master John, he started on Uncle Edwin. As Richard was doing Edwin, Edwin sat up abruptly. “Careful there!” he cried. “Don’t worry,” John answered. “Richard ain’t cut me or anybody in twenty-five years.”

“I thought I felt something.” John obligingly stood up and examined Edwin. “No scratch,” John pronounced.” Richard stood at attention, impassive. “Well, go ahead,” Edwin growled.

Richard’s razor hovered just an inch from Edwin’s throat. “We ain’t safe,” Edwin announced.

“How so?”

“In Savannah, with that Lincoln blockade General Scott thought up.”

“Charleston isn’t altogether safe either, “John added.

“Your plantation here is inland,” Edwin countered. “They sure as hell can’t shell you from a ship the way they can Savannah.” Edwin said this and waited.

“You got a point.” To this John added nothing and at last Edwin grunted.

Richard resumed shaving Edwin. When Richard finished and Edwin stood up, Jarvis moved in close to examine him. Richard gave Jarvis a look. “You got that inlay work to do this afternoon,” John told Richard.

“Yessir.”

He wanted to get to the inlay work and he wanted to be done with these men.

“Wait’ll you hear Richard play tonight after dinner,” John told Edwin. “This should be a treat for you, your knowing the violin.”

“Absolutely.”

Richard stood at attention, patient, impassive.

Once freed of the work of caring for the men, Richard went into the carpentry shed followed by Jarvis. Richard closed the door of the shed, as he always did. Forcing someone to open the door provided him a notice of someone coming. He didn’t like to be surprised by white men. Jarvis sat down on the floor, his back propped against the door. Richard understood.

Richard took out a panel of the damaged inlay work. Many years earlier, old Henry de Saussure had brought an Italian back from Europe who taught Richard how to use a Buhl-saw. No one else in the county knew how to use one the way Richard did. He took a panel of decaying inlay work that he was going to replace and propped it up as a model. The Italian had called it “Reisner work.” Jarvis was already asleep, his back firmly propped against the door. Richard glued thin panels of wood to either side of a large sheet of paper. He pasted another sheet on the outside and began to trace the design of the decaying original. All afternoon he worked on his inlays, while Jarvis slept. That was all right. Jarvis had to wake up each day to Uncle Edwin. As he worked Richard struggled not to think about how Uncle Edwin was fishing for an invitation to stay with the family.

After dinner Richard played “Durang’s Hornpipe” then “Aura Lee.” He scraped his foot before each song as a sign he was ready to begin. He’d scarcely finished the last note when Uncle Edwin took him roughly by the wrist. “Pull that bow with your shoulder a little, boy, not just your elbow.” Richard knew this to be patently wrong.

Neverthless. “Yessir.”

“Don’t just yessir me. I want to see you do it that way at the Chesnuts’.”

“Yessir.”

Days later on the night of the Chesnut party Richard stood in the area set off for musicians. Master Randolph’s Beau sat at the piano. Lots of the men wore their gray uniforms, now that the Yankees were coming. Richard could see Missus Chesnut and her adopted belles, Buck and Mary Preston, the ones all the men were all the time sniffing around. He peeked around and saw Uncle Edwin was paying no attention at all. He played “Castle in the Air” with his eyes shut, as he almost always did at these parties. This and a couple of fingers of Scotch were about as near as he ever got to being alone. He stole a glance at Missus Chesnut and her girls. They had already been pulled in by the music. He and Beau began playing a waltz and men and women began to couple up and dance. As they danced he became aware of Uncle Edwin’s eyes on him, watching for him to use his shoulder. He closed his eyes and played. Each time he peeked toward Uncle Edwin, the old man looked that much more incensed. He must foul up or the old man would make something of it. He told himself he would do it at the next number or the last number. He could see Missus Chesnut, her face in a kind of trance. The last number came around and Richard played with his eyes shut, never once checking on Uncle Edwin. Then the party was over.

Not using his shoulder at the party had been Richard’s firing the first shot. Now Uncle Edwin was at war with him. Uncle Edwin blew up at him after the party, then day after day he pecked away at everything Richard did. And soon Master John grew tired of it. He began to peck away at Richard too, taking out his irritation at Uncle Edwin’s staying on Richard. Richard passed through his days like a sleepwalker. Only as Uncle Edwin grew violent, slapping Richard or shoving him into a wall, did Master John act. The de Saussures had a reputation as quality folk. They saw themselves as above slave whipping and such. Master John asked Richard how he would like to be hired out to Hamil Gillespie, the carpenter in town. Richard would.

Gillespie was a red-faced Irish man, who did all kinds of work on wood. He made furniture, he worked on houses. He was no artist, but he did steady work. Richard had been in close quarters with whites his whole life. But he had never been around one like Gillespie. Gillespie had not been born in America. He told Richard he left Ireland when the “dirty blue bloods starved us out.” “Darks aren’t treated the same back home,” he confided to Richard. I seen one once when I was in London with a white woman.” Richard took in this news with no expression. Gillespie did not have any twenty-year-old Scotch but he had quite a bit of good serviceable whiskey, and in the many slow times he showed no reluctance to share with Richard. As a consequence Richard and Gillespie were drunk a good deal. Richard’s appearance underwent a slow transition. He had formerly dressed in expensive hand-me-down suits from the white men in the family. In recent years he had been receiving a new suit at Christmas. Now he wore coarser clothes and soon took little heed of his appearance, shaving maybe every third day or once a week as Gillespie did.

After months of working with Gillespie one had to look close to see if that man with him was still Richard. One day when it had been a solid week since he had shaved and his clothes had remained unchanged for as long, Gillespie sent him down to the store for some nails. Richard stepped around a corner and there was Missus Chesnut. It took her a second to recognize him.  Her face registered shock, then a kind of horror at Richard’s descent from his former position. Richard believed he detected something else, something rare in white folks, a kind of recognition of the indignities Richard had suffered or of Richard himself. It was a fleeting expression. She steeled herself to encounter him and her face took on the plantation master’s wife mask, but Richard decided he did not have to meet her or sooth her discomfort, and he dodged around a corner.

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Hermanos

By Riley Lewis

The night was as quiet as it ever got on the open ocean. The ship creaked intermittently, and the wind and waves never completely stopped, but to one accustomed to life at sea, the night was essentially silent. On deck, a weary watchman had his head cradled in his arms, fast asleep. The ship was still days from its destination. It was only in the captain’s cabin where any noise could be detected. Faintly, the scratching of a quill and a feeble light crept onto the deck from under the door.

Behind that door, a man sat at a table, his back to the entryway. From behind, only a candlelight-cast silhouette could be seen of a hunching figure stooped over his work. Closer inspection revealed a man, staring at several pieces of parchment on the table in front of him. Some were crumpled, others had been scratched out, but the one directly in front of the man bore only one word: “Señor.” Though the man’s eyes appeared locked onto the letters, they were, in fact, unfocused; his thoughts were thousands of miles away in two different directions.

The man had thin, graying hair that was already being overcome with baldness. His face was lined and weathered, and a trickle of sweat dripped down toward the end of his long nose, in spite of the relatively cool February night. His tan face was illuminated by the nearby candle, whose light glistened on his extended forehead. His mouth had fallen slightly open, completely forgotten. Indeed, his entire body remained completely rigid, except for his hands, which incessantly picked at a long feather quill, making it appear far less regal than any peacock feather ever should. Only these hands betrayed the fierce struggle going on behind those still, pale eyes.

“I must be honest,” the man thought for the thousandth time, this time not even bothering to glance up at a small crucifix hanging on the wall. “But if they don’t hear something worth celebrating, they’ll never fund another voyage.” He also refused to look at his two longest drafts. One was far too interesting to be true, and the other, far too true to be interesting. Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep up like this. Soon, he would run out of parchment, and if his findings weren’t firmly entrenched in writing, all but the simplest would be reduced to gossip and invention, the ramblings of a madman. No, his story had to be written down. And it had to be done perfectly.

Resignedly, he forced the quill onto the nearly blank page. “As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given…” Writing about God was good. The topic was neither unpopular with the crown nor entirely misleading. Nevertheless, Bible stories and prayers wouldn’t send him the ships he needed if he was to capitalize on the impact of his discovery.

He kept writing. Salvador, María, Fernandina, Isabella, Juana. They were only names. Names would not convince sailors to leave on an uncharted course. Few things could. With a lurch, he thought of the ungodly cargo secured below deck. Surely something else could prompt future voyages. Anything else.

“The land there is elevated,” he continued, “and full of trees of endless varieties.” Describing beauty shouldn’t hurt. Plus, that part was true too. There had been many mountains and trees, but not like the ones he had come to expect from his books. Still, scenery could only get a traveler so far. “Birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there.” He described the palm trees, the pine woods, the meadows, all of which he knew would do very little to inspire investors. “No one else understands,” he thought bitterly. “Why is the need to explore not enough? Why must all curiosity be motivated by greed?” Realistically, he knew that he had to sell his discovery—he had to give them something to sell.

“There is honey,” he added feebly, “and a great variety of fruits.”

This was going nowhere. The man set the now barren quill onto the table and stood up. He knew of only two commodities that would give him the reaction he needed. The first, gold, was obvious. Months of searching, however, had yielded no results. Only a few scraps of roughly shaped ore, given to him by his hosts. That might be enough to convince the crown that there was indeed gold on the islands. And certainly there would be some, or how would the locals have found any?

He abruptly returned to the table and retrieved the quill without sitting down. “Inland there are numerous mines of metals…” A twinge of guilt pricked his chest. He remembered the words of the Lord to Moses: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” To tell of gold would surely be false witness, but how could it be against his neighbor? Further expeditions would hurt no one, and they might actually prove him to be correct. No, no one would be hurt, unless… if they found no gold, there was still that second commodity. But only as a last resort. More words appeared on the page, but the man never remembered deciding to write them.

Involuntarily, he turned to look at the crucifix on the wall. He was entering dangerous waters, figuratively more than literally. Perhaps it was better to be honest and unprofitable after all. He returned to his chair and began writing again, telling how the land was “rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages.” If the king and queen wished to settle, there was that option. A colony of subsistence farmers, however, would hardly transform his patron country into the empire it yearned to be. “The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers,”he rambled on, but what did that matter? He picked up the parchment, ready to tear it to shreds and start again. Instead, he paused, reread his words, and suddenly set them back down gently and added, before he could stop himself “most of which bear gold.”

It was such a silly claim—one that any member of his crew or following explorers could disprove easily. But it would give him the draw he needed. It would fund a second voyage. Surely, that was more important than a few misleading words? “There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals.” And why not? If Marco Polo had found them, surely they were there. He merely had yet to discover their hiding place..

But what if he never did? Would they all mock him again, as they had done for years? Call him delusional? A hypocrite and a heretic? A perpetual failure? But he had not failed! He had found exactly what he had been searching for, hadn’t he? Was there nothing to be said for being right, even if it came to little to no financial gain? But there was yet a profit to be made. If he couldn’t grant his monarchs gold, perhaps he could give them labor.

“They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them,” he reluctantly added, afraid to say directly what he knew he was implying. “The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” The people seemed happy to comply with everything he had requested. Perhaps it was better that they… “They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves.”

“I had to win their love,” he wrote, deciding to shift tactics. “and to induce them to become Christians.” That might protect them, he realized. Baptism could prevent their being abused. He would prefer it that way. “Therefore I hope that their Highnesses will decide upon the conversion of those people to our holy faith, to which they seem much inclined.”

What was he doing? Was he really discussing the people who had loved him so much as goods to be bartered? The crucifix glistened in the candlelight, and a drop of sweat fell from the end of his nose onto the parchment. He thought of his captives, who had been so passive, so accommodating, who had praised him heedlessly in front of their fellows, who were already making small strides forward in learning Spanish. Could he be so cruel? As of yet, he had merely implied that they were docile and generous. If he left it there, perhaps no harm would come to them. He returned to the topic of geography, he told tales of the natives’ myths, men with tails and cannibals and such, and he reminded his readers of the gold mines that never had been real. When future explorers found no gold mines, however, what would they say of him? What would history say of him? That his fruitless venture had been an utter waste of the king’s time, money, and ships, one of which already sat at the bottom of the ocean?

“Only the men remaining there could destroy the whole region, and run no risk,” he found himself writing. Must it always go back to conquest? Was the only way to redeem the reputation of Cristóbal Colón the death and enslavement of hundreds? Thousands? Millions? How many Taínos, Caribs, and Arawaks had to suffer in order to make his venture worthwhile? Must the admiral of the ocean sea become a conquistador, merely to be a successful explorer?

Refusing to look at the crucifix, Cristóbal stood up. He picked up the candle in one hand and the nearly finished letter with the other. He still could not decide whether or not he would actually send it. He left the stuffy cabin and out onto the deck. Without even noticing the sleeping watchman, he opened up the hold and dropped slowly down into the galley. Walking to the end of the hallway, he looked into the small cage where his prisoners slept. Ten men, the most valuable discovery of the four month voyage. Two white glimmers in the semidarkness told him that not all were asleep. One of his captives sat against the walls of the galley, staring at Cristóbal intently. Cristóbal tried to smile, but found that his face wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, he nodded and turned, placing the letter on a crate, determined to finish.

“¡Hermano!”

Cristobal turned suddenly to face the speaker. Now, not only his eyes, but his teeth gleamed in the darkness. “What did you say?”

“¡Hermano!” the Taíno repeated, “¡Mí hermano!” He again showed his teeth; was that a smile or a threat? Perhaps he was merely proud of himself for learning the words correctly. Then he stared at his captor, waiting for a response.

Cristobal shivered involuntarily. Ignoring the Indian, he turned to the letter and hastily concluded. “Fará lo que mandaréis. El Almirante.” Then he escaped from the dingy galley, taking the letter and the candle with him. As he ascended through the hold and closed it behind him, the galley was once again flooded with darkness, and the two bright eyes disappeared. The ocean’s near silence was restored, except for one last whisper into the night.

“¿Hermano?”

Before his return to Europe after reaching the new world for the first time, Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colón, as he would have been known to the Spanish) directed a letter to Luis de Santangel, a minister to the Spanish monarchy. The letter would then be translated and sent across Europe, making it the first public document proclaiming Columbus’s arrival. The italicized portions of this story were taken directly from that document.

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Riley Lewis studied history and Spanish at Brigham Young University and currently lives in England with his wife. He specializes in developing educational tours and presentations for museum audiences and enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction as well, especially when such is of a historical nature.

 

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Letter addressed to W.M.Thackeray from Charles Dickens

By Christopher Hall and Jess Mookherjee 

24th March 1858

My Dear Thackeray

What good fortune it was to stumble so gamely into your company at the club last Thursday. I pondered so intensely on the nature of our meeting and mused that I must not pass the opportunity to contact you. Let us not, good fellow, leave our friendship to chance any longer.

I will also thank you dear Thackeray for the choice of cognac and my enthusiasm for our meeting was fuelled only in part by that spirit.

Truly business is booming, books are being commissioned and some money is being made. I’m most keen to write something of sensitivity and depth on the revolution and your heady world view would be as bright a tonic as the cognac we shared together.

So I am naturally desirous that you and I meet and discuss in more detail the great swathes of history that are happening all around us. Will you come to Rochester? I hear you have taken some refuge in Kent. My daughter tells me you are spending some time in Royal Tunbridge Wells taking in the spa air.

Affectionately yours

Dickens

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from W.M. Thackeray}.

31st March 1858

Dearest friend,

I cannot tell you how delightful it was to hear from you.  No, it was more than that.  It was as restorative as the good tonic you mentioned in your letter.   I have been in the countryside for no more than a week now and nature has already conspired to give me a feverish cold.   When I received your letter I had been in the lowest of spirits but now I find your reminder of our conversation has revived me.   Yours is a voice that speaks cheerfully from the page and I already feel heartened by the prospect of a reunion.

Could it be my friend that you took some of my advice too much to heart?   The Garrick Club can be a strange arena where truths are uttered as falsely as lies and lies as truths.  May I recommend that for your enterprise you also write to our mutual friend Carlyle?  He has a vast bibliographical memory and I am more than sure that he can direct you to some excellent source materials for your next subject.  I was speaking half in jest when I mentioned Scott had already conquered the world of historical romance.  The man is not to be toppled from his mountain.

I will be staying in Tunbridge Wells for awhile until my daughters join me.  My plans take me to Dover and then to Paris to visit my dear wife.  Why not join me here?  I would like it very much if you could accompany us to France.  You know that Anne is very fond of you and eager to hear of your next work.

Yours

W.M.T

 

{Letter addressed to Thackeray from Dickens}

20th April 1858

Dearest Thackeray

Excuse the tardiness of my writing. Nothing could have improved my spirits more then receiving your kind invitation to your place in the country. I accept. When shall I come? I am most eager to get away from here as soon as I can for some peace and quiet.

My friend – I hope you will forgive my need to confide in you. I am most weary sir. This past few weeks has been pitiful. There have been pressures from the publishing company, from the financiers and from my own wife.

A certain young woman I chanced upon in Drury Lane has been most persistent in my thoughts and in my pocket. This acquaintance has, as you can imagine, left me needing the company of gentlemen for my thoughts are giddy and in need to your steadfastness.

My ideas for the French book are racing about in my head. I wonder if you can invite our good friend Carlyle as I would like also to take some of his interest in the issues I am to raise in the novel.

I am distraught dear Thackeray. Sometimes I feel you are my only friend and supporter. I received a great snub from that – how you used that word – SNOB – Trollope at the Garrick only last week. We almost came to blows and I swear sir – if he continues to call me Mr Popular Sentiment – I may not be responsible for my actions. I feel sometimes only you and I are in full unity about the terrible elitism that is stifling this society. Is it my fault – dear Thackary that I am blessed with an energy and appropriate ardour of my disposition to show the plight of the ordinary man!

Save me dear Thackeray

I look forward to enjoying the air with you – and our mutual friend? –  also?

Do write very swiftly

Your good friend

Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

25th April1858

My dear friend,

What has come over you since my last letter? I have acquired a highly developed intuition for hysteria when I see it and you are not so far gone my dear Dickens.  I read reports from the physicians that my poor wife has been tearing her hair out over imaginary wrongs. She rants and pummels the door and begs to be let out so that she can chase her demons away. Is that not what a little criticism represents, an imaginary wrong no more and no less a figment of the writers imagination than his plots and characters.  A little less tearing out of the hair and rubbing the furrowed brow if you please. One has so few of the flowing locks left these days. Take another tonic before you start to lose any more and remember that it’s not by the critics that the play is applauded but by the gallery.

As you know I have painful memories of what may happen to a man’s heart when he sets himself at something that falls short of his hopes.  I trust this young lady you refer to is enriching your sensibility as much as she appears to be sharpening your pen.   Take care dear Dickens.  You are not Aaron’s rod.  You can’t be expected to swallow every other serpent that comes your way.  I as I write I see a young girl approaching the table with what looks like a side of beef that no Englishman can resist.   The heart is treacherous.  The stomach however is more a more reliable organ.

Please do come as I am fully recovered and intend to move onto Dover soon.   I have equipped myself with a hamper of delights from Fortnum and Mason, including, amongst several of your favourite wares, a jar of apricots in brandy.

Yours as ever,

W.M.T

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

30th April 1858

Oh my dearest Thackeray

How you comfort me. I read again your Vanity Fair and I believe that young vixen I wrote to you of to be a veritable Becky Sharp. She is clever, undoubtedly, winning certainly, even wanton – thankfully, but without a moral compass my Thackeray. She has given me much but taken so much. However I hear your steady, quiet voice in my ear as I write, and though it reddens my cheeks to hear it – you rogue Thackeray, certainly my hair will not last with this intensity of adventure I boil my brains with. You have a good thick head of hair my friend, long may it last. Though I feel the strain of sadness about you, friend. I would invite you to romp in the Garrick with me but I am mindful of our madness.

Ah, my friend- we writers can purge our lusts and rages with our pens, talk our inner voices of bedlam and lunacy within confines of these inky pages. What power we hold. I have delayed enough, I am coming to Tunbridge Wells. Please invite Carlyle, our friend. I have read his work on the French uprising now ten times. I must get his ( and your) thoughts on my take on the revolution. There is a violence in me Thackery, a war that burns. I am like France, and I see you as good England sir, amiable and safe. What a revolting prospect don’t you think? I’m determined to make the “tale” a true masterpiece, if only to send up the nose of that Charlotte Bronte upstart.

Sir, I beg you again two things. Firstly – please use your not insignificant influence to arrange a meeting with our friend Carlyle. He seems to continuously lose my correspondence. And second my friend, do not tear your life in two. Poor Isabella, lost in her madness is also lost to you so leave her and start again as I am. I am for changing the order. Why should we not have what we deserve? Are we not men?

The war in me wages on, I look forward to your peaceful kingdom in the Kentish Weald.

With great expectations

Your friend, Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

7th May1858

My Dear Friend,

I trust you are keeping well.  On the subject of your companion, I hope for your sake that she is more a cross between little Nell Trent and Nancy than my Becky Sharp.   Is she an orphan perhaps?   I hear stories that orphan girls are often taken with older gentlemen as they are looking for a mentor that the father might have been.  Beware my friend.  Thank you for asking after Mrs Thackeray.   How may I ask is your dear wife holding up?

I wonder if you had time to read the first three parts of my new work, The Virginians?  I am hopeful it will go down well with our American friends.   I am planning a reading tour through the states if all goes well. As for Carlyle, he very rarely ventures out of his house let alone London.   I will write and see what I can do.

Yours

W.M.T.

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

10th May 1858

Dear Will,

Forgive me for pressing you on this matter but I am most eager.  Please could you continue to solicit our friend Carlyle on the matter of procuring the works I requested on the French question and any comments on my proposed work on the subject.

Yours in anticipation

Dickens

 

{Letter written to Thomas Carlyle from Charles Dickens}

12th May 1858

My Dearest Thomas

I wonder if you have received word from our mutual friend Will Thackeray requesting a suitable bibliography on the subject of the Revolution?  I am most anxious to receive the fruits of your wisdom on the subject of my forthcoming novel.   Do you not think that a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ is a title most apt for the differences between our national characters?  I eagerly await your response and the opportunity to visit you and your clever wife Jane to discuss this imposing subject at greater length.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Dickens

 

{Letter addressed to Thomas Carlyle from W.M.Thackeray}

2nd June 1858

My dear Tom,

I see from The Times that Palmerston is up to his old tricks.  If a vile stench emanating from the Thames is all it takes to remove our legislators from Westminsterthen perhaps the common man should reflect that to obtain the vote is needless when the influence of his digestive system can easily bring the government to its knees.  I must confess that my courage failed me and I could stomach it no longer and have withdrawn to the countryside to escape this abject suffering of my senses.  How is your nasal passage enduring in the circumstances?  I trust that you are not overwhelmed by the stench in Chelsea although your proximity to the river tells me that you might.

I am in correspondence with our mutual friend Mr Dickens on the subject of his latest venture into the world of literature.   He intends to compose an epic story set during the Revolution in France.   Would you be willing to join us in Kent to declaim upon the subject?  I will of course provide you and your lovely spouse with my very best hospitality.  Or at the very least, as I know you are busy, point him in the direction of the best literature on the subject.

Yours

Will

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from Thomas Carlyle}

4th June 1858

Dear Will,

What the Dickens?  Again?   He has already written to me on this subject.

You tell that excitable Anglo-Saxon hermaphrodite that nothing short of being dragged by the quadrupeds of hell would tempt me to assist in this facile project of his.   The revolution cannot be tamed for the English readers of his so called weeklies.  I suppose he intends to reduce the collapse of an entire social order to a faux-French nobleman uttering the moral platitudes of a country parson?  Or perhaps a cheerful street urchin will be deployed to carry messages for Robespierre?

Do the nation a favour and tell him to discontinue.  I know you agree with me on his style.  On second thoughts if it’s not possible to stop this deluge of nonsense we should consider building a dam.  There are more than sufficient volumes in the London Library on this subject to effect a blockage.  I’ll see to it that he receives them.

I wish you well dear Thackeray.  I hear that upstart Yates has written a review of your latest work.  Do not fret my dear Will.  He is an ass.  Send my best wishes to Dickens and tell him I will send him some serious history.

Yours,

Tom

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from W.M.Thackeray}

 5th June 1858

Dear Charles,

By some strange oversight on Carlyle’s part he has sent me your books which were delivered to me in Tunbridge Wells.   This provides us with the perfect excuse for entertaining you here as we had originally planned where you will be able to pick up your books.   I wonder if, in Tom’s confusion, a letter addressed to me has been sent to you by mistake.  If so, please do bring it with you.

Yours truly,

W.M.T.

 

{Letter written to Thackeray from Dickens}

8th June 1858

Thackeray,

Where once I called you friend I am now most redolent and seething in my disdain to even call upon you.

I enclose in this missive the communication from that galumphing toad Carlyle that I am sure you did not mean for me to see. I understand from this that you both, from your gentrified and lofty positions, applaud those that would crow ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’ as the sales for my novels rise.

My face is black sir, black as the night at this betrayal and lost friendship. I see now that I am merely a source of society tittle-tattle for you and your coiffured gentlemen of leisure. How piqued you must be that I am the master of my own life’s novel and not the stooge in a character play of your making.

You will not undo me sir, nor your high nosed comrade Carlyle. You can hang with him in the rafters of obscurity while my little popular books sing out from history. I tell, sir, the tales of people and I will not rest until I have told your tale sir.

What other betrayals are set against me? Only today I have heard a rumour that I am with Ellen, the young actress. Only you, sir, knew as much. I warn you, Thackeray, to keep your counsel and vex me no more. I have in my pay a young reporter called Yates – always on the look-out for a bumptious toad to bring down. Who feeds this new breed of hungry vipers of journalism I wonder?

I warn you not to spread any further vitriol. As for Carlyle, may his pompous tomes of historical analysis feed him and his family well. The public will vote for their music hall renditions of the unfortunate, consumption-ridden proletariat in time and his weighty epithets will be consigned to dust.

Oh we were friends, sir, in my heart you always had a room to rest and find relief. Now this blood-stained club will not admit you.

What the Dickens indeed sir, for you like your Wealden homestead will be ever green and unchanging. I will keep my estuaries and my city and proceed, sir, into history itself.

Good day to you.

C.D.

 

{Letter to Carlyle from Thackeray}

12th June 1858

Tom,

Please see the enclosed.  I fear there has been a terrible misunderstanding.

P.S. Could you feed him more volumes on the Revolution?  It may take his mind off things.

P.P.S. Perhaps Jane could invite him to Chelsea?

P.P.P.S. What the Dickens?

W.M.T

On 12th June 1858 an article appeared in the periodical Town Talk written by a young journalist named Edmund Yates criticising Thackeray in person as “cold and uninviting” possessing “a want of heart in all he writes.”

Thackeray made a formal complaint to the Garrick Club of which both men were members.  Yates was asked to apologise for the article which he refused and was subsequently erased from the club’s membership in July 1858.  Dickens voted against the motion to compel Yates to apologize and resigned his seat at the Garrick Club following the expulsion.

 In a pamphlet printed for private circulation in 1859 Yates lays out the sequence of events.  He clearly states that although Dickens was his advisor in the Garrick Club dispute Dickens had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the article published in ‘Town Talk’.

____________________________________________________________

Jess Mookherjee is a poet and writer of short stories. She has recently published poems in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Folio and in the magazine Dark Matter. She was co-creator of the Lipshtick: poetry oracle which can be found at lipschtick.co.uk. She has lived in Tunbridge Wells for five years.

Christopher Hall writes novels as well as short stories. He set up the Tunbridge Wells Writers Group in 2010 with the aim of creating a social network for writers to meet and inspire each other to keep at it. He also enjoys collaborating on literary projects like this one. He moved to Tunbridge Wells in 2000 and remains there to this day.

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The African Promise

By Lynette Lee

The sun burst open across the savanna. Its golden rays blew life into a Benin village in West Africa. Even though the sun hadn’t reached its full height, the air was thick with heat and humidity. Sixteen-year-old Bolaji arose from his sleeping mat. Hoping to catch a breeze, he stood by the hut’s opening. The sky was full of huge puffy smoke like clouds, but he knew that they would disappear into the horizon.  It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the ground was just beginning to get dry and dusty. They had several more months to go before the rainy season. Sweat poured from Bolaji’s head, and he dreaded the afternoon. Going over all the things that he and his father had to do, he didn’t hear his mother at the fire.

The clatter of clay pots startled Bolaji. He quickly turned around to see his mother, Abebi, at the fire preparing the morning meal. He hoped she didn’t notice his fright. A warrior was supposed to be on guard at all times. It didn’t set well with him that he hadn’t heard her. This huge flaw could cost him his life and that of his family’s.  His mother’s chuckling burned his ears. She did her best to apologize, “Sorry, son, I thought you heard me get up.”

Oh, she knows she insulted me, a warrior deserves better respect.  He thought bitterly.

Noticing his reaction to her laughter, Abebi quickly changed the subject, “I meant to tell your father last night that we are getting low on meat. When he gets up, you will need to let him know.”

Bolaji nodded his head in response and continued to watch his mother’s graceful movements as she set about making the morning meal.

Bolaji heard whispered stories by the village elders. It was said that Abebi was born Swahili, by the name Layla. Her father sold her at the age of ten to a man from West Africa. When she was thirteen, she was sold again to the Asante tribe. During a dispute between the tribes of Benin and Asante, a war broke out, ending in a Benin victory.  Abebi was captured by the young warrior, Gowan.  After proving her loyalty, Gowan rewarded her freedom, married her, and gave the Benin name, Abebi.

Tensions still remained high between the two tribes. Competition in the slave trade caused many wars. The last one took place in 1794.  He lost many friends from battle wounds, death, and capture.  Not wanting to think about that year, he tried to focus on the morning meal.

Between bites of rice and chicken, the family conversation revolved around the day’s agenda and the upcoming hunt, “Father, mother requested that we should go hunting, for she is low on meat for the evening meal.”

“The hunting party won’t go out for a while, and it is unsafe for you to go alone.  We will gather our weapons and see if we can kill a monkey.

After breakfast the two men set out to hunt.  Bolaji and Gowan gathered their spears, leaving behind their rifles and gunpowder. They only used those for battle.  Gowan was a merchant of sorts, and he was constantly bartering and trading with different tribes and foreigners, such as white men. They were the wealthiest family in the village and many elders held deep respect for his father.

As they entered the jungle, Bolaji and his father treaded lightly through the thick jungle. They were at home here, so the long webbed – crisscrossed vines didn’t hinder their progress. Here the air was dense from the moisture of the fog above them. Crickets chirped, gorillas growled, and the tropical birds squawked as if to announce their presence to the two hunters. Bolaji took comfort in their sounds. Their melodious choir made the jungle more inviting. Danger was always lurking behind bushes, trees, and rocks. Warriors were trained at a very young age to know each jungle sound. When the sounds of creatures stopped, strangers were near, usually white men.

Within an hour, they came upon a stream, and the gorillas were getting louder. Bolaji and his father bent down to drink their fill from the cool clear fresh water. Scooping handfuls of water into their hands they began to splash their bodies. Bolaji closed his eyes, as to give thanks to the gods for giving him relief from the heat.

Instantly, the jungle became eerily quiet, making Bolaji’s body go rigid and stomach clinch in fear. Do I dare open my eyes? He thought to himself.  Deciding that a warrior never cowers down to any man or beast, he opened his eyes to whatever predator was challenging him. Expecting to see a crouching tiger, he came face to face with a barrel of a rifle. Ten or more white men surrounded them, from front and behind. Their pale skin shone brightly, contrasting to the darkness of the forest. They wore brown leg coverings with loose gray, white, pale – blue shirts, and straw hats.

Eyes wide with fear, Bolaji stood there looking down at the barrel of a gun.  All common sense fled, and he began to think about all the stories his father used to tell about white traders. For he traveled to the markets several times a year, but he never allowed Bolaji to go. Bolaji never dared question his father’s motives.  Slowly, Bolaji began to focus on his father’s words.

“Sirs,” his father began in perfect English, “I am–”

“I don’t give two shits who you are. You’re nobody, for I own your ass now,” a white man stated angrily, brandishing a club across the side of Gowan’s face. Shrinking in agony, Gowan rolled back and forth on the ground. His whole body shook in pain.

Without hesitation, the white men quickly bounded him and Gowan, who continued to screech in pain. They forced their heads into a forked like contraption, and secured it in place with a wooden peg. Using whips, they drove Bolaji and Gowan away from their village.  Keeping his eyes and ears alert, Bolaji observed each captor’s move.  They needed a way to escape, and Bolaji was determined that it would be successful.

The sun was setting when the white men stopped to rest. They traveled all morning without any food or drink. He feared that they would die from lack of water. He also feared for Gown’s wellbeing. He needed his father to get well, so they could plan an escape. But Gowan’s face was badly swollen. Bolaji worried that the further they traveled from their village, the harder it would be to get back. We must escape tonight.

As if sensing that Bolaji wanted to escape, the man with the club grabbed two pairs of long chains, some rope, and approached the two captives. Their hands already bound; he used the rope and tied up their feet, and wrapped the chain around their waist securing them to a tree. With one simple click of a lock, Bolaji’s hopes vanished.

Bolaji felt blood trickle down his arm from where several blisters had already burst open. He was weak and tired, and sleep couldn’t find him. He longed to escape and was frustrated. He kept going over today’s events. He regretted not attacking these men, but he realized his father needed him. Slowly, his eyes became heavy, and he slept.

Several days had past, when they finally reached a beach with a castle like structure.  Captives were separated and organized into groups. Men and the young boys were placed into one group, while the women and girls were placed in another.

“Father, what is this place?”

“I don’t know son. I never been here before.”

Sounds of screaming, moaning, and crying stabbed his ears and melted his resolve. Bolaji had never seen so many broken souls in all his life. The warrior in him refused to give up, and he did his best to stay positive. Maybe this was their chance to escape. As their line inched closer to the front of the castle, Bolaji could hear sizzling of burning meat and horrendous screaming. It set his whole body on edge. He frantically looked around for a chance to escape but there was nowhere to go. Everywhere he looked stood a white man with a whip.

He knew all too well what a whip felt like. When they slowed down during their march, the man with the club used a whip to make them walk faster. Their backs, backsides and thighs were intersected with bloody lines, which stung horribly due to salty sweat. Bolaji noticed that there was a fire with metal rods sticking out of it.  Each rod held a certain marking.  A white man grabbed one of the rods and placed the hot rod on the shoulder of a man a few steps ahead of Bolaji.  After they were done, they shoved the man into waiting arms of two other white men.  Quickly, without any haste, they dragged the injured man toward a small waiting boat.

In the distance, Bolaji noticed three huge ships were docked.  So this is what happens to the slaves that we capture for the white men.  He vowed to himself that if he ever got back to his village, he would never capture and sell salves again.  The shame he felt was rapidly replaced by repulsion.

When it came his turn, the white men hurriedly tossed him down on the ground. Bolaji closed his eyes and imagined that he was in his village inside his family’s hut. He imagined his beautiful mother in her clinging blue skirt with a matching top and head dress, feeding his baby sister.  He felt the heat from the metal rod. He tried to imagine his little brother milking the goats, but these images were not strong enough. Searing white pain, ran down his arm and through his whole body. His eyes burst open, and Bolaji’s body jerked uncontrollably. His screams and cries fell on the deaf ears of the white men who held him down, pushing him deeper into the gritty sand. A blinding white light flashed across Bolaji’s face which slowly turned into darkness that was full of green, red, blue, and gold stars.

The white men dragged unconscious Bolaji below the castle and into a solid brick room, carelessly they left him in the middle of the room. Upon slamming an iron door, Bolaji fluttered his eyes open.  The room was very dark and cool, but his head pounded causing him much pain.  Closing his eyes once more, he didn’t realize the blood pooling around him.

Hours later, the Magnolia set sail on the glassy blue-green waters of the Atlantic Ocean, heading toward America to drop off their freshly caught slaves. Down in the cargo hold, groaning, moaning, and weeping echoed from one person to the next. The rocking of the ship caused many to vomit. The putrid sticky substance spilled down and splattered the people below them. The plump, plump, plump of the dripping liquid caused Bolaji to stir.

Rain? How odd? We are in the middle of dry season. Why is it raining now? I need to get father up, so we can fix the thatched roof or the whole hut will flood. Immediately opening and adjusting his eyes, he leaped away from the vomit. The clanging of the chains and the shock of his surroundings caused his heart to pound. He didn’t notice the stinging pain from the lash, branding iron, or the blisters from the crude wood.

Where is my father? “Father, where are you? Are you here, what happened, and where are we?” His hoarse was faint and unclear.  He was forced to repeat himself several times.

“Bolaji, the whites are too organized and well supplied. Promise me you won’t do anything foolish to get yourself killed. I don’t want to see that.”

Bolaji thought hard of what his father was asking him. Is this the reason why we never tried to escape? Laying low and submitting to the white men was not a warrior thing to do. Deciding that it was best to obey his father, Bolaji stated grudgingly, “I promise, father.”

The stench was unbearable and Bolaji longed for a bath. But since he didn’t know the English language there was no way to communicate his needs. Watching out of the corner of his eye, the white men separated individuals into groups of ten to fifteen men, women, and children. Forcing them into a circle with their whips, the sailors placed one bowl in the middle of each group.  They then handed out one spoon to each individual.

Once they were done eating, they were taken above decks, while the sailors below scrubbed down the empty shelves. The soapy water dripped down onto the eyes and wounds of the ones below, causing many to scream in agony. Bolaji tried to wipe his eyes, but the grime from his fingers only made them sting more. Why are the gods punishing me like this? I can’t take much more, he cried to himself.

Soon they led the first group back down and secured them to the top shelf again. When it came Bolaji’s turn, he did not hesitate. He slid his body down and stood by waiting for them to separate him and his bunk mates. As they got situated, they ate a tasteless watery matter, which reminded Bolaji of soggy bread with bits of corn. Just like the others, they went above deck. The bright sunlight forced him to squint his eyes, so that they could adjust to the sunlight. Oh, the sun feels so good on my skin, he thought.

A bucket of cold ocean water was dumped on him and his bunk mates. The suddenness of the burning liquid on their wounded flesh, made everyone screech and holler in extreme pain.   Their screams and cries didn’t shake the souls of the white men. When all the filth was washed away, they went back down into the cargo hold. How can a race be so cruel? Bolaji thought to himself. He wondered if these people were monsters or demons. Yes, they had to be demons, he figured.

After two months at sea, they docked in America. Bolaji never seen so many ships and thousands of people, both black and white, mingled and worked hauling and pulling different kinds of crates into wagons. As they were led off the plank and onto the docks, a man with a black handbag grabbed Bolaji’s face and placed a metal device inside his mouth. He proceeded to check his gums, teeth, tongue, and throat. Bolaji’s eyes gleamed of hatred and revenge. Reaching over the man, he wrapped his chains around his neck. Bolaji watched in pleasure as the man’s face turned bright red to purple.  It felt good to take all his frustrations out on this one man.

Bolaji! Behind you!” Gowan yelled in warning, but before Bolaji could react, a white man came from behind and laid a whip to his bare back. The whip lashed Bolaji’s flesh cutting into his skin. His body jerked back, as the whip bearer pulled against the whip to release the hold, exposing tissue and muscle. Bolaji fell over in pain, dragging the strangled doctor with him but the lash continued to cut his body.

Gowan used his body and pushed the whip bearer into the water. There was a scream and a grunting sound, as the bearer’s body hit the water. Grabbing the chains that were wrapped around the doctor’s neck, Gowan quickly untangled the mass of metal. As the doctor gasped and coughed, trying to suck in air, sailors were dragging the body from the water.

“Sir, Travis is dead! That Negro killed him!” A sailor said, lightly placing the dead body on the ground. The sailor’s neck was laid at an odd angle, and his face was bluish looking.

“What the , Jed, there are a thousand of them here.” Responded, a captain.

“Sir, it was that one.” Jeb venomously stated, pointing to Gowan.

“Take care of it.” The captain said in a steely voice.

Jed marched over to Gowan, pulled out his pistol and as much hatred he could muster said, “Eye for an eye.”  The cock of the pistol reminded Bolaji of tribal drumbeats warning villagers of war. It brought on the same fears and trepidation. Before he could rescue his father, the fire rang out.  All Bolaji saw was his father’s body slipping from the wooded deck into the gray muddy water.

Bolaji stood in shock. He never expected to see his father die by a white man. As he starred at the blood and his father’s lifeless body, the sky, ships, and buildings started to dance in a circle, faster and faster they went, until all their colors smeared together.

The next morning, the sun burst open across the holding pen. Even though the sun hadn’t reached its full height, the air was thick with heat and humidity. The moisture clung to in the air. In the far distance, a whispered voice came through, “Son, remember your promise, listen to the white man, and live.” Tears ran down Bolaji’s checks, “I promise, father,” he whispered in return.  But deep down Bolaji knew he would never keep it.  He wanted to be free, and he would do anything to go back to Africa.  Again, he started to plan an escape. One day, he told himself, he will see Africa and his mother again.

____________________________________________________________

Lynette Lee is a senior at Southern New Hampshire University; she is pursuing a Bachelors’ in history.  She also studies fiction, historical fiction, creative writing, literature, and English. She is a historical fiction writer and is working on a collection of short stories and poems. Currently, Lee is trying to complete her first novel, The Betrayal.  She resides in the Ozark Mountains with her three-year-old daughter, where during her free time, travels to historical sites, hikes and canoes the Buffalo River, and shops in Branson, Missouri.

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Trial of Strength

By Emily Wright

Alabama,

September 1861

The black locomotive screeched its final warning. Tom Murphy slung his knapsack over his shoulder, his throat burning from the smoke. There was no turning back now. The crowd was full of mothers clinging to their children’s hands, fathers smoking their pipes as they impatiently checked their pocket watches. Tom pulled his hat brim down lower over his eyes, silently praying that no one would recognize him. The crowd was moving slowly, too slowly. His heart began to pound rapidly in his chest, echoing in his ears. He didn’t regret his decision. He just hoped he could get out of Mobile before it was too late. When it was finally Tom’s turn to board the train, he didn’t look back. He grabbed onto the cold, steel railing and mounted the steps.

After two days aboard two different trains, Tom finally arrived in the town of Jacksonville, Illinois. He began to follow the crowd of people that moved in the direction of a large red brick courthouse. Men were standing in an orderly line in front of a large gazebo that was decorated in patriotic red, white, and blue bunting. As Tom made his way closer, he could see wives letting go of their husbands’ hands, mothers clinging to their sons in an effort to keep them from signing up. Tom pushed his way past a little boy no older than ten begging his mother for permission to join up, heard a youth whooping and hollering in exhilaration at having just signed his name to the recruitment paper. Tom suddenly felt his hands beginning to sweat, the pounding of his heart making him feel vulnerable. The age for joining the army was eighteen. He was seventeen. Tom took his place in line behind a large bear of a man who smelled strongly of whiskey and grime.  Soon, a lanky boy of about Tom’s age came to wait his turn in line, scribbling on a slip of paper. Tom shifted his feet, looking down at his brown leather boots. He suddenly saw the young man quickly remove his shoe and place a slip of paper inside.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked, immediately seeing guilt on the young man’s face.

“What? Oh, the paper,” he managed, hurriedly shoving his foot back into his shoe. “I—I’m not eighteen yet,” he whispered.

“Neither am I,” Tom admitted quietly, furrowing his brows and glancing down at the man’s—boy’sshoe. “Pardon me for asking, but why’d you put paper in your shoe?”

“Well, you see,” came a low whisper, “I heard a lot of boys talking about how they weren’t eighteen yet, and they got it in their heads to write down the number 18 on a paper and put it in their shoe. That way, when they get asked their age, they can say, ‘I’m over eighteen.’ I thought I’d do it too…since I don’t want to lie.”

Tom looked down at his own shoes. He’d lied so much these past few days, and he knew it would only get worse as time went on. But being “over eighteen” didn’t sound quite so bad.

“Do you have any more paper?” he asked, seeing the surprise on the young man’s face.

“Next!” came the sergeant’s hoarse bark. Tom’s heart thudded hard in his chest, the deep breaths not helping. He stood ramrod-straight, looking the tired and irritated sergeant in the eye. The sergeant glanced at him briefly, then turned his full attention to the paper resting on the table in front of him.

“Name?” he grumbled, holding his pencil stub in a ready position.

“Thomas Murphy, sir.”

“Where’r you from?”

“Perryville, Kentucky,” Tom lied, maintaining a steady gaze on the sergeant. The man looked up at him, brows raised, making Tom’s stomach churn under the scrutiny.

“Kentucky. A border state,” the sergeant mused, the pencil stub scratching against the paper as he wrote. “Can you shoot a gun?”

“Yes, sir. I never miss.”

“How’re your teeth?” he asked gruffly.

“My—my teeth, sir?”

“Your teeth,” he repeated, opening his mouth and tapping his own front tooth with his fingernail. “You can’t open a paper cartridge without good teeth.”

“They’re…fine, sir.”

“Good. Are you eighteen or over?”

“Yes, sir. Over eighteen.”

 

“Howdy! How are you?” came a voice. Tom jumped, looking up at the tent flap and seeing a lanky young man with a newly issued haversack packed so full it seemed like it would explode its contents at any moment.

“Hello,” Tom said, getting up from where he was kneeling on the ground getting his bedroll ready. “Who—who are you?”

“Oh, I’m the fellow who stood behind you in line when we signed up, remember? Name’s David Greene,” he replied, extending his hand.

“Yes, the one who is ‘over eighteen’ like me,” Tom joked, shaking David’s hand and eyeing the huge bedroll strapped to the young man’s back that make him look like a turtle. “I’m Tom Murphy.”

David ducked into the large bell-shaped Sibley tent, removing his bedroll and haversack. They landed on the ground with a thunk.

“I’m exhausted. Nothing like a train ride to wear a man out,” he said, looking down at Tom.

“Yes,” Tom replied absently, finally lying down and immediately feeling his eyelids drooping.

“They’re going to start drilling us tomorrow. That’ll wear us out for sure,” David said, beginning to arrange his own bedroll. “Where are you from, Tom?”

Tom let out an annoyed sigh. “Perryville, Kentucky. Since it’s decided to be a boarder state, I hopped a train so I could join up,” he lied, hoping the answer would make the chatty tent mate stop talking.

“I’m from Harrisburg, Illinois. Nice little town. I’ll sure miss it,” David said, settling down on his bedroll finally.

Tom turned over on his side away from David. He felt guilty, lying to everyone like that. Yet he couldn’t let anyone know he was actually from the South—

“Good night,” David said.

Tom pretended not to hear him. He closed his eyes, feeling them sting with exhaustion.

 

The day began with bacon, biscuits, and bitter coffee. After that, Tom fell in line for roll call, then went with his company to learn how to march in line. There were orders shouted, terms that Tom had never heard before. He did what the officers told them, turning at the appropriate time and following the man in front of him. Just an hour later, the regiment came back together, beginning to practice parade formations that Tom thought seemed pointless. What good would formality be while on the battlefield? The regiment took a break for lunch, which consisted of salted pork and a potato. Tom eagerly sat down in the grass with his plate and tin cup full of water, resting his tired legs and feet. Food would certainly give him energy. He hadn’t finished his potato before the order was given to form up. The regiment drilled once more, learning the Manual of Arms, loading and priming their newly issued Springfield rifles. After hours of this, drills were finally over, and Tom ate the same meal of salted pork and a potato for dinner. This time, he lay down on the grass, propping himself up with his left elbow as he shoved down his supper. He felt as if he could sleep right there in the grass and never move until the next morning. Tom shed his blue wool uniform coat, finally being rid of the thick fabric. His entire body felt sticky with sweat, his unkempt brown curls stuck to his forehead. He folded the coat and set it on the ground next to him, closing his eyes as he felt a blessed autumn breeze.

Tom opened his worn leather Bible, not knowing what he was looking for. They were on board one of five steamers, plodding their way down the choppy river and escorted by two gunboats, Tyler and Lexington. Rumors of coming battle swirled, the entire regiment seeming to be itching for a fight. Tom’s stomach was tied in knots, making him feel sick. Very soon, he would be shooting at Southern men, some just as young as he was. They would be from Tennessee or Arkansas or Alabama. Tom closed his eyes, hearing the pointless chatter of his fellow soldiers swirling around him and tried to drown it out. He remembered the conversation with his father that night almost two months ago, one he would never forget no matter how hard he tried. He’d walked into his father’s office, insides trembling, praying against all hope that he would understand. Tom had known what would happen, and it had made everything in him want to turn and remain as silent as he had been all his life. Yet he had to do this. There was no way around it. He’d told his father everything, about how he hated slavery, about the time he saw his father beat one of the field slaves with a whip. He’d seen the welts, seen brown skin stained crimson as it was being ripped to shreds. Tom had asked his father why a Christian man could do such horrible things, how he could possibly call himself a follower of Christ. His father had risen from his mahogany desk, his face red with rage. Tom had argued further, telling his father that he had his mind made up to fight for the freedom of the slaves. His father had pounded his fist into the polished desk, snarling, “You willingly betray your state and your family! You are no longer my son!” Tom’s mother had rushed into the room in a flurry of skirts, demanding to know what was happening. Tom had rushed out of his father’s office, running blindly to his upstairs bedroom. He’d thrown a few belongings into a red knapsack, put on a brown floppy hat and ran back downstairs, hearing his mother’s wracking sobs coming from the office, his father’s voice booming throughout the house. Tom’s brother was coming down the stairs…He’d closed the front door and run. Tom bowed his head, willing the memory to be gone. He rested his head in his hand, closing the Bible with the other. He hadn’t told a soul that he was from the South, was afraid that he would be accused of being disloyal to the Union and a spy. Soon, it may not even matter. He felt a lump in his throat and allowed the tears to flow.

Pinks and purples streaked the morning sky when the regiment landed in Missouri. Tom shouldered his rifle as he stepped onto the muddy ground. They were in a marsh, surrounded by tall trees and thickets.

“Form a line, remain silent,” Colonel Logan instructed them, walking toward a man atop a brown horse. Tom took his place in line, watching the man on the horse, seeing a wildly unkempt beard and muddy knee-high boots. All the officers were going to him, and Tom caught a few words like “gunboat” and “the 31st.”  Tom shifted his feet, his hands beginning to tremble. He would see his first battle today. The knots in his stomach made it impossible to eat the hardtack cracker he’d saved for breakfast this morning. Suddenly the order came, “31st Illinois! Move out!”

 

The regiment was hidden by trees and thick bushes, the ground shaking from the sound of nearby artillery fire coming from the direction of the river. It was louder than any thunder Tom had ever heard, each cannon blast making his insides quake. All he wanted was to close his eyes and pretend it was all a nightmare. He watched as David pulled out a Bible from his coat pocket with shaking hands, his lips quivering as he mouthed words. Tom knew he could never concentrate on reading now, instead gazed up at the gray sky above them, remembering some verse from somewhere…If it is possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but Thy will be done. He jumped as another artillery shell was fired, wanting to hide, to run. The sound of approaching footsteps from behind him made Tom turn his head in fear, then was relieved to see a major dressed in blue.

“Colonel Logan, sir,” the major said with a salute, “Orders from General Grant. He has requested the 31st come up to the front.”

“Yes, thank you Major Hudson,” the colonel replied, saluting. Major Hudson turned, making his way back to where he’d come. Colonel Logan wasted no time in giving the order, “31st Illinois! At the double quick, march!”

Tom stood in the line of battle, gritting his teeth as he saw David beside him. He should not be here. It would be better to keep our distance. A blood red flag waved in front of them, two crossed blue bars with thirteen stars staring back. The men in gray were there, across a small space in the wooded marsh, marching toward them in their own battle line. Tom clutched his rifle, the world seeming to stand still as he saw the Southern men stop, dressing their line, flag waving. He stared, wide-eyed, hearing men from his regiment loading their guns, the tearing of paper and clinking ramrods. Tom had done this countless times in the past two months, had shot a gun ever since he was a child. His mind was numb, couldn’t bring his trembling hands to reach into his cartridge box—

“Load! Load this rifle!” Colonel Logan ordered him, staring at him with wide eyes and red face. Tom nodded dumbly, pulling out a paper cartridge and ripping it open with his teeth. He dumped the powder into the barrel, remembering the steps when suddenly rattling gunshots filled the air, and men from the 31st began to drop to the ground, some shouting, others staring at the sky without uttering a sound. Tom gaped at them. Men he’d seen in camp now lay there with holes in their bodies. Colonel Logan shouted, “Ready! Aim!” Tom automatically raised the Springfield to his shoulder.

“Fire!”

Tom pulled the trigger, the deadly bullet missing its target, hitting a tree trunk. He placed the butt of his rifle on the ground, reaching into the cartridge box once again, grabbing a paper cartridge, loading again. Taking aim. Firing. Tom’s body shook violently, forcing himself to stand there, to keep loading, keep firing. Every sane fiber of his being told him to run. Yet insanity told him to go forward with the regiment, taking a step, then another, gaining ground, moving slowly. Tom wanted to weep, hating himself for what he was doing. What if they aren’t ready to die? Suddenly the booming sound of artillery fire shook the ground, coming from in front of them. Tom saw the shell as it sailed overhead, and he threw himself to the ground as it blasted a hole in their line. The motion had knocked his kepi hat off, chunks of mud hitting his back and head.  Tom closed his eyes as he heard chilling, blood-curdling screams that he never again wanted to hear for the rest of his life.

“Lie down! Lie down, men!” Colonel Logan shouted.

The regiment lay down in the cold mud. Tom clutched his rifle to his chest, feeling as if he didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Tom heard Colonel Logan give the order for the regiment to reload, and automatically he propped himself up upon his elbows, pressing the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and pulling the trigger once more. It would be over soon. It would be over, the Confederates would flee, and the 31st would fight another day. Oh, God, let it be over! Artillery shells shot over their heads, the earth trembling. Tom covered his head each time, shaking and holding his breath. Suddenly, the order was given to rise up. Tom obeyed, seeing the Confederates falling back. The 31st surged forward, emerging out of the woods and into a cornfield. Tom carried his rifle in his hands, marching with his regiment as they surely would carry the day, and it would all be over—cannons were waiting for them, ripping holes in the line, throwing up dust and mud and grass. Tom once again dived to the ground, closing his eyes, his body quaking. Screams, shrieks that were otherworldly.

“Fall back! Fall back, men! Back to the trees!” Colonel Logan yelled.

Tom stood and did what he’d wanted to do since the start of this battle. He turned and ran, fleeing to the safety of the woods, wanting to hide under the thicket and stumps and never come out until it was over. He carried his rifle with both hands, his breath rapid. Almost there—The bullet whizzed past him, and suddenly David reeled backwards, falling hard onto the ground below. He stared up at the sky, and Tom could do nothing but stare down at him in shock, hearing the swirl of voices around him. Men dressed in blue ran past him, eyes fixed upon the safety of the trees. Tom knelt down, feeling his knees sink into the mud.

“David!” he urged, feeling his entire body tremble. “David, come on!”  He grasped his friend’s arm, trying to pull him up, noticing for the first time the limpness of the body. Tom saw the blood stains littering David’s chest, the lifeless eyes staring at nothing. Tom felt his entire body go numb as he let go of his friend’s arm. An artillery blast from close by made him jump, and he lay flat over David’s body, feeling mud and dirt spray over him.

“He’s dead, son! Come on!” urged an officer. Tom looked down at David once more, mind not processing, tears stinging his face as he took up his rifle and ran into the safety of the trees.

____________________________________________________________

Emily Wright received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English in December of 2014 from Union University in Jackson, TN. She is currently an English teacher at Halls High School, where she loves to educate her students about how history and literature collide. This is her second publication.

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A Day at the Circus

By Mark C. Harwell

General Flavius Stilicho followed closely behind shorter and more slightly built Emperor Honorius, who led the royal family procession from the imperial palace down a private tunnel directly connected to the circus in Mediolanum.  Stilicho had a large nose with a boxing dent and a battle scar above his nostrils.  His sepia-colored hair was cut short in Roman military fashion.  To his right, his wife, Serena, walked straight-backed, her chin high.  He thought her a handsome woman, with pitch black hair braided and wound around her head, pinned in place by gold, pearl-studded combs that gave the appearance of a diadem rising from her scalp.  But he had not married her for her looks.  She was the niece and adopted daughter of Emperor Theodosius.

A roar echoed up the tunnel.  It reminded him of howling and snapping Alpine wolves fighting over a fresh kill late at night.  When he emerged from the tunnel into the imperial box, the noise opened up to a deafening roar like scores of ocean waves crashing against seawalls.  His nose recoiled at the pungent odor of massed, sweaty humanity.  This was the second of three days of festival races honoring the deceased Theodosius.  The unrelenting bright sun burned necks and stewed bodies among the raucous tens of thousands gathered.  He twitched his nose and scanned the assembled mob.  He spotted Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a prideful looking, round-faced senator from Rome, in the center of a group of other senators who had made the trip north for the funeral games.  They were seated along with the other people of senatorial rank or wealth on the first two rows of the marble benches that stretched the full length of the stadium’s elongated U shape.  Symmachus and his companions looked detached and unenthusiastic.  Stilicho grimaced.  “Roman sops,” he murmured.

Above the senators’ heads, in the next five rows, men and women from every lower rank and social order screamed boisterously, waving colored flags and streamers for their favorite faction, and insulting the competing teams with lewd jeers.  Separated by class horizontally, the stadium divided vertically into four distinct colored factions.  The Whites, wearing white tunics, scarves, or dresses held the quarter of the stadium on Stilicho’s right.  Next came the Blues, then the Reds, ending with the Greens seated on the emperor’s left.

Young Emperor Honorius strode to his purple-cushioned seat in the front center of the imperial box.   Stilicho stopped next to him, where he had an excellent view of the circus’ starting gate and finish line.  But he was far more interested in keeping his eyes on the teenage emperor than the pageantry of the stadium.  This was Honorius’ first public appearance as the new emperor of the West.  Stilicho was pleased how the boy had handled himself thus far.  Honorius might grow to be a handsome man.  With the stonecutters’ embellishments, his face and curly brown hair would cut a noble figure that would do nicely for the bronze and marble busts.  Still, it was what hid inside the boy emperor’s skin that worried the general.  He had yet to see any confirmation that the son had inherited his father’s intelligence, courage, or humility.  He could not keep Honorius under his personal supervision forever.  He fretted what the all-powerful adolescent might do in his absence.

Stilicho waited for the imperial party to fully assemble.  His oldest daughter, Maria, took her place on Honorius’ left.  One year younger than Honorius, Maria had her mother’s dark hair, but had inherited Stilicho’s hazel eyes and large nose.  Her shiny black locks hung loose below her shoulders.  She held her nose high in an immodest pose.  Stilicho planned for Maria and Honorius to wed as soon as she became of age.  It pleased him that Maria took to the idea eagerly.

Next to Maria came her five-year-old sister, Thermantia.  She had a mass of curly red-brown hair that jutted from her blue headscarf like loose copper springs. Stilicho smiled knowing that should the need arise, his second daughter waited ready in the wings to take her turn in Honorius’ royal bedchamber.

Behind his daughters stood Galla Placidia, Honorius’ seven-year-old half-sister.  Galla seemed to Stilicho to have a permanent, stepchild’s jealous resentment about her.  Yet, even at this young age, he could see that she might rival her mother’s legendary beauty.  She had gray eyes the color of stormy seas, but filled with golden flakes that shimmered in the same way that shiny stones reflect light in still waters.

Last among the royal entourage, and standing behind Maria and Thermantia, came Stilicho’s seven-year-old son, Eucherius.  Although Stilicho might someday choose to wed Galla Placidia to a rich Roman senator, or to a barbarian king to secure the Empire’s borders, it seemed to him more than mere chance that God had given him a son who he could graft into Theodosius’ bloodline by marriage to Galla Placidia should the need arise.

Behind the royal family came the dignitaries invited by Stilicho in Honorius’ name, the foremost being General Gainas.  He was a tall man with short black hair wearing a blue Thracian robe over his russet tunic in a style common in Constantinople, capital of the East.  He had intense blue eyes set wide atop his broad nose, the bridge of which had been clipped by a Gothic arrowhead three years ago.  Trailing after the invited guests, male slaves bore earthenware jars holding wine, water and fruit juices, and silver trays stacked with small sweet cakes.  Last, came the Hun mercenary royal bodyguards. The four swarthy-skinned stout men wore chain mail to their shins and iron helmets crested from front to back with billowy purple-dyed feathers. They took positions guarding the entrance to the tunnel.

Honorius raised both his arms skyward and the raucous noise in the circus abated.  He looked about ready to take his seat, when a male voice suddenly screamed out from the White faction seats.

“Blues suck donkey dicks!”

A bombard of bread crusts, half-eaten fruit, and flying liquids immediately responded from the Blue faction pelting the Whites nearest the dividing line.  A melee ensued.  The border line between white and blue clad spectators undulated, resembling a streamer blowing in a gusty wind as the rows of fans shoved and beat each other.

Honorius snickered, obviously delighted that the Blues seemed to be getting the best of the Whites.

Serena sharply squeezed Stilicho’s hand and growled “husband” from the side of her mouth.

Stilicho thought the commotion comical, but he did not want to cross his wife.  Serena had a steadfast orthodox Christian faith with little tolerance for roguish behavior.  It also occurred to him that the moment offered the opportunity for a test of the boy emperor.

“Augustus,” Stilicho said turning to Honorius.  “Perhaps your serene guidance would be in order.”

The boy’s childish, delighted smile changed to a stately frown.  He lifted his arms high and screamed out in his high-pitched voice: “Citizens!”  Faces turned toward him from the blue and white battle line.  “Calm yourselves!  We have come together to celebrate my late father’s great reign.  Let’s not sully his memory by brawling.”

“Hail Theodosius,” a voice screamed from the Greens.  “Hail Honorius,” a chant began from the Reds.  Soon the entire stadium vibrated with the chorus of “Hail Honorius.”  The boy’s face beamed brighter than Pharos.  After several moments of letting Honorius absorb the adulation, Stilicho waved his arms for silence.  This time everyone in the crowd instantly obeyed.  “Citizens, your emperor thanks you for your praise.  Now, with the blessing of the Holy Trinity, let the races begin.”  Honorius immediately sat down.  After waiting a respectful heartbeat, everyone else in the imperial party took their seats.  The crowd noise in the circus resumed its excited, rolling hum of anticipation.

The city prefect, gray-headed Gaius Longinus, appeared from a gated passageway beneath the imperial box.  He walked to the middle of the track.  He wore a long yellow tunic with two broad red stripes embroidered with gold that ran hem to hem and over each shoulder.  He announced the day’s slate of races and praised the aedile, quaestor, or other public officials who had sponsored each race by providing the prize money.  The names drew a polite, but unenthusiastic cheer from the audience.

Stilicho’s mind wandered from the prefect’s speech.  He half-heartedly clapped his hands when four chariots appeared for the day’s first race.  He had never had much enthusiasm for the races.  From time to time he might take a special interest in a particularly talented driver, or praise the beauty of a well-matched team of horses, but the thrill of the colored factions that drove the crowds into such a fanatical frenzy completely escaped his understanding.  To him, the chariots were an outdated relic of ancient warfare.  He had never seen one in battle, though he had heard that some of the most primitive British tribes still used them.   A two-horse chariot could not match the speed of light cavalry.  Larger chariots on a battlefield were ponderous and difficult to control, sometimes doing as much damage to their own ranks as to their enemy’s.  Compared to his memories of the thundering charge of heavily-armored horses and the sheer terror wrought by lances impaling bodies and swords splitting heads, the chariot races seemed to him a pathetic pantomime of real combat.  But the crowd did not share his disdain.  As soon as each color-coordinated chariot appeared on the track, the respective colored faction in the stands roared with wild excitement.

Each chariot driver wore a simple tunic dyed the faction’s color.  Each steered his chariot once around the track preliminary to the race.  Men in the audience yelled encouragement to their faction’s driver and curses upon the other drivers.  The women screamed just as ardently.  A woman two rows up in the Blue’s section bared her chest and screamed to the Blue rider: “They’re yours if you win.”

Serena turned up her nose.  “Disgraceful.”

A smile cracked Stilicho’s lips.  He leaned toward Serena to speak into her ear.  “Do you suppose the man beside her is her husband?”

“I wonder what he has to say about such indecency.”

Stilicho laughed.  “My guess is that he’d willingly offer himself as his wife’s substitute if the driver is inclined in that way.”

Serena snarled.  “That’s disgusting.  I can’t imagine what they see in the driver.  The man is hideous.”

Stilicho studied the Blue driver.  His arms were covered with thick black hair.  A purple swell puffed under his left eye.  A grayish scar ran the full length of his right cheek.  “It’s not about his appearance, my dear.  If the Red charioteer were to change tunics with the Blue mid-race and win, I’m sure the woman would just as enthusiastically invite him to her bed.”

 Serena gasped.  She playfully slapped at his left shoulder.

He glanced toward Honorius who sat rigid and tense, his hands gripping his seat’s armrests in excitement, visibly restraining himself from joining in the Blue faction’s cheers for the Blue charioteer as he passed the imperial box.

 “I like the Blue’s horses,” Maria said.

“Yes,” Honorius exploded.  He drew a quick breath and then quickly resumed his statelier composure.  “Yes, they are magnificent aren’t they,” he said with poorly feigned indifference.

 “I like the Green,” Galla said.

Honorius scoffed.  “My dear little sister, the Greens didn’t win once yesterday and they don’t look to be a favorite today.  Maria has a much better eye for a champion than you.”

Maria smiled proudly.  Galla’s lower lip curled to a pout.  “I still like the Green,” she said.

 “And what says my master of soldiers?”  Honorius said.

Stilicho studied the shiny black stallions pulling the Blue chariot.  Their coats gleamed beautifully, but they stomped their hooves spasmodically and randomly jerked their heads in the harness.  They had the wide, white-eyed frightened look that Stilicho had seen in horses charging into massed spears.  This must be their first race. The charioteer noticeably strained at the reins holding back the horses.  Stilicho preferred the look of the Red team.  The dappled gray horses were not so lovely as the blacks, but their legs trotted in perfect unison.  The driver steered them with casual tugs.  The horses knew to save their energy for the race.

He turned back to the emperor.  Regrettably, the sole characteristic that he had observed in Honorius that he had inherited from his august father was Theodosius’ volatile temper.  Despite the fact that he despised sycophants, Stilicho learned long ago that if he coddled the boy emperor rather than irritate him, he would not provoke a tantrum.  “Augustus, I favor your choice, the Blues, though of course, like you, I do not adhere to any particular faction.”

Honorius nodded, appearing satisfied with his own expertise.  “Yes, magnificent … the black horses are magnificent.”

The four chariots pulled up to the starting line.  Grooms wearing faction color-coordinated livery grabbed the horses’ bridles.  They held the teams steady.  When all the horses had been calmed, the grooms scattered.  The circus grew silent, the masses collectively holding their breaths.  A trumpeter stationed high above the starting gate lifted his curled trumpet, waiting for Honorius’ signal.  Honorius raised a white cloth high in his hand, the crowd becoming utterly silent.

Honorius released the cloth.  A shrill blast sounded.  The horses leapt forward.  The circus exploded with the urgent screams of 30,000 voices.  The black stallions instantly jumped into the lead.  The Blue charioteer leaned far forward in the chariot giving his horses full loose reins.  By the first turn, he had established a one length lead over the other three.  The Red chariot hung back at the rear of the pack.

Stilicho noticed movement behind him.  He turned to see a uniformed officer from the eastern VIIth Claudia palatini legion emerge from the emperor’s tunnel.  The man hesitated, scanning the group, then marched directly to General Gainas.  He spoke into the general’s ear, then both men retired back to the tunnel.

At the third turn, the Blue chariot still held its lead over the other three.  As the Blue’s horses galloped past Stilicho, he noted the white lines of sweat already streaking their midnight necks.  The dapple grays pulling the Red chariot, now three lengths back, still looked relaxed.  “Go!  Go!” Honorius cheered.  Maria joined him in the chorus.  By the ninth turn, Stilicho could see that the black stallions’ strides were flagging.  The Red chariot driver started his move.  The dapple grays charged past the Green chariot.

General Gainas returned and tapped Stilicho’s right shoulder.  “Sir, may we speak in private?”  Stilicho nodded.  “Yes of course,” he said.  “Let’s just watch the end, shall we?”  He did not care so much about how the race would conclude, but he definitely cared about how Honorius would handle what Stilicho knew to be the Blue’s impending defeat.  He wanted to be close at hand.

At the twelfth turn the Blue chariot had lost its lead to the White chariot.  Midway to the thirteenth and final turn the Red chariot had overtaken both.  It crossed the finish line two lengths in front of the White and another length in front of the Blue.  The Green came in last.  Honorius slumped in his seat.  He had a sulking, pink blush to his face.  He looked as though he thought that he had somehow been personally responsible for the Blue’s defeat.

Stilicho stood and faced Honorius.  “As usual Augustus, it’s better to be lucky than skillful.”

Honorius squinted his eyes looking up.  “Lucky?”  He nodded slowly, his flushed skin returned to a pasty hue.  “Yes … the Red had appalling good luck.”

“If they’d race ten times instead of just once the Blue would certainly win nine,” Stilicho said.  “The Red would never be so fortunate again.”

“You saw that too,” Honorius said.  “Appalling … appalling good luck that Red.”

Stilicho bowed at his waist.  “Excuse me sire, but General Gainas needs to speak with me.”

Honorius waved the back of his right hand at him.  “Go.  Come back when you can.”  He straightened in his chair and turned to face the track.  “Appalling good luck that Red.  They won’t be so lucky next time.”

____________________________________________________________

Mark Harwell is a new writer who studied history at Rice University and earned a J.D. from the University of Texas.  He resides in Katy, Texas and writes historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers.  A Day at the Circus is a portion of his forthcoming novel.

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The Walls of Edo

By Sam Tjahjono

A cry erupted from the shore of Edo Bay to the north, beyond the reeds that swayed in a sudden gust of wind. The fugitive turned to meet the sound. 

He’s over there, on the path, said the voice from the shore. Even though the fugitive could not see very clearly in the deepening dusk, he knew the voice belonged to one of the doshin. He could hear the men scrambling from a boat onto the shore, which was hidden from sight by an embankment. 

However, they soon came into view, their black kimonos thrashing in the wind. There were five of them in total, moving in single file like insects on the sand. Two of them carried lanterns, while the other three wielded various sasumata with which to ensnare and subdue the fugitive. These they brandished like grotesque antennae silhouetted against the indigo sky.

The doshin, in the employ of the machi-bugyo, had chased the fugitive here all the way from the Kyobashi district—where he had purchased a scroll of poetry—across the Eitai Bridge and the canals feeding into Edo Bay: a total of six miles. The whole time they had pursued him, all he could think of was the geisha he had been involved with, and who had recently disappeared.

Could they think I am responsible? he wondered. Am I responsible?

What have you done with the geisha? one of the doshin called out, as if in answer of his question. Where is she? If you are innocent, just let us bring you to the machi-bugyo—let him know where you stand. 

But the fugitive knew this was not true: if the geisha had left Edo like she had often threatened to do, or if they suspected he had harmed her, then the machi-bugyo would most likely have him banished, or even executed.

And so he toiled on into the evening, hoping to outpace the doshin long enough to lose them under cover of night. The path widened before him as he neared the boiling houses at the edge of the salt field, and the geisha was everywhere on the shadowy loam before him. Beads of perspiration trickled into his eyes, almost blinding him, and he wondered what evil she might have submitted to at last, alone.

The fugitive’s bare feet stung as he kicked through the piles of salt that littered the ground in snow white gashes. The sharp crystals bit into his heels, and he began to track blood, a trail for the doshin to follow. All the while he remained silent, deigning to ignore the calls of the men who kept pace behind him. 

To the west, the sun sunk below the horizon, and the fugitive no longer ran toward its light, but rather away from the fiery orbs in the lanterns the doshin carried. 

Soon, the field gave way to the eastmost marshes, where rows of sedge embroidered the gassy soil and the saltworkers’ buckets lay in stacks by the water like vestigial shrines. He ran between these, carelessly navigating the zigzag ridges of earth and jumping between footholds, splashes erupting in great brown gouts as though before some amphibious monstrosity. 

Finally, the fugitive reached the end of the peninsula: he had nowhere left to run.

Exhausted, he stumbled into the water. The fecund sludge of the marshbottom gave way beneath his feet. Tangled roots and algae wrapped around him, and he somehow felt warm in their slimy grasp. The sloshing footfalls of the doshin were close behind him now, and as he knelt in the water, the mud sucking at his knees, he thought again of the geisha.

And so, when he crumpled under the iron heft of the doshin’s jutte, his mind was already on the last time he’d been with her. Perhaps a month prior, the sharp clove fragrance of the geisha’s perfume had filled his nostrils as he lay beside her on the futon mattress. They had never had intercourse, despite the list of reasons he’d recited to her, but he always felt impossibly close to her in these moments. 

And now once more, the fugitive wrapped his arms around her in the limited darkness of the dream. He inhaled the silk smell of her kimono, its pattern of cerulean irises on red brocade brushing against his face. Beside them, licorice smoke came up from the incense that burned in the censer.

She was telling him, tearfully, of the mizuage ritual she would soon undergo, in which her virginity would be sold to the highest bidder. She had been bought, she said, by a man in fine green damask, a man with many coins. Silver and gold exchanged for blood, he thought, her face buried against his chest. Her untainted blood. The sweet smoke from the censer hung around them like a cocoon.

Come away with me, she pleaded, Anywhere but here. I’m not ready to be a woman. Not like this.

No one’s ready to leave their childhood behind, he replied in a futile attempt to calm her. But you must always be ready to meet what comes next. I, for one, chose Edo. My parents chose Edo, too, and their parents before. A place has been set aside for us here, with people to wait on us. You have a place here, too. The city is good to a geisha.

She looked at him then like he was a stranger. The city gives a geisha nothing, she said, as though balancing her words upon a knife. I own nothing but my reputation. And what is that worth?

Your reputation is worth a good deal, he answered, sitting up. You make many men happy, just like you make me happy. She gathered her kimono up against her chest, staring at him guardedly. Looking down at her, he realized that her kimono matched the pattern of the silk sheets on the mattress.

Why won’t you come with me? she said. Her tone was flat, as though she did not expect an answer.

I’m not yet ready to leave Edo, he replied after a pause.

Don’t you love me?

Three months together are not worth a lifetime of security. That was what he said, though he grimaced immediately after doing so.

She got up without saying a word, then straightened her kimono and left the bedchamber. She did not even glance back, to see if he’d follow and attempt to soothe her fear. Her girlish fear.

The memory dissipated when he awoke from the concussion in the jail in Kodenma-ch?. He was sitting down, tied to a post in a mossy courtyard. The early morning sky churned a deep violet above them, and the smell of rain mingled with the tinge of blood in his nose. He winced. Everything was too bright. He sat there blinking.  Before him stood three new doshin, whom he had not seen before. They towered like statues before him in a semicircle.

One of the doshin poured a bucket of water on his head. The icy splash burned his skin, brought him gasping back. Another doshin hit him from behind with a jutte.

Tell us what you’ve done with her, they kept saying. Tell us why you ran. 

Though he was dazed and sore, he dimly realized the choice that lay before him: he could tell them he knew nothing, which would be a noble thing, he thought. Or, he could tell them that he’d known of the geisha’s desire to leave and had failed to make this fact known. Either way, they would torture him, and so he decided silence was his best option: he was no longer the fugitive, but rather the accused. 

Perhaps they will find a trace of her, he thought, maybe even in the next few hours, that will divert their attention from me. Perhaps they will realize I am innocent.

For the time being, however, that was not the case. They would torture the accused, they said, until he was ready to speak to the machi-bugyo. Was he prepared to receive his punishment? He answered yes without hesitation.

And so, when they interrogated him the first day, he took solace in the notion that he was being persecuted for his love of the geisha—that there was nobility in his silence. The doshin, on the other hand, assumed that he’d either kidnapped the geisha or killed her out of jealousy, to keep the man in green damask from having her. They knew she’d told him about the mizuage arrangement. She had failed to appear at the ceremony on the appointed day, and as it turned out, the man in green damask was related to the shogun of Edo himself. He was furious that his prize had been snatched from him, and so he had ordered the machi-bugyo to send his doshin after the client of the geisha he presumed responsible.

The second day, the doshin tortured the accused further. Give us a name, they told him, of a person or place, and we will consider it a boon to the shogun. Otherwise, we will deliver justice in proportion to murder. 

But the accused did not answer, confident in his newfound purpose. So they again took him out to the courtyard, where they stripped him, flogged him, and soaked sheets of bamboo in water before jabbing them under his fingernails. The wood beneath his nails expanded for an agonizing hour, uprooting his nails in the process.

He became delirious from the torture. The pain made him guilty, made him want to confess to every charge the doshin leveled against him. But still he struggled to hold fast to the principles he believed himself to possess, though his resolve faded as the punishment continued.

The machi-bugyo, however, did not come to speak with him. Still the doshin insisted that the accused confess. It was inevitable that he did so, they said, so he might as well get it over with now.

And yet he waited, though only until the third day. In the small hours of the cool morning, a beggar boy, lice-ridden and coated in grime, slipped into the jail while the doshin on guard relieved himself in the courtyard. The boy handed the accused a letter through the iron bars of his cell, his eyes averted, and then departed without a word. 

The letter was from the geisha, though it was unsigned. The accused inhaled the clove fragrance that still permeated the paper. Morning rays slipped through the cell bars from the outside. The doshin would return soon to check on him and most likely resume the torture. So he read quickly.

In the letter, she told him things he did not know about himself. That his mother’s death and his father’s banishment for abandoning the service of the shogun must have been hard on him. That he was unable to love her because he only knew how to care for himself. That he loved her only with the view of Mount Fuji from high above the bustle of the people in her lofty tenement.

She went on to say that after their last meeting, she had realized he was not worth losing a part of herself in a manner outside her own terms. She would not tell him where she was, but he should know she was now far outside the walls of the city, far beyond its reach. 

You see, inconvenience overcomes love, she continued, in every circumstance. Not even the shogun’s brother will be able to convince himself that hunting for something lost is a worthier cause than simply discovering something new.

The accused shivered in his cell. The cold morning air had begun to seep in between the bars like water through a sluice.

However, the geisha went on, who knows the hearts of men, and when they may change? There was a way for him to get out of Edo, but he must follow her plan exactly. He must tell the machi-bugyo that he knows where she is, but that she will not show herself unless the man whom she loves goes with them. So he will go with the machi-bugyo to Ikegami, the southernmost town of Edo, where she grew up. There, a childhood friend of hers will help him escape, hide him away beneath the floorboards of a teahouse.

Her friend’s name was Atsuko. Honest Child.

Of course, you can never return to Edo, the geisha went on. You will be executed if you do. So you must live out your days in banishment. However, if your circumstances have changed enough to force your heart from its shell, then go to Kyoto. People change like the winds at sea, and so when I am older, I may someday change my mind about you.

Someday, maybe we will meet in Kyoto.

This was the end of the letter. The accused traced the ink with his finger, salt crystals dried beneath his eyes. He considered the letter, the parchment in his hands that was suddenly warm like flesh and blood in his hands.

The stillness was broken by the sound of the jail door creaking open: the doshin had returned from outside. Moving his fingers like they were frozen, the accused tore the letter into strips and chewed them up, one by one. The paper sucked the moisture from his mouth, scraping its way down his throat. It settled in his stomach like a paper nest. 

Only one piece of the letter remained, but he did not dispose of it. Instead, he clutched it in a shaking fist. 

Outside, the doshin’s keys jingled in his kimono. Outside, the doshin lit the paper lanterns that adorned the cell exteriors.

When he got to the accused’s cell, the doshin paused, a jutte gleaming in his hand. He considered the man accused of depriving the shogun’s brother of his prize. He saw before him the wretch holding a tatter of paper in a clenched fist, but what he could not yet see was the writing on the paper. 

What’s in your hand? he demanded. Where did you get that? The wretch opened his mouth as though to answer, but no sound came out.

If the doshin could read lips, he would have made out a name: 

Atsuko.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Sam Tjahjono recently graduated from the University of North Texas. While there, he cast a wide net of interests, which ranged from his study of writing and rhetoric, to his midnight wrestling matches with stories and stanzas much tougher than him. UNT’s literary journal, the North Texas Review, published two of his poems, and he went on to be the poetry editor for the journal’s Spring 2016 edition. Currently, he lives in Denton, Texas, with his fiancée, infant daughter, and a three-legged cat named Pollux. He would love nothing more than to one day meet the ghost of Roland Barthes.

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The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny

By Tom Sheehan

As all accidents are about to happen, or strange encounters take place, fate stands at the edge of the road waiting to announce itself, an unseen signpost, an unseen hitchhiker. Such was the plan when Banford J. Hibbs pushed his wheelchair out of the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Both his legs had been left on the rampant sands of a Pacific island half a century earlier. He did not see the boy with the white cane until he had almost knocked him down.

“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t see you,” Banford Hibbs said. In a gray shirt his arms bulged from wrist to shoulder, exhibiting long sieges at arduous labor. His eyes were clear, he was clean-shaven, an odd bump accented an otherwise long straight nose, and his hair was military-trim. The boy, not in any great contrast, was clean-faced, dark-haired, but wore dark glasses, as if hiding within himself.

“I didn’t see you either, mister,” the boy said, and the grin leaped across his face. “My name’s Dim Johnny. It’s not really that bad a name. Kids got used to it. Tells a story.” Bright teeth filled a mouth formed with full lips, and one would gather he spent little time frowning. The remnants of the smile lingered at the corners of his lips, the way smiles like to hang around pleasant people.

“Well, Dim Johnny, from my days in a rehab hospital, after losing my legs, all the guys started calling me Trot. It’s been Trot ever since. Trot locked up in a wheelchair. Trot do this and Trot do that, Trot never swung a baseball bat.”

The boy giggled. “That’s kind of like my name. Getting us to laugh a little bit at ourselves so we don’t spend the day sulking in a corner, like my grandfather used to say. He read a lot to me. I still hear him.”

“Do you like parades?” Trot looked up and down the street, through breaks in the small crowd gathered along the curbing.

“I don’t see too much in parades, but I like to listen, to everything.” He slanted his head as if it were an exclamation mark.

For the first time in all his parades, Trot heard the crowd and all its props: cap guns, whistles, whirling plastic bird’s wings, yells and exuberance of all kind and manner. He’d always seen a parade but had never heard a parade, not really heard it. That his ears were opened made his eyes open. “Someday you’ll be in a parade, Dim Johnny. I’d bet on that.”

Just the way fate hung at the edge of the roadway like the announced hitchhiker, so did prophecy, and the tingle was alive in Trot Hibbs’ phantom toes. Both feet, he said to himself.

“Hey, Trot,” hailed a voice from the crowd. “Just in time for the parade. They remember us today, you know, but the ranks’re getting thinner. There’s only us sergeants and chiefs of boats left now.”

Trot recognized the voice even before he saw the face, old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright. “Hey, Snorkel, what brings you up from down under? They let all the water out of the tub?”

The boy’s laughter burst out of him again, tapping his cane on the ground, making more exclamation marks. “I know him,” he said. “He’s the guy at the gas station. Sometimes we stop there for gas.” The tip of his white cane came to rest against one of the Trot’s wheels. Trot guessed him to be about eleven or twelve years old. He had already decided that the dark glasses were not going to hide much about Dim Johnny.

“I used to see,” the boy said. “I remember what my mother looks like. She says I’m her savior ‘cause I keep her looks frozen in time. She’ll never get any older. Makes me feel good.” His head moved off at an angle as if posing, but Trot guessed he was keying in on some feature of his mother. “She has the biggest, softest, kindest eyes you can imagine. Like Oreos. That’s really what I see. But it’s a secret I’ll share with you. One I can’t tell her, that I can’t remember all of her face. I’m happy it’s the eyes. Big, soft, brown. She never has to know, does she?” There was affirmation heard if affirmation was ever said.

“Not on my account. What happened?” Trot said, staying in place with something remarkable happening to him, finding it difficult to do so. Unknown pleasant tremors were at deep core work.

“Nobody really knows. It started getting darker each day, a bit at a time. They took me to half a dozen doctors, but they couldn’t find out anything. Then one day,” he shrugged his shoulders, “it was all gone. At first it was dim, then dimmer, then nothing. Some kids began to call me Dim Johnny, like the game your pals pulled on you. But you guys were all hurt, weren’t you? You were a sergeant, huh? Gramp said he could run a war with sergeants. What about the generals?”

“You only need one of them, Johnny. The rest become errand boys. Gramp’s right. So are you. We were a hurting army, the bunch of us, but we were winners. Tell me, is your hearing now excellent or special? I’ve heard stories from some guys.” Trot had seen how Johnny’s head would turn according to introductions of a sound, a noise, a bit of music from a distant radio, a single trumpet warming up for the parade. He wondered about handling disparate sounds, unidentified sounds; how would they be classed or sorted, or even referenced.

“I can hear music in anything. I can tell a note of the scale from a hundred yards away. Lots of songs I know by just hearing a couple of notes together. Oh, they have to be kind of special. I have to get some help. I’m only a kid, you know.” He laughed all over again and it made Trot feel warmer inside, the core touched again.              There came a sudden balance in all of it, thought Trot, as Dim Johnny, too much of the spotlight on himself, said, “What do you do Trot?”  Enough of me it seemed to say, and said honestly with a righteous reserve. Manners it also said.

Trot Hibbs flicked a thumbnail against a spoke in a wheel.

“That’s an A Flat,” Dim Johnny said, adding, “if that’s a test note.” He laughed aloud and tapped his cane again on the cement walkway. It was just the way Trot used to do with a cue stick playing pool in the Old Rathole before the war. It was akin to applause or ovation. Johnny continued, “I wish I could make money with it. I’d really like to help my mother and father. He gets odd jobs now and then and he’s not really in the best shape. I guess worrying can do that to you. Gramp used to say that, too.”

“Well, I make things out of iron. I try to bring out objects I see in old metal pieces. Some people call it art. Some call it junk. But I love doing it. It’s special salvage.”

“Boy, I’d like to see some of it. Could we do that? I mean, I’d like to touch some of them, see what you’re saying to me, if you know what I mean. My hands can remember my grandfather’s face, how he used to read to me. He had big ears, a heavy chin, sometimes when he talked his jaw cracked. My dad doesn’t have time to read like that. He’s always worrying about something happening that never happens. Never once.”

“Sure, if you get the okay from your folks. I live there in that alley. All my stuff is there. You go in along the fence and a wall only two feet off the fence. The wall says my stuff is going to be all over the place. You have to be careful and stay against the edge of the building, against that wall. It’s an old garage I live in. Fixed up pretty good. Yell out my name.”

“Sure,” Dim Johnny said, “I’ll yell out, ‘Hey, Trot, what you got?’”

Banford J. Trot Hibbs, for the second or third time was warmed right down to his missing toes.

Sleep eventually came to Trot Hibbs that night, after the Memorial Day parade, after saying goodbye to the boy, after a long siege on Kwajalein sand was relived again. In that sense of silence, he thought about the boy’s good spirits.

Barely out of bed and dressed, near-burnt toast aroma climbing the air, coffee scent its companion, the sun a huge promise coming with a quick slant onto the kitchen table, he heard the yell. “Hey, Trot! What you got?”

Out the window he saw the boy, in a blue jacket, a bag in one hand, the white cane in the other. “Hey, Johnny,” Trot yelled. “Keep coming along the wall, open the first door you come to.”

The boy stood in Trot’s foyer, kitchen, workshop, home. “You burned the toast,” he said. “Your coffee’s like my father’s. Calls it camp coffee from when he went fishing with the guys. He doesn’t fish much any more. You got iron in here? You won’t believe me, but I can smell feathers. D’you just wake up?”

Pronouncements and observations of all kind were not very far from Dim Johnny, Trot had already decided. He swore his toes tingled again. “Come straight ahead. There’s a chair you can sit in. What’s in the bag?”

“My Mom said I had to bring a lunch. She talked to some people about you, swore you ain’t going to hurt me or anything crazy. She knows your cousin Sydney from the phone company. What you got, Trot?”

“You sit there, Johnny, and I’ll put some things in front of you.” Iron and steel sounds clinked in the air. A small measurable thud sounded on the table in front of Dim Johnny. “Tell me what you figure this piece to be, Johnny.”

“Ah, Trot, you don’t have to be careful with me. Everybody calls me Dim Johnny. Don’t worry about it, and I won’t call you Banford.” The giggle was authentic, and the toes tingled for sure.

“Just reach out and tell me,” Trot advised the boy. “A few sharp edges, but not knife-sharp. Just be careful. It’s iron and weighs about nine pounds.” At an aside he said, “About the weight of a Garand.”

“I know about Garands.” He pronounced the name of the weapon correctly. “My grandfather knew what they were. Told me about his.” Then Dim Johnny fondled the piece of iron sculpture. His fingers, like reaching for piano keys in an early lesson, touched the perimeters of the piece. A dozen times his hands, petting, coaxing, almost adjusting to shape, moved across the nine pounds of iron. At one point he snapped a finger against an elevated piece and the note ran around the room. He nodded his head and leaned back in the chair.

“That’s a bird in flight, a hawk with fingertip wings, a hunter. I’d call him Black Hunter. I can feel his head down, looking at the ground, eyes searching. Yeh, Black Hunter.”

Trot Hibbs’ toes were alive, his head swam, his heart leaped. All across the prairie or a mile-wide meadow he could see jackrabbits scattering, could see the shadow of wings patrolling against the sun, wings from another part of day, where daylight emptied itself into. “I couldn’t have named him better. From now on, that’s what he is, Black Hunter. Try this one.” He positioned another smaller piece of work in front of the boy.

Dim Johnny went at this one from the base upward, caressing a column, finding the core of something on top of the column, stroking the mass lightly. Behind dark glasses Trot thought he could see the boy squint his eyes. “This could be a lot of things, but I think it’s a bear in the middle of winter. Maybe a polar bear, but I don’t figure it’s white.” He tapped his fingers on the column. A new sound ran around the room.

Trot Hibbs suddenly realized he had never paid attention to sounds of his own material. Johnny tapped it again; it was musical. There was no way in his mind this was intended to be a bear, but the thought persisted. Maybe that’s why it was not so quickly received by people. He’d keep the polar bear in mind, but would not tell the boy. What was really happening to him was the recognition of a new level of achievement, of selection, of newness itself. And what was it with the happy toes, the phantom toes he had heard so much about over the years. Was all this boy work?

A third mass of metal thudded on the table. “That’s bigger than a Garand,” Johnny said. Again his fingers found the form, froze for a moment, moved on, all parts touched, caressed, known. Trot kept the minute titillation to himself. “I don’t know what it is, that’s for sure, but I’d call it Tomorrow. It promises so much.” He chuckled. “It’s kind of like a poem my grandfather told me once. I didn’t make it up. It’s been there.” But from its mass he brought out the sound of music by rubbing an edge. Trot thought it to be an organ at the low end of the scale.

Tomorrow is what we’ll call it from this day on.” Over his shoulder he looked at a pile of iron of sundry shapes, conditions. In his hands he felt each piece. The many times he had fondled them were countless, but the heft continued to be known in his hands. The iron fire engine, but a few inches long he had found as a boy, came back like an exposed negative. It was in the pile in the corner. If there was anything he wanted the boy to know, it was the iron fire engine, thick with rust undisturbed for years. It was like a found poem with him.

He rolled across the room, extracted a few pieces, and brought them to the table. “These are scrap pieces from my pile. What can we do with them? Do you have any ideas?” He pushed the pieces across the table to the boy. His head tilted, his ears cocked, the boy was hearing the metal in a near-silent state, the mere breath of the pieces sliding across the table.

Dim Johnny, mouth slightly open, tongue touching his top lip as if he were tasting sound, touched two pieces together. Trot had never heard that sound before, the tone, the notes coming as the boy touched them along the length of each piece, ringing them, tolling them. Musical notes were coming out of old iron he had banged together a hundred times without regard for sound. Two other pieces came into the boy’s hands. They too made a music Trot Hibbs had not heard before.

“What do we do with this stuff? You’re finding something I didn’t even know was there. But what can we do with it?”

“Well,” Johnny said, “some of the notes are softened by my hands. If you could make a small hole in each end or at the top of each piece, we could hang them by wire loops. Hands just dull the sound, make it too sloppy. I heard my mother talking about some kind of chimes she heard once. We could make chimes. If the sound is good, and I can tell if the sound is good, we can make some chimes. If you shake them against each other and we know what the sound is going to be, we can make music. We could hang them in people’s trees and let the wind play them.”

The partnership of Banford J. Trot Hibbs and Dim Johnny Hardcastle was formed. Trot worked the pieces, bending, cutting, welding, joining, thinning the note of one or another by whatever craft he could bring to bear on it. Oh, he polished them, too, and made them catch the sunlight as well as the ear, pretty pieces, rugged pieces, marvelous pieces. And day upon day he felt the tingle crawling about in his toes and the sands of Kwajalein falling further away from him more with each passing day. The half century that had hung on so long was letting go.

With his incredulous ear, Dim Johnny found the right notes in odd lots, or matched pieces so notes came out of their touching, notes of rare beauty and rare orchestration. Came out of them sounds spilling over Chautenauga Valley and across the river, so that children at school were often pulled from games hearkening to them.

The partnership sold hundreds of pieces to hundreds of people with the passing of five more Memorial Day parades until the morning Dim Johnny found Trot Hibbs still in his wheelchair from the night before.

A few days later the flag was hung part way up the pole at the center of town. Old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright closed his station for the day when there was another minor and extra parade in town, and Dim Johnny rode down the street in Snorkel’s car with Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star hanging from the rear view mirror for all to see.

Johnny swore he could see the gold from the Silver Star, just as he was sure Trot Hibbs’ toes were still feeling their way through a new kind of grass. In his hands he clutched a rusted iron fire engine, about a half-pound of ferric beauty that had become his personal rubbing stone.

Some fifteen years later, from the same garage, Dim Johnny Hardcastle is still selling The Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star Mobiles, famous makers of music.

______________________________________________________________

Tom Sheehan has published 24 books, has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield ReviewLa Joie Magazine, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Swan River Daisy, a chapbook, was just released by KY Stories. His Amazon Author’s Page, Tom Sheehan — is on the Amazon site.

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The Flapper

By Esme Reid-McLaughlin

I only work nights. Now I don’t know what that makes you think of me, but I know what it makes men and women on the street think and let me just tell you that I am not, and have never been, one of those quiffs. I’m just a dancer.

I used to work at one of those comedy shows, though. That was the lowest I got. There, I was a joke. A pretty painted piece of meat. Me and the other clowns, made up to look black when they were white or white when they were black. It was the closest thing New York City got to a circus. People thought that I was funny, a man dressed up as a woman for fun, for comedy. No one understood who I really was and I gave up trying to explain eventually. The degradation just became another part of the job. Then, I was the lowest of the low. So low even children laughed at me. And then not any longer, I said. Not any more. So I left. There ought to be more professions for women like me I thought, and I was right.

Now, I work drums. I’m not involved in that lowly bootlegging business though, Wouldn’t dream of touching if with the possibility of the cops catching me red handed with that shit. Besides, I don’t drink. It distracts me from my work.

You’ve hear people say dance is their passion, dance is their livelihood but, honey, let me tell you, none of them know it like I do, feel it like I do. I’m not just a dancer, see. The men in the bars call me a flapper.

I like the name, It reminds me of the little flecks of sparrows on the skyline at night and the sparkling dresses that shimmer on my body as I shake the night away. Now, I know the men don’t intend it as the complement I think it as. They like the way I shake but the don’t see it like I do. For them, I’m not shaking my night away. For them, I’m shaking away their children, their white collar jobs. Their wives. At best I’m shaking away their nights for cheap back alley tips. But, like I said, I’m no quiff. I don’t involve myself with my clients and they don’t bother to involve themselves with me. There are plenty of girls who are much more willing; I don’t drink and I don’t fraternize.

I almost made an exception though. There’s always an exception to the rule, right? Mine’s name was Walter. Walter was a different kind of guy. Aren’t they always. He had this bright red hair and at first I thought maybe he was one of those three letter men, you know the ones that hid their feelings from the authorities and found each other in those big city small drums. He was just so sweet, the way he would talk to me after I got off work. There we would sit, at the empty bar, for hours and hours on end past closing time. He would lean into the counter and ask me if I would make him a drink, sugar. I would just say I wasn’t about to get arrested for bootlegging and besides I wasn’t no bartendender. He would just smooth back his hair and laugh. I know, he would say, I was a flapper. One day he leaned over the counter, his sports coat wrinkling at his elbows, and pressed his lips to mine. I told him I wasn’t no quiff either. He said he didn’t want it like that and I thanked God because neither did I.

We went back to his place, a dingy little apartment above a pizza joint, and I was ready to make my exception. He opened a bottle of wine and poured me a glass but I told him I didn’t drink. Thank you, I added, as he seemed kind of put off. He tipped his glass into his mouth and I watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down with the liquid. He smoothed his hair back with his hand and I thought that I might want that hand to touch me. It did. It traced my jaw and my spine. It ran down my neck and up my dress until it tensed up and pulled away in horror at what it found there.

“Jesus. What was that!” His eyes widened in panic.

I should’ve known this would happen.

He scrambled, his arms pawing behind him like stunted crab pincers as he cowered at the end of the couch. He stood on the arm and pointed to me like I had some kind of plague. Maybe even afraid of the chance that I could infect him.

“You. You’re–” He tried to step backwards and fell of the couch, landing flat on his good looking bottom.

“You’re one of those fags that dresses up like a woman!”

I made the mistake of standing up.

“No, don’t touch me. I heard about you guys. You try to trick men into, into–”

I took another step forward.

“Don’t come any closer or I swear I’ll call the cops.”

“But Walter you have to listen to me.”

“I swear to God I’ll do it.”

“Walter I am a woman, you have to trust me.”

“Just get out you, you pervert!” He stumbled back into the table as I took another step towards him.

“Walter!”

He hid his face in his hands. “Just get out!”

And I did. I left through the fire escape so I didn’t have to walk past him to get to the door. He had been clutching his wine glass in a way that made me far too nervous to get any nearer. I escaped with my life and my freedom, but I had lost my dignity and my love. Still, I should’ve known it was still too good to be true. You see, because the next day, Walter came to the bar just like he always did but this time he wasn’t alone. The boss came out of the back room and all the bartenders were yelling “Raid!” as they frantically stashed their booze. But, no, why would cops be after the illegal booze when I was there?

I was out of there faster than the boss could fire me. He was fully aware of my…condition, I had never hidden it from him, and he knew that I was the best damn dancer he ever had but when the authorities showed up flashing their shiny badges none of that mattered anymore. They handcuffed me and read me my rights while they pinched my sides and prodded my fabric stuffed corset bra. They even tried to tear off my dress so that they could “see what was really underneath.” They laughed the entire time they did it and Walter tried not to look at me.

They told me I was in violation of a brand new law, passed just this week, that required men to wear at least three items of clothing while out in public. I tried to plead, tried to tell them that I wasn’t a man, I never was a man, but they wouldn’t have it. They laughed harder.

“No use…. ‘Honey’.” The head cop chuckled while he shoved me past the dumbstruck crowd and through the door. The men cheered. “Take him away!” They yelled. “We don’t want no fags here!” I was nearly certain that the man who yelled that was one of the three letter men we sheltered in secret.

“We have you on charges of abominable sexual advances and attempted rape.” The cop ran his tongue over his teeth and looked back at Walter. “He really had you fooled, huh kid?”

Walter turned towards the bar counter and still didn’t look at me.

“Sir.” I tried to turn my head back to look at the cop as he thrust me towards the exit. “Sir you have it all wrong. I’m not a man and I’m not a rapist!”

“Who do you want me to believe.” He gave me one final push out the door onto the streets crowded with New York’s usual night crawlers. I didn’t see a single sparrow and when I tried to look up at the moon the cop shoved my head down to the ground. He stood there while I laid on the wet cement.

“A respectable stock broker or someone of the likes of you.”

* * * * *

And now here I am, in the New York County Prison, male ward 6B, inmate 5876 on charges of “abominable” sexual advances, attempted rape, and impersonating a woman. They took away my dress and my shoes and my breasts and they replaced them with work clothes. They wouldn’t let me shave and stubble quickly sprouted up for the first time since I had been a teenager. It quickly grew into a full beard. They took away my wig and made me shave my head. I had been so close to finally having the luxurious blond hair I had always wanted, without a wig. When I asked if the state would supply me with the new hormone pills I had gotten from a doctor who had taken a liking to me back at the bar, they laughed at me. They made me shower with the “other men.”

Laughing, they were always laughing. The authorities that guarded me, the men who surrounded me behind bars, even the jury who tried me. I was lucky I even got a trial: I had heard of cases being dropped mysteriously and inmates never being released. I faced ten years, but I knew there had even been the looming possibility of a life sentence. The death penalty was far too severe, they said, but they might as well have burned me at the stake. I know when I get out of here, ten years from now, I will still have a shaved head and a full beard, maybe my hair will even be graying by then, no money, and no career. There was no way any drum would ever hire me again and I was not going back to that terrible comedy show. Despite everything, I still knew I was a dancer, a flapper, not some freak clown that made the little kiddies laugh.

______________________________________________________________

Esme Reid-McLaughlin is currently a rising 12th grader at Sonoma Academy who enjoys writing and the humanities as will as biology and genetics. She has never been published before but often spends her time writing fiction of all genres, including science fiction, historical fiction, and realistic fiction.

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Aces and Eights

By Lyrissa S.C. Sheptak

This drivin’ rain insists on finding refuge in my covered wagon. But my saturation and misery doesn’t seem to bother its conscience. Life in these Black Hills is tough, and these stunted mountains surely live up to their name — especially on a bleak day such as this.  Shadows falling on the evergreens cause them take on a swarthy complexion.  Accented by perpetual mud, rock and timber, this place is on the road to hell.  I actually like Deadwood, however.  I could call it a breath of fresh air, although this cess-pool of humanity is about as filthy as my soul. That’s fine by me, though, I feel right at home here.  And with the likes of people like my pardner Charley Utter and few other fellers of questionable integrity, we manage well enough. But lately I feel that ‘just managin’’ ain’t good enough anymore.  I’m weary.  Let me rephrase that.  I’m utterly exhausted. It’s difficult keeping one eye reconnoitering ahead, while the other is forced to keep vigil over my shoulder. Thank God for whiskey, it numbs the demon that has taken up residence in my soul.  It helps me forget how things have come to this, and it’s why I’m makin’ my way to the No. 10 saloon.

* * * * *

Well, if it isn’t Wild Bill Hickok.  Sit down and join in.”

It’s my old pal, Captain Massie, speakin’ to me as he stacks his poker chips.  But that thorn-in-my-side bastard, Charles Rich, is at the table as well. Man that feller’s a piece of shit.  He caused me all that trouble in the Gold Room back in Cheyenne. I feel like taking him outside and givin’ his ass a good whoopin’.  But not today, I didn’t sleep well again. It’s those damn dreams, they wear me out.  I’m tired and don’t have much fight in me today. Rich don’t know how lucky he is.

“Rich,” I nod at him. “How ‘bout you changin’ round with me.”  Everybody knows I prefer to sit with my back to the wall.

“No chance, Bill.  I quite like it here.  Besides, no one’s gonna kill you.  Yer too superstitious anyways. Take a seat and join the game already — yer holdin’ it up.”

I mull over his words and shake my head.  Too many people in this world hate me.  Too many more want to see me dead.

“Bill!” It comes sharply, “Either yer in or yer out.”

“Fine,” and I sit down in the open chair and note the distance from my seat to the nearest door.  It feels like a snake is slitherin’ up my spine. I don’t remember the last time I left my back so vulnerable.

“Atta boy, Bill!” Massie declares, “Let’s play cards.”

“Nope.  I cain’t do this.” I stand up just as fast as I sat down.  “I cain’t sit like this,” and I kick my chair out as I stretch to my full height.  And as I tower over them, and pull back my suit jacket to expose my weapons, I notice their silent acquiescence.  Massie’s eyes linger on my guns, but Rich’s do not.  He pretends to study his cards. My weapons are my closest allies, always ready and standing at attention.  I wear them butt-forward in open-topped holsters because it makes for faster hands when I draw them underhanded and spin them forward.

“Rich.  Move it.  Change round,” I growl again.

Rich’s eyes slowly lift from his cards to meet mine dead on.  I notice they take on an ornery glow. “Well Bill, it’s like this…not gonna do it.  But yer welcome to sit over there.” With his oversized chin he points across the table. “You’ll be facing the main door like you prefer, you’ll just have this here smaller door at your back. But I ain’t gonna move. Besides, you’ve got me, Massie, and Mann to protect yah.” His laugh is shrill.

“I don’t need no protecting from girls like you. But fair enough, I’ll sit where you want.  I ain’t afraid of nothin’.” But in my mind it ain’t much of an improvement and I still feel uneasy.

“Good, good.  Everyone’s happy then,” Mann says trying to diffuse the tension.  He deals the cards, tossing them out easy, and the jokes and stories come out the same way.  It only takes a couple of rounds to figure out that it’s not much of a game.  Uneventful. No one really has money to play with.  But nobody has anywhere else to go.  So I give my mind full dominion to wander.

It wanders straight to Agnes and a wave of loneliness washes over me. Then that loneliness is quickly chased by a pang of humility.  I was supposed to come to Deadwood to get a stake in the gold fever and move us into a life of less dangerous pursuits.  I didn’t have much money to work with, so I thought I’d gamble a bit to better our chances.  But when things are left to chance, it’s just that, and nothing more. Gone all this time and nothing to show for it, and still she loves me.  I don’t feel worthy of such a love, but I’m deeply grateful for it all the same. Contrary to what some may say, I’m true to her, and it’s easy to stay true to her; but there certainly was a time when I moseyed from one filly to the next.

But I’m married now…and older. Here in Deadwood, I feel like a piece of just that – dead wood.  I’m strained, weathered, and exhausted from always having to stay one step ahead.  Springs in my holsters, guns under my pillow, crumpled paper ‘round my bed, always sittin’ with my back against the wall.  Always. If it weren’t for these tricks to keep me on the alert, I’d have been killed years ago either by a no good coward, or my sleep depravity. All my so-called friends say I’m superstitious. But I like to think of myself as a survivor. I always seem to find a way to be the one still standing after the smoke vanishes from the shot.  But at 39, I’m feeling it. I may very well be the oldest gunfighter around.  Gunfighter, mind you, not gunman.  There’s a big difference.  Us gunfighters follow a code. That code defines and sets us apart.  Gunmen are just nasty bastards.  They have no rules, and they’re a rotten kind of human who kill out of rage and revenge. They’re fueled by fear and hatred.

It’s funny, though. I’ve never feared the bullet. It means nothing to me. Like I always say, what’s to fear if you don’t actually believe the bullet can do harm? I never understood why people run wild when shots are fired.  Hell, I can stand in a middle of a battlefield, drink my tar, and watch the display. No bullet ever scared me.  Bullets are faster than people, and it’s worse to get a shot in the back while running away (even to safety) than it is getting struck from facing it head on.  The only fear I hold within is that I won’t die in a fair fight.  I don’t want to die from a silver bullet in my back, because then, what was all this for?  And that’s why I’m so tired.  I’m always watchin’ out for all the people who lurk in the darkness and want to shoot me from nooks and crannies. They’re predators. Oftentimes I feel like I’m being hunted.

The other day I said to Charley, “Charley, I feel this is going to be my last camp, and I won’t leave it alive.”  I meant it.  Dead in Deadwood — I really felt it settlin’ in my bones.  Utter just laughed though, thinkin’ I was joshin’ him.  But I wasn’t.  I don’t want to die with my boots on.  But he’s never known what it’s like to be me. A legend. My life has been full.  I treat each of my stints as Pony Express rider, army scout, Union spy, lawman and gunfighter as a badge of honor.

But lately, I just want to get lost in the mess. It’s nice just be a regular man – driftin’, gamblin’, drinkin’. Free.  Nothin’ better.  Especially now. Here in Deadwood, I can almost forget that I’m a legend.  But it’s the others who keep reminding me what I am.  Nobody forgets. Nobody. So I’m left exhausted, and perpetually sore from taking my fair share of tumbles, cuts, shots, you name it. This old body is full of scars. And I’ve gambled away a little too much money too. Don’t tell Agnes.  But it’s brought me to the verge of vagrancy.

“Bill! Wakey, wakey.  Are you in the game or dreaming about your latest screw?” That’s Rich again, of course.

“I don’t know fellers.  Maybe I’ll throw in the cards and head out.  My mind’s just not in the game today.”

“Aw, don’t bother.  If you’re not too spry, why, it’s better for the all of us!” Massie laughs at his own joke and passes up a crooked smile.

He’s actually not a bad guy, so I shrug and say, “Alright then, I’ll stay.”

Mann, a fan of mine, puts on a silly grin and asks me, “Hey Bill, what are you carryin’ on your hip now that you got rid of your two smooth ladies – I sure would have loved to caress your ivory handle Colt .45s.”

Rich pipes in, “Do you shoot like shit now, Bill?”

“They’re Smith and Wessons, but they do the trick just fine, Rich, thank-you very much. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m the talent.  Not the gun.” I peel one out of the holster, do a few tricks and ‘Curly Bills’, and everyone around the table looks impressed. Except for Rich.

He’s an ass and makes my blood boil. I glare at him hard enough so he understands that he’s only one more smart-mouthed comment away from me taking this here gun, holdin’ it against his head and pullin’ the trigger. It’s common knowledge that when I hit hard times not long ago, I had to give up my ivory handle colts to pay back a debt. It was the hardest, most humiliating, thing I ever had to do.  Giving up the most accurate, sharp-shootin’ guns that were ever made feels much like taking a bowie knife, slitting open your stomach and waiting to die.  It made me almost sick to my stomach when I walked away from those guns, because when I left them behind, I felt like I’d never be safe again.  The bullets flew out of those barrels with deadly accuracy. In fact, I can no longer get a proper night’s rest because I fear that one day I’ll awake from a slumber only to find those fancy Colts pointed down the bridge of my own nose by someone who wants to take his revenge. But so far so good. I’m still alive.

You see, it’s the fastest draw that always wins.  I’m fast and a crack shot, even on a bad day. Prince of Pistoleers, they call me. Like I say, kill them before they hit the ground.  Then they can’t shoot you in the back when you’re walking away. But there is such thing as being too fast, and I know that feeling all too well.  And my actions have haunted me since.  It’s hard to live with some sins. And yet I’m called a legend. Where does my plight take me when I’m such a hero?  There’s nowhere else to go but down, I suppose.  And I’m not ready for goin’ so low as six feet under. So what’s next?

“Wakey, wakey, Bill.” Rich flicks my hat and laughs.

“Aw don’t worry about Rich, Bill. Keep doin’ what yer doin’.  Yer makin’ me a wealthy man today.  Remind me to buy a round of drinks in celebration.”  That’s Massie shakin’ me up again.

And I realize that it’s not so bad to be playing cards with this rag tag bunch of mess-ups.  And it certainly hasn’t made a difference where I sit.  And for a fleeting moment, I feel comfortably numb.  Right now I’ve got my friends, a game goin’, and some smooth whiskey.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but as for today, it’s treating me well enough.

“Damn you! Take that!”

Everyone is startled and I try to turn around and see who’s yelling.  But all of a sudden, quick as lightnin’, I have a terrible pain in my head and it rips through my jaw.  I’ve never felt anything like it before, and it feels like my jaw is being sliced apart.  I cain’t understand what’s happening to me, and I certainly cain’t concentrate. My thoughts are scattered and the pain is searing. Then something flashes and the chaos gives way to a flood of memories. I cain’t control the speed in which they come.

First, I’m on the wide open plains where Buffalo Bill and I raced our ponies.  Then, I’m in Abilene, walking down the promenade proud and shining up my new Marshall’s badge.  Next, I’m target shootin’ with my brand new ivory handle colts.  Perfect shot every time. No surprise. Finally, there’s Agnes when I last kissed her. She’s wearing a worried smile. Then the memories stop so violently that it almost trips me up.  My mind goes completely blank.  And try as I may, I can’t see anything but blackness — as if I’m lost in the smoke of a freshly shot gun. So not to panic, I stay calm and still until this haze lifts. Damn, what was in this whiskey?

As the smoke lifts I notice a scuffle, and some feller, practically a kid, is screamin’ over and over again, “Damn you! Take that!” Why is no one shuttin’ him up? Maybe I should do it.  I reach for the butt of my gun to give him a good smack up top his head, but I’m unable to grasp it.  Then upon closer look, I realize that I am very detached from things, as if I have an eagle’s vision from up high in the sky. What kind of whiskey was a drinkin’ — Turpentine?

“What’s goin’ on?” I holler as deep and as powerfully as I can.  But no one hears me.  The screamer tears out of the saloon leaving the others to lock-up hastily and tend to something on the ground.  Everyone’s crowding over that somethin’. But as Mann pulls away, sure as shit, there’s been a killin’.  I hope they don’t credit this one on me.  My numbers are based solely on the killings I’ve done with my own guns, lookin’ my enemy straight in the eye.

There’s deep red blood pooling around the poor feller’s head. The bullet went in the back of the head and exited out of the front cheek and jaw, ripping apart the face leaving not much behind to identify the victim. Who got shot?  I do a quick count – Mann’s there, Massie, Rich, Young. I wrack my brain trying to remember who else was in the No. 10.  But today I was so lost in my thoughts that I never paid no heed. I notice my coveted hat on the floor.  Damn.  My jacket too. Realization hits me with the ferocity of a wielded axe.

It’s me. The dead man on the ground is me.

The others fall silent and stare at my body crumpled on the ground. And I must say, I look disturbingly pathetic. My biggest fear has come true.  I was shot in the back of the head; I died with my boots on. It terrifies and saddens me at the same time. God damn. What a humbling end to a life that was lived so large. It’s left me with a sudden and overwhelming urge to weep.

The men shuffle around my body, not knowin’ what to do.  Someone mumbles how angry Charley’s gonna be when he finds out. No shit, I tell myself. Charley’s gonna raise hell when he finds out. Everyone is stunned silent, almost afraid of the reality of what just happened. But it’s that damn weasel, Rich, who pipes up, “Well, well.  If it ain’t for judge Colt and his jury of six.  But in this case, all it took was only one well-placed shot.”

“Wait till Charley gets his hands on you! You’ll have hell to pay for sayin’ that!” The others have to hold Young back as he leaps forward to attack Rich.  “You’re insensitive.”

I notice an unsettled Rich take a shot of whiskey, scratch his head, and ponder out loud, “Maybe I shoulda given him my seat.”

Silence falls over everyone.  Dare I say they’re ‘deathly still’? Just like walking among the dead on a battlefield. They wear looks of dread and confusion, while I, for once, feel none of it. And I’m surprised that I like this feelin’. I’m free from bondage. My soul feels absolved. My burdens don’t suffocate me anymore.

An emotional Young croaks out, “Look at his cards — aces and eights.”

With his sleeve, Rich wipes the whiskey from his mouth and responds, “I’m not normally superstitious, but I think I could start now.” Staring at my cards scattered on the table, then staring at me, he downs another stiff shot and declares, “Those there aces and eights, fellers, is what I call a dead man’s hand.”

But I beg to differ. Those aces and eights aren’t the sign of a dead man, for I’m no longer held ransom by this world. Those aces and eights have become a surprisingly welcome banner of surrender. My white flag is hoisted, and now I’m gladly waving it. For once I can finally rest in peace.

______________________________________________________________

Lyrissa S.C. Sheptak resides in Alberta, Canada where, when she isn’t taking care of the needs of her family of six, she’s writing non-fiction and fiction. As well, she’s the Assistant Editor for Nasha Doroha magazine.  Lyrissa spent her youth wandering North America’s forts, historical parks, and battlefields.  Those experiences not only heightened her imagination, but influenced her future. She attended Yale University and received her MA in 19th century American Frontier Military History.  Lyrissa is an historian who comes from a storytelling lineage, and this passion compels her to bring history alive.

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Mad Hatters and Glow Girls

By Kitta MacPherson

Father was talking to Mother about Thomas Edison again.

“Wearing a suit so wrinkled it looked like he slept in it. Going so fast he was almost running,” said Father.  “Would you believe the man walks to his own factory?”

I was upstairs, dressing for school, but my room sat near the back stairs leading to the kitchen. Words floated up. Most mornings, patches of conversation, warmed by the kitchen, would soar and hang there. Father was riding the trolley, heading to Dr. Barclay’s, he said. It was just luck. He looked up from his newspaper and out the window for a second and spied “Old Tom,” as he put it – the inventor’s pin straight salt and pepper hair flapping in the wind. Mr. Edison popped out of the lush, forested entrance to Llewellyn Park where he lived in his pink mansion, Glenmont, and jaywalked across Main Street. I could hear the warm murmur of Mother’s acclamation of his story. Mother’s blue tea kettle whistled. Her left hand would be stowed softly on Father’s right shoulder as I imagined her pouring the steaming liquid into one of her treasured Belleek china pieces. As I pulled on my shoes, a cup and saucer rattled loudly.

“Ah!” I heard Father cry out.

“Your trousers,” Mother scolded.

This was the year 1919 and we lived in Orange, New Jersey. With 34 factories devoted solely to the making of hats, Orange had earned its nickname as the “Hat Capital” of the country. There were many other factories here. Our fathers and brothers, and some of our mothers and sisters, made a lot of other goods, like beer and furniture. The father of my friend, Virginia, worked in the Colgate factory and made vats of toothpaste all day. We were about a mile from Mr. Edison’s “idea factory” – that’s what the paper called it – in downtown West Orange where he was trying out inventions like moving pictures and a “phonograph” – a machine that made music by scratching grooves on wax cylinders.

I rounded the stairs and entered the kitchen, just as Mother was spooning oatmeal into my bowl. The kitchen was cozy. I could never decide whether the comfort I felt there was due to Mother’s cooking or the simple presence of my parents. Father sat, still and silent, behind the fortress of his paper.

“Morning, Father,” I said, going ’round and hugging him from behind.

He smelled of shaving cream. Something close to a smile turned up each end of his mouth.

“Hello, Mother,” I said. I pecked her soft cheek.  I had already pulled up my hair, red like my father’s. Father, like so many of his friends, was a hatter. He had taken a job at the No Name Brand hat factory on Mitchell Street as soon as he graduated Our Lady of the Valley High School. John and Henry Stetson, brothers who owned the factory, fought so much they could never decide on a name for their company. The factory was massive, taking up three city blocks. Hundreds of people worked there. Tophats, fedoras, bowlers, you name it, Father had cut rabbit pelts treated with chemicals and made them out of the felt that resulted. He shaped the soft material, and sized the pieces from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

Hatters made good money, better than almost any other factory job around. Rumors swirled of strange sicknesses afflicting them. You couldn’t speak about it. Our neighbor, Mr. Graham, was fired at Christmas by the L. Birch Hat Manufacturing Company. He had complained that his vision was blurry and that he was having trouble walking. The company said he was a drunk.  I heard Mother whisper to Father that she had never seen Mr. Graham touch a drop of liquor. Lately, Father had developed a case of what he called “the shakes.” He missed work yesterday morning to go see Dr. Barclay up on First Mountain. The physician said that Father needed more fresh air.

“Mairead,” Father said, looking at me over his paper.

He was the only one who called me by my full name. To everyone else, I was “Mae,” which suited me fine.

Father continued: “You won’t believe what has happened to Madame Curie.” Sprouts of white were beginning to show amongst the red spikes of his closely cropped hair. Yet, his strong-boned face bore no wrinkles. He was trying. His deep blue eyes bored into mine, inviting me to join in.

“Please tell me, Father,” I said.

“Our Madame Curie,” he said, has discovered another….Oh!!!”

His sentence broke off as his teacup flew from his hand. The cup spun like a little planet traversing the universe of our kitchen. The swift journey ended with a crash against Mother’s white wood butler’s pantry. Shards of white porcelain rained on the oak floor.

“Dennis Dwyer!” Mother said and froze.

Father stared at his right hand as if it belonged to someone else. He had never looked so startled. Mother firmly tapped my shoulder. “I’ll do it,” she said. “Time for school.”  I gathered my cloak and books and crossed our creaky wooden porch. I raced to the front sidewalk and headed off.

As I walked I studied houses like mine, with gaslights burning and people moving inside. A weak March sun hidden behind clouds barely glowed, casting a grey sheen over the landscape. From behind, I heard someone calling me. “Mae! Mae! Wait up!” I turned and saw Rose Frantangelo racing toward me. She had hiked up her outercoat and her skirt to quicken her pace, revealing her ankles and black stockings. Rose had always been a bit of a scamp.

“Where are you going?” she said as she caught up, huffing.

“School,” I said. Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen her in a while. “Where are you heading?” I asked.

“Work,” Rose announced.

I stopped walking and looked at her. Rose had attended Catholic elementary school with me, a grade behind me. She switched to public school in eighth grade after her mother died from pneumonia. At Mass last year, Father Greg announced that Rose’s brother, Petey, died from the Spanish flu while serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix.  Rose was part of a large extended family whose members were from a small village outside Naples, Italy. They had escaped desperate poverty and journeyed to America, settling in Orange. Rose was what my mother would call “a beauty.” She had caramel eyes and thick, dark lashes. When she was in school with me, the boys used to watch her — she had a way of tossing her head so that her wavy golden brown hair would fly out. Now her hair was pinned up like mine. Ashy half moons accented her eyes from below.

“I work at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation,” she said, proudly enunciating each word of the proper name. “It’s only a few blocks from here. The pay is great. I have friends who work there. You probably know some of the girls. We have so much fun.”

She added, “You ought to come with me some time!”

Rose continued, listing all the girls who worked there.

The decision came fast and out of nowhere.

“Can I go to work with you today?” I said.

Rose screeched and jumped up and down.

“Yes,” she said. She wore a big smile.

 

The standalone dialpainting studio of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange was housed in a large brick building on the north corner of a large property. We entered and encountered a young lady with a thin, pinched face and sallow complexion, seated at a table facing us. Piles of paper were heaped on the desk, obscuring all but her head and neck. She looked at me with a quizzical expression.

“This is my friend, Mae,” Rose told her. Neither smiled. “She is visiting today. She may want to work here.”

“I guess that’s okay,” the young lady said.

We exited a hallway and entered a huge, sunlit room. The studio paralleled the path of Alden Street and was about the length of half a city block. Tall windows took up most of the walls facing the rest of the factory compound and the city street. Rectangular skylights rained sunbeams down on the workers gathering in the room. Long rows of attached desks arranged horizontally dominated the room. Hundreds of young women were in here. Most were dressed just like me with a long skirt and a white cotton blouse. Some wore what looked like plaid housecoats over their street clothes. We hung our belongings on brass hooks attached to planks, like school. Each girl set up at her own desk and settled in on a wooden, straight-backed chair. I followed Rose to her station, at the end of the second row and sat next to her in a vacant seat.

“So you are sure you really want to learn this?” Rose said.

I nodded affirmatively.

“Don’t be upset if you don’t get it right at first,” she said. “Usually, it takes about two weeks of training. But I know how smart you are – so I’m not really worried.”

I’m not sure how much brains had anything to do with this. Wizard-like deftness of the hands and wrist were more like it. Before me was a metal tray shaped like a cookie sheet. In five rows, 20 deep, I studied my starting material: clock dials on nickel- and dime-sized paper circles with tiny minute and second hands. To my left sat a small bottle, stopped with a cork, containing yellowish powder. A tiny scoop with a handle skinny as a toothpick was nestled close to its side. There also was a white metal tube which someone already had begun to squeeze from the bottom, another small bottle containing a clear liquid, and a slender artist’s brush. A white ceramic mortar and pestle, a close cousin to the set in our kitchen, rounded out the tool collection.

Rose was already getting started. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, so as not to stare. She was all grace and simple quick movements, making the operation look like one continuous dance. She scooped the powder into the pestle, squeezed a dot of white paste and dropped it in, and, with a medicine dropper, extracted a drop of the clear liquid – it smelled acrid – and mixed that in, using the pestle, daintily swirling in three times. What she did next shocked me. She picked up the paintbrush with one hand and, opening her lips, brought the tip of the brush inside, closed her mouth over it, and twirled it, as if it were a lollipop. When she pulled the brush slowly out, it spiraled to a perfect point.

I must have made a sound because she spoke then.

“We call that lippointing,” Rose said. “It’s the only way you can do it.”

She looked at me again and stopped. “This stuff is supposed to be good for you,” she said. She seemed upset. “Some people drink it.”

I didn’t want to put a brush in my mouth and I didn’t see why I had to do it that way. As I moved to start, I could see that Rose was already on her third watchface. I mixed the concoction, dipped the brush in, and then wiped it on the sides so it wouldn’t drip and to sharpen the “point” of the brush. I moved the brush and lightly touched the digit 1 on the first watchface. To my consternation, the paint spread beyond the digit and filled in the area around it, forming a moat.

“You can’t waste it,” Rose said, leaning over and expertly dabbing up the paint on my dial with a wad of cotton she pulled from a drawer. “Just use tiny bits. And don’t hurry. You will pick up speed the more you paint.”

I could feel a breeze from an open window. I detected a faint odor of something burning. The young ladies chatted, forming a soft murmur. One girl spoke to the women in her area about preparations for her sister’s wedding.

I muddled along, doing my best. I had to concentrate and couldn’t dream of talking. Rose was already well into her tray by this point. I was far behind.

Later, as we walked home, Rose looked toward me, through me.

“I think you should sleep over and go to work with me again,” Rose said.

I thought about it. I was full of energy – and purpose .I didn’t want to act as if I had been in school when I had not been there. The Principal’s Office would probably mail a notice if I were out for a few days.

“Let’s send my little sister, Alfie, to your house,” she said. “She can pick up whatever you need and tell your Mother that you are helping us with school work. She can say it’s going to take a long while so you should probably spend the night.”

It was an unusual enough plan – I rarely did sleepovers – that Mother might believe Alfie. And she would like the idea of me working, being useful. I imagined Mother opening the door and, recognizing the girl from church, saying, “Good evening, Alfonsina.”

Rose lived with her family in a second-floor apartment in a two-story brick building. Verdi’s newspaper and candy store, a popular place in that neighborhood, was on the first floor. Daylight still reigned but a giant pink neon sign the shape of an ice cream cone loomed, casting its own kind of white-hot radiance on the front sidewalk. The display occupied a full window in the storefront, one that ran from the ground up to what must have been the inside ceiling.

“People come and just stare at it,” Rose said. She walked on, shaking her head. I guessed she had looked at it enough times for it to lose its charm.

We entered through a cracked wooden side door painted green with a dent in one lower corner, as if someone had kicked it.

Off the main hallway, Rose pointed to a closed door.

“That was Agopito’s room,” she said. “You remember my brother, Petey, right?”

How could I forget a boy with black curly hair and Rose’s caramel eyes? A boy who could outplay most others in street and playground games?  He had been two years ahead of me in school. In our elementary school’s auditorium before the assembled students, he won the spelling bee, besting a mean girl named Mary Margaret Devlin. He had spelled the word “phosphorescent” properly. Miss Devlin had not. Petey told our principal, Sister Amata, right then, he wanted to be a writer. Yes, I remembered Petey.

“Papa says some of us should move in to his room,” Rose said. “We can’t do it.”

Petey – the only son in a family of six children – had lived in the room behind that door until he had left for basic training at Ft. Dix hours away in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey. Rose’s father, Arturo, occupied a second bedroom. The door was closed. “Mama’s clothes and perfume bottles are still in there,” she whispered. As I started to respond, Rose brought her pointer finger to her lips to shush me. Mr. Frantangelo worked as a night watchman at the Budweiser plant in Newark.

“He’ll be waking soon, maybe in another hour or so,” she said.

We passed a bathroom and Rose halted  at the last room at the end of the corridor. Most of the room was taken up with two large beds. Two dressers with mirrors above them had been squeezed against one wall facing the beds. A great wooden wardrobe rose in the far corner of the room.

“We can sleep in the drawing room tonight,” Rose said.

Rose dispatched Alfie on her mission to make the 15-minute walk to collect my belongings from my house and return.

Alfie returned with my clothes – and not much of a story.

“Your mother is very nice,” she said.

Following dinner and dishwashing, I sat with Alfie, working on math problems first, then a geography lesson. Tired, we decided to turn in early. Rose left the room and returned with sheets and blankets. I barely remember what happened next, exhaustion overcame me. I know that we covered the divans with the bedding.  I remember Rose was chatting about the day. I must have fallen asleep, then, with my clothing on.

The click of a doorknob awoke me some hours later as Rose’s father left for work. The room was dark, except for the pinkish effervescence of the sign.  I rolled over to face Rose.

For a moment, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes. Or that maybe I was dreaming. Rose’s hair, her face and the parts of her body I could see above the blanket – her neck and one arm — glowed a ghastly milk-green, bright as neon. I was shaking.  I stood up slowly. My fear made my muscles ache and my body clumsy. I stumbled around the table. I was scared but I wanted to reach her. I patted her head very softly, so I could make sure she was real and hear her breathe. Up close, tiny specks of bright green, like fairy dust, covered her hair and dusted her skin.  She looked like a beautiful monster.

I was crying, but I muffled my sobs. I needed to run. I found my shoes and bag of clothing and slipped out the door. I almost tripped on the stairs going down.  If I ran fast, I knew I could get home soon.  Despite my actions, I hoped Father and Mother were still awake.

______________________________________________________________

 

Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who has worked in daily newspapers and at Princeton University. She now teaches journalism, ethics, and writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. During her career in daily newspaper journalism, most of it at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., she was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on promising new cancer treatments and an examination of a vitamin-enhanced, genetically engineered strain of “golden rice.” She reported on numerous breakthroughs in science, examined the research behind scientific controversies, and explored revolutionary advances in treatments for AIDS, cancer and addiction. MacPherson has won recognition for her work from the National Association of Science Writers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the New Jersey Press Association.  She holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her short story, “El Balo,” will appear in the May/June issue of Down in the Dirt magazine.

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Mapped Out

By Barbara Ridley

For months, the map of Europe tacked to the wall above the sofa had been largely ignored. The colors had faded, the top edge sagged in the center, and the right lower corner flapped in the breeze. It was like the ugly wallpaper Otto remembered from family holidays in his grandfather’s house in Bavaria; after a while you didn’t notice it even though you walked past it every day.

But now, everything changed. The map became the center of attention.

At the clink of the letter box announcing the arrival of the morning’s Times, Otto jumped up, wanting to be the first to scan the headlines.

“What did I tell you?” he said. “Hitler was just waiting for warmer weather.”

He knew he shouldn’t sound smug. But really – so much for all that nonsense about a quick truce, or the blockade forcing Hitler to his knees.

“Let’s see,” Tomas said, grabbing the newspaper and holding it up close. He walked over to the map.  Armed with a fresh supply of grey pins from the village shop, Tomas had assumed responsibility for meticulously documenting the advance of the Wehrmacht.  

“What’s the latest?” Lena came down the stairs.

“Doesn’t look good. A German division has broken through deeper into France. I’m trying to find St. Quentin.”  Tomas peered through his thick spectacles, scouring the north-eastern corner of France, a pin poised in his right hand.

“How can this be happening so quickly?” Lena stared at the lines and arrows Tomas had sketched. “Norway, Belgium, Holland overrun. Now the French border breached.”

“There it is.” Tomas inserted the pin and wrote today’s date in black ink. He took two steps back to survey the whole picture and shook his head.

“They’ll be in Paris in no time,” Otto said.

“My God,” Lena said turning sharply towards him. “There’s no need to sound so gleeful about it. What about all those friends of ours in Paris? They must be terrified.”

“They should have got out while they could.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying that. You know how hard it was for me to get a visa.”

Otto looked again at the map. It was hard to shake off the image of a rising tide and a shrinking piece of dry land on which they were stranded. He’d fled Berlin, then Prague and Paris. Now this.

“What are we going to do if they cross the Channel?” Lena said, her voice rising. “Will we be able to hide out here in this little village?”

Peter descended the creaky stairs and jumped into the fray. “I don’t want to run anymore,” he said. “I want to stay and fight. Let’s find out if we can sign up for this new Local Defense Volunteers force.”

“That’s just for the English,” Otto said. “They’re not going to let us join.”

“We’ve got to do something,” Peter said. “I can’t stand listening to the news, feeling useless, just waiting for the Nazis to arrive.”

* * * * *

The following day, Peter went up to London to see if the Refugee Council had any update on a Czech regiment forming in England. He had not returned by late afternoon.

“Let’s go down to The Hollow,” Lena said. “Churchill is giving a big speech tonight.  Muriel said we should all listen together.”

Muriel was their sponsor, the wealthy Lady of the Manor – eccentric in her behavior and radical in her political beliefs – and now living in one of her smaller properties at the edge of the village; the Army had requisitioned the Manor House. Muriel was the same age as Lena’s mother but could hardly be more different. She was divorced, for one thing, and openly living with her lover Alistair.

They made their way down the village street, the air filled with the sweet smell of freshly mowed grass. Spring was marching forward with unyielding gaiety, having received no notification to do otherwise; the gardens were being tended in spite of the dismal war news. Lena hadn’t expected to fall in love with this village; she’d followed Otto here three months ago knowing nothing about the place. But now, walking past the hedgerows adorned with ringlets of bluebells, she smiled with joy.

They found Muriel and Alastair sitting on their back terrace, enjoying a cocktail.  The new Prime Minister’s speech was not due for another hour, so they relaxed in the evening warmth with the view of the South Downs. Alistair brought out the gramophone and placed a record on the turntable. The melodic notes of the Pastoral Symphony filled the air, as he served sherry and port.

“Oh lovely,” said Lena, closing her eyes for a moment to take in the music. She inhaled the sweet smell of the surrounding honeysuckle. “I love this piece, especially the last movement; it’s one of my favorites.”

“I suppose it’s still all right to play Beethoven!” Alistair chuckled, handing her a very large glass of sherry. “I hope no one will accuse me of treason.”

“So what’s Churchill going to say?” Otto said.

“Stirring words for the masses, I suppose,” Alistair replied. “Stiff upper lip, all that sort of thing.”

“I can’t believe we’re hanging on that man’s every word.” Muriel sneered. “Has everyone forgotten how reactionary he is?”

“I don’t know much about him,” Lena said.

“He threatened to shoot the miners who went on strike in ’26. He said: Send those rats back down their holes. Dreadful fellow.”

“But we’re a lot better off with him replacing that idiot Chamberlain,” Alistair said. “If they’d listened to Churchill five years ago, we wouldn’t be in the frightful pickle we’re in now.”

“This whole thing is simply beastly,” Muriel said. “Some days I wake up and I just cannot believe we’re going through this again, sending our young men off to fight. We lost so many last time. Those long lists of the dead that came out every week, it was just awful. Three quarters of the men I danced with at my coming-out ball were killed in the trenches in France. One after the other. And that was supposed to be the war to end all wars.”

“But surely you wouldn’t argue that we just lie down and let Hitler walk all over us? We have to fight.” Alistair said. He passed around cheese and crackers and the last of a jar of olives that Muriel had brought back from the South of France before the outbreak of war.

Lena began to feel tipsy from the sherry. “These olives are a treat.” She bit into the firm, salty flesh. “M?l bys to zkusit,” she said, turning to Tomas. “You ought to try one.”

He puckered his lips and shook his head. “Ne, díky.”

Lena laughed. She basked contentedly in the ebb and flow of the dialogue, and the mingling of languages as the conversation glided from English to German to Czech and back to English again. It moved like a symphony, with the wind instruments coming in over there, the violins here; there was debate, there were differences of opinion, but it seemed neither acrimonious nor discordant, just intelligent discourse among friends. She wanted to hold on tight to this moment, feel soothed by the cozy warmth, cling to it as if she were on the edge of a precipice. Churchill came on the radio promising nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat – but Lena was here with Otto in this green and pleasant land, and she felt oddly happy.

* * * * *

Peter returned late at night, when the village residents were sequestered away behind their blackout curtains. The residents of Oak Tree Cottage stayed awake, waiting. Lena cuddled next to Otto on the sofa, relaxing with a book. Tomas sat at the table, working on flag badges for the Czech Refugee Trust Fund. They were all occupied, yet keeping one ear out for the creak of the door that would herald Peter’s return. The foray of any one of their number out into the wider world was a source of vicarious pleasure for all. They were like eager parents wanting to know every detail of the first day of kindergarten.

But when the door eventually swung open, it was obvious that something was wrong.  Peter looked pale and exhausted, his face drained. He sank onto the sofa, leaned back against the threadbare cushions and closed his eyes.

“What happened?” Lena said. “Peter, what’s the matter?”

“It’s getting nasty out there,” he replied after a moment or two. “Look at this.”

He pulled himself forward and drew from his pocket a rolled up copy of the Daily Mail.  He spread it open and smoothed out the wrinkles. The headline with its menacing, bold black calligraphy screamed: INTERN THE LOT.

“What does this mean?” she said.

Internieren, gefangen nehmen. Intern, imprison.”

“What?”

“All enemy aliens. In case they’re acting as spies for the invaders, ready to welcome parachute troops with open arms. Everyone’s in a panic about a so-called ‘Fifth Column’. As soon as they hear your accent, they think you might be German. A well-dressed elderly woman screamed at me on the train. I had to move to another carriage.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Lena said. “Why would we want to….?”

“This doesn’t apply to us,” Tomas said, trying to read the entire article.  “It’s just enemy aliens. Germans and Austrians.”

“But Otto….” Peter said.

“That’s absurd. He’s been wanted by the Gestapo for years.”

“I’m afraid that’s a subtlety that’s likely to be totally lost on the Daily Mail and its readers,” Peter said.

* * * * *

There was a noticeable shift in the village. Everyone seemed on edge, nervous. In the shop, two women made a point of walking out when Lena entered, as if they were afraid of contamination.  Mrs. Horn remained cordial while collecting the ration coupons, but it was hard to ignore the anti-alien crusade conducted by the tabloids displayed on the shelf behind her.

“It’s hard to believe,” Lena said when she returned. “They used to be so friendly.”

And on Saturday evening, Peter and Tomas set off for The Fox and Hounds for a pint of beer, but returned five minutes later.

“What happened?” Lena said.

“The barman refused to serve us.”

The news from France continued to flood in, terrifying. Tomas traced the Maginot Line onto the map from a diagram in The Times, but it turned out to be more like a sieve than a barricade; Panzer divisions poured through, charging deep into the heart of the country. Lena, Otto and Peter took the bus to Haywards Heath to watch the same ridiculous Charlie Chan picture three times, just to see the Newsreel shown with it. There was something compelling about seeing the images on the screen, always the irrational hope that perhaps the news would be better there than in the newspaper. Instead there was the astounding ability of the announcer, with his upbeat baritone eloquence, to make the evacuation of Dunkirk sound like a military victory. Yes, it was impressive to see the flotilla of small fishing vessels coming to the aid of the British Navy, navigating without lights through the minefields, plucking three hundred thousand soldiers out from Rommel’s reach within three days.

Bloody Marvelous!” declared the tabloids.

“But it’s a full-scale retreat, for Heaven’s sake,” Peter said. “And they’ve left behind all their tanks and artillery and guns.”

Now there was nothing between England and the Wehrmacht except a thin blue line of sea.

* * * * *

Constable Bilson pushed down harder on the pedals and bent forward over the handlebars to get more leverage. Large droplets of perspiration poured down his cheeks and his heart pounded in his chest. The hill seemed steeper than ever in this heat. He should have waited for the cooler part of the day, or better yet put this whole thing off until tomorrow morning.

But the Chief Inspector from Lewes had insisted: he needed a report today. Something about the bigwigs from London, they’d been on to him. Wasn’t right, in Fred Bilson’s opinion.  They should come and do their own dirty work. This was way over his head. Constable Bilson was patriotic enough, and wanted to do his bit to help, of course he did. He had served in the Royal Navy last time, and had been right in the thick of things in the Battle of Jutland, so he knew about fighting a war, knew how to do his part. But they shouldn’t be asking him to do this.

“Just go and look them over,” the Chief Inspector had said. “See if you can find anything suspicious.  Check their papers, that sort of thing.”

It wasn’t that simple. These weren’t just any aliens. They belonged to Mrs. Muriel Calder, and Constable Bilson wasn’t about to pick a quarrel with Mrs. Calder. She had her peculiar ways, mind; there was no getting away from that. There were those who didn’t approve of her at all, what with her getting divorced and all her – ahem –  her gentlemen visitors. All sorts of peculiar visitors, now you mention it, strange London types, odd lot. And yes, a fair share of foreigners. You never really knew who was coming and going, especially now she was down at The Hollow. But she was the Lady of the Manor, and she’d always been good to the villagers. It was Mrs. Calder who built the Nurse’s Cottage opposite the school, and got all the other gentry to chip in, paid for everything, they did; all the Bilson children had received their inoculations there, free of charge. You couldn’t argue with that. No, Mrs. Calder was a good woman; Constable Bilson didn’t want to get into any sort of bother with her.

He finally made it to the top of the hill. There was Oak Tree Cottage a few hundred yards ahead of him. As he was passing the village shop, however, a loud booming greeting startled him.

“Constable Bilson!  Just the fellow I want to see!” Colonel Knowles from Romley Place emerged from the shop. He strode right into the path of the policeman’s bicycle with the confidence of one who knows his orders will always be followed. His portly frame was encased in a tight white suit that had obviously fitted him better when it was originally purchased; the single button of the jacket was straining to cover the protruding belly.

“I say, Constable, what are you fellows going to do about those aliens living right here in our midst?”

“Aliens, Colonel?”

“Don’t be evasive with me, Constable. You know who I’m talking about. Those damn Bolsheviks staying somewhere in this village, in one of the Calder woman’s cottages. I don’t know which of these wretched hovels it is, but I know you do.”

“We’re following all the correct procedures, sir. I can assure you of that.”

“Procedures, my foot! Intern the lot, that’s what they’ve been saying, and I couldn’t agree more. Can’t be too careful about this sort of thing, you know. We’re on our own, now Constable.  Just us and the Empire against Jerry. Mind you, we’re better off this way, if you ask me. We know where we stand. No more damn Allies to pamper. But we have to weed out the Fifth Column, Constable, or they’ll be shooting us in the back when the Germans attack. Haven’t you received instructions to round them up?”

“As matter of fact, sir, I’m on my way there right now. The Chief Inspector has asked for a report this afternoon, so if you will excuse me…”

“Chief Inspector Montgomery? From Lewes? Oh, splendid, splendid. I’ll give him a ring on the telephone. Good day, Constable.”

Bilson now had a sour taste in his mouth and a heavy weight sitting somewhere between his shoulder blades. He approached Oak Tree Cottage and dismounted. He propped his bicycle against the hedge next to the dilapidated wooden gate which was half open. In three short steps he traversed the path to the front door, and knocked loudly, boldly. Just get this over with, he thought. Check their papers and get out of here, tell Montgomery everything is in order. Then finish his paperwork down at the station, and call it a day.

The door was opened by a young woman, not beautiful but quite pretty with bright blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He was taken aback. Of course, there was a girl here too, he had somehow forgotten that, imagined he would be dealing just with men.

“Afternoon, miss.”  He gave a little bow. “Constable Bilson. I need to check your passports and immigration papers, if you don’t mind. Shouldn’t take long. May I come in?”

She opened the door wider and he crossed the threshold, delving into his uniform pocket to retrieve his notebook. “You must be…?”

“Lena Kulkova.”

“Ah, yes. Right you are. All your friends here today are they?”

“Yes, we are in the garden. A moment, please.”

She had a soft lilting accent. She turned to walk through the tiny house to the kitchen and the back door beyond. Constable Bilson looked around the living room. He approached the small table by the window; there was a typewriter, a pile of books. He picked up one from the top of the pile. Hmmm…. It was in foreign. No telling what it was about, of course, but it stood to reason they would have foreign books. Couldn’t be too much harm in that. He turned as he heard voices from the garden.

And that was when he saw it. Tacked up on the wall above the sofa, there in broad daylight. A large map of Europe, with pins and black lines and arrows drawn all over it, numbers and dates, with the 7’s with that funny line through the stem, and other strange names he could not decipher. Code words, no doubt. A stone-cold chill ran right through him.

______________________________________________________________

Barbara Ridley was born in England but has lived in California for over 30 years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on creative writing. She has completed a novel set in Europe during WWII. Her creative non-fiction work has appeared in The Clockhouse Review, The East Bay Monthly, the Writers Workshop ReviewStill Crazy and Ars Medica.  She can be followed at www.barbararidley.com

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The Thin End of the Wedge

By Liza Nash Taylor

The Studebaker pulled into the Palm Court of the Jefferson Hotel at half-past seven. The night was sultry, and the Jefferson’s signature pair of alligators swam in lazy circles around the fountain that was the centerpiece of the court. Sleek cars disgorged couples and groups of fashionably dressed young people. Shrieked greetings and shrill laughter rang out, adding to the atmosphere of anticipated gaiety. May’s door was opened by a smiling attendant, and she waited at the foot of the wide steps, pulling on her evening gloves. As Lush conferred with the parking attendant, May scanned the courtyard, hoping to find Elsie. She took Lush’s arm and they stepped inside the ornate lobby with its sweeping twin marble staircases. May’s eyes were drawn upward, by the sparkle of the crystal chandeliers.

A young woman grasped Lush’s arm, pulling him toward her. “Why, Luscious Craig, what a perfectly lovely surprise!” May knew at once who she was. Bitsy Ragsdale was petite and pretty, in a tensely brittle way. From her blunt-cut bob to her jutting elbows, she was made up of angles. The line of her gunmetal satin dress was punctuated by the jut of her hip bones and a silvery fabric band was tied around her forehead in the flapper style. Ignoring May, she patted Lush’s lapel, saying, “What have you been up to?”

“Bitsy. Hello, and hello, Maude,” Lush said, “How are you this evening? You look very nice in that shade of yellow.” His brilliant smile turned, like a spotlight, toward an awkwardly tall young woman, who started, blinked, and squinted, as if its unexpected beam was too bright to bear.

She blushed a blotchy crimson. “Fine thanks, Lush. I mean, I’m fine tonight, and… thank you.” She took a large swallow from her glass.

“This is May Marshall. May, this is Bitsy Ragsdale, and Maude Whitman.”

Taking a deep breath, May said, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

Bitsy frowned, as if she were puzzling something out, then her eyebrows shot up and she raised her glass to her thin lips. She smiled—a smile that progressed no farther than her mouth, and blinked at May over the top of her glass, holding it there long enough for May to notice the large emerald glittering on her left hand. “I’ve heard of you before,” Bitsy said.

Teddy’ Whitman’s older sister had prominent gums and a weak chin. Her stooping posture and squinting, expectant expression seemed to convey, in equal parts, hopefulness and a resigned aura of inadequacy. Maude squinted at May. “Are you dancing in the competition?”

“Yes,” May said, tugging Lush closer, “Lush and I are partners tonight. How about you?”

Maude yanked at the skirt of her dress and her dance card, with its little silk tassel, dangled dejectedly from her wrist. “Teddy will be representing the family.”

“How nice,” May said. “It’s been lovely chatting, really, but Lush, darling, let’s get a drink.”

“Good luck then,” Bitsy said, in a singsong voice, waggling her fingers so that her ring showed. May fluttered her fingers in response and continued to squeeze Lush’s arm as they worked their way through the crowd, into the ballroom.

“Lush darling?” Lush said.

“Well, at least that’s out of the way. I was polite, wasn’t I?”

A pretty girl called from across the lobby, waving her arm above her head. “Hey there, Lush! Save a dance, won’t you?”  May counted five female heads swiveling in their direction, and took in the batting lashes and coy smiles aimed at Lush. She felt a certain proprietary pride, that she, May Marshall, was on the arm of arguably the most handsome man in the place. What was it, she wondered, that particular esteem, that comes from being associated with the popular and attractive? It was certainly what had drawn her to Teddy. He was charming, and lesser mortals seemed to flock around him. May had basked in his glow, and felt a warmth and false sense of security.

She craned her neck in search of Elsie. She was also looking for Teddy, though she had no idea what she would do when she saw him.

Lush gave her arm a pat. “How about a drink?” Around them snatches of conversations whirled like falling leaves:

“Isn’t that…?”

“Yes, I think it must be. Pretty. I’d heard she was.”

“Teddy Whitman…?”

“Yes, expelled.”

“May!” A feminine voice boomed. “So glad you made it!” May’s friend Elsie enveloped her in a bear hug, then, removing her long, gold cigarette holder, she gave Lush an exuberant smacking kiss on the cheek, leaving a vivid crimson lip print. Her distinctive, raspy voice made everything she said sound naughty and enticing. “We just walked in! We’d have been here sooner only I got pinched for speeding on the way, didn’t I Archie? I’ve got a table for us over here. You remember my date, Archie Nelms?” She waved her cigarette and yelled hello to friends who passed by.

Lush whispered, “Do you think there’s anyone she doesn’t know?” Elsie had her arm around a young man, and was telling him a joke, which caused him to roar with laughter and wipe a tear from his eye as he caught his breath. Elsie Curtis was wasn’t strictly a beauty. Instead, she was one of those refreshingly rare young women who think nothing of making a fool of themselves or being the butt of their own joke.

“Now then. May, you sit here next to me so we can catch up.” Elsie stood behind a chair, making broad gestures and dropping ashes on the floor. “Lush, you divine thing, you sit over there across the table so I can look at you. Listen everyone, we’re throwing a party at Mother and Dad’s afterwards, and Cook will make us a big breakfast when we get there. You’ll come, won’t you Lush? We’ll leave for the river in the morning.”

“Only if you promise to play the piano.”

Elsie smiled her wide, slightly buck-toothed smile. “Splendid. Anything you want to hear, as long as it’s ragtime or Jazz. I want to see you two come home with that trophy over there.” She gestured toward a table near the orchestra, which displayed a large silver loving cup and several smaller trophies. “Too bad Archie’s a gimp, or we’d give you a run for your money, wouldn’t we, Arch? Be a darling and get me another packet of smokes, would you?” Archie gamely rose and limped across the floor. Elsie leaned toward May. In her gravelly whisper she said, “Polio. Still, he started on the football team at V.M.I. He’s a jolly fellow even if he is a tad quiet. By the way, old girl, you’re looking awfully svelte. And those cheekbones!” Elsie held May’s chin up. “What I wouldn’t give for those cheekbones. And here I eat nothing but grapefruit and do slimming exercises every day, and I’m still stout.”

The orchestra began playing, and the clumps of young people divided as couples took to the floor. Elsie and Archie remained at the table, with Elsie regaling her guests with anecdotes while Archie looked on in amused admiration. May danced a foxtrot with Lush and a polka with someone else from their table. She was beginning to enjoy herself. She had not seen Maude or Bitsy again. Siphons of soda water and bottles of ginger ale were in constant demand from the harried waiters, as the young men and women brought out flasks of liquor and canning jars of moonshine.. Elsie showed off the silver flask she kept tucked into her garter, and the hollow walking stick she had given Archie. The brass knob at the top twisted off and she poured out a shot of gin. Around them, couples whirled and conversations buzzed as the orchestra played.

The bandleader tapped his baton and announced a break, saying that the contest would begin when they resumed. May continued to scan the ballroom, but did not see Teddy. Maintaining her countenance in a constant pose, she strained for the moment when she and Teddy would lock eyes. She had rehearsed carefree expressions in the mirror. She wanted to be sure she was laughing, or smiling. She wanted him to think she had never cared.

The bandleader read off the rules and the order of events, and thanked the patrons of the contest: Miller and Rhodes Department Store and the E.A. Whitman Tobacco Company. Four couples would dance in each round, then the winners would compete in successive rounds, with the winning couple receiving $50.00 each. When he tapped his baton on the podium, the ballroom became quiet.

Lush led May onto the floor for the first round. The music began. She knew he would lead her without hesitation or error. His effortless grace and good looks made him a pleasure to watch. When the dance finished, they won the round and waited at the sidelines, catching their breath and watching the other groups compete. Bitsy and Teddy won the fourth group.

As May watched them move around the floor she wondered why it was that the girl always paid the price for an indiscretion. The man might be known as a rake, but everyone seemed to laugh that off. The more May thought about it, the more determined she became to win. Teddy spun Bitsy, and when he looked over her shoulder, May caught his eye. He froze for a fraction of an instant, and paled. Bitsy jerked back toward him, a half-beat out of synch.

The contest continued with a polka, then a Charleston. When the bandleader announced that the final dance would be a Tango, a murmur rose from the crowd. There were four couples remaining. The music began, the tempo slowly building and becoming more complex. Lush’s arm was at May’s waist. She knew exactly where Teddy and Bitsy were standing. She locked eyes with Lush and they began. Sweep, turn, halt. The desired facial expression for the Tango was one of intense concentration and fixation on one’s partner. They were playing parts, alternately dominant and submissive, defiant and acquiescing. Sweep, turn, halt. Her skirt swirled around her legs, one beat behind. Lush squeezed her waist. Sweep, rotate, sweep. Their heads turned stiffly in unison and their bodies moved sinuously. The faces in the crowd slid by in a centrifugal blur. Click, click, freeze. Like marionettes. Then the slow, sensuous folding backward. Trust. Melt. HoldBreathe. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Lush broke into a grin and pulled her upright and squeezed her hand. They were both flushed and beaming. May did not look toward where Teddy and Bitsy were standing.

After the noise died down, the bandleader thanked the sponsors again, and the crowd hushed as the winners were announced. The third place couple received a gracious round of applause and a small trophy. A flash went off and a reporter from The Richmond Times scribbled their names on his pad. May and Lush were announced in second place. Several seconds passed before the applause began sporadically. The crowd began to hum. Bitsy and Teddy were announced as the grand prize winners, and the applause turned tepid, mixed with an increasing conversational buzz. May’s face remained flushed. Bitsy flashed a triumphant smile at May.

As May and Lush returned to the table with their trophy, Elsie hissed, “That was fixed!” Bitsy and Teddy were holding the large first-place trophy aloft while the photographer snapped their picture. “His father was the sponsor,” Elsie continued, “Y’all danced circles around them! That Tango! Gawd,” Elsie fanned her face. “I told Archie I was holding my breath, it was so steamy. Didn’t I, Archie?”

“Phooey, it doesn’t matter,” May said, fanning her cheeks as she sat down. She caught Lush’s eye across the table and shrugged. He was patting his forehead with his handkerchief.

Elsie leaned toward May, whispering, “Really, old girl, that darling man is mad for you.” She waggled her brows and puffed her cigarette.

“Lush? Oh, go on,” May said. “We’re like brother and sister. And he’s got a new girl every other week.”

“The way he looked at you while you were dancing…” Elsie tapped her ash onto the tablecloth.

“That’s just acting. Besides, I’ve sworn off men.”

Behind them, Maude Whitman was making her way toward their table. She was weaving slightly and clasped each chair back as she passed. She came up behind May’s chair and tapped her on the shoulder. Conversation ceased as May half-turned in her seat, looking up at Maude.

“Tooo bad for you,” Maude made an exaggerated sad face. May blinked slowly, regarding her without expression.

“Let me help you to your table, Maude,” Lush stood.

“No. I dunneed a seat. I’m jesh fine.”

“She’s just squiffy, forget it,” Elsie said. Watching Maude weave, May felt embarrassed for her. Sad, even.

“I don’ wan’ny coffee. Get yershelf shum.” She flapped her hands at Lush. “S’ too bad you losht. You’re not gon’ win hanything in thish town, sishter.”

May’s jaw clenched. She rose to face the taller girl, and white fury came over her like a shield. “Don’t you dare call me that. I’d never want to be your sister.” Maude looked surprised, and swayed, releasing her grip on the chair. She fell backward, and, as if in slow motion, her arm knocked a waiter’s tray, sending glasses and soda siphons crashing to the floor at the same moment the band finished a number. The ballroom became silent, then a collective gasp was audible from the onlookers. Maude sat like a rag doll, blinking up at May, then looked down. She screamed, and held up her hand, which was bleeding onto her yellow dress.

As Maude’s scream died out, May could hear Bitsy, making her way through the throng, calling, “Get out of the way! Idiots!” Teddy seemed to follow reluctantly. Bitsy grabbed a napkin and wrapped it around Maude’s hand, then attempted to help her rise. Maude outweighed her considerably, and Bitsy only succeeded in raising her a few inches before she plopped down again.

Bitsy turned to Teddy. “Teddy, you fool, do something!” Maude clutched her bloody hand and began to keen and rock. Bitsy glared at May. “Look what you’ve done!” she shouted, “You don’t belong here and you never will.” Maude had fainted, and was being hoisted up by a waiter, assisted by a beet-red Teddy. The rest of the ballroom was in a state of suspended animation and the orchestra had not begun a new number.

Elsie pushed back from the table and rose, her hands flat on the table and her cigarette holder clenched in her teeth. Her voice sounded like a growl. “Listen here, Miss Bitsy Ragsdale, she’s worth ten of you, any day, and don’t you forget it.” In a louder voice, Elsie said, “We all know who won that contest.” Bitsy stomped to where Elsie stood and glared up her. Elsie and May exchanged looks, and Elsie lowered her chin and blew a slow stream of smoke into Bitsy’s face. Bitsy’s eyes narrowed and she shoved Elsie, then stood craning forward, hands on her hips, defying her diminutive nickname. Her nostrils flared. Elsie laughed her gravelly laugh and May yanked Bitsy’s headband down over her eyes and returned the shove. Bitsy slipped in the spilled mess and went down like a toy soldier, arms wheeling.

“Teddy!” Bitsy cried, “Help me, right this minute!” There were hoots of laughter from the crowd, and Teddy didn’t seem to know whether to help Bitsy or go after May, but one look at Archie and Lush flanking her made him appear to reconsider.

“Come on, y’all,” Elsie said, “This party is over.” She marched out of the ballroom while Archie hurried to gather her belongings. Two officious-looking desk clerks were beginning to hurry through the ballroom in search of the source of the commotion. Lush took May’s arm and steered her through the buzzing crowd.

In the Palm Court, the alligators continued their laps, oblivious to the drama unfolding inside. The two couples stood on the steps waiting for Elsie’s car to be brought around. May had not spoken. Elsie held her by the arm, and said, “You come on home with me, old girl, and we’ll have some of Dad’s whiskey. Lush, you come, too.”

“Thanks, Elsie,” Lush said. “I have a room booked here, but I think I’ll head home tonight.” He motioned to the parking attendant. “Would you bring my motor around, please, and cancel my room for this evening? The name is Craig.”

“Certainly, Sir,” the valet said, and hurried off.

“But it’s midnight already!” Elsie said.

“I want to go home, too,” May said in a small voice.

“You’re supposed to stay all week,” Elsie smoothed May’s hair.

“I couldn’t take another scene like that.”

Couples were beginning to exit the hotel, and Elsie’s car arrived, followed by Lush’s Studebaker. May hugged her friend and kissed her cheek. “Sure you won’t change your mind?” Elsie asked. “You shouldn’t back down.”

“It’s true, what they said. I don’t belong here.”

You can get along anywhere, gal, don’t you doubt it for a minute.” Elsie gave May another kiss on the cheek and held her by the shoulders. “We sure gave Bitsy the what for, didn’t we? Ha! It’s a damn good thing I made my debut last year. They’d blackball me now, sure as shooting!” She flicked the ash from her cigarette toward the entrance. “Ah, they can all go to hell.”

“Go to hell!” May yelled, and she and Elsie hooted.

______________________________________________________________

Liza Nash Taylor is in her second semester of the MFA program at VCFA. Her work has appeared in Microchondria II, the literary magazine of the Harvard Bookstore, Bluestem Magazine, Rum Punch Press, Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing and is scheduled to appear this fall in Gargoyle Magazine. Her short story, Mrs. Walker, won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Prize for 2016 in Fiction. She is currently revising the manuscript of her first novel, which is historical fiction set in the 1920’s.

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Mrs. Flaherty’s Kitchen

By Zoe Fowler

Mount Morris Park West, New York City, 1908. 

A bundle of pale bronze onions, a bunch of emerald parsley, a brown paper bag spilling bright green peas, two gnarled winter carrots almost as thick as a baby’s arm and, sitting there on a plate as though roosting on a nest of eggs, a large feathered chicken with her broken neck dangling drunkenly to one side of her body. Mrs. Flaherty had not brought these things into her kitchen and, now they were here, she wanted nothing to do with them. 

It was the English girl’s fault. None of the other servants had ever made a fuss about Mrs. Flaherty’s cooking – they had all come and gone and the only one remaining was what slanty-eyed moon-faced Russian wench and Anya couldn’t use the English language well enough to ruffle Mrs. Flaherty’s feathers. There had been one time, Mrs. Flaherty remembered – perhaps six years ago, around the beginning of this new century – when Anya complained about something on her plate. That time, Mrs. Flaherty had put her hands on her hips, looked the girl straight in the eyes, and asked why the Russkis had so much trouble understanding healthy eating when everyone else in the world understood there were few foods as beneficial to the human constitution as the nitrogeneous proteids found in canned pork and beans. Anya had given that slight frown she made when she was struggling to understand the words of God’s own language, and Mrs. Flaherty had concluded her argument with a flourish: if the merits of canned pork and beans had not yet reached the deepest, darkest shores of Russia, she said, perhaps Anya ought to hurry home in person to tell them. After that there had been a six year long period of peace where no-one questioned Mrs. Flaherty’s cooking. Sure, there was work to be done in buying the tins and the packets, and heating up their contents and whatnot, but things had run smoothly until this young English whipper-snapper arrived in the house with her busy mouth and her face like a fallen soufflé. 

First, the girl asked if the boy’s diet might be changed to include food he enjoyed. 

“Enjoy?” said Mrs. Flaherty. “You’re expecting me to break my back slaving over a stove so that a boy who has only just learned to piss in a pot might enjoy his food?”

Susanna stood placidly in the kitchen doorway. “He doesn’t like the food you make,” she said, and Mrs. Flaherty had sniffed loudly. 

“I haven’t the time to be worrying about what that laddy likes when I have a kitchen to run singlehandedly.” She had snatched a dish cloth from the side of the stove and begun swiping at the worktops. When Susanna left the room, Mrs. Flaherty claimed that first victory as her own. 

A few nights later, the sasanach reappeared, asking if Oliver might have something different for his supper. Something different! As though Mrs. Flaherty was running a five star hotel with individualized menus for each and every guest. She folded the corner of the page in her magazine, laid it down beside her chair, drank the last mouthful of her cup of tea and then said, in the slow tone of voice she reserved for idiots, imbeciles and Russians, that the boy needed to be fed bland foods in the evening because they were scientifically proven – scientifically proven, mind – to dampen the animalistic instincts which might otherwise disturb a young boy’s sleep. The governess blushed and murmured that the boy was surely too young for such things, but Mrs. Flaherty continued: had Susanna thought to thank her, she asked, for the moral goodness of the food? For the fact that her careful choices of diet and menu reduced the number of sheets the governess needed to launder each week? Susanna’s damaged right cheek glowed a darker shade of red, and Mrs. Flaherty waited for her to leave the room in embarrassment. But instead, the English girl turned to face Mrs. Flaherty and suggested the cook might want to experiment with foods which not only had scientific benefits but which also tasted good. 

“Am I not having enough work to do without bending over backwards to suit the boy’s every whim?” Mrs. Flaherty raised her voice to a volume which would have frightened a lesser opponent, but Susanna did not flinch. She waited until the cook paused for breath, and then said, quietly, that she did not think the boy should be fed on gruel. 

“Not just gruel! Not any old gruel!” shouted Mrs. Flaherty. She wrenched open the cupboard doors and hurled packet after packet of Graham crackers across the room. The governess did not flinch when a packet skimmed past her left ear and hit the wall behind her. 

“I make Cracker gruel,” shouted Mrs. Flaherty. “Not the kind of stuff you English serve your paupers. First, I carefully moisten the Graham cracker crumbs with freshly boiled water, then I add just a sprinkle of salt. Susanna, even you cannot be ignorant of the nutritious value of Graham crackers.”

Something had frozen in the girl’s face, something hard as ice. “They are tasteless, Mrs. Flaherty,” she said. 

“Tasteless!” Mrs. Flaherty’s heart danced a rapid jig in her chest and she collapsed back in her chair. “Tasteless? But I add margarine when I serve them.” 

In fairness, neither side could claim a clear victory from that particular evening’s skirmish: it took nearly an hour for Mrs. Flaherty to scoop the spilled crackers back into the packets and to sweep up the crumbs, and, in a small act of rebellion while waiting for the next battle to begin, she began to omit the margarine from Oliver’s cracker gruel.

However, Mrs. Flaherty was sure she would win in the long run, and was, therefore, unsurprised when the girl had appeared in her kitchen that morning, apparently willing to concede defeat. 

Susanna had made a cup of tea, added three sugar lumps, stirred it twice and handed it to Mrs. Flaherty before asking, very politely, if she and Oliver might help with the shopping for that day’s groceries. They would be walking through the shops and the local market anyway, said the girl, and their arms were young and strong. Mrs. Flaherty had grunted; thinking. In addition, the girl continued, it might be a useful learning experience for the boy: he could practice his manners and count out the money. Careful to express no enthusiasm, Mrs. Flaherty nodded slightly. Yes, they could help, she agreed, but she would give them a list of what she needed and they should only buy exactly what was on the list. 

Shredded Whole Wheat – one box; Nestle Condensed Milk – two cans; tomato sauce – two cans; Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce – one bottle; one dozen eggs from the man with one eye on the corner of 122nd; a quarter pound of beef suet and two pairs of pig’s trotters from the second butcher shop on the left hand side after the El station; a quart of milk; two packets of Grahams Crackers; three cans of pork and beans and a small bar of Hershey’s Chocolate, which would be for the sole use of Mrs. Flaherty. 

She had written the list in italics, with every i dotted and every t crossed – she would not have an English girl thinking she was unable to read and write! – and yet, here they now were and her kitchen table was piled high with things that should either have been left in someone else’s cellar or in the poultry house where they belonged. 

“I dropped the list,” explained Susanna. 

“While I was chasing dragons,” said the boy.

“And we tried to find it,” said Susanna. 

“I chased it,” said the boy, “but the wind got it and it went under a motor car and came out the other side, but then a horse poo…”

“And we couldn’t get it back,” interrupted Susanna, and demurely lowered her eyes. 

In any war there were many battles, and this did not mean Mrs. Flaherty had lost, but she eyed her kitchen table with suspicion. “What exactly are you expecting me to do with this little lot?” 

“Mrs. Flaherty,” said the governess gently, “perhaps you would like a seat here, by the door, in the breeze. And here, put your feet up on this stool. Why don’t you advise us?”

“You could tell us what to do,” said the boy, “Like a colonel or a big chief… more like a big chief, really. A really big…” 

“Oliver!”

The boy grinned at Susanna’s warning and the governess glared sharply at him before turning back towards Mrs. Flaherty. Her voice was respectful. “Now, Mrs. Flaherty, what would you like us to do first?”

Kate Flaherty had been cooking since she was ten years old. As a child little older than Oliver she had stood at a large pine table, not all that different from the one here, and learned to coax fluted pastry crusts from globs of lard and handfuls of flour. She’d tamed twists of dough with soft childish hands and put them to prove behind a large peat-fuelled stove far trickier to manage than this New York range. Before her breasts began to push like ripened fruit against her apron’s starched white front, she could strip a potato so its bald white body plopped into a pan by her side while the muddied coil of its skin landed neatly in a bucket at her feet. Thirty years and the noise of stripping a potato and dropping its skin into a bucket was the same: only her body had changed. Mrs. Flaherty was no longer a wee slip of a girl. She had grown, she knew, into a fine, fine figure of a woman; a little full around the middle, perhaps, but she had had no complaints. 

Perhaps she would still have been cooking in that big house, midway between her Irish village and the next, if the Earl of Lorcan had not seduced her with soft words, warm hands and beads of whisky-scented sweat among the pantry’s kilner jars and copper pots. She had knelt in the cold confessional and smiled, recalling every detail, and she had refused to show any shame in the face of her parents’ rage and sorrow. Not long afterwards, Lady Lorcan arranged Kate’s passage to America on an old-fashioned sailing ship which bumped westwards towards the New York home of Lady Lorcan’s brother, whose kitchen was slightly smaller than the Earl of Lorcan’s Irish home, and whose hands were slightly colder. 

Kate had always been a quick learner: within six months of setting foot on New York soil, she could fillet each of the types of fish that made their way from the quayside to the kitchen. In a house on Fifth Avenue, she learnt the arts of coaxing soufflés to rise, remoulades to set, and how to introduce a subtle feminine whisper into a consommé Demidoff. She could make a prime rib of beef au jus salute a Choux d’Hamburg with the confidence of a German officer. In a family home on Park Avenue, Kate learned to grind corn and serve it in steaming breads the color of butter, Indian puddings rich with cinnamon and nutmeg, fragrant stuffings which she crammed into trussed chickens, capons, turkeys and strange birds for which she had no names. And the city taught her other things too: she learnt for how long she might return a gentleman’s gaze before allowing her eyes to demurely drop, how lightly her fingers might brush a shop keeper’s hand to secure the best cuts of the meat, how to capture and hold the glances of the men in each house where she worked, and how brightly her smile would need to shine during the interviews for her next job and the next and the next. 

She’d had a fair run of luck, so she had, until a morning six years ago when she had risen to find the world a less rewarding place. Thirty-eight years old and out of work since the night before, and every sign telling her that the times were a-changing: that morning six years ago, she had pulled three gray hairs from her head and the handsome boy selling that day’s copy of the New York Times had flinched when she let her arm brush against his own. The advertisements for cooking positions with families who did not already know the rumors surrounding her name were few. Mrs. Hambleton, already old and dressed in lightly worn widow’s weeds, interviewed Kate in a dining room crammed with furniture. There was a long, awkward pause while Mrs. Hambleton pressed a lace handkerchief lightly to her eyes and explained she lived alone and modestly with her daughter and grandchild. Kate responded with tears of her own and conjured a story about a recently deceased husband and a fall upon hard times. The story and the tears together were enough to gain Mrs. Flaherty the job she had held ever since. No-one called her Kate anymore: it had been time to settle down. 

And it had been an easy life until Susanna appeared: Mrs. Hambleton lived frugally, disliked fancy dishes, and didn’t notice whether food was shop-bought or home-made. There was no longer any need for Mrs. Flaherty to sweat and wrestle over a batch of fresh loaves when bread could be bought for a few pence on Madison Avenue, and she did not need to spend time carefully filleting sides of beef and peeling potatoes when meat could be bought ready minced and vegetables were to be found in tins. The city was a marvellous place, so it was, and she for one intended to make use of each and every one of the modern conveniences designed to save her from unnecessary labor. 

But the vegetables and the chicken, fresh dead, were there now so from her chair by the open door, Mrs. Flaherty taught Oliver to peel potatoes and the girl did a serviceable job at chopping the head from the hen, plucking its feathers, and placing it in a roasting dish. Soon the kitchen was filled with smells which took Mrs. Flaherty back to the houses she had known. 

Because Mrs. Hambleton was not well enough to dine, Mrs. Flaherty, Susanna and Oliver, Anya and her enormous Liverpudlian friend Carrie, ate together at the kitchen table. The chicken was moist, the vegetables well-cooked, and Oliver took great pride in explaining his crucial role in peeling and mashing the potatoes. Although reluctant to admit it to anyone other than herself, there were moments when Mrs. Flaherty enjoyed the meal. The giantess talked easily about her grandmother’s family, who had come to Liverpool from an Irish village not far from where Kate had once lived, and Anya smiled and smiled and did not trouble them all with her attempts at speaking English. The boy cleared his plate and asked for second helpings and, without saying as much, Mrs. Flaherty allowed that Susanna might have gained the upper hand. Just this once, though, just this once. 

______________________________________________________________

Zoe Fowler is a historical sleuth, most frequently found in obscure corners of libraries searching out treasures among the dust and cobwebs. Most recently, she read the directories for New York City for the first 8 years of the twentieth century and a collection of tourist guides published during that era. This all provides detail and flavor to her novel, Frogsbone.

After a career in academia, Zoe is relatively new to fiction writing. She has been published in See the Elephant, attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, and was recently awarded a scholarship to attend the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.

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Jetta

By Joyce H. Munro

Music to read by: “Spring Charm” by Adrian von Ziegler

She is walking down the stairs sideways so she can keep her eye on Miss Morris, teetering a step behind. “Let me take your arm,” she says to Miss Morris. Every day she says this and every day Miss Morris protests, “You’ll only hold up the parade.” But the old lady is the one who holds up the parade to look out the window. “Who’s that down there in the rose garden?”

~

The rose garden used to be an ordinary cutting garden. Then, right before their world tour—forty years ago now—Mr. and Miss Morris told the gardeners to dig the whole thing up. They wanted a garden that would inspire awe. A rosarium. Boxwood hedges encasing beds of fragrant teas. Paths that converged at a tall urn raised high on a pedestal. A room to bewitch lovers of nature and lovers of love.

~

She is waiting for Miss Morris to descend another step. They both know it’s the gardener, spraying the roses to keep black spot from marring perfect blooms. Will he cut off the thorns before he brings them in or make her do it? The mistress dislikes pricked fingers. Not that she minds de-thorning roses. This is what she has chosen. For so many reasons. How many girls from Ireland secure a position in Philadelphia on arrival? Especially in an important household like the Morris’s. How many employers reward employees handsomely the longer they serve? How often do two sisters get to work alongside each other these days?

~

But it’s not her sister she wants to be alongside these days. It’s James Joseph O’Neil. He is the real reason she chooses to continue in the Morris household, though she’s never told him anything of the sort. Such a courteous man, is what she thought years ago when he would drive up to the townhouse, doff his cap, and help Mr. and Miss Morris into the touring car. Then he would turn to her standing on the threshold and he would doff his cap again. To her. And she would curtsy and go back inside. Twenty years of doffing and curtsying. They are both so scrupulous, so self-respecting.

~

“Souvenir d’un Ami. Those were the roses he gave me in London,” Miss Morris mouths to the garden. She nods her woolly white head and creeps down another step. She, too, is so scrupulous, so self-respecting. Which is why there’s no use grabbing Miss Morris’s arm, though the risk of her falling down this massive staircase is great, God forbid. And thus they continue their treacherous journey to the dining room, where the table is set for one and chicken à la king is getting cold in the gilt Haviland serving bowl.

~

I regret having to say this: although it is 1930, Miss Morris still refers to her house employees as servants. Perhaps Miss Morris would like to be called, “Your Ladyship.”

~

Quakers have a relatively flat hierarchy, socially and ecclesiastically. They call themselves a Society of Friends, without need of priesthood or lords and ladies. Lest you think all is egalitarian among Friends, consider the Anthony Morris family of Philadelphia. Eighteenth century brewers, nineteenth century manufacturers in iron, twentieth century collectors of artifacts and relics. A first-among-equals Quaker family. Two of their descendants, a brother and sister, have decided to share their extraordinary collection with the public upon their deaths. And now, one of the two is gone. Miss Morris is eighty-one, fond of the 1880s, and nearly friendless. Consider the odds of Miss Morris living beyond the present decade.

~

She is filling the teapot in the basement kitchen when the bell summons her back to the dining room. Miss Morris wants to know if one of the O’Tooles can bring jelly Krimpets from town this afternoon. No more porridge for breakfast, now that it’s warm weather. Maybe some Tasty pies, too. And here’s the rub: though Miss Morris is taking advantage of a privilege, it will not upset the O’Tooles—two of them work at the baking company. So the answer is, “As you wish, Miss Morris.” She will call Nellie, who wraps pies and snacks, and ask her to pull a couple of boxes, get Thomas to drive them out this evening. “And as always,” Miss Morris says, “there’ll be a little extra money for their effort.”

~

She was terrified when she arrived in Philadelphia. Far, far from Galway, the second of her family to come over. What made her think she would favor the big city? Buildings so immense, trolleys swarming every which way, too much pavement, the rudeness, the puzzling accents. And this Quaker family—what a renegade religion they followed. No priests? Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

~

The brother who is gone now, God rest his soul, was a little peculiar, with his curiosities set all about. Swords and helmets, piles of coins, medallions, seeds, photographs, journals, papers. Never has she seen so much to read in a private home. And a pair of spectacles in every room, so forgetful he was. Had the tics and foibles of a person who wants to know everything in precise detail and once he knows, will tell all in precise detail. Curiosities bought with money not easily parted with. Money a Bountiful Providence has graciously provided, Mr. Morris would say.

~

She came to America in search of security. With loyalty imprinted deep in her soul. And she has agreed to render her services until no longer needed. Now only the mistress of the house remains. See the mistress there, in tasseled shawl, being meticulous about something, probably a belonging of an ancestor. “It must be done right. Let me show you. Gently back and forth, never across the grain.” She is secure in this household, bound by a day to day, season by season schedule. Cook, waitress, chambermaid, lady’s maid, and mistress. A band of pilgrims traveling back and forth across the years.

~

Every Ides of March, they break up the townhouse on Pine Street. Cover priceless antiques in cotton sheets, place jewelry in velvet pouches, pack silk undergarments in tissue. And they are off to live in heaven at the end of Meadowbrook Lane, where splendor is a tonic for their souls.

~

She is thirsting for that tonic when they arrive each spring, when Mr. O’Neil opens the car door and offers his hand to Miss Morris. “Welcome home,” he says, and the words are a promise. He comes round and silently takes her hand. Behold him close to her, sturdy and ruddy in his proper suit, clear eyes regarding her. She steps out and there behind him, framed by clouds, is Compton, looking for all the world like her beloved Kylemore Castle. An otherworldly place where chores are not drudgery, where she is weightless. Where she can take off her apron during free hours and amble down the hillside and her hairpins will fall out.

~

It is here, surrounded by the aroma of roses under a milky moon that he will want to ask her to marry him. Every June he wants to ask and every June she wants to say yes. But their wants are never breathed, for scruples constrain them. And sadly, the door of heaven will close again in autumn.

~

Come October, the little band breaks up Compton by the same routine. They return to the townhouse with its ambitious schedule. Pilgrimages to Cedar Grove, opera at the Academy of Music, meetings of Colonial Dames. And in recent years, conferrals with attorneys, dignitaries. Things may be breaking up. But there will always be June and the rose garden.

~

She is standing on the threshold, but she is thinking of the past, of the day she arrived in Philadelphia, of the letters she wrote home about her American dream, the silver she’s polished, table linens pressed, cream teas served in the sunroom, thorns cut from roses. And the chauffeur’s proposal, key to a realm they may never know, pendent between them.

~

Down by Killarney’s green woods we did stray, the moon and the stars they were shining. The moon shone its rays on his locks of golden hair and he swore he’d be my love forever.

~

She is watching Miss Morris take the arm of her gardener down below. They walk among the roses, getting smaller. Her tousled hair a brightness in the verdant room, a visual rhythm, like a signal fading from view. What would life be like without her, God forbid.

~

The gardener waves. It’s time to bring Miss Morris in for a rest.

~

In 1932, Lydia Thompson Morris died at the Compton estate in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in the presence of her loyal household. And Jetta O’Toole—services rendered for twenty-three years—finally heard Mr. O’Neil breathe words more intoxicating than roses, “Will you marry me?”

~

Having remained in Miss Morris’s employ until her death, they each received an annuity which they pooled together and bought a nice house in Flourtown, and took vacations every now and then. Jetta died in 1958 and Jim in 1965. God rest their souls.

______________________________________________________________

Joyce H. Munro has returned to a first love—creative writing—after a career in college administration. She holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Her articles on educational leadership and professional development have appeared in academic journals and her books have been published by McGraw-Hill, Dushkin, and ETS. Her creative writing can be found in Crosscurrents, Hamilton Arts & Letters, Boomerlit, As You Were: The Military Review, ArtAscent, Connections, Families, andPerspectives. In 2015, she was awarded first place in the Keffer Writing Contest of Families journal and her short story, “Avoch Bay,” was short-listed for the Galtelli Literary Prize.

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To Gettysburg

By Michael Anthony

Still numb from the explosion that had launched him over the hedgerow, the soldier forced open his bloodied eyelids to find carnage everywhere. Broken bodies, some intact, others less so, littered the landscape like random piles of rags. Men crawled, dragging shattered, useless legs behind them; others stumbled and fell, never to rise again; still more wailed in agony, their cries going unheeded until their voices faded.

Clouds of spent gunpowder hung like gray shrouds over corpses on the hushed battlefield. The evening sky along the western horizon burned an eerie rust, smudged by plumes of black smoke rising from the skeletal remains of smoldering farm buildings.

With nightfall would come the dreaded scavengers who crept through the darkness stripping bodies of money, gold or anything of value; and, when they found one barely alive were known to slay the defenseless warrior. Refusing to meet such an end, the infantry officer tried to push off the damp soil where that last fusillade landed him, but other than his arm, nothing moved, not even his head. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he feared his back was broken.

Unable to feel anything below his chest, he sensed escape would not come by his own hand. But, it was not a severed spinal cord that imprisoned him. Rather, it was the massive roots of a tree upended by the artillery shell that nearly decapitated him. Those tendrils coiled about his head, his body and every extremity like a nest of vipers. The splintered ends of the unearthed roots pierced his flesh, forcing him deeper into the soggy land.

He struggled, managing to free his left arm from the tangle, and searched a small patch of soil from hip to head, but nothing beyond that narrow arc. His pained breathing grew labored as he slipped into the netherworld between life and its cold eternal opposite.

A clap of thunder rolled across the open field and brought a soaking rain that pooled in the soft loam against which his face pressed. Unable to lift his head, the growing puddle threatened as he swallowed the brackish water, choking on bits of wood as well as the taste of blood and dirt and horse manure.

In a rare lucid moment he thought, ‘I did not survive another battle only to drown in inches of water.’ His free hand searched frantically until it found a clump of bog grass from which he pulled a single reed that he pushed between his lips, allowing him to breathe without swallowing that rising poison. Evening dimmed into night and then all was black. Only the infrequent cries of the unseen wounded told him he was still alive. When they stopped he was unsure.

The dawning sun crested the distant tree line and warmed his half-submerged face so he knew he had not yet gone to the other side. The haze of the previous sundown had vanished, replaced by a cloudless crystal blue dome. The unmistakable stench of death blanketed the shallow valley, replacing the acrid smoke of firearms.

Still immobile, he wanted to call out for help. But, doing so might draw any lingering enemy troops who would bayonet him where he lay trapped. The soldier suspected he would soon join the bloated and unburied.

Shadows shortened as the sun climbed the sky and the water seeped back into the ground, leaving his face in a basin of mud. A shaft of sunlight cut through the thick canopy of leaves and lit his face so harshly that his eyes closed of their own will. He shielded them against the unforgiving luminance with his open palm until the earth, of which he soon would be part, rotated ever so slightly in its great orbit around the sun and shifted that beam.

Voices approached; not military, but muted, feminine ones.

He made out the indistinct silhouettes of a woman and a young girl moving from corpse to corpse; draping each fallen soldier’s face with a rectangle of gauze they tore from a larger swatch before cutting brass buttons off uniforms; unfastening leather straps; and, rifling the pockets of the dead.

In ordinary times, such acts would be reprehensible, but the soldier knew these days of the war between the states were anything but ordinary. Local farmers saw their food and livestock commandeered by marauders. With little to sustain themselves, the inhabitants scavenged to survive while watching for snipers or renegade soldiers eager for carnal pleasures, regardless of age or virginity.

The two drew near and the soldier had only seconds to either play possum and let them ransack his uniform or risk having his throat slit if they found him alive.

Their dirt-caked feet now stood mere inches from his face still deep in the mud mixed with his blood and that of others. The older woman knelt and with the deft touch of a betrothed, gently swept a wisp of flaxen hair from his eyes. Her touch was the first he had known since leaving his homestead nineteen months earlier. With the dreadful casualty rate of the 8th Regiment, surviving on the field of battle for so long made him a seasoned veteran; though he saw himself only as lucky, at least until that Howitzer shell shattered the tree to which he was running, the same one that now held him captive.

It took all his resolve not to twitch beneath the woman’s fingers. He felt another hand reach into his pocket. The girl removed coins, a button, a folded letter and the small tin-framed photo of the soldier’s twin brother Elijah, which never left its hallowed place near his heart.

“Please,” he uttered in a voice so faint it was barely audible above the cawing of the ravens perched overhead.

He winced as the woman grabbed his hair in her fist. “This uns alive,” she told the girl.

“Should we do um, mama?”

He knew the girl’s intent and readied himself to join Elijah. His mother would soon mourn two sons lost in this unholy war launched by politicians who sent young men off to die while those same silk-hatted statesmen sipped bourbon in red velvet parlors far removed from the hounds of hell they had unleashed upon the nation.

“No,” the woman sighed, “taint going nowhere twisted like he is. Nother day, vultures be pickin’ his bones. Less go.”

Sounding like a bullfrog at dusk, the soldier croaked, “Please, wait.”

“Mama, he’s sayin sumptin.”

“I hear,” she replied in a conflicted voice while leaning down until her face nearly touched his. “Can’t help you boy. We get caught; I’m dead on the spot. No tellin’ what they’d do to my girl.”

“Tell me true,” the soldier asked, “do ya’ see a way out for me?”

The woman surveyed the immense entanglement of roots and shook her head.

“If I did get free and my legs weren’t dead, could I find a safe place?” he gasped.

She studied his uniform, and then said ruefully, “Might make Gettysburg, but lotta troops ‘tween here and thar.”

“One favor?”

“You in no position to be askin’ favors, boy,” the girl snapped.

“Hush, child,” the woman admonished and then turned back to the soldier, “What’s this wish?”

He had heard the stories of how the gravely wounded, for whom no hope existed, were delivered a merciful end with a precisely placed blade. “I don’t want to go slowly here. Would you help me to the other side? Maybe say a prayer before ya do?”

“Mama, let’s go.” The girl whined while hopping from one dirty foot to the other like she had to relieve herself.

“We can make time,” the woman said. “You Christian?”

“Catholic,” the soldier groaned, “but ain’t worshiped in a while.”

“Don’t take kindly to Cath’lics,” the girl said, then spat on his uniform.

“Rebecca! What we think don’t much matter now. Man’s about to pass and he needs a bit o’ prayin’ to help him through.”

“Much obliged.” Then, the soldier whispered, “When time comes, send your daughter away. Don’t want her see’n any more dyin’ than she already has.”

Even with his demise at hand, the soldier’s concern for her daughter touched the woman’s war-hardened heart. “I will.”

The woman and child recited the Twenty-third Psalm over the entrapped infantryman. Then, she told her daughter to start for the next cluster of bodies, but not stray too far. When the girl was some twenty-five paces away, the woman’s hand slipped inside a leather sack that hung from her soiled gingham apron and emerged holding a sharp-bladed knife caked with blood. “Close your eyes.”

Resigned to his final journey, he pictured his brother on the opposite shore, now intact, made whole by the crossing. The soldier welcomed the fraternal reunion with the twin who followed him into this world by only minutes; and for whom he still grieved, blaming himself for not protecting his brother from a musket round to the neck; and who often appeared in the soldier’s recurring nightmares.

The blade pressed against the jugular vein throbbing beneath the muddied skin of his neck. He looked up at the woman kneeling close to him and muttered, “I forgive you.”

He was weary of seeing men explode into red mists; horses sliced in two by cannon fire; human limbs hanging from trees like macabre decorations; and, watching rows of young boys, none older than eighteen, fall one atop the other as they charged into a hail of bullets that pierced and tore and severed their willowy bodies. So, death no longer frightened him.

Unlike all those he saw collapse into twisted heaps of lifeless muscle and fractured bone, at least he could prepare for his final moment. He recalled his home in Springfield and wished to again experience his mother’s loving embrace, but that damned artillery shell had sealed his fate.

He imprinted the woman’s image on his eyes for it would be the last thing they saw: her unwashed blonde hair a nest uncontained and windblown; high cheekbones above which hazel eyes reflected the golden daylight; a long thin nose that came to a sharp point; narrow lips stretched taut over ivory teeth, not perfect, but all present; and, a strong chiseled jawline. He would remember her, not as his murderer, but as his salvation from a death prolonged if he remained undiscovered or tortuous if found by the enemy.

The crack of gunfire suddenly split the air as bullets whistled overhead. The woman spun to see her child scramble behind the wide trunk of an old oak. “Rebecca! Stay down,” she screamed.

Jumping to her feet, the woman ran to her daughter whom she wrapped in her arms and then crouched low behind that same tree.

Horses’ hooves pounded the wet ground beneath the imprisoned soldier. As they neared, he attempted to gauge the color of the riders’ uniforms. If like his, he might live; if not, he would die by their blade, bullet or boot.

“Grab them!” The soldier heard as the horses were reined to a stop. “Defiling bodies, huh?” The gruff voice of the unseen mounted officer shouted, “Ya’ll know how we deal with your kind.”

“Please sir,” the soldier heard the woman implore, “I beg of you. We were jes tryin’ t’ get back tar farm across dat field.”

“She your daughter?” he demanded.

“Yes,” the woman replied.

“Would make a pleasant diversion for my men,” the officer crowed.

“Please, sir,” the woman beseeched, “I’ll go witcha. Jus’ set the girl free.”

“What do you think men? Want ‘em both?”

Indistinct rumbling followed his mocking question.

“We cannot afford to be slowed. Shoot them,” the officer commanded.

Still unseen and still unsure if the gathered troops were friend or foe, the soldier called out nonetheless. “Wait, sir. Corporal Augustus Winthrop.”

The measured clop-clop of a horse signaled its approach. “Soldier?”

“Sir,” he replied. “That woman and her child were ministering to me when you arrived. Tryin’ to comfort me ‘til I could be freed.”

“Sergeant,” the officer ordered, “deploy your men to free this soldier.”

It took some forty minutes and seven men to cut away the twisted nest of roots that clung to the soldier like an octopus. With a final push they rocked the massive root base while two others slid the soldier from beneath it.

Although large bruises painted his body black and blue and purple, only one leg was broken. His back was a crosshatch of cuts and punctures, some deep, some superficial, all in need of cleaning. Cracked ribs accounted for the pain that stabbed when he breathed; but once again he could move his good leg and arm, feeble as they were.

All the while, the women were held at gunpoint.

The captain knelt alongside the junior officer as he lay on the tree-shadowed ground. “Is the story you told me true or only to save them? Think carefully before you answer, Corporal.”

Winthrop replied without hesitation, “Sir, it is true. Were it not for them, I would be across the River Styx with my brother.”

“Very well. My men will transport you to the field hospital near Round Top.”

“What about the women?” Winthrop asked.

“Based on your word, they are free to go,” the officer replied.

“May I thank them before they depart?”

The captain motioned for the women to be brought forward and as they passed warned, “Take your daughter home and stay off these battlefields. Next time you will not be so fortunate.”

Unnerved, the women neared Winthrop. Now prone atop a blanket with his head propped on a rock, he curled his index finger, drawing the mother close.

“Bless ya, sir,” she whispered. “Why didn’t cha tell ‘em what I was ‘bout to do?”

Winthrop swallowed and replied so only she could hear, “These fields run red with blood. I will not be responsible for even another drop.”

“But I was ‘bout to spill yours,” she sobbed.

The soldier rested his hand on her tear-stained cheek and smiled.

______________________________________________________________

Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in multiple literary journals including The Opiate, SQ Magazine, The Birch Gang Review and Jonah Magazine. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of the textile industry.

 

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From the Journal of Maria Lopez Before Her Deportation to China

By Debbi Stone Cassidy

I remember the day the revolution started for my family. My father, mother, and two younger brothers were resting on our mud-packed porch after our midday meal. Again, we ate corn, black beans and, thanks to our goats, a bit of fresh cheese. We had long forgotten the taste of meat, but we were still among the lucky: we had food and we had our land. It was 1908; we were in the second year of a drought. There were days I believed our small ranchero would be blown away by the ferocious winds that whipped through the state of Chihuahua. We were dry-land farmers, which meant for us that every sunrise was greeted with a prayer for rain.

It was late in the afternoon when I spotted a figure running toward us, waving something over his head. As he came closer, I saw that it was my best friend, Francisco Wong. He was shouting, but he had a smile on his face. I knew he would have entertaining news, always. Francisco’s father had come from China in 1892. He came to work as a railroad laborer, and his mother managed to come a year later when Mexico and China signed a treaty that included a “most favored nation” clause. Francisco was five months old when he arrived in Mexico. Allowing the Chinese to immigrate to Mexico was part of Porfirio Diaz’s plan to modernize. He thought the workers would be docile and knew China would look favorably on his generous offer to give the Chinese work after the US had stopped immigration with the Exclusion Act of 1882. As usual, it was a win-win situation for Diaz. It meant cheap labor, a potential for trade with China and of course, Diaz looked noble in the process.

As Francisco caught his breath, my mother went inside to get a pitcher of cool water. In his hand was an American magazine. My brothers and I crowded around him, waiting for him to share the contents of his treasure. Not only could Francisco read Spanish, he could also read English. His mother, who had been a school teacher in China, was very serious about the education of her children. The Wongs owned a small mercantile store in the pueblo, and the mornings were always taken up with lessons. I was proud to have such a smart friend; at the time I knew very few people who could read. The days when I finished my chores early, Francisco would give me lessons, drawing letters in the dirt or showing me old newspapers from the store. I learned to read even though I was only a girl. 

Pearson’s Magazine had an interview with Diaz. In the interview, Diaz said that the Mexican people were finally ready for democracy and that he was willing to step down in the next election. Unbelievable! Diaz said, “I welcome an opposition party in the Mexican Republic…If it appears, I will regard it as a blessing, not an evil.” 

We were silent for a moment. We wondered if the article was a joke. After thirty years of dictatorship, could Mexico dare to hope it would be free of the Porfiriato? Francisco read the entire article aloud. We howled with laughter at the description the American James Creelman gave of the President: “The master and hero of modern Mexico, the inscrutable leader in whose veins is blended the blood of the primitive Mixtecs with that of the invading Spaniards…the strong, soldierly head and commanding but sensitive countenance conveys an interest beyond what words can express.” The description was so silly. Creelman said nothing but flattering things about our President, and while Diaz might have been popular with Americans and the Hacendados, for the poor peons, the Indian tribes, and the small landowners, the name of Porfiro Diaz was associated only with misery and hatred.

So it was that the revolution started in our hearts on that hot day. We were hopeful and we were ready for a true leader, one that would make changes for the people, our people. When my brothers Jorge and Juan and my sister, Albertina, came back from their work at the Terrazas-Creel hacienda that evening, we told them the exciting news and celebrated. That night, we allowed ourselves to dream of the future.

We were not the only ones who read the article in Pearson’s magazine. Francisco Madero, a landowner with a social conscience, became a candidate for president in the election of 1910. He clearly saw the problems Mexico faced and offered democratic solutions. He sounded like a reasonable man. He was a reformer, and we believed he told the truth. As we suspected, Diaz behaved like a snake. Just before the June election, our hope was arrested. Madero was in jail when Diaz was “re-elected” in July. There was no opposition. We wept, more from anger than sadness. It seemed like there was no escape from the dictator.

As small land owners, we were in constant danger of losing what little land we had. My brothers and sister worked at the neighboring Terraza’s haciendo. Albertina worked as a weekend housekeeper and my brothers worked as field hands, hoping to one day become vaqueros. With a salary of 7 or 8 pesos a month, they dreamed of saving our parents from the drudgery of dry-land farming. They imagined having the luxury of paid hands to work the family land. As vaqueros, Jorge and Juan also believed they could provide security against the Tezzaza clan, who at any moment might petition for the expropriation of our ranchero. We had no papers, no proof of ownership, only generations of work, stories, and our word to show that the land was ours. According to Porfirio, our word meant nothing.

Our prayers were answered in that summer of 1910: it rained and we had a good harvest. We were able to pay our small debt at the Wongs’ mercantile store. The Wongs saved us from having to buy from the store at the Terrazza haciendo where the prices were outrageous and the food was often rotten. We remained free of debt to the haciendado. It was a miracle.

Madero escaped from prison in October. Again, we celebrated. While in prison, Madero devised the Plan of San Luiz Potosi. It called for democratization, economic independence and land reform. He also planned an armed insurrection for November 20th

Francisco Villa lead the Madero revolt in Chihuahua. His friends called him “Pancho,” the “Robin Hood of Mexico.” He was the hero of my family. My older brothers could not wait to join up with him, even Albertina was anxious to become part of his army. My sister, the Soldadera. She pictured herself as a spy, but I believed she wanted to be a comfort girl (at 20 she still didn’t have a husband). 

Pancho was been a bandit and a Muleteer. His battle strategies were brilliant. He was a brave man, a romantic, but uneducated. I kept my feelings about “Pancho” to myself. My family only saw the best in him. I knew he was dangerous. He was sloppy and crass, a barbarian – and most important to me, he hated the Chinese in Mexico. 

I will admit I was surprised by Villa’s success, even though he had widespread support and easy access to arms because we were very close to the US border. I didn’t believe his army could pressure Porfirio Diaz to resign, but it happened, and Madero won the 1911 presidential election. We thought we had lived through the worst and that Mexico was on the right path to democracy and land reform. 

We were mistaken. Two years later, Madero’s supposedly loyal general, Victoriano Huerte, staged a coup and Madero and his Vice President Suarez were murdered.

Mexico saw Huerte for what he was: an illegitimate dictator, a jackal. He had no intention of governing democratically. Then it seemed that it was one battle after another. The new man, Carranza, called for the restoration of the constitutional government. He gave himself the title of “First chief of the Constitutionalist Army.” The next thing we knew Huerte was out and Carranza was in. Initially Villa supported Carranza, but it became evident that Carranza was too conservative, too much like Diaz. A split occurred between the two men and the real trouble for my family began.

Zapata (Villa’s rival revolutionary) and Villa joined forces against the Carranza-Obregon Constitutionalists. My brothers and sister again joined the fight. This time my younger brother Manuel joined Villa’s army. When one is fourteen, life is a big adventure. He died in the battle of Celaya. 

The Civil War was unimaginably brutal. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens lost their lives. The Conventionalists lost the war. Obregon was too sophisticated. He called it modern warfare tactics; I called it barbarism. Obregon lost his arm in the battle. Bueno! Where was the solidarity between the revolutionaries, I wondered? With US support perhaps the outcome could be no other way. I only know that while I stayed home to care for my parents, Mexico changed. Maybe Porfirio was right when he said, “The individual Mexican as a rule thinks much about his own rights and is always ready to assert them…Capacity for self-restraint is possible only to those who recognize the rights of their neighbors.” 

In my opinion the problem with the entire revolution was that each group had its own agenda. Everyone strutted like peacocks: Villa bettering Zapata, Obregon muscling Carranza. If only time had stopped in 1912 when Madero became president, Mexico may have seen peace and prosperity and saved almost two million lives. 

The Constitution of 1917 sounded good: it addressed workers rights, land reform, nationalized industry and said there would be no re-election, but how could it be trusted? Carranza was conservative and cautious. When support shifted for Obregon, Carranza retreated, but was discovered by the Obregonistas. The story is told that he died in the confusion of discovery. I have my doubts. Obregon became president in 1920.

We still have our land, but little has changed in Santa Rita. The dust still blows on years where there is a drought. We were able to buy a few cattle and we no longer fear that our ranchero will be taken by the Terraza clan. But we no longer believe in promises.

In 1918, I married Francisco Wong, who is known to you as baba. The anti-Chinese sentiment has been steadily growing for the last 10 years. Villa fueled the fire with claims that the Chinese were taking work and Mexican women from Mexicans. I was arrested for shooting at the men who attempted to burn down our mercantile store. They dragged Francisco out, threatening to string him up. He was breaking the anti-miscegenation law: Chinese men are forbidden to marry or live with Mexican women. You, my children, are “Chinos,” my husband is a “Chino,” and I am now considered a traitor to my nation and my race. I shot at those men to save our lives, but the laws are different for me. 

It is 1923. As I wait for my trial, Maria Lopez Wong vs Mexico, I am writing in my journal in the hope that my story will be carried to the next generation through you, and in the hope that wherever you may live, you will remember that Mexico is your first home.

People ask me about the revolution. Was it a good thing? Are you better off? There is no simple answer. The poor are still desperate, they blame the Chinese, the slow process of land reform, the US, and Porfirio Diaz. The people worship the memories of Zapata and Villa; the identities of the revolutionaries have become intertwined with the identity of the Mexican people. They find it difficult to move on. Yes, the industries are ours now, and we are stronger, but we are still at the beginning. It is yet to be seen whether Mexico will survive as a democracy dedicated to serving the people rather than exploiting them. As to whether the revolution was a good thing, I still feel the sting of loss. Loss of my brother, my hopes, and my innocence. Will I be deported with my husband and children to a land we have never seen? Will I be jailed, leaving my children without a mother? I await my punishment. When people ask if we are better off, say we must leave that question in the hands of our children to answer.

______________________________________________________________

Debbi Stone Cassidy has studied creative writing at the University of Oregon and the Rainier Writers Workshop. Her maternal grandmother was born in Hermosillo, Mexico in 1912. She currently lives among the tall trees and wildlife in Eugene, Oregon.

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Flesh Started the War

By Lana Elizabeth Gabris

The fires lit the heavens, calling to Neptunus as we danced in great circles, holding hands to the wrists tightly, heads thrown back with the flush, hair tangling. Men who had coveted from a distance were now eyeing us boldly but in the throng we no longer cared. Whispers of promises, fortunes, bodies to serve us and even love were tempting from all that we knew. Fathers, brothers and others were forgotten, left in a deep slumber brought on by the thick brew our neighbors had plied on the men leaving us to laugh gaily into the stars. We tumbled onto the soft grass under the thatched roofs, carefully built by these strange men who had bid all in the land to join them in a grand celebration of the heavens.

Great feasts had been pounced on under skies clear of any frowns as the celebration began with the sacrifice, overseen by their priests who had pondered carefully over the entrails before a cheer had rung through our hosts and the fire had caught, sending plumes of smoke above us. Our breath caught as the lupa king himself knelt next to the altar, his shining hair thick over dark brows and flashing eyes framed by a beard framing his chin neatly above the mane of the wolf worn proudly over the arch of his shoulders as he pressed his fingers to his lips then touched the flat slabs still warm with the blessing.

The sky began to darken, shadows of the night birds passing over the hills around the city, above the wall they said he had dug and molded with his own hands. Above, the gods sent an omen trailing through the heavens, sending my thoughts on diverged paths. His senators had begun mingling with our own chosen men, making offerings and out of the corner of my eye movement on the altar drew my gaze back to his lone figure, still honoring the sacrifice, the smoke sweet in the air.

His eyes lifted and my breath caught at the image of the flames cloaking myself standing frozen under the gaze so many feared, as my own father could command having been born cousin to the king of our people. Through his soul I could see grand pillars being erected into temples reaching to the gods doorstep and I had almost reached the altar before I realized I was moving towards him. His lip had curled into an edge of a smile, the gleam of his tooth bright.

He rose, the silver in the fur mantle rippling with his steps towards me. He spoke, his voice deep with teasing conviction. “This is what will be,” Long fingers just brushed over my shoulder, “You see it too, a land for kings, a palace for a queen.” His breath lifted my hair, teasing, “My queen.” I tipped my chin over my shoulder to follow him as he stepped behind me, pointing to the high hills above us lining the night sky.

“I would build you pillars of dreams taking you beyond the heavens and reap you riches you deserve.”

I laughed, letting his hand drop to my waist. His voice had been so full of passion for a moment I could almost see the stones being erected into the sky by his own hands. Around us the fires burned and shadows danced as I ran my fingers through the cape, the fur alive. “I’ve already been promised pillars of gold dreams.” But my thoughts had already forsaken my intended.

His head tipped and he looked down at me over his nose, “I knew you’d come.” His words caressed past his lips, the mocking gaze I remembered so well from years ago along the riverbank instantly flushing my cheeks. Even then, the two brothers had been ambitious, each tempting, though my heart had been quickly captured by him alone, his eyes with the flecks of gold haunting my nights throughout the years.

Two brothers, so unlike beyond the matching looks only those close to them could ease the differences apart, from the hitch of a smile, to a scar on a shoulder. The ever so slightly different shade of golden eyes, the touch of a kiss always tempting.

Our king had forbidden contact between the two regions, rumors from the Oracle to beware the river people had been boiling since before my time, but I had longed to see the beautiful twins after whispers from the priests had been circulating and I had closed my ears to the warnings.

Even then, they had had their own strong visions of what would be and now in these years some had come to pass, leaving him the sole inheritor to their dreams. Tensions had begun to rise with the waters of the river and whispers of trades between some of the families, forbidden dowry’s being negotiated and accepted, against our kings’ orders.

The pressure of his hand on my elbow, demanding to follow him into the darkness of the wall, made the feeling weight of the promise to another dragging at my hand slip away.

“You loved me once.” His breath was hot on my cheek, “But I love you still. Help me build this life.”

“It would start a war.” I could almost feel my intended’s eyes looking for us but it didn’t seem to matter.

His lips pressed against my hair. “Let it.”

The patterns of the stars, traces of the gods drawing their plans, sparkled above the flames that streaked along the walls as I ran, not in fear, but in bliss. Drunken from the moment, my skin still hot where his sure hands had guided me, I sought my sisters, many women I had grown with, and some I had never met until these past few days. Their glowing eyes, warm with the thrill of men so unlike our own were already willing to follow their desires and flesh started the war that only words would dispel.

Words cried and rent across battle lines even as blood pooled up over our ankles, spilled from bloodlines now mixed across opposing forces, until arms were lowered, the peace wrung from the stubborn and we ruled the world.

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Lana Elizabeth Gabris currently lives in the heart of British Columbia with her floor to ceiling sagging bookshelves, along with her fiancé and their much loved dogs of various sizes. Her illustrations of flora have been published in several outdoor magazines across North America.

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Laennec’s Prescience

By Roy Smythe, MD

Paris, December 1816

The young physician strode quickly and purposefully across the narrow cobblestone thoroughfare that would soon widen and pass in front of the Palace d’ Louvre.  “Always I rush”, he thought to himself, shaking his head.  He looked down as he moved forward, and his frustration slowly changed to amusement.  It seemed the dark grey rectangular stones were amazingly uniform in both structure and alignment, and he wondered how the workmen who had laid these stones, perhaps fifty years earlier, had been so precise.  He also mused, as he was apt to do, based on his love for “pathologie anatomique”  the surface resembled a cirrhotic patient’s diseased liver specimen he had recently studied at the Hôpital Neckar.

It was too early for most to be engaged in their daily activities, especially on this back street – a short cut he did not usually take en route to the arrondissement that was his destination.  Each brisk step echoed a sharp report as the hard leather soles of his single buckle black shoes struck the stone – “click-click-click”, between the edifices on either side of him.

When he exited the narrow thoroughfare, and came upon the edge of a more spacious area surrounding the palace grounds, he noticed two young urchins playing with a piece of lumber.  It looked as if it may have been an old fencepost – one had at some point been trimmed into roughly cylindrical shape.  He guessed it was about six feet in length, and perhaps four or so inches in width.  The boys were laughing loudly, taking turns – one hefting it up on his shoulder and placing the end of the wooden length to the ear of one, the other scratching his end of the post with a large, rusty nail.

He slowed, then stopped and watched.

“I can hear it… I can hear it!” the boy on the listening end exclaimed, laughing…

Laennec stood by patiently waiting while they did this in turn a few times, and then walked over and asked, “may I try, juenes amis?”.  The boys gladly complied, and he placed his ear on the listening end of the post.  When one of the boys ran the point of the nail over the other end, ever so gently, Laennec laughed out loud as well, “Viola!  Now I understand… indeed!”

He then took several turns with the two boys – either listening or manning the nail at the opposite end of the post…  Eventually, he remembered his patient, and bade the boys farewell, pitching a coin from his frockcoat pocket to the smaller of the two.  He picked up his daybook and bag, and hurried along.

“Once again,” he mumbled to himself, “I rush…”

His morning had started in the usual way.  He awoke early, before sunrise, had a small bowl of porridge and dressed, excepting his frockcoat.  He then spent some time playing his flute – his sheet music placed on a small wooden stand in front of a window overlooking the street from his second story window, and he on a high wooden stool facing it…  He started with the scales, and then began working on a new Shubert piece he was attempting to learn.

He had been struggling with a particular passage for several days, but he was no stranger to the concept of “le problem.”  Even though he was but 35 years old, he had already contributed a great deal to medicine as a pathologist and clinician interested in diseases of the chest – solving problems was of particular interest to him.  A figure came and quickly departed from his window view – running down the lane in front of his home and diverted Laennec’s gaze briefly over the top of his sheet music.  A few moments later there was a loud knock at his front door.

“Monsieur,” the boy, whom Laennec judged to be no more than twelve or thirteen years of age, blurted out his speech pressured and hurried, “I have been asked to summon you, if you are available, to see a woman living in my mother’s boarding house.”  “What is the problem,” Laennec asked, “that requires me… young man?”  He quickly examined the boy more closely.  He clothing was clean, but worn, and his hair long and relatively unkempt beneath a dark brown felt hat.  He noted there were perspiration stains about the area where a headband would normally be.

“She complains of difficulty getting her breath, and is having pain… pain… in her… busom”

“What part of her busom?” Laennec inquired, “in the front, or on one side…  or both sides?”

“I’m not sure monsieur… In the front… I believe… yes, in the front area…” the young man replied, pointing to the middle of his own chest, his finger trembling from the exertion of having just run several blocks, and his social discomfort.

“Give me your address, and please return and tell your mother, and the woman of whom you speak, that I am shortly en route.”

After leaving the boys and their listening game behind, Laennec finally arrived at the address he had hastily scrawled on a piece of paper earlier. He stood before a two-story boarding house – its stucco surface covered in flaking yellow paint, with several grey wooden shutters – all missing slats or parts of their frames, some hanging askance at the margins of the clouded glass windows they had originally bracketed.  The young messenger again appeared at one of the two doors at the front of the structure, and let Laennec in, after which they climbed a flight of dusty, wooden steps to the building’s second story.  The doctor noted the mixed odors of urine and cooked cabbage as he ascended.

The boy rapped gently on a door at the top of the steps, and then pushed it open without waiting for a reply.  An older woman was waiting in the two-room dwelling, just a few feet behind the door – the front room in which they now stood was a combination of sitting area and kitchen – furnished with a few crude apparently hand-made pieces of furniture. There was a large iron pot on the wooden stove, with liquid bubbling over the edges of the rim and steam rising up and dissipating as it approached the low ceiling.

Ah,” Laennec thought to himself, “the source of the one of the two odors.”

The old woman was still dressed in off-grey nightgowns, and cap.  She walked up to Laennec and grabbed him by the upper arm, without speaking, and pointed to the door of the other room.  Laennec noticed her face was wet with tears.

“Yes, madam,” he whispered, “the patient?”  She nodded her head.

Laennec walked into the second room.  In the center of the space, there was a small bed, low to the ground, containing what appeared to be a very obese person, amidst a large disorganized pile of white cotton and tan burlap bedding.

“Madam?”

The woman lifted her hand off of the bed a few inches, with no obvious intentionality, then let it fall.

Laennec walked up to her side, leaned over and gently moved the blankets down from around the woman’s neck.  Her round face was pale and drenched in sweat, and her eyes half-closed.  Her unwashed hair was matted up in a great wad on the top of her head, and she had obviously not bathed in some time – based on the strong odor.  She was breathing fast, he noted, and he ascertained, silently… “mild distress, but no imminent danger”.

“May I examine you, Madam?”

She opened her eyes a bit more, focused on Laennec, and nodded, almost imperceptibly.

He leaned over, and touched the back of his hand to her forehead.  He then lifted her eyelids, and took a look at the mucous membranes around her eyes, examining the color, and moisture.

No signs of having lost blood, or fluid”, he thought to himself, “and there is no fever.

He reached down and untied the strings holding her gown together at the neck, and pulled it down slightly.  To his dismay, he immediately noted that her breasts were enormous – there was absolutely no space between her cleavage and her almost equally ample double chin.  He stood up, looked over at a corner in the room, rubbed the palms of his hands on his breaches, and sighed.

From behind him came the nervous and now stuttering voice of the young messenger, “Why… why… do you stop, monsieur?  What… did you see?”

Laennec did not know the boy had followed him into the patient’s home, and was startled, “Oh!.. oh… yes…  He then turned his back to the woman, leaned over to him and replied in a low voice, “this woman is younger than I expected, and her… um… habitus… makes direct auscultation impossible.  I am at a loss, in the moment, regarding my next maneuver.”  As he looked in the boy’s direction, he found his eyes were drawn to a small vanity in the corner behind him, covered in a jumbled stack of writing paper, and a dry inkwell lying on its side.

He walked over the table, pushing the boy aside absentmindedly.  He gathered up a large number of sheets and rolled them tight, into a “solid” tube of paper.  He then walked back over to the woman’s bedside, placed one end of the rolled paper between her breasts, onto the firm surface of her breastbone, and placed his ear to the other end.

The young boy watched him, nervously.   He had no idea what the word “auscultation” meant, and feared, due to his strong aversion to the sight of blood it might be some sort of surgical procedure.  He had no longer recovered from that consideration, when he then feared Laennec might strike him, or the woman, with the paper “weapon” he had created.  Momentarily relieved once again, he then wondered, as Laennec placed it into the woman’s cleavage, whether or not the doctor might have taken leave of his senses.

Laennac stayed in that position for several seconds with his eyes tightly shut, his ear to the paper tube, listening intently.

He smiled.

Later that night, he dined with his friend and confidante, François Louis Becquey.

“How was your day, good doctor?” Becquey asked, as they were sitting down.  His voice gravelly from years of giving speeches in the Legislative Assembly and his cheeks ruddy from years of heavily imbibing in drink – both frequently in efforts to change the minds of his argumentative colleagues.

Laennec replied, “my day… was, in fact… remarkable.”

“Pray tell?” Becquey implored casually, reaching for his glass of wine.

Laennec stared blankly at Becquey’s face, then down at the off-white canvas tablecloth, “I believe I have discovered a contrivance, one that may extend the physician’s ability to do many things, and know many things… things previously undiscerned.”  Becquey took a sip, pursed his lips in feigned interest, and nodded.  He was a politician after all, and somewhat inured to his brilliant young colleague’s frequent musings about advances in medicine.  Laennec waited until Becquey sat his wine glass back down, looked up, and continued, “It is my sense more and more contrivances will be created, my good friend – many we could not conceive of in our wildest imagination, and likely changing for all time the nature of how the physician approaches the patient… and his disease…”

Laennec then fell silent, and turned his head, staring off into a dark corner of the dimly lit tavern.

After a long moment, he whispered to himself a quote from Copernicus – one he had learned as a young schoolboy…

“Pouring forth its seas everywhere, then, the ocean envelops the earth and fills its deeper chasms.”

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Roy Smythe, MD is a former academic surgeon, biomedical investigator, medical school endowed chair and healthcare administrator currently working as a value-based care consultant.  He has written prolifically in the medical academic research literature, and has also published narratives, fiction and opinion pieces in the lay scientific and humanities press.  He is a monthly contributor to the Forbes Business / Healthcare and Pharma panel.  Dr. Smythe is a native Texan who works and lives in the Chicago area, and struggles to survive each winter.

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