Category Archives: Fiction

The Foundry Lad

By Amy Wood

I don’t know who the old fiddler man is. I like him, I think. But I don’t know who he is.

He plays every day; rain or shine, snow or wind. Whether the skies are blue or grey, he’s there, same place, scraping away on his worn out fiddle with his worn out bow. Why he plays in the poorest part of town, God only knows, he can’t be hoping for much more than a ha’penny or two.

I often look at him as I pass by, how old is he? His face is lined enough to have seen at least seventy winters, I reckon, but his eyes are always bright. He sometimes sees me and winks as though he knows what I’m thinking – that he’s old enough to know better than to expect the poorest mice to pay for music when they can barely afford bread.

There’s a hole in his trousers, over his knee. The bottom hems are frayed and his boots were ancient when I was born. But somehow the old fiddler man seems like he ain’t poor, not like the rest of us. The look in his eyes ain’t the same, no despair in him. He’s different.

It’s a Tuesday when for once the sun shows its face and the warmth changes the streets into playgrounds of sparkling puddles left over from last night’s rain. Women gladly send ragged children to play in the road and they go without a fuss; the puddles don’t stay bright for long.

The long tramp up the hill from my little mousehole of a house to the foundry leaves my knees burning. Each day it seems I climb a mountain just for the privilege of wearing myself out for twelve hours but with the sun on my back, it’s not so bad.

Children yell and splash and one kicks me a ball, wasn’t so long ago I was one of ‘em, another scruffy urchin more at home on the street than inside four walls. But time is cruel and like everyone else, I grew up. With three brothers and sisters to help feed, I ain’t got time for being young. I kick the ball back and keep on climbing.

At the top of the hill I stop for just a minute to get my breath. The view down ain’t much to inspire a man but it’s where I come from and some strange part of me wants to be proud of it. Tumbledown houses pile on top of each other, tiny streets wind around them, brown ribbons through the maze but there’s no lustre to ‘em. No silk ribbons here. This part of town lost its sparkle years ago, so far, the people are too tired to worry about getting it back.

All of a sudden it makes me sick: the poverty, the neglect, the disgust of those born more fortunate. I want to rage and shout, to do something, anything, to show the high-born folk who look down their noses at us that we are more than just rags and dirt. But what can I do? Nothing, same as always. The sun’s lost some of its warmth, I pull my thin coat tighter and turn away from the view down the hill.

The old fiddler man’s sitting in his usual spot as I turn the corner by the foundry. His cap is more battered, his coat more worn, his boots cracked and dirty. But he smiles at me as I pass and plays a little jig. The thousand lines on his face crease up into something kindly. Inside me, something breaks and wants to cry.

On the cobbles in front of him, the old man has his usual scrap of canvas, his collecting tin. There’s a fair few coins there, he’s done well, even with it being early in the day. Perhaps folk are feeling generous, maybe the sun’s done ‘em good.

I realise I’ve stopped, I don’t want to walk down the lane to the foundry, I want to stay and listen to the old fiddle scrape out forgotten songs. The warmth comes back into the morning and it’s as intoxicating as Ma Bellow’s illicit gin.

The old man looks at me and nods, just a slow up and down of his head. No smile now, his eyes are sad. He plays something soft and melancholy, impossibly lovely. I stand and let the notes wash over me, there’s precious little time in life to just be still and I know I should be moving now but the fiddle talks to me, sings at me, catches me deep inside and doesn’t let go. How long I stand there I don’t know, could be hours, days even. Those soft notes are too lovely to walk away from. But all things must end and I find myself standing in silence, staring at the old man’s wrinkled hands.

When I draw breath it tastes like the sweetest of honey cakes, the air in this bit of town ain’t so good sometimes but today it’s warm and thick as soup, a delight to every sense. I let it settle down into my lungs like pipe smoke, the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

The smile comes back onto the old man’s face and the jig slips from his fiddle again. A woman passing by, not more than twenty but worn down by her lot in life, suddenly beams and skips a step or two. I don’t dance but when I make my feet move and head down the lane, it’s with a lighter heart than before. As I reach my destination, I look back over my shoulder, the old fiddler man is just visible, his bow flying up and down, his cap bobbing in time with the music.

Usually I feel defeated, exhausted by the time I reach the foundry, but today there’s a lightness about me that even the blazing metal and crashing machinery can’t shatter. I take one more breath of sweet, blossom-flavoured air and close the foundry door.

Twelve hours later I’m free once more and the sky is the faded blue of early twilight. There’s a chill blowing in on the breeze and the sun of earlier is forgotten. Folk hurry past me, heads down, coats pulled snug. A washed-out day moon hangs in a corner of the sky, it looks tired but determined to show its face regardless.

I stumble over cobbles and mutter curses to myself; I’m tired. Children run screaming past me but I’m too old and spent to join in their games. Each step is hard work, one foot in front of the other is an agony of concentration. My ears buzz from the foundry noise and I try to blink away a headache.

After an hour or two – or maybe it’s only a minute – I reach the old fiddler man’s corner. He’s still there, as I expected. I pause nearby and drink in the music but this time he ain’t playing for me. A little girl stands in front of him, not more than four, her short legs chubby and round, socks falling down as she twirls. Her dress is patched, homemade and old but to her it’s the greatest of gowns. Round she goes, eyes squeezed shut, little hands reaching out for the partner only she sees.

The old man taps the rhythm, quick and sharp. She never misses, each change in note, each stroke of the bow sends her flying, little feet barely touching the ground. Her bobbed hair is a dirty halo as she twirls. A tiny Cinderella, squeezing every last drop of joy from the music and savouring it as only the innocent can. She’s beautiful. I feel old and irrevocably broken.

Eventually the old man draws out one final note and lets it melt away into the evening. The little girl faces him, chubby hands on hips, brows drawn into an outraged frown.

“Another one!”

The old man laughs and shakes his head. “Tomorrow.”

It’s the first word I’ve ever heard him say, but little Cinderella ain’t surprised. She smiles and bounces over to fling her arms round his neck, holding him tight.

“Early tomorrow?”

A nod from the old man.

Satisfied, little Cinderella lets go and backs away, humming to herself and dancing a step now and then. As she turns to go, the old man whistles and points at the coins on the canvas at his feet.

She smiles again and shyly picks up a penny. At a cough from the old man she takes another two. Nodding, he plays a jaunty tune as she skips away, her treasures clutched tight to her chest. I watch, spellbound.

His eyes are on me before I can escape. The gentle tune of earlier is in the air again, slow and lovely, wrapping itself round me. I sway on my feet, it’s been a long day, I should be getting home. Blinking takes an eternity, my eyes stay shut of their own accord and it takes everything I have to force them open. When I do, the old man nods and changes the tune. It’s still soft and low but the melancholy has gone, it’s a quiet ghost of the merry jig little Cinderella so enjoyed.

I’m too tired to dance and even if I wasn’t, I could never match the little girl for sheer unassuming joy, but the music does me good. A glow within me builds and spreads and I’m all the better for each note. Just as before, I barely notice when the old man stops playing, I go on staring at the fiddle, reliving the gentle loveliness in my mind.

Eventually, I rouse myself and remember where I am. Time to go home, the chill is setting in more and I’m shivering. My teeth chatter and the colder air hurts my throat as I breathe.

I suppose I should say something, thank the old man or tell him how wonderful his music is, but I can’t find any words. I just stand, frowning at my own incompetence, until he presses a coin into my hand. His fingers are warm, like sandpaper worn down to almost-smoothness. He smiles and pats my arm.

“For your mother.”

I look down, there’s a tanner, sixpence, in my hand.

“I can’t—” I begin, but he shakes his head.

“You can,” he says, very soft and very sure. “She danced as well. Take it.”

The bow settles back onto the strings. I stare at the sixpence. Is this what he does? Is he some kind of toff, come to the poor part of town to give away his wealth? If that were true, he’d be mobbed, folk here know the value of coins and I’ve seen fights over pennies. But nobody glances the old man’s way, everybody trudges on, heads down, with eyes for nothing but their own struggle.

Whatever the old man’s playing now, it puts me in mind of green fields and swooping birds and gentle breezes ruffling through trees. I ain’t seen real green fields but the once, sunday school trip, it was. Can barely remember what grass smells like. But his fiddle makes pictures dance in my head and it almost breaks my heart when I look at the poor town I call home.

“Who are you?” I ask.

He looks up at me and smiles a bit. The bow dances on the strings, dances like the little girl, my mother’s waiting for me at home, he said she danced as well, my mother ain’t never even whistled never mind danced, perhaps I should ask her about the fiddle and the music—.

I close my hand around the sixpence. The old man’s smile grows as his notes dip and swirl around me.

The sun’s slipping under the horizon by the time I make my legs move toward home. Brilliant reds and pinks streak the sky, staining the faded blue. Might be a nice day again tomorrow.

Each step I take closer to home, the more the old man seems like something out of a dream, almost forgotten already. When I reach my tiny mousehole I look at the sixpence. Gentle notes echo in my ears; swooping birds on breezes of music, rolling hills and perfect skies, flowers and trees and all things good. I remember the little girl, her eyes tight shut, twirling and turning, little Cinderella.

The world seems less grey as I step through my door. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

______________________________________________________________

Amy Wood is a British writer whose stories feature in Opening Line Literary ‘Zine (Sept. & Dec. 2014), Flashdogs: An Anthology (Dec. 2014), Spelk Fiction (22 Jan. 2015), Flashdogs Solstice: Light & Dark (June 2015), Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal (December 2015), Magnolia Review (January 2016), Flashdogs: Time (2016), The Galway Rewiew (Feb. 2016) and Short Fiction Break (2 June 2016).

She spends her time trying to write amid family life and wondering where she left her knitting. Also coffee, because it’s basically a foodstuff by now and words would never happen without it.

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Rumors of War

By Tamar Anolic

When Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich entered his father’s study in the Imperial palace of Pavlovsk, he found his father standing at the window, staring out. It was April, 1914, and spring was just starting to find its way into St. Petersburg. The sunlight that flowed through the window was a pale light, but it was not as pasty as the Grand Duke Konstantin’s countenance. Prince Konstantin sucked in a breath when he saw how ill his father looked.

The Grand Duke heard his son gasp and turned from the window. “Ah, Kostya,” he said. He gestured for his son to sit. Konstantin settled into one of the comfortable chairs facing his father’s desk, inhaling the smell of his father’s cigars as he sat. “Are you still corresponding with Pilar of Bavaria?” the Grand Duke asked.

Sometimes, Konstantin wished his father didn’t have such a good memory. “Yes, I am.”

“And still no talk of marriage?”  the Grand Duke pressed. “I thought you were interested.”

“I am interested,” Konstantin admitted. “And I told her as much.”

“But?”

But I’ve heard the same talk of war as you have. Some say Russia could mobilize her armies as early as next month.”

The Grand Duke sighed. For a moment, he stared out the window again. Then he looked back at his son. “I don’t think the mobilization will come that early, and yet my fear of war hangs over my head like an anvil. You realize that if Russia’s armies moved across Europe, they would be marching against Germany? You and Pilar would be on opposite sides of the conflict.”

The thought chilled Konstantin. “But if I brought her here as my wife, would that guarantee her safety?” he asked. “Or would it just leave her a very young widow?”

The Grand Duke did not have the time to answer before both he and Konstantin heard footsteps at the door of the study. A second later, Konstantin was glad to see his brothers Oleg, Igor, and Gavril come into the room. They took seats next to Konstantin, and the room was quiet as the four young men eyed their father, who continued to stand at the window, staring out.

Then Ioann, the family’s oldest brother, slipped into the study, holding his four-month-old son, Vsevolod. The baby stared around with big blue eyes. A tuft of black hair stood straight up on his head. Finally, the Grand Duke turned from the window and smiled at the sight of his only grandchild. Ioann smiled back and hugged Vsevolod to his chest. The Grand Duke watched them for a minute before he held out his arms for the baby.

Ioann handed Vsevolod to his father and sat in the one remaining chair in the room. The Grand Duke sat at his desk and rested Vsevolod in his lap. Then he looked at his five sons and sighed. His pain was obvious. Konstantin felt himself tense up and saw his feelings mirrored in the anxious expressions on each of his brothers’ faces.

“By now, you all have heard that Europe seems to be moving towards war,” the Grand Duke said. “If it comes to that, I doubt Russia could avoid fighting.”

Konstantin and all of his brothers nodded.

“But Nicholas himself doesn’t want to go to war,” Gavril said of the Tsar. “He thinks Russia has a long way to go before its railroads and other industries can support a war.”

“I agree with him,” the Grand Duke replied. “But the passions of our countrymen, and of our fellow Slavs, are running high. I’m not sure Nicky could keep Russia out of war, even if he were opposed to it.”

“What about the Duma?” Ioann asked, naming the nationally elected congress. “The Duma has the final say over whether we enter the war. If both it and Nicky are opposed, perhaps Russia will remain neutral.”

The Grand Duke shook his head, his disdain obvious. “The Duma consists of nothing but politicians that bend at the slightest wind,” he said. “If people are clamoring for war, the Duma will make sure it happens, regardless of whether it’s good for Russia.” The Grand Duke shook his head. “The country needs strong men that stick to their principles, like Peter the Great.”

“Nicky is no Peter the Great,” Konstantin heard himself saying. “Peter could have kept us out of war. Nicky won’t be able to.” Everyone in the room looked at him.

Gavril in particular glared at his younger brother. “Are you disloyal to the Tsar?” he asked.

“I’m just saying what I see,” Konstantin mumbled. Then he looked Gavril in the eye and spoke more clearly. “I am as loyal to Nicky as you are.”

The room became silent, and Konstantin fancied he could see the tension in the air mingling with the sunlight that was still coming through the window. Then Vsevolod began to fuss, and Ioann stood up to take his son from his father. The Grand Duke did not object, but an intractable sadness filled his eyes. The expression remained there as Ioann took Vsevolod into the hall and handed him to his wife, Princess Elena.

From inside the study, Konstantin watched as Elena took her crying son and disappeared down the Palace’s long hallway.  “I’m sorry, Papa,” he said as Ioann returned to the room and took his seat. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not you that’s upsetting me, Kostya,” the Grand Duke replied. “It’s the prospect having all five of you march off to war.”

“And yet if my country calls, I can only reply,” Oleg said, and Konstantin was grateful for his words.

The Grand Duke’s eyes welled up with tears as he looked at Oleg. “You are the most talented, artistic and poetic of my eight children,” he said. “Your loss in this war would be the greatest.”

“Relax, Papa,” Ioann said. “War hasn’t even been declared yet.”

“And yet I feel its rumble in my bones,” the Grand Duke replied, standing and going back to the window. “We are headed down that path. All of Europe is.”

Konstantin, Ioann, Gavril, Oleg and Igor looked at each other uneasily. Then Konstantin rose and joined his father at the window. “It will be alright, Papa,” he said, putting a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Truly it will be.”

But Konstantin’s reassurances were of little use. He watched his father’s jaw clench and unclench. Then, despite the Grand Duke’s efforts to the contrary, tears ran down his face. “Five of my sons marching off to war,” he said. “I should never have lived to see this day.”

__________________________________________________________________________________

Tamar Anolic has been fascinated by the history of Imperial Russia for over fifteen years.

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Steel

By Daniel L. Link

Grigory turned to find the source of the laughter, the pain in his knee forgotten. A man was running his way, rifle in hand. He froze. The wheels of his cart came to rest between cobblestones, but he held on, rather than raising his arms in the air.

“You there,” the guard gestured with the rifle. “Don’t move.”

A passing man lowered his eyes and hurried away.

The guard’s smile was broad, white puffs of steam escaping with each chuckled exhalation.  His exuberance puzzled Grigory, who didn’t see anything in the cold, drab day that should have him in such good humor.

“Let me see,” he said, pointing the rifle at Grigory.

This time he did put his hands up, but the guard waved the gun again.

“The cart,” he said. “Let me see in the cart.”

“It’s just potatoes.” Grigory took one corner of the burlap tarp and yanked it back to reveal half a cartload of potatoes, with a small child nestled in the middle. He gasped.

“Ha!” The guard shouted triumphantly. “I saw her sneak in there.”

He was right, it was a girl, no older than eight or nine, her dark hair cropped close like a boy’s. She looked to Grigory, her icy blue eyes filled with dread.

“Out with you, now.” The guard grabbed her by the tunic, and Grigory heard fabric tear as he wrenched. “Good job, comrade. We’ve been looking for her all week.” He turned to the girl. “Come, girl. The Cheka will want to talk to you.”

A chill went through Grigory. He couldn’t fathom why the secret police would be interested in one so young, but he knew he should stay out of it.

“Wait,” Grigory said, unsure what he was doing. “This isn’t the girl you want.”

“No?” the guard said, eyebrow raised.

“No, she can’t be. She’s a friend. She helps with the potatoes.”

He didn’t let go of the girl, just stared at Grigory, incredulous.

“Sir, believe me. She sleeps in there sometimes, but truly, she’s the daughter of a friend who died in the war. She helps me in exchange for food. We help each other.” He added, “I have a bad knee.”

“What’s her name?”

“Nika,” he said, blurting out his youngest sister’s name.

The man demanded the name of his dead friend. That was easy; Grigory had many dead friends.

“If you’re lying to me,” he said. “I’ll return, and you can both hang.” He pointed to the palace, where the nephew of the Czar once lived, that formerly proud symbol of his country now corrupted by death and ruin.

“Why?” Nika asked when they were in Grigory’s cottage. “You risked everything to save me.”

“There has been enough killing. Besides,” he said, sitting by the hearth and poking the fire, “I could use the help.”

For a solid month they worked close together and Grigory found he liked her company. Nika never offered her real name, but she told him she was wanted for theft and that her parents had been killed by the Reds.

“Where’s your family now?” Nika asked.

“Dead,” Grigory told her. “Everyone. My father, brother, and I all fought in the Great War. Alexei died, but Papa and I came home. Then, it was war with the Bolsheviks.”

“You’re a White?” Nika asked. “Like my parents?”

“I’m not anything. Red, White, it’s no matter. My father was a Cossack, and he was killed by the Reds. My mother and sisters starved, and I escaped. Now, I grow potatoes.”

On impulse, Grigory pulled a metal band from his pocket.

“This was my sister’s. It’s all I have left of my family,” he said rolling the band between his fingers. “I want you to have it.”

Nika’s eyes were wet as she put the large ring on her finger.

“Keep eating,” he laughed. “It will fit in no time.”

“Is it iron?”

“No, steel. It’s much stronger. There is an old proverb. ‘The same hammer that shatters glass forges steel.’ Have you heard it?”

“No.”

“The world needs more blacksmiths, and less broken glass, that’s what I think.”

“Can anything break steel?” Nika asked, admiring it.

Grigory nodded. “Hunger.”

The trees were bare, the wind off the Oka biting, signifying the end of autumn. On the way home from market, Grigory let Nika go ahead while he pulled the cart alone. The remaining potatoes were small and shriveled, making the load light.

He watched her run, swinging a stick, laughing. Her hair was longer and she had put on weight. She was hardly the girl Grigory had first brought home. He smiled.

At the end of the bridge, two guards approached, one grabbing her by the neck, shouting. Grigory dropped the cart and ran to her, his aching knee screaming.

“Officer,” Grigory said. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Perhaps you can,” the guard said.  He turned to Nika, tightening his grip. “Is this the man?”

“Yes,” she said. “This man is a traitor,” Nika pointed her stick at Grigory. “A fascist Cossack dog.”

“Well done, little one,” the guard said, then gestured to the man beside him. “Seize him.”

Grigory didn’t fight as the man took him by the arm. “Why, Nika?” was all he could say.

“Her name’s Anna,” the guard told him. “This girl has sniffed out more of you Whites than the Cheka. Good work, child.”

He saw no emotion on her face as he was dragged toward the palace, no sign she felt anything except the nervous twisting of the steel band on her finger.

______________________________________________________________

Daniel Link is a writer of flash fiction, short stories, and novels. He lives in Northern California with his wife, who supports him in his obsessive writing. Twitter: @DanielLLink

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Matisse’s Lens

By Bev Sandell Greenberg

                                                                                                                        Paris, 1905.

Back at their Montparnasse apartment, the newspaper review of her husband’s first exhibit makes Amelie grind her knuckles into her eyes. They’re sitting across from each other in stiff-backed, mismatched wooden chairs, a stained, threadbare cloth on the table, a tattered, multi-coloured rag rug on the floor.

“What were you thinking, Henri?” she wails, her face red and puffy. “I’ll be the laughing stock of Paris! Everywhere I go, people will point. ‘Look,’ they’ll say, ‘That’s Mme. Matisse, the model for that bizarre painting at the Salon D’Automne — the portrait with the purple, green and yellow face.’

Henri winces in silent agony. “It’s not about you!” he says. Annoyed with Amelie’s snivelling, he rests his eyes on a decorative plate hanging on the wall behind her. Years ago, his mother had painted the plate with a lively forest scene, an antidote against the leaden sky of Bohain where he grew up. Henri finds the plate soothing to look at.

“Do we have to talk about the exhibit now?” he asks, his stomach churning.

 Amelie heaves a jagged sigh. “But it’s me in the portrait. And the article talks about its ‘feral quality.’ Shouldn’t I be upset?”

The comment wounds Henri, makes him taste the bile in his throat.

“Look, how do you think I feel? This is about my skill as an artist or lack of it,” he says, his hands flying like birds. “People still want those dark shades — like the old Dutch Masters and their French counterparts. It’s 1905, but people still won’t accept bright colours in paintings.”

“It’s true,” Amelie says, her face looking pinched. “But how can we survive?” I bring in some money from my hats. I model for your paintings, so you don’t have to pay one. But there’s still not enough income to support three children!”

“What should we do?” he asks, removing his spectacles.

But no sooner does he say the words than he regrets them. Amelie might ask him to give up painting altogether. Practicing law could earn him money, but he always hated being a lawyer. He fell in love with painting during a year of recuperation after surgery for appendicitis and never returned to law.

But Amelie doesn’t answer his question. She tries another tactic. “You were hoping to sell at least one painting. How long can we go on like this? There’s only a little food in the pantry. Yet all around us, we have art on our walls by Cézanne and Gauguin. There’s even a bust by Rodin in the hallway.”

“It’s only plaster, not brass,” says Henri, “And not so loud! Rodin’s right next door, working in his atelier.

“I hope he hears me,” she says, her dark eyes burrowing into him. “Why did you get us into debt to buy those pieces? What did that accomplish?”

Il va sans dire. It goes without saying. Seeing the creations of these artists allows me to study their techniques and helps me develop my own. Whatever happens, we are not selling these pieces! Do you understand?”

Amelie looks daggers at him, then mumbles something under her breath, too softly for him to hear, as if she knows he won’t ask her to repeat it.

“Do you remember when we got married and I said I loved you, but adored painting more? Well, I have to persevere with it and keep improving!”

She rolls her eyes, then marches out of the room, her shoes clacking sharply on the floor. Henri pours himself a glass of wine and sips it slowly.

Amelie didn’t always behave this way. Her parents’ misfortune made her more anxious. They lost everything after their employer committed fraud and scapegoated them in an ugly trial. News of the case spread throughout France, causing Amelie and her family much embarrassment. It extended to Henri, making him strive not to attract undue attention by dressing like a businessman. As for Amelie, she became less trusting, bracing herself for the worst in every situation.

The stress from that court battle cost Henri two years in time, but now he’s painting again and very proud of his latest work. Not only has it captured his imagination, but he’s convinced that it’s bound to catch on with the public. For that reason alone, he can’t quit now —not when he’s close to a breakthrough. He’ll wait things out for as long as he can and try to make do for his family. If need be, he could always give art lessons. In any case, he mustn’t give up.

                                                               * * * * *

The next morning, Matisse wakes up early and enters his studio, a closet-sized room at the back of the apartment. Better to get started right away.

For fifteen minutes, he reads the poetry of Mallarmé to calm his mind before attacking the canvas. To Henri, poetry is like oxygen; the beauty of the words inspires him and heightens his mood as he starts off the day. He feels somewhat diminished by the fight and his insomnia, but vows not to let Amelie’s remarks deter him.

Today he’ll start a new painting of a window sill, seeking to enliven it with the images of plants that he had roughly sketched. Henri has been considering this painting n terms of the interior as well as the exterior and did charcoal drawings of various possibilities two days earlier. At this point, he must decide on the time of day for the scene — a choice that will influence the degree of light and intensity of the colours. He’d also like to introduce a pattern into the painting — maybe a jacquard design on the curtains or some textured markings on the pots. He also needs to consider the angle of the painting; he thinks it should appear off-kilter.

But Henri’s imagination is jumping ahead of him. He hasn’t even mixed the paints yet. Squeezing them out onto the palette always gives him a certain tactile pleasure. Soon he has blended several shades of green, pink and red. Combining the colours reminds him of mixing paints as a child at his father’s hardware store. Even now, inventing new shades excites Henri, feels like magic.

At that point, he dips his brush in the green paint and makes his first stroke on the canvas. The sight of that first dab of colour always fills him with awe. First there is nothing, then a soupçon of something dramatic. Even so, that sense of uncertainty never disappears, no matter how many paintings he has completed.

A few hours later, Henri goes into the kitchen for some paté, no one is home, the children at school, his wife with her customers.

How difficult Amelie can be at times, but what did she expect? He was already an artist when she married him. Still, her hat-making helps pay the bills and she is a good mother to their children. In fact, before he married her, she suggested raising Marguerite, Henri’s four-year-old illegitimate daughter. In that case, he needs to take Amelie’s complaints more seriously and set himself a deadline of sorts. His exhibit is almost over, and if he doesn’t earn any income soon, he may have to take on other jobs, like drawing copies of pieces at the Louvre, though he’d rather not.

* * * * *

Henri and Amelie maintain their mutual silence and the pattern repeats itself. Despite their problems, he rises early every morning, paints till lunch, then till dinner and afterwards, well into the evening. The time goes quickly and he gets an idea for a series of etchings to illustrate Mallarmé’s poetry. Henri is in his studio thinking about how to proceed when Amelie bursts through the door. What now?

She hands him an envelope addressed in a spidery scroll. It’s a bill, no doubt, one to add to the others. He rips open the envelope and finds a single sheet of thick, cream-coloured paper with embossed letters at the top. As soon as he reads the name Gertrude Stein, his pulse starts to quicken.

The letter, signed by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, offers to buy “Woman with a Hat” for 1200 francs.

Henri’s initial optimism drizzles out of him; he was expecting to receive a better price. He shares this news with Amelie. But she doesn’t look downcast; her eyes are gleaming.

“What’s wrong?” says Henri, bewildered by her reaction. “Didn’t you hear the offer?”

“I did,” she says, “but we’re not going to accept it. We’re going to ask for more!”

“What? How can we do that?”

“Look, if we don’t try, he can’t say yes to paying more. On the other hand, he might say no, or buy the piece for his original offer.”

Henri heaves his shoulders. He can’t believe his wife’s gall. Nevertheless. she persuades him to ask for 2400 francs and he sends off the note.

                                                          * * * * *

They wait one day, two days. Then a letter arrives the following afternoon before Amelie gets home. Henri happens to be upstairs. His hand trembles slightly when he tears open the envelope.

It contains 2400 francs and a note asking Henri to bring the painting to Gertrude’s apartment at #27, Rue Fleurus. What a breakthrough! He’s heard that she holds an weekly open house there every Saturday. An invitation to this event might well lead to other opportunities, such as introductions to well-known artists, like Picasso. How thrilling it would be to meet him and discuss painting together!

But Henri shouldn’t get ahead of himself. He counts the bills just to be sure, a jolt of adrenalin coursing through his veins. He can scarcely believe what just happened, that their prayers have been answered. Now they can pay their bills and his paintings will start to command better prices.

When Amelie finally comes back, he shares the news. She’s happy enough about the money. She can now buy new clothes for Marguerite as well as some things for Pierre and Jean.

But Amelie doesn’t look as overjoyed as he thought she would. “You put me through a lot with that exhibit,” she says, her voice brittle. “And if not for me, you wouldn’t have gotten a higher price. But do you mention this? Not at all.”

Acid rises in the back of Henri’s throat. He didn’t expect these sharp words. He thought things would be improving between them.

She leaves the room abruptly and Henri decides to go for a walk to the market. He returns soon afterwards with a small parcel wrapped in paper.

Amelie is in the kitchen, cracking eggs. She is facing away from him when he enters the room, his hand behind his back to hide the parcel. He tiptoes up to her and firmly plants a kiss on her shoulder. Just as she turns to face him, he pulls out the parcel like a magician.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she says, offering him a tentative smile.

“See for yourself!”

She unwraps the paper and finds a bouquet of violets. “Oh, they’re lovely! I haven’t gotten flowers for so long, not since you …”

He can’t resist finishing her sentence. “Not since I brought you violets every day for three weeks when we were first courting.”

“Oh Henri, I’m so touched that you remembered! Thank you,” she says holding out her arms. While they are embracing, Henri happens to glance over Amelie’s shoulder. Behind her lie the flowers on the kitchen table. The bold purple hue grabs his attention.

They should last at least a few days in the apartment. Maybe he’ll use their colour in his new painting of the windowsill. Come to think of it, that shade of purple would add a certain je ne sais quoi amid all the greenery.

______________________________________________________________

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Canadian fiction writer, poet and critic whose stories have appeared in literary magazines, including Prairie FireThe Knight Journal, The Nashwaak Review and The Prairie Journal as well as in several anthologies. Her poetry has been published in journals; it has also been circulated on transit buses for the Poetry in Motion program and in an art exhibit entitled “Visual Poetry.” She is currently working on stories that re-imagine pivotal and ordinary moments in the lives of artists.

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Shannon’s Revenge

 By D. B. Woodling

May 1876

Red Cloud Reservation-Nebraska

Red Cloud sat in the dirt that served as groundcover for the majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Twelve children, mostly boys and mostly Lakota-Sioux, completed the circle. His wife Pretty Owl shook her head, a nearly indiscernible smile softening her typically sober expression. He knew what she was thinking. He also knew the story belonged to the children, too, and for the most part, it was a good one.

The former great tactical warrior waited for the children to stop squirming. “Our ancestors crossed the great divide many, many suns ago.”

“How many suns, great-grandfather?” Walks with a Stick asked.

“Long before the first of many Great Fathers in the east spoke his lies and many winters before the large White House defiled the beauty of the river nearby.” Red Cloud pushed a palm the boy’s direction, fending-off another question. “There were many dust storms, many blizzards, many enemies pretending to be brothers.”

“The washichus?” a nine-year-old girl with frightened eyes asked.

“No, my child. It is not the whites of whom I speak but the Omaha, Otoes, and Iowas. These tribes came with tomahawks raised after our people took the land from the northern Cheyenne. Then these tribes were no more.” The sixty-five-year-old paused, lifted his chin and squinted into a harsh sun. “The coming of the white man with his disease made easy work of the Arikara.

 Many suns rose on our hunting grounds from Nebraska to Wyoming as the white man lied and stole. My lodges were many and then they were few, and I told your fathers and your grandfathers ‘the white man must fight and the Indians will die where his fathers died’. The white men came like grasshoppers, covering our lands with castoffs and the bodies of animals too weak to follow.” He listened as the children whispered and figured more explanation was required. “The washichus knew nothing of the long journey, and they had filled their wagons with things that would not warm them on cold nights, things that would not quiet an empty belly. When their mules protested a heavy burden, the white man discarded his possessions like a tree discards its leaves.”

“Tell us of Crazy Horse!” a few of the older boys called out.

 “Was his horse crazy?” Walks with a Stick asked.

Red Cloud threw his head back and laughed. “A brave’s horse is all that he wishes it to be.” 

Another boy leaped from the ground, his face flush with excitement. “My father said Crazy Horse would race his pony in front of the white man’s guns like this!” The child charged around the circle while many of his cousins fired at him with imaginary weapons.

The exuberant chatter continued until Red Cloud raised both hands in the air and lowered them. He didn’t speak again until a gentle breeze blowing from the south was the lone sound. Sitting cross-legged, his thighs began to cramp. The story was much more difficult to unfold then he had anticipated, as many children on the reservation had yet to witness the slaughter of both washichus and their own people firsthand. Perhaps certain accounts required thoughtful suppression. The proud warrior scanned the circle of children and thought to send the smaller ones away. Instead, he covered his ears and instructed them to do the same. 

“It was then we traveled many paths to collect the white man’s promise of payment.” Red Cloud shook his head emphatically and stern eyes flew to his lap. “We should have insisted the Miniconjou remain behind for many in the tribe had hands that did not obey their heads. One Miniconjou killed a settler’s lame cow, and the White Chief Grattan came with the big gun and twenty-nine soldiers. His heart would not allow him to accept the atonement of Chief Conquering Bear and the washichus killed many warriors, women, and children.” 

“Vae Victis,” the little one with frightened eyes muttered.

“Woe to the conquered,” several of the others mimicked in English and covered gapped-toothed smiles with dirty palms. 

“Vae Victis,” Red Cloud muttered. He remembered the retaliation clearly: after his many warriors had launched arrows, so many they obscured the sun like a swarm of locust, others raised tomahawks and sliced white skin and bone. As the blood from the soldiers colored the grasslands of the North Platte, Red Cloud’s warriors counted thirty coup.  

Red Cloud swept his long hair over his shoulders and waited for the group of older children to join the circle, which had grown twofold its original size. He had spent the better half of four days deciding which things better left unsaid and, in the end, decided he would not play the cowardly historian. 

“There were many Sioux,” Red Cloud said waving his right arm in all directions, “the Oglala, Miniconjou, Brulé, Sans Arc, Blackfeet, Two Kettles, and Hunkpapa. You see we decided there was great safety in numbers, and the Wakan Tanka – the Great Spirit ? told me it was our duty to protect the Black Hills. But after the passing of many winters, the prairies became barren because of the ponies’ appetites and the tribes went their own ways, each staking its own hunting ground. I chose the Powder River for the Oglala. 

All along the Oregon Trail, the white armies marched, forcing our tribal enemies closer: the Crows, Shoshones, the Nez Percé, and the Arapahos from the north. But the wicasa wakan – the holy man – need not tell us when washichus were nearby.” The aged warrior touched his nose and scrunched it. “I have never known a people in need of so little who gathered so much. The land could not support their great herds of cattle and sheep, yet more came, many driven until they dropped, left to die and rot under an unforgiving sun.” Red Cloud shook his head. “The white man wastes and still asks for more.” 

Running Mouth jabbed his brother Snow Follows with an elbow and interrupted the chief’s introspection. “Snow Follows’ heart bleeds for the Cheyenne and Arapaho,” he whined exaggeratedly. “Because he has heard the story of Sand Creek.”

“There is no humor in the washichus’ senseless slaughter of Indians, particularly those who seek only peace,” Red Cloud admonished.

“I am sorry,” Running Mouth said deceptively and stole a mischievous sideways glance at his brother. 

The old chief sighed long. This was a story still painful to recall. “The White Chief Colonel Chivington sent many men to Black Kettle’s lodges. Although the Cheyenne Chief waved his white flag to signify peace, the washichus attacked. Black Kettle escaped, but two-hundred Cheyenne women and children did not. But the washichus would soon learn this unprovoked attack was their greatest mistake because the Indians of the Plains united as one.”

 “But your actions caused a great retaliation! It is said the White Chief General Dodge ordered the extermination of all Indians!” Snow Follows shouted.

 “It is also said the washichus called this land by another name,” Running Mouth said slyly.

Red Cloud knew Running Mouth was referring to Red Cloud’s Country and fixed hard eyes on the pitiful menace. “A man who brags has little reason. You of all people should know this as truth.”

The boy not only quieted but also sulked away. 

Snow Follows sullen eyes followed his brother. “Our mother will not dry his tears of anger.”

Red Cloud chuckled to himself. If he knew Walks Behind, Snow Follows was right; she would instead give her younger son a valid reason to cry. A harsh sun nearly overhead, the chief briefly entertained the notion of disbanding the children and relishing a long nap. “By this time the Great Father’s intentions were clear: The annihilation of the Kiowa and Comanche making war on those washichus ignorant enough to pass through Bozeman Trail. But this would prove very difficult for the soldiers as the trail spans many miles. Soon I will tell you of the days when the white man’s blood reddened the snow on Lodge Trail Ridge.”

“Now! Please tell us now!” the children chorused, the young ones and the old as well.

Red Cloud squinted and trained his eyes on Walks Behind’s cabin. Just as he’d suspected, Running Mouth stood near the opening with angry eyes locked on the circle. The old chief smiled to himself and debated what to share next. “On a day when the trees stood naked, I sent the Cheyenne-Chief Roman Nose, Crazy Horse and Young Man Afraid of His Own Horses away with two-thousand braves on their heels,” he told the children. “But they had no ears for my teachings and resorted to the old ways of fighting. Because of this and the snow with fierce winds, there were no conquerors on either side. Soon after, the Great Father grew tired of wasting bullets, realized our number, and hollowed-eyed men with forked tongues came to us with another promise of peace. But my ears were tired of the washichus lies. I cannot say the same for the others. 

Near the mouth of the Cheyenne River, the Hunkpapas, Yanktons, Blackfeet Sioux, San Arcs, Two Kettles and the Brulés of the Missouri River came together to smoke the pipe of peace. There the white man promised more land, tools for farming and seed, and protection from other tribes that would not pass the peace pipe.” 

Were they lies, Great-Grandfather?” Walks with A Stick asked.

Red Cloud smirked and flicked his wrist. “Just another trick from the white snake.” Then, deep in thought, the old chief tipped his head back: a few evenings after the other tribes had signed the treaty, he remembered he was sitting around the campfire at the back of his tepee, cross-legged and surrounded by his braves, particularly the Shirt Wearers – Crazy Horse and Young Man Afraid of His Horses. As they inhaled a mixture of tobacco and bearberry, his dark eyes locked on Crazy Horse’s hazel ones and the Shirt Wearer shared his typical long sideways glance. Red Cloud was stunned, as he usually was, by the dejection emanating from the young man’s soul because few warriors were as fierce. Crazy Horse’s quilled, fringed, fleece shirt with its 250 locks of hair testified his bravery, each lock representing a coup counted, whether it be a scalp taken or a comrade rescued. Yet the young warrior seldom held another man’s eyes. 

Even now, so many years after, Red Cloud remembered extending the long red pipestone toward Crazy Horse and telling them all, The White Chief Sherman appeases us with this new promise of peace while he prepares cunning soldiers. If the white men come into my country again, I will punish them again.

His great-grandson interrupted the crisp recollection. “The Ridge, Great-Grandfather! What of the Ridge?”

Red Cloud was about to begin when Walks Behind timidly approached, Running Mouth nearly on her heels. “Forgive my son’s words. They often bring him great misfortune.”

The old chief scowled and attempted to lay eyes on the boy hiding behind her. “I see no Lakota with you. I see only a burrow creature afraid of its own shadow. These legends of the brave Sioux are not for the ears of cowards.” Red Cloud flicked his wrist the woman’s direction, dismissing her. Walks Behind nodded solemnly, turned, and ushered her youngest son toward their cabin.

The old chief studied Snow Follows until the boy’s eyes met his. “If your heart lies only with your brother, not your people, go and follow him.”

The young man jutted his chin. “My heart is big enough for all.”

Red Cloud smiled, closed his eyes, and prepared for a difficult oration. Several more minutes passed before he spoke. “One-thousand, eight-hundred, and sixty-six years after the Great Spirit gave us his Son I warned the washichus again that I would fight them for the last hunting grounds. And, again, they would not listen. Not long after the snows flowed into Piney Creek and the chole cherry bloomed, a traitor was among us; a Cheyenne called Black Horse. He had the White Chief Colonel Carrington’s ear and told him of my plan to ‘cut off the body of the trespassing white snake.’ Not so long after, I persuaded Black Horse to tell me of the White Chief’s plan. Upon learning of the white’s intention to build three forts on our lands, I prayed to the Great Spirit for guidance.

Many Lakota, fearful their people would starve now without the gift of the buffalo, surrendered to the washichus. They left their broken souls on sacred land and dragged their shells of flesh to the reservations.” Red Cloud punched the air with his index finger. “But this was not the path for many like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and they came to me —Blotahunka Ataya—for guidance and protection. Many brave warriors followed them, some from faraway lands, and from many tribes: Miniconjou, Sans Arcs, Brulés, and Arapahos. Even our enemies the Crow lay down their weapons and traded with their Indian brothers; our pelts, buffalo robes, and horses for their guns that shoot many times.

 Long before the snow stopped falling, the scouts’ many eyes saw the long cavalry dotting the trail. As the moon waited in the sky, the white men set their trap. But we were too smart to steal their waiting mules. The soldiers gave up and returned to their soft beds made for soft men. We waited until the sun was nearly awake and stampeded their cattle.” Red Cloud’s eyes sparkled in the sunlight. “So it was the washichus destiny to eat mule meat the long winter or nothing!”

“Did this not anger the Little White chief, great-grandfather?”

Red Cloud met Walks with a Stick’s gaze and shrugged. “Perhaps his heart, but his backbone thought it a small price to pay for another day of life.”

Walks Quietly wrung her hands, as she searched the perimeter for her mother. When Red Cloud reached out to her, she asked, “Will you soon tell the story of the bloody bluffs?”

He nodded and, seeing the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, he too searched the perimeter for her mother while several of the boys quietly chorused, “Yes, Yes!”

“While the creeks flowed beneath the ice blanket, I mounted my finest war pony, the wind stinging my face like a hundred angry hornets. In the flat valley, carved by Peno Creek, I led many hundred warriors whose hearts had grown hot with rage. While some heartless palefaces dreamed of gold and those with more intelligence woke in a cold sweat, the war cries of our people still drumming their ears, our ponies danced on the bluffs of Lodge Trail Ridge. From there half of our braves and their ponies skittered west, circled behind the ridgeline, and hid like ghosts in the timber surrounding Piney Island. Then they attacked the wood train. Soon after, the Big White Chief’s scouts alerted him and Little White Chiefs Fetterman and Bingham and fifty soldiers pursued us.” Red Cloud smiled, remembering the day he had outsmarted the whites at nearly every turn. 

“I watched from the hillside as White Chief Carrington and his little chief Grummond galloped their tired horses from the fort with twenty-four infantrymen. Their plan was to trap the warriors in Piney Creek Valley. But as their horses crawled up the south bank of Big Piney Creek, many of our warriors waited at the top. Running scared, Big White Chief signaled his men to cross Big Piney and, with their horses dancing the dance of death, they somehow managed to climb the steep, icy slope where four more of our warriors waited to welcome them.” 

Red Cloud grinned menacingly and Walks Quietly squeezed her eyes shut tight.

“Carrington fired his gun that shoots twice and four braves evaporated like spirits. Warriors hiding in the thick stands of scrub oak galloped from the timber. Just as planned, the Little White Chiefs had fallen for our trick. Many braves heard the Big White Chief order his men to stay together, but one, much like the Miniconjou with hands that do not do the head’s biding, decided to make his own destiny and rode hard to fulfill it. The Big White Chief thought he had left his sorrows in the timber, but he was wrong.” Red Cloud smiled and shook his head repeatedly. “It was like catching fish in a puddle. Knowing the washichus would pick the thin trail for their escape, the warriors soon cornered them. But we forgot about the shiny metal that makes noise . . .  and more soldiers came running.”

 “Vae Victis!” the children chorused. 

Red Cloud clapped his hands once and attained silence quickly.  

“Our people were not ready to lay down our crossbows or temper our arrows’ rage,” Red Cloud went on, “for too many had waved the flag of peace yet the blind soldiers refused to see and cut our people down one after the other . . . men, women, children. It was time the washichus knew of our sadness. And we taught him well. When the ice blanket freed the creeks and river, the Great Father in the house of white had had enough and sent more forked tongues to Fort Laramie who pleaded with the Indians to come back and smoke the pipe of peace.”

“My grandfather speaks of the white general,” one boy said. “He came with offerings of peace and talk of the good trades. But my grandfather tells no more.”

Red Cloud nodded, his finger etching a crude map of Fort Laramie and Fort Randall and the large expanse between. “Our people traveled here for the necessities of winter,” he told them and scrawled a trench around his depiction of Fort Laramie. “The general told them they must now go here,” he said, dramatically demonstrating the distance between the two forts. “But I had a plan of my own.”

______________________________________________________________

The author of Shannon’s LandFinal Claim, Write Off, Slices, The Turning of Nick Torok, and Shannon’s Revenge, D.B. Woodling currently resides in Missouri with one dog, two cats, two horses, and a husband who often resents a keyboard.  Prior to embarking on her writing career, the author was a celebrated entertainer throughout the Midwest.

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The Ride

By Chris Wind

The Tenth of July, 1042
from Coventry

Deare Sister—

Though it is not long since our last visit, I find once again great need to speak with you! (Would that you lived nearer to Coventry!) You remember the discussion we had upon my arrival, prompted by my journey through Mercia?

Fast upon my return, I spoke to Leofric about the absolute necessity—moral and economic—of lowering the taxes. I described to him all I had seen, as I described it to you: the bordars and cottars living in poverty on their little piece of land, in their thatched wooden huts without any comforts; their meagre clothing, that we are a country of wool producers and traders, boasting the finest weavers’ guild, and yet the people of the land are so poorly clothed; and their food, only vegetables, many can not even have meat for a Sunday feast (feast! they do not know the word), not even a piece of wheatbread.

And Leofric said well why do they not come and ask if they want their taxes lowered? If the tax is too high, they would say something—and they have not. But I said, the bondmen can not leave the farms; and the freemen too can hardly leave their work, and their families alone against the wild beasts of the forest. And even if they could, they have no way of getting here. And they can not send a letter, you know they can not read or write, so how are they to ‘come and ask’?

But he was deaf to my pleas. He likes being rich—he likes his meat and wheatbread, and his very fine mead, his furs, and his embroidered robes set with jewels. Leofric, I said, have you no charity? You speak of founding a Benedictene monastery, are you not a Christian? Are you not bound by mercy, compassion, generosity—justice, for God’s sake, Leofric! You are the Lord of Coventry, the Earl of Mercia—you are responsible for these people! They are our kinsmen!

I swear sister, I would leave, but for the children. I can not think of them left to his ways, but if I were to take them with me—you know I would barely survive myself alone—with the children too, what could I do? I can not read or write well, women receive so little schooling, even in the monasteries. I am dependent on him, it is true: I am no different from the peasants I speak for.

Though some are. Do you remember Ethelfled? Seven years she gave Mercia good and conscientious governance, she built cities, she planned battles, and captured from the Danes, Derby, Leicester, and York. But it is true, she was regent and queen, not an earl’s wife. And an earl’s wife is not listened to. At least not in this court. I have heard that some consult their wives about public policy, but not Leofric—he simply will not or can not heed to reason.

Nor to emotion. I told him of the woman with seven children, you remember, three still little and another one on the way, and her husband lame from an attack by wolves, and her two brothers killed in the last battle, there have been so many lately—so she must work in the fields herself if her children are to be fed, she is almost dead with exhaustion, her neighbours try to help but they are overburdened themselves. I cried, I pleaded, Gawaina, I begged! But no. Leofric ordered me out of his room. I felt so—so weak!

So then I went to those who had strength. I know his advisors, I know which nobles he listens to. I spoke with them plainly and directly—but they paid no attention. (Except one—and you would be surprised which—he said he would speak to Leofric on condition—I refused of course!) Next I went to their wives. But those with influence did not want to risk losing it for mere peasants, and those without did not want to anger their husbands.

Gawaina, I had to do something! So I dressed like a proper little wench and snuck into the mead-hall one night. I thought if I could explain when they were drunk, maybe they would— But I am not as young and fair as I once was, and I was quickly discovered. Leofric was enraged! There he was, shining in his power, and glory, with two or three child-playthings (where do these women come from?), and suddenly his fat old wife is hoisted onto the table in front of him. I felt such shame! But I explained my presence, and asked him again to please lower the taxes. Well, all those merry red-faced drunkards thought it quite delightful—coarse rude brutes! When the laughter died, Leofric said with great solemnity, “I will.” Oh, Gawaina! I was so gladdened! But then he added “Ifyou ride naked through the marketplace at noon.” Well again the hall broke into laughter and there was much toasting to that. To save what dignity I had left, I looked at my husband straight when the laughter stopped and said “I will.” In silence then, I clambered off the table (not a one would help—and they think themselves such gentlemen!) and I walked out.

When I got to my chamber, I full realized what I had said! Ride through the town naked! How could I? I am a God-fearing Christian, I can not show myself in public! Only a pagan whore could do that! But if the taxes would be lowered—I prayed to God—maybe I could…

But no, I could not. I know why he made that—that challenge: he does not like his fat old wife. Gawaina, I can not go naked through the town. He is right. With all the children I have had, since marriage at fifteen—though ‘tis to provide him with heirs!—I am indeed a frightful sight. It is good, these fashions, no one need know how ugly I have become. But he knows. And he wants to make a fool of me. And if I ride, he will. (Especially if he does not live to his word. It could be he was too drunk to even know what he said. And I will be twice the fool to take him seriously.)

As I was in my chamber, mother heard me weeping and praying, and she asked what was troubling me. Well, I told her, and she said the most wondrous thing. She said ‘Godgifu, your body is beautiful if you can use it in that way, to ease the burden of all of Mercia. To give the people a good life—to use your body for such a noble purpose is to make that body beautiful, my child.’ She then said, with a smile, that Leofric would never have the strength. The men, she said, they speak of courage and glory, but there is not a one among them who would not feel naked without his armour, can you think of him in public without his clothes? And God will bless your body, Godgifu, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

And I saw she is right. She is very wise, our mother. (She offered to ride along with me, naked too!) I know he is trying to trick me, to force me to use my body as women have always had to, never to use their minds. But it is good to use my body in this way. In this way I use my body to serve my mind.

When I first decided to ride, I hoped no one would look. But now I have changed my mind. Sister, I hope everyone looks and sees this beautiful noble body! I may even put up my hair! A body is not ugly that has borne children, a body is not ugly that displays for justice—no matter how it looks!

So, deare sister, ask God’s forgiveness for me, wish me luck, and pray the brute lives to his word. Tomorrow, I ride!

Godiva

* * * * *

 It is fact that Godiva (or ‘Godgifu’) was the wife of Leofric, who was the earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry (around 1040-1085).  And she did indeed ride naked through the town.  And it was to secure his promise that he would lower the taxes, per her request, if she did so. Other passing items of fact include the relative poverty of the peasants, the lack of education for women at the time, Ethelfled and her achievements (911-918), and the practice of consulting wives about public policy; and Leopold did establish a Benedictine monastery, in 1043.  The rest, including Gawaina, is fiction.

 “The Ride” appears in Satellites Out of Orbit by Chris Wind.

______________________________________________________________

Chris Wind’s prose and poetry has appeared in several magazines and journals, including The Antigonish Review, Ariel, Atlantis, Bogg, cv2, event, grain, The New Quarterly,  Prism International, The University of Toronto Review, The Wascana Review, Waves,  as well as several anthologies, including Contemporary Monologues for Young Women.  Several of her short theatrical works have been performed (in Canada and the States), and her stories have been read on CBC Radio.  To date, she has been awarded sixteen Ontario Arts Council grants.

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Gold Rush To Judgment

By Maddi Davidson

Rock Ledge, Idaho

September 5, 1865

Dear Miss Dickinson:

I was pleased to receive your letter in the city of the Mormons. It is exceedingly gratifying to me that my gift of a few flowers afforded you so much pleasure.

I left Great Salt Lake City on the 24th. From there to Boise the great features are the falls of Shoshone, said to be higher than Niagara, and the valley of the Snake River bound by perpendicular walls of several hundred feet. Boise City, the new Capitol of the Territory, boasts a pretentious hotel and little else.

Rock Ledge is two days from Boise by rough road. The mountains enclosing Rock Ledge like sentinels rise 3,000 feet in every direction. Even the sun is unable to pass these giant guardians but for a few hours each day, so we receive little of its warming. The town is one long rambling street of shanties and log houses. Wooden buildings lose their newness rapidly in this harsh climate. My modest cabin appears to be fifty years of age, but I’m told it is but a mere ten months in existence. The busy river that defines the valley is but twenty feet from my modest house and wakes me each morning with its rumblings and glad shouts.

The occasion for the rush to this area was the discovery of traces of gold in Pine Creek that runs through the next valley. Promising quartz veins have been detected in the hills above the river and like burrowing woodchucks, prospectors swarm the elevations digging large holes in hopes of uncovering gold. When none is found the holes are abandoned so that one must be ever alert whilst walking the hills. Two weeks before my arrival a miner fell into such a pit and was killed.

The population of Rock Ledge is about seven hundred, largely formed by men who declined to fight for the rebel confederacy and have moved to this wild place where they can shoot and knife one another quite readily with little fear of consequences. Females are in short supply and the eligible ones rarely to be found. It was with some shock to the town that a well-respected woman, Mrs. Fabens, was killed most violently two days before my arrival. The sheriff from Rocky Bar, the county seat, has arrived to oversee the apprehension of the killer.

I enclose a flower picked by me along the wild Snake River. I would send my heart if I could.

Truly and sincerely yours,

William Cutler

 

November 8, 1865

My Dear Miss Dickinson:

Your letter of October 5th arrived yesterday and was read with eagerness and pleasure.

I did not say more of the murder of Mrs. Fabens out of a desire to spare you the unpleasantness. Since you have requested Everything I Know, I must comply. I plead you do not share what I write with your mother or father lest they believe I have undertaken the corruption of their proper young lady.

I would not have you think that Rock Ledge is dangerous. Indeed, respectable women are as safe here as in the churches of New Haven. The only killings heretofore have been of men filled with drink engaged in argument. The murder of Mrs. Elizabeth Fabens has been a great shock to all. Her husband discovered her dead when he returned late from working his claim. She had been viciously struck many times with a knife and bled much on the floor. The sheriff stayed for four days before leaving without a resolution.

The matter is subject to much conversation and speculation. My housekeeper and cook Mrs. Elmore, an amiable looking woman of about thirty, is of the mind that not so gentle savages are responsible. She fears their return and carries a rifle everywhere. Her booming voice I think, which can be heard through two closed doors and a long corridor, would be equally effective to her rifle in dispelling any Indian attack.

Mr. Augustus Fabens suggests that a young prospector may be responsible for the death of his wife. He avows Mr. Thomas Deacon took an unhealthy interest in Mrs. Fabens and annoyed her some. Prominent men confirm that they saw Mr. Deacon talking with Mrs. Fabens on many occasions, but no one saw Mr. Deacon near the cabin, situated ½ mile from town.

Mr. Deacon reminds me of my young brother, also named Thomas. Both tall and lanky with a crop of straw hair and not much inclined to drinking and gambling. Young Thomas died two years ago this November at the hands of vile southern rebels and Mother still grieves daily for his loss.

I’m given to understand that Mrs. Fabens was a young woman nearly twenty years junior to her husband. He claims to be from New York, but the times I have heard his discourse he sounds as much a part of Boston as your esteemed father. Did you not say your father’s sister married a Mr. Fabens from Salem? Might you not ask your aunt if Mr. Augustus Fabens is of that particular family?

I can say little to Mr. Fabens’s character as he has been occupied these past months mining for gold and drinking to his sorrows. Some of the public women say he is a mean drinker. I am glad to have no reason to make his acquaintance.

My Dearest Annie: You now possess all the knowledge of one who has spent the past two months in Rock Ledge. Have I not fully answered your question? Am I not entitled to express a desire for a photo of somebody?

I’ve made few investments for my employers but in truth, gold mining is one great gamble. Companies may sink thousands into building dams and flumes and find little gold. I have assured personal financial success by securing contracts to supply three mining companies with mills that extract gold by crushing rocks rather than the current grinding method requiring the efforts of many men.

I am in good spirits and remain

Truly yours,

William Cutler

 

November 26, 1865

My Dear Miss Dickinson:

Your letter of the 20th of October reached me today along with several others from friends and family. The mail arrives at the convenience of the contractor who wastes no time in waiting for replies but hastens to leave the same day. With such impatience he should not need thirty days to bring mail from the East when one can make the journey in nineteen. Your letter requires my careful reply and must wait for the next opportunity to send my thoughts eastward. So that you receive Some Word from me I will relate what has transpired lately regarding the death of Mrs. Fabens.

Two weeks ago Mr. Fabens encountered Mr. Deacon returning from the mines and accused him of having called on Mrs. Fabens and murdering her when she rebuffed his attentions. Mr. Deacon avowed that Mr. Fabens killed his own wife in a fit of temper. Mr. Fabens reply was to attack and stab Mr. Deacon. Unarmed and bleeding profusely, Mr. Deacon was dragged to safety by several men. The altercation is spoken of by everyone and in interest exceeds even news of the latest gold takings. One is not allowed to have an opinion other than for one or the other. I have had several meals with Mr. Deacon and in interests and manner he does so remind me of Thomas. I cannot think ill of him.

The people will not have the sheriff from Rocky Bar return. He was not elected by the voice of the people but appointed by the governor and miners enjoy ruling themselves. The miners’ council is the main arbiter of disputes. Mr. Deacon appeared before the council and allowed that the estimable Mrs. Fabens was full of grace and kindness and had been like an elder sister to him. Their conversations were oft about books for Mr. Deacon is a Reader and Mrs. Fabens held a great interest in the written word. She loaned Mr. Deacon two books by Wilkie Collins from her own library, which Deacon still possesses, not being able to bring himself to read such words as would remind him so of her death. He declared that he offered to lend her his second edition of Mr. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but she dared not take it lest her husband should find her reading it and beat her as he’d done before when she had read poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps you are aware Mr. Whitman is a writer of immoral verse. I advised Mr. Deacon that his statement was unwise and he has put himself in an unfavorable position.

Mr. Fabens addressed the council and called Mr. Deacon a murderer, seducer, and thief. He denied that Mrs. Fabens lent her books as Mr. Deacon claimed. She had but few books and they were among her most prized possessions. In Mr. Fabens’s grief he had not noticed her books were missing and avows Mr. Deacon took them when he struck down “my beloved Elizabeth.”

No man could testify against Mr. Deacon’s character although he is not well liked because of his preference for solitude. He is said to be haughty, oft quoting what he has read. Nor could any man offer evidence of Mr. Deacon’s improper behavior toward Mrs. Fabens. Several miners supported Mr. Deacon’s claim that Mr. Fabens showed a temper at times regarding his wife. Mr. Fabens admitted to boxing his wife’s ears when she had not properly prepared his meal but professed he had never beat her.

The council could not agree to convict either man but with few supporters on the council or in town, Mr. Deacon would do well to leave. Many prospectors have already gone for fear of being buried in the winter snows. Perhaps three hundred remain in town. Mr. Deacon states he is in the Right and will not depart until God’s justice is done.

The looming winter has been evident in the lessening of daylight. Miners cannot work so late and spend their evenings in one of the bars where the lights are bright.

Most truly yours,

William Cutler

 

December 29, 1865

My Dear Friend:

I write this letter without any expectation of when it will be read. The snow has scarcely stopped to draw a breath since December showed its face.

Two completed letters await the arrival of the stage or of any person from outside this forlorn outpost. You cannot realize how dreary winter is in this narrow valley. We now have five feet of snow on the ground and more where the strong winds have created piles that can swallow a child. My small library is proving insufficient to divert me during the short days and long nights I must endure and I fear I’ve taken to visiting the bars much too often to escape the awful solitude of my rooms. I reread your letters frequently. Your news gladdens me as for a time I can imagine being in a place far removed from this endless cold and dark.

As they are unable to break through the hard frozen river the panners have given up. Men of lesser constitution have been unable to surmount the deep snow and bitter wind to reach their mines. Idaho law requires the claim to be worked one day in seven or it is forfeit. The miners’ council hears frequent cases of claim jumping and needing a large space conducts its business at the Gold Saloon, which is already full of those contemplating their misfortune. Fights are commonplace and three men have been killed recently. Dozens have died from diseases and disorders but the frozen ground prevents proper burial. It is said that more than one of these deaths was a self-murder.

I pray to escape this cauldron of discontent and hope I may leave at the first sign of spring. The mills I sold for rock crushing did not arrive before the snow and a great improvement in the weather is required before they can be transported through the mountains. Perhaps the roads will be passable by February. I hope the purchasers are still in business and able to pay me upon receipt.

I dream each night of the green rolling hills of New Haven in summer and your most pleasing countenance.

 

Most truly yours,

William Cutler

 

January 22, 1866

My Dear Friend:

I acknowledge your loving letters of the 20th of November, the 8th of December, and the 15th of December. The stage arrived this morning after many weeks absence with mail and much needed provisions for the town. I hasten in this reply as the skies are gray and those that have lived several winters in these parts say the worst of the snows is yet to be felt.

Your letter of the 8th astonishes me. That Mr. Augustus Fabens’ first wife died of a vigorous knife attack and that he blamed a neighbor of inappropriate attentions to his wife and of killing her when she did not reciprocate his ardor. It can scarce be a coincidence with the events here. I fear a grave mistake has been made in Salem and in Rock Ledge for Mr. Deacon is dead.

Mrs. Elmore opined that the dark spirit of Mrs. Fabens hovered overhead and would not rest until avenged. Perchance others believed the same for on the last day of the old year a young woman of no great reputation made an improbable assertion: in the latter part of August Mr. Deacon had told her of his strong feelings for Mrs. Fabens and proclaimed that she “deserved a better husband.” You might wonder at the lateness of her confession. The young woman declared that she could not enter a new year with this knowledge buried in her conscience. A meeting of the miners was convened wherein judge and jury were chosen and Mr. Deacon was seized. He denied that he had spoken thus to the girl but that the words were true and that had Mrs. Fabens allowed it, he would have professed his love for her. He was convicted of murder and hung immediately. Such recklessness by all! I had shared a table with Mr. Deacon but one day earlier and engaged in pleasant conversation about the stories of Mr. Edgar Poe. His death distresses me greatly.

I am now convinced of Mr. Fabens’ guilt in the murder of both his wives. I feel the burden of sharing your news so that others will perceive the wrongful hanging that has occurred. I cannot write more at this time.

Please believe me to remain in whatever may transpire

Most truly yours,

William Cutler

 

February 8, 1866

My Dearest Annie:

The mail that arrived today brought me your loving letter of the 5th of January.

Did you see the shooting stars last night?  The skies cleared and in the words of Robert Browning, Now a dart of red, Now a dart of blue. Do you think heaven’s display is a sign of better fortunes? Dare I hope that upon my return to New Haven you will allow me to lay before you flowers and a Proposition? I would not ask you to commit yourself at once but ask your kind Consideration. I cannot offer you a home surrounded by the luxuries of wealth and taste you now enjoy. My battle of life has been an active one, and will probably continue so to be due to deficiencies of education and want of influential friends. If these shortcomings can be forgiven by your graciousness, then I will formally propose a union of hearts and hands when next our eyes meet. I pray that He who orders all things will strengthen me and enable me to make your future happy.

Truly yours,

William Cutler

 

February 28, 1866

My Dearest Annie:

God willing I will be by your side shortly for I leave Rock Ledge on the morrow. I would fill this letter with all my longings and hopes for our future, but then I might find myself without words when we again meet. So I will complete my writings with last words about this place. Indeed, I have no intention of speaking more on it once I depart.

I informed the miners of the circumstances of the death of Mr. Fabens’ first wife. There was great reluctance to consider the hanging of Mr. Deacon to be a mistake for Mr. Deacon admitted his affection for another man’s wife. Mr. Fabens disappeared before the great snowstorm of three weeks past. Many thought he had fled, but warmer temperatures and melting snow revealed his body yesterday laying five feet from his cabin. Justice has been done. He was struck repeatedly with a knife and endured the same awful death as his poor wife. The miners’ council is reluctant to investigate this new killing and a rider has been sent to Rocky Bar for the sheriff.

I hope to be many miles south before the sheriff arrives. Indeed, I have been the bloody hand of Justice. I blame this cursed place for casting its spell upon me, for with Tom Deacon’s death I felt again the loss of my brother at the hands of odious southerners. I pray God grants me a measure of grace for ridding this earth of Fabens’ evil.

Now you know the worst of me my dear Annie. Should you reject my offer of marriage for this? I fear it might be so; I dare not confess the Truth to you and risk the loss of your affection. I will pen another letter and drop this in the Snake River upon my journey home. May the waters wash away my sins.

My Dearest Annie, I will strive to be pure in heart and in deed, and worthy of your affection.

With earnestness, truth and love

Yours ever,

William Cutler

______________________________________________________________

Maddi Davidson is the pen name for two sisters: Mary Ann Davidson and Diane Davidson. Mary Ann resides in Idaho while Diane lives in Northern Virginia. In addition to several published short stories, the sisters have written three novels in the Miss-Information Technology Mystery Series. This story, “Gold Rush to Judgement” is loosely based on a series of letters written by their second Great-Grandfather from Rocky Bar, Idaho in the latter part of the 19th century.

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St. Stephen’s Day

By Chris Chambers

Few things stir me like the wreck of a ship. Not riches, fineries, the camaraderie of friends, nor the soft company of women. Just beyond my eyes, I see them. Masts split, exploded, snapped. Directionless sails wrapped around black rocks for any safety, and the boat herself–ribs come apart, up out of the water like a split deer. The rigging knotted, crazed–splayed out in every manner and direction. All her secrets laid about her, bobbing in the foam. Naked under the sky, it’s a delicate bargain each ship makes with the sea, and to witness it torn asunder, such a mighty, splendid thing brought low … I am not a devout man, but how could not such a vision bring me closer to my god?

Take the Gwendolyn May, hours out of Portsmouth, pennants snapping under gentle skies. Just past Prawley Point, the safest of passages, she was hit side-beam by a sudden storm so violent, the paint was stripped from her hull as though clawed away. When I came upon her, the keel had snapped clean in three places; the stout beams beaten soft as sea sponge. Her anchor chain, still attached to the battered bow, strung out beach-ward as though she had been dragged unwillingly by some great beast across the rocks.

I’ve seen hundreds like her in my work for the Harris Bay Company. Salvage from the Gwendolyn paid for an extension of my widow’s walk, a more suitable carriage, and a cellar full of fine Italian wine.

Each ship has a place in my ledger-book: remaining assets above waterline, estimates of salvage cost.  Survivors. When I close my book and eyes I can never find them–just the ships. A man must find the pleasure in his work or he is lost.

At sea as on land, I keep to myself, but nevertheless am unpopular with the crew and captain of the salver ship, Merryweather who make no pretense of accepting my presence among them.  When I am top-deck to take air they part around me, as though I were the Angel of Death.  Some cross themselves, mutter. As if I had broken up each ship, and with my own hands, drown the crew. I am the left hand of the Devil, unlucky.

The presence of my hired hand keeps them honest. John Priddy, a tall pale Finn with a snarl of black hair and a neck scar where the noose had failed. In truth, in his second life he is a gentler man, but can row a skiff like no soul under heaven, and for this alone he is useful to me.

We set out two days before Christmastide under a brooding sky, with little hope of return before the holiday. The day before, I was strolling Highstreet market as is my custom in the early evening, and was eyeing a duck for my evening meal, when a young flush-faced boy–a runner for the Harris Bay Company–nearly ran me down. “Mr. Blackburn, sir.” He pressed me with a packet. Upon paying him and dusting off a bench to lay it out, I opened it and read the contents.  A brigantine sailing from Montreal was a week overdue from port, and a ship matching her colors and description was spotted by a packet boat, foundering near the mouth of Skillet Bay, perhaps fifty miles east of harbor. As Skillet Bay is well known for its shoals, the underwriter of the Montreal venture wished the ship approached and assessed with all haste and engaged my employer in the matter.

Once we’d cleared the channel and the Merryweather raised her sails, the snows began.  Light at first, melting as it lit on the rails, the brims of hats, darkening the shoulders of the sailors. By the time we’d passed the Slipper Isles and into open water it was coming down with grim purpose. Snow collected on the coarse sails in sheets, shaken off as they snapped and billowed in an increasing wind. The upper sails were dim outlines in the flurry, visible only through their movement, and before long, were out of sight entirely.

Though it were still day, the captain ordered fore and aft lanterns double- lit, and the ship’s bell rung at intervals, although with the increasing wind it were barely audible on board.  As the day blustered into early evening, I remained at my cabin window, watching between swirls of snow and spray, stooped sailors with planks and barrel lids, struggling to remain upright as they pushed and shoveled snow over the gunwales. Midway down the quarter deck, a figure caught my attention. A short, stout sailor stood and adjusted his scarf, wound doubly about his head like an ill-fitting bandage. He wore what at first appeared a great-coat belted at the waist, though much too large to be at all practical. As I watched further, the crewman grabbed the hem with both hands and shook it vigorously, sending  a spray of snow up and over the side, and revealing, even in the failing light, a brocade cranberry-red dress with flying petticoats. A woman on board. Another sailor rose beside and attempted to usher her aft, but she shook him off and redoubled to the task.  

I turned to rouse Mr. Priddy but to no purpose. I am convinced that he will sleep through the celestial roll call on Judgment Day.

The next day brought more of the same, and though I looked and even ventured from my cabin I saw no more of the previous night’s phantom. I told Mr. Priddy of the vision and he appeared unimpressed.

I retired to my bunk early and, as the weather had lightened, attempted sleep.

I woke with a start to the thump, then sawing whir and rattle of the anchor chain let loose. What little I could ascertain from our previous pace, we were some good way yet from the entrance to Skillet bay. I struggled opening the door which appeared sealed in a drift, and in short order was assisted from the other side. When I emerged I found the captain there. Sailors were all about the deck–staves and gaffs, knocking ice from the rails and sidings.

The snow, although now barely falling, coated every surface. The deck was covered in drifts, and in the places where it had been scraped clean, showed a dark film of ice. The riggings and fronts of the masts were encrusted with wild crystals, and the sails held strange shapes as though frozen suddenly in a wild wind. Sometime in the night, the seas had calmed to gentle, almost imperceptible swells. An ice fog hung gray and low, and there was a sense of being in some vast, low ceiling cavern.

“This is as far as we go, Mr. Blackburn.,” said the captain. “The rigging is iced up, the tackle is seized and we’re running top heavy. We don’t address it soon, and we’ll be keel to sky and swimming home.” His breath smelled of salt-pork and gin.

“Mr. Findlay, are you drunk?”

“I am. We’re no longer underway, and if I got my figures straight, today is Boxing Day. Didn’t have any boxes for the mates, so bottles will have to do.” He procured a long green bottle from the inner pocket of his weather coat and gave it a slosh.

“You are overly familiar, sir …You are under contract with Harris bay.”

“Ah, don’t get chapped now,” He slurred, “Your betters at the Harris Bay Company didn’t forget you. Sent you a Boxing Day present, they did.  It’s down in the skiff,” he thumbed toward the side of the boat, “waiting for you.”

Stunned at the turn of events I walked carefully to the rails and looked over the side.  There, bobbing in the water was our skiff. Mr. Priddy sat mid-bench clapping his hands against his thighs for warmth, looking much like an unhappy cat, and in the front of the boat, which dipped heavily in the water, sat the cranberry woman, who appeared much larger in the better light and waved cheerfully when she caught sight of me.

“Mr. Blackburn–come, come! We must make use of this window in the weather.”

I looked about me. This was less a window than an in-breath.  A still sea is naught but the tautness between storms. Madness.  I turned to the captain “Who the Devil?”

“We ain’t going nowhere, not for a day at least,” he smiled. “Best be getting on with your business.” A few of the larger mates walked over and stood beside him. “Your man’s down in the craft with her effects.  Go on.  You…have a corpse to pick.”

What was there left to do? I climbed down the icy ladder and into the boat. As we pulled away I looked up at the full complement of crew lining the rails, and even from the water I could see their faces. A few lifted bottles and toasted our good health.

It took mere moments to ascertain that the woman, Clemencia Downes-Martin, was the recently widowed wife of the Montreal underwriter, and therefore sole owner of the cargo ship we were to survey. And as she trusted no one with the contents of her vessel, insisted on accompanying the survey as a pre-condition of hire. That she loved cheese–any cheese, although goat cheese made her gouty and phlegmatic, which wouldn’t do as it interfered with her work in light opera, which was the supreme heart and center, after all, of any civilized society. “And one must attend to one’s figure.” That she enjoyed the traditional fox hunt on St. Stephens Day, and wasn’t this the very day, last year, that her children had first been allowed on a hunt.  “So proud they were, almost prancing”

Already ahead, in the thin passage between fog and ocean I made out the great thumb of rock that that marked the entrance to the bay, a pillar linking the low sky to the sea. Gulls and kittiwakes flocked the sea-ward cliff face like a fine mist. The water just past took on a lighter color, heralding the outermost shoals of Skillet Bay.

“My late husband, bless him, died 11 months ago, and his associates preserved him in a barrel of juniper spirits for the passage home. He would have liked that, I believe, as he had been working toward a state of complete alcoholic saturation for most of our married life. The only way possible to have an open casket, I’m afraid. Reynard hated the ocean, unlike myself, although I find crustaceans positively unbearable.” She glanced nervously at the dark water skimming past. “Like something skittering on the edges of a bad dream . . . or a naturalist’s lens.  Titanic louse.” She shuddered, vibrating the entire skiff.

 “Mr. Priddy,” she shouted at the back of his head. “Are you fond of shellfish?” He glanced at me, waited until he was sure she would not leave the matter, then shrugged the smallest of shrugs. “Wretched creatures, and I can’t say I blame you. Although their relatives, the crayfish  . . .”

“Mrs. Downes–Martin,” I said, “other than the remains of the departed, what else does the ship carry.  We were given no manifest, and little else but directions to the last sighting. If we are to have any hope of conducting our business we must attend to the original bill of lading …contents of the berth, etc.” Her face fell. For the first time in a half hour she was silent, just the mild sound of the oars dipping, the faint but growing surge of the approaching shoals. “Mrs. Downes-…?”

“Children. The boat contains our children, Mr. Blackburn.”

John Priddy’s face went slack. Children. Something clamped around my innards, squeezing all breathe and blood and sense. I have seen drowned men before, sailors all. Some as young as 14, and their short time in the sea was not kind. Her endless chatter–her insistence made a sense to me now.

An apple floated by, and another. The wind, which had been slack some time, began to rise as we rounded the great rock.  Insistent swells carried more, and soon we were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of apples–a loose raft of them blowing out to sea. Ships rats scrambled from one to the other, balancing and slipping. Some, improbable in the approaching danger, were eating.”

“Float and starve, or feast and drown,” said Mrs. Downes-Martin, her voice a whisper. She reached out towards the nearest and as I rose to stop her, I saw it.  Ahead of us loomed the ship, not 300 yards from shore. Though she were on her side and caught on the reef, it was clear that she was beautiful. Blond scrollwork covered the focsle and graced her sides. Some trick of the wind made her appear at full sail. Through my glass, the name Clemencia was visible in delicate silver script across her bow.  The entire aft 1/3 of the ship was missing.

“Your ship is there, Madam. We must take you to shore.” Mr. Priddy bent to the oars, and as we passed under the shadow of the wreckage it became clear to our passenger the true nature of the business. I jumped free of the skiff and pulled well up onto the black gravel as the swells increased. Indeed, farther out near the mouth of the bay the white water bands of the outermost shoals were disappearing one by one as the previous storm, having fully inhaled, threatened to exhale its vehemence once again. Mrs. Downes-Martin refused my hand and scrabbled out of the boat on hands and knees.

“Mr. Priddy, help me move the skiff higher.” We dragged and pushed the heavy skiff, our clothing whipped by the breeze, til we reached a higher dune. From this vantage we could see the entirety of the bay–its beach littered with shattered wood and bright debris. The hulk of the Clemencia with its shattered end shifted in the rising water. Everything was visible, but Mrs. Downes-Martin was nowhere to be seen.

“Mrs. Martin . . . Clemencia.” I shouted, but the wind just threw it back. We searched the high dunes for any sign or track, but found no trace. Searched and searched until eventually, beaten by the wind and exhausted, we collapsed on a dune.

“She swam to them,” croaked Mr. Priddy. We watched as the ship, now free of its mooring lifted on a titanic swell and rolled in the surf, disintegrating like a child’s toy until there were nothing left.

Just sticks and paper in a breeze – such fragile things. It is in such moments of great strain the oddest thoughts may enter through cracks in the mind. A Christmastide carol from my youth: “Three Ships,” and though it seemed most incongruous in this moment–near to the point of sickness, yet I found myself mouthing the words, until I realized that this song was not a phantom within my head but without. I turned toward the sound as best I could make it in the wind and a woman’s voice drove through the gale, operatic and strong. And moving toward us from the direction of the upper bluffs walked Mrs. Downes-Martin leading three horses. Sand smeared and kelp covered, but horses none-the-less.

“My children,” she cried, when she caught sight of us. “Alive. Gaspar, Melchior, and poor Balthazar; my breath, my body, and my spirit.”

______________________________________________________________

Chris Chambers is a librarian and field archaeologist based in Salt lake City. Chris mentors the King’s English Writer’s Group, and is co-director of Simple Simple Storytellers, a seasonal storytelling troupe.

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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.

____________________________________________________________

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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