Category Archives: Fiction

Hermanos

By Riley Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¡Hermano!”

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

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

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

“¿Hermano?”

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

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

 

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Letter addressed to W.M.Thackeray from Charles Dickens

By Christopher Hall and Jess Mookherjee 

24th March 1858

My Dear Thackeray

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

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

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

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

Affectionately yours

Dickens

 

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

31st March 1858

Dearest friend,

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

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

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

Yours

W.M.T

 

{Letter addressed to Thackeray from Dickens}

20th April 1858

Dearest Thackeray

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

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

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

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

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

Save me dear Thackeray

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

Do write very swiftly

Your good friend

Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

25th April1858

My dear friend,

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

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

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

Yours as ever,

W.M.T

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

30th April 1858

Oh my dearest Thackeray

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

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

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

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

With great expectations

Your friend, Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

7th May1858

My Dear Friend,

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

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

Yours

W.M.T.

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

10th May 1858

Dear Will,

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

Yours in anticipation

Dickens

 

{Letter written to Thomas Carlyle from Charles Dickens}

12th May 1858

My Dearest Thomas

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

Yours sincerely,

Charles Dickens

 

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

2nd June 1858

My dear Tom,

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

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

Yours

Will

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from Thomas Carlyle}

4th June 1858

Dear Will,

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

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

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

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

Yours,

Tom

 

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

 5th June 1858

Dear Charles,

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

Yours truly,

W.M.T.

 

{Letter written to Thackeray from Dickens}

8th June 1858

Thackeray,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good day to you.

C.D.

 

{Letter to Carlyle from Thackeray}

12th June 1858

Tom,

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

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

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

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

W.M.T

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

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

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

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

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

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The African Promise

By Lynette Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father, what is this place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

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Trial of Strength

By Emily Wright

Alabama,

September 1861

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thomas Murphy, sir.”

“Where’r you from?”

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

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

“Yes, sir. I never miss.”

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

“My—my teeth, sir?”

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

“They’re…fine, sir.”

“Good. Are you eighteen or over?”

“Yes, sir. Over eighteen.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good night,” David said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

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A Day at the Circus

By Mark C. Harwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blues suck donkey dicks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena turned up her nose.  “Disgraceful.”

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

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

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

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

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

 Serena gasped.  She playfully slapped at his left shoulder.

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

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

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

 “I like the Green,” Galla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

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The Walls of Edo

By Sam Tjahjono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you love me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her friend’s name was Atsuko. Honest Child.

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

Someday, maybe we will meet in Kyoto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atsuko.

_________________________________________________________________________________

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

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The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny

By Tom Sheehan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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The Flapper

By Esme Reid-McLaughlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should’ve known this would happen.

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

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

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

I made the mistake of standing up.

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

I took another step forward.

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

“But Walter you have to listen to me.”

“I swear to God I’ll do it.”

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

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

“Walter!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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Aces and Eights

By Lyrissa S.C. Sheptak

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn you! Take that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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Mad Hatters and Glow Girls

By Kitta MacPherson

Father was talking to Mother about Thomas Edison again.

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

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

“Ah!” I heard Father cry out.

“Your trousers,” Mother scolded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please tell me, Father,” I said.

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

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

“Dennis Dwyer!” Mother said and froze.

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

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

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

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

“Work,” Rose announced.

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

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

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

Rose continued, listing all the girls who worked there.

The decision came fast and out of nowhere.

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

Rose screeched and jumped up and down.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded affirmatively.

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

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

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

I must have made a sound because she spoke then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your mother is very nice,” she said.

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

 

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

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