Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of René Descartes

Written by Andrew Pessin

Published by Open Books

Review by Richard Moorton

 

The Irrationalist is a brilliant and complex novel, chiaroscuro in tenor, rich in humor and horror, fact and fiction, full of myriad mysteries finally all resolved, set in counter-reformation Europe at many sites, and unified by the intertwining lives of a junior Jesuit Adrien Baillet, coopted to investigate the circumstances of Rene Descartes’ death in Stockholm, and the multifaceted and, as it turns out, mysterious Philosopher himself. Although it is a novel, it is based closely on the real events of Descartes’ life and mysterious death.

The book begins with a rapier duel to the death by two unidentified men in a field in Germany. One is able to move below the guard of the other and inflict a crippling wound to the ankle. When the disabled man falls helpless on his back his antagonist runs him through the chest and walks away. Though cryptic, the scene is crucial. It is precisely dated, and as this novel moves forward and backward in time, dates mark a causal order that must be carefully noted.

In 1649 Descartes had been invited to join the Academy of intellectual luminaries being assembled by the young Swedish Queen Christina—accurately described as one of the most brilliant, eccentric, and colorful queens in history. Soon after his arrival in Stockholm Descartes died, allegedly of pneumonia. Arriving shortly after Baillet meets the sinister Chancellor Zolindius who is arranging the gala to celebrate Sweden’s victory in the just concluded Thirty Years war full of Christian slaughtering Christian over religious hatred and power politics in the Hapsburg Dynasty’s rivalry with France. Zolindius insists that Baillet write a report concluding that Descartes’ death was by natural causes—lest the murder of France’s prominent Catholic philosopher in Lutheran Sweden unravel the fragile peace—but Baillet’s sleuthing tells him otherwise.

With this beginning, the novel flashes back to the birth of Descartes, and his later enrollment in the School for future Gentlemen and Jesuits at La Flèche. Descartes is a lazy if brilliant student, who takes years longer than the usual to graduate and then sets out, accompanied by a servant he has purchased from the Rector of the school, to find a life of pleasure and adventure far different from that which Joachim, his ambitious father, intends for him. From this prologue, a long and fascinating tale unfolds. This is enough of an introduction, as I wish neither to stumble into spoilers nor further encroach on the art of a master.

Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, though I knew him only in passing when I retired from there four years ago. His novel came as a complete surprise. Many professors try their hands at a novel, but this one is different. It is a masterful work of literary art. The author has an authentic and major creative gift. This is literature, and in time it may become a classic. Pessin’s academic specialty is apparently Descartes’ philosophy, and he obviously prepared for writing the novel by researching Descartes and his period in fantastic depth and scope. He made himself an expert on every facet of life of the philosopher and his times. The detail is microscopically rendered. The result is that the reader lives this novel instead of just reading it. The characters are complex and convincing, and their experience runs the gamut from tragic, hilarious, suspenseful, diverting, astonishing, idyllic, and elegiacally sad. The plot is a Chinese box of mysteries, each intriguing, built and unpacked with amazing skill. The book is incredibly subtle, and a two-word phrase in one part may unlock a puzzle beginning hundreds of pages away. The very title is a puzzle: “Who exactly is ‘the Irrationalist’?”

This world is dangerous. Again and again Baillet is told to trust no one, for good reason. He is an unlikely hero who squeaks when threatened, as he often is, but in the end he finds his courage and solves his case. Descartes is a chameleon who will shock the expectations of many readers. The novel is built like a mobius strip, a geometrical anomaly co-discovered by Mobius and (in the novel) Descartes, but it is Descartes who sees in this trinket he invents for his daughter a whole new world of mathematics. In a mobius strip, a geometrical figure which has only one side, a line drawn on it always returns to its starting point. The action of the novel does likewise, as Baillet realizes at the end.

Crafting such a novel is a tour de force, but this book has many wonders. One could go on at length about the arts of the polymath who built a riveting, exciting, relentless and explosive quest for justice, but no review can capture the many arts rich and strange which Pessin has fused into an unforgettable narrative. The only satisfactory review is that discovered by the fortunate reader who experiences the polyphonic ensemble. If you would do this book justice, read it, but beware. It is not for the unwary.

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Richard Moorton, Jr., is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Connecticut College. His interests include Greek comedy, Roman history, Vergil, the evolution of culture, the nature of religion, and Eugene O’Neill.

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Merlin’s Prediction

By Lisette J. Merry

Vortigern, the ambitious Chief Advisor to King Maines, and Manson, the leader of the Saxons had their final secret meeting in a dark, corridor recess, in King Maines’ castle in Camelot. 

Their plan would bring Vortigern everything his jealous heart desired, and Mason certain victory.

‘At sunset, then,’ Mason said.

Vortigern nodded, they shook hands, and then pulled up the hoods on their capes, and went their separate ways.

Vortigern went back to his chambers. He was not a man usually given to fear, because he was an experienced diplomat who had cultivated a show of bravado to disguise his true feelings in public.   And in private, he had always convinced himself that the cosmos smiled upon him and therefore there was nothing that could harm him.    

* * * * *

It all began well enough.  King Maines had always trusted Vortigern implicitly, and he followed him willingly enough when Vortigern told him that he wanted to talk with him privately about ‘a very pressing State matter’.   

Manson was waiting for them near the castle wall, and when he caught sight of King Maines on the battlements, he swiftly took aim, and fired.  Manson’s arrow found its mark.  It pierced a deep hole in the King’s chest, and moments later he was dead.

Vortigern looked down at the body of his dead King and suddenly his fears overwhelmed him. And like puffs of smoke in the wind, his well laid plans seemed to vaporise.   

Vortigern bolted straight to the sanctuary of his study and when he arrived there sweating and trembling, he sat down on his chair behind the great table laden with books. He forced himself to find a book, any book, rather than sit there staring into space and shaking like a lunatic.  He picked up a book and clutched at it until his hands stopped trembling. Only then did he attempt to open it and focus on the words on the first page. He forced himself to start reading. And when his manservant, Fabrian, arrived later to inform him of King Maines’ death, it seemed, for all the world, as if he had been reading for hours.

As soon as Fabrian had finished speaking, Vortigern reacted quite naturally to the dreadful news with surprise at first, and then with outrage, finally stating that King Maines’ murder was a treasonous act. His performance was flawless.  Fabrian stared at his master unable to speak, and finally, overwhelmed by grief, he bowed, and rushed out with tears streaming down his face. 

* * * * *

After King Maines’ assassination the Saxons defeated his leaderless army within days.  And Vortigern got what he had always wanted, the crown. 

King Maines’ subjects were terrified into submission, forced to accept the new order, or face torture and execution. And soon King Maines’ younger brothers Pendragon and Uther were banished to the distant land of Estion.

But still, Vortigern could not rest, because he was constantly plagued by the fear that they would return. He was too frightened to sleep, for whenever he did, he would soon wake again from yet another nightmare about his own violent death. 

After weeks of losing sleep in this way, something rather strange happened.  One night, on the eve of the full moon, King Vortigern was too exhausted to stay awake. But this time, instead of having yet another nightmare, he had a wonderful dream.  The dream was about the construction of a huge fortified tower, built to his own specifications. As it came to an end, he saw himself saved from Pendragon and Uther’s army by taking refuge inside it.  When King Vortigern woke from this dream, he felt, that at last, he knew how to save himself.

King Vortigern got up at sunrise. He dressed without the assistance of Fabrian for once, and then he opened the shutters and looked outside, with renewed confidence. 

When Fabrian arrived in King Vortigern’s chambers a little after 7am, he was amazed when his master ordered fruits, cold meats, bread and cheeses for his breakfast, instead of his usual half goblet of red wine.  

As soon as he had breakfasted, King Vortigern, feeling like a new man, ordered that the Royal Mason, Claudas, should be summoned to meet with him. 

And when they met, an hour later, King Vortigern described to him the tower that he had seen in his dream. Claudas hastily unrolled the parchment he had brought with him and placed it on King Vortigern’s dining table. And then with a series of questions he coaxed King Vortigern to describe the tower again, from the beginning, so that he could sketch it out. When King Vortigern saw how accurate Claudas’ drawing was, he immediately approved it, and told Claudas to begin work at once. 

Claudas followed King Vortigern’s orders to the letter, and as soon as he’d left the castle he assembled his masons and put them to work. King Vortigern was delighted, and he went about his diplomatic duties for the rest of that day with the reassuring sound of the masons chipping away at large blocks of sandstone, as they prepared them to lay as the foundations.

King Vortigern had ordered Claudas and his masons to complete the work by the next full moon. And fearful of incurring his wrath if they failed, they laboured from sunrise to sunset each day for the next whole month.

* * * * *

King Vortigern watched his tower steadily rise from its foundations to completion, and on the appointed day, Claudus held open the heavy oak door to the tower for King Vortigern. Once they were inside, Claudus lit his shuttered candle, and King Vortigern followed him across the flagstone floor to the foot of the stone spiral staircase. The King looked up, entranced by every tiny detail of the construction. And, as they climbed the staircase he stopped at each of the arrow slits in the curved stone wall to look outside.  He noted that they gave excellent visibility in all directions, just as he had seen in his dream.

When they reached the top step, King Vortigern listened with great interest as Claudus pointed out the cone shaped oak timber ceiling above their heads and told him how the structure supported the roof’s weight.

When the tour was over, King Vortigern had no hesitation in approving the work. His fears had evaporated. For he now felt secure in the knowledge that he would be able to defend himself from Pendragon and Uther should they ever return.  When he retired that night, he slept more soundly than he had done in weeks.

The next morning he woke in excellent spirits, and he got up and walked over to the shutters and opened them so that he could, once more, feast his eyes on his beautiful tower.  But when he looked outside, to his dismay, his fortified tower was no more, it had collapsed during the night, and it was now just a huge pile of stones. A ruin!

King Vortigern was distraught. He began to pull at his hair and beard, and shout at the heavens in his outrage and distress. 

When Fabrian entered his master’s chambers a little later, with his breakfast, King Vortigern’s eyes were still wild with disbelief and fear.

‘How could this have happened?’ he asked Fabrian.  But he didn’t wait for Fabrian to answer, he just carried on talking, as if to himself. He ranted on and on.  Finally he said

‘……and I chose the finest mason, Claudus, the Royal Mason, no less, to design the tower and act as the foreman for the building of it. ’

Fabrian listened to him in stunned silence, too frightened to interrupt. When the King fell silent at last, Fabrian assumed that the storm of emotions was over. So he was startled when the King suddenly spoke again.

‘But, I am not deterred, Fabrian, I will have Claudus and his masons build another tower for me, and this one will stand, by God, and protect us against our enemies.’  

Fabrian breathed an inward sigh of relief as the King calmed down. But just to be sure, he waited until he had not spoken again for some minutes.

‘Yes, my Lord,’ Fabrian said as he served the King his breakfast, placing it before him on the dining table in the ante room which adjoined King Vortigern’s bedroom.  Then Fabrian poured him a goblet of sweet melon juice.

When the King had finished his breakfast, he looked up at him.

‘I will dress now, Fabrian. I have much to do.’

Fabrian bowed, and immediately fetched King Vortigern’s clothes and helped him dress. The King finally put on his sleeved cape, and as he looked at his appearance in the mirror he nodded his approval at his reflection, and gently stroked his sleeved cape’s ermine collar.

‘Bring Claudas to me, Fabrian,’ he said.  ‘I have decided that he will start the rebuilding of my fortified tower today.’

Fabrian bowed, and then withdrew from King Vortigern’s chamber and fetched Claudas.  He met with the King an hour later.  And after they had spoken, the work on the tower began again. The King had given orders that the masons were not to use stones from the old tower for the rebuild. He ordered them to use all new sandstone, which meant that they had to start the work all over again, and painstakingly shape each piece of sandstone with their hand chisels. They were furious, but they were so afraid of King Vortigern’s temper, that they kept their feelings to themselves. 

Weeks passed, and by the end of the month, the fortified tower was finished.  When he saw it King Vortigern thought it looked more splendid than the first one had done.

But ill fortune struck again. For soon after it was finished, the tower collapsed, just as the first had done. King Vortigern was furious, but he was also frightened, for he could find no explanation for why both of his magnificent towers had collapsed so suddenly.  King Vortigern was so angry that he interrogated Claudas for a whole hour after the second tower’s collapse, but he finally concluded that Claudas was as puzzled as he was.  

King Vortigern would not let the matter rest. He was determined to find out why the towers had collapsed, and he called the Court Astrologers to him to ask them for their advice.  They dutifully responded to King Vortigern’s summons without delay, and upon their arrival walked ceremoniously into the great hall, and then stood before him resplendent in their silken robes trimmed with fox fur. They listened intently to all that King Vortigern had to say.  And when he had finished, they turned to each other and spoke amongst themselves for some time.   Finally, and after much deliberation, they nodded their agreement to each other.  They had made their decision, and they chose Micas, the most learned of their number, to tell King Vortigern what they advised. 

‘Sire, we are all sorely troubled by what you have told us, and by what we have learned ourselves of these events. We can determine no explanation for them in the cosmos, despite our efforts to do so.  Our advice to you is that you seek your answer from a young boy who is known to us, and who has extraordinary gifts.’ They all nodded their agreement to this. 

King Vortigern was deeply disappointed. He had felt certain that they would have found an answer to his dilemma in the cosmos. But it seemed they had not. He was at a loss now as to how he should proceed.  And although he was startled by their advice, he knew better than to question it.

‘Who is this young boy?  And how shall I find him?’

‘You will not have to find him, Sire. We will go in search of the boy,’ Micas replied.

‘So be it.’ King Vortigern said.

Then he turned to Fabrian who was standing by his side. 

‘Take Fabrian with you, so he might be your messenger. Send him back to me with the news that you have found the boy,’ he told Micas. Then he smiled at the assembled group of men.

‘You have my leave gentlemen,’ he said, dismissing them.  

And as soon as they left the king’s presence, the Court Astrologers set out with Fabrian, on their journey.  Early the following morning, they found some children playing together by a stream. One of the children, a young boy, noticed them, and he immediately left his playmates and ran over to speak to them,

‘I am the boy that you seek. My name is Merlin.’ He said.  The Astrologers looked at him and were silent for a moment, because they were amazed that the boy already knew their purpose. Micas turned to Fabrian, and said.

‘Go now my friend, and tell King Vortigern that we have succeeded in our search.’ Fabrian nodded to him, and set off towards the castle at a run.  Then Micas spoke to the young boy.

‘Will you come back with us to King Vortigern’s Court, and speak to the King on a matter of great importance to him?’

‘Yes,’ Merlin replied. ‘But before I go with you, I must first return home and tell my mother why I am going to see the King, so that she does not worry about me. My home is close by, so I won’t delay you long.’

‘Good,’ Micas replied. And a short time later, after Merlin had reassured his mother, he went with the Astrologers to Camelot. And when they arrived there, they took Merlin straight to the castle’s great hall.

Merlin walked into the great hall behind the Astrologers, and they processed in this manner to the far end of it where King Vortigern sat on his throne.  Despite the grandeur of the hall, and being in the presence of the King, Merlin showed no fear.  He stood infront of King Vortigern, looked up at him, and said confidently,

‘Sire, my name is Merlin, and I know that you have brought me here to tell you why your great towers would not stand.’

King Vortigern was amazed by the child’s knowledge and insight.

‘And why would that be, young master?’ he asked.

‘Your towers did not stand Sire, because two dragons sleep under the ground where they stood.  And the weight of the towers pressed down on the dragons’ bodies as they slept. They became uncomfortable, and began to move about in their sleep. Their movements shook the ground above them, and it was this that caused both of the towers you built to fall down.’

Silence descended on the great hall.

There had been something about the look in Merlin’s eyes as he had spoken that defied King Vortigern to question his conclusion, and therefore, though he was amazed by what Merlin had just told him, he sent Claudas and his masons out to the site, and ordered that they should dig down beneath the foundations.  The men did as they had been ordered. And after some hours of digging, they found the two dragons, just where Merlin had said they would be, one of the dragons was red and the other one was white. As soon as the masons saw them they were terrified, and they ran away, in fear for their lives.

Although this looked cowardly, it proved to be a wise decision on their part, because only a few minutes later, the daylight woke the dragons, and they climbed out of the ground and attacked each other.  They fought ferociously for some time, and the Red Dragon was killed.  But the White Dragon was not the victor. For Destiny had determined that just before he died, the Red Dragon had found the strength to mortally wound the White Dragon and he too died soon after the battle finished.

King Vortigern had witnessed the dragons’ fight from the battlements of his castle with Merlin standing beside him. 

‘And what is the meaning of all of this? Is it possible that you can tell me, young master?’ he asked Merlin.

Merlin looked up at King Vortigern whose eyes were now wide with fear, and said,

‘I believe I can, Sire. You are the Red Dragon.  The White Dragon is Pendragon and Uther, who will soon return to Camelot, kill you, and reclaim their kingdom.’ King Vortigern smiled, and shook his head, for he did not want to believe Merlin.

* * * * *

Merlin’s prediction soon proved true.  For only a few days after the collapse of King Vortigern’s second tower and the battle between the dragons, the two brothers, Pendragon and Uther returned to Camelot with an enormous army. They fought with, and defeated King Vortigern and Manson’s Saxon army.  When the battle was over, the usurper King Vortigern was found dead in the remains of his second ruined tower. Pendragon and Uther reclaimed Camelot, and the older brother, Pendragon, assumed his place as the rightful king.

King Pendragon and Uther asked Merlin, despite his youth, to become their counsellor. For Pendragon and Uther both agreed that Merlin was wise far beyond his years. Merlin said he was honoured by their request and accepted.

Merlin instinctively knew what his first duty would be, and that was to warn them of the imminent danger of another attack on Camelot by the Saxons.

And a short time later, the Saxons did indeed invade and wage war against King Pendragon, Uther and their loyal army close to Camelot.  Both victory, and tragedy were destined to follow. For even though they won this, their second battle against the Saxons, Pendragon was struck down on the battlefield and killed. 

After his brother’s death, and the designated period of mourning, Uther succeeded his older brother Pendragon, and out of respect for his brother’s valiant deeds, and in devoted remembrance of him, Uther chose to be known from that time forth, as King Uther Pendragon.

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Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. One of her favourite periods of British history is the time of the legendary King Arthur. She lives in Kent, England with her husband.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 5

By Meredith Allard

Make friends with a librarian and, while you’re at it, try a university library.

I’ve already professed my love for the instant gratification of finding a necessary piece of information online in a matter of moments. However, nothing replaces library research. The depth of information from library research cannot always be replicated on the Internet with its short articles and occasionally unclear sources. The weekend historian may be intimidated by the sheer amount of resources in the library, but never fear.

I’ve been a university student for a good portion of my adult life. In fact, I’m currently a university student now, and I can tell you in all honesty that I’ve encountered many conscientious librarians who have gone beyond their job descriptions and assisted me by helping me track down an elusive book or an article about a little-known subject. If you’re not sure where to begin your quest for knowledge about your historical period, ask a librarian. And I’m not only talking about university librarians here since most of the public librarians I’ve talked to are more than willing to help however they can. And I’m not just saying that because Sarah Wentworth of the Loving Husband Trilogy is a librarian. I’ve always had a high opinion of librarians (as most book lovers do), and I’ve thought more than once that if I wasn’t a writer and a teacher I’d be a librarian.

The Los Angeles County Public Libraries, the Clark County Libraries, and probably library systems all over, have a wonderful program where, if a local branch doesn’t have a book you want but another branch does, the other branch will ship the book to your neck of the woods so you don’t have to go running all over town. Check with your local library to see if it has a similar program. In the Internet age there’s no more standing over card catalogues and pulling out musty cards that leave you grabbing for your asthma inhaler (or maybe that’s just me). Libraries have online catalogues these days so you can check at home to see if your local library, or any nearby library, has that book you need.

If your local library doesn’t have what you need, then indeed you should try visiting a university library. University libraries are created for research after all. In the old-timey days they had stacks of newspapers, journals, microfiche, and other hard-to-find materials. Some still have primary sources in their collections. These days university libraries have online search engines that allow you access to information you might not otherwise be able to find, and yes, you can access them from your home computer if you’re a member of that library. Many university libraries are open to the public for a yearly fee—from $30 to $100—and it’s a worthwhile investment for historical novelists.

I know I’m stating the obvious when I mention using the library, but the teacher in me feels like I need to remind people that there are these buildings with wall-to-wall books you can borrow for free (that’s the books you can borrow for free, not the buildings). With so many historical novelists using the Internet as their only source of research, I’m afraid they’re passing over other helpful ways of discovering useful, important information. And historical novelists need to use any source they can to discover the facts from the past that will make their stories come to life.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Right Between the Eyes

By Hazel Kevlihan

Sasha Patrova is perfectly invisible to the naked eye as she makes her way up the hill in front of her. The landscape is a desert, a frozen wasteland which stretches on for miles. Underneath acres of hard packed snow lies a scorched and traumatized earth. It’s a battered remnant of farm lands and villages. Overhead, a crow glides beneath the cloud line. The winter sun reflects across the snow, giving his underbelly a dull sheen. Crows are the only birds who don’t migrate to escape the cold, instead embracing the wreckage of an ecosystem, taking the best of what meat remains without competition. Now the crows rarely starve, and great flocks of them soar over spent battlefields. They come down in a black rain of beaks, the odor of gunpowder clinging to their feathers, guzzling down their pound of flesh while it’s still warm.

Not on this day though. On this day there is just one solitary crow with a solitary soldier to match. She reaches the top of the hill and hunkers down, rifle thumping lightly against her back, fatigues crinkling softly in the breeze. Across the plain, Sasha can see the dark forms of marching soldiers. Estimating that she has about ten minutes, she pushes her arms through the snow until her elbows are submerged and her fingertips press lightly against the frozen earth. She then kicks both legs out behind her in one swift motion, and sinks to the ground. Wiping the snow off her face with the back of a gloved hand, she pats around in her pockets until she finds the binoculars, and raises them to her eyes. Snow begins to fall on her back, masking her slight frame further. All around her the land is a gleaming white reflective surface, crunching methodically beneath German boots.

Hans Schmidt has always hated the cold. Upon his acceptance into the 6th Army he was practically rejoicing, the invasion of Russia was advertised as an easy task. Those communist barbarians of the North were surely no match for the cultured perfection of German war. The USSR was isolated, backward, and would give the Third Reich the much-needed living space they deserved. It would be a lovely stroll through the warm Russian summer – shoot a few soldiers, secure the oil fields, and march back to Berlin in triumph. He dreamt of finding old Russian treasure. He would accumulate a small fortune, and finally be able to live in the heart of the capital, where he belonged.

But now look at him. Hans is cold, miserable, and these ‘communist barbarians’ are proving far more difficult to deal with. His daydreams are haunted by the images he has witnessed, but far worse are the nightmares. Well, not nightmares. There is only one, singular. The same sequence repeating over and over every time he closes his eyes. The visions are so real that he wakes each night soaked in what he fears is blood, only to discover it’s just his own sweat.

It all started when a group of soldiers joined them from another division. They started telling stories, mostly to scare them he knew, of a sniper in the Red Army.

“They call her The Wraith.” An older man, with multiple scars on his face, said that.

“A woman?” One of his comrades asked with a scoff, “The Russians truly are barbaric if they let their women fight, and this is the best they’ve got? It’s a wonder she hasn’t shot herself in the foot yet.” The young men laughed softly, Hans louder and longer than most, he was covering the stroke of panic which had just raced through him. The older soldier scowled, frown lines deepening on his face.

“Just you wait,” he said, “You will see what the Russians are capable of.” And that was it. One ominous warning and he walked away. The young men continued with their raunchy jokes and laughter, but Hans could still hear the way a hollowness of fear crept into their every syllable.

Now, with winter upon them, everyone alive acts like a seasoned veteran, and everyone fears The Wraith. Hans prays every night that he will never encounter her. He wishes desperately for her to fight other battles, kill other men. He doesn’t want to die.

Sasha stops, a few feet away from a large boulder peeking out of the snow. She doubled back and checked her tail multiple times to make sure she wasn’t being followed, but giving away the position of her infantry would certainly be fatal, so she scans the area one more time. Satisfied that she is truly alone, Sasha walks forward, leaning one arm casually on the protruding boulder. Pushing her scarf away from her mouth, she painfully purses her cracked lips and whistles three notes. Slightly off-key, the sound curls away into the afternoon for several seconds until another three answers them. Her spotter stands to attention, leveling his figure slowly out of the snow, and then shaking himself like a dog. “The commissar will want to see you now.” He says, sounding slightly miffed. She knew that he’s unhappy to have been left behind at the army base while she went to scout on German troops. Sasha is sorry to disappoint him, but doesn’t regret going out on her own. Despite her prowess as a sniper, and fame even within her enemies’ camps, she hardly ever gets to accomplish anything alone. Instead, her spotter is always tagging along, like a nanny or a babysitter. As if she even needs a spotter, she can see an enemy uniform as well as any man, it isn’t that difficult.

“I know.” She says, and the words come out tired and soft. None of them has had much sleep since the offensive against Germany started. The press calls this The Great Patriotic War. A very big title, to be sure. Sasha doesn’t know much about what the rest of the ‘patriots’ are going through, and she doesn’t care. The entire world exists for her through the eye of a scope. Even the landscape of her dreams is not exempt from this. What little sleep she gets is consumed with warped memories, binding all the nightmarish traits of reality with the heightened awareness of the subconscious, and always down the sight a rifle. Her mind flinches at the sound of a gunshot ringing in her ears, the images eclipsing reality. Her husband, the letter came from the war office, then the dreams had started. The leaders didn’t sugarcoat anything, they said he was a deserter, killed by firing squad. She didn’t want to believe it, she didn’t believe it, but there it was on the page. Killed by firing squad, the blocking detachment, the section of the army who dealt with traitors.

Traitor. The word hangs in her mind, the meaning not fully comprehensible. The blocking detachment deals with traitors, this is all they do, a group of soldiers assembled by The Commissar himself for that singular purpose.

Her husband, off in the distance, detached from her now, had been fighting other battles, killing other men, and was killed by other Russians. Sasha shivers, the motion bringing her back to reality. Her spotter has sunk back into the snow to keep warm. She has to report to The Commissar.

Hans stomps his feet, trying to get some feeling back into them. The worn, soggy souls of his boots do little to protect him, but they’re better than nothing. He’s seen too many nine-toed men to risk taking off his shoes in this weather. Evening sets in slowly, each day passing by at such length, so as to prolong their suffering. The wind is beginning to pick up, flurries of snow dance between the soldiers as they make camp for the night. It is his turn to take watch, and so it seems as if his day is getting longer still. As he stands there, damp and freezing, Hans longs for the big, open fireplaces of his house back in Germany. His childhood home. As a young boy his parents would light huge open flames, almost bonfires, in the wintertime to keep the house warm. It’s old, and creaky, and out in the middle of the countryside. Passed down to his parents as a wedding gift, Hans loved living there. Running through its big empty halls, hiding in all the tiny places, sliding down the banisters. It was absolute heaven for a young boy. That was until his mother died. Then he started seeing things, frightening things, around the house. Images, forms of her, only warped and twisted. Like memories gone bad, or a soul which had soured. He hated the house, hated how every room or noise would conjure a memory of her, a memory which would scare him, chase him, hunt him until his throat went raw from screaming her name, screaming for somebody to please help him. He told this to a friend once, a person who he now can’t put a name or face to, but Hans still remembers exactly what he said. The friend said that he was being haunted – haunted by a wraith.

Sasha thought she was cured. She thought that being on the frontlines fighting had cured her, or would cure her, of this fear. This overwhelming panic that had begun to consume her, eat away at her center. In fairness it worked for a while. The cold, the adrenaline, and the pain came to the forefront of her mind, pushing all other thoughts promptly aside. But the fear is back, pounding at her rib cage with every heartbeat, and for obvious reasons. The commissar was happy with her report. Well, about as happy as he could be considering he doesn’t like her very much (the traditionalists never do), but the problem is with what came after, this is what made the fear once again most prominent. It’s bad enough that, despite her having more than proven herself on her own, Sasha is once again assigned to a mission with her spotter, but she is also assigned to the blocking detachment, effective immediately and until further notice. They appear to be short-staffed, and this is a fairly simple mission anyway. This situation not usual, or anything she would ever do by choice, but orders are orders are orders. She gets orders, she follows them, that’s the way it works. Apparently a sergeant in their infantry has deserted, he was last seen heading to join the German encampment. Sasha, along with her spotter, is now supposed to hunt this man down, and kill him.

Hans stares into the darkness. He’s not sure, but he thinks he sees movement in the distance up ahead. Night has fallen, the cold increasing exponentially. The snow still dances in the wind, and he blinks slightly into the dark before looking away – it would do him no good staring at shadows. But then no, he’s sure he heard something there. Yes, definitely somebody shouting into the wind. What were they saying?

“Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot.” The sergeant forgoes his panicked sprinting for sobbing. They almost gave up hope of finding him in the dark, before stumbling upon his fleeing form. Only a few feet from the German camp, Sasha worries the soldiers will hear him. Her spotter stands off to one side being useless, and she is there, in perfect sight of the sergeant, swinging her rifle over her shoulder and into the ready position. She looks down the sight. The sergeant’s final pleas die down as he closes his eyes “Please…please…”

Hans jogs forwards quickly, as he gets within sight of the sobbing man he flattens himself to the ground and crawls forward, a rifle in his hands. He stays motionless just behind the man, as he sees two figures a couple of meters away. One is standing off to one side, looking away. The other – Hans stifles a gasp. The other is holding a rifle, but that’s not all. Despite the multiple layers of heavy winter gear, it is fairly clear. This is The Wraith.

Time slows to a sickening crawl as Sasha looks down the sight of her rifle. This is all too similar to her dream, to her nightmare. Maybe this is a nightmare, she thinks idly. Her mind’s wandering, scattered. She should pull the trigger, has she taken too long already? How much time has passed? The man still hasn’t moved from her sight, tears are streaming down his face out of closed eyelids, she can see them crystallizing, freezing as frost on his face. “Right between the eyes.” Who said that? It’s a memory. Her father, from when she first took up shooting, “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for,” It was a warm summers day outside of their house, she was holding the rifle awkwardly in her arms, she could feel the sweat accumulating on the tips of her fingers, making the trigger slip slightly. The straw face of a dummy stared accusingly back at her “Just pull the trigger Sasha.”

Hans crawls slightly closer on his stomach. The man in front of him has seized up now, waiting for his executioner to shoot. Hans is close enough to touch him, but he only has attention for one person, the object of his fear for so long, The Wraith. He lifts his head slightly, propping his chin up with the butt of his gun as he stares.

“Just pull the trigger,” Sasha thinks desperately to her fingers, but they won’t act. Paralyzed in inertia she stands there, as her thoughts flow to their inevitable destination, her dream, her nightmare. The sergeant’s face becomes another, much more familiar face, who also pleads for his life. Killed by a sniper, branded a deserter, her husband stands before her in fear. She can see every line of his face through the sight of her rifle.

“Just pull the trigger Sasha,” Her father says in one corner of her mind “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for.” But she can’t, she can’t. And then suddenly, inexplicably, as if a weight has been lifted, she can. She puts the pressure on her index finger, but not before swinging the barrel just slightly. The sergeant, reacting on instinct alone, turns and runs the last remaining yards into the enemy camp, as her spotter curses behind her.

“What was that?” He asks furiously, the shot went wide, slicing into the darkness just behind the sergeant. Sasha doesn’t respond, she just stands there, staring through the sight of her rifle. She takes a few long steps forward, hardly knowing whether what she sees is real or just another messed up daydream.

There’s a German soldier lying limply in the snow in front of her, with a bullet between his eyes.

______________________________________________________________

Hazel Kevlihan is an Irish-American writer with a strong interest in World War 2. She enjoys exploring different perspectives throughout history and researching for her next project.

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Historical Fiction, According to The Copperfield Review

By Meredith Allard

What is historical fiction? As the executive editor of a literary journal of historical fiction, I get asked this question a lot. Part of the problem with trying to define historical fiction is that there are as many definitions of historical fiction as there are people who write and read it. That is a good thing because it means that there is no right way to write historical fiction.

However, since The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction, there are a few elements of the genre we look for when we’re considering submissions. If you’re looking to publish your historical fiction or poetry with The Copperfield Review, you might want to take these ideas into consideration before you send off your submission.

  1. First of all, make sure your submission is actually historical in nature. We receive so many submissions from authors who blindly send off submissions without realizing that The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction. If your story is set in the present day or has no recognizable historical period, save yourself the unnecessary rejection letter and send your submission elsewhere.
  2. Be sure that your fiction or poetry submission is clearly set during an historical period. We’ve received many submissions that name a date at the top (1872, for example) but then there are no historical details within the story itself that help us place the story in that year. When we read historical fiction here at The Copperfield Review, we look for historical details that could have only come from that era. Typing an historical year at the top of a submission but not bringing that year to life through vivid details is not a submission that will appeal to us.
  3. Be aware of dialogue. Wordy, unnecessary dialogue is a frequent problem we see in submissions. When we’re writing historical fiction, it isn’t necessary to try to perfectly mimic the way people spoke during whatever era you’re writing about. You want your dialogue to reflect elements of the era but at the same time it needs to be readable to 21st century readers.
  4. Also, beware of writing in dialect. We see this a lot in the Old West or World War II stories sent our way. This is strictly my own taste, but I find having to decipher dialogue written in dialect a pain. My main man, Dickens, wrote a lot of his dialogue in dialect, and I don’t like reading his dialect any more than I like reading it from anyone else. Try to find the rhythm, the cadence of the speech patterns without making the dialect read like a puzzle. If you’re looking for examples of how to write historical dialogue, there are some wonderful historical novelists out there who do it very well. Look around for some examples written about the era in which your story is set.
  5. Again, this is strictly personal taste, but we are not overwhelmed by pieces that claim to be historical fiction but are really present day stories with someone having a memory about the past. We’ve been getting a lot of submissions like this lately. Really, they’re present day stories, but one character, probably someone older, has a memory about something that happened in 1962, and then it goes back to being a present day story. Other journals may love such stories, but here at Copperfield, where we’re looking for historical fiction, this type of memory piece is not likely to work for us.
  6. Keep in mind that we receive many submissions set during World War II, the Old West, and the American Civil War. These are fascinating historical subjects, but because we receive so many submissions set during these eras we’re unable to publish too many of these stories. Sometimes a submission will catch our attention and be published for no other reason than it’s set during a time we haven’t published before. This is where becoming familiar with the journal you want to be published in can come in handy.

Remember that these are just our thoughts at Copperfield. If you go back through our archives, you’re likely to find stories that don’t meet all of the above criteria; however, for the most part these are the criteria we use to determine if a piece is something we’d like to include in our journal of historical fiction. The point is to make sure that the work you send us is clearly historical in nature through events, characters (real or imagined), dress, dialogue, and descriptions. If your submission seems like it could take place anywhere at any time, it’s probably not right for us.

There are literary journals that publish various types of stories, so just because something isn’t for us there’s likely another journal that will love it. Keep on keepin’ on. Continue sending out your work until you find the right home for it.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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The Song of Achilles

Written by Madeline Miller

Published by HarperCollins Publishers

Review by Meredith Allard

 

This is simply an outstanding piece of literature. Miller’s simple yet lyrical style pulls you effortlessly into the poetry of the Iliad. Here we focus on Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, the young prince who is banished from his land for accidentally killing another boy and he is taken as a companion for Achilles. Patroclus and Achilles become partners in every way, and the Song of Achilles is really a love song between the two men. This isn’t simply an attraction between Patroclus and Achilles. This is a deep, abiding love that transcends death.

If you’re familiar with the Iliad (which you do not need to be to enjoy this book), then there are few surprises here except perhaps for the scope of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. There is no twist-filled ending here: the fate of the two men has been sung about throughout the ages. Still, Miller ends this tale in a way that is perfectly heartbreaking, but in a good way. Despite war, broken promises, and the loss of all one holds most dear, there can be peace in the end.

This is not a retelling of the entire story of the Iliad. This is one version of one story as told through the eyes of the man who knew Achilles best. I’m looking forward to reading more from Madeline Miller.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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The Poet’s Wife; The Mistress’ Sister

By Gina M. Bright

León, Spain 1387

So this is how it ends. The body stops working long before the mind. There is much time to think, indeed. At least I have time to write—well, in between the cramping and letting go. The black liquid comes pouring out and soils my bed now more often than filling my chamber pot.

I wish Geoffrey were here. I have my son though. When John gathered his men for this action to be taken in Spain, Thomas did not have much of a choice in going, nor did I. My son has served John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, for many years now. And not because John is his father, a loathsome rumor spread by those who cannot accept my sister’s position in his bed.

Katherine never could escape the will of her heart. When we were girls back home in Hainault she took in every little kitten found wandering in our garden. She fell in love with John the first time she saw him look at his wife, Blanche. By my faith, angels must have swathed her in their light. Blanche’s beauty did not belong to this world. Perchance Katherine found celestial comfort through John’s adoration of Blanche. She has always been faithful to our Creator. Or perchance Katherine could not resist John’s Plantagenet charms, his solid stature and stormy eyes.

When Blanche was plucked from this world by the dreaded pestilence, they at least waited some time to fulfill their mutual desire. Unfortunately, their secret union happened just as Katherine’s husband, Hugh, perished in France serving our Black Prince and John was betrothed to Constance, the Castilian beauty I have served ever since John brought her to England as the second Duchess of Lancaster.

John was always seeking power and what better way to get it than to marry one of the daughters of the recently slain King of Castile, Pedro the Cruel. Alas, the gallant Gaunt did not assume that title then or now. His ambition though is the reason we are here in León and I am dying from dysentery, along with many of his own soldiers.

I regret that I cannot serve my Duchess Constance. She has her ladies, certainly, but she needs me. She has always felt as long as I tend to her, my sister cannot move too close to John. It is no wonder Constance was so worried when I spent a few years with Katherine at her Kettlethorpe manor almost ten years past. My husband was away once again and Katherine needed me.

Katherine missed John to the brink of madness. When he did visit, their nightly cries of ecstasy spilled over into the light. But then he was gone again and Katherine retreated to her chamber for days without any sustenance.

And my poor Duchess! I could just see her at Hertford, her beloved castle, sipping wine through her sighs of despair as her ladies tried to comfort her during John’s absences. At least her quarters there contained the largest hearth that always managed to defeat our English dampness that she hated so much.

I took the time I had to myself at Kettlethorpe to write, not something that is becoming to a lady in waiting to the Duchess of Lancaster, nor to the wife of a poet with a bit of fame. John so admires Geoffrey’s work and rewarded him with his Aldgate apartment in London. It provides a quiet space for his craft.

John had begged him to write something, anything, to relieve his great sorrow after Blanche died. The Book of the Duchess was the result of a few years’ labor written during his visits to France and Italy for our old King Edward. Geoffrey shared those woeful words with me before he gave them to Gaunt.

“Dear Philippa,” he said through my tears, “your response means more to me than John’s and even the court’s. You know what it is to write.”

Indeed I do but only Geoffrey knows my work. For the world thinks women are not fit for writing. We are creatures, so they say, with humors not in balance. Perchance another age will see us otherwise, as my dear husband does.

Before my long visit to Kettlethorpe, I spent time with my husband in his apartment above Aldgate where the rabble entered the city during our Great Revolt six years past. Geoffrey said it was thrilling to watch so many commoners march into London to get some justice. What they did to our city, though, perhaps shifted the scales in the other direction. I wish I could have seen them though.

Geoffrey had collected nearly sixty books for his library there. I visited Aldgate as much as I could and spent hours turning the leaves of parchment. I found a story by one of our French writers, Chrétien de Troyes, who I think got it from the Roman poet, Ovid. I was so moved by this tale of two sisters I could not return the book to the shelf.

Philomena and Progne were separated when Progne married a lord who took her to a land far away from Greece. As the years passed, Progne asked her husband to bring her sister to her so she could see her once again. Alas, lust reigned in this lord’s heart when he returned with Philomena. He placed her in a cave and robbed her of her purity. He could not silence her screams and so he cut out her tongue.

What was to be done with her now? This brutal man kept her in one of his castles. Certainly she would be safe from the world there. Philomena did not want for anything in her prison, including a loom and thread. Day after day she weaved the words of her story into a large piece of cloth. One of the servants took pity on her and fulfilled her request to deliver the tapestry to her sister. When Progne read the words in the cloth, she left for the castle and was reunited in sorrow with her dear sister.

I carried this story with me to Kettlethorpe and felt compelled to write it in my native tongue. Philomena’s story spoke to me. My own sister has been mistreated by a very powerful lord. John displayed her as his mistress that one Spring a few years past at his Leicestershire estate. Thank goodness my Duchess Constance was not there when John led Katherine’s horse by the bridle for everyone to see. Evermore, my sister has been called “whore.” Evermore, John continues to be called “duke” or “my lord.”

My tongue has not been severed but I cannot speak out loud about their affair. The customs of the nobility silence me since I am lower in status. Yet I write about these matters now, just like Philomena did, as I lay dying in León.

Geoffrey was so pleased with my Philomena poem he included it in his present work, The Legend of Good Women. It’s a shame really that people would scoff at my poem if it bears my name. I will be pleased though if people admire it as one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s own.

Perchance the Duchess will be pleased with this “legend” when she hears it because Philomena gets her revenge, after all, on the lord who befouled her. Heaven knows Constance has endured a good deal of abuse from the Duke, but never in public.

I remember that magnificent dinner for the boy king’s soon to be new wife at the Savoy in April of 1381. It was the last one there for the palace was destroyed by the rebels in June of that year. No more Gascony wine flowing from the spigots and no more shrimp, eels, or bream served to perfection at that feast!

John of Gaunt was the host that night for Anne of Bohemia, her family, so many courtiers, and King Richard himself. And Constance was the hostess, the respected Duchess of Lancaster, and John’s adored wife. John always made sure Constance was treated that way at this event and all others. But when the Duchess was not in the court’s eye, she was not in John’s either.

The truth of the matter is Constance despised the Savoy because she knew Katherine spent most of her time there. John always ordered the servants to move my sister’s belongings before his wife arrived. Gaunt’s bedroom had two cabinets of clothing and Constance always placed her garments in the smaller one. After she arrived for the Bohemian event, she looked in her cabinet for just the right bejeweled tunic to wear. In there, she spotted an emerald one with a weasel collar, far too small for my Duchess’ curved Spanish body. The servant who removed Katherine’s garments was a bit too hasty in her work.

Constance at once commanded all of her ladies to move her to another room. The next day she returned to Hertford Castle. But she felt compelled to leave there after a few months when she got word that the Savoy had been burnt to the ground. Her reply to the messenger had a feigned sense of concern for my sister.

“Dios mío! Espero que la puta fugado.” I had learned enough Spanish in my service with her to translate thus, “My God! I hope the whore escaped.”

I prayed Katherine did. Thinking of her perishing in the flames made my skin feel hot all over. Fear then set into my Duchess’ heart after she expressed her hopes for my sister. She asked to move the household far away from these troubles in London and, as we heard, in the nearby counties of Essex and Kent. And so we set off for John’s Pontefract Castle, quite a bit north in Yorkshire.

After several days’ journey, we arrived there near eventide, thank goodness because Constance did not have good vision at dusk. Constance took the candlelight she saw within as a good sign the servants were ready for us. I knew though that they were serving my sister. I could see Katherine’s favorite destrier in the stable. Troilus’ blue-black hue and that gold and blue ribbon, Plantagenet colors, she always tied around his tail were not to be mistaken as anyone else’s horse.

My lady was impatient to enter the castle. I told her I would declare our arrival and return at once. The servant who opened the door revealed my sister had arrived with haste two nights ago after the Duke gave her word from Scotland to flee London because of the rebels who hated him so. Thank goodness she received his order before the rebels made it to the Savoy.

Now what to tell my Duchess with my sister safe inside? The servant said we should travel even farther north to the vacant Knaresborough Castle, another night’s journey.

“My dear Duchess,” I said with the utmost sadness when I returned, “there are no proper provisions for our stay here. There is no meat to be had and no wine. The rebel army has hindered the arrival of many goods.”

“No vino! Dios mío,” she replied. And then with tears in her eyes she asked where we would go. I explained we could travel a bit farther north to one of her husband’s other castles arriving at day’s break.

Our journey here to León now was much less difficult for my lady. She did not want for anything with her husband by her side. John filled one carriage with wine and another one with cheeses, meat, and fish, if we were close to the coast.

Before I contracted this malady and became chained to my chamber pot, I got to see my Duchess experience some joy with John, as he did with her. Constance was ready to give birth. The castle was filled with anticipation for the baby boy’s arrival. John and Constance loved their young girl, Catalina, but they just knew they were having a son who would maintain the Castilian line.

I labored hard with my Duchess. I applied cool cloths to her brow and told her when to push. A beautiful boy entered the world, but only to take two little breaths. Then he was gone. Constance never seems to hold onto happiness for very long.

I cannot hold onto much of anything at the present time. My son, Thomas, visits me daily and brings me water and small plates of cheeses and fruit. None of it stays with me though.

I miss our home in Rotherhithe. How glorious to step into our garden with the fierce Thames felt in the morning air. There’s something about living on the water that makes me feel like I too am always going somewhere. We moved into that home after Geoffrey became Justice of the Peace for Kent. The pay is not worth the effort it takes to sit in the session court issuing fines, hearing pleas and what not, but it gives him much time to write.

He has begun work on a simply wonderful idea. Geoffrey met the Italian poet Boccaccio when he visited his country many years ago. Boccaccio’s book of tales told by nobles who escape the pestilence in Florence inspired my Geoffrey to create his own book. But Geoffrey will have stories told by people from every station in life as they travel from London to Canterbury to honor our slain saint, Thomas Becket.

He has set himself quite the task! Geoffrey wants me to write the tales told by the women on the journey, but I do not think this undertaking will come to pass. I barely have the strength to move from my bed to my chamber pot. When Thomas comes to visit me tomorrow, I will give him what I have written here, and this last letter to my dear husband.

Dear Geoffrey,

My father warned me when I met you in the Countess of Ulster’s household—you a page to Edward III’s second oldest son and me a personal demoiselle to his wife—about my happiness being compromised by someone lower than me in status. I knew you were the son of vinters, but your mind, your view of the world, and your love of books drew me to you. I knew no one else would have satisfied me as you have done for a lifetime.

I have never wanted for nice food, wine, or tunics. I have never wanted for children. Our three have been a blessing and no mum could be prouder. I have never wanted for a husband who treats my sister as his own in spite of her transgressions.

My dearest husband, you have never failed to respect me as your equal and encourage my own habit of writing in spite of my sex.

I so wish I could see you one last time for some more talk and a read together, but my passage through this world has sped up quite a bit. I have been forced into a lane going elsewhere. I pray it is a good place. Please make your tales one for the ages, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I love you so,

Philippa

______________________________________________________________

Gina M. Bright has a doctorate in medieval English literature from Lehigh University. She has worked as a registered nurse for more than 30 years, primarily in the fields of AIDS and oncology. Her first book, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), reflects her passion for caring for underserved populations and for research and writing. 1381: The Forgotten Revolt is her first novel and was a 2016 First Place Category Winner (Dark Ages, Medieval, Renaissance) in the Chaucer Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction sponsored by Chanticleer Book Reviews.

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Farewell the Day

By Carole Green

Tuesday morning begins bright and sharp. By three o’clock those who have shift work are up and heading out to meet the day.  Others – like his Da, having come off at midnight with a bad knee – turn back into the snug of their blankets.  Having left behind the warmth of the cottage some minutes before, Harry sounds now like a train chugging along in the clear cold air which catches at his breath and makes it rise in white puffs. A curious redwing follows his progress, darting through the hedge as he crosses first the snowy fields and then the icy lanes and makes his way down the Jarrow row to meet his cousin, Robert. It is dark but a half moon hangs grinning at them in the velvet blue like a prop from one of Mr Kelley’s fabulous entertainments. Robert is a decade older than his eager cousin, and less impressed by the freshness of the day. Harry’s joking description of the moon raises only a wry smile. Robert has come off shift only five hours previous and slept through most of his dinner and breakfast.  His lids are hooded as he follows laggardly behind young Harry. He crunches on a rock of cinder toffee, which his wife makes weekly and in great quantities in winter, in hopes of keeping him awake and going. He grumbles at the lad’s cheerful whistling. There is nothing to whistle about where they are heading.

The men congregate in the lee of the engine house as they wait their turn to be let down. Harry nods goodbye to cousin Robert here. Although it is Harry himself who, fourteen years old and hating the constraints of the schoolroom, has insisted on starting at the works – he is relieved that he has found a place with the pit cuddies and horses. They are docile beasts and nuzzle softly at any treats a boy can bring them.  They are excellent listeners also; their soft brown eyes convey a great deal of sympathy for the problems a lad might sound off about. And they never break a confidence. Harry has told them about his impatience with school and how only last summer he discovered that he is a fair hand on the water. He has earned some good pocket money helping his cousin run the ferry crossing at Dunston. His mother’s family are a friendly lot and keep a well-stocked table; a fellow never goes hungry no matter what kind of work he gets up to. He enjoyed the order of their household and how things got done in congenial spirit. A lot seems to be accomplished with a great deal less of the shouting and moaning that fills his own house.

But Harry cannot stay on beyond August. His mother needs him at home – who else can get the old man from the pub in one piece? His brothers are too impatient with the task and inevitably it ends in a scuffle and a black eye. But Harry is different. He remembers Da when he used to romp and play with them, when he had more time in the day. It is Becky from next door taught him the trick: don’t think of your Da as he is now, think of him as he was before. Becky is a year or two younger than Harry and has bright green eyes and a small gap between her two front teeth. She kissed him once behind the outhouse the cottages share. Her lips were warm and dry like a caress. But then, before he even had time to open his eyes, she’d slapped him hard upside the head so that his ear rang.  If you tell anyone I’ll knock your teeth out, Harry Clasper, she’d said. Harry believed her. Becky’s Da spends every minute he can throwing money away on the cock fights. He is not alone in his pursuits. The grind does the same to families up and down the town rows. This hauling in and scooping up of wayward men from the pubs and cockfighting pits and gaming houses is a daily ritual. Gateshead and Newcastle town are booming and if a fellow seizes the chance he need never be short of work. But the fruits of this labour do not always find their way to the ever growing families which require feeding and the cottage rows in which they cram have no land fit for cultivation. It is a sorry fact that a fair portion of wages are paid in beer from the company alehouse. It is easy to drink beyond the allotted share and tabs quickly mount up. There is a sad joke that some men worked to drink, and others drank to work. Harry understands that his Da falls into the latter category. Robert makes good money as a brusherman, setting off the charges that widen and deepen the shafts, but oh, how he hated to say goodbye to the light and, instead of becoming accustomed to it, he loathed and feared the stygian blackness more each time he went down. And so, instead of a fresh warm beer in the morning, he began taking something stronger; until that no longer had its effect and he found something more potent still. He is not a loud nor an aggressive drinker, on the contrary, as the years wear down he becomes a quiet man, sitting in the corner, knocking back the drinks at a rate which might have surprised his companions had they been counting.  Trouble is it is well neigh impossible to get him off that stool and back home – timing, as Harry discovers, is everything. There is a certain point, before a kind of mad oblivion transforms him, that Da can be coaxed home for his supper. You have to address him very clearly, but respectfully, and pretend that whatever gibberish he is talking makes perfect sense. If you nod and aye convincingly then he will let you sling an arm under his and around his back and together you can amble your way to Ma’s long cooled dinner.  Harry has come to discover that his Da’s ramblings are oft times lucid in their way:  bits and pieces of stories from his days growing up in Dunston, and as a keelman on the Tyne. He has one-sided arguments with long lost companions about the boat and the water and what to watch out for. When he is fair sober he forgets these tales and he refuses ever to speak of the water.

And so it seems Harry’s destiny that he will follow the Jarrow Claspers into the colliery. At least for now he is not working the depths. It is his task to lead the gin-horses which wind the mechanism that draws the coal up the shaft. This work does not pay as well as that below ground, but his Da has forbidden he go down the shaft ‘till he is a year or two older. Impatient to prove himself as he is, Harry has agreed to the old man’s condition. He’s seen the wee trappers crawling out after an eighteen hour shift: they are like broken twigs, their eyes red with coal and crying, and all for a measly fivepence a day. Harry shivers as he takes over the care of the gin-horse. It stumbles clumsily as he swaps with the other boy, and he feels its weight bear down heavily upon him for a second. But then the creature straightens into its routine, the well-greased mechanism running lightly along with it. Harry can hear the heavy clang of the cage as it begins its descent. The Bensham seem is the deepest they have clawed out yet: 175 fathoms straight into the heart of Hell or so the brushermen, who blasted it open, claim. But Harry knows his cousin Robert is oddly proud to be a hewer of the deepest workings. It is almost a thousand feet to the river above and, given the direction the shaft plays out, it is likely that Jarrow church itself perches smugly upon them – constituting the other end of the religious spectrum, the men joke.

The conversation among those descending is minimal this morning but the outrage of the previous week is still fresh on the tongue. Three little girls were only last Tuesday sentenced at the Assizes to a months’ imprisonment in the House of Correction for confessedly lifting a small quantity of pig-iron from Hetton Colliery. There is no question the young ‘uns were wrong to do as they did; but the sentence is a hard one for their families to live with and it is disgusting that such a weight of law has been brought to bear upon such young offenders when mightn’t a good minute with the switch have resolved the matter? And hasn’t Billy Miller’s fall down the Bensham shaft to his death only the Friday previous been recorded by the same court as accidental, when everyone knows that the mine is short on Deputies with the new seem opening and that Billy’d overbalanced pulling in a tub when the shaftside had crumbled away? Why is there no sentencing of the owners, Thomas and Robert Brown, Esqrs., of London, to even one day’s hard labour in said House of Correction for such criminal penny-pinching? Robert spits on the ground as he listens to Black Jimmy’s impassioned speech. He doesn’t like Jimmy much – the man is too given to jabbering when the face is obstinate and refuses to yield to the pick and it is all you can do to put your back into it. But the fellow is right. The way things are, men cannot go on like this much longer. And the snivelling trappers well broke a man’s heart, even though nearly everyone did sneak the odd sweetie and kind word to the poor lads, as the waggons trundled by. Day in and day out, opening trap-doors; and the rest of the time sitting alone in the dark like toads. Even the Galloways get better treatment. It is scandalous. Black Jimmy is right, something is sure to give.

A half hour later Robert is at the coalface. He is sweating heavily and can barely see to raise his pick. He cannot afford a lamp of his own yet and candles are forbidden at this new depth. Black Jimmy’s Geordie lamp is quickly corroding in the humid conditions and Robert does not trust it. The man holds it up for closer inspection as it looks as if the flame is turning a faint blue behind the guard when Robert sees rather than hears one of the thin wires peel back from its mesh. He stretches out his hand but too late. Jimmy lowers the lamp to the ground and then the whole place goes up in one single ball of fire. A quarter mile above Harry feels the whump and has seconds to pull the horse away from the track and towards the open door as the flame shoots out the top of the workings. The banksmen are severely burned. None of the thirty-four miners working below survive; almost a dozen of these are lowly trapper boys, not yet ten years old. Forty-five gentle Galloway ponies, some eating oats in their underground stable, others still hitched to their load, are also blown clean off the face of the earth. The scene is black and chaotic. The pitmen topside are barely able to keep the women and children back from the gaping hole; they claw at the ground and wail pathetically for their lost husbands, fathers, brothers. There is no hope of rescue. The corpses, human and horse, are later brought up the shaft in nets. For some of the ponies it is the first time in a decade they have reached the surface. Now the sunshine plays across their carcasses.  Harry, working the gin-horse, helps in this gruesome task of recovery. It is something he never forgets. The sight and smell of the mangled flesh will stay with him for the whole of his life and, although he will work at a colliery again, he never will go down the pit.

The Abbey public house is crammed to the rafters for the wake. A collection is set up and everything is now on the House. Harry has had a few pints more than he is accustomed to and is jostling with some bigger lads towards the back. Someone has foolishly started the rumour that there will be entertainments. The older lads are joking about Sally’s ‘hams’ and calling rowdily for some ankle and the barmaid is grumpily avoiding them. Harry blushes, uncomfortable at the crude joking. These are cousin Robert’s friends and Harry is out of his depth. Robert would have taken just the right tone, have said the right words to make light of it. Harry feels a sad pang at his absence. And then from the far corner, near the bar itself, comes an odd stomping sound. The men are squeezing back, clearing room for something. In all the shoving Harry finds himself sausaged towards the front and suddenly has a clear view of the man at the centre of the circle. He is short and squarely built and he is leaning forward banging first one foot then the other hard upon the wood floor so that he looks, like a bull, as if he is about to run at something. And then he begins to call out. His voice is loud and his words carry over the swift silence in the room. Poor horse, he calls and Harry, in a flash of comprehension, understands it is a rant unfolding about the pit horses and ponies. He has heard of such performances but has never witnessed a ranter in action before. The hair on the back of his neck and down his arms prickles as the man’s voice rings out and speaks to something deep in the guts. The man bellows and shouts and then raises one arm, his voice ascending whenever he repeats the word horse so that it becomes a braying squeel. The horror of the pit and the load and the biting harness and the furious darkness as it cuts into the ponies fills the air as the ranter brings it forth so vividly. The finger of one hand stretches upward as if apportioning blame, but those who hear his words feel themselves shouldering the guilt and the devastation in his performance; in the horses’ terrible existence and fiery death.  Of course the images which flare in the mind’s eye are those of the men and boys themselves so hideously consumed by the collieries: both through their work and in their death. And so Poor horse is, on the Geordie tongue, soon Poor usand the sense of injustice cuts keenly through the room. The faces of the men crushed around the circle are red and covered in either tears or sweat, Harry cannot tell. He has never felt anything the like of it, and finds himself overwhelmed. He struggles to breathe: his body and soul held fast amongst the ranks of his neighbours which heave and buckle around him. He is dizzy and thinks he might black out.  And then, reaching a crescendo, the ranter collapses into the crowd who take up his stamping and the roar and the place erupts into chaos. Then the fiddlers start up a whirling jig and soon the wild dancing spills out into the lane and the waiting night beyond: almost enough to rouse the dead.

______________________________________________________________

Carole Green is a first time novelist. In her spare time she teaches English and sculls on the river Tyne. She also has a Masters in English.

This piece is part of an unpublished longer work on the life and times of Harry Clasper, an early professional rower and well-known Tyneside oarsman. He is one of the great Victorian sporting legends of Northern England. Clasper’s funeral was reportedly attended by a crowd of upwards 100 000 mourners. This extract is a brief description of his mining background and gives some context to his later development as a professional sportsman. Although fictionalised, the incident described is based on recorded fact – Robert Clasper is listed amongst the casualties of the Bensham disaster.

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His Excellency

By H.G. Warrender

General Washington pushed away his pen for the fourth time that night and leaned back in his mahogany chair. Though there was much work to be done here, what with the inspections remaining to be conducted on West Point and the upcoming campaign to plan, his mind was still on the matter that had come up earlier that day.

Benedict Arnold, a traitor.

They had discovered it earlier that day, arriving at the turncoat’s home as invited to discover he was not there. Shortly after, in a pile of dispatches handed him by his aide, General Washington found a message that spoke of the capture of a John Anderson, British major in disguise. This major had papers on his person that revealed Arnold’s intent to betray the fort at West Point to their enemies. Arnold, who spoke so eloquently of the American cause, had turned his back on it.

All the speeches the man had given about his loyalty to his country were true. They were just about a different country than General Washington and his army had thought.

A thought struck the general’s mind, and he gripped the pen in his hand tightly. He himself had given Arnold this command which he so desired, and all the troops accompanying it. After Arnold’s brilliant performances on the field, and professed loyalty, it had seemed a sound idea – though he had partially agreed to get Arnold off his back, as the other general was always pestering him and begging for the post. But had the knave’s plot succeeded, Washington himself would have been entirely to blame. It was only by the stroke of greatest fortune that they had avoided such an end.

General Washington felt his shoulders sag slightly, and he leaned his elbows onto the desk. There was little he would like more than to have Arnold in his power, to string the man up as he deserved. A coward’s death would suit him… as it would likely end up suiting that major who had been caught earlier. He leaned his forehead onto his palms and closed his eyes against the work that lay ahead for him. Grappling with the betrayal of General Arnold, trying to discern what he knew and what he had likely revealed to his new patrons, and figuring out what it was they were to do with the major  – it was all work that required time and deliberation. But the latter could not be had without the former, and there was very little of that.

A loud creak sounded out, signifying that the front door had just been opened, and General Washington sighed. That would be his aides returning – Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, who had ridden after Arnold once the betrayal was discovered. He doubted they had caught up, but he might as well go down.

The house – Arnold’s house – was too large and too silent. Earlier that day it had been filled with the hysterical Mrs. Arnold’s screams, but she had long since cried herself to sleep, and the rest of the household were nowhere to be seen. Washington closed the door and made his way down the hall towards the stairs. He halted suddenly as he realized that someone had already beaten him to questioning his aides. Straining his ears, he leaned forward to make out what was being said. One of the voices clearly belonged to Hamilton; the other, to his friend – and Washington’s favorite of his young officers – the Marquis de Lafayette. They conversed in rapid French, and in tones too low for much other than the language to be discernible, though a sense of urgency was . Washington descended to the first step of the staircase, and, hearing him, the voices fell silent.

He walked down the stairs and over to the door, where Hamilton and Lafayette were standing near each other. McHenry hovered behind removing his coat.

“Gentlemen,” Washington said, turning from one aide to the next as he spoke. “I assume your mission was unsuccessful?”

“Unfortunately, yes, Your Excellency,” said McHenry. “We found that Arnold has already departed on the Vulture.”

“The British warship,” Hamilton added bitterly. “The damned rascal has already joined the company of-”

“That will do, Colonel Hamilton,” said Washington coolly. He turned towards McHenry. “Thank you for making the trip, James. The other aides have left some supper for you. You may eat it and then go to your bed – not you, Alexander,” he said as the other man turned to go as well. “I should like to speak to you in my office for a moment. Marquis, if you would be so kind as to accompany us?”

“Of course, mon General.” Lafayette cast a glance at Hamilton and then fell in step as Washington led the way.

The general beckoned Hamilton over to his desk once they were inside; Lafayette, after shutting the door, swept over to them.

“This is the letter which revealed Arnold’s treachery,” said Washington, sliding a sheet of paper over to Hamilton. “It spoke of the capture of a ‘John Anderson’ and the contents of a note found upon his person. I have not sorted through all the dispatches you gave me, though I have read the one several times over.” He fixed his eyes on Hamilton, and the man lifted his gaze from the sheet of paper to meet the general’s. “I must now ask you if there is any other message from Arnold of which you are aware.”

“In fact there is.” Hamilton reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. “While Arnold has left no message for his intimates that we can discover, he did leave one for you.”

“Mon dieu, Alexander,” Lafayette murmured. “You could not have given him that first thing?”

“I wished to present it when the General could read it in peace,” Hamilton replied, though he did not look at the Marquis as he spoke; instead, those violet-blue eyes remained trained on Washington. “As I did not know what his… what your – reaction would be, Your Excellency.”

General Washington barely paid these remarks any mind. Instead, he turned the page over in his hands, studying his name across the front. How strange, to know t had been penned by a man he once considered an ally and friend, who had now betrayed all that was right and fair in their cause. For a moment, he was tempted to throw the letter into the fire, and let whatever it contained – explanations, or pleas on behalf of the lovely Mrs. Arnold, or perhaps even an apology – be lost to the flickering flames. But instead, he set it down on his desk and stood up straighter.

“Thank you, Colonel Hamilton.” He looked between the two young men. “I hardly need say that there is much work ahead of us… all of us. I will rely on both of you to help me sort through this mess.”

“Yes, Your Excellency,” said both men together.

“I have decided to turn the command of West Point over to Nathaniel Greene. I believe he will assemble a court martial to try this British major, and Lafayette, I expect you will be placed upon the committee.”

“What does that mean?” asked Lafayette.

“That you will play a part in determining his fate – whether he is to be executed or not. Hamilton, I would like you to attend and take notes for me. I shall not be able to do it myself.”

“Yes, sir. Sir…?”

“Yes, Colonel Hamilton?”

Hamilton glanced back at Lafayette, who gave him a slight nod that Washington assumed was meant to be reassuring. “We were both wondering if you had any news… about Colonel Laurens.”

“If there will be a prisoner exchange for him,” Lafayette added.

“At the moment, no such measure is being discussed,” said Washington. Both of their faces fell, and he felt a twinge of pity. Throughout the few years they had known each other, in spite of – indeed, perhaps because of – the war’s hardships, Hamilton and Lafayette had become unusually close to each other and to one of his other aides, Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens. Currently the third member of their trio was a prisoner of war in South Carolina. This news had been hard for them to grapple with, and every day since they received it, Washington heard concern for their missing friend spoken by one or the other. Washington considered all three young men as sons, and besides that, Laurens was both a good aide and a good soldier. He wanted his return to take place as quickly as possible.

“Rest assured that I desire Colonel Laurens back every bit as much as you do,” he said gently. “At present, though, this business with Arnold must be our chief concern.”

“Yes, General Washington,” said Lafayette quietly.

“Is there anything else?” asked Hamilton.

“No, not tonight. I shall have need of you both tomorrow, though. For now…” He gestured to the door. “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Good night, sir.”

“Bonne nuit, mon general,” said Lafayette. He slipped his hand into Hamilton’s and led him away.

The door closed behind them, and Washington turned his attention to Arnold’s note. He picked it up, unfolded it, and read by the light of the candle:

“Sir,

The heart which is conscious of its own rectitude, cannot attempt to paliate a step, which the world may censure as wrong. I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country. Since the commencement of the present unhappy contest between Great Britain and the Colonies, the same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world: who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”

Washington closed the paper and set it aside.

He had all night to read through this man’s excuses, to oblige the self-pitying remarks of a traitor and a scoundrel by letting his eyes take them in. He did not, however, have the patience that would enable him to do so. Nor the self-control.

Instead, he turned back to the letter he had been drafting before Hamilton and McHenry came through the door. The words of Arnold – now safe among the men he had betrayed this country for – could wait.

For now, Washington had work to do.

______________________________________________________________

H.G. Warrender is a self-published author with a passion for the American Revolution. When not writing short stories or working on one of her books, she can be found reading biographies on her back porch. You can find some more of her work on her blog theeccentricauthor.wordpress.com.

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In the Vale

By Nyri A. Bakkalian

Gettysburg, 2 July 1863

Even with the sun down at long last, it was still terribly, disgustingly hot.

The men were beyond tired, all of them: tired as hell. Exhausted and hungry and bloodied and reeling after the long hard slog through that Pennsylvanian hell on earth. Now the day’s battle had receded to either side’s artillery providing an undertone of distant thunder peppered by the sporadic pop-pop-thwack of pickets. The weary men sat to rest in the vale, amid the ghastly forms of fallen friend and foe among the growing shadows that crisscrossed the mighty blood-stained rocks. Battle-scarred trees, that’d been another source of so much shrapnel and debris that day, towered overhead.

Captain Walter Goodale Morrill sat near his resting men, utterly exhausted, carbine set down beside him on the dirt as he listlessly looked on. He keenly envied the ones who could sleep despite it all. Given everything he’d seen, Morrill wasn’t sure he’d have been able to get there. After all, to say the day was absolute murder would’ve been a severe understatement. Would Morrill ever find the words to express what he and the regiment had seen and endured? Would he ever be able to properly comprehend what he’d done, in all of its grim detail?

He could still see the scene, hanging invisibly but close around him in the little vale, like the battlefield haze. Detached to protect the flank, when the shooting grew hot, they’d risen from the stone wall in time to see the rest of the regiment of Mainers careen down the rock-strewn hill, a tidal wave crashing down on the men in gray, a mighty, mingled roar piercing the battle’s deafening thunder.

Morrill’s little company, amply armed, unexpectedly reinforced by the professional soldiers of a passing regular Army sharpshooter company, quickly chose to act. They fired and hollered like mad, even as they charged into the rebels’ flank. In a moment, they’d rejoined their regiment in its breathless, swift charge, into the bloody maelstrom. They were so close to the enemy, even amidst the enemy’s retreat, that at times it felt like they’d strayed too far into the gray lines, but the momentum was theirs. The rebels were running as fast as they could, out of the dense forest and across the sweltering fields of Adams County, with the pride of New England close behind them.

The exhausted captain rubbed at his eyes. Distantly, scattered sharpshooter fire continued in the lengthening evening shadows. It simply boggled the mind. How could he ever hope to do justice to this, and to tell this story?

Morrill started at the sound of snapping twigs and crunching gravel, fingers instinctively closing around his waiting carbine. A little knot of men approached him out of the growing darkness. Then they were close enough that he could make out their faces, and when he saw the stand of banners that followed them, the tension suddenly dropped off.

“Colonel Chamberlain, sir,” Morrill greeted the mustachioed officer who led them. He rose to his feet with a perfunctory salute. Thank God, he thought in silent relief. Good to see friendly faces. Close behind Chamberlain followed the color guard, bullet-torn, flame-scorched banners rising out of the shadows. Morrill could just barely make out the words beneath the eagle on the blue regimental standard: 20th REGIMENT MAINE VOLUNTEERS.

“Captain Morrill,” the professor-turned-colonel greeted him, “Been quite a day.” The men loved him. He’d come in as green as anyone, but had quickly proven himself more than capable of leadership and more than worthy of their trust. After all, he’d stood right with them through that terrible battle, just like all the other battles that’d come before.

“Ayuh, ayuh,” Morrill replied briskly in the Mainer affirmative, “that it has, sir, and a long day too. But I’d say we’re in mighty fine shape considering.”

Chamberlain turned and pointed up the big hill that sloped skyward to Morrill’s right. “It’s been a long day, but you know we’ve still got work to do. The enemy pickets, probably still men of Hood’s division, still aren’t that far. Orders from Colonel Rice are that we’re to secure that summit there.”

Morrill wiped the sweat from his eyes and glanced over his shoulder, through the treeline and up the steady, rock-strewn slope.

“Securing the summit,” he echoed distantly. “Yes, sir.”

Their gaze met through the murky twilight. Morrill saw a moment of fatigue in Chamberlain’s eyes. The man was good at hiding it, but there were moments like this one when Morrill could see through the carefully cultivated mask of command the man so prized. When, the captain wondered, had the colonel last slept?

But that glimmer was only a moment, for just as quickly, the steel was back in his voice.

“Those are our orders, so I’m heading up there. Any of your men who can follow should do so.”

Morrill saluted. “Sir.”

He hurried to rejoin his men, back where they still rested at the end of the vale. When Morrill was close enough to see them clearly in the ever-gathering darkness, he saw that those who’d been within earshot of his conversation with Colonel Chamberlain were wearily rising. Others, catching their meaning, were following them. The ones with ready ammunition had already begun reloading rifles and pistols. Others were picking over the detritus of the day’s slaughter, hunting for any stray rounds they could salvage from the abandoned cartridge boxes of the dead.

For a moment, the captain found he envied those who had fallen, who kept his men company in silent, final vigil. After all, the dead’s own part in this ghastly work was done, and they had no worries about orders and ammunition and provisions and enemy pickets. Would his turn to join them come next?

No. There was no time for such ghastly reflections. Morrill shook his head, sighed, and took a knee beside the company and set to reloading his carbine.

Yes, morose reflection could wait. For now, there was work to do.

______________________________________________________________

Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American and adopted Pittsburgher. A military historian by training, she’s an artist and writer whose work has appeared on InatriMetropolis JapanGutsy Broads, and Queer PGH. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Check out her blog at sparrowdreams.com, and come say hello on Twitter at @riversidewings.

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