The Trail

By Katie Frankel

By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.

I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.

There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.

Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.

I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.

Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.

Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.

Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.

We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.

We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.

She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.

Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.

I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.

“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.

She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.

Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.

Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.

Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.

 

We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.

Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.

We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.

“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”

“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”

He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.

We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.

After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.

The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.

______________________________________________________________

Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.

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Daniel W. Galef

Dagobert to Childebert

 

Poor King! Knew ye strength stems from God alone?

For even Hercules or Samson falters.

I, blood of Merovech, served foreign altars

Since your father stole my locks and throne.

Was I as blind as Samson, too? Perhaps

I thought my power, robbed, lay in my tresses.

In fact, the crown itself, a Robe of Nessus,

Means nothing by the mayors’ pointed caps.

A king is born to rule. So has it stood

Since first the Lord saw fit kings to ordain.

Had I the might of Samson, then I could

Topple Grimoald’s palace round his head;

Instead, I’ll sit and serve my meager reign,

Till those who rule decide I’m better dead.

______________________________________________________________

Daniel W. Galef has published poetry in Measure, Light Quarterly, and the Lyric, among others. He has also written short fiction, sketch comedy, science & technology journalism, and two musical plays, one of which won the First Prize at the 2016 McGill Drama Festival and the Krivy Award for Excellence in Playwriting. This poem is part of a series of “Imaginary Sonnets” modeled on those composed by Lee-Hamilton in 1888 in his collection of the same title–persona poems that function as verse soliloquies in the voice of literary and historical characters.

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A Grave Mistake

By Carrie Martin

Night grips London with a cold and unholy darkness. A sad, sliver of a moon hangs in the smog and drizzle that engulf the terraces and lonely streets. Flames flicker behind curtains drawn to the evil that lurks outside. Barely a light to see by as I hobble and weave round the mounds of sodden rubbish and horse crap. The stink from the cesspools is unbearable. My eyes are raw with it. The puddled cobbles have seeped inside my shoes, through the newspaper and into my socks. Fingerless mitts are useless on a night like this. I stuff my hands into my jacket pockets.

The doors of an alehouse fling open, wafting pipe smoke and sweet malt. Four disheveled lads pour out, drunk as emperors. A British soldier struts after them, immaculately dressed in his red coat and black hat. He jingles a pouch of coins, and pats one of the lads on the back.

“Evenin’,” I say with a nod and a tip of my flat-cap, keeping my head down, out of the dim light of the alehouse doors.

They mumble a greeting as they stumble after the soldier like rats with the Pied Piper. Off to the next alehouse to get yet more blathered and sign their lives away.

I’d kill for a tankard myself, but I can’t stop tonight.

I duck into an alleyway — a shortcut to the edge of the city — hands fisted inside my pockets, arming myself against scrappers or thieves. Or worse.

A rat scuttles past my feet, black eyes glistening, tail slithering. And then something shuffles up ahead. Something bigger than a rat, coming from the deepest, darkest shadows of the alleyway. I jump to a standstill and brace for a fight, my poor heart racing. But it’s a girl who steps out before me: dampened, frizzy locks erupting from her bonnet, her face gaunt and mottled with scars.

I exhale loudly and relax some. My imagination is running riot — and is it any wonder at this late hour, with the ghastly work I have agreed to?

“Fancy some fun, Mister?” says the waif of a girl, thrusting out her bony chest. Her smile is a grimace of wrecked teeth.

It sickens my heart to see such a sorry creature. She can’t be much older than my own son.

“Here, lass,” I say, handing her two pennies from my pocket. “Grab yourself a bed for the night, somewhere safe.”

She stares at those pennies in her hand and her eyes well with tears. “Thank you, Sir.” Then she scurries away, skirt flapping, back into the heart of this soulless city.

I’d better hope tonight pays off or the wife will have my guts for garters for giving money away when the rent is past due. But if Caleb is right — what he said in the Coal Hole tavern where I met him, drowning my sorrows — I’ll have a guinea by the morrow, enough to survive for a month.

I continue on, out the alleyway and over the empty road. The drizzle is letting up but it’s dark as death now the city is behind me, sweeping fields ahead. Skeleton trees line the road, shivering in the wind. And here, the church and cemetery, surrounded by a great stone wall. Tucked between the wall and wrought iron gate is a smart-suited figure with shoulder-length hair and a cocked hat. Right where he said he’d be.

“Aye, Owen. I thought you’d gotten cold feet,” says Caleb, springing up to shake my hand with a glove that is smooth as skin and cuffed with fur.

“Sorry Caleb. Took a bit for the wife to drop off.” I can’t have Edna knowing about this. I told her I’d sort it, and I will. I’ll just have to get creative with the truth, is all.

Caleb jangles the lock on the gate, and soon there is a flame growing bigger and brighter, the swish of a black cloak as the groundskeeper appears before us like a ghost. Scraggly hair pokes out of his knitted cap. His beady eyes and crooked nose glow wickedly behind the burning rag he holds on a stick. He inserts his key into the lock and creaks open the gate, just enough to let us squeeze through to the church grounds.

“Alright, Russell,” says Caleb.

Russell grunts in response as he locks up again, entirely ignoring my presence. There are no introductions, which suits me fine. I hope I never see Russell again.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we,” says Russell in a voice as gruff as his manner.

Caleb gives me a raised eyebrow, an amused smile, as Russell swooshes around and starts up the path, lighting the way for us to follow. It seems to take forever with his slow, bowlegged gait. It gives me too much time to think, to worry, to see the gravestones of crosses and angels looming in the darkness. I can almost hear the dead whispering their disapproval, restless beneath them.

We wrap round the church entrance and tower, and stop at a small wooden extension. Russell opens the door and illuminates the inside of a tool shed with his burning rag.

“Grab that wheelbarrow,” Caleb tells me.

I tip the heavy thing upright, onto its legs and front wheel. Caleb sets to work filling it with various bits of equipment: shovel, rope, canvas sack and sheet. Then he takes a second shovel and a metal rake, and we head back outside into the freezing night.

The gravestones are plainer down this grassy side, and squished together in rows like teeth. Crows caw unhappily in the trees above us, shaking the branches as they flap furiously away into the surrounding fields.

“Here he is,” says Caleb, stabbing his shovel into a rectangle of soil — the cemetery’s most recent burial.

My legs go weak. My breath catches. I lower the wheelbarrow and read the headstone.

 

In Memory of

Bartholomew Augustus Riseborough

Died April 1st 1795

Aged 33 years

 

I’m not a churchgoer, not really, but I sign the cross now, Lord help me. I picture my wife and son, in this grave instead of Mr. Riseborough. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I must do this. What choice do I have?

Caleb must sense my reluctance for he whips out a flask and tucks it in my hand. “Get some of this down you.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Never mind what is it, just drink it,” he says.

Russell watches with his beady eyes, silent behind his flickering glow.

I swig back at least half the flask, ignoring the sickly sweet, bitterly strong taste. It burns down my esophagus and into my belly, warms and numbs me from head to toe. “Gorblimey, that’s harsh.”

I offer the flask to Russell but he shakes his head, so I return it to Caleb who happily downs the whole lot.

“Bourbon whiskey that. The good stuff,” says Caleb, wiping his lips. Then he lays the sheet at the head of the grave, and shows me where to dig with the spade of his shovel. “You just want to uncover the top half, stick it on the sheet. Then we can snap the lid open and hoist the body out.”

I grab the other shovel and set to work, scooping up the wet soil and tossing it onto the sheet.

“That’s it,” says Caleb approvingly as he matches me shovel for shovel. Then, with a smile, “Hell of a mouthful, his name. Fancy being called that all your life.”

“I had an uncle Bartholomew once, if you don’t mind,” says Russell, his thick wiry eyebrows dipped in an angry V.

“And were his other names long-winded and pompous too?” says Caleb.

Russell’s eyes get even beadier, if such a thing is possible.

I’m full of boozy adrenaline, sick to my stomach with what I’m about to do, but I cannot help but laugh. “It’s certainly the sort of name you’d associate with a man of means. Though you’d expect more of a headstone than this, if that were so.”

“Oh, he had money, all right,” says Russell. “He was a merchant banker. A banker who didn’t get round to writing his own bloody will. Can you believe that? It was his missus that chose this for him. Didn’t shed a single tear at his funeral, either. Didn’t even look that distraught, though I saw her dab her eyes a time or two.”

“I’d be doing a jig on his grave if I was inheriting what she is,” says Caleb, leaning on his shovel handle and catching his breath. “Might have to try bumping into her sometime. Aye, wouldn’t that be something.” He smirks and starts digging again.

“You’ve got the looks and the clothes to impress a lady, I’ll give you that.” I’d be stomping on dough in that damp, drafty cellar for weeks to afford an outfit so grand — when there was flour to be had. There’s only so much chalk and alum you can add to a loaf, and the boss had to let me go. “How come you’re all dandied-up for digging, anyway?”

“Because it’s risky enough carting a body around at night, but nobody thinks twice when you’re dressed all important, like. Aye, I’m not just a pretty face, me. And what a body we’ve got here… A man, young enough, no visible diseases, practically handed to us on a platter. Doesn’t get any better than this.”

I wonder what sort of cut Caleb is paying Russell to risk his job and squeeze out the competition for us on a find like this. But it’s impolite to ask, so I just keep shoveling.

“You won’t have to dig far,” says Russell. “The dead are piling up in this city, what with this rotten winter and all the pox. We’re having to bury them on top of each other.”

Now I really do feel sick. He has a way with words, our Russell.

“Remember what I said yesterday,” says Caleb, taking another break to address me. “It’s just a body, a shell, and there’s no point it going to waste, feeding the maggots. So long as we take nothing they owned — no jewelry, no clothes, no shoes — it’s not even illegal. You can’t own a corpse, see. And they just can’t get enough of them, these anatomy students. Even with all the hangings in the gallows of late.”

“It’s a mad world is this,” I say, shaking my head as I scoop another shovelful. “Men hanged for pinching bread but not for this. Makes no sense to me.”

Caleb points his shovel at me. “Exactly!” he says, and resumes his shoveling with gusto. “It’s all right for them, sitting pretty at the top, making laws to suit them as they go. Using us up and spitting us out, then killing us off when we’re knackered and desperate. It’s never them that hang, is it? Well, they’ll not get the better of me. I’ll not break my back to make another man rich, and I won’t end up in the gallows!”

Maybe he’s right, and morality is nothing more than words on paper, made not of heart but of mind. Then guilt and shame are self-inflicted, pointless things, and who is to say what is right? Do the rich sleep soundly in their beds while the necks of poor folk choke in their noose, simply because they have written it so?

We work for a while in silence, to the mesmerizing beat of slice-thump-slice-slice-thump-thump. Wind whips wetness at us from the church roof and trees, sending shadows dancing and darting beneath Russell’s ever-shrinking flame. Soil piles higher and higher upon the sheet as we get lower and lower into the grave. We dig till I’m sweating beneath my clothes, my breath puffing out in great clouds. My bad knee is seizing up, my back aching, when finally I strike something flat and hard with my shovel.

“I think I’ve hit the—”

I’m interrupted by a muffled but roaring moan, coming from the casket. The three of us freeze in horror — me, bent over the casket. An icy chill creeps up my spine. My heart pounds wildly. The dead man has risen to wreak vengeance upon us for disturbing his grave!

An almighty fit of bashing and banging ensues. I grip my shovel for dear life.

“Heeelp! Get me out of here!” roars the dead man.

“My God, he’s alive,” says Russell, the first to come to his senses. And oh, but I am a fool.

“Quickly, clear the muck off and snap the wood,” says Caleb.

We scrape and fling the remaining soil every which way, revealing the shiny wood beneath. Caleb jams his shovel under the lid of the casket. I get beside him, do the same, and we push down with all our weight to wedge it open. The top half of the casket cracks apart, and there’s Mr. Riseborough, wriggling and struggling with the shroud he’s been wrapped in. Only his face is visible under that white sheet, and he’s staring up at us with bulging round eyes, his mouth absurdly agape.

All at once his face retracts into an expression of mere confusion, his gentlemanly composure restored. In his posh accent he says, “What the bloody hell… Who are you?”

“Your saviours. That’s who we are,” says Caleb, and swings the rope down to him.

Mr. Riseborough frees his arms from the shroud, and we hoist him out of that muddy hole, grunting and cursing, until he’s on the ground. Then we unravel the rest of him, uncovering his three-piece suit and buckled shoes, and pull him to his feet. He thanks us profusely as he straightens his wonky poodle-like wig and swats at the mud on his fancy suit.

Russell’s got the burning rag in Mr. Riseborough’s long-nosed face, and we’re gawking at him, wondering what the hell happens next. But Mr. Riseborough isn’t interested in us. He’s too busy frowning at his gravesite, squinting and leaning in to read the common-man’s headstone with his name on it. Russell moves his flame over the stone, highlighting the heartless engraving.

“I don’t understand,” says Mr. Riseborough. “I’m as fit as a fiddle. How is it that I was presumed dead and buried in such an undignified manner? How could my wife let this happen?”

“You should’ve got your will written then,” says Russell. “Spelt out exactly what you wanted.”

“I didn’t think it necessary, what with my good health, no children and only a wife to consider. I presumed she would take care of… Oh, I feel quite nauseous.”

Then Mr. Riseborough unleashes an almighty belch, the likes of which I’ve never heard from a gentleman. It stinks to high heaven of something vaguely familiar. He puts a hand to his chest. “I do beg my pardon.”

Russell jerks backward as if he’s been shot, while I subtly turn from the fumes. But Caleb — God knows what he’s up to — he leans in to get a good sniff.

“It’s no wonder you’re feeling sick, Bartholomew,” says Caleb. “You’ve a stink of almonds on your breath. That’s cyanide is that.”

“Cyanide? What?” Realization dawns on Mr. Riseborough’s face. “I thought that cup of tea tasted odd, but we had just hired a new maid, and so I didn’t think much about it. But who…” He glances back at the headstone, clenches his hands into fists. “My wife! But how did she get away with it?”

Russell smiles slyly, as if he knew the answer all along.

“The question is, what are you going to do about it now?” says Caleb.

Mr. Riseborough acknowledges this with a slight nod, then paces back-and-forth aside his grave, hands clasped behind his back, furrowing and un-furrowing his brow. He stops suddenly, throws his arm in the air, and says, “How would you like to earn yourselves ten guineas each?”

“It’s not illegal, is it?” I ask.

“Not at all.”

And then he explains…

* * * * *

It’s past midnight and I’m at the pillared entrance of a huge window-spotted brick house, yanking and ringing the bell. Caleb and Russell are with me, grinning like idiots. And there in the wheelbarrow, hidden in the sack, is the lumpy, curled-up shape of Mr. Riseborough.

Silently he lies in wait — a little surprise for his “loving” wife.

Perhaps Mrs. Riseborough will drop dead herself when she sees him.

______________________________________________________________

Carrie Martin is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and a writer of quirky and dark (she started writing for children but somehow grew older and darker). British and Canadian-bred, she lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and ezines. Read more at carriemartin.ca

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The White Ship

By Richard Comerford

She was called la Blanche-Nef – The White Ship.

She was undoubtedly a fine vessel, but not intended to  carry so many passengers and crew. There were over three hundred on board when she set sail from Barfleur  in Normandy just before midnight . The sea was calm, but there was little moonlight, and as most aboard, passengers and crew, had consumed considerable quantities of wine the required standards of seamanship  fell by the minute. It was November-cold.

Thomas FitzStephen stood proudly in the stern, next to his helmsman, yet he was uneasy as he surveyed the chaos before him. The rowers bent their backs, but their rhythm was gone and sometimes their oars flailed at empty air, or merely raised weak  splashes.

He had offered the use of his ship to the King that day, pointing out his wish to serve as had his father, Stephen Fitz Airaid, served the King’s father William  54 years before. His ship  Mora had carried the Norman Duke across the Channel to invade England.

King Henry had thanked him, saying he was pleased with his own vessel, but he had entrusted Thomas with many of his entourage, including his sons William and Richard and his daughter Matilda. William the Atheling was an important charge, as he would be the next Duke of Normandy and would inherit Henry’s  crown.

And… he was the young nobleman who, swaying slightly from too much wine,had  ordered Thomas to chase and overtake the King’s ship which had left before them.

Thomas was not pleased, but knew he had to do as he was bidden, and he gave orders accordingly while he looked at the noisy, drunken young men and women making merry on his beautiful ship. Free from the stern eye of the King they were intent on making the most of their brief freedom. He had certainly not approved of the boorish manner in which they had driven off a group of pious priests who had merely wished to bless the ship and her voyage. The baffled  priests had retreated in the face of a storm of abuse and sneers.

Surely it is bad luck to turn away a priest – many priests – who come from God to bless your venture…?

He heard a loud voice – Prince Richard of Lincoln, one of the King’s sons, he thought –exhort the rowers to greater efforts.  “Come on, my lads, put your backs into  it! Don’t  you want more wine?”

“Yes, my lord!” replied one forward oarsman.

“Then row as you never rowed before!”

A loud belch from his helmsman was followed by the unhappy man vomiting over the side, momentarily surrendering the tiller. It swung wildly before Thomas could grab it and steady the ship.

Dear God, have we lost our course?  If only there were more moonlight…  Where is Quilleboeuf?

Quilleboeuf was a large rock, feared by all sailors in these waters, which appeared and vanished with the tides.

“Sorry, Captain,” muttered the helmsman. “Wine…”

“Are we clear of Quilleboeuf?”

The man’s vacant expression was alarming, but he attempted to appear in control of himself.  “ Yes, Captain, we must have cleared her by now.”

Please, dear God, be right….

Some of the passengers had started to sing, and oarsmen joined in, first tentatively – as befitted their stations – then lustily.

“Are you well enough to continue?” Thomas asked the tillerman desperately.

He looked wounded – wounded and drunk.  “Yes, Captain,” he said proudly. “This is my ship, and I will – “

Quilleboeuf had in fact been waiting off their port beam, and now she struck. The ship  tore alongside the rock, which ripped out and shattered two planks. The bank of portside oars  were sheared and snapped like kindling.

The ship listed to port immediately, as water poured in through the long, wide gash. Her superior construction and materials were no match for the icy sea which, moments before had been calm and benign.

The portside oarsmen were first to react, dropping their broken  blades, half-rising in their seats…….before the sharp lurch of the ship tossed them overboard to a man.

The starboard side rose up as the portside dipped, and the oars on that side thrashed at the air. Drunken revellers  slid in a human wave towards the sea which now boiled with turbulence.  The oarsmen tumbled from their posts and fell among the  panicking crowd.

Women screamed.

Men roared, and screamed.

Thomas stared in horror, hanging on grimly to the first thing his hands found, the tiller again. Of the tillerman there was no sign.

The King’s heir is in my charge……

The weight of bodies tumbling to one side, together with the  inrushing water, was too much for the proud ship.  Ninety seconds after striking the rock she capsized and all went into the water.  Some, those closest  to the port  beam, were dragged under the upturned vessel as she turned turtle and  were left to fight their way out. The lucky ones were thrown clear.

But few were lucky this night.

The sea was filled with struggling humanity, of whom hardly any could swim.

Thomas was carried, still clinging to the tiller, under the ship. His lungs burning, he felt his way along the tiller to the side of the ship and found blessed open water where he rose to the surface.  Two small lifeboats had broken free, but were now both hidden by dozens of terrified people clinging to them, trying to get on board. Those already in relative safety vigourously sought to dislodge the invaders in order to preserve the own positions.

Others threshed and screamed and sank around this ghastly scene.

Thomas bumped into a large piece of  spar, probably broken from the mainmast, and gratefully clung on to it. To his shame. he hoped no-one would seek to share his good fortune.

Dear Lord, I have never been so cold.

Horrified, he watched in the thin moonlight silhouettes of his fellow men fighting each other to stay alive.

The shouts… as of battle…

The awful, awful screams.

Is this hell….? What of my King’s children?  Will I die here?

He did not know how long he had been in the water, but knew he fell unconscious for a while. He was losing feeling in his extremities as the bitter cold ate its way towards his vitals. The screams were dwindling as the victims, weakened by their revelry, efforts to survive, and fear  gave up and succumbed to warm, watery sleep.

Then, a dreadful quiet.

“Does anyone live?” a voice called weakly from a few feet away.

Hope!  “I do. Thomas FItzStephen, Captain.”

“I am Geoffrey de l’Aigle”

“And I am Berold, the butcher,” said another voice. “I think we must be the only ones left alive?”

Stephen panicked. “What of the King’s heir, William?”

“I saw him, sir, in a small boat…” started Berold

“Thank God…”

“But he heard cries for help from the Lady Matilda, and turned back for her?”

“Please tell me he succeeded…”

“I am sorry, Captain. Too many tried to board him. I fear he is lost. We have not heard of him these many minutes. Now all is still.”

Thomas  could no longer fight the exhaustion and cold. He could not stand before his King and tell him he had lost his children, and the heir to England. Better to sleep……  He would answer to God.

“God forgive me,” h e mouthed, and let go of the  spar.

Without his lifeline, it was easy to slip under the cold, dark water to Oblivion.

And, with Henry’s heir drowned, England slipped into the Anarchy.

______________________________________________________________

Richard Comerford is a former lawyer, now happily retired, living with his Wife in a small village in middle England. Since leaving the Law, he has been engaged in writing a Novel, which is now complete, and has been looking out a Novel, Screenplay, and some Short Stories he wrote many years ago, prior to succumbing to raising a family and earning a living. He wrote “The White Ship” in answer to a challenge from his Wife. She gave him the brief description of the subject matter, and he wrote the Story. It should be clear that he wants, after all these years, to be a Writer.

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A Nice Man

By John Means

The “Sieg Heil” salute began, louder and more orchestrated than the previous impromptu chants–each repetition rumbling through the stadium structure like thunder claps. Echoes reverberated in between the chants, as if some god of the earth or the sky was working with us. With them, I mean.

Now practiced actors, we stood and joined—the performance which kept us safe. After what seemed a quarter of an hour, the chant gradually subsided, but with isolated pockets continuing here and there.

Hitler stood, waiting, a tiny figure, a speck in the distance, but his waiting was having its effect. Over several minutes the shouts gradually died off until the entire stadium was obediently hushed into silence. Still he waited. No one moved, not a whisper or even a cough in the entire stadium. It became just Hitler and me. Then he began.

When I heard his first words coming through the loud speakers, I did not immediately recognize their meanings because they seemed to be in the tongue of a supernatural power. It was only a momentary sensation, and then I was able to understand, but I will never forget the strangeness of those few moments (or were they even moments at all?) when I heard that other-worldly voice.

As he built into a rhythm of statements, I began to think that I had never heard such a human voice. It sounded like a trumpet, an artificially amplified one, giving orders in staccato. I had heard his voice on radio, but here it seemed to have no substance but command.

We all sat mesmerized, as if dead. We all sat motionless, as one. Ira, Simon, Nahum, Reb Benjamin, Father and I were no longer Jews. We were passive beings with no identity, like all the others.

I tried to listen to the content of his speech. “There are times in the history of nations when a decisive moment arrives. The coming election is a time to decide between a Germany divided by classes, parties, and religions; and a Germany of one will. The unemployment and misery of the last thirteen years have led to thirty political parties—all lined up against one another.” He then referred to paying a billion marks for a loaf of bread after the French and Belgians invaded and occupied the Ruhr in 1923. And we had to pay reparations. Reparations!

Was he suggesting, I wondered, that Germany should go to war against France and Belgium again? Father had told me several times that he thought Hitler’s ultimate plan was to do just that. France or Belgium, then, would not be a safe place for any expatriate German Jew when the “Nazi army” came sweeping through.

Here we all were, tens of thousands of us in a sports stadium, listening to one man tell us what to think. Was he the best or the worst among us? I began to look around and observe more faces of my “fellow” countrymen. They were transfixed. One man’s mouth gaped open. Another shook his head repeatedly in agreement in short bobs, almost resembling the Hasidim in prayer.

I wondered if this crowd was demonstrating the description of the Irish poet Yeats, whom I had read in English: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Father had quoted this line, written in 1920, many times. It was from “The Second Coming.”

My feeling that Hitler had hypnotized this mass of people into mute, obedient automatons was in stark contrast to my involuntary fascination with his guttural voice and his piercing, rhythmical emphasis on certain words. His rhetoric and his delivery could almost trick me into believing what he was saying. Those who were not Jewish were having no trouble deepening their loyalty to The Leader.

Hitler spoke of parties. Why not? After the lack of work and food and fuel, parties were the most prevalent topic of conversation throughout the country. Hitler said there were thirty-four parties here in one small country. Workers have three or four because one is not enough. The masses, who are not intelligent (he actually said this right in front of these masses), have to have even more. Management has its party; farmers, three or four; landlords; tenants. The Catholics have their party (Mother’s Zentrum); the Bavarians; the Thuringenians.

Each party that he named was accompanied by a different hand gesture, visible even from our great distance. I thought of Pepe, who had always noted and praised the great variety of people who could be found upon the earth and especially in Paris. However, Hitler was citing the great variety of political parties as a censure and condemnation an ugly divisiveness in the country.

He concluded that Germany needed only one party, the party of the German Volk, the party that will never give up the struggle, “the only party that has the courage and will to act.” He drove home, “we must not allow classes and cliques to develop among you.”

Were we Jews one of the “cliques” which must not be allowed to develop?

Suddenly I wanted to flee the stadium. It was worse than being jammed among the beery Nazis inside the train.

Hitler twice referred to the time when the party consisted of only seven members and to the approaching time when it would be the one and only power. He continued his theatrical (and rehearsed?) emphatic gestures, especially with his right hand raised through different sweeps into the air.

Then, with both hands raised over his head, backs of his hands toward the audience and fingers spread widely apart (visible from our great distance, even), he shook his hands toward the sky, his head and eyes upward (to God?!), and he ranted that the leadership of “the best blood” would never relinquish what it had taken years to attain. All around us, again the cheer, the chant, the salute went up, and spiritlessly, we followed.

I am only a youth, but I can read the writing on the wall. It says, “Death to the Jews,” and in reality we have all seen it already scrawled in red on walls everywhere. We Jews are certainly not the ones with “the best blood.”

I thought of Mother. She, a French Catholic but mistaken for a Jew, had been beaten senseless on a crowded railway platform by three boys of my age in uniform. And no one had raised a voice. The Nazis were already above the law. When would all of the Jews, and all of those considered to be Jews, be murdered without a murmur of protest against “the only party that has the courage and will to act”?

When the people on the station platform saw the three uniformed Hitler Youth beating a woman, they no doubt said to themselves, “it’s only a Jew,” and they might not have been National Socialists but Social Democrats, Communists, or even Catholic Zentrum.

Hitler ended his speech abruptly and walked from the podium, out of sight. Everyone erupted wildly.

Goebbels appeared, spoke briefly, and then the entire stadium went up into the Horst Wessel Song. When they sang “the ranks close tightly” of the first line, Father took my arm and led me out. The rest of our group followed closely, and we cleared the stadium well before the song was finished. We broke into a jog for the station in order to beat the crowd. We could still hear the singing hundreds of meters behind us. Then I remembered my vow not to board the train.

“Father, I am not getting on that train. I mean it,” I said, but he paid no attention and kept leading us on our jog through the town. As we came within a few blocks of the station, we found the streets already clogged with people who had come there from another part of the stadium. I did not want to go another step into another mob of Nazis.

“Father,” I said more emphatically, “I mean it. I am walking and running home from here.” He slowed to a stop, and the others did, too.

“David, don’t be ridiculous. It’s a hundred kilometers.”

“Haven’t we talked about my running to France to escape the pogrom? What do you think this is? I want to escape the Nazis. I know the way. I can be home by noon tomorrow.”

Father stared at me for about ten seconds. He knew that I meant what I was saying.

“Go ahead,” he said to the others, “get on the train. We’re coming later, after the crowd has passed.”

After several exchanges, they left us, and Father said, “I remember riding in the wagons up to the trenches. I know how you feel, David, and there is no reason we have to do that. You make a good point about escaping the Nazi mob, but tonight with hundreds or thousands of them driving on the road, I do not want you out there running. I do not want you ending up like Mother. Come on, follow me. I just remembered something.”

He went up a side street, perpendicular to the flow of the crowd. We walked several blocks through streets that were nearly empty and then another two kilometers around a ring road. Father walked quickly, and I was surprised at his stamina.

“If we move quickly, we might just get lucky.”

Finally Father stopped at an intersection of the ring road and one of the main roads from town. Along this main road, people were lined up, as if waiting for a parade.

“I thought so,” Father said and worked us to a relatively quiet spot next to a light pole on the street.

“Hitler’s entourage will be coming out this way to the airport. You can get a good look at him up close–something you can remember for the rest of your life.”

Father was being facetious but truthful.

After about half of an hour, three trucks passed by, two filled with SA and the last with SS. These were followed by cars filled with men in Nazi uniforms. Then we heard wild cheering. About a half of a block away, we saw an open car approaching. It was Hitler, standing and giving his Nazi salute to the adoring crowd. He looked quite proud of himself. Slowly, gradually, he moved toward us. We did not have a direct sight line but had to catch glimpses through the obstructions of crowd and Nazi flags. He looked a bit like a marble statue propped up in the front seat. Resembling a minor god?

As he neared us, Father said, “We do not need to give the salute this time, David.”

“What?! We’re still in the same crowd,” I whispered.

“No, we’re safe here.”

I thought Father had lost his senses, but I was not going to question him.

I do not know what I was expecting to see, but I could not believe my eyes when I saw the open Mercedes-Benz move into full, unobstructed view only about 20 meters away.

Hitler was standing in the front passenger area holding onto the top of the windscreen and onto his hat with his left hand, and giving his Nazi salute with his right. He seemed to be looking at each face on our side of the street, at some longer than others. When the car was only five meters away, he looked directly at me. He had very good posture, but he looked exhausted. A strand of slick hair lay across his forehead. His eyes, however, were not tired. They had a strange, bluish “glow” (I do not know what word to use) which held my gaze. Although I knew that his car was moving, it seemed as if he had stopped and suspended himself there to look at me. Everything else in my peripheral vision blurred away, and time seemed to stop.

Then I wondered if he might be waiting for me to give the salute, but I obeyed Father, not Hitler.

He looked over at Father, sternly. To rebuke the parent, I thought. But then his head tilted back in surprise and recognition. He immediately leaned down to his driver, and the Mercedes stopped, right in front of us.

Hitler let himself out the car. The crowd pressed in from the sides and back for a closer view and fell silent as he walked directly toward Father with a very military bearing. His hair shined from perspiration. I was surprised he was only about a meter and three-quarters in height. He was looking straight at Father, but the sternness changed quickly to a smile of what looked like brotherly recognition. Was this really Hitler? He walked slowly, and except for the intensity of his eyes, he looked very ordinary. I was incredulous that he should.

Was he going to denounce Father because he and his son had not given the salute? Certainly Hitler could do as he wished, just as any Nazi could, just as the Hitler Youth had done on the station platform. But Hitler was looking pleased. He looked like a nice man.

As he stepped up to Father, he extended his right hand and said, “Johann.”

“Adi,” Father said and shook his hand.

Hitler’s head was shaking “yes” up and down ever so slightly as he and Father held their clasp and looked one another in the eye.

“You always took very good care of Foxl. I remember.”

Then Hitler let go, pivoted about, and returned to his car, which immediately moved away.

Everyone on the street near us was looking at Father rather than Hitler as the car pulled away. When Father took my arm to lead me away, everyone stepped aside to make way for us, and a murmur followed us for almost half of a block.

I was too utterly astonished to ask Father about it. Hitler had called Father “Johann,” the name under which Father had enlisted in order to hide his Jewish name of Hezekiah. I knew that Foxl was Hitler’s dog when he was a corporal in the trenches. Father had told me he had often watched the dog when Adi had been running messages. Apparently, Hitler did not know that his friend from the trenches was a Jew.

“What just happened would not count a jot,” I imagined Father instructing me, “if the SA in our Gau decided to initiate a pogrom or just decided they wanted to give me or you or Mother again a good beating in the street.”

I wanted to ask Father specific questions about his experiences with Hitler, but I could not do so in the confusion of the streets. We heard people saying, “The streets to the station are dark. The Marxists cut the power to the street lamps.”

“The trains are probably still too crowded, anyway,” Father said. “We’ll stop and get something to eat.”

 

We boarded the last train, and it was practically empty. I expected Father to talk and to ask me about my reactions to the rally and the meeting with “Adi,” but he was silent until we slowed for Bingen station.

“Hitler cared more for Foxl than he did for any of the other men, and I am reasonably certain that he has not changed. I know that he ranks us below dogs, and you must remember, David, that behind the glorious and resounding pomp and worship that we saw Hitler’s Party stage today are the iron fists of ugly murderers. The Hitler who would never harm his dog is The Leader of the three boys of the station platform, The Leader who sets the tone and the opportunities for all of his followers.”

 

We arrived at Alzey station very late. As we walked back through town, Father said to me, “David, I know that I have told you many times that we must leave Germany. Your Mother might one day soon be able to use crutches or even walk with a cane. We will wait one week and see the election results. Everyone is saying that the Nazis will add to their power, but elections are always unpredictable. If the results put Hitler in power, I want to be packed up and ready to leave before he formally becomes Chancellor. If we have to leave furniture behind, if we have to carry Mother onto the train–yes, we will have to take a train, David–we are going, and not to Belgium or France. It has got to be England. Very soon we could come to the juncture where we must ask, ‘do we want to live, or do we want to die?’ It is that simple. Remember, Hitler said that his Party would never give up the struggle. Hitler will not change. We are the ones who must take up our lives and our will and make a change.”

 

Now everything is hanging in suspension, just as Hitler had seemed to do when he was looking at me.

I think of the cliffs of Lorelei and the moment of suspension I had expected when I was trying to picture what it would be like to jump out from the cliff edge.

I do not know what to do. There is nothing I can do. Even Father does not know what is going to happen. Mother is still semi-comatose. I cannot talk with her. I must trust Father. It could be that, even with all of his worldly wisdom and experience, he will not be able to save us.

I do hate to think this, to write this, but it could very well be, “Death to the Jews.”

______________________________________________________________

John Means has published poems, haiku, short stories, and two geological guide books: Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Parks, and Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D. C.  He taught English and Geology at Hagerstown Community College for thirty-five years.

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Climbing Boys

By Carly Brown

The Master Sweep

I find them young. Short-limbed boys with sleeves still dangling past their wrists and bodies narrow enough to fit up the flue. Six is a good age. If you get them at six, they won’t remember much of life before. Climbing will be in their bones, and they will always dream of sooty boots and narrow shafts. They won’t know any different.

I make the same promises every time: feed them, give them a second set of clothes and a proper bed, take them to church, clean them once a week. I promise not to send them up any chimneys that are on fire. That sort of thing. Then a Poor House worker or clergymen or their own mother shoves a handful of shillings into my waiting palm. And I take them away.

We don’t bathe them once a week. Anyone is a fool for believing that. Thrice a year, if they’re lucky.

They sleep in a pile on the floor like puppies, wriggling on the wood. The boys are covered in soot so sometimes they look like shadows come to life.

We do feed them though. There is gruel in tin bowls for breakfast and hard crackers for supper. Otherwise they won’t be strong enough to climb.

In the mornings, we press bristles into their backs to wake them and then out we go into London’s streets. Loose cobbled alleyways agitated with rats. As the sun begins to lighten the city, the climbing boys scatter and start to call out, as far as their little voices can go: ‘Sweep! Sweep!’

Today there is a lot of fog and my boys are shouting into it, their voices hoarse from yesterday’s ash. ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ A woman comes out of her house. She wears a nice blue dress with lace on the collar like baby teeth. I tip my top hat to her.

‘How do you do, madam? Do you know the dangerous of an un-swept chimney?’

My price agreed, we go to her house. My boots scuff the rug and she shudders at the sight of one of my boys. Then I fix a cloth over her fireplace and say that our work will be done in no time at all.

I nod to the boy. It’s time to go up.

The Mistress of the House

The only thing not covered in soot are the poor boy’s eyes, which are red. He takes off his battered boots and puts them in a neat row beside the fireplace. Then he takes off his jacket, covered in ashy handprints, and piles that up by the boots. His little vest next and I turn away, worried this urchin will shimmy up the chimney flue naked as Adam and Eve!

But he stops at the trousers and a rough cotton shirt, pulling his cap down lower over his face. Carrying a broom, he goes behind the flap that his master has hung on our fireplace. The hearth where last night a fire blazed as we played charades and cut into a soggy fruitcake, the windows fogging with our laughter. Hard to think it is the very same fireplace the little boy climbs up now in the empty gray of early morning.

The master tells me that the brush will dislodge any extra soot and the boy will scrape the chimney clean. ‘Clean chimneys are safe chimneys and all that,’ he says.

I suppose he is right. But I do wonder for the safety of that poor creature crawling through our flue, like the intestines of some enormous beast. I wince every time soot falls into the fireplace like dark snow.

The master pulls aside the cloth, lays down a handful of hay in the fireplace and begins to light it with a match. The hay curls in on itself, darkening. ‘For extra encouragement,’ he says to me and winks.

I leave the room, sick to my stomach.

The Climbing Boy

This is the first flue of the day and it won’t be the last. Four a day, says the master sweep. We have to toughen up that skin of yours, he says. I’m eight, but my skin is still soft as milk and he has me stand in front of the fireplace at night to make it rougher. Climbing boys can’t be soft, he says.

I have a name, but, if I told you, you wouldn’t remember it.

This house’s flue isn’t straight up, but they never are. They’ve got bends and you’ve got to crawl on your back to get through them. Brick against your back and brick against your nose and knees. Imagine you are a hair plucked from a little girl’s head. Imagine you are the string of a fiddle. Imagine you are anything narrow enough to make it out alive. Master says if you get caught with your knees stuck against your chin don’t struggle, that’ll only make the flue grip you tighter. Don’t panic when you see no light above or below. And if you feel heat, as I do now, it means that you’re taking too much time. Go faster.

I hit a clump of soot with my broom and it rains down across my face. Master says that’s how most climbing boys die, blanketed in soot so they can’t breathe.

But it trickles past me and I go higher. Suddenly the shaft is bright and I squint. I see a clear passage to the top of the chimney: a square of blue sky. Sometimes I want to climb up and out, but I don’t know anything about London rooftops. I don’t know what’s on top of houses, only what’s inside of them.

Someday I’ll get too big and I can stop climbing. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Something else. But when I close my eyes and try to imagine what that thing would be – my mind is clouded with soot.

The master sweep screams at me to hurry and I snake down, away from the sun, fast as I can out of there and hope, by now, he’s put out the fire below.

The Master Sweep

After seven years work, we send the boys away. They can go where they like, after that. Journeymen to another master or stay on here. Soon they’ll be too big to fit inside the flues and they’ll start going into the parishes and orphanages, looking for boys small enough to take their place.

They give their old coats and hats to the little ones. Their faces are starting to smear together like years.

Often, I have the same dream. I dream of how my master sweep would send up another boy behind me to prick my bare feet with needles. So I would climb faster. How the chimneys shook with my crying and I thought all the bricks would collapse around me. I wake up shouting for a mother I can’t rightly remember.

When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and pile a few coals up behind the grate of my own fireplace. I light them. The coals glitter in their pile, the ones in the center glowing hottest of all. I watch the orange flames twist, sending smoke and embers up into the dark.

______________________________________________________________

Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and PhD student based in Scotland. She is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel set during America’s Revolutionary War. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com

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Shakespeare Meets the Macbeths

By Michael Bloor

In 1601, James VI of Scotland (soon to be crowned James I of England) summoned Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chancellor’s Men, to give performances of their plays in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen at least, the visit seems to have been highly successful: on October 9th, the registers of the Town Council show that the company were awarded ‘the svme of threttie tua merkis’ and Laurence Fletcher, a shareholder in the company, was elected an honorary burgess of the town. It is not known for certain whether Shakespeare was with the company, but as a shareholder and owner of the company’s stage properties, it seems quite likely that he travelled North with the rest.

 

Three days out from the Port of Leith, the Barbara Anne, rounded Girdleness: Aberdeen at last hove into view. Shakespeare, Fletcher and Burbage left the shelter of the forecastle to stand in the bows and study their destination. Burbage shivered:

‘What place is this that you have brought us to, Laurence? Ultima Thule? ‘Tis even colder than Edinburgh. A mean place too, it seems.’

Fletcher sighed: ‘Yours is a strange fancy, Dick – that, because I was born in Scotland, I am responsible for the Scottish weather. But Aberdeen is no mean city. Indeed, the merchants’ houses are very fine. I fancy we will find good lodgings in the Guestrow.’

‘Better than you found for us in Edinburgh, I trust. ‘Faith, I tired of having bowls of piss thrown over me every time I stepped into the street. What think you of Aberdeen, Will?’

Shakespeare smiled and shook his head: ‘Why, ‘tis a miracle to come upon humankind at all, after those dreary cliffs and miles of sodden, blasted heath that the good Barbara Anne did carry us safely past this morning. Yon stone church seems a symbol of deliverance, yon fisherman’s cottage – a haven of rest and peace.’

Burbage mimed being run through by a sword: ‘Must you always talk like one of your plays, Will? And pray don’t remind us once more that “All the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players.” There is no genius in repetition. Tell us instead what you crave most to find when we reach Laurence’s fabled lodgings in fine Guestrow.’

Fletcher was quicker off the mark: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to in Aberdeen. A bowl of sheepsheid broth – the food of the gods. I travelled here as a child, with my father, and I’ve tasted no finer food since that visit than Mistress Mary’s sheepsheid broth.’

‘As ever, your stomach leads and you follow, Laurence.’ Shakespeare scratched his whispy head of hair: ‘If you seek a serious answer, Dick, I’m looking forward to hearing some new tales.’ He turned back to the forecastle: ‘Now I must see to our baggage. If there are no playhouses here, it’s all the more important that we have our costumes.’

Fletcher looked quizzically at Burbage: ‘New tales, new tales. Surely, Will has given us tales enough?’

‘Tales enough for our present purposes, Laurence. But when we return to London and the Globe, our fickle play-goers will not pay their pennies for tales they’ve heard a dozen times before.’

‘Aye, aye, as you say, there’s no genius in repetition. Will’s new hatchings put food on our table. I fancy he’s broody just now: he’s been studying Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland ever since we left Edinburgh.’

‘I also marked his studies, Laurence. I fancy our broody is hatching us a new history play: the world shall wonder anew at my mastery of character and emotions. But let’s give him a hand with the properties.’

Shortly afterwards, the company were following Laurence Fletcher’s lead towards Guestrow and their hoped-for lodgings. Shakespeare smiled as he caught sight of a couple of sheep’s heads on display at a flesher’s booth. But beyond the flesher’s booth was a bookseller’s. He immediately spotted a copy of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae, so he gave over charge of the stage properties to Will Sly, also telling Will to reserve for him a clean bed at the lodgings.

The bookseller was quickly at Shakespeare’s elbow: ‘You are interested in Principal Boece’s volume, sir? I have more than one copy for sale, but the volume you have is the best preserved.’

‘Indeed sir? You style the author as Principal Boece, why so?’

‘Why so, sire? ‘Tis no mystery: the author was Principal of King’s College here. From your speech, I gather you are an Englishman: do you have an interest in our Scottish history? I also have a fine copy of Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia…’

‘Is that so, I should like to see it. ‘Tis true I have an interest in Scotland’s past. Who would have thought there was so much blood in it: I am both drawn and repelled.’

‘Then, you have done well to visit our town, sire. Much of that blood was spilt about here. There is the field of Red Harlaw, where Provost Davidson and most of the burgesses of the town were slain by Donald, Lord of the Isles, and his wicked Highlanders. And King Macbeth fell at the Peel of Lumphanan, a few miles west of here.’

‘Macbeth you say? Surely, he fell at Dunsinane?’

‘No sire. He was defeated at Dunsinane Hill, but he got away. It was three years later that he died in a battle at Lumphanan. It is said he fell in single combat there with MacDuff, the Earl of Fife.’

‘Say you so, bookseller?’ Shakespeare turned and sniffed the air about him, heavy with the smell of slaughter from the Flesher’s booth. ‘Yet, Dunsinane surely has a ring to it; Lumphanan is a lumpish name for the dooming of a King.’ He addressed the bookseller once more: ‘Tell me, good fellow – what manner of man was this Macbeth? What do the old tales tell of his character?’

‘Sire, he lived in hard times. Macbeth’s father was slain by Macbeth’s cousin. Macbeth trapped his cousin and his entourage in a building and burned them alive. He slew King Duncan in battle. Yet though he lived by the sword, he ruled well and gave thought to the Kingdom to come: he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and gave freely to the Church and to the poor.’

‘A pilgrimage to Rome?? No, no, neither my Queen, nor your King, would applaud that scene, I fancy.’

‘A scene, sire? I do not follow you.’

‘No matter. What of his Queen, bookseller? I have read in Holinshed that she burned with ambition to be Queen.’

‘Perhaps so, sire. Certes it is that Queen Gruoch lived in a world, and at a time, when the path to the throne was slippery with spilt blood. Her grandfather, Kenneth II, was murdered. Macbeth married her after he had burned to death her first husband, his cousin. King Duncan slew Gruoch’s cousin as a rival claimant. Regicide was no uncommon crime to her.’

‘Hmm. Most interesting, bookseller, most interesting. Now, Boece’s volume here – scuffed and foxed, as it is – would you take one of your Scottish half-merks?’

‘The foxing is slight, sire. And the price is two merks.’

‘I see. Good day to you, sire.’

Finding his way to Guestrow a little later, with some difficulty, he is hailed by Burbage: ‘Here is Wandering Will, with new tales to tell of this frowzy, freezing land of sheeps’ heids and grasping lodging-keepers. I know that distracted look of old: what hast thou learned, old friend?’

‘I have learned nothing for certain, but I have surely met with a queer old couple… Here, Will Sly, call you this bed “clean”?’ He continued to stare at the bed for some moments, and then muttered to himself: ‘But regicide is a tricksy tale for the teller. Unless, of course, that heinous and unnatural crime doth drive the slayer to madness and death – that would be a salutary tale indeed. Yet I cannot call her Gruoch – too ugly a name for a tragic Queen. So many problems…’

Fletcher was watching these mutterings with a smile: ‘Faith, Dick, I believe the old hen is laying us a new tale…’

‘Let him be, Laurence, would you have it that the tale be, from the womb, untimely ripped?’

______________________________________________________________

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with pieces published in Breve New StoriesInk Sweat & Tears, Fictive Dream, Platform for Prose, Flash Fiction Magazine, the Flash Fiction PressScribble, and Occulum.

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Daphne’s Dilemma

By Ronda R. Cook

Athens, 403 B.C.

The city was steeped in pre-dawn shadow as a lone figure hurriedly made his way through the narrow streets of a modest northeast neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants here were metics, that is, resident foreigners. This is where Glauke, the metic doctor, had her home.

A female doctor was a rarity in Athens. But Glauke’s metic status gave her extra flexibility. She never considered not following in the footsteps of her father, a physician well-regarded by citizen and non-citizen alike. And the women of Athens were glad for it. Few of them felt comfortable consulting a male doctor when they had problems, even if their husbands permitted it.

The man stopped abruptly at Glauke’s door and pounded loudly. “Hurry, hurry,” he urged breathlessly. “Sostratos sent me. The baby is coming!”  Glauke dressed quickly in the semi-darkness, grabbed her ever-ready medical bag, and roused Sesthos, her burly Thracian slave who served as her bodyguard when she was out on call. On the way to Sostratos’ house she made a brief detour to collect her long-time friend Kallisto, a widow who lived nearby with her brother Nikos. Kallisto often assisted Glauke in difficult cases. Daphne, Sostratos’ wife, was such a case – a potentially difficult delivery, for two reasons: the expectant mother was just fifteen, and she was almost certainly carrying twins.

With Glauke in the lead, the trio took a southwesterly course, along streets of hard-packed earth and gravel that wound through rows of densely crowded houses, all presenting windowless facades to passers-by. At this hour the streets were almost deserted.

“It’s early, isn’t it?” asked Kallisto, yawning and struggling to match Glauke’s brisk pace. “Not the hour, the birth. Didn’t you tell me yesterday that Daphne still had a month to go?”

“Yes, I did. So she’s ahead of schedule – not unusual with twins.”

Sostratos was waiting for them at the door. This soon-to-be father, fifteen years Daphne’s senior, was normally a confident, take-charge type. But in this circumstance, he was clearly out of his element. He looked harried and anxious, obviously worried about both wife and child. “It’s too soon,” he said by way of greeting.

“Yes, it is a little early,” responded Glauke, adopting a no-nonsense, professional tone. “But I’m here now and I’ve brought along an experienced assistant.”

A little reassured, he led them through the central courtyard to the door of an inner chamber that had been converted into a birthing room. His mother, Krobyle, met them there, grateful for knowledgeable reinforcement.

“Sostratos, why don’t you go about your normal routine,” Glauke said dismissively. “There is nothing more you can do here. This is woman’s work. You’ll only be in the way.”

Sostratos had no recourse. He stood by helplessly as the three women went in.

Daphne, abdomen swollen and face flushed, sat gripping the arms of her chair, flanked by two solicitous maids. She was waiting, rigidly poised, for the next wave of pain. She relaxed just a little when she saw Glauke. “It’s too soon,” she said, echoing her husband.

“Perhaps.” Glauke waved the maids aside, introduced Kallisto, and began her examination. “Babies have their own schedules. They decide when it’s time to battle their way into the world. Plus, twins are often born a little early; there just isn’t room enough inside you for them to reach full size.”

“Do you really think I’m carrying two babies?” Daphne asked anxiously.

“I think it’s a good bet.”

Daphne looked distressed, a worried frown joining the beads of perspiration on her forehead. Her mother-in-law explained: “Sostratos has said that he will not raise more than one girl. Two boys would be fine. But two girls – no. If Daphne gives birth to two girls, one will have to be exposed.”

Sostratos, of course, had the absolute right to accept or reject any child born to his wife. Two girls, he had explained to Daphne, would necessitate two dowries when they married, which would be a considerable drain on his estate; and he still would not have an heir. After all, the main reasons for producing children were to have an heir to one’s estate, and provide care in one’s old age. Only a son could fulfill those needs. One daughter was tolerable, even useful for making alliances with other families. But a second daughter must be exposed – that is, abandoned, the customary method for disposing of an unwanted child. That didn’t mean she would die. Sostratos was not a hard-hearted man. The extra baby girl would be left in a public place in the city – not on a remote hillside, as was the practice in Sparta – and someone would come along and rescue her. He was sure of it. But he (and Daphne) knew, realistically, that it was probable the little girl would be raised as a slave, perhaps end up in a brothel. Even so, his decision was firm.

“I couldn’t bear to give up my baby,” moaned Daphne, as she clamped down on the chair arms, her knuckles white from the strain.

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Krobyle soothingly advised.

“Right,” agreed Kallisto. “Let’s deal with the problem at hand. How close is she?” This last was directed to Glauke, who had completed her examination.

“Not close.” Glauke took the towel offered by one of the maids and wiped the perspiration from the young woman’s face. “Try to relax. This is going to take a while.”

Time passed slowly. The pains became more regular and more frequent, but still no baby. There was little to do but wait.

As the hours dragged on and Daphne grew visibly weaker, Kallisto did what little she could to comfort her. How many times, over the years, have I watched this struggle, she pondered, this struggle to create life. How ironic it is that Sostratos – or any man – should be the one to decide the fate of the newborn child. The man’s role in the process is so brief and would be of absolutely no consequence without the much longer and more onerous role of the woman. She takes the tiny possibility of life and, by nurturing it with her own body, turns it into real life. She does not do this without peril to herself, both during the long confining months of pregnancy and finally during the painful birthing. And all too often her efforts come to naught. A long and difficult labor, like Daphne’s, may yield a heart-breaking result – a dead baby or a sickly one soon to be dead.  And there is always the possibility of the saddest outcome of all – the woman herself may not survive the ordeal, thus giving her own life in the act of creating life. “No,” muttered Kallisto, “it cannot be just that Sostratos alone has the right to accept or reject the new life being created with such difficulty by his wife. She should at least have a voice.” Today, as always when helping at a birthing, Kallisto was reminded of the words of Medea:

What [men] say of us is that we have a peaceful time

                        Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.

                        How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand

        Three times in the front of battle than bear one child. 

Finally Glauke announced, “I think it’s time.” A weakened Daphne rallied as best she could, all the while moaning in pain. Tugging slowly, gently, Glauke eased out a head and, mercifully, the rest of the body quickly followed. She placed the newborn in a square of soft cloth and handed it to Kallisto, then turned back to the mother. She was certain another baby was coming.

“It’s a girl,” reported Kallisto. She deftly tied the cord, cut it cleanly, and squeezed out the excess blood. Then she gently scrubbed the little body and inspected it carefully. “She is small, but looks perfect,” she declared, as the baby let out a loud cry. Kallisto handed the tearful infant to the waiting maids and turned back to Glauke, who was already helping baby number two emerge.

Kallisto took the second tiny form and proceeded with an encore of her duties. “Another girl. An exact image of the first.”

Daphne, who had bravely endured the long labor and delivery, now broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. “He’ll take one away. He’ll take one of my babies away,” she wailed, tears streaming down her face.

Krobyle and the maids comforted her as best they could, as they nestled the two little girls, now in soft swaddling, in her arms, one on each side. Daphne couldn’t help but smile at them through her tears. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she murmured.

Meanwhile Glauke and Kallisto busied themselves with cleaning up and plotting. “The babies, although they seem healthy, are quite small,” observed Glauke. “There is no guarantee that they will survive. The next few days are critical.”

“Sostratos would be foolish to expose one of these babies before he can be reasonably certain the other one will live,” Kallisto said thoughtfully.

“Which gives us time to devise a plan.”

“Exactly.”

Sostratos, who had ignored Glauke’s dismissive advice, was still waiting anxiously in the courtyard. He was none too happy when his mother informed him that he was now the father of two baby girls. But, at the same time, he was enormously relieved that his wife’s long ordeal was over. He was really quite fond of her.

Glauke explained to him the babies’ delicate condition and advised that he take no action for at least a few days. “Let’s first make sure they will both survive.”

This seemed a common sense approach to Sostratos, so the extra baby had a reprieve – for now.

“I have an idea,” Kallisto announced, as she and Glauke made their way back through the city streets. “The twins are identical. The only way to tell them apart is by the red and yellow ribbons we pinned on their swaddling blankets. So, if Sostratos always sees a yellow ribbon on the blanket of a baby, he will think he is seeing the same baby.”

Glauke nodded. “But how does that help us?”

“Sostratos won’t expose the baby himself. He’ll send a maid out to do that. She can report back to him that she placed the baby on a busy street corner and saw a woman pick it up and carry it off.  But instead of exposing the baby, the maid will secretly return with it to the house. Whenever Sostratos is around, Daphne can make sure that only one baby is with her. With both babies wearing a yellow ribbon Sostratos will be none the wiser. In other words, he will be unaware that he is actually seeing two babies, not one.”

“But what happens if the hidden baby cries when Sostratos is around?”

“There are ways of keeping a baby quiet – like putting a little honeycomb in its mouth.”

“Yes, that would work. There is, of course, one small problem with your plan – eventually Sostratos will have to be told the truth.”

“Yes, I know,” Kallisto conceded soberly. “I’m still working on that part of the plan.”

 

The following afternoon Glauke stopped by to give Kallisto an update on the newborns.

“Mother and daughters are doing quite well. Daphne isn’t showing any signs of postpartum sickness – perhaps because of her lavish offerings to Artemis – and the babies look much better than I expected, considering their early birth. They really are identical – like two peas in a pod. Daphne claims she can tell them apart, but I don’t believe it. If someone exchanged the red and yellow ribbons, she would be none the wiser. Nor would her husband, which is more to the point. Krobyle has found a wet nurse to supplement Daphne’s milk. So all is going well.”

“That is such good news! But what about our plan to deceive Sostratos and prevent the exposure? Did you discuss it with Daphne and Krobyle?”

“Absolutely! And they thought it a terrific idea. By the time I left, all the servants had come on board. They’re delighted to be playing a part in the conspiracy.”

“Good! Sostratos doesn’t stand a chance against such a united front. I am concerned, though, about the Naming Day ceremony – when Sostratos officially accepts one child, only one, as his own and receives her into the family. It’s always ten days from birth. So, that’s our deadline. By then we must come up with a scheme – somehow we must persuade him to accept both babies.”

“Definitely a challenge. But surely our creative minds will be able to come up with something.”

A few days later, Xanthus, Nikos’ doorkeeper, appeared at Glauke’s door with a message from Kallisto – an unwelcome message. Kallisto, he said, had gone to the country with Nikos to tend to several of his farmhands who had been badly burned when their hut caught on fire. Xanthus paused, then delivered the last part of Kallisto’s message in her exact words: “The fate of Baby Two is in your hands.”

“Oh great!” sputtered Glauke. “What a time to leave me in the lurch – only six more days till the naming ceremony. And it’s not as if I don’t have other obligations. There are people who need me! Sick people!”

Glauke did her best, treating her patients and puzzling over Daphne’s dilemma – without success. On the morning of the Naming Day she arrived at Sostratos’ door still devoid of ideas. Her only hope was that she would be struck by a sudden inspiration once she was in the setting. That didn’t happen. But, as it turned out, it didn’t matter.

 

Shortly after the Naming Day Xanthus again showed up at Glauke’s door. His mistress had returned from the country, he reported, and asked that she come visit as soon as possible.

“I’ll be there this afternoon.”

When Glauke arrived she found Kallisto anxiously awaiting her. “What news do you bring?”

Glauke was in a cheerful mood, almost gleeful. “Well, as you know,” she began, “we merely bought ourselves a little time with the ribbon-switching ruse and the faked exposure – which, by the way, went off without a hitch. Sostratos never suspected a thing. But, of course, the moment of truth was the naming ceremony.”

“Yes, it’s usually such a joyous occasion. I’m sure Sostratos did it up in style, inviting relatives and friends and providing a sumptuous feast. So, were you there? Do you know what  happened?”

“Oh, I was there all right – at Daphne’s insistence. I guess I must be truthful and admit that I never did come up with a plan. But I didn’t need to. Daphne already had one all worked out.” Glauke paused.

“What was the plan? Tell me!”

“First, let me recreate the scene. Usually things would proceed something like this: Sostratos performs the traditional ritual. He makes the sacrifice to the gods, then presents the child to the assembled guests. But, tell me, what happens if a mistake is made during the ceremony, or an inappropriate word is spoken, or some ill omen occurs?”

“The whole ceremony would have to be repeated, naturally, word for word. Oh! I see where you’re headed. How ingenious!”

“Yes, ingenious. It was all pre-planned by Daphne. Immediately after the completion of the ceremony, one of her maids rushed up to Sostratos, full of apologies. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I sneezed during the sacrifice. I couldn’t help it. Does that mean the offering is no good and everything must be done over?’ Well, of course, that was exactly what it meant. Sostratos had no choice. Such a bad omen wiped out the efficacy of the sacrifice. So the preparations were begun for a repeat offering. Daphne took the baby – the one who had just gone through the ceremony and been given the name Chairippe – into the house and handed her over to the other maid. She then returned to the courtyard with baby number two. Sostratos was clueless. He had no idea that a switch had been made. Daphne joined him at the altar and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind about the baby’s name. I want to use your grandmother’s name instead.’ Sostratos was not likely to object to that. So, the ceremony was repeated, at the end of which Sostratos presented his daughter, Myrrhe, to his guests.”

“But, he still thinks there is only one baby. Doesn’t he have to be told there are two at this point?”

“Yes. And Daphne did tell him, now that the deed was done. She told him that there had been no sneeze, no ill omen, and that he had, in fact, accepted two baby girls – Chairippe and Myrrhe – into the family.”

“What was Sostratos’ reaction?”

“He got angry, stomped around and railed at her, as she expected he would. But she stood her ground and eventually pleaded with him to forgive her and accept both his daughters. Well, what could he do? How could he un-accept what he had just accepted – before the gods and his guests? So, he fussed and grumbled, but finally acquiesced. When I left Sostratos was holding both babies on his lap, making cooing noises. What a delightful sight.”

“What a happy outcome! Daphne was very clever to have concocted this scheme. But I suspect that the reason it worked is because Sostratos isn’t as hard-hearted as he appears, and he really is fond of his wife.”

“You’re probably right,” Glauke replied agreeably. “But let us give credit where credit is due. Without your original delaying tactic, one of the babies would have been exposed before the naming ceremony took place, and that would have been the end of it. It took two clever women – you and Daphne – to pull this off.”

“Three. You, after all, safely delivered those two baby girls.”

“True.” Glauke leaned back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. “What marvelous women we are!”

______________________________________________________________

Ronda R. Cook (a.k.a. Ronda R. Simms) earned her Ph.D. in Ancient History at the University of Virginia and subsequently enjoyed a peripatetic teaching career at various institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy, West Chester University, and Moravian College. She studied in Athens during two separate summers and traveled widely throughout Greece. Her research interests are centered on Classical Athens, particularly in the areas of religion and women. Her publications include both scholarly articles and reviews, and more accessible op-ed pieces which compare ancient and modern practices. Now retired, she lives in Bethlehem, PA, with her husband and two Westies.

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Franklin Gillette

The Course of Empire

Based on the paintings of Thomas Cole in the New York Historical Society

 

I. SAVAGE STATE

 

The metropolis builds giant oaks

hovering over commuting streams of ants.

Owls, hawks and eagles glide like planes

delivering express cargo of field mice

and besieged rabbits to penthouse holes.

 

No maps exist except for inborn instincts.

There are no suburbs, city or county lines,

yet property rights are closely marked by scent.

Rain and wind—the only tax collectors

balance as does the census never taken.

 

II. PASTORAL STATE

 

Clothing ourselves we forget ourselves —

our shapes confuse in bags of drapery.

Even campfire smoke has docile harmony.

The clouds have settled.  The Shepard with his stick

walks flocks back plushy planted lawns.

 

All spring and fall they labor on the farm

hoping weather will not wreak their work.

Eden, where, they didn’t have to work,

is lost, its fruit of knowledge only taught

them to think their own nakedness.

 

III. CONSUMMATION OF EMPIRE

 

Here art replaces nature, policy

replaces instinct or intuition,

marble pillars replace trunks of trees,

rocks are cut to roads replacing fields,

and human beings become domesticated slaves.

 

On other species one species imposes,

and a small circle dominates that species

while rulers worship statues of the gods

or on silk, reclining in their palaces,

bored from building, pass time counting coins.

 

IV. DESTRUCTION

 

Pushed by hunger, ambition and revenge

invaders eye a populous draped in silk,

seeking weakness they find decadence,

cowardly leaders, whimsical gaggling mobs

only vigilant on topics tickling the brain.

 

The beautiful city waits too long… bewildered

the headless marble hero charges his sword…

escape boats burn… sink…. bridges collapse;

witnesses of the attack alert the outskirts

which chuckle: “how could our empire fall?”

 

V. DESOLATION

 

They die.  Only the shattered pieces remain

to sink into the earth.  Thousands of years

go by.  A farmer’s or sheepherder’s child

with his friend, or amateur explorers,

or drillers find a broken piece of bronze.

 

Archeologists flying to the site

dig deeper finding the pattern of the streets

which we follow on the TV News,

the ancient capitol once thought a myth

ships to museums in our current empire.

______________________________________________________________

Franklin Gillette won the Starr Symposium Poetry Contest and his work has appeared in Poetry East, Light Quarterly and many other magazines. He is also an opera librettist, a painter and a spiritual teacher.

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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.

______________________________________________________________

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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