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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The Bamberger & Wahrmann Antiquariat Bookshop 

By Maya Wahrman

By now in Germany

rare books were so unwanted you could buy a sack

for only a shilling. So downtown Jerusalem

was bookshops bustling

with treasures of the written word

from the exile-land. Men of faith, famous authors,

 

many frequented his store, mingled among

the bookshelves, set out to explore

the words he owned and printed. Vanilla,

must, tan wood-based pages, bound.

The aroma made a man want books

with his tongue. Some men

 

found books they’d always wanted,

some wanted books they’d just found.

One customer fingered spines as he muttered prayer

under his breath. Rebuild our city Jerusalem,

please, hurry! It was 1939,

Jerusalem was being rebuilt in our time,

 

the storeowner’s home back in Frankfurt

was torn apart.

In the store,

men from all over the city would start

reliving, would meet Jews who seemed

foreign, would accustom themselves

to the desert dry heat of the Judean hills.

 

No longer reliving, now living.

He died. Store shut, past-life books

became harder to find.

But men said and wrote,

the city was never the same

when the doors closed.

______________________________________________________________

Maya Wahrman graduated from Princeton University’s Department of History, with certificates in Creative Writing and Near Eastern Studies.  She currently works at Princeton’s Office of Religious Life on issues of faith and forced migration. She has had opinion pieces published in the English and Hebrew editions of Haaretz, and has had poetry published in the Nassau Literary Review, the Jewish Currents poetry anthology Urge, and Sweet Tree Review.

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From an Open Window

By Ashley Kauffman

From an open window,

I saw a sea of people lined up to greet us.

 

They moved closer as we exited the plane,

Like waves that were anxious to touch the shore.

 

I wore the pale pink suit,

That he loved so much.

 

I graciously accepted the red roses,

As we greeted people on our way to the limousine.

 

His presence projected a beacon of hope,

That made people feel secure,

And somehow gave them a sense of direction.

 

Massive crowds just wanted to snap a picture,

Or reach out and touch his hand.

 

American flags were strung uniformly across the streets,

Providing a gentle reminder of all we had to be thankful for.

 

We drove through Dealey Plaza,

As we headed toward the Trade Mart.

 

It was November 22, 1963,

My first public appearance since I lost the baby.

 

I felt a sense of closeness to him,

That sometimes was hard to feel,

Because of the current,

That pulled him in so many different directions.

 

I smiled and waved,

As my pink pillbox hat,

Remained securely on my head.

 

From an open window,

Shots were fired,

And my life would never be the same.

______________________________________________________________

Ashley Kauffman is from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and is employed as a teacher with the Mechanicsburg Learning Center. She has enjoyed writing since she used her imagination to bring her first story to life in second grade. Ashley received her B.A. in English, and is currently working to obtain her M.A. in Children’s Literature through Penn State University. She is an avid collector of vinyl records, Golden Books, and vintage typewriters. Ashley is legally blind and considers herself to be a differently-abled person who has spent her life envisioning the world with the turn of each page.

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The Last Campaign of Ulysses S. Grant

By Ted Harvey

The writer approached the sick man hesitantly. The writer’s name was Samuel, but few people called him that anymore.

The sick man sat in a rocking chair. He was covered in a thick wool blanket. A wool hat was pulled over his head, the edge was almost touching his closed eyes. Samuel wiped the back of his own hand across his forehead. It came away damp.

Samuel stopped. He considered coming back another time. He knew his old friend needed the rest. But he needed the money too. A man of surety, Samuel had never felt so conflicted. Finally, he decided he would come back later. He turned to go.

“Better stay,” the gravelly voice said. “Even for a minute.”

Samuel turned back.

The seated man’s eyes remained closed, but his lips moved now, quivering.

“I can come back,” Samuel said, running his hand over his mustache.

The seated man opened his eyes.

“No time for that. Never know if I’ll still be here when you get back.”

Samuel opened his mouth to protest or maybe say something positive, he hadn’t determined what yet, but with a sudden vigor, the seated man waved his hand. It was a thick hand with stubby fingers, crooked joints, but even after all these years there was power behind it. Then, as quick as it had been flashed, that power dissipated and the hand dropped back into the blanketed lap. He sucked in a long breath and started coughing. Samuel took a step forward. But what could he do?

The coughing fit lasted almost a full minute before he regained control.

Samuel watched him, trying not flinch with each body spasm. They were worse now than the last time he was here.

“Can I get you anything?” Samuel asked.

“A few more months would be nice,” the sick man said, forcing a half grin.

“You’ll have more than that,” Samuel said. He could hear the doubt in his own voice.

“Maybe,” the sick man said. His body moved under the thick blankets. “I can never get comfortable. That’s the main thing. And the cough.” He cleared his throat and Samuel thought he would start coughing again, but he caught himself.

“How’s the writing coming?”

“Yesterday was a good day,” the sick man said. “Today?” He moved again and Samuel realized he was shrugging.

“I could help you write,” Samuel suggested. It was not the first time he had made this suggestion. He knew what the answer would be. But he had to ask anyway. The man was his friend. Of course he was more than that. A general. A president. A great man who risked being forgotten. I will not allow that to happen, Samuel told himself. Not this man. Even if it meant cheating a little. Even if it meant lending his own writing to the memoirs. No one would know. He would make it sound authentic. He knew he could. He had practiced at home. Late at night when he should have been asleep but couldn’t settle thinking of his old friend, struggling to breathe, struggling to finish.

“No,” the answer was definite. Samuel met the sick man’s gaze. The eyes never left him, determined. He saw the general there. The husband and father, too, and Samuel knew he would finish himself unless death came first.

“Fine,” Samuel said, “The offer is always there.”

“I think I’ll take a little rest now,” the sick man said.

“That’s good,” Samuel said. The sick man’s eyes were already closing. He moved his lips, mouthing something, but there was no sound.

“What’s that?”

The sick man’s eyes flickered open.

“Thank you, Sam,” he whispered, “I will owe you.”

“You’ll owe me nothing. I’m happy I could convince you to do it.”

Samuel meant to say more but the sick man’s eyes were closed now and his breathing was gentle and even. It was the most peaceful he had seen his friend in a long time. He turned away, and left him to sleep.

 

The sick man opened his eyes. The writer was gone. He wished he could stay, but he needed to be alone to write.

Samuel Clemens. A good name. Why he decided to use Mark Twain, he would never understand.

Samuel. Sam.

That’s what people called him too. Some people. Now they also called him Mister President, although he hadn’t been president for many years. General would be better. There were still plenty who called him that when they came to visit. He wasn’t sure what he preferred. Maybe Sam after all. A mistake, that name. Like so many things in his life it just happened. And it stuck. He was born Hiram. Hiram Ulysses Grant. Even he thought it was a bit of a strange name. He didn’t mind Ulysses, although he would never compare himself to his namesake. More of an Agamemnon. Or maybe Aeneas. He always liked Aeneas. Things just happened to the Trojan hero and on he went until in the end he founded the greatest empire the world had ever known. He could never be a Ulysses, although he wished he could. Such cleverness and wit! If he could have been more like Ulysses and less like a Sam, less like an Aeneas, maybe life would have been a little different. But he had known men like Ulysses, and if he was honest with himself, would he really have preferred that?

He sighed. What did it matter? He was what he was. Hiram. Sam. The General. Mister President. All of it. And none. He was simply himself and the few times he had tried to be something else, well, everybody who thought they knew something about him knew that version of him. A failed version. It was why he was writing. Better to be what you were. No more, no less.

Grant breathed in slowly. He was tired and knew he should rest. But the writing would not get done itself. Nor was he about to let someone else take it up for him. Not even Sam Clemens. Not while he was still breathing, and who knew how long that would be.

Slowly he leaned forward to his desk. The paper was half-filled with his scratchy marks. He began at the top and read what he had last written, moving his lips as he spoke each word. When he reached the end of the page, he paused and then, placing his pencil on the paper, began to write.

He did not stop after that for some time. The pencil rarely left the paper. He wrote slowly, but consistently. The words were there, they were his words after-all. It was simply a matter of transferring them down in writing.

It would have been easy to let the memories overtake him. But he would not allow it. There was no time for sentimentality or regret or anything else that came so often with thinking of the past. There was only space to write. Whatever came after that, well, he had no control of it, and in all likelihood would be gone from this earth for it to affect him. But that is not why he wrote. He did not write so others might know his thoughts or read of his exploits. He did not care what the outside world thought of his actions, his life. He cared only for Julia. And Fred, and Buck, and Nellie, and Jesse. But mostly for Julia. He could not leave her with nothing. Worse than nothing. With debts. With the debts he had brought down on them.

“You trust people too much,” Julia had told him once, many years before, soon after they were married. At least he thought she had said that. It was like something she would say. Not mean, just matter-of-fact. And true. That was always the worst of it, or maybe the best of it. The truth of her statements. And that declaration, of his never-ending trust, was as true as anything she had ever said. Even if she hadn’t said it exactly as he remembered. His trust was why he owed money. It was why he wrote now.

Once, years before, the memoirs from the war were a dime-a-dozen. And why shouldn’t they be? It was cathartic to write down all that had happened. Maybe cathartic was not the right word, because no matter what you wrote or how much you wrote, it did not relieve the memories. Time helped a little. And drink. But the war never really left you. As a soldier there was nothing you could do to make you forget, although they had all tried, and writing seemed to help some, at least a little.

Still, what did he know about writing? And why would anyone care what he wrote? He was no great philosophizer. His view of life was not worldly. Maybe he could have written a book on breaking a horse. Now that would have been something. But he didn’t think it would come out like he wanted it. It would have been like translating a foreign language that only he knew and there was no proper translation. No, it was better he had never attempted anything like that. It was better he stuck to what he knew, soldiering and moving forward.

He paused. Three new pages were filled with his words. He thought maybe he should read it back, but he knew he wouldn’t change any of it. It was what it was, no more, no less, and no amount of re-reading was going to alter what was written. Besides, he didn’t have time. The pain in his throat had grown significantly over the past week, much more than all the weeks before. He knew it wouldn’t be long now.

He had thought of death before. It had been all around him. At Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg. At Appomattox. And before that, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Death was a constant, but it had always been a constant around him. Now he would be joining the ranks of the departed.

He sighed. His throat burned. He wanted to cough to relieve the pain, but the coughing would be temporary relief only, so he forced the cough to subside.

Sam Grant didn’t mind that he was going to die. He had accepted it as a fact of life, as the only fact of life, long ago. But the pain was beginning to grow unbearable, and he wanted it to end. Rarely in his life had he reached a point of desperation, but he was getting close now. Except he couldn’t yet, not until he was finished. He leaned back over the desk. He put the pencil down and moved his fingers, one by one. They were old and stiff and not inclined to grip the pencil. But he forced himself to pick it up again, and re-reading the last line, began to write.

 

Samuel Clemens was also writing, but his was an altogether different story. He wasn’t sure what would come of it. With Tom Sawyer he had been confident it was his masterpiece. It was good. He knew it was good. But he was also painfully aware something was missing. So, in a way, he was re-writing it now. Not really re-writing, but pushing the story beyond what he originally thought it could be. Now it wasn’t about Tom. Tom Sawyer was not the right person to take this new story where it needed to go. Instead Sam Clemens had turned to Huck Finn.

It was better. He was certain of it, although he hadn’t let anyone read it yet. It was much too raw. He thought he might let the General read it. He might enjoy it very much. There was not much time. Not as much as he had thought before his visit earlier that day. The General did not look well. Of course he wasn’t well, but until today it had almost seemed impossible he was sick. Now it was very clear he was very sick.

Sam stopped writing. He wondered if the General was writing right now. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t convinced him to start the memoirs. The only thing they seemed to be doing was speeding the illness along. Sam knew that wasn’t really true. And he knew the General would write anyway. It was the only thing he could now and it was the only possibility of saving his wife and children from monetary ruin. Having lived a life that had so profoundly affected the people around him, most of whom he had never met, the only thing that would matter in the end was whether the General finished the book.

Sam Clemens could not help but smile at that oddity of life. The man had been the finest general the country had ever seen. He had become president for eight years. He had toured the world as the most famous man in the world. And now, none of it mattered. Except the book. It was remarkable the clarity death brought.

Sam peered down at his own work. He scratched his head as he read over the last paragraph. It was good, but not good enough. He scratched it out quickly and tapped the pencil on his tooth. He began again.

 

“Thank you for coming back,” the General’s voice was so soft, Sam Clemens had to take step closer to listen.

“Of course.”

He stared at his friend, wishing he could look away. It wouldn’t be much longer now.

“I need your help,” the General said.

It had been almost two weeks since his last visit. It was July 10th and Sam Clemens could feel the sweat dripping down his back. The General remained wrapped in the thick blanket.

Sam Clemens nodded. He had been waiting for this. He was prepared. The words he wrote would match exactly the words the General had written. No one would ever know the General had not finished.

“Sit,” the General said.

There was a second chair that had not been in the room before. When he had started, the General explained he didn’t want visitors getting the impression they could stay. But now it seemed that had changed. So Sam Clemens sat.

“Take the paper and pencil,” the General said, “I will dictate. I’m having a little trouble gripping the pencil now.”

Sam Clemens stared.

“I could just write it,” he said finally but the General shook his head.

“If you’re going to be difficult,” the General said, “I’ll find someone else.”

Sam Clemens shook his head, “No, I’ll write.”

He picked up the pencil and moved the desk that had sat by the General for so many months closer to his seat.

“No changes,” the General said, meeting Sam’s eye. Sam nodded. The General closed his eyes. “There isn’t much left, but I want to make sure it gets written. I can feel the end coming.”

Sam did not question him this time. He remained poised, ready to write.

The General began.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was completed on July 18, 1885. Ulysses S. Grant, former General and President of the United States of America, died five dies later of throat cancer. The Memoirs were an instant best-seller and provided his family financial stability for the rest of their lives.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was also published later that same year.

______________________________________________________________

Ted Harvey has been writing for a very long time. His first memorable piece of writing was a condensed version of the Iliad, which he completed in first grade. Since then he has written thousands of pages of text with two publications to show for it: “Disappearing,” in the Aphelion Webzine, and “The Last Terrorist,” in AntipodeanSF. He is currently working in community development, although his true passions remain history and writing.

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Merlin’s Prediction

By Lisette J. Merry

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

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

‘At sunset, then,’ Mason said.

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So be it.’ King Vortigern said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence descended on the great hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 5

By Meredith Allard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Right Between the Eyes

By Hazel Kevlihan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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