Search Results for: A Foolish Son

A Foolish Son

By Stephen Lewis

“A foolish son is a grief to his father….” (Proverbs 17:25.3)

The boy on the witness stand eyes Mr. Wilkie Burton, the prosecuting attorney, a short and round faced man with sideburns that reach his chin and a mustache that covers his upper lip before curling onto his cheek.  Sweat drips from his bald head and moistens his facial hair.   Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees Sam Logan, his father, staring  at him from the defense table where he sits next to his lawyer.  The boy’s glance continues until it lands on his mother in the front row of the spectators.  She nods encouragement.

He turns back to Barton who forms his face into an encouraging expression, such as you would use with a recalcitrant child who holds the key to your strongbox in a hand, sticky with molasses, over a yawning crack in the floor.

“Now, George,” the prosecutor says, “I know this is difficult for you.”  This last is said with a sidelong glance at Logan.  “We have heard your father say that on the afternoon of June 15th, 18 and 95,  you and he were clearing brush for a new road.  Is that right?”

“Yes,” George says.  He remembers how he lay on his bed the last few nights, listening for his father’s snores coming through the wall, but hearing only the rattle of the window frames in the breeze off the bay.  He looks again past his father’s tense face to his mother, her expression set in the same vacant stare it has worn since the sheriff came to take his father away.  All spring, he heard the birds singing in the morning, but at night his parents’ muffled and angry words.  Then their bed creaked beneath their grunts and moans.   He did not understand what this peek into the adult world offered him, and so as was his custom he did not try.  Burton has his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his trousers, and George remembers how his father sometimes whips him with his belt.  The prosecutor wears no belt, but George does not trust him.  He sees the prosecutor’s  jaw quiver, and then George adds, “That is what he said.”

“I see.  You were to help your father, isn’t that so?”

“Yes.”

“Of course.  You are a dutiful son, are you not?”

“I am that,” George answers, although he is not exactly sure what “dutiful” means.  He ponders, then seizes on the first syllable.   “I do what he asks.  Mostly.”

“Non-responsive,” Burton snaps with a glance at Judge Samuel Hightower..

“Son, can you be clearer in your answer?”  Hightower’s tone is both weary and warm.

“No, sir,” George says with a smile.

“We will recess for an hour,” the judge declares, “so everyone can cool down, and the witness can search his memory for better answers.”

George stays on the witness stand as the courtroom empties.   Finally, only the court officer remains with him.

“You can step down,” the officer says.

“I have no place to go,” George replies.

“Suit yourself,” the officer answers, and sprawls on a chair.  “But I have orders that where you go, I go.”

“I always do,” George replies, “suit myself that is. Mostly, anyway.”

The officer leans back and shuts his eyes.  His right hand, though, rests on the heavy butt of the revolver at his side.

George remembers the dew on the grass between his toes that morning, and how the orioles had been whistling in the trees.  George boy, George boy, come here, they sang.  The whistling would stop later in the afternoon, and his feet would be squeezed into boots too small.  He reaches down, now, to massage his toes through his own shoes and he can still feel where the skin on his little toe had been rubbed raw.

His father left to clear the new road.  He was to follow when he found the ax he had mislaid the day before.  His mother watched from the rocker on the front porch while George stood staring at the grooves on the chopping stump, scratching his head in wonderment that the ax head was not buried in the wood, and that he could not reach out his hand and grasp the handle.   After a while he let his mind drift to the rhythm of his mother’s rocker, which itself seemed to mimic the creak of the blades on the windmill over the well.  And then there was the song of the birds calling to him, and his feet burrowed into the cool grass.

The rocking stopped, replaced by the clomp of the heavy men’s shoes his mother wore to work in the vegetable garden behind the house.  The heels of her shoes resounded off the three steps leading down from the porch, and then softened in the dirt.

“Go on, now, your father’s waiting for you,” his mother called.

She had on the wide brimmed straw hat she wore to protect her face from the sun.  The exposed skin of her neck and hands was darkened by a summer spent outdoors. She stared at his bare feet.  In her hands, she held a pair of his father’s boots.

“You had best put these on, if you are going to cross Old Trail Road,” she said.

He took the boots from her, laced them together and threw them over his shoulders.

“I like to feel the grass between my toes,” he said.

She frowned.

“You will remember to put them on when you reach the road, though, won’t you?”

“Yes’m.  I always do.  Most of the time.”

“Did you find that ax?”

“No.”

“Go on then.”

He walked onto the grass between the ruts carved in the soil by his father’s wagon on the track from their cherry orchard to Old Trail Road, which led to the town at the base of the peninsula.   Lying in one of the ruts was the ax where he had dropped it yesterday.  He picked it up as though he knew that this was where he would find it.  Old Trail Road was dirt flattened smooth by the passage of innumerable wagons and heavy soled boots. He almost stepped into a steaming pile of manure left by a pair of horses pulling a load of lumber toward town, and then he felt the boots banging against his shoulder blades.  Hearing his mother’s instruction in the chatter of the birds, he knelt on the edge of the road to squeeze his feet into boots a size or two too small, and then he strode onto the road.  It followed the crest of a long, narrow hill rising above the meadows on either side.  He gazed at the bright blue waters of the bay sparkling in the morning sun, and then he trotted over the road into the field on the other side.  He left the field and entered the wood, his ears now listening for the sound of his father’s ax.  He had not taken more than a few steps before his toes began to cramp hard inside the boots.  He wondered for just a moment why his mother had been so insistent, but he was not in the habit of puzzling over things he did not understand, and so he walked on.

He was drawn to the song of the orioles.  Its lilt lifted his spirit.  Then the song stopped, and it was replaced by the loud cawing of a small flock of crows circling something in a small clearing up ahead.  He hastened, and then he saw her lying still on the ground.  The crows flew off a short distance, and there was silence.
Highsmith strides into the filled courtroom,  jurors and spectators, on their feet expectant and perspiring in the late afternoon heat.   From the distances comes the roll of thunder that promises relief.

George has been staring at the door awaiting the entrance of the judge.  His muscles ache, and there is a dull, throb pressing down on his forehead.  He hears the thunder and remembers only the silence above the dead girl after the cawing crows took flight.  He looks towards his mother.  Her eyes, which had been red rimmed before today, are now clear and cold.  He sees her offer a barely perceptible nod, and he recalls what she said this morning, “Just tell them, “ she said, “and don’t be afraid.”

“I am not going to ask you the questions you could not answer before,” Burton says..  George focuses on the man’s teeth as he talks.  They are stained yellow, and saliva pools in a space where a lower front tooth is missing.   He recalls how red Sarah’s lips were and how white her teeth.  He smiles at Burton.

“Let us try another approach.” Burton leans close enough for George to smell his breath.  It is not sweet like he imagines hers would have been if she had been still breathing when he found her. “Tell us what you saw when you arrived at the murder scene.”

“The birds were not singing anymore,” he answers.  He is there in the clearing between the trees, the ax over one shoulder.  He grimaces as he feels again how the boots force his big toe to overlap its neighbor.

Burton steps back, his face a picture of exasperation.

“Yes, but what did you…” he pauses.  “Let me be direct.  Did you see your father there?”

“No.”

Burton smiles.

“Did you see him that day between when he left to clear the road and when you found the body?”

George sighs.  He is suddenly very tired, and he is finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.  Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his father staring hard at him.

“Yes,” he replies.

Burton’s jaw drops.

“Did you not tell the sheriff that you never got to the place where your father was clearing the road?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

George closes his eyes, and opens them to focus on the prosecuting attorney’s nose.  He sees the hairs poking out of the nostrils.

“Well what, Mr. Burton?”

“Which is it.  Did you help your father clear the road, or did you not?”

“No. I was on my way to help him,” he starts.

“Yes, and….” Burton prods.

“I saw her lying there.”

Burton’s sigh is audible throughout the courtroom.

“Before you could help your father, you saw the victim lying dead in that clearing,” the prosecuting attorney says.

George nods.

“She was so peaceful beneath that tree, and the birds in it stopped singing.”

Burton waits and then turns to Highsmith.

“No further questions,” he says.  “I think I have gotten what I can from the lad.”  He glances toward Logan, pulls a sweat stained handkerchief from his pocket, and daubs at the perspiration on his forehead.

Defense attorney Frederick Lowe’s thin, blond hair is parted down the middle and lies flat on his head, setting off his prominent nose and ears that protrude a bit more than normal.  He wears spectacles that leave an angry welt on the bridge of his nose.

Lowe steps ever so slowly toward George, his spectacles in one hand, the other rubbing the welt.  He stops and replaces his spectacles.

“Did you see your father anywhere near where you found Sarah’s body?”

“No,” George replies.

“ I see.  But you told Mr. Burton you saw him that day.”

“Later, I saw him later.  Back home.”

Lowe strokes his chin, adjusts his spectacles, but then turns on his heel.

“You may step down,” Highsmith says to George.  The boy is leaning over to rub his foot and seems not to hear for a moment or two, but then he rises and starts to walk towards his mother.

“You may be called again,” the judge says.  “

George lets himself be led out of the courtroom.  His step is firm.

“What was your plan on the morning of June 15th last?” Lowe asks Sam Logan.

“To clear a road to the harbor.”

“Were you going to work alone?”

“No.  I had young Phil Watson with me.”

“My hired hand.  Folks know him.  His father’s from the South.”

“Yes.”

“Was your son to help you as well?”

“Yes.”

“Did he?”

“No.  He never arrived.  I expect he had trouble finding his ax.”

“Was that unusual?”

“Not at all. He often is forgetful. But he is a good boy.”

Lowe pauses for just a moment.

“When he didn’t show up, what did you do?”

Logan turns his head slightly toward the jury and then back to Lowe.

“Why, I sent Watson to fetch him.”

“Did he?”

Logan shrugs.

“I do not know.  He never came back.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“No.”

“What do you suppose happened to him?”

Lowe looks over his shoulder as Burton rises to object, but Logan is too quick.

“I guess he found Sarah instead of George.”

Burton walks to the evidence table and picks up a pair of muddy boots.  He shows them first to the jury, and then to Logan.

“Are these your boots?”

“Used to be.  I haven’t worn them in years.”

“You did hear several witnesses, including the sheriff, testify that impressions left in the ground near the body match these boots, did you not?”

“I did.  But if my boots made those impressions, my feet weren’t in them.”

“Were you and Sarah Henshaw lovers?” he asks.

“We were friends,” Logan replies.

“You knew she was carrying your child, did you not?”

“No.  The last time I saw her she was upset and asked me for laudanum for her nerves.  I told her I didn’t have any.  She must have gotten some from somebody else.”

Burton attempts to show his shocked disbelief, but he is not a very good actor.  When he pulls back his lips, his mustache hides the gesture and his pudgy face looks more amused than distressed.

“You say you sent young Watson to fetch your son?”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“And you did not see Sarah Henshaw that day?”

“No.”

“You did not drug her with laudanum and then squeeze the life out of…”

Lowe’s complaint is drowned by Highsmith’s gavel.

“I will rephrase,” Burton says when quiet is restored.  “Is it your testimony that you did not know Sarah Henshaw was pregnant with your child, that you did not see her on the day she was killed, that you know nothing about the bottle of laudanum found next to her, and you believe that Philip Watson killed her in that field while he was on an errand to find your son, and that is why he has fled, and that your own son’s confusing testimony is his feeble attempt to protect you?  You want us to believe that those boot prints in the field next to that young girl’s body were not made by you?  Is that what you want this jury to believe?”  Burton gestures grandly toward the jury box, and this time his face manages an approximation of incredulity.

“The truth,” Logan says softly, “I want them to see only the truth.”

“I think they have,” Burton concludes.

“Did I do right?” George asks his mother as they walk toward their house.

“Yes,” she replies.

“And he won’t beat me no more, or mock me, when he comes home?”

“He’s not coming home.”

“But poor Sarah…” he begins.

“Hush,” she replies.  “She is better off in heaven than giving birth to your father’s bastard.”   She points to George’s ax, now driven into the chopping stump.  “There is work for you to do.”

George smiles and pulls the ax out.  He places a log on the stump and brings the ax down hard.  The log jumps apart.  He stacks it neatly and picks up another.

Phillip Watson stands on the porch, a cardboard suitcase between his feet.  He holds out his hand, and she places a small wad of bills in it.  He stuffs the money into his pocket.

The ax rings out again, and Phillip picks up his suitcase.  He walks fast and then begins to trot.  He disappears over the hill.  George puts down his ax and watches.

“Will he be alright?” he asks.

“Yes,” his mother replies.

She pauses and looks down at her hands.

“It is only unfortunate that Sarah did not drink enough of the sedative, that she had to die hard.”

George picks up his and ax looks at his mother, a question in his eyes.

“Yes,” she says, “you did the right thing.”

“And so did I,” she says under her breath, but she wonders when again she will be able to wash her hands without feeling the young woman’s warm flesh between her fingers.


After having published seven novels in traditional print form, Stephen Lewis dips his toe into the new digital world with the historical mystery A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first e-book.  His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangolin Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Jewish Currents.  Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, and “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review.  Although born and raised in Brooklyn, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres.

Thanks for sharing!
75
Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on A Foolish Son

The Milliner of Klausenburg

A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.

~Goethe

Lotte peered at herself, turning her head from side to side, trying to get the best view of herself in the triple mirror.  She was proud of her creation, copied from a Viennese ladies journal: in gold velvet trimmed with brown lace, the hat sat forward on her forehead, its point emphasising the slant of her eyebrows, echoing her wistful chin.  A veil of bronze organza fell from the back; she pulled this round, relishing its effect against her chestnut hair.  ‘I’ll take it home this evening and try it on again after my bath,’ she thought.  ‘Frau Wolff will never know.  Yes, this hat, and the little buttoned boots.

* * * * *

The woman entered Langhuber’s Café, her head darting sideways, as alert as a bird of prey, an effect enhanced by the mass of nodding feathers on her hat.  She scowled at the portrait of Franz Josef hanging above the hatstand: he returned the scowl.  Magda was irritated.  Her niece had written to her asking for this meeting, so where was the silly woman?

‘You are looking for Frau Wolff, ma’am?’ murmured a waiter.

‘As a matter of fact I am!’

‘If you would please follow me,’ and he wound his way expertly around the scattered, polished tables, the chatter of people and the waxy potted plants to a semi-enclosed booth at the far end of the room.  Impeded by her bustle, Magda’s journey was rather less fluent.  She eased herself into the seat opposite her niece with all the majesty of a four-masted barque edging into a narrow berth.  From here she could look up at the tilted mirror hanging on the wall above their snug – this gave them privacy from the other customers, who could see only the tops of their heads, but she could summon a waiter just by lifting a hand.

‘Lise!  What are you doing in the séparée?’

‘I don’t want anyone to see me, Aunt Magda.’

‘Not like you.  What’s the matter, something wrong with your hat this time?

‘It’s not that – though darling Lotte has promised me another.  It’s Hans.  He has another woman.’

Hans!’

‘He’s not so unattractive as all that, Aunt,’ said Lise.

‘What makes you suspect him, dear?  A letter?  A trace of scent?’

‘Oh no!  It’s because he’s being nice to me.  More than he has been in years.  Solicitous, you know.  Bringing me a cushion. Treating me the way he did when I was expecting Martin.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me then!  And there’s another thing but…oh dear, I don’t know that I can find the right words – no decent woman should have to.’

Magda glanced up at the mirror.  The waiters were all busy at smaller tables some distance away.

‘You can tell me,’ said Magda, patting her niece’s gloved hand.

‘In the first two years of our marriage, when Hans was still getting established and was fretful about money, he said we’d have to wait to start a family…’

‘I see…’ said Magda, considering the options.

‘I was mortified…the bedlinen…’

‘Ah!  He provided more work for your laundress, you mean?’

Ilse Wolff’s eyes widened.  ‘Do other husbands do this?’

‘You are not the first wife to tell me this.  It’s next to onanism, of course.  An ungodly and unnatural practice.’

‘Well, the other night he did it again.  It was as if he forgot himself, forgot that we are too old – that am too old for there to be more children…and…and out he came!  It was dark.  He can only have been thinking of someone else!’  Lise whimpered, and fumbled for her handkerchief.

‘My dear, do recollect yourself.  You might be sheltered here, but you are still in a public place.  At least pull down your veil.’ Magda raised a finger to the mirror, and a waiter glided over, as smoothly as though he ran on castors.  Her aunt ordered for them both.

‘Father didn’t want me to marry him,’ said Lise, ‘he said an apothecary was merely a tradesman masquerading as a doctor. But he was the best student of his year.’

‘I remember.  But you did marry him, and successfully it would seem, up to now.  Men are unpredictable, though.  Your uncle Albert was nearly sixty when he lost his head to that dancer.  We women have to put up with much foolishness.  So who is Hans’s woman?’

‘I have no idea.  But I have no doubt that she exists.’

‘Be sensible, Lise, and do not confront him.  Not until you have stronger evidence.’

* * * * *

Discretion was the watchword of the establishment on Szappany Street.  So screams were definitely frowned upon – especially when enmeshed in them was a man’s name.  The doors to the other chambers remained resolutely closed, but the servant recognised the one that crashed open on the third floor, followed by the slap of bare feet on varnished boards.  She tore up the narrow stairs. 

‘Maria!’ shrieked the girl.  ‘Hans is turning blue!  He can’t breathe!’

‘Go back to him!  I’ll send the boy for Dr. Goldschmidt.  Otto!

‘But – the scandal!’

‘There won’t be one.  Goldschmidt’s a client too.’

* * * * *

Mendel Goldschmidt drank down the strong coffee Maria had made for him, and said: ‘He burst a blood vessel in his brain, I believe.  I’ve tried to reassure the poor girl that it wasn’t her fault, but she won’t be comforted.  She’s a sweet thing, even with her face all blotchy like that – obviously adores little Wolff.’

‘Will he live?’

‘Hard to say – and if he does, harder still to know now what lasting damage there  might be.  A terrible shock for her, of course, but if he never does come round, well, there are worse ways to go.  Shouldn’t say any of that of course – he’s still breathing.’

‘What are we to say?  About his being here, I mean.’

‘I shall say he collapsed in the street, on his way to see me about a patient.  You came out on an errand at just the right moment, and had him brought inside.’

‘Where did you take him?’

‘To the Hungarian Sisters.  He’s as good as in gaol there, for they’ll let no-one see him except myself and the specialist I’ve sent for from Kronstadt.  And his wife, of course.’

‘Not her, then.’

‘No chance of that, though she’d be the most devoted of nurses.’

* * * * *

The nun sitting at the head of the bed rustled to her feet on Lise’s entrance, leaving the folded handkerchief with which she had been dabbing Wolff’s face on the marble-topped cabinet, next to a spittoon and a crucifix.

‘I must urge you not to tire your husband, Frau Wolff.  Any undue pressure could be fatal,’ she murmured.

Lise looked down at the slack-jawed face, the matted, grey, untidy moustache; the blacking he used every morning had been sponged out of it.  Drool was gathering at the right side of his mouth; she picked up the handkerchief, but finding it repulsively damp, dropped it.  Hans Wolff stared up at his wife, trying to focus.

‘Poor Hans,’ she said, sitting down.  She touched his right hand where it lay inert on the bedcover; it was cold and unresponsive.  ‘I know, you know.’

Hans gurgled.

‘Don’t fret.  I can hardly fight a duel over you, can I?  I don’t suppose you ever would have for me – not that I have ever given you cause.’

A tear seeped from his left eye.

‘Is that regret, Hans?  For us, or because you won’t ever have her again?  You shan’t, you know, even if you do get better.  I shall find out who she is, and then Aunt Magda will speak to her husband’s cousin – you know, in the Postenkommando – and she will be made to leave town.’

Wolff moaned, an inarticulate, bovine sound.  One side of his mouth twitched; saliva dribbled out the other.

‘Meanwhile, I must struggle on, and find comfort in small things, and in the esteem a respectable woman is held by her neighbours.  In fact, I shall face them today.  I shall go shopping,’ she said, stroking her gloves.  ‘Lotte has sent word that my new hat is ready, bless her.’

The man in the bed groaned, trying to rise, but he jerked uselessly like a puppet on only one string.  The door clicked and the nun billowed in.  Wolff continued to moan and twitch.

‘Frau Wolff, whilst I am sure your presence comforts him, your husband mustn’t be overtaxed.  Depending on what the doctor says, you should be able to see him again tomorrow.’

Lise rose.  ‘Good’bye, Hans.  I do love you, you know.’

* * * * *

Lise peered at her expression in the mirror in the hospital wash-room.  ‘I look too angry,’ she said to herself.  ‘I need to look anxious, devoted – people must look at me and see the strain but tell themselves that I am bearing up wonderfully.’  She experimented, grimacing at her reflection, then when she was satisfied she had found the look she needed, she pulled on her gloves, fitting each finger carefully, and let down her veil.

* * * * *

At the milliner’s, she was disappointed that Lotte was unavailable – indisposed, apparently.  The other girl didn’t have Lotte’s delicate touch, and Lise was sure that she had come close to stabbing her with a hatpin from sheer nerves, but – oh!  The hat was magnificent!  Now she felt ready for her coming task.

* * * * *

The desk intimidated Lise Wolff.  It was an absurdly showy thing, all glossy rosewood and gilt and as incongruous in that plain back-shop as a Steinmüller organ in a country oratory.  Though it could profitably have been sold, when he’d inherited it aged twenty-one Hans Wolff had still nursed dreams of a glittering medical career: receiving illustrious patients in his clinic, dispensing cures seated at this very same piece of furniture.  Instead he was an apothecary, catering mainly to the respectable German-speaking merchant class, and his wife was rummaging for evidence of adultery.

Frau Wolff took her time.  As long as Hans was under the care of the nuns, that woman, whoever she was, couldn’t reach him. ‘So unfortunate that he had to keel over right in front that place…a house of assignation!…’, she thought, ‘but if that servant hadn’t come out at that precise moment and shown such presence of mind he might be dead by now…but how on earth am I to thank such a person?  Fraulein Nicolescu – a Wallachian to boot…  Oh dear, I must make sure everything gets put back just as it was or he’s sure to notice.’  Then she remembered the warning the doctor had given her; even if he lived, Hans might never enter this room again.

For some customers the receipts went back years.  ‘He could have been a good doctor,’ thought Lise, ‘such conscientiousness.’  She schooled herself not to look at names as she untied bundles of correspondence.  Mendel Goldschmidt’s confident, sloping hand occurred regularly.  Her hands trembled when the word ‘mercury’ swam across her vision.  ‘Do keep calm,’ she told herself.  ‘No-one ever got the maladie française from reading about it.’

Three hours later she found the envelope, wrapped in an advertisement in Hungarian for bismuth powders.  The photographer’s name was scrolled across the bottom of each stiff little piece of card; Lise Wolff did not recognise his name but she knew the street name by repute – not good repute.  There were five images in all, of the same naked girl, her hair piled high on her head, yet topped always by an elaborate hat.  She was posed awkwardly, looking at herself in a cheval glass, so that the spectator saw her both front and rear, but frustratingly her face was either obscured by the hat or by her hands.  In one photograph her weight was on her right leg, whilst the left was held awkwardly behind her, on tiptoe.  In another she wore buttoned boots: Lise thought this the most obscene of them all; she noticed too that though the photographs looked new, the edges of this card were not quite as crisp as the others, suggesting that it had been picked up more often.

‘A rather common little body,’ thought Lise, ‘plump legs, too short, the back too long.’

She splayed the photographs across the blotting pad.  In a row they looked like a child’s zoetrope, except that here there was no swinging monkey or flying bird.  ‘I suppose anyone can buy these things,’ thought Lise, ‘some little trollop down on her luck, so half the husbands in Klausenburg get to gawp at her.’ In one of the photographs the girl’s chin and coyly smiling mouth were reflected in the glass, and in another her fingers were latticed over her face, her eyes peeking through and glittering in the mirror – but none of these disparate features amounted to a recognisable person.  ‘At least she had enough sense of shame to hide her face,’ thought Lise.  The anonymity of the photographs gave her the courage to look more closely, though her heart thumped as though she feared discovery, despite the locked door.  The breasts were small, lifted up by the raised elbows, revealing dark smudged armpits, the nipples as dark as Kreuzer coins.  ‘Mine aren’t like that,’ thought Lise.  ‘I wonder – ugh! – do they rouge them?  No letters, then – just some dirty pictures.  I expect he forgot he even had them.’

Lise pushed the photographs together as though stacking a pack of cards.  Then just as she was about to fold them back into the advertisement paper, she noticed something about the hat the girl wore in the uppermost image, and looked more closely. ‘You have to have style to carry off a hat like that,’ she told herself complacently.  ‘It would have looked a lot better on me.’ The hat came forward to a point on the girl’s forehead, and was trimmed with dark lace.  And at the back of her head, a veil shadowed the rounded white shoulders.  Lise dropped the photograph as though it burned her and ran to the little mirror Hans used to refresh the pomade on the tips of his moustaches.

‘Oh my poor hat, my lovely hat!’ she cried, and seizing the veil, began to shred the fine organza.

______________________________________________________________________________

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. She has been published by Erotic Review magazine, Ireland’s Own, Henshaw Press and Severance Publications. Her favoured genre is historical fiction, but she also publishes short romances under the pseudonym Kate Zarrelli (with eXtasy Books). Katherine is represented by Annette Green Authors’ Agency. Her full-length historical novel Merripen is currently out on submission; this novel was longlisted (last 14) for the Historical Novel Society’s New Novel award 2018. As of October 2018 Katherine is a reviewer for Historical Novel Review.

Thanks for sharing!
75
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Milliner of Klausenburg

The Diary

By Lynn B. Connor

Time worn pages written so long ago—the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl lost in the shadowy corners of my mind. Where have the years gone?

I am so lonely. Living here far beyond the end of the East Country Road, we are so isolated. My mother and older sister fill the days remembering when we lived in Heian-kyo, the imperial capital. They talk about the emperor and life at court and retell romantic tales. My favorite ones are those of Genji, the Shining Prince, and his romances. I want to read The Tale of Genji myself from beginning to end, not just hear scattered stories.

“Be patient,” they tell me. “Romantic tales are copied by hand. Printing is for important books such as the Buddhist sutras.” I am twelve and should be learning the sutras. We have those. But I can only think of Genji not of learning the way of Buddha. I remember every word of the stories of Prince Genji I have heard, but not the words of the sutras.

* * * * *

I’m not patient. Today I had a life-size image of Buddha made and prayed, “Buddha, please grant that we move to the capital soon, very soon, so I can get all of Genji. My request to Buddha is not reasonable. Father is governor of this faraway place. We cannot move to the capital. I pray and hope that someone will send us Genji.

My prayers are different now, and I know the sutras. I can separate my mind from frivolous things.

* * * * *

A messenger from the capital arrived today. I thought my prayers were answered. I was so disappointed. No books. Then this evening Father gave us the good news. He is being transferred back to the capital. I am so excited – the home of Genji and books! I am nervous, too. We have been away so many years. Will people think that I am a country girl?

All those dreams of court life, little did I know that life in the capital and the glamour of the court could be lonely, too. I served at court occasionally, but I was more like a guest. What would my life have been like if I had been more devoted to court service? If my father was not sent to the East Country again and then my husband sent to the East Country while I remained in the capital?

* * * * *

Sadness has crept in with the fog. It covers the house. Everything is dismantled and scattered about as we prepare to return to the capital. I must leave behind my life-sized Buddha. I burst into tears.

Outside more confusion. Our servants are gathering our luggage, our household goods, and everything we will need for our journey through the wilderness. There are so many of us – not just our servants and carriers, but also foot soldiers and horsemen armed with bows to protect us from robbers.

* * * * *

Yesterday morning our journey began. Mother, my sister and I got into our palanquins. Father rode ahead on his horse. We are staying for a few days in a temporary, thatched hut on a low bluff. We hung curtains and put up bamboo screens so we can look out and not be seen by the men. I can see a wide plain to the south. On the east and west the sea creeps close. What an interesting place. The morning fog is charming. I am glad we are resting here for a few days.

* * * * *

All yesterday we traveled in a heavy, dark rain. We spent the night in a little hut almost submerged by the rain. I was so afraid I could not sleep. Today the rain has stopped and we are drying our dripping clothes. There is nothing to see – only three lone trees on a little hill.

* * * * *

What a change from the rain. Last night, we stayed at a place called Kuroda Beach. On one side of us, hills and thick groves of pine made a wide band. The moon shone on the white sand stretching into the distance. We listened to the wind and wrote poems. Mine was:

I will not sleep a wink!

If not this evening, then when

could I ever see this —

Kuroda Beach beneath

the moon of an autumn night.*

* * * * *

I will never forget Kuroda Beach in the moon light. Now, here on the Musashi Plain there is nothing of interest. The sand of the beaches is like mud and the purple grass of poems is only various kinds of towering reeds. I do not agree with the old poem

A single stock

of purple on

the Musashi Plain

makes me love

all the wild grasses.**

We cannot see what is ahead, not even see the tips of the bows of our horsemen as we go through the reeds. There is nothing to love about these wild grasses.

* * * * *

We are going through an area called the Chinese Plain. A few pink summer flowers called Japanese Pinks remain. Everyone laughs – Japanese Pinks on the Chinese Plain.

* * * * *

Last night we reached the foot of the Ashigara Mountains, all covered with a wild, thick woods. We only had glimpses of the moonless sky. I felt swallowed up by the darkness. Then out of the darkness, three singers emerged. We invited them to sit under a large paper umbrella, and my servant lit a fire. They had long hair and their faces were so white and clean they looked like maids from a nobleman’s home. Their clear, sweet singing seemed to reach the heavens and charmed us. When they left, tears came into our eyes as we watched them go back into the darkness.

I was reminded of that night years later when we stopped at Nogami. Female entertainers came and sang to us through the night filling me with longing. And reminded again of that night by Mt. Ashigara, when traveling by boat we anchored for the night. The singing of women entertainers came out of the darkness. Their voices moved me as before. 

At dawn we began our climb of the mountain. As we climbed, the dense forest changed to a few scattered trees. Clouds swirled around our feet. I was so afraid.

* * * * *

Mt. Fuji! How surprised I am. When we saw it from our home, it was just a small gray peak. Seeing it so close, it is like nothing else in the world. The slopes look like they are painted indigo blue. The snow on top makes it look like someone wearing a short white jacket over a gown. Smoke rises from its flat top. Last night flames leapt into the air.

* * * * *

When we left our home, the leaves were still green. Now as we pass Mt. Miyaji red leaves cling to the trees. I thought:

The furious storms

do not blow

on Mt. Miyaji

the red maple leaves

are still unscattered.

* * * * *

I no longer care about looking at beautiful places and writing. We stopped for several days because I was so sick. Winter winds blew so fiercely, it was difficult to bear. Snow came, and in the storm we passed through another barrier station, and went over Mount Atsumi. At the foot of Mitsusaka Mountain light rain fell night and day mixed with hail. It was so melancholy that we did not stay. Nothing leaves any impressions. The places are only names, nothing more. Maybe we are just tired and anxious for our journey to end.

* * * * *

Tonight we have stopped by Lake Biwa. I’m so excited. I’m not sure I can sleep. Tomorrow we reach the capital, the home of Prince Genji and our new home. Now I can read all of Genji. I am nervous, too. What will people think of me, a girl from the country?

* * * * *

Yesterday we went through the last barrier station where they check the coming and of people before the capital, I remembered an old poem

This is the barrier

where people come and go,

meeting and parting

both friends and strangers

the Afusaka Barrier***

When I passed through this barrier station so long ago. It was winter then, too.

The voice of the Afusaka

Barrier wind blowing now

through the station,

is no different from the one

I heard long.

Before only a roughly hewn face of the Buddha could be seen. Now there is a splendid temple.

Genji came and went through here. And at last we entered the capital. I had forgotten how wide the streets are. Red Bird Avenue is three hundred feet wide and lined with willow trees. Their bare branches swayed in the wind as we passed. Huge, wild-looking trees surround our house. It is hard to believe we are in the capital and not back deep in the mountains.

* * * * *

Everyone is busy unpacking and arranging the house. No one has time to think about me and stories. Will I ever get to read all of The Tale of Genji? Today I could wait no longer. I pestered Mother, “Please, please find me stories to read,” until she stopped working and sent a letter to a relative asking if she had any books. Now we wait.

* * * * *

Today a box filled with beautiful booklets of stories arrived. I started reading them immediately. There are none about Genji.

* * * * *

I cry and cry. I don’t even feel like reading tales. My childhood nurse has died. Mother is so worried about me she found another Genji tale. Genji is charmed by ten year-old Murasaki. When she becomes an orphan, he takes her to his palace. I want to know what happens next. I pray, “Please grant that I may get to read all of Genji from beginning to end.”

* * * * *

Last month I went with Mother and Father on a retreat to Uzumasa Temple. My only prayers were for a copy of Genji. I was sure my prayers would be answered. I am so disappointed.

How vexed I was that my parents seldom took me on their pilgrimages. Years later I returned to Uzumasa and have gone on other pilgrimages. My prayers concentrated on raising my children with great care and seeing them grow up as I hoped. And I prayed my husband would find happiness in his career.

* * * * *

Today my parents sent me to visit an aunt. We liked each other and talked of many things. When I was ready to leave, she smiled and said, “I would like to give you a present, something special.” How did she know? She gave me all of Genji. I could hardly wait to get home and start reading.

* * * * *

I have done nothing but read Genji all day and until I fall asleep late at night. Things that confused me when I heard or read only parts of it now are clear. I never could memorize a Buddhist sutra, but already I know by heart the names of all the people in the story. There are over fifty. I would not stop reading even if I had a chance to become the empress.

I want to be beautiful and have long silky hair that almost touches the ground just like Genji’s love Yugao. I daydream about being like Lady Ukifune hidden away in a mountain village. Watching the blossoms, the crimson leaves, the snow and the moon. Waiting for letters from my shining prince. This is all I wish for.

The stories fill my mind all day, and I dream of them at night.

* * * * *

The things I hoped for. The things I had wished for. Could they really happen? How crazy I was. How foolish I feel.*

* * * * *

Author’s Notes: This story is based on Sarashina Nikki, a diary of a court lady in eleventh-century Japan. She is simply known as Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, Sugawara no Takasue’s daughter (1009-1059). I have adapted the sections of the Sarashina Nikki that tell of her childhood passion for romantic tales, especially The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), and then interwoven her reflections and events from later in life. My goal has been to maintain the spirit of the Sarashina Nikki. Additional information (such as the function of barrier stations, the description of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto, and poems which were well known at the time) regarding ancient Japan is woven into the text.

There are several translations of Sarashina Nikki. Where there is a direct quote from the diary, it is from The Sarashina Diary, A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, translated, with an introduction, by Sonja Arntzen and Ito Moriyuki. These are indicated with an *. If there is no asterisk after the poem, the translation is by mine. In addition, ** and *** indicate that the poems are not in the diary.: ** from the Kokin Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in the tenth century and *** from the Gosen Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in 951. The poems were well known at the time.

The Tale of Genji: When Genji (Genji Monogatari) was written a thousand years ago, it was just a Japanese tale of romance, court life and politics — a time before samurai, haiku, sushi, ninja and Hello Kitty. It was a time of peace and tranquility. The capital of Japan (present-day Kyoto) was called Heian-kyo – peace and tranquility capital. Tokyo, the present-day capital, would not be built for five hundred years.

Genji is often considered the world’s first novel and still read today. It became more than a romantic tale. It is an integral part of Japanese culture—art, poetry, card games, video games, plays, movies and manga. It is even pictured on money. The book has been considered a good influence, a bad influence, and even banned. Google Genji and you will get three quarter million hits in English alone.

______________________________________________________________

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in East Asian history, Lynn B. Connor planned to be an academic. That idea was short lived. She realized that sharing stories of other times and places with children (and grownups, too) is what she enjoyed. Living in Japan for two years and then being a guide (and training guides) at the Chinese and Japanese gardens in Portland, Oregon, increased her understanding of how stories can provide windows on other cultures.  Her translations of T’ang dynasty poems were published by Poet Lore, and LanSu Chinese Garden in Portland published her first book, The Stones and the Poet. Her stories have appeared in several literary journals, and “The Tea Master” was posted on Stone Bridge Press’ Cafe.

Thanks for sharing!
75
Posted in Creative Nonfiction, Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Diary