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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.

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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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Farewell the Day

By Carole Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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

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The African Promise

By Lynette Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father, what is this place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

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Some Destiny

By Amanda LaPorta

Before he understood what was happening, General Jean-Joseph Ange d’Hautpoul was embraced by the Emperor.  There was a light tremor in his breastplate as his back was patted twice before the Emperor pulled away, leaving a faint trace of his cologne.  d’Hautpoul swallowed the happy lump in his throat and placed a hand over his heart where the Emperor’s bicorn had just been.

“For a compliment such as this, I must be willing to die for you.”  He made a quarter-turn to the right, addressing the ranks of awestruck cavalry before him.  “Do you see, my men?  The Emperor is pleased with you!  And I am so pleased with you, that I kiss all of you on the a—!”

This was met with raucous laughter and whinnying as the assembled troops burst into a joyful cacophony.  The Emperor began to take his leave amidst his entourage of spangled marshals as d’Hautpoul was further embraced by soldier after soldier, cheering and breaking their ranks in a flood of camaraderie.  In this onrush, d’Hautpoul glanced towards the calmly departing Emperor, who, in the space of a mere moment, caught his eye and mouthed two syllables.  Salut, he thought, shaking the shoulder of a young trooper while grabbing the arm of another.  It was not until after his men had mellowed and they had all returned to their camp in Hof, delving into ports and champagnes, that d’Hautpoul realized what the Emperor had said.

“Berthemy,” he called to his aide, grabbing the toe of the lieutenant’s jackboot that was perched on their shared table.

“What, General?”  Berthemy pulled his head upright, blinking away his glossy-eyed drunkenness.

“How well do you know this country?”

“By now?” he yawned indelicately.  “Well enough.”

“Following the main roads to the east—”

“Is the River Alle.”

“Then to the north.  What are the next towns?”

“Oh, that would be…”

d’Hautpoul stared at him through the candlelight, listening to the shrill whisper of a snowstorm outside.  He made a note to check that the division’s horses were well blanketed after his exchange with Berthemy.

“…Landsberg, I think, is a league to the north, and three more leagues beyond that, Eylau.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.”

d’Hautpoul stood, ducking into his white cloak.  He left the wooden hovel the officers were quartering in and stepped into the snow outside, Berthemy’s answer stark in his mind.  The wind howled it back at him forebodingly, two syllables, again and again.

Eylau.

 

d’Hautpoul led his cuirassiers north the next day, couched between a confluence of dragoon regiments and Marshal Augereau’s infantry.  Even though d’Hautpoul and Berthemy rode at the head of their division, they could hear Augereau groaning about his rheumatism far behind them.  d’Hautpoul knew his own words would not be heard over the clanking of scabbards and the crunching of hooves on snow, so he offered the sick Marshal some choice phrases that caused the cuirassiers in his near vicinity to chuckle with surprise.

“Fiery words for a cold day, General?” Berthemy commented.

“Something like that.”

“Were he here, Marshal Murat might bestow the same ugly sentiments upon you.”

“Well, f— Murat.”

“You did two days ago, with your glorious charge that lost him fourteen-hundred good men.”

d’Hautpoul clenched his jaw.  “He realized the cost of that victory before the battle had even started.”

“Very well,” Berthemy shrugged, steering his horse away to chide a trooper who had a poorly-packed saddle.  d’Hautpoul dwelled on his words, convincing himself that his actions were not as rash as Berthemy painted them to be.  He had charged the Russian cannon days prior and had emerged victorious—that was not recklessness, that was bravery.  He was sure of it.

 

The path to Eylau was clear and hilly, coated in an even layer of snow.  Despite Augereau’s incessant grumbling, d’Hautpoul passed the march in high spirits, and willed his cuirassiers to do the same.  They sang and taunted and laughed, resembling more a pack of carefree schoolboys than a heavy cavalry division of the Grande Armée.

Upon halting, they reassembled according to new orders from the Emperor, who presided over their arrival from a nearby plateau.  Berthemy returned from conferencing with the other aides winded and ruddy-cheeked just as d’Hautpoul ordered the dismount in the Eylau churchyard.  Their horses knocked noses as Berthemy panted, “Bivouac tonight, Augereau’s infantry advances at sunrise.  We’re to accompany Murat’s reserve and wait.”

d’Hautpoul swore.

“There’s more, General.”

“Well?”

“The Russians are waiting nearby.  This is something of a last stand for them.”

“This is their last stand.  They won’t recover from the battle we give them, I’ll see to that.  Once you’ve got your breath, ensure that the men are bundled well for the night.  I want no frostbite.  And hot potatoes for all.”

“The village has already been sacked.  There are no potatoes left.”

d’Hautpoul glanced towards the jumble of roofs and walls where grey-coated soldiers were wandering and pillaging.  One pushed open a pair of shutters on the second floor of a nearby house and, espying the cuirassiers in the churchyard below, promptly pulled them closed.  d’Hautpoul sucked his teeth and ordered Berthemy to get the men whatever they needed to stay warm, potatoes or no.   He watched the men settle, lighting fires, stacking armor, and picking hooves, before urging his horse past the church and onto the streets of Eylau itself.

He claimed the house with the shutters, leaving his horse downstairs and advancing to the second floor where he found a small gathering of scrawny dragoons.  He addressed them plainly, “Officer’s quarters.  Out.”

“General d’Hautpoul?” one addressed him meekly while the others gathered their scraps and carbines, departing in a huff.

“Yes?  What the f— do you want?”

“Goodlucktomorrow!” the man slurred his well-wishes and skittered down the stairs on the heels of his comrades, bumping into d’Hautpoul’s horse on the way out.

Eventually Berthemy joined him, dragging one leg as he approached and sitting at the edge of the upstairs cot.  His horse, he explained, had slipped on a patch of ice and fell on top of him, rendering them both sore and uneasy.  d’Hautpoul gave the lieutenant his flask and called him a handsome idiot, watching as both actions brought color back to Berthemy’s face.

“A slippery path is not feared by those who help each other,” d’Hautpoul continued, catching the emptied flask from Berthemy.

“You weren’t there when I fell, General.”

“I was talking about tomorrow.  We’ll let Augereau and the dragoons help us out, won’t we?”

“I thought you hated riding on others’ coattails,” he replied, falling back into the cot with a sigh.

“Division d’Hautpoul will cover itself in glory, I promise.  But with the Russians as they are, we won’t be foolish enough to disregard the aid of other units.”

Yawning, Berthemy mused, “Are you telling that to me, or reminding yourself?”  But by the time d’Hautpoul opened his mouth to answer, the lieutenant was asleep.

 

In the morning d’Hautpoul reformed his ranks and positioned his division to the left of Murat’s cavalry, overlooking the fields of Eylau.  In the distance there were two frozen lakes, and between them, a hill speckled with Russian soldiers.  They could faintly be heard barking and cursing, insulting the Grande Armée and its Emperor’s impudence.  This amused d’Hautpoul so much that he laughed until the plume on his helmet shook.  His division did not comprehend the source of his mirth, and, assuming that it was from his love of battle, willed themselves to laugh with him until one of Murat’s gold-and-white hussars pranced over and gave them a sharp warning.  As d’Hautpoul was preparing to deliver a string of happy vulgarities in reply, Augereau’s forces at his left suddenly tramped off towards the Russians, their leader coughing and moaning.

“He’s half-dead and still at it.  Go tell Murat,” d’Hautpoul shooed the hussar away, blinking heavily against an oncoming flurry.  He watched the man ride away, and saw snow clouds rolling in from the same direction.  They would not get the luxury of a crisp, dry battlefield, but d’Hautpoul’s spirit kept him warm.  He stood in his stirrups and shouted at his men, calling them by name as the first cannonballs hurtled across the field and more Russians appeared on the hill.  At their distance, and in the oncoming snowstorm, the enemy resembled a single black beast with bayonet scales and a mane of furred hats.

The closer they came, the greater d’Hautpoul’s urge to charge grew.  It was a familiar feeling, a restlessness, a heat in his throat that bloomed until he could remain neither still nor silent.  He watched Augereau get lost in the blizzard, coming nose-to-nose with the Russian flank and getting crushed as a result.  He watched as confused artillerists fired at their own comrades, and the Emperor’s own guard emerge from Eylau’s streets to repel an oncoming column.  As Berthemy sat lopsided in the saddle beside him, his moustache white with frost, d’Hautpoul witnessed the Russian beast continue to claim victory until the need to engage burned a hole through his chest and he peeled away from his division, galloping towards Murat with gritted teeth.

Six strides in, he nearly collided with another gold-and-white hussar.  The hussar’s horse leapt to the side, and d’Hautpoul’s reared as the men shouted at one another.

“General!”

“Idiot!”

“The Emperor has ordered a charge!  Prepare your men!”

“Finally!”

“Marshal Murat will give the command when ready.”

“I’ll command my own division.”

“General, it is a massed charge.”

“How many divisions are in?”

The hussar gave an exhausted bleat of a laugh.  “All divisions!” he rode away, braids swinging, and disappeared into the snow.  In minutes the body of cavalry was assembled, dragoons, hussars, carabiniers, cuirassiers, shoulder to shoulder and thrumming with hot-blooded vigor.  Everyone knew what was happening; the Grande Armée was exhausted, and it would be in the hands of the cavalry to deliver a killing blow to the Russian beast.

“Men!” d’Hautpoul crowed, rallying his division, “The ground will split open at our heels!  Death will rain down on them like fog!  We will cover the Russians in their own blood, and they will cover us in glory!”

He heard a cuirassier nearby murmur in poetic recognition, “We are the blizzard.”

“Men!” d’Hautpoul resumed, pounding his breastplate so that it rang like a bell, “The Emperor loves you.  I love you!  Now—”

The call to begin the charge went out across the field, and d’Hautpoul dropped back into his saddle, exhaling.  Berthemy cast him an apologetic glance, to which he replied, “It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t finish, they know what is important.  It’s in their hearts—and their spurs.”

They set out at a trot, thousands together, building momentum in choppy strides.  Regimental flags were buffeted by snow flurries, and trumpeters’ calls were lost in the wind, but it hardly mattered; d’Hautpoul knew what he was doing, and he could clearly see Marshal Murat’s velvet coat two regiments in front of him.  As soon as the body of cavalry was clear of Eylau’s buildings, they opened into a canter.  d’Hautpoul flung his pallasch out of its scabbard, and as Berthemy gave the command, he listened to hundreds of swords behind him ring out in unison.  They rode out the length of the field this way, primed for impact and already causing the first rows of Russian infantry to balk and scatter.

Eventually d’Hautpoul heard Murat give the final command to charge at a gallop.  He leveled his pallasch and exploded forward, lifting out of the saddle and coming down so hard on the first Russian before him that the man split from the top of his shako down to his collarbone.  Moments later, the rest of his division met the enemy, and the field roared into life as tens of thousands of cavalrymen trampled the Russian vanguard.

d’Hautpoul submerged himself entirely, crashing through anybody in his path.  Once beyond the line of abandoned Russian cannon, he veered to the left, taking his division with him and splitting the body of cavalry into columns that coiled around retreating infantry and carved them into carrion.  At the apex of the charge, some horses began to lag, and d’Hautpoul watched a dragoon get shot from his saddle too far away for him to avenge.  The call was made to reassemble, and he wheeled his division back towards the Grande Armée’s lines, doubling it back on itself.  For a moment, he was able to see the size of their combined cavalry, and it brought such boldness and pride to his heart that he led the second charge into Russian lines with greater energy than the first, plunging back into the fray at a triple gallop.

As d’Hautpoul turned back from the second charge, Berthemy caught up with him, and informed him that according to Murat’s orders it was over, and that they could  return to the village of Eylau.  They had done their job, and they had been successful.  d’Hautpoul looked at his troops and their horses, and saw that they were happily exhausted and largely intact.  Then, still without answering Berthemy, he looked to Murat, who was supervising the cavalry’s return nearby.  Despite the thick snow and the shouts of the wounded and the victorious, he caught Murat’s eye.  The great Marshal regarded him with a lifted eyebrow, and with this d’Hautpoul made up his mind.

“Berthemy, left wheel.  We’re going back.”

“But General, a third charge…?”

“Yes, by God!” he raised his pallasch to the sky, shouting to the division, “Forward, my brave cuirassiers!”

This time, as they recrossed the field that was now bulbous with snow piles and corpses, Division d’Hautpoul was all but alone.  A cluster of carabiniers followed them at a distance in a mild attempt to provide support, but only d’Hautpoul and his troops fully reengaged the Russians.  The blood was pounding so thickly in d’Hautpoul’s ears that he could hardly hear the blizzard, hardly perceive the men behind him, and hardly feel the splash of blood on his cheek when his sword punched through a terrified Russian.  He lived for this, the fury, the breathlessness, the slight disorientation that made him to trust his horse while he wielded his sword like a colossus.  He was drawn briefly from this giddy rampage as Berthemy called to him from afar, words that he heard but did not understand.  He disregarded this, and fought on until he was so deep into the enemy lines that he started riding over the bodies and horses of his own division.  Seeing his same uniform on the bloodied snow unsettled him, and he shouted to rally his troops.

d’Hautpoul went to raise his arm and realized that the side of his body would not move.  His horse was trembling, and blood ran down the side of his crumpled breastplate.  He cursed aloud as he looked down at the pulpy, gristly mass that had just been his left hip.  His hand was not broad enough to cover the wound or hold in his bulging intestine, the sight of which made him retch in the snow beside his now-dead horse.  He pushed himself to his feet, dizzy, realizing that it was Berthemy who was pulling him upright.

“Cannon, General, please watch out for the cannon!” Berthemy implored, half-scolding, half-weeping as he pushed d’Hautpoul into his own horse’s saddle.  Their retreat was a blur, as a handful of bleeding cuirassiers, some two to a horse, scampered back into the folds of Murat’s resting men.  d’Hautpoul was borne further back beyond the lines despite his rasping protests, from stretcher to cart to total darkness.

 

“If we move the artery—”

“To cauterize.”

“No, just bandage it with the—”

“Amputation is the only answer.”

d’Hautpoul swam through the voices, half-numb and unsure, but with growing frustration.  Diffidence annoyed him, and he used this bitterness to rouse himself and address the flock of navy-coated surgeons around his bed.

“Like hell you will amputate!”  He blanched at the pain that shouting caused him, and caught his breath before looking to the surgeon with the most decorated coat.  The man had a young face, but a pinched expression that made him look far older.  d’Hautpoul realized that this was Larrey, the Emperor’s chief and most trusted surgeon.

“General, if you wish to live, we must amputate your leg.  The cannonball nearly destroyed your entire thigh.”

“I am a cavalryman, sir.  We are useless without our legs.  This,” d’Hautpoul peered at the soaked bandage at his hip, “will be nursed back to an intact state.  A decade from now it will be a mere twinge, a stiffness in the morning.”

Larrey shook his head, trying to smile.  “It doesn’t work that way, General.”

“I assure you otherwise.”

“The Emperor will miss you dearly if you die.  He sent me here to prevent that.  Did he not just embrace you the other day?”

“He did,” d’Hautpoul murmured, sinking back into his pillow and letting his thoughts wash over him as a numbing balm.  By the time he had mulled over the battle, sifted through his actions and his words, his purpose and his ambition, Larrey and the other surgeons had long departed.  He announced his resolution to the air, aware that by the time anyone had returned to hear his verdict, it would be too late.

“I must become a ghost, to sit among the dead.”

When Larrey returned the next day to ask if he had changed his mind, d’Hautpoul shook his head.  When, the day after that, Larrey returned with a newly-promoted Captain Berthemy to ask once more, d’Hautpoul warmly grasped the hand of his former lieutenant and shook his head.  And when, the day beyond that, Larrey returned to repeat his query a third time, he found General Jean-Joseph Ange d’Hautpoul silent and unmoving.  He drew a blanket over the general’s eyes and left, stepping outside among the snow and the ghosts.

______________________________________________________________

Amanda LaPorta is a cavalry enthusiast living in Florida.

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Divine Protection

By Michael Leach

Jean Verdi walked purposefully down the archaic streets of Paris. His pace was swift, if not presumptuous, for the distinguished gentleman he obviously was. The elegant attire enveloping his body indicated his wealthy stature beyond doubt. Black hair was tied back in a neat ponytail behind his head, a popular style amongst fourteenth-century Parisians. A top hat adorning his handsome face was tipped in a congenial manner as he greeted passers-by. This middle-aged man managed to blend in with the masses of people walking along the cobblestone paths. His appearance, like his nobility, was impeccable.

The heat of the morning was unexpected, causing Jean to perspire beneath several layers of clothing. He undid the top of his bulky coat in an attempt to cool himself. In doing so, he inadvertently revealed something that shimmered enchantingly in the mid-morning sun. From around Jean’s neck, a red-colored cross necklace dangled and bobbed over elegant ruffles. It appeared to be the same as an ordinary cross, except that all four of its arms were noticeably curved. Was this cross in fact the symbol of the infamous Order of the Knights Templar? It was difficult to tell.

As time passed, the temperature of the morning gradually continued to rise. A single drop of sweat trickled down the side of one of Jean’s cheeks. He wiped it discreetly from his face, before slowing his pace considerably. He stared strangely at the liquid resting on his finger as recent memories coalesced in front of his mind’s eye.

Jean’s thoughts were instantly focused once more on the events that had transpired three days earlier. He vividly recalled the apprehension he had felt whilst in his estate at Le Mans. An anonymous individual had delivered a letter to him just before sunrise. The letter had been slid surreptitiously under the front door, going unnoticed for some time. Eventually, the sight of the letter prompted Jean’s muscle-bound servant to retrieve two broadswords and join his master for an extensive search of the grounds. All that the pair found were smears of crimson blood along a section of tall, spiked iron fence. The blood still glistened in the light of the rising sun. Returning indoors, Jean hurriedly retrieved a letter opener and cut away at the mysterious white envelope. Scrawled in the exact center of the letter therein was the word ‘Paris’. He was clueless as to what this was supposed to mean. It was only when he was about to discard the seemingly pointless message that he realized the true purpose of the letter. Stamped on the envelope in irregular-shaped red wax was a seal. Jean recognized the symbol instantly as one that defined the course of his adult life – it was a Templar cross. The anxiety he felt inside resulted in sweat coating his face as it did now. Jean believed that somebody in Paris was in grave danger.

The now-distressed gentleman was interrupted from his introspection as he walked blindly into an elegantly-dressed lady. Both of them recoiled, the lady more violently than Jean. She cried out in surprise as she stared reproachfully at the individual standing awkwardly before her. Forgetting his manners amid his mental turmoil, Jean ignored the lady and kept maneuvering his way through the serried crowds. His dawdle transformed into a swift jog as he considered just how important his presence in Paris was.

* * * * *

An eerie silence filled the almost deserted nave within the Notre Dame Cathedral. This ornate example of Gothic architecture continued to amaze Parisians, even though a century had passed since its construction was completed. Huge piers rose up towards the vaulted ceiling, watching vigilantly over the cathedral’s most sacred space. Lifelike statues of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus stood amidst a small army of stone angels, kings and saints. Beautifully-designed stained glass windows allowed scarce amounts of light to filter through them in order to illuminate the darkness. The only other sources of light evident in the whole area were several lit candles blazing away upon a central stone altar. Before the altar, many aisles of wooden pews utilized a majority of the nave’s space. For centuries, these sturdy rows of furniture had provided rest for the Godly. On this day, it seemed their purpose was completely opposite.

Seated in the front row of pews, seemingly in prayer, was Dragus Maldetti. His head was bowed, displaying long, disheveled strands of pure-white hair. A long scar encrusted the old man’s left cheek from the corner of the mouth to just below the eye. Bloodied cloths covered parts of Dragus’ right lower leg and right forearm, with traces of yellow Soldier’s Woundwort evident on the surrounding skin. A tattered brown robe cloaked a majority of his large, muscular body. The life of a soldier had rewarded Dragus with immense physical strength, but had stripped him of almost all humanity. He had spent the past decade exploiting his latest position as a Roman Catholic Inquisition soldier, often acting unscrupulously and without a priest’s supervision. He was a renegade bounty hunter rather than a champion of the Catholic faith.

Dragus continued to sit alone in silence as he had done all morning. His thoughts were not on God, but instead on something most sinister. Thoughts relating to the fall of the Knights Templar replayed themselves continually within his twisted mind.

The Order of the Knights Templar was abolished exactly nine years ago on this day – October 13, 1307. The inquisition was instructed to hunt down all members of the order so as they could be punished for alleged heresy and immorality. A majority of captured Knights Templar were cruelly tortured. Ultimately, they were resigned to live out their remaining years in disgrace, serve lifelong prison sentences or, in cases where members did not confess to alleged crimes, burn at the stake. It seemed that a small number of knights, however, had somehow evaded contact with any inquisitors. These lucky individuals were still leading charmed lives comfortably in many European countries. Their skills at hiding had allowed them to live as free men for nine years longer than their unfortunate brothers.

Dragus had one recurring desire within that obsessive mind of his: he wanted to play an integral part in the final chapter of the Order of the Knights Templar’s destruction. Achieving this malevolent goal would provide him with wealth, fame and satisfaction of the liked he had never experienced. Time was running out though. The sixty-two-year-old man craved the opportunity to relish these auspicious rewards before his life ended.

Out of desperation, the furtive individual had dedicated the better part of two years to tracking down Jean Verdi. This man was one of the few surviving Knights Templar in France. He was a courageous individual, a man who other knights rallied around following the death of the last Grand Master two years earlier. Dragus had written to Jean in a discreet code that only members of the order could comprehend. He then travelled all the way from Milan to Le Mans in order to hand-deliver the letter. This letter was essentially an invitation to Notre-Dame; one that Dragus knew would be accepted. Jean would travel unsuspectingly to the great cathedral, intent on a harmonious reunion with a surviving knight like himself. Instead, there was every chance that the complete eradication of the Knights Templar would be foreshadowed by the death of yet another of its members. This could be seen as a fitting way to mark the nine-year anniversary of the order’s abolition.

As the sun approached its zenith, Dragus sensed that the time of Jean’s secret assassination was imminent. He raised his head ever so slowly. Reaching into his robe, he pulled out a necklace with a medallion and a cross. The medallion contained an image of Saint Peter of Verona, the Patron Saint of Inquisitors. He ignored this and took a moment to glare pensively at the cross. It was undoubtedly a Templar cross.

There is no deception here, Jean, Dragus thought to himself. I may have used false documents to enter the order mere days before its abolition, but I still went through the same initiation ceremony as you. Never mind all that has changed since then. I trust that you will continue to follow the sacred rites and meet me here, brother to brother, at noon on the third day after summons. The old facial scar lifted upwards with a malicious smile.

Dragus’ eyes then diverged almost instinctively towards the very front of the nave. The old man let go of his necklace and continued to look ahead. He saw, as he had numerous times in the past, the resplendent form of the primary stained glass window. The striking biblical scenes depicted therein told their ancient stories radiantly before him. Although it was only a few minutes before noon, Dragus became transfixed by the sight. It touched something deep inside the man in a way nothing had been able to for decades. He felt peace, serenity and love begin to rage in one powerful torrent within the very inner depths of his soul. For the first time since his youth, Dragus was experiencing the warm glow of real emotion.

The scoundrel despised the unusual sensation he felt inside. He leaped up and cried out in rage, as if these actions would dissipate the waves of emotion afflicting him. Both his face and the cloth around his lower leg reddened. Dragus’ body seemed to be staging a battle between darkness and light. In the heat of this battle, the man’s actions were no longer governed by clear, conscious thoughts. Drawing his broadsword from its scabbard, Dragus charged towards the source of his anger – the primary stained glass window. In one fluid motion, he flung the large steel weapon in the direction of the nave’s sacred focal point.

The unmistakable sound of shattering glass resounded throughout Notre-Dame cathedral. It was followed shortly by the clatter of steel and glass on cobblestone. Dragus Maldetti was no longer just a scoundrel; now he was a sacrilegious vandal as well.

Every muscle in Dragus’ body froze. A thick veil of incredulity and regret had suddenly engulfed his mind, forbidding any further movements or sounds. The sensation was even more unwelcome than the warm feelings stirred up by the now-broken window. As the old man stood still by the nave’s altar, the statues in his line of sight seemed to pass judgment on him. His eyes met those of a stone saint, followed by the Virgin Mary, and then Jesus Christ. The feelings of shock and regret intensified enormously. The blood drained from his face, threatening to never return.

Time seemed to stand still there at the scene of the crime. The seconds crept by slowly until an extremely loud noise erupted from overhead, piercing the silence. Notre Dame’s bells were heralding the arrival of noon in Paris. The sound broke Dragus out of his daze, before leading his mind towards its inevitable conclusion. Dragus finally managed to register the enormity of his crime against God and the cathedral.

What have I done, and why now? Dragus thought to himself. He knew all about the severe punishments pronounced for an act as shameful and foolish as vandalizing a place of worship. Someone could enter the cathedral or descend a tower at any moment – the bell ringer perhaps, or a worshipper, or maybe even a soldier. The summoned knight, Jean Verdi, would no doubt arrive soon too. Dragus felt utterly powerless without his broadsword. He briefly considered retrieving it, but thought it might already be implicated in the act of vandalism. He would now struggle to defend himself, let alone assassinate a young hero of the Order of the Knights Templar.

Dragus closed his eyes and stifled a cry of frustration. His nefarious plan had completely backfired.

Now keenly aware of his predicament, Dragus began to panic. His frenetic mind abandoned the thought of assassination and focused instead on self-preservation. He needed to get out of Notre Dame immediately. With the air of a frightened child, Dragus fled from the vandalized scene as fast as his injured old body allowed. The would-be assassin ran down the cathedral’s front steps just as the bell tolled for the twelfth and final time. It was like the sound of trumpets from on high.

Only seconds later, Jean Verdi walked solemnly into Notre-Dame cathedral. He was alone; he was safe from danger.

______________________________________________________________

Michael Leach wears several hats. He is a health researcher, freelance academic editor, creative writer and long-time history buff. Currently, Michael is based in The City of Churches (i.e. Adelaide), where he is completing a PhD in Pharmacy at the University of South Australia. His poem ‘Longitudinal’ was recently accepted for publication in The Medical Journal of Australia.

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Mary Shelley’s Sister

By Chelsi Robichaud

 

When I was young, Louisa would celebrate my ability to read. In my adult life, it became less fascinating, especially with Mary’s talent for writing.

There are times where I enjoy looking back at my governesses’ diaries to see how things have changed. When Papa left, I refused to send him kisses. Only to my dear sister, I would say.

Only to Mary. Soon she will no longer be Mary Godwin; with Percy, she will be Mary Shelley. How am I to live with this information? Papa would accuse me of being overly sensitive, I am sure. But it breaks my heart to see them go.

Now I am to remain in this household with a distressed mother and an enraged father. His daughter and his pupil eloping. Surely he could not have predicted Percy’s actions. How shocked he would be, then, to know I had been dreaming of a similar fate with the poet.

I am too mild-mannered for him, I believe. Mary’s head is full of adventures and monstrosities: creatures I could never imagine. She impressed Percy the moment they met, near our mother’s grave.

This did not come as a surprise to me; Mary had a fascination with mother’s remains. She wished dearly she could have met her. I believe she resented me for having met her when I was a baby.

I did not meet Percy in such a romantic place as the resting grounds, but in an area much more common to the average person: the dinning room. I sensed there existed a meaningful connection between us, as well.

He sat across from me, his hair combed back, wearing a blue coat. I remember thinking at the time of how it matched his eyes brilliantly, but of course was too timid to tell him so. Mary said he only had eyes for her that night, but both Claire and I knew that was untrue. His eyes wandered over all three of us, and I frequently perceived his eyes pausing on me. I was younger then, and foolish to believe it meant anything romantic for Percy. But a man had looked at me, and smiled a wonderful smile, meant so much then.

“Fanny, what are your passions?” he asked me. Only then did I realize that Mary and Claire had been talking of their hobbies and interest.

“Reading,” I told him. I felt spectacularly dull in that moment. But Percy did not take my answer to mean dull.

“Truly? What kind of reading? Not poetry, I hope. If so, I’m most certain my wife would find reason to be jealous of you.”

I looked over to Mary, then to Father. Her face had turned red. For the first time in my life, the thrill of victory run through my chest. Immediately, I felt ashamed at being so petty, but I could not help it. Not when Mary had always been the most celebrated daughter. Father’s mouth drew into a thin line, but he could not rightly reprimand Percy for what he said. It was in jest, after all.

“I enjoy religious meditations,” I said.

“Well, it seems you have yet another philosopher in the house!”

 

Percy’s wife was Harriet Westbrook. I heard them quarrelling early in the morning. She had come to our home to see him. Mary stood next to him, wringing her hands. Harriet was the perfect picture of a woman scorned, and I thought dimly that she would have played the perfect part of a witch in one of Shakespeare’s plays. She yelled at him, tears streaming down her face. Mary, too, looked like she would cry; I had known the signs since I was young. Even from the distance of my window, I could tell she was sniffling.

“I will kill myself!” Percy hollered, then. Harriet stopped crying. Mary went still. “I will do it! I will take my own life. Don’t you see the grief you are causing me?”

That was the end of the argument. I had never seen Percy so fitful before. In that moment, he appeared like a child to me. Yet I still loved him. How I wished I could run down and be amongst the women who wept for his threats. But I could not. I steeled myself and shook silently in my room. I withheld my grief when Mary told me of their encounter.

 

Now they are gone, Percy, Mary and Claire. I do not know what he expects of my half-sister, nor why he and Mary brought her along with them. I had heard her railing against her mother several days ago, but knew not why. She, too, had most likely confessed her sinful attachment to Percy. In a way, I admired her for her bravery. She confessed what I could not. I had not told a soul about my affections for him, and his words, and his beautiful smiles.

 

Harriet died shortly after Mary and Percy left. She did what he could not; she took her own life. Now I am contemplating doing the same. I know father loves me, but he cannot provide comfort. He is too upset over Percy’s departure with two of his daughters. I have now become invisible to both of them. I help with chores around the house, but my duties have become those of a servant.

Why was I not chosen? Why was I left behind? Part of me knows why. I could not be the kind of wife Percy desires. I could not lay with him while he lies with my sisters, too. I could not accept his lovers. But Mary and Claire could.

 

Despite my religious leanings, I do not wish to join the Anglican Sisterhood. I do not wish to remain here, mourning as a widow without ever having a husband. I do not wish to see my father cry every evening, without once glancing at me.

I will do as my mother did. I will walk into the ocean, and hold my breath.

______________________________________________________________

Chelsi Robichaud is a 22 year old English student residing in Ottawa. Her work on mental health has appeared in The Perch magazine and The Commonline Journal. She loves writing about historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and day to day life.

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Alone in This Fair Garden

By Valerie Lute

A layer of fog had settled over Rouen the morning Oscar Wilde went to the river to wait for Bosie. Rouen was called a peaceful city for its idyllic green waters and towering linden trees, but the narrowness of the cobblestone streets and the greyness of the sooted townhomes held a threat for Oscar. That threat, the threat of memory, now lurked in every passing policeman that made him draw his breath, and in every turreted wall that cast a shadow on his walk.

And despite the romance of Bosie’s arrival by ferry, Oscar couldn’t help but relive his past wounds at his lover’s hand. Of course, Oscar reminded himself, a young man could mature a great deal in two years. Would Bosie even bear the same coquettish glance? Did his eyelids still droop when he smiled? Ah, but more importantly, was he ready to apologize?

The river came within Oscar’s sight. The clouds had begun to part in the south, and a streak of blue sky, bent like a crooked scar, enjoined the water. Upstream, the red stacks of a riverboat released a silver jet of steam. Oscar’s timing couldn’t be better. The boat was still too far off to discern the crowds that gathered regularly on the decks of such vessels, but nevertheless Oscar imagined Bosie peering up at the town in the same moment.

He walked quicker now, though his bones had dried like old wood during his stint in prison. When he reached the docks, the boat still sailed a few furlongs off. Old waterfront men in shirtsleeves and oil-stained trousers uncoiled a length of rope while they waited for the boat to arrive. One man with a greasy black mustache tipped his hat to Oscar, but the rest carried on with their work undistracted. There were only few families waiting to greet travelers along the shore; most of the boat, it seemed, was heading on to Paris, that old capital of love itself.

Oscar leaned against a post, closed his eyes and waited for the sun to shine upon his face.

Sometime later, the noise of the first passengers disembarking interrupted Oscar’s meditation. He saw a young working-class man running first down the plankway, the holes in his thread-worn jacket opening and closing like mouths as he moved. He ran and ran, straight into the arms of his wife who wore a sallow frock that didn’t do justice to her pink joyful face. He twirled her around, laughing, kissing her cheeks, mouth, ears. Two children scampered at his feet. He mused their hair, laughing again. Oscar had to look away.

At last, Bosie arrived. He had his hat pushed down over his face, so Oscar hadn’t recognized him at first. Luckily his taste in fashion had not changed. He wore an eloquently slim payne’s grey suit with a black cravat set intentionally crooked. His hat was banded in pastel pink, and his buttonhole held a peony of a matching shade. He lugged an oversize trunk in gleaming new leather, so heavy it seemed to command all his attention until Oscar rushed to his side to offer what little strength he had.

“There you are,” Bosie said by way of greeting, letting go when Oscar’s hand touched the trunk. He, of course, couldn’t handle it either and so set the trunk down beside them.

“Reunited at last,” Oscar said, trying to smile the way he might in the old days—without the weight of so many cares.

Bosie pushed the hat off his face and studied Oscar for a moment. Bosie’s mood was impenetrable. Though his face had the same pained, deep-souled expression it always did, Oscar knew more than anyone else that that look was often deceiving.

Oscar wanted to embrace Bosie as a lover, to take his slender body into his own world-weary arms, but here by the docks that was impossible. Bosie leaned in and kissed Oscar coldly on each cheek, the type of kisses continentals distribute to newly met acquaintances.

“My God, Oscar,” Bosie said. “You look old.”

Oscar touched his hair, which had gone from black to shocking white more quickly than he imagined possible. “No, I just saw a ghost,” he said with jest. “A ghost named Lord Bosie Douglas. Some ghosts walk through walls, but this chap has the power to walk straight out of my past.”

Bosie shook his head. “Make your jokes, Methuselah. I won’t be the one with sagging cheeks.” He stepped towards the town, adding, “Get that will you. I’ve dragged that thing across the channel,” referring to his trunk.

“Please,” Oscar said. “Can we take it together?”

He sighed and turned back. They each grabbed one end, Bosie with his spotless pink gloves that matched his hat band.

Oscar knew Bosie’s moods. He knew he probably hadn’t meant his rudeness at the docks. He was exhausted from travel, probably hungry and dehydrated. Once he took a nap, refreshed himself with tea, maybe got a little meat in him, he would brighten up. But phantoms of doubt already roamed in Oscar’s mind.

In Oscar’s rented room, Bosie fell fast asleep in the armchair, still in his traveling suit. Oscar kneeled down and loosened the knot on Bosie’s cravat, and even the jostling of his clothes didn’t cause Bosie to stir. Oscar took the time to go out to the shops and pick up a baguette, two ounces of Camembert, and a bottle of sparkling wine. His muscles felt the walk to the docks more than he expected; his weakness overwhelmed him. He was glad to return to the room, put a kettle over the fire, and settle at his desk with a book.

After a few pages, Bosie began to wake. First fluttering his heavy eyelids, then stretching his arms high above his head. “Oscar,” he said and yawned. “Do you feel positively anonymous in this town?”

“Oh, I do get recognized from time to time,” Oscar replied.

“But it’s not like…” Bosie trailed off.

“Not like in prison?”

“I don’t know what I was going to say. Maybe.”

“No, mon chér, in prison everyone knew who I was. Before long, anyway. You wouldn’t believe how gossip spreads. It’s worse than any girls’ school I’ve known.”

“We’ll go further away. Further, where nobody knows our names. Italy, maybe, or Africa.” Bosie rose to his feet and took off his jacket. “What an ass am I getting all wrinkled.” He shook the linen out and groaned.

“I wish I could forget my own name,” Oscar muttered, not expecting Bosie to hear or to care.

“Don’t say that.” From behind, Bosie draped his arms over Oscar’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head. “You are the greatest artist of the century. Forget instead those bastards that made you regret who you are. Jealous bastards.”

Oscar wrapped his hand over Bosie’s. “There is nothing wrong with regrets. They come with time.”

“But what they did to you…” Bosie held Oscar tighter.

Oscar didn’t want to say, what you did to me. Bosie’s role in the whole affair. But Bosie was so young, so foolish. Oscar could have stood his ground when Bosie begged him to sue his father. One thoughtless move had brought the eye of the law too close to a love society did not understand.

Bosie’s lips found Oscar’s cheek. His kisses were wetter and with more caress than at the docks. Oscar turned to meet him, mouth to mouth.

For two years Oscar had been deprived of all loving touch. Sodomy had plagued the jail: short, brutal acts behind the workhouse, thugs shoving their unwilling partner’s face against the bricks to muffle his cries—the true meaning sodomy, which Oscar had never comprehended before.

What a difference, he thought. What a difference love can make. And he ran his scarred fingers over the silk of Bosie’s shirt.

______________________________________________________________

Valerie Lute is a writer whose short stories and poetry have appeared in Everyday Fiction, The Good Men Project, Prime Number Magazine, and the Rusty Nail, among others. She lives in Massachusetts where she reads like a fiend, listens to vintage punk rock, and occasionally goes outside.

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Ann Taylor

 The Oseberg Burial Ship, AD 834 

 

You debate who owned these bones –

which woman the cynosure,

which the acolyte. A queen? Asa?

 

Though crushed, scattered beneath centuries

of stoneweight and earthmound, I know

these two, long sheltered in my ribs.

 

I yielded to carvers’ blades, suffered the sturdy

slam and hammer of builders who bent

and bound my oaken curves together.

 

Bloodied, I heard the oxen protest, shrieks

of horses, trusting whimpers of pet dogs.

I bowed with the weight of women’s luxury.

 

Shaped for the sea, I regret the rocky drag

to earth’s entombment, where robbers pillaged

and now you pick my scattered bones.

 

But recall Jason’s Argo, planked

with Zeus’ prophetic Dodona oak.

Trust the gift of speech.

 

Then will I recall for you the rest

of what once was. My wooden breast

heaves deep to complete my tale.

 

We the Women Inquired After by Villon

 

“Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?”

 

Why do you ask about old snow?

Wonder in what country we may be now?

For we are right here! Listen.

Do you know me, lovely Flora,

who blazed with a courtesan’s passion,

relished my Roman Floralia’s abandon,

bloom still in every garden,  blossom, bouquet?

 

And I’m Archipiada. Some think I am

one with Socrates’ Alcibiades,

most handsome from birth to death,

but transformed by time’s shift in spelling

from a male to a perfect female beauty.

 

Do you seek Thais, Alexander’s beloved,

the one who led him and his inebriated army

to torch Persepolis? Yes, I reduced

to yesteryear the Persian king’s noble palace,

reduced his treasures to ash.

 

And, oh, can you hear me? I am Echo.

Because of my loquacity, I was deprived

of speech except in answering.

In answering, I’m here ringing again

and again over river and pond,

ever ready to respond.

 

Frankly, your foolish question bores me,

for I am wise Héloïse, equal in love and learning

to Abelard, my time’s finest scholar,

my own Pierre, who fathered our child,

suffered so much for our passion.

What has snow to do with our burning?

 

Do you seek Queen Marguerite? I, who bagged

my satiated amours, tossed them afterwards

straight from my tower window into the Seine?

You’ve heard of the scholar Buridan

who took his pleasure with me,

but at his tossing was caught and saved

by his students in a hay boat? I admire

such learning, but he was not the last

of my lovers. (Are you otherwise employed?)

 

And I’m the lily Queen Blanche, mother of Louis IX,

Queen regent. Ruling was my passion. You may approach,

must learn my lovesongs sung in siren’s voice,

surviving centuries.

 

Snows melt away. But we tread the chansons.

I, Bertha Broadfoot, mother of Charlemagne,

I, Beatrix, of royal lineage still contested,

and I, Ermengarde of the Arrows,

heiress of Maine, of Chateau de Loire,

spouse of Jerusalem’s king –

all widely-traveled, widely-sung.

 

And you wonder where exactly I may be?

I, the English Joan, leader of men

far less firey, consumed by French flame,

but never erased, enflamed to life

by history’s narrative, the power of poets.

 

Do not repeat your foolish question, your ubi sunt

equation, rendering us as ephemeral as melted snow.

 

The heat of our incendiary passions

turns blizzards to rivulets,

and we  burn still.

(In his poem, Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of the Women of Times Past), François Villon (15th century)  repeats the line, Mais où sont les neiges d’antan (translated as, But where are the snows of yesteryear?), comparing these women to the melted snows of times past)

______________________________________________________________

Ann Taylor is a Professor of English at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. where she teaches both literature and writing courses. She has written two books on college composition, academic and free-lance essays, and a collection of personal essays, Watching Birds: Reflections on the Wing (Ragged Mountain/McGraw Hill). Her first poetry book, The River Within, won first prize in the 2011 Cathlamet Poetry competition at Ravenna Press. Her recent collection, Bound Each to Each, was published by Finishing Line Press in  2013.

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Reliable as the Stars

By Jasmine Evans

May rested on a hay-filled cot, her head touching the crown of her younger brother’s head, and her feet gently relaxing against the older brother’s shins. The hay poked through the gray material of the cot and pinched her legs in a way that was more annoying than painful. She heard one brother’s stomach growl and felt him roll over to try to quiet it. The rumble triggered a similar nose in the other boy’s stomach. Being the baby of the family, he didn’t wake from his sleep to quiet it.

She rolled on her back, tried to ignore the pinching hay, and looked out into the dark in the direction of the ceiling. In her mind’s eye, she saw the meat and produce her father kept locked away.

She could almost hear his voice, “This food is for making money, not for feeding greedy children.”

“Theo?” she whispered. Her voice was soft—or at least as soft as it could be in the face of rebellious, hungry thoughts.

“Yeah, May?” he didn’t bother whispering. Their small cabin was several yards away from the cabin where his parents slept. And Paul, the youngest, slept so hard a stampede of cows wouldn’t wake him.

“Were you awake?” May asked.

“No.”

May sensed the anger that pushed its way from his abdomen, through his throat, and emerged in the form of a lie. She wanted to take his mind off of things.

“Why did they kill Clarence last night?”

May regretted her question as soon as Theo snorted.

“Because he’s black,” he spat out. “Why else?”

“I thought maybe…maybe he had done something to provoke them. I’m not saying he did anything wrong, actually wrong. But they usually have a reason—even if it doesn’t make any sense.”

“They don’t need a reason.”

May sighed before he got the full sentence out. Theo snorted again. Their reactive noises hung in the air. He rolled over and May could feel him searching for her eyes through the darkness. She couldn’t see her own toes but she knew just at the end of them, Theo was watching her. She tried to think of something honest and reassuring to say, but her mind was empty. What could she say about the neighbors and friends that swung high from the trees every few days? What could she say about the postcards that white men would send home with children standing in front of lynched bodies (‘look what I did in Mississippi, Ma’)? What could she say about the hunched shoulders and downcast eyes they had all adopted just to stay alive?

There was nothing she could say that he didn’t already know. This was, in some ways, more his reality than hers. For a moment, she hated the South. It was the only home she had ever known and in it, she communed with nature, found God, and learned survival. But it also threatened each day to claim her life—or worse, her brothers’.

“We have to leave,” she whispered.

“What?” Theo said for a moment. It was as if he was sure he couldn’t have heard her right.

“We have to leave. There’s no good in staying here.”

“Don’t be foolish. Where are we going to go?”

“North! Where else?”

“These aren’t slavery days, May. We can’t just follow a star and hope for the best.”

May shifted her legs, trying to get comfortable around the hay. “If we stay, we’ll never have the life we want.”

“And what life is that?” Theo raised up on one elbow and glared at her. “You have some fancy life in mind? Huh? You going to take your light-skinned self and find a white man up North to treat you nice?”

May told herself it was just the lack of food talking. He didn’t mean it.

Her stomach screamed, and Theo’s anger deflated.

“I didn’t mean it,” he whispered.

“I know.”

“We can do just fine here. People do just fine.”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s not a wonderland, May. It’s not some magical place where all our problems disappear. We hear some bad things too.”

“I know.”

“You can’t live where you want. They have rules about that, you know.”

“I know.”

“And it’s crowded. We could be stuffed into a tiny apartment with a bunch of other people that we don’t know. And—and—you couldn’t work outside anymore. You would have to work in a factory all day long with dangerous machines.”

“But you hear people say all the time that it was the best decision they ever made. They say it in the Defender all the time.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

“So many people come back and say it’s terrible. That the crowds and the smells are too much, that white people still won’t treat you right, that you can’t see the stars at night.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

Theo balled up his fists and punched his cot. “We can’t just leave because you’re hungry.”

May ground her teeth. “Why not? What’s so wrong about wanting my body to feel right?”

“That place will destroy our souls.”

In the heavy silence, the crickets’ nighttime orchestra reached a crescendo. In the barn next door, the cows groaned as they shifted in their sleep, a couple of insomniac chickens clucked softly to each other, the dog’s snores mimicked what May imagined the train sounded like.

“If you stay here, they will kill you.”

“You don’t know that,” Theo whispered.

“I do know that. And I can’t be in any place that could steal you from me in a second.”

Theo opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and closed it again. He bit his lip, chewed on it, licked it roughly as he rolled May’s words around in his mind.

May listened to the soft grunts and slurps of saliva and smiled. She knew he was right. And in that moment, she knew he knew too.

“Papa’s not going to let us leave. I’m barely sixteen. You’re a child.”

It was her turn to snort. “I’m a woman. And since when does Papa tell you what to do?” She spat out each word, reached up and wiped the spittle away with the back of her hand.

She peered into the darkness and tried to see him. But her mind wandered to thoughts of slabs of beef, baskets of corn, and bins of fruit from other farms that they would help put into trucks to transport away in the morning. She thought of the hunger that clung to her like a thin dress after tripping into the creek.

The only time they had ever really felt full was on a special trip to an uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. The men hunted, shot, plucked, and cleaned a turkey the size of a small child. The women added greens, corn, biscuits, gravy, and potatoes to the table. May had never had so much fun—or smelled so much goodness—in a blazing hot kitchen.

Since then, the hunger reminded her that she was still alive. The act of forced deprivation felt more human, more true than the gluttony of the holidays. But maybe, just maybe, she thought, it was time for something else to make her feel alive.

“I bet they have good food in Philadelphia,” May said, giving some weight to her thoughts.

“What do you know about Philadelphia?” Theo responded, half-teasing.

May shrugged in the dark. Theo didn’t need to see her to know she was doing it. “I know we hear more about Chicago, but I think we should go to Philadelphia.”

Theo flopped onto his back and let out an “ahh” and a hiss as the hay poked into his rear. May turned on to her back as well, much more gracefully than her brother. They rested in silence—almost silence with Paul and the dog then competing for the loudest snore.

“We hear more about Chicago,” he repeated.

“I know.”

The sun began to peek through the slats of the cabin. Theo rose slowly and tried to shake off the discomfort of the cot.

“I bet they have better beds in Philadelphia,” May whispered.

Theo let out a breath, long and slow. “Let’s find out,” he said.

May sat straight up so quickly she saw flashes of light in front of her face. “Really?”

Theo didn’t respond. He just pulled a shirt over his head and searched for his shoes.

May changed out of her sleep clothes and into her best dress. Theo grabbed his pack, which had a knife, two dollars in coins, a pen, and a Bible. May reached under her cot for the piece of almost stale bread she had been saving for an emergency. The bread and the Word would have to sustain them during the long train ride.

They looked at Paul at the same time. Before Theo could ask what they were going to do, May leaned over her baby brother’s closed eyes and kissed his forehead. He didn’t move or skip a snore. Theo waved even though Paul could neither see nor wave back.

In the light of day, they could see each other’s gaunt cheekbones, frown lines, and protruding collarbones—signs of a lifetime of hunger. Theo wanted to see his sister get old and fat. And he knew that would never happen if they stayed.

Slowly creeping out of the cabin, they climbed up a small hill to the main road.

“Do we go back and say bye to Mama?” Theo asked.

“We keep going.”

“Where do we stop?”

“Don’t ask me about stopping before we even start.”

She glanced up at the sun. Thousands, if not millions, of people had made the exact same decision they had made overnight. It was a long walk to the train station, and after that, she would just have to follow her gut—only marginally more reliable than the stars—and hope for the best.

________________________________________________________________

Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer and MFA student at Mills College. Her work has been published in Heater and Bread for God’s Children. She’s also a reader for Sucker Literary Magazine. When she’s not working on another story or article, she loves to browse thrift stores for “new” books.

 

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