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St. Stephen’s Day

By Chris Chambers

Few things stir me like the wreck of a ship. Not riches, fineries, the camaraderie of friends, nor the soft company of women. Just beyond my eyes, I see them. Masts split, exploded, snapped. Directionless sails wrapped around black rocks for any safety, and the boat herself–ribs come apart, up out of the water like a split deer. The rigging knotted, crazed–splayed out in every manner and direction. All her secrets laid about her, bobbing in the foam. Naked under the sky, it’s a delicate bargain each ship makes with the sea, and to witness it torn asunder, such a mighty, splendid thing brought low … I am not a devout man, but how could not such a vision bring me closer to my god?

Take the Gwendolyn May, hours out of Portsmouth, pennants snapping under gentle skies. Just past Prawley Point, the safest of passages, she was hit side-beam by a sudden storm so violent, the paint was stripped from her hull as though clawed away. When I came upon her, the keel had snapped clean in three places; the stout beams beaten soft as sea sponge. Her anchor chain, still attached to the battered bow, strung out beach-ward as though she had been dragged unwillingly by some great beast across the rocks.

I’ve seen hundreds like her in my work for the Harris Bay Company. Salvage from the Gwendolyn paid for an extension of my widow’s walk, a more suitable carriage, and a cellar full of fine Italian wine.

Each ship has a place in my ledger-book: remaining assets above waterline, estimates of salvage cost.  Survivors. When I close my book and eyes I can never find them–just the ships. A man must find the pleasure in his work or he is lost.

At sea as on land, I keep to myself, but nevertheless am unpopular with the crew and captain of the salver ship, Merryweather who make no pretense of accepting my presence among them.  When I am top-deck to take air they part around me, as though I were the Angel of Death.  Some cross themselves, mutter. As if I had broken up each ship, and with my own hands, drown the crew. I am the left hand of the Devil, unlucky.

The presence of my hired hand keeps them honest. John Priddy, a tall pale Finn with a snarl of black hair and a neck scar where the noose had failed. In truth, in his second life he is a gentler man, but can row a skiff like no soul under heaven, and for this alone he is useful to me.

We set out two days before Christmastide under a brooding sky, with little hope of return before the holiday. The day before, I was strolling Highstreet market as is my custom in the early evening, and was eyeing a duck for my evening meal, when a young flush-faced boy–a runner for the Harris Bay Company–nearly ran me down. “Mr. Blackburn, sir.” He pressed me with a packet. Upon paying him and dusting off a bench to lay it out, I opened it and read the contents.  A brigantine sailing from Montreal was a week overdue from port, and a ship matching her colors and description was spotted by a packet boat, foundering near the mouth of Skillet Bay, perhaps fifty miles east of harbor. As Skillet Bay is well known for its shoals, the underwriter of the Montreal venture wished the ship approached and assessed with all haste and engaged my employer in the matter.

Once we’d cleared the channel and the Merryweather raised her sails, the snows began.  Light at first, melting as it lit on the rails, the brims of hats, darkening the shoulders of the sailors. By the time we’d passed the Slipper Isles and into open water it was coming down with grim purpose. Snow collected on the coarse sails in sheets, shaken off as they snapped and billowed in an increasing wind. The upper sails were dim outlines in the flurry, visible only through their movement, and before long, were out of sight entirely.

Though it were still day, the captain ordered fore and aft lanterns double- lit, and the ship’s bell rung at intervals, although with the increasing wind it were barely audible on board.  As the day blustered into early evening, I remained at my cabin window, watching between swirls of snow and spray, stooped sailors with planks and barrel lids, struggling to remain upright as they pushed and shoveled snow over the gunwales. Midway down the quarter deck, a figure caught my attention. A short, stout sailor stood and adjusted his scarf, wound doubly about his head like an ill-fitting bandage. He wore what at first appeared a great-coat belted at the waist, though much too large to be at all practical. As I watched further, the crewman grabbed the hem with both hands and shook it vigorously, sending  a spray of snow up and over the side, and revealing, even in the failing light, a brocade cranberry-red dress with flying petticoats. A woman on board. Another sailor rose beside and attempted to usher her aft, but she shook him off and redoubled to the task.  

I turned to rouse Mr. Priddy but to no purpose. I am convinced that he will sleep through the celestial roll call on Judgment Day.

The next day brought more of the same, and though I looked and even ventured from my cabin I saw no more of the previous night’s phantom. I told Mr. Priddy of the vision and he appeared unimpressed.

I retired to my bunk early and, as the weather had lightened, attempted sleep.

I woke with a start to the thump, then sawing whir and rattle of the anchor chain let loose. What little I could ascertain from our previous pace, we were some good way yet from the entrance to Skillet bay. I struggled opening the door which appeared sealed in a drift, and in short order was assisted from the other side. When I emerged I found the captain there. Sailors were all about the deck–staves and gaffs, knocking ice from the rails and sidings.

The snow, although now barely falling, coated every surface. The deck was covered in drifts, and in the places where it had been scraped clean, showed a dark film of ice. The riggings and fronts of the masts were encrusted with wild crystals, and the sails held strange shapes as though frozen suddenly in a wild wind. Sometime in the night, the seas had calmed to gentle, almost imperceptible swells. An ice fog hung gray and low, and there was a sense of being in some vast, low ceiling cavern.

“This is as far as we go, Mr. Blackburn.,” said the captain. “The rigging is iced up, the tackle is seized and we’re running top heavy. We don’t address it soon, and we’ll be keel to sky and swimming home.” His breath smelled of salt-pork and gin.

“Mr. Findlay, are you drunk?”

“I am. We’re no longer underway, and if I got my figures straight, today is Boxing Day. Didn’t have any boxes for the mates, so bottles will have to do.” He procured a long green bottle from the inner pocket of his weather coat and gave it a slosh.

“You are overly familiar, sir …You are under contract with Harris bay.”

“Ah, don’t get chapped now,” He slurred, “Your betters at the Harris Bay Company didn’t forget you. Sent you a Boxing Day present, they did.  It’s down in the skiff,” he thumbed toward the side of the boat, “waiting for you.”

Stunned at the turn of events I walked carefully to the rails and looked over the side.  There, bobbing in the water was our skiff. Mr. Priddy sat mid-bench clapping his hands against his thighs for warmth, looking much like an unhappy cat, and in the front of the boat, which dipped heavily in the water, sat the cranberry woman, who appeared much larger in the better light and waved cheerfully when she caught sight of me.

“Mr. Blackburn–come, come! We must make use of this window in the weather.”

I looked about me. This was less a window than an in-breath.  A still sea is naught but the tautness between storms. Madness.  I turned to the captain “Who the Devil?”

“We ain’t going nowhere, not for a day at least,” he smiled. “Best be getting on with your business.” A few of the larger mates walked over and stood beside him. “Your man’s down in the craft with her effects.  Go on.  You…have a corpse to pick.”

What was there left to do? I climbed down the icy ladder and into the boat. As we pulled away I looked up at the full complement of crew lining the rails, and even from the water I could see their faces. A few lifted bottles and toasted our good health.

It took mere moments to ascertain that the woman, Clemencia Downes-Martin, was the recently widowed wife of the Montreal underwriter, and therefore sole owner of the cargo ship we were to survey. And as she trusted no one with the contents of her vessel, insisted on accompanying the survey as a pre-condition of hire. That she loved cheese–any cheese, although goat cheese made her gouty and phlegmatic, which wouldn’t do as it interfered with her work in light opera, which was the supreme heart and center, after all, of any civilized society. “And one must attend to one’s figure.” That she enjoyed the traditional fox hunt on St. Stephens Day, and wasn’t this the very day, last year, that her children had first been allowed on a hunt.  “So proud they were, almost prancing”

Already ahead, in the thin passage between fog and ocean I made out the great thumb of rock that that marked the entrance to the bay, a pillar linking the low sky to the sea. Gulls and kittiwakes flocked the sea-ward cliff face like a fine mist. The water just past took on a lighter color, heralding the outermost shoals of Skillet Bay.

“My late husband, bless him, died 11 months ago, and his associates preserved him in a barrel of juniper spirits for the passage home. He would have liked that, I believe, as he had been working toward a state of complete alcoholic saturation for most of our married life. The only way possible to have an open casket, I’m afraid. Reynard hated the ocean, unlike myself, although I find crustaceans positively unbearable.” She glanced nervously at the dark water skimming past. “Like something skittering on the edges of a bad dream . . . or a naturalist’s lens.  Titanic louse.” She shuddered, vibrating the entire skiff.

 “Mr. Priddy,” she shouted at the back of his head. “Are you fond of shellfish?” He glanced at me, waited until he was sure she would not leave the matter, then shrugged the smallest of shrugs. “Wretched creatures, and I can’t say I blame you. Although their relatives, the crayfish  . . .”

“Mrs. Downes–Martin,” I said, “other than the remains of the departed, what else does the ship carry.  We were given no manifest, and little else but directions to the last sighting. If we are to have any hope of conducting our business we must attend to the original bill of lading …contents of the berth, etc.” Her face fell. For the first time in a half hour she was silent, just the mild sound of the oars dipping, the faint but growing surge of the approaching shoals. “Mrs. Downes-…?”

“Children. The boat contains our children, Mr. Blackburn.”

John Priddy’s face went slack. Children. Something clamped around my innards, squeezing all breathe and blood and sense. I have seen drowned men before, sailors all. Some as young as 14, and their short time in the sea was not kind. Her endless chatter–her insistence made a sense to me now.

An apple floated by, and another. The wind, which had been slack some time, began to rise as we rounded the great rock.  Insistent swells carried more, and soon we were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of apples–a loose raft of them blowing out to sea. Ships rats scrambled from one to the other, balancing and slipping. Some, improbable in the approaching danger, were eating.”

“Float and starve, or feast and drown,” said Mrs. Downes-Martin, her voice a whisper. She reached out towards the nearest and as I rose to stop her, I saw it.  Ahead of us loomed the ship, not 300 yards from shore. Though she were on her side and caught on the reef, it was clear that she was beautiful. Blond scrollwork covered the focsle and graced her sides. Some trick of the wind made her appear at full sail. Through my glass, the name Clemencia was visible in delicate silver script across her bow.  The entire aft 1/3 of the ship was missing.

“Your ship is there, Madam. We must take you to shore.” Mr. Priddy bent to the oars, and as we passed under the shadow of the wreckage it became clear to our passenger the true nature of the business. I jumped free of the skiff and pulled well up onto the black gravel as the swells increased. Indeed, farther out near the mouth of the bay the white water bands of the outermost shoals were disappearing one by one as the previous storm, having fully inhaled, threatened to exhale its vehemence once again. Mrs. Downes-Martin refused my hand and scrabbled out of the boat on hands and knees.

“Mr. Priddy, help me move the skiff higher.” We dragged and pushed the heavy skiff, our clothing whipped by the breeze, til we reached a higher dune. From this vantage we could see the entirety of the bay–its beach littered with shattered wood and bright debris. The hulk of the Clemencia with its shattered end shifted in the rising water. Everything was visible, but Mrs. Downes-Martin was nowhere to be seen.

“Mrs. Martin . . . Clemencia.” I shouted, but the wind just threw it back. We searched the high dunes for any sign or track, but found no trace. Searched and searched until eventually, beaten by the wind and exhausted, we collapsed on a dune.

“She swam to them,” croaked Mr. Priddy. We watched as the ship, now free of its mooring lifted on a titanic swell and rolled in the surf, disintegrating like a child’s toy until there were nothing left.

Just sticks and paper in a breeze – such fragile things. It is in such moments of great strain the oddest thoughts may enter through cracks in the mind. A Christmastide carol from my youth: “Three Ships,” and though it seemed most incongruous in this moment–near to the point of sickness, yet I found myself mouthing the words, until I realized that this song was not a phantom within my head but without. I turned toward the sound as best I could make it in the wind and a woman’s voice drove through the gale, operatic and strong. And moving toward us from the direction of the upper bluffs walked Mrs. Downes-Martin leading three horses. Sand smeared and kelp covered, but horses none-the-less.

“My children,” she cried, when she caught sight of us. “Alive. Gaspar, Melchior, and poor Balthazar; my breath, my body, and my spirit.”

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Chris Chambers is a librarian and field archaeologist based in Salt lake City. Chris mentors the King’s English Writer’s Group, and is co-director of Simple Simple Storytellers, a seasonal storytelling troupe.

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Sons of Jonah

By Judith Joubert

Twelve year-old Diego ran past the men and dipped below the hatch before anyone saw him. The gun deck was darker than he remembered. The animal fat candles in the lamps cast a smaller light, and the outreaches of the deck remained in darkness – wet places where the luminous green eyes of rats were always on the look-out for the unguarded toes, fingers, and ears of the slaves. A phlegm-filled cough from a child’s throat, shallow restless water, and the sound that had woken him last night, the hitting against the side of the ship, only feebler and with longer intersperses. The candles meant to mask the human smells added the smell of unseasoned cooking to that of sweat, urine and faeces in the close air. There was also the absence of sounds: the chains chinking or dragging across the deck as the slaves moved. They were no longer packed in rows but were seated in heaps and groups, open spaces between them. Some stood about on listless legs, the black water covering their feet, anchoring them in the sewerage until they grew roots of their own. The offspring of their seed would never be haunted by memories of home.

“Boy,” Cudjoe’s chest whistled as he breathed. In his hand was a bone.

Diego stared at it, “Where did you get that?” he asked.

“They threw – it down. It’s mine.” It was as long as one of Cudjoe’s hands with two perfect depressions on top where the cartilage used to be. Probably one of Cortez’s bones – the pig they slaughtered before the storm started. The orphaned ship’s boy had named him Cortez – he used to stroke the coarse hair on the pig’s neck as it ate. With his small fists, the boy punched the quarter master’s legs as he slit the screaming pig’s throat. Bright red blood splashed on the deck, ran into pools and congealed. The rest of the day, the boy had sat next to the rail and cried. The sailors must have thrown the bone below after picking it clean to watch the slaves fight over it.

A strange odour escaped Cudjoe’s lips each time he breathed out, like mildewed sponge. “You’re sick,” Diego said, backing away from him.

“Everybody sick. The air – rotten,” the irises of Cudjoe’s eyes merged with the black skin next to it as he searched the full spaces around him for the other slaves. Diego could see only the white orbs of marble in his head and it reminded him of a story that Shorty told the sailors in the forecastle, a story about the walking dead, of how all those killed at sea walked the ocean floor on fleshless limbs, eyes without irises upturned, looking for the hulls of ships passing overhead. They climbed on board and ate the flesh of the living in search of the life they lost. Shorty himself had once seen such an empty ship drifting into port, not a living soul on board. But, Diego could never ask him about it (he was not supposed to be in the forecastle that day, hiding under a bunk and listening to the common sailors talk). Riff-raff, Senhora called them.

A hollow hammering was heard below them and Cudjoe sucked air into his slime-plastered lungs, “They’re fixing the galleon. We’re making for shore.” Diego felt the slaves’ dirty water seep through his shoes and stockings. He’d have to take them off and throw them overboard before anyone found out he’d been there.

“Shore?” Cudjoe asked, the fingers of his long hand touched his temple and moved away, palm up.

“Shore. Land,” Diego said.

“There land here?” Cudjoe leaned on the last bone of Cortez and rose to his feet.

Diego nodded, “We can’t see it yet, but it’s not far.”

Cudjoe pushed his back against a supporting pole, unable to straighten his abdomen. “You have to ask. Them let us out.”

Diego shook his head, “It’s better for you here, up there is rain and wind.” Diego realised that rain and wind above decks sounded better than disease and death below. “You’ll get in the way, they’re busy fixing.”

Cudjoe clutched the pole, the bone dangled against the wood, “We are worth – many cattle – to your father?”

“We don’t trade in cattle, we trade in gold,” Diego’s voice was small. His experience of Portugal was on a par with that of the slaves. What he knew of Portugal was what others had told him. His father described beautiful buildings of many storeys, cathedrals as big as palaces, music performances in opera houses, streets of cobbled stones and terraced walkways. Diego tried to imagine what life would be like without a fort, a place to go when neighbouring rajas and natives attacked. Papa said there was no need for a fort because nobody attacked Portugal and there were no natives, the Portuguese were native of Portugal. Diego had asked if the cobbled streets did not hurt the feet of the elephants. Senhora laughed and said silly boy there are no elephants in Portugal.

Again, Cudjoe’s white sclera shone in the dark as he peered at Diego, “Your father – can sell us – and get – much gold. Let us out – at night. Ask!” he pointed up at the hatchway with the bone. Diego turned about and his foot touched something soft. He recoiled when he saw a woman lie in the water on her side. It covered her one eye, her nose, her one breast, the fingers of the one arm slung over her hips. It slopped around her navel and her calves. “She dead,” Cudjoe said, sinking down with his back against the pole. Diego darted up the ladders before her flesh fell from her bones, before she joined the walking dead on the ocean floor, the whites of her eyes staring up as Cudjoe’s did when he said to ask if they could go up.

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Judith worked as a proofreader at the newspapers for three years and has since been a writing housewife. Her writings have appeared in Vision Magazine, Ancient Paths Christian Literary Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper and Munyori Literary Journal. Her current project, a historical novel, has been approved for funding by the National Arts Council of South Africa. The local literary fair recently invited her to share her material on stage with the likes of award-winning authors such as Fred Khumalo, Yewande Omotoso and Harry Kalmer.

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A Lesson from the Life of Mary Boykin Chesnut

By Philip Hanson

I am always studying these creatures. They are to me inscrutable in their ways and past finding out.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War                                                                               

The Lesson: What You Feel May Be Truer than What You Know

I was willing enough to speak to [the de Saussures’ slave man], but when he saw me advancing for that purpose, to avoid me he suddenly dodged around a corner. . . . His mistress never refused to let him play for any party. . . . He was far above any physical fear for his sleek and well-fed person. How majestically he scraped his foot?as a sign that he was tuned up and ready to begin.

Now he is a shabby creature indeed.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, March, 1861                                                                               

Richard sat out at the edge of the porch just around the corner of the big house, out of sight. He knew exactly how much you could see from that corner window on the porch. You take your rest when you can get it, since you never know how long they might keep you on your feet at any one stretch. Dear old Richard, never misses a beat. Never have to tell him twice. Just the sort of fellow to drop dead standing behind some half-blind old white lady at the table some night. Loyal as a tick hound. Old Richard had taken two fingers of that twenty year-old Scotch, then watered it to make up the difference. He felt fine as the sun reached a point that signaled the onset of dusk. How come blood don’t tell? Ain’t it unerring? You take a drink of that watered down Scotch, ain’t all them generations of aristocratic bloodlines supposed to gather up and scream out the liquor’s been watered? Blood’s failed the test. Maybe a Richard in the closet a generation or two back.

Way off down the road Richard could see a little swirl of dust rising. Course no one bothered to tell Richard maybe a wagon full of relatives was on their way in. Maybe, maybe not. You could not be Richard and not be patient. Now he would have to watch out of the corner of one eye for any movement out of the house, as he had been doing, and watch out of the other for when that swirl of dust started turning into a carriage of some sort. No question whoever it was would be sure to report on seventy-one-or so-year-old Richard stealing his master’s time resting. Richard could just make out a gentry coach of some sort, and he was on his feet and on his way into the house. “Folks comin’ down the road,” he announced before Missus Elizabeth had actually spotted him. Already Missus Nancy and Master Henry were here visiting. Now more. Richard went into the big kitchen, where Marcy had laid a row of plucked chickens out on the cutting board. Some of that was for Rennie’s boy, George, who lay in his cabin with a fever. Missus would go down there later with a flock of gabbling children, black and white, to tend George. So there was some slack. George could have meal? probably wasn’t even sick anyway. Soon Uncle Edwin entered followed by a young black man carrying a pair of dusty travel bags with an air of importance. He crossed directly to Richard and extended the bags. Without outward sign of resentment, Richard took the bags and before he had turned around Rennie’s boy, Carter, was there with an alarmed expression and arms extended. Richard melted into the shadows and listened. As he listened he tallied up. Another face to be shaved. Another room to be tended. An outside African to be watched. And he was in the middle of that inlay work on the windows.

In the morning Richard hovered over Master John with a straight razor. On a table beside him lay his brush, scuttle cup, and shaving soap. Young Master Henry and Uncle Edwin sat nearby, waiting their turns.  In the doorway, behind Richard, Edwin’s boy, Jarvis, hovered. Master John spoke and Richard’s razor hovered, still, patient, just at his throat.

“Chesnut might form a company, I hear.”

“If I had my health,” Edwin replied.

“No one expects you to go.”

Richard could feel Jarvis lean in. He watered his brush and swirled it in the soap in the scuttle cup. He unobtrusively applied the soap to the old man’s cheek. He moved the razor as though he were drawing a feather across the cheek. After he finished with Master John, he started on Uncle Edwin. As Richard was doing Edwin, Edwin sat up abruptly. “Careful there!” he cried. “Don’t worry,” John answered. “Richard ain’t cut me or anybody in twenty-five years.”

“I thought I felt something.” John obligingly stood up and examined Edwin. “No scratch,” John pronounced.” Richard stood at attention, impassive. “Well, go ahead,” Edwin growled.

Richard’s razor hovered just an inch from Edwin’s throat. “We ain’t safe,” Edwin announced.

“How so?”

“In Savannah, with that Lincoln blockade General Scott thought up.”

“Charleston isn’t altogether safe either, “John added.

“Your plantation here is inland,” Edwin countered. “They sure as hell can’t shell you from a ship the way they can Savannah.” Edwin said this and waited.

“You got a point.” To this John added nothing and at last Edwin grunted.

Richard resumed shaving Edwin. When Richard finished and Edwin stood up, Jarvis moved in close to examine him. Richard gave Jarvis a look. “You got that inlay work to do this afternoon,” John told Richard.

“Yessir.”

He wanted to get to the inlay work and he wanted to be done with these men.

“Wait’ll you hear Richard play tonight after dinner,” John told Edwin. “This should be a treat for you, your knowing the violin.”

“Absolutely.”

Richard stood at attention, patient, impassive.

Once freed of the work of caring for the men, Richard went into the carpentry shed followed by Jarvis. Richard closed the door of the shed, as he always did. Forcing someone to open the door provided him a notice of someone coming. He didn’t like to be surprised by white men. Jarvis sat down on the floor, his back propped against the door. Richard understood.

Richard took out a panel of the damaged inlay work. Many years earlier, old Henry de Saussure had brought an Italian back from Europe who taught Richard how to use a Buhl-saw. No one else in the county knew how to use one the way Richard did. He took a panel of decaying inlay work that he was going to replace and propped it up as a model. The Italian had called it “Reisner work.” Jarvis was already asleep, his back firmly propped against the door. Richard glued thin panels of wood to either side of a large sheet of paper. He pasted another sheet on the outside and began to trace the design of the decaying original. All afternoon he worked on his inlays, while Jarvis slept. That was all right. Jarvis had to wake up each day to Uncle Edwin. As he worked Richard struggled not to think about how Uncle Edwin was fishing for an invitation to stay with the family.

After dinner Richard played “Durang’s Hornpipe” then “Aura Lee.” He scraped his foot before each song as a sign he was ready to begin. He’d scarcely finished the last note when Uncle Edwin took him roughly by the wrist. “Pull that bow with your shoulder a little, boy, not just your elbow.” Richard knew this to be patently wrong.

Neverthless. “Yessir.”

“Don’t just yessir me. I want to see you do it that way at the Chesnuts’.”

“Yessir.”

Days later on the night of the Chesnut party Richard stood in the area set off for musicians. Master Randolph’s Beau sat at the piano. Lots of the men wore their gray uniforms, now that the Yankees were coming. Richard could see Missus Chesnut and her adopted belles, Buck and Mary Preston, the ones all the men were all the time sniffing around. He peeked around and saw Uncle Edwin was paying no attention at all. He played “Castle in the Air” with his eyes shut, as he almost always did at these parties. This and a couple of fingers of Scotch were about as near as he ever got to being alone. He stole a glance at Missus Chesnut and her girls. They had already been pulled in by the music. He and Beau began playing a waltz and men and women began to couple up and dance. As they danced he became aware of Uncle Edwin’s eyes on him, watching for him to use his shoulder. He closed his eyes and played. Each time he peeked toward Uncle Edwin, the old man looked that much more incensed. He must foul up or the old man would make something of it. He told himself he would do it at the next number or the last number. He could see Missus Chesnut, her face in a kind of trance. The last number came around and Richard played with his eyes shut, never once checking on Uncle Edwin. Then the party was over.

Not using his shoulder at the party had been Richard’s firing the first shot. Now Uncle Edwin was at war with him. Uncle Edwin blew up at him after the party, then day after day he pecked away at everything Richard did. And soon Master John grew tired of it. He began to peck away at Richard too, taking out his irritation at Uncle Edwin’s staying on Richard. Richard passed through his days like a sleepwalker. Only as Uncle Edwin grew violent, slapping Richard or shoving him into a wall, did Master John act. The de Saussures had a reputation as quality folk. They saw themselves as above slave whipping and such. Master John asked Richard how he would like to be hired out to Hamil Gillespie, the carpenter in town. Richard would.

Gillespie was a red-faced Irish man, who did all kinds of work on wood. He made furniture, he worked on houses. He was no artist, but he did steady work. Richard had been in close quarters with whites his whole life. But he had never been around one like Gillespie. Gillespie had not been born in America. He told Richard he left Ireland when the “dirty blue bloods starved us out.” “Darks aren’t treated the same back home,” he confided to Richard. I seen one once when I was in London with a white woman.” Richard took in this news with no expression. Gillespie did not have any twenty-year-old Scotch but he had quite a bit of good serviceable whiskey, and in the many slow times he showed no reluctance to share with Richard. As a consequence Richard and Gillespie were drunk a good deal. Richard’s appearance underwent a slow transition. He had formerly dressed in expensive hand-me-down suits from the white men in the family. In recent years he had been receiving a new suit at Christmas. Now he wore coarser clothes and soon took little heed of his appearance, shaving maybe every third day or once a week as Gillespie did.

After months of working with Gillespie one had to look close to see if that man with him was still Richard. One day when it had been a solid week since he had shaved and his clothes had remained unchanged for as long, Gillespie sent him down to the store for some nails. Richard stepped around a corner and there was Missus Chesnut. It took her a second to recognize him.  Her face registered shock, then a kind of horror at Richard’s descent from his former position. Richard believed he detected something else, something rare in white folks, a kind of recognition of the indignities Richard had suffered or of Richard himself. It was a fleeting expression. She steeled herself to encounter him and her face took on the plantation master’s wife mask, but Richard decided he did not have to meet her or sooth her discomfort, and he dodged around a corner.

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Hermanos

By Riley Lewis

The night was as quiet as it ever got on the open ocean. The ship creaked intermittently, and the wind and waves never completely stopped, but to one accustomed to life at sea, the night was essentially silent. On deck, a weary watchman had his head cradled in his arms, fast asleep. The ship was still days from its destination. It was only in the captain’s cabin where any noise could be detected. Faintly, the scratching of a quill and a feeble light crept onto the deck from under the door.

Behind that door, a man sat at a table, his back to the entryway. From behind, only a candlelight-cast silhouette could be seen of a hunching figure stooped over his work. Closer inspection revealed a man, staring at several pieces of parchment on the table in front of him. Some were crumpled, others had been scratched out, but the one directly in front of the man bore only one word: “Señor.” Though the man’s eyes appeared locked onto the letters, they were, in fact, unfocused; his thoughts were thousands of miles away in two different directions.

The man had thin, graying hair that was already being overcome with baldness. His face was lined and weathered, and a trickle of sweat dripped down toward the end of his long nose, in spite of the relatively cool February night. His tan face was illuminated by the nearby candle, whose light glistened on his extended forehead. His mouth had fallen slightly open, completely forgotten. Indeed, his entire body remained completely rigid, except for his hands, which incessantly picked at a long feather quill, making it appear far less regal than any peacock feather ever should. Only these hands betrayed the fierce struggle going on behind those still, pale eyes.

“I must be honest,” the man thought for the thousandth time, this time not even bothering to glance up at a small crucifix hanging on the wall. “But if they don’t hear something worth celebrating, they’ll never fund another voyage.” He also refused to look at his two longest drafts. One was far too interesting to be true, and the other, far too true to be interesting. Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep up like this. Soon, he would run out of parchment, and if his findings weren’t firmly entrenched in writing, all but the simplest would be reduced to gossip and invention, the ramblings of a madman. No, his story had to be written down. And it had to be done perfectly.

Resignedly, he forced the quill onto the nearly blank page. “As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given…” Writing about God was good. The topic was neither unpopular with the crown nor entirely misleading. Nevertheless, Bible stories and prayers wouldn’t send him the ships he needed if he was to capitalize on the impact of his discovery.

He kept writing. Salvador, María, Fernandina, Isabella, Juana. They were only names. Names would not convince sailors to leave on an uncharted course. Few things could. With a lurch, he thought of the ungodly cargo secured below deck. Surely something else could prompt future voyages. Anything else.

“The land there is elevated,” he continued, “and full of trees of endless varieties.” Describing beauty shouldn’t hurt. Plus, that part was true too. There had been many mountains and trees, but not like the ones he had come to expect from his books. Still, scenery could only get a traveler so far. “Birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there.” He described the palm trees, the pine woods, the meadows, all of which he knew would do very little to inspire investors. “No one else understands,” he thought bitterly. “Why is the need to explore not enough? Why must all curiosity be motivated by greed?” Realistically, he knew that he had to sell his discovery—he had to give them something to sell.

“There is honey,” he added feebly, “and a great variety of fruits.”

This was going nowhere. The man set the now barren quill onto the table and stood up. He knew of only two commodities that would give him the reaction he needed. The first, gold, was obvious. Months of searching, however, had yielded no results. Only a few scraps of roughly shaped ore, given to him by his hosts. That might be enough to convince the crown that there was indeed gold on the islands. And certainly there would be some, or how would the locals have found any?

He abruptly returned to the table and retrieved the quill without sitting down. “Inland there are numerous mines of metals…” A twinge of guilt pricked his chest. He remembered the words of the Lord to Moses: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” To tell of gold would surely be false witness, but how could it be against his neighbor? Further expeditions would hurt no one, and they might actually prove him to be correct. No, no one would be hurt, unless… if they found no gold, there was still that second commodity. But only as a last resort. More words appeared on the page, but the man never remembered deciding to write them.

Involuntarily, he turned to look at the crucifix on the wall. He was entering dangerous waters, figuratively more than literally. Perhaps it was better to be honest and unprofitable after all. He returned to his chair and began writing again, telling how the land was “rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages.” If the king and queen wished to settle, there was that option. A colony of subsistence farmers, however, would hardly transform his patron country into the empire it yearned to be. “The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers,”he rambled on, but what did that matter? He picked up the parchment, ready to tear it to shreds and start again. Instead, he paused, reread his words, and suddenly set them back down gently and added, before he could stop himself “most of which bear gold.”

It was such a silly claim—one that any member of his crew or following explorers could disprove easily. But it would give him the draw he needed. It would fund a second voyage. Surely, that was more important than a few misleading words? “There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals.” And why not? If Marco Polo had found them, surely they were there. He merely had yet to discover their hiding place..

But what if he never did? Would they all mock him again, as they had done for years? Call him delusional? A hypocrite and a heretic? A perpetual failure? But he had not failed! He had found exactly what he had been searching for, hadn’t he? Was there nothing to be said for being right, even if it came to little to no financial gain? But there was yet a profit to be made. If he couldn’t grant his monarchs gold, perhaps he could give them labor.

“They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them,” he reluctantly added, afraid to say directly what he knew he was implying. “The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” The people seemed happy to comply with everything he had requested. Perhaps it was better that they… “They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves.”

“I had to win their love,” he wrote, deciding to shift tactics. “and to induce them to become Christians.” That might protect them, he realized. Baptism could prevent their being abused. He would prefer it that way. “Therefore I hope that their Highnesses will decide upon the conversion of those people to our holy faith, to which they seem much inclined.”

What was he doing? Was he really discussing the people who had loved him so much as goods to be bartered? The crucifix glistened in the candlelight, and a drop of sweat fell from the end of his nose onto the parchment. He thought of his captives, who had been so passive, so accommodating, who had praised him heedlessly in front of their fellows, who were already making small strides forward in learning Spanish. Could he be so cruel? As of yet, he had merely implied that they were docile and generous. If he left it there, perhaps no harm would come to them. He returned to the topic of geography, he told tales of the natives’ myths, men with tails and cannibals and such, and he reminded his readers of the gold mines that never had been real. When future explorers found no gold mines, however, what would they say of him? What would history say of him? That his fruitless venture had been an utter waste of the king’s time, money, and ships, one of which already sat at the bottom of the ocean?

“Only the men remaining there could destroy the whole region, and run no risk,” he found himself writing. Must it always go back to conquest? Was the only way to redeem the reputation of Cristóbal Colón the death and enslavement of hundreds? Thousands? Millions? How many Taínos, Caribs, and Arawaks had to suffer in order to make his venture worthwhile? Must the admiral of the ocean sea become a conquistador, merely to be a successful explorer?

Refusing to look at the crucifix, Cristóbal stood up. He picked up the candle in one hand and the nearly finished letter with the other. He still could not decide whether or not he would actually send it. He left the stuffy cabin and out onto the deck. Without even noticing the sleeping watchman, he opened up the hold and dropped slowly down into the galley. Walking to the end of the hallway, he looked into the small cage where his prisoners slept. Ten men, the most valuable discovery of the four month voyage. Two white glimmers in the semidarkness told him that not all were asleep. One of his captives sat against the walls of the galley, staring at Cristóbal intently. Cristóbal tried to smile, but found that his face wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, he nodded and turned, placing the letter on a crate, determined to finish.

“¡Hermano!”

Cristobal turned suddenly to face the speaker. Now, not only his eyes, but his teeth gleamed in the darkness. “What did you say?”

“¡Hermano!” the Taíno repeated, “¡Mí hermano!” He again showed his teeth; was that a smile or a threat? Perhaps he was merely proud of himself for learning the words correctly. Then he stared at his captor, waiting for a response.

Cristobal shivered involuntarily. Ignoring the Indian, he turned to the letter and hastily concluded. “Fará lo que mandaréis. El Almirante.” Then he escaped from the dingy galley, taking the letter and the candle with him. As he ascended through the hold and closed it behind him, the galley was once again flooded with darkness, and the two bright eyes disappeared. The ocean’s near silence was restored, except for one last whisper into the night.

“¿Hermano?”

Before his return to Europe after reaching the new world for the first time, Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colón, as he would have been known to the Spanish) directed a letter to Luis de Santangel, a minister to the Spanish monarchy. The letter would then be translated and sent across Europe, making it the first public document proclaiming Columbus’s arrival. The italicized portions of this story were taken directly from that document.

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Riley Lewis studied history and Spanish at Brigham Young University and currently lives in England with his wife. He specializes in developing educational tours and presentations for museum audiences and enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction as well, especially when such is of a historical nature.

 

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Letter addressed to W.M.Thackeray from Charles Dickens

By Christopher Hall and Jess Mookherjee 

24th March 1858

My Dear Thackeray

What good fortune it was to stumble so gamely into your company at the club last Thursday. I pondered so intensely on the nature of our meeting and mused that I must not pass the opportunity to contact you. Let us not, good fellow, leave our friendship to chance any longer.

I will also thank you dear Thackeray for the choice of cognac and my enthusiasm for our meeting was fuelled only in part by that spirit.

Truly business is booming, books are being commissioned and some money is being made. I’m most keen to write something of sensitivity and depth on the revolution and your heady world view would be as bright a tonic as the cognac we shared together.

So I am naturally desirous that you and I meet and discuss in more detail the great swathes of history that are happening all around us. Will you come to Rochester? I hear you have taken some refuge in Kent. My daughter tells me you are spending some time in Royal Tunbridge Wells taking in the spa air.

Affectionately yours

Dickens

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from W.M. Thackeray}.

31st March 1858

Dearest friend,

I cannot tell you how delightful it was to hear from you.  No, it was more than that.  It was as restorative as the good tonic you mentioned in your letter.   I have been in the countryside for no more than a week now and nature has already conspired to give me a feverish cold.   When I received your letter I had been in the lowest of spirits but now I find your reminder of our conversation has revived me.   Yours is a voice that speaks cheerfully from the page and I already feel heartened by the prospect of a reunion.

Could it be my friend that you took some of my advice too much to heart?   The Garrick Club can be a strange arena where truths are uttered as falsely as lies and lies as truths.  May I recommend that for your enterprise you also write to our mutual friend Carlyle?  He has a vast bibliographical memory and I am more than sure that he can direct you to some excellent source materials for your next subject.  I was speaking half in jest when I mentioned Scott had already conquered the world of historical romance.  The man is not to be toppled from his mountain.

I will be staying in Tunbridge Wells for awhile until my daughters join me.  My plans take me to Dover and then to Paris to visit my dear wife.  Why not join me here?  I would like it very much if you could accompany us to France.  You know that Anne is very fond of you and eager to hear of your next work.

Yours

W.M.T

 

{Letter addressed to Thackeray from Dickens}

20th April 1858

Dearest Thackeray

Excuse the tardiness of my writing. Nothing could have improved my spirits more then receiving your kind invitation to your place in the country. I accept. When shall I come? I am most eager to get away from here as soon as I can for some peace and quiet.

My friend – I hope you will forgive my need to confide in you. I am most weary sir. This past few weeks has been pitiful. There have been pressures from the publishing company, from the financiers and from my own wife.

A certain young woman I chanced upon in Drury Lane has been most persistent in my thoughts and in my pocket. This acquaintance has, as you can imagine, left me needing the company of gentlemen for my thoughts are giddy and in need to your steadfastness.

My ideas for the French book are racing about in my head. I wonder if you can invite our good friend Carlyle as I would like also to take some of his interest in the issues I am to raise in the novel.

I am distraught dear Thackeray. Sometimes I feel you are my only friend and supporter. I received a great snub from that – how you used that word – SNOB – Trollope at the Garrick only last week. We almost came to blows and I swear sir – if he continues to call me Mr Popular Sentiment – I may not be responsible for my actions. I feel sometimes only you and I are in full unity about the terrible elitism that is stifling this society. Is it my fault – dear Thackary that I am blessed with an energy and appropriate ardour of my disposition to show the plight of the ordinary man!

Save me dear Thackeray

I look forward to enjoying the air with you – and our mutual friend? –  also?

Do write very swiftly

Your good friend

Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

25th April1858

My dear friend,

What has come over you since my last letter? I have acquired a highly developed intuition for hysteria when I see it and you are not so far gone my dear Dickens.  I read reports from the physicians that my poor wife has been tearing her hair out over imaginary wrongs. She rants and pummels the door and begs to be let out so that she can chase her demons away. Is that not what a little criticism represents, an imaginary wrong no more and no less a figment of the writers imagination than his plots and characters.  A little less tearing out of the hair and rubbing the furrowed brow if you please. One has so few of the flowing locks left these days. Take another tonic before you start to lose any more and remember that it’s not by the critics that the play is applauded but by the gallery.

As you know I have painful memories of what may happen to a man’s heart when he sets himself at something that falls short of his hopes.  I trust this young lady you refer to is enriching your sensibility as much as she appears to be sharpening your pen.   Take care dear Dickens.  You are not Aaron’s rod.  You can’t be expected to swallow every other serpent that comes your way.  I as I write I see a young girl approaching the table with what looks like a side of beef that no Englishman can resist.   The heart is treacherous.  The stomach however is more a more reliable organ.

Please do come as I am fully recovered and intend to move onto Dover soon.   I have equipped myself with a hamper of delights from Fortnum and Mason, including, amongst several of your favourite wares, a jar of apricots in brandy.

Yours as ever,

W.M.T

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

30th April 1858

Oh my dearest Thackeray

How you comfort me. I read again your Vanity Fair and I believe that young vixen I wrote to you of to be a veritable Becky Sharp. She is clever, undoubtedly, winning certainly, even wanton – thankfully, but without a moral compass my Thackeray. She has given me much but taken so much. However I hear your steady, quiet voice in my ear as I write, and though it reddens my cheeks to hear it – you rogue Thackeray, certainly my hair will not last with this intensity of adventure I boil my brains with. You have a good thick head of hair my friend, long may it last. Though I feel the strain of sadness about you, friend. I would invite you to romp in the Garrick with me but I am mindful of our madness.

Ah, my friend- we writers can purge our lusts and rages with our pens, talk our inner voices of bedlam and lunacy within confines of these inky pages. What power we hold. I have delayed enough, I am coming to Tunbridge Wells. Please invite Carlyle, our friend. I have read his work on the French uprising now ten times. I must get his ( and your) thoughts on my take on the revolution. There is a violence in me Thackery, a war that burns. I am like France, and I see you as good England sir, amiable and safe. What a revolting prospect don’t you think? I’m determined to make the “tale” a true masterpiece, if only to send up the nose of that Charlotte Bronte upstart.

Sir, I beg you again two things. Firstly – please use your not insignificant influence to arrange a meeting with our friend Carlyle. He seems to continuously lose my correspondence. And second my friend, do not tear your life in two. Poor Isabella, lost in her madness is also lost to you so leave her and start again as I am. I am for changing the order. Why should we not have what we deserve? Are we not men?

The war in me wages on, I look forward to your peaceful kingdom in the Kentish Weald.

With great expectations

Your friend, Dickens

 

{Letter to Dickens from W.M.T}

7th May1858

My Dear Friend,

I trust you are keeping well.  On the subject of your companion, I hope for your sake that she is more a cross between little Nell Trent and Nancy than my Becky Sharp.   Is she an orphan perhaps?   I hear stories that orphan girls are often taken with older gentlemen as they are looking for a mentor that the father might have been.  Beware my friend.  Thank you for asking after Mrs Thackeray.   How may I ask is your dear wife holding up?

I wonder if you had time to read the first three parts of my new work, The Virginians?  I am hopeful it will go down well with our American friends.   I am planning a reading tour through the states if all goes well. As for Carlyle, he very rarely ventures out of his house let alone London.   I will write and see what I can do.

Yours

W.M.T.

 

{Letter to W.M.T from Dickens}

10th May 1858

Dear Will,

Forgive me for pressing you on this matter but I am most eager.  Please could you continue to solicit our friend Carlyle on the matter of procuring the works I requested on the French question and any comments on my proposed work on the subject.

Yours in anticipation

Dickens

 

{Letter written to Thomas Carlyle from Charles Dickens}

12th May 1858

My Dearest Thomas

I wonder if you have received word from our mutual friend Will Thackeray requesting a suitable bibliography on the subject of the Revolution?  I am most anxious to receive the fruits of your wisdom on the subject of my forthcoming novel.   Do you not think that a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ is a title most apt for the differences between our national characters?  I eagerly await your response and the opportunity to visit you and your clever wife Jane to discuss this imposing subject at greater length.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Dickens

 

{Letter addressed to Thomas Carlyle from W.M.Thackeray}

2nd June 1858

My dear Tom,

I see from The Times that Palmerston is up to his old tricks.  If a vile stench emanating from the Thames is all it takes to remove our legislators from Westminsterthen perhaps the common man should reflect that to obtain the vote is needless when the influence of his digestive system can easily bring the government to its knees.  I must confess that my courage failed me and I could stomach it no longer and have withdrawn to the countryside to escape this abject suffering of my senses.  How is your nasal passage enduring in the circumstances?  I trust that you are not overwhelmed by the stench in Chelsea although your proximity to the river tells me that you might.

I am in correspondence with our mutual friend Mr Dickens on the subject of his latest venture into the world of literature.   He intends to compose an epic story set during the Revolution in France.   Would you be willing to join us in Kent to declaim upon the subject?  I will of course provide you and your lovely spouse with my very best hospitality.  Or at the very least, as I know you are busy, point him in the direction of the best literature on the subject.

Yours

Will

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from Thomas Carlyle}

4th June 1858

Dear Will,

What the Dickens?  Again?   He has already written to me on this subject.

You tell that excitable Anglo-Saxon hermaphrodite that nothing short of being dragged by the quadrupeds of hell would tempt me to assist in this facile project of his.   The revolution cannot be tamed for the English readers of his so called weeklies.  I suppose he intends to reduce the collapse of an entire social order to a faux-French nobleman uttering the moral platitudes of a country parson?  Or perhaps a cheerful street urchin will be deployed to carry messages for Robespierre?

Do the nation a favour and tell him to discontinue.  I know you agree with me on his style.  On second thoughts if it’s not possible to stop this deluge of nonsense we should consider building a dam.  There are more than sufficient volumes in the London Library on this subject to effect a blockage.  I’ll see to it that he receives them.

I wish you well dear Thackeray.  I hear that upstart Yates has written a review of your latest work.  Do not fret my dear Will.  He is an ass.  Send my best wishes to Dickens and tell him I will send him some serious history.

Yours,

Tom

 

{Letter addressed to Charles Dickens from W.M.Thackeray}

 5th June 1858

Dear Charles,

By some strange oversight on Carlyle’s part he has sent me your books which were delivered to me in Tunbridge Wells.   This provides us with the perfect excuse for entertaining you here as we had originally planned where you will be able to pick up your books.   I wonder if, in Tom’s confusion, a letter addressed to me has been sent to you by mistake.  If so, please do bring it with you.

Yours truly,

W.M.T.

 

{Letter written to Thackeray from Dickens}

8th June 1858

Thackeray,

Where once I called you friend I am now most redolent and seething in my disdain to even call upon you.

I enclose in this missive the communication from that galumphing toad Carlyle that I am sure you did not mean for me to see. I understand from this that you both, from your gentrified and lofty positions, applaud those that would crow ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’ as the sales for my novels rise.

My face is black sir, black as the night at this betrayal and lost friendship. I see now that I am merely a source of society tittle-tattle for you and your coiffured gentlemen of leisure. How piqued you must be that I am the master of my own life’s novel and not the stooge in a character play of your making.

You will not undo me sir, nor your high nosed comrade Carlyle. You can hang with him in the rafters of obscurity while my little popular books sing out from history. I tell, sir, the tales of people and I will not rest until I have told your tale sir.

What other betrayals are set against me? Only today I have heard a rumour that I am with Ellen, the young actress. Only you, sir, knew as much. I warn you, Thackeray, to keep your counsel and vex me no more. I have in my pay a young reporter called Yates – always on the look-out for a bumptious toad to bring down. Who feeds this new breed of hungry vipers of journalism I wonder?

I warn you not to spread any further vitriol. As for Carlyle, may his pompous tomes of historical analysis feed him and his family well. The public will vote for their music hall renditions of the unfortunate, consumption-ridden proletariat in time and his weighty epithets will be consigned to dust.

Oh we were friends, sir, in my heart you always had a room to rest and find relief. Now this blood-stained club will not admit you.

What the Dickens indeed sir, for you like your Wealden homestead will be ever green and unchanging. I will keep my estuaries and my city and proceed, sir, into history itself.

Good day to you.

C.D.

 

{Letter to Carlyle from Thackeray}

12th June 1858

Tom,

Please see the enclosed.  I fear there has been a terrible misunderstanding.

P.S. Could you feed him more volumes on the Revolution?  It may take his mind off things.

P.P.S. Perhaps Jane could invite him to Chelsea?

P.P.P.S. What the Dickens?

W.M.T

On 12th June 1858 an article appeared in the periodical Town Talk written by a young journalist named Edmund Yates criticising Thackeray in person as “cold and uninviting” possessing “a want of heart in all he writes.”

Thackeray made a formal complaint to the Garrick Club of which both men were members.  Yates was asked to apologise for the article which he refused and was subsequently erased from the club’s membership in July 1858.  Dickens voted against the motion to compel Yates to apologize and resigned his seat at the Garrick Club following the expulsion.

 In a pamphlet printed for private circulation in 1859 Yates lays out the sequence of events.  He clearly states that although Dickens was his advisor in the Garrick Club dispute Dickens had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the article published in ‘Town Talk’.

____________________________________________________________

Jess Mookherjee is a poet and writer of short stories. She has recently published poems in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Folio and in the magazine Dark Matter. She was co-creator of the Lipshtick: poetry oracle which can be found at lipschtick.co.uk. She has lived in Tunbridge Wells for five years.

Christopher Hall writes novels as well as short stories. He set up the Tunbridge Wells Writers Group in 2010 with the aim of creating a social network for writers to meet and inspire each other to keep at it. He also enjoys collaborating on literary projects like this one. He moved to Tunbridge Wells in 2000 and remains there to this day.

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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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Trial of Strength

By Emily Wright

Alabama,

September 1861

The black locomotive screeched its final warning. Tom Murphy slung his knapsack over his shoulder, his throat burning from the smoke. There was no turning back now. The crowd was full of mothers clinging to their children’s hands, fathers smoking their pipes as they impatiently checked their pocket watches. Tom pulled his hat brim down lower over his eyes, silently praying that no one would recognize him. The crowd was moving slowly, too slowly. His heart began to pound rapidly in his chest, echoing in his ears. He didn’t regret his decision. He just hoped he could get out of Mobile before it was too late. When it was finally Tom’s turn to board the train, he didn’t look back. He grabbed onto the cold, steel railing and mounted the steps.

After two days aboard two different trains, Tom finally arrived in the town of Jacksonville, Illinois. He began to follow the crowd of people that moved in the direction of a large red brick courthouse. Men were standing in an orderly line in front of a large gazebo that was decorated in patriotic red, white, and blue bunting. As Tom made his way closer, he could see wives letting go of their husbands’ hands, mothers clinging to their sons in an effort to keep them from signing up. Tom pushed his way past a little boy no older than ten begging his mother for permission to join up, heard a youth whooping and hollering in exhilaration at having just signed his name to the recruitment paper. Tom suddenly felt his hands beginning to sweat, the pounding of his heart making him feel vulnerable. The age for joining the army was eighteen. He was seventeen. Tom took his place in line behind a large bear of a man who smelled strongly of whiskey and grime.  Soon, a lanky boy of about Tom’s age came to wait his turn in line, scribbling on a slip of paper. Tom shifted his feet, looking down at his brown leather boots. He suddenly saw the young man quickly remove his shoe and place a slip of paper inside.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked, immediately seeing guilt on the young man’s face.

“What? Oh, the paper,” he managed, hurriedly shoving his foot back into his shoe. “I—I’m not eighteen yet,” he whispered.

“Neither am I,” Tom admitted quietly, furrowing his brows and glancing down at the man’s—boy’sshoe. “Pardon me for asking, but why’d you put paper in your shoe?”

“Well, you see,” came a low whisper, “I heard a lot of boys talking about how they weren’t eighteen yet, and they got it in their heads to write down the number 18 on a paper and put it in their shoe. That way, when they get asked their age, they can say, ‘I’m over eighteen.’ I thought I’d do it too…since I don’t want to lie.”

Tom looked down at his own shoes. He’d lied so much these past few days, and he knew it would only get worse as time went on. But being “over eighteen” didn’t sound quite so bad.

“Do you have any more paper?” he asked, seeing the surprise on the young man’s face.

“Next!” came the sergeant’s hoarse bark. Tom’s heart thudded hard in his chest, the deep breaths not helping. He stood ramrod-straight, looking the tired and irritated sergeant in the eye. The sergeant glanced at him briefly, then turned his full attention to the paper resting on the table in front of him.

“Name?” he grumbled, holding his pencil stub in a ready position.

“Thomas Murphy, sir.”

“Where’r you from?”

“Perryville, Kentucky,” Tom lied, maintaining a steady gaze on the sergeant. The man looked up at him, brows raised, making Tom’s stomach churn under the scrutiny.

“Kentucky. A border state,” the sergeant mused, the pencil stub scratching against the paper as he wrote. “Can you shoot a gun?”

“Yes, sir. I never miss.”

“How’re your teeth?” he asked gruffly.

“My—my teeth, sir?”

“Your teeth,” he repeated, opening his mouth and tapping his own front tooth with his fingernail. “You can’t open a paper cartridge without good teeth.”

“They’re…fine, sir.”

“Good. Are you eighteen or over?”

“Yes, sir. Over eighteen.”

 

“Howdy! How are you?” came a voice. Tom jumped, looking up at the tent flap and seeing a lanky young man with a newly issued haversack packed so full it seemed like it would explode its contents at any moment.

“Hello,” Tom said, getting up from where he was kneeling on the ground getting his bedroll ready. “Who—who are you?”

“Oh, I’m the fellow who stood behind you in line when we signed up, remember? Name’s David Greene,” he replied, extending his hand.

“Yes, the one who is ‘over eighteen’ like me,” Tom joked, shaking David’s hand and eyeing the huge bedroll strapped to the young man’s back that make him look like a turtle. “I’m Tom Murphy.”

David ducked into the large bell-shaped Sibley tent, removing his bedroll and haversack. They landed on the ground with a thunk.

“I’m exhausted. Nothing like a train ride to wear a man out,” he said, looking down at Tom.

“Yes,” Tom replied absently, finally lying down and immediately feeling his eyelids drooping.

“They’re going to start drilling us tomorrow. That’ll wear us out for sure,” David said, beginning to arrange his own bedroll. “Where are you from, Tom?”

Tom let out an annoyed sigh. “Perryville, Kentucky. Since it’s decided to be a boarder state, I hopped a train so I could join up,” he lied, hoping the answer would make the chatty tent mate stop talking.

“I’m from Harrisburg, Illinois. Nice little town. I’ll sure miss it,” David said, settling down on his bedroll finally.

Tom turned over on his side away from David. He felt guilty, lying to everyone like that. Yet he couldn’t let anyone know he was actually from the South—

“Good night,” David said.

Tom pretended not to hear him. He closed his eyes, feeling them sting with exhaustion.

 

The day began with bacon, biscuits, and bitter coffee. After that, Tom fell in line for roll call, then went with his company to learn how to march in line. There were orders shouted, terms that Tom had never heard before. He did what the officers told them, turning at the appropriate time and following the man in front of him. Just an hour later, the regiment came back together, beginning to practice parade formations that Tom thought seemed pointless. What good would formality be while on the battlefield? The regiment took a break for lunch, which consisted of salted pork and a potato. Tom eagerly sat down in the grass with his plate and tin cup full of water, resting his tired legs and feet. Food would certainly give him energy. He hadn’t finished his potato before the order was given to form up. The regiment drilled once more, learning the Manual of Arms, loading and priming their newly issued Springfield rifles. After hours of this, drills were finally over, and Tom ate the same meal of salted pork and a potato for dinner. This time, he lay down on the grass, propping himself up with his left elbow as he shoved down his supper. He felt as if he could sleep right there in the grass and never move until the next morning. Tom shed his blue wool uniform coat, finally being rid of the thick fabric. His entire body felt sticky with sweat, his unkempt brown curls stuck to his forehead. He folded the coat and set it on the ground next to him, closing his eyes as he felt a blessed autumn breeze.

Tom opened his worn leather Bible, not knowing what he was looking for. They were on board one of five steamers, plodding their way down the choppy river and escorted by two gunboats, Tyler and Lexington. Rumors of coming battle swirled, the entire regiment seeming to be itching for a fight. Tom’s stomach was tied in knots, making him feel sick. Very soon, he would be shooting at Southern men, some just as young as he was. They would be from Tennessee or Arkansas or Alabama. Tom closed his eyes, hearing the pointless chatter of his fellow soldiers swirling around him and tried to drown it out. He remembered the conversation with his father that night almost two months ago, one he would never forget no matter how hard he tried. He’d walked into his father’s office, insides trembling, praying against all hope that he would understand. Tom had known what would happen, and it had made everything in him want to turn and remain as silent as he had been all his life. Yet he had to do this. There was no way around it. He’d told his father everything, about how he hated slavery, about the time he saw his father beat one of the field slaves with a whip. He’d seen the welts, seen brown skin stained crimson as it was being ripped to shreds. Tom had asked his father why a Christian man could do such horrible things, how he could possibly call himself a follower of Christ. His father had risen from his mahogany desk, his face red with rage. Tom had argued further, telling his father that he had his mind made up to fight for the freedom of the slaves. His father had pounded his fist into the polished desk, snarling, “You willingly betray your state and your family! You are no longer my son!” Tom’s mother had rushed into the room in a flurry of skirts, demanding to know what was happening. Tom had rushed out of his father’s office, running blindly to his upstairs bedroom. He’d thrown a few belongings into a red knapsack, put on a brown floppy hat and ran back downstairs, hearing his mother’s wracking sobs coming from the office, his father’s voice booming throughout the house. Tom’s brother was coming down the stairs…He’d closed the front door and run. Tom bowed his head, willing the memory to be gone. He rested his head in his hand, closing the Bible with the other. He hadn’t told a soul that he was from the South, was afraid that he would be accused of being disloyal to the Union and a spy. Soon, it may not even matter. He felt a lump in his throat and allowed the tears to flow.

Pinks and purples streaked the morning sky when the regiment landed in Missouri. Tom shouldered his rifle as he stepped onto the muddy ground. They were in a marsh, surrounded by tall trees and thickets.

“Form a line, remain silent,” Colonel Logan instructed them, walking toward a man atop a brown horse. Tom took his place in line, watching the man on the horse, seeing a wildly unkempt beard and muddy knee-high boots. All the officers were going to him, and Tom caught a few words like “gunboat” and “the 31st.”  Tom shifted his feet, his hands beginning to tremble. He would see his first battle today. The knots in his stomach made it impossible to eat the hardtack cracker he’d saved for breakfast this morning. Suddenly the order came, “31st Illinois! Move out!”

 

The regiment was hidden by trees and thick bushes, the ground shaking from the sound of nearby artillery fire coming from the direction of the river. It was louder than any thunder Tom had ever heard, each cannon blast making his insides quake. All he wanted was to close his eyes and pretend it was all a nightmare. He watched as David pulled out a Bible from his coat pocket with shaking hands, his lips quivering as he mouthed words. Tom knew he could never concentrate on reading now, instead gazed up at the gray sky above them, remembering some verse from somewhere…If it is possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but Thy will be done. He jumped as another artillery shell was fired, wanting to hide, to run. The sound of approaching footsteps from behind him made Tom turn his head in fear, then was relieved to see a major dressed in blue.

“Colonel Logan, sir,” the major said with a salute, “Orders from General Grant. He has requested the 31st come up to the front.”

“Yes, thank you Major Hudson,” the colonel replied, saluting. Major Hudson turned, making his way back to where he’d come. Colonel Logan wasted no time in giving the order, “31st Illinois! At the double quick, march!”

Tom stood in the line of battle, gritting his teeth as he saw David beside him. He should not be here. It would be better to keep our distance. A blood red flag waved in front of them, two crossed blue bars with thirteen stars staring back. The men in gray were there, across a small space in the wooded marsh, marching toward them in their own battle line. Tom clutched his rifle, the world seeming to stand still as he saw the Southern men stop, dressing their line, flag waving. He stared, wide-eyed, hearing men from his regiment loading their guns, the tearing of paper and clinking ramrods. Tom had done this countless times in the past two months, had shot a gun ever since he was a child. His mind was numb, couldn’t bring his trembling hands to reach into his cartridge box—

“Load! Load this rifle!” Colonel Logan ordered him, staring at him with wide eyes and red face. Tom nodded dumbly, pulling out a paper cartridge and ripping it open with his teeth. He dumped the powder into the barrel, remembering the steps when suddenly rattling gunshots filled the air, and men from the 31st began to drop to the ground, some shouting, others staring at the sky without uttering a sound. Tom gaped at them. Men he’d seen in camp now lay there with holes in their bodies. Colonel Logan shouted, “Ready! Aim!” Tom automatically raised the Springfield to his shoulder.

“Fire!”

Tom pulled the trigger, the deadly bullet missing its target, hitting a tree trunk. He placed the butt of his rifle on the ground, reaching into the cartridge box once again, grabbing a paper cartridge, loading again. Taking aim. Firing. Tom’s body shook violently, forcing himself to stand there, to keep loading, keep firing. Every sane fiber of his being told him to run. Yet insanity told him to go forward with the regiment, taking a step, then another, gaining ground, moving slowly. Tom wanted to weep, hating himself for what he was doing. What if they aren’t ready to die? Suddenly the booming sound of artillery fire shook the ground, coming from in front of them. Tom saw the shell as it sailed overhead, and he threw himself to the ground as it blasted a hole in their line. The motion had knocked his kepi hat off, chunks of mud hitting his back and head.  Tom closed his eyes as he heard chilling, blood-curdling screams that he never again wanted to hear for the rest of his life.

“Lie down! Lie down, men!” Colonel Logan shouted.

The regiment lay down in the cold mud. Tom clutched his rifle to his chest, feeling as if he didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Tom heard Colonel Logan give the order for the regiment to reload, and automatically he propped himself up upon his elbows, pressing the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and pulling the trigger once more. It would be over soon. It would be over, the Confederates would flee, and the 31st would fight another day. Oh, God, let it be over! Artillery shells shot over their heads, the earth trembling. Tom covered his head each time, shaking and holding his breath. Suddenly, the order was given to rise up. Tom obeyed, seeing the Confederates falling back. The 31st surged forward, emerging out of the woods and into a cornfield. Tom carried his rifle in his hands, marching with his regiment as they surely would carry the day, and it would all be over—cannons were waiting for them, ripping holes in the line, throwing up dust and mud and grass. Tom once again dived to the ground, closing his eyes, his body quaking. Screams, shrieks that were otherworldly.

“Fall back! Fall back, men! Back to the trees!” Colonel Logan yelled.

Tom stood and did what he’d wanted to do since the start of this battle. He turned and ran, fleeing to the safety of the woods, wanting to hide under the thicket and stumps and never come out until it was over. He carried his rifle with both hands, his breath rapid. Almost there—The bullet whizzed past him, and suddenly David reeled backwards, falling hard onto the ground below. He stared up at the sky, and Tom could do nothing but stare down at him in shock, hearing the swirl of voices around him. Men dressed in blue ran past him, eyes fixed upon the safety of the trees. Tom knelt down, feeling his knees sink into the mud.

“David!” he urged, feeling his entire body tremble. “David, come on!”  He grasped his friend’s arm, trying to pull him up, noticing for the first time the limpness of the body. Tom saw the blood stains littering David’s chest, the lifeless eyes staring at nothing. Tom felt his entire body go numb as he let go of his friend’s arm. An artillery blast from close by made him jump, and he lay flat over David’s body, feeling mud and dirt spray over him.

“He’s dead, son! Come on!” urged an officer. Tom looked down at David once more, mind not processing, tears stinging his face as he took up his rifle and ran into the safety of the trees.

____________________________________________________________

Emily Wright received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English in December of 2014 from Union University in Jackson, TN. She is currently an English teacher at Halls High School, where she loves to educate her students about how history and literature collide. This is her second publication.

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A Day at the Circus

By Mark C. Harwell

General Flavius Stilicho followed closely behind shorter and more slightly built Emperor Honorius, who led the royal family procession from the imperial palace down a private tunnel directly connected to the circus in Mediolanum.  Stilicho had a large nose with a boxing dent and a battle scar above his nostrils.  His sepia-colored hair was cut short in Roman military fashion.  To his right, his wife, Serena, walked straight-backed, her chin high.  He thought her a handsome woman, with pitch black hair braided and wound around her head, pinned in place by gold, pearl-studded combs that gave the appearance of a diadem rising from her scalp.  But he had not married her for her looks.  She was the niece and adopted daughter of Emperor Theodosius.

A roar echoed up the tunnel.  It reminded him of howling and snapping Alpine wolves fighting over a fresh kill late at night.  When he emerged from the tunnel into the imperial box, the noise opened up to a deafening roar like scores of ocean waves crashing against seawalls.  His nose recoiled at the pungent odor of massed, sweaty humanity.  This was the second of three days of festival races honoring the deceased Theodosius.  The unrelenting bright sun burned necks and stewed bodies among the raucous tens of thousands gathered.  He twitched his nose and scanned the assembled mob.  He spotted Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a prideful looking, round-faced senator from Rome, in the center of a group of other senators who had made the trip north for the funeral games.  They were seated along with the other people of senatorial rank or wealth on the first two rows of the marble benches that stretched the full length of the stadium’s elongated U shape.  Symmachus and his companions looked detached and unenthusiastic.  Stilicho grimaced.  “Roman sops,” he murmured.

Above the senators’ heads, in the next five rows, men and women from every lower rank and social order screamed boisterously, waving colored flags and streamers for their favorite faction, and insulting the competing teams with lewd jeers.  Separated by class horizontally, the stadium divided vertically into four distinct colored factions.  The Whites, wearing white tunics, scarves, or dresses held the quarter of the stadium on Stilicho’s right.  Next came the Blues, then the Reds, ending with the Greens seated on the emperor’s left.

Young Emperor Honorius strode to his purple-cushioned seat in the front center of the imperial box.   Stilicho stopped next to him, where he had an excellent view of the circus’ starting gate and finish line.  But he was far more interested in keeping his eyes on the teenage emperor than the pageantry of the stadium.  This was Honorius’ first public appearance as the new emperor of the West.  Stilicho was pleased how the boy had handled himself thus far.  Honorius might grow to be a handsome man.  With the stonecutters’ embellishments, his face and curly brown hair would cut a noble figure that would do nicely for the bronze and marble busts.  Still, it was what hid inside the boy emperor’s skin that worried the general.  He had yet to see any confirmation that the son had inherited his father’s intelligence, courage, or humility.  He could not keep Honorius under his personal supervision forever.  He fretted what the all-powerful adolescent might do in his absence.

Stilicho waited for the imperial party to fully assemble.  His oldest daughter, Maria, took her place on Honorius’ left.  One year younger than Honorius, Maria had her mother’s dark hair, but had inherited Stilicho’s hazel eyes and large nose.  Her shiny black locks hung loose below her shoulders.  She held her nose high in an immodest pose.  Stilicho planned for Maria and Honorius to wed as soon as she became of age.  It pleased him that Maria took to the idea eagerly.

Next to Maria came her five-year-old sister, Thermantia.  She had a mass of curly red-brown hair that jutted from her blue headscarf like loose copper springs. Stilicho smiled knowing that should the need arise, his second daughter waited ready in the wings to take her turn in Honorius’ royal bedchamber.

Behind his daughters stood Galla Placidia, Honorius’ seven-year-old half-sister.  Galla seemed to Stilicho to have a permanent, stepchild’s jealous resentment about her.  Yet, even at this young age, he could see that she might rival her mother’s legendary beauty.  She had gray eyes the color of stormy seas, but filled with golden flakes that shimmered in the same way that shiny stones reflect light in still waters.

Last among the royal entourage, and standing behind Maria and Thermantia, came Stilicho’s seven-year-old son, Eucherius.  Although Stilicho might someday choose to wed Galla Placidia to a rich Roman senator, or to a barbarian king to secure the Empire’s borders, it seemed to him more than mere chance that God had given him a son who he could graft into Theodosius’ bloodline by marriage to Galla Placidia should the need arise.

Behind the royal family came the dignitaries invited by Stilicho in Honorius’ name, the foremost being General Gainas.  He was a tall man with short black hair wearing a blue Thracian robe over his russet tunic in a style common in Constantinople, capital of the East.  He had intense blue eyes set wide atop his broad nose, the bridge of which had been clipped by a Gothic arrowhead three years ago.  Trailing after the invited guests, male slaves bore earthenware jars holding wine, water and fruit juices, and silver trays stacked with small sweet cakes.  Last, came the Hun mercenary royal bodyguards. The four swarthy-skinned stout men wore chain mail to their shins and iron helmets crested from front to back with billowy purple-dyed feathers. They took positions guarding the entrance to the tunnel.

Honorius raised both his arms skyward and the raucous noise in the circus abated.  He looked about ready to take his seat, when a male voice suddenly screamed out from the White faction seats.

“Blues suck donkey dicks!”

A bombard of bread crusts, half-eaten fruit, and flying liquids immediately responded from the Blue faction pelting the Whites nearest the dividing line.  A melee ensued.  The border line between white and blue clad spectators undulated, resembling a streamer blowing in a gusty wind as the rows of fans shoved and beat each other.

Honorius snickered, obviously delighted that the Blues seemed to be getting the best of the Whites.

Serena sharply squeezed Stilicho’s hand and growled “husband” from the side of her mouth.

Stilicho thought the commotion comical, but he did not want to cross his wife.  Serena had a steadfast orthodox Christian faith with little tolerance for roguish behavior.  It also occurred to him that the moment offered the opportunity for a test of the boy emperor.

“Augustus,” Stilicho said turning to Honorius.  “Perhaps your serene guidance would be in order.”

The boy’s childish, delighted smile changed to a stately frown.  He lifted his arms high and screamed out in his high-pitched voice: “Citizens!”  Faces turned toward him from the blue and white battle line.  “Calm yourselves!  We have come together to celebrate my late father’s great reign.  Let’s not sully his memory by brawling.”

“Hail Theodosius,” a voice screamed from the Greens.  “Hail Honorius,” a chant began from the Reds.  Soon the entire stadium vibrated with the chorus of “Hail Honorius.”  The boy’s face beamed brighter than Pharos.  After several moments of letting Honorius absorb the adulation, Stilicho waved his arms for silence.  This time everyone in the crowd instantly obeyed.  “Citizens, your emperor thanks you for your praise.  Now, with the blessing of the Holy Trinity, let the races begin.”  Honorius immediately sat down.  After waiting a respectful heartbeat, everyone else in the imperial party took their seats.  The crowd noise in the circus resumed its excited, rolling hum of anticipation.

The city prefect, gray-headed Gaius Longinus, appeared from a gated passageway beneath the imperial box.  He walked to the middle of the track.  He wore a long yellow tunic with two broad red stripes embroidered with gold that ran hem to hem and over each shoulder.  He announced the day’s slate of races and praised the aedile, quaestor, or other public officials who had sponsored each race by providing the prize money.  The names drew a polite, but unenthusiastic cheer from the audience.

Stilicho’s mind wandered from the prefect’s speech.  He half-heartedly clapped his hands when four chariots appeared for the day’s first race.  He had never had much enthusiasm for the races.  From time to time he might take a special interest in a particularly talented driver, or praise the beauty of a well-matched team of horses, but the thrill of the colored factions that drove the crowds into such a fanatical frenzy completely escaped his understanding.  To him, the chariots were an outdated relic of ancient warfare.  He had never seen one in battle, though he had heard that some of the most primitive British tribes still used them.   A two-horse chariot could not match the speed of light cavalry.  Larger chariots on a battlefield were ponderous and difficult to control, sometimes doing as much damage to their own ranks as to their enemy’s.  Compared to his memories of the thundering charge of heavily-armored horses and the sheer terror wrought by lances impaling bodies and swords splitting heads, the chariot races seemed to him a pathetic pantomime of real combat.  But the crowd did not share his disdain.  As soon as each color-coordinated chariot appeared on the track, the respective colored faction in the stands roared with wild excitement.

Each chariot driver wore a simple tunic dyed the faction’s color.  Each steered his chariot once around the track preliminary to the race.  Men in the audience yelled encouragement to their faction’s driver and curses upon the other drivers.  The women screamed just as ardently.  A woman two rows up in the Blue’s section bared her chest and screamed to the Blue rider: “They’re yours if you win.”

Serena turned up her nose.  “Disgraceful.”

A smile cracked Stilicho’s lips.  He leaned toward Serena to speak into her ear.  “Do you suppose the man beside her is her husband?”

“I wonder what he has to say about such indecency.”

Stilicho laughed.  “My guess is that he’d willingly offer himself as his wife’s substitute if the driver is inclined in that way.”

Serena snarled.  “That’s disgusting.  I can’t imagine what they see in the driver.  The man is hideous.”

Stilicho studied the Blue driver.  His arms were covered with thick black hair.  A purple swell puffed under his left eye.  A grayish scar ran the full length of his right cheek.  “It’s not about his appearance, my dear.  If the Red charioteer were to change tunics with the Blue mid-race and win, I’m sure the woman would just as enthusiastically invite him to her bed.”

 Serena gasped.  She playfully slapped at his left shoulder.

He glanced toward Honorius who sat rigid and tense, his hands gripping his seat’s armrests in excitement, visibly restraining himself from joining in the Blue faction’s cheers for the Blue charioteer as he passed the imperial box.

 “I like the Blue’s horses,” Maria said.

“Yes,” Honorius exploded.  He drew a quick breath and then quickly resumed his statelier composure.  “Yes, they are magnificent aren’t they,” he said with poorly feigned indifference.

 “I like the Green,” Galla said.

Honorius scoffed.  “My dear little sister, the Greens didn’t win once yesterday and they don’t look to be a favorite today.  Maria has a much better eye for a champion than you.”

Maria smiled proudly.  Galla’s lower lip curled to a pout.  “I still like the Green,” she said.

 “And what says my master of soldiers?”  Honorius said.

Stilicho studied the shiny black stallions pulling the Blue chariot.  Their coats gleamed beautifully, but they stomped their hooves spasmodically and randomly jerked their heads in the harness.  They had the wide, white-eyed frightened look that Stilicho had seen in horses charging into massed spears.  This must be their first race. The charioteer noticeably strained at the reins holding back the horses.  Stilicho preferred the look of the Red team.  The dappled gray horses were not so lovely as the blacks, but their legs trotted in perfect unison.  The driver steered them with casual tugs.  The horses knew to save their energy for the race.

He turned back to the emperor.  Regrettably, the sole characteristic that he had observed in Honorius that he had inherited from his august father was Theodosius’ volatile temper.  Despite the fact that he despised sycophants, Stilicho learned long ago that if he coddled the boy emperor rather than irritate him, he would not provoke a tantrum.  “Augustus, I favor your choice, the Blues, though of course, like you, I do not adhere to any particular faction.”

Honorius nodded, appearing satisfied with his own expertise.  “Yes, magnificent … the black horses are magnificent.”

The four chariots pulled up to the starting line.  Grooms wearing faction color-coordinated livery grabbed the horses’ bridles.  They held the teams steady.  When all the horses had been calmed, the grooms scattered.  The circus grew silent, the masses collectively holding their breaths.  A trumpeter stationed high above the starting gate lifted his curled trumpet, waiting for Honorius’ signal.  Honorius raised a white cloth high in his hand, the crowd becoming utterly silent.

Honorius released the cloth.  A shrill blast sounded.  The horses leapt forward.  The circus exploded with the urgent screams of 30,000 voices.  The black stallions instantly jumped into the lead.  The Blue charioteer leaned far forward in the chariot giving his horses full loose reins.  By the first turn, he had established a one length lead over the other three.  The Red chariot hung back at the rear of the pack.

Stilicho noticed movement behind him.  He turned to see a uniformed officer from the eastern VIIth Claudia palatini legion emerge from the emperor’s tunnel.  The man hesitated, scanning the group, then marched directly to General Gainas.  He spoke into the general’s ear, then both men retired back to the tunnel.

At the third turn, the Blue chariot still held its lead over the other three.  As the Blue’s horses galloped past Stilicho, he noted the white lines of sweat already streaking their midnight necks.  The dapple grays pulling the Red chariot, now three lengths back, still looked relaxed.  “Go!  Go!” Honorius cheered.  Maria joined him in the chorus.  By the ninth turn, Stilicho could see that the black stallions’ strides were flagging.  The Red chariot driver started his move.  The dapple grays charged past the Green chariot.

General Gainas returned and tapped Stilicho’s right shoulder.  “Sir, may we speak in private?”  Stilicho nodded.  “Yes of course,” he said.  “Let’s just watch the end, shall we?”  He did not care so much about how the race would conclude, but he definitely cared about how Honorius would handle what Stilicho knew to be the Blue’s impending defeat.  He wanted to be close at hand.

At the twelfth turn the Blue chariot had lost its lead to the White chariot.  Midway to the thirteenth and final turn the Red chariot had overtaken both.  It crossed the finish line two lengths in front of the White and another length in front of the Blue.  The Green came in last.  Honorius slumped in his seat.  He had a sulking, pink blush to his face.  He looked as though he thought that he had somehow been personally responsible for the Blue’s defeat.

Stilicho stood and faced Honorius.  “As usual Augustus, it’s better to be lucky than skillful.”

Honorius squinted his eyes looking up.  “Lucky?”  He nodded slowly, his flushed skin returned to a pasty hue.  “Yes … the Red had appalling good luck.”

“If they’d race ten times instead of just once the Blue would certainly win nine,” Stilicho said.  “The Red would never be so fortunate again.”

“You saw that too,” Honorius said.  “Appalling … appalling good luck that Red.”

Stilicho bowed at his waist.  “Excuse me sire, but General Gainas needs to speak with me.”

Honorius waved the back of his right hand at him.  “Go.  Come back when you can.”  He straightened in his chair and turned to face the track.  “Appalling good luck that Red.  They won’t be so lucky next time.”

____________________________________________________________

Mark Harwell is a new writer who studied history at Rice University and earned a J.D. from the University of Texas.  He resides in Katy, Texas and writes historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers.  A Day at the Circus is a portion of his forthcoming novel.

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The Walls of Edo

By Sam Tjahjono

A cry erupted from the shore of Edo Bay to the north, beyond the reeds that swayed in a sudden gust of wind. The fugitive turned to meet the sound. 

He’s over there, on the path, said the voice from the shore. Even though the fugitive could not see very clearly in the deepening dusk, he knew the voice belonged to one of the doshin. He could hear the men scrambling from a boat onto the shore, which was hidden from sight by an embankment. 

However, they soon came into view, their black kimonos thrashing in the wind. There were five of them in total, moving in single file like insects on the sand. Two of them carried lanterns, while the other three wielded various sasumata with which to ensnare and subdue the fugitive. These they brandished like grotesque antennae silhouetted against the indigo sky.

The doshin, in the employ of the machi-bugyo, had chased the fugitive here all the way from the Kyobashi district—where he had purchased a scroll of poetry—across the Eitai Bridge and the canals feeding into Edo Bay: a total of six miles. The whole time they had pursued him, all he could think of was the geisha he had been involved with, and who had recently disappeared.

Could they think I am responsible? he wondered. Am I responsible?

What have you done with the geisha? one of the doshin called out, as if in answer of his question. Where is she? If you are innocent, just let us bring you to the machi-bugyo—let him know where you stand. 

But the fugitive knew this was not true: if the geisha had left Edo like she had often threatened to do, or if they suspected he had harmed her, then the machi-bugyo would most likely have him banished, or even executed.

And so he toiled on into the evening, hoping to outpace the doshin long enough to lose them under cover of night. The path widened before him as he neared the boiling houses at the edge of the salt field, and the geisha was everywhere on the shadowy loam before him. Beads of perspiration trickled into his eyes, almost blinding him, and he wondered what evil she might have submitted to at last, alone.

The fugitive’s bare feet stung as he kicked through the piles of salt that littered the ground in snow white gashes. The sharp crystals bit into his heels, and he began to track blood, a trail for the doshin to follow. All the while he remained silent, deigning to ignore the calls of the men who kept pace behind him. 

To the west, the sun sunk below the horizon, and the fugitive no longer ran toward its light, but rather away from the fiery orbs in the lanterns the doshin carried. 

Soon, the field gave way to the eastmost marshes, where rows of sedge embroidered the gassy soil and the saltworkers’ buckets lay in stacks by the water like vestigial shrines. He ran between these, carelessly navigating the zigzag ridges of earth and jumping between footholds, splashes erupting in great brown gouts as though before some amphibious monstrosity. 

Finally, the fugitive reached the end of the peninsula: he had nowhere left to run.

Exhausted, he stumbled into the water. The fecund sludge of the marshbottom gave way beneath his feet. Tangled roots and algae wrapped around him, and he somehow felt warm in their slimy grasp. The sloshing footfalls of the doshin were close behind him now, and as he knelt in the water, the mud sucking at his knees, he thought again of the geisha.

And so, when he crumpled under the iron heft of the doshin’s jutte, his mind was already on the last time he’d been with her. Perhaps a month prior, the sharp clove fragrance of the geisha’s perfume had filled his nostrils as he lay beside her on the futon mattress. They had never had intercourse, despite the list of reasons he’d recited to her, but he always felt impossibly close to her in these moments. 

And now once more, the fugitive wrapped his arms around her in the limited darkness of the dream. He inhaled the silk smell of her kimono, its pattern of cerulean irises on red brocade brushing against his face. Beside them, licorice smoke came up from the incense that burned in the censer.

She was telling him, tearfully, of the mizuage ritual she would soon undergo, in which her virginity would be sold to the highest bidder. She had been bought, she said, by a man in fine green damask, a man with many coins. Silver and gold exchanged for blood, he thought, her face buried against his chest. Her untainted blood. The sweet smoke from the censer hung around them like a cocoon.

Come away with me, she pleaded, Anywhere but here. I’m not ready to be a woman. Not like this.

No one’s ready to leave their childhood behind, he replied in a futile attempt to calm her. But you must always be ready to meet what comes next. I, for one, chose Edo. My parents chose Edo, too, and their parents before. A place has been set aside for us here, with people to wait on us. You have a place here, too. The city is good to a geisha.

She looked at him then like he was a stranger. The city gives a geisha nothing, she said, as though balancing her words upon a knife. I own nothing but my reputation. And what is that worth?

Your reputation is worth a good deal, he answered, sitting up. You make many men happy, just like you make me happy. She gathered her kimono up against her chest, staring at him guardedly. Looking down at her, he realized that her kimono matched the pattern of the silk sheets on the mattress.

Why won’t you come with me? she said. Her tone was flat, as though she did not expect an answer.

I’m not yet ready to leave Edo, he replied after a pause.

Don’t you love me?

Three months together are not worth a lifetime of security. That was what he said, though he grimaced immediately after doing so.

She got up without saying a word, then straightened her kimono and left the bedchamber. She did not even glance back, to see if he’d follow and attempt to soothe her fear. Her girlish fear.

The memory dissipated when he awoke from the concussion in the jail in Kodenma-ch?. He was sitting down, tied to a post in a mossy courtyard. The early morning sky churned a deep violet above them, and the smell of rain mingled with the tinge of blood in his nose. He winced. Everything was too bright. He sat there blinking.  Before him stood three new doshin, whom he had not seen before. They towered like statues before him in a semicircle.

One of the doshin poured a bucket of water on his head. The icy splash burned his skin, brought him gasping back. Another doshin hit him from behind with a jutte.

Tell us what you’ve done with her, they kept saying. Tell us why you ran. 

Though he was dazed and sore, he dimly realized the choice that lay before him: he could tell them he knew nothing, which would be a noble thing, he thought. Or, he could tell them that he’d known of the geisha’s desire to leave and had failed to make this fact known. Either way, they would torture him, and so he decided silence was his best option: he was no longer the fugitive, but rather the accused. 

Perhaps they will find a trace of her, he thought, maybe even in the next few hours, that will divert their attention from me. Perhaps they will realize I am innocent.

For the time being, however, that was not the case. They would torture the accused, they said, until he was ready to speak to the machi-bugyo. Was he prepared to receive his punishment? He answered yes without hesitation.

And so, when they interrogated him the first day, he took solace in the notion that he was being persecuted for his love of the geisha—that there was nobility in his silence. The doshin, on the other hand, assumed that he’d either kidnapped the geisha or killed her out of jealousy, to keep the man in green damask from having her. They knew she’d told him about the mizuage arrangement. She had failed to appear at the ceremony on the appointed day, and as it turned out, the man in green damask was related to the shogun of Edo himself. He was furious that his prize had been snatched from him, and so he had ordered the machi-bugyo to send his doshin after the client of the geisha he presumed responsible.

The second day, the doshin tortured the accused further. Give us a name, they told him, of a person or place, and we will consider it a boon to the shogun. Otherwise, we will deliver justice in proportion to murder. 

But the accused did not answer, confident in his newfound purpose. So they again took him out to the courtyard, where they stripped him, flogged him, and soaked sheets of bamboo in water before jabbing them under his fingernails. The wood beneath his nails expanded for an agonizing hour, uprooting his nails in the process.

He became delirious from the torture. The pain made him guilty, made him want to confess to every charge the doshin leveled against him. But still he struggled to hold fast to the principles he believed himself to possess, though his resolve faded as the punishment continued.

The machi-bugyo, however, did not come to speak with him. Still the doshin insisted that the accused confess. It was inevitable that he did so, they said, so he might as well get it over with now.

And yet he waited, though only until the third day. In the small hours of the cool morning, a beggar boy, lice-ridden and coated in grime, slipped into the jail while the doshin on guard relieved himself in the courtyard. The boy handed the accused a letter through the iron bars of his cell, his eyes averted, and then departed without a word. 

The letter was from the geisha, though it was unsigned. The accused inhaled the clove fragrance that still permeated the paper. Morning rays slipped through the cell bars from the outside. The doshin would return soon to check on him and most likely resume the torture. So he read quickly.

In the letter, she told him things he did not know about himself. That his mother’s death and his father’s banishment for abandoning the service of the shogun must have been hard on him. That he was unable to love her because he only knew how to care for himself. That he loved her only with the view of Mount Fuji from high above the bustle of the people in her lofty tenement.

She went on to say that after their last meeting, she had realized he was not worth losing a part of herself in a manner outside her own terms. She would not tell him where she was, but he should know she was now far outside the walls of the city, far beyond its reach. 

You see, inconvenience overcomes love, she continued, in every circumstance. Not even the shogun’s brother will be able to convince himself that hunting for something lost is a worthier cause than simply discovering something new.

The accused shivered in his cell. The cold morning air had begun to seep in between the bars like water through a sluice.

However, the geisha went on, who knows the hearts of men, and when they may change? There was a way for him to get out of Edo, but he must follow her plan exactly. He must tell the machi-bugyo that he knows where she is, but that she will not show herself unless the man whom she loves goes with them. So he will go with the machi-bugyo to Ikegami, the southernmost town of Edo, where she grew up. There, a childhood friend of hers will help him escape, hide him away beneath the floorboards of a teahouse.

Her friend’s name was Atsuko. Honest Child.

Of course, you can never return to Edo, the geisha went on. You will be executed if you do. So you must live out your days in banishment. However, if your circumstances have changed enough to force your heart from its shell, then go to Kyoto. People change like the winds at sea, and so when I am older, I may someday change my mind about you.

Someday, maybe we will meet in Kyoto.

This was the end of the letter. The accused traced the ink with his finger, salt crystals dried beneath his eyes. He considered the letter, the parchment in his hands that was suddenly warm like flesh and blood in his hands.

The stillness was broken by the sound of the jail door creaking open: the doshin had returned from outside. Moving his fingers like they were frozen, the accused tore the letter into strips and chewed them up, one by one. The paper sucked the moisture from his mouth, scraping its way down his throat. It settled in his stomach like a paper nest. 

Only one piece of the letter remained, but he did not dispose of it. Instead, he clutched it in a shaking fist. 

Outside, the doshin’s keys jingled in his kimono. Outside, the doshin lit the paper lanterns that adorned the cell exteriors.

When he got to the accused’s cell, the doshin paused, a jutte gleaming in his hand. He considered the man accused of depriving the shogun’s brother of his prize. He saw before him the wretch holding a tatter of paper in a clenched fist, but what he could not yet see was the writing on the paper. 

What’s in your hand? he demanded. Where did you get that? The wretch opened his mouth as though to answer, but no sound came out.

If the doshin could read lips, he would have made out a name: 

Atsuko.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Sam Tjahjono recently graduated from the University of North Texas. While there, he cast a wide net of interests, which ranged from his study of writing and rhetoric, to his midnight wrestling matches with stories and stanzas much tougher than him. UNT’s literary journal, the North Texas Review, published two of his poems, and he went on to be the poetry editor for the journal’s Spring 2016 edition. Currently, he lives in Denton, Texas, with his fiancée, infant daughter, and a three-legged cat named Pollux. He would love nothing more than to one day meet the ghost of Roland Barthes.

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The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny

By Tom Sheehan

As all accidents are about to happen, or strange encounters take place, fate stands at the edge of the road waiting to announce itself, an unseen signpost, an unseen hitchhiker. Such was the plan when Banford J. Hibbs pushed his wheelchair out of the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Both his legs had been left on the rampant sands of a Pacific island half a century earlier. He did not see the boy with the white cane until he had almost knocked him down.

“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t see you,” Banford Hibbs said. In a gray shirt his arms bulged from wrist to shoulder, exhibiting long sieges at arduous labor. His eyes were clear, he was clean-shaven, an odd bump accented an otherwise long straight nose, and his hair was military-trim. The boy, not in any great contrast, was clean-faced, dark-haired, but wore dark glasses, as if hiding within himself.

“I didn’t see you either, mister,” the boy said, and the grin leaped across his face. “My name’s Dim Johnny. It’s not really that bad a name. Kids got used to it. Tells a story.” Bright teeth filled a mouth formed with full lips, and one would gather he spent little time frowning. The remnants of the smile lingered at the corners of his lips, the way smiles like to hang around pleasant people.

“Well, Dim Johnny, from my days in a rehab hospital, after losing my legs, all the guys started calling me Trot. It’s been Trot ever since. Trot locked up in a wheelchair. Trot do this and Trot do that, Trot never swung a baseball bat.”

The boy giggled. “That’s kind of like my name. Getting us to laugh a little bit at ourselves so we don’t spend the day sulking in a corner, like my grandfather used to say. He read a lot to me. I still hear him.”

“Do you like parades?” Trot looked up and down the street, through breaks in the small crowd gathered along the curbing.

“I don’t see too much in parades, but I like to listen, to everything.” He slanted his head as if it were an exclamation mark.

For the first time in all his parades, Trot heard the crowd and all its props: cap guns, whistles, whirling plastic bird’s wings, yells and exuberance of all kind and manner. He’d always seen a parade but had never heard a parade, not really heard it. That his ears were opened made his eyes open. “Someday you’ll be in a parade, Dim Johnny. I’d bet on that.”

Just the way fate hung at the edge of the roadway like the announced hitchhiker, so did prophecy, and the tingle was alive in Trot Hibbs’ phantom toes. Both feet, he said to himself.

“Hey, Trot,” hailed a voice from the crowd. “Just in time for the parade. They remember us today, you know, but the ranks’re getting thinner. There’s only us sergeants and chiefs of boats left now.”

Trot recognized the voice even before he saw the face, old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright. “Hey, Snorkel, what brings you up from down under? They let all the water out of the tub?”

The boy’s laughter burst out of him again, tapping his cane on the ground, making more exclamation marks. “I know him,” he said. “He’s the guy at the gas station. Sometimes we stop there for gas.” The tip of his white cane came to rest against one of the Trot’s wheels. Trot guessed him to be about eleven or twelve years old. He had already decided that the dark glasses were not going to hide much about Dim Johnny.

“I used to see,” the boy said. “I remember what my mother looks like. She says I’m her savior ‘cause I keep her looks frozen in time. She’ll never get any older. Makes me feel good.” His head moved off at an angle as if posing, but Trot guessed he was keying in on some feature of his mother. “She has the biggest, softest, kindest eyes you can imagine. Like Oreos. That’s really what I see. But it’s a secret I’ll share with you. One I can’t tell her, that I can’t remember all of her face. I’m happy it’s the eyes. Big, soft, brown. She never has to know, does she?” There was affirmation heard if affirmation was ever said.

“Not on my account. What happened?” Trot said, staying in place with something remarkable happening to him, finding it difficult to do so. Unknown pleasant tremors were at deep core work.

“Nobody really knows. It started getting darker each day, a bit at a time. They took me to half a dozen doctors, but they couldn’t find out anything. Then one day,” he shrugged his shoulders, “it was all gone. At first it was dim, then dimmer, then nothing. Some kids began to call me Dim Johnny, like the game your pals pulled on you. But you guys were all hurt, weren’t you? You were a sergeant, huh? Gramp said he could run a war with sergeants. What about the generals?”

“You only need one of them, Johnny. The rest become errand boys. Gramp’s right. So are you. We were a hurting army, the bunch of us, but we were winners. Tell me, is your hearing now excellent or special? I’ve heard stories from some guys.” Trot had seen how Johnny’s head would turn according to introductions of a sound, a noise, a bit of music from a distant radio, a single trumpet warming up for the parade. He wondered about handling disparate sounds, unidentified sounds; how would they be classed or sorted, or even referenced.

“I can hear music in anything. I can tell a note of the scale from a hundred yards away. Lots of songs I know by just hearing a couple of notes together. Oh, they have to be kind of special. I have to get some help. I’m only a kid, you know.” He laughed all over again and it made Trot feel warmer inside, the core touched again.              There came a sudden balance in all of it, thought Trot, as Dim Johnny, too much of the spotlight on himself, said, “What do you do Trot?”  Enough of me it seemed to say, and said honestly with a righteous reserve. Manners it also said.

Trot Hibbs flicked a thumbnail against a spoke in a wheel.

“That’s an A Flat,” Dim Johnny said, adding, “if that’s a test note.” He laughed aloud and tapped his cane again on the cement walkway. It was just the way Trot used to do with a cue stick playing pool in the Old Rathole before the war. It was akin to applause or ovation. Johnny continued, “I wish I could make money with it. I’d really like to help my mother and father. He gets odd jobs now and then and he’s not really in the best shape. I guess worrying can do that to you. Gramp used to say that, too.”

“Well, I make things out of iron. I try to bring out objects I see in old metal pieces. Some people call it art. Some call it junk. But I love doing it. It’s special salvage.”

“Boy, I’d like to see some of it. Could we do that? I mean, I’d like to touch some of them, see what you’re saying to me, if you know what I mean. My hands can remember my grandfather’s face, how he used to read to me. He had big ears, a heavy chin, sometimes when he talked his jaw cracked. My dad doesn’t have time to read like that. He’s always worrying about something happening that never happens. Never once.”

“Sure, if you get the okay from your folks. I live there in that alley. All my stuff is there. You go in along the fence and a wall only two feet off the fence. The wall says my stuff is going to be all over the place. You have to be careful and stay against the edge of the building, against that wall. It’s an old garage I live in. Fixed up pretty good. Yell out my name.”

“Sure,” Dim Johnny said, “I’ll yell out, ‘Hey, Trot, what you got?’”

Banford J. Trot Hibbs, for the second or third time was warmed right down to his missing toes.

Sleep eventually came to Trot Hibbs that night, after the Memorial Day parade, after saying goodbye to the boy, after a long siege on Kwajalein sand was relived again. In that sense of silence, he thought about the boy’s good spirits.

Barely out of bed and dressed, near-burnt toast aroma climbing the air, coffee scent its companion, the sun a huge promise coming with a quick slant onto the kitchen table, he heard the yell. “Hey, Trot! What you got?”

Out the window he saw the boy, in a blue jacket, a bag in one hand, the white cane in the other. “Hey, Johnny,” Trot yelled. “Keep coming along the wall, open the first door you come to.”

The boy stood in Trot’s foyer, kitchen, workshop, home. “You burned the toast,” he said. “Your coffee’s like my father’s. Calls it camp coffee from when he went fishing with the guys. He doesn’t fish much any more. You got iron in here? You won’t believe me, but I can smell feathers. D’you just wake up?”

Pronouncements and observations of all kind were not very far from Dim Johnny, Trot had already decided. He swore his toes tingled again. “Come straight ahead. There’s a chair you can sit in. What’s in the bag?”

“My Mom said I had to bring a lunch. She talked to some people about you, swore you ain’t going to hurt me or anything crazy. She knows your cousin Sydney from the phone company. What you got, Trot?”

“You sit there, Johnny, and I’ll put some things in front of you.” Iron and steel sounds clinked in the air. A small measurable thud sounded on the table in front of Dim Johnny. “Tell me what you figure this piece to be, Johnny.”

“Ah, Trot, you don’t have to be careful with me. Everybody calls me Dim Johnny. Don’t worry about it, and I won’t call you Banford.” The giggle was authentic, and the toes tingled for sure.

“Just reach out and tell me,” Trot advised the boy. “A few sharp edges, but not knife-sharp. Just be careful. It’s iron and weighs about nine pounds.” At an aside he said, “About the weight of a Garand.”

“I know about Garands.” He pronounced the name of the weapon correctly. “My grandfather knew what they were. Told me about his.” Then Dim Johnny fondled the piece of iron sculpture. His fingers, like reaching for piano keys in an early lesson, touched the perimeters of the piece. A dozen times his hands, petting, coaxing, almost adjusting to shape, moved across the nine pounds of iron. At one point he snapped a finger against an elevated piece and the note ran around the room. He nodded his head and leaned back in the chair.

“That’s a bird in flight, a hawk with fingertip wings, a hunter. I’d call him Black Hunter. I can feel his head down, looking at the ground, eyes searching. Yeh, Black Hunter.”

Trot Hibbs’ toes were alive, his head swam, his heart leaped. All across the prairie or a mile-wide meadow he could see jackrabbits scattering, could see the shadow of wings patrolling against the sun, wings from another part of day, where daylight emptied itself into. “I couldn’t have named him better. From now on, that’s what he is, Black Hunter. Try this one.” He positioned another smaller piece of work in front of the boy.

Dim Johnny went at this one from the base upward, caressing a column, finding the core of something on top of the column, stroking the mass lightly. Behind dark glasses Trot thought he could see the boy squint his eyes. “This could be a lot of things, but I think it’s a bear in the middle of winter. Maybe a polar bear, but I don’t figure it’s white.” He tapped his fingers on the column. A new sound ran around the room.

Trot Hibbs suddenly realized he had never paid attention to sounds of his own material. Johnny tapped it again; it was musical. There was no way in his mind this was intended to be a bear, but the thought persisted. Maybe that’s why it was not so quickly received by people. He’d keep the polar bear in mind, but would not tell the boy. What was really happening to him was the recognition of a new level of achievement, of selection, of newness itself. And what was it with the happy toes, the phantom toes he had heard so much about over the years. Was all this boy work?

A third mass of metal thudded on the table. “That’s bigger than a Garand,” Johnny said. Again his fingers found the form, froze for a moment, moved on, all parts touched, caressed, known. Trot kept the minute titillation to himself. “I don’t know what it is, that’s for sure, but I’d call it Tomorrow. It promises so much.” He chuckled. “It’s kind of like a poem my grandfather told me once. I didn’t make it up. It’s been there.” But from its mass he brought out the sound of music by rubbing an edge. Trot thought it to be an organ at the low end of the scale.

Tomorrow is what we’ll call it from this day on.” Over his shoulder he looked at a pile of iron of sundry shapes, conditions. In his hands he felt each piece. The many times he had fondled them were countless, but the heft continued to be known in his hands. The iron fire engine, but a few inches long he had found as a boy, came back like an exposed negative. It was in the pile in the corner. If there was anything he wanted the boy to know, it was the iron fire engine, thick with rust undisturbed for years. It was like a found poem with him.

He rolled across the room, extracted a few pieces, and brought them to the table. “These are scrap pieces from my pile. What can we do with them? Do you have any ideas?” He pushed the pieces across the table to the boy. His head tilted, his ears cocked, the boy was hearing the metal in a near-silent state, the mere breath of the pieces sliding across the table.

Dim Johnny, mouth slightly open, tongue touching his top lip as if he were tasting sound, touched two pieces together. Trot had never heard that sound before, the tone, the notes coming as the boy touched them along the length of each piece, ringing them, tolling them. Musical notes were coming out of old iron he had banged together a hundred times without regard for sound. Two other pieces came into the boy’s hands. They too made a music Trot Hibbs had not heard before.

“What do we do with this stuff? You’re finding something I didn’t even know was there. But what can we do with it?”

“Well,” Johnny said, “some of the notes are softened by my hands. If you could make a small hole in each end or at the top of each piece, we could hang them by wire loops. Hands just dull the sound, make it too sloppy. I heard my mother talking about some kind of chimes she heard once. We could make chimes. If the sound is good, and I can tell if the sound is good, we can make some chimes. If you shake them against each other and we know what the sound is going to be, we can make music. We could hang them in people’s trees and let the wind play them.”

The partnership of Banford J. Trot Hibbs and Dim Johnny Hardcastle was formed. Trot worked the pieces, bending, cutting, welding, joining, thinning the note of one or another by whatever craft he could bring to bear on it. Oh, he polished them, too, and made them catch the sunlight as well as the ear, pretty pieces, rugged pieces, marvelous pieces. And day upon day he felt the tingle crawling about in his toes and the sands of Kwajalein falling further away from him more with each passing day. The half century that had hung on so long was letting go.

With his incredulous ear, Dim Johnny found the right notes in odd lots, or matched pieces so notes came out of their touching, notes of rare beauty and rare orchestration. Came out of them sounds spilling over Chautenauga Valley and across the river, so that children at school were often pulled from games hearkening to them.

The partnership sold hundreds of pieces to hundreds of people with the passing of five more Memorial Day parades until the morning Dim Johnny found Trot Hibbs still in his wheelchair from the night before.

A few days later the flag was hung part way up the pole at the center of town. Old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright closed his station for the day when there was another minor and extra parade in town, and Dim Johnny rode down the street in Snorkel’s car with Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star hanging from the rear view mirror for all to see.

Johnny swore he could see the gold from the Silver Star, just as he was sure Trot Hibbs’ toes were still feeling their way through a new kind of grass. In his hands he clutched a rusted iron fire engine, about a half-pound of ferric beauty that had become his personal rubbing stone.

Some fifteen years later, from the same garage, Dim Johnny Hardcastle is still selling The Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star Mobiles, famous makers of music.

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Tom Sheehan has published 24 books, has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield ReviewLa Joie Magazine, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Swan River Daisy, a chapbook, was just released by KY Stories. His Amazon Author’s Page, Tom Sheehan — is on the Amazon site.

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