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Something to Talk About Or The How’s of Fame

By Susan Heldt Davis 

Geoffrey Chaucer crossed the gravel courtyard of the Savoy palace slowly, head bent down in contemplation. Katherine, his sister-in-law, had called for him, and he knew what that meant. As John of Gaunt’s long time mistress, she took care of the duke’s social schedule when he was in London. And that was not good news, not this season. John of Gaunt had recently returned from France without a victory and a skeleton army, so many having died or deserted. Now Chaucer would be brought in to lift the duke’s spirits though he himself had not the spirit to do so.

Chaucer envied the duke, for though he would face opprobrium for his conduct of the war, at least he would be noticed. Obscurity was what really stung. And that was Chaucer’s lot. As the son of a merchant, he ought not expect more, but his hackles rose at the signs of his own insignificance. His recent appointment to the controllership at the Customs House had sealed his fate as one of the great unknown. The job had been touted as a coup, a fine position for a public servant. And, yes, the customs house gave him the responsibility to direct a number of workers. At what cost, though? Until this ‘coup’ he’d served the king. He’d lived among the mighty, walked the halls of power. His opinion mattered. His negotiating skills were so valued he’d traveled on the king’s business nearly every season. Now he dealt with ship captains and hawkers, his only contact with the royals coming through his poems. Unless you were Virgil or Dante, you didn’t make a name making rhymes.

Katherine met Geoffrey in her large, well appointed office. “How now, Geoffrey? Goes all well with you?” Before he could answer, Katherine plowed on, “We’ll host a soiree Thursday next, and the duke wants to hear you read.”

“By my soul, Katherine, next week is most difficult. Must the duke hear me?”

“Yes, Geoffrey. In this bleak season he doesn’t want to suffer through laments or sermons, and he surely doesn’t want to hear French. So give us something light, lovely and English.”

Perhaps there were arguments that would have persuaded Chaucer, but touting his choice of language was not one of them, so he demurred, “English is not a problem, Katherine, but poetry is not that easy. I have nothing finished.”

“Yet you do have something started, no?” Katherine said, flashing her most winning smile.

“A start is only good if it has an end.”

“Then give it one, Geoffrey. The duke needs some lightness in his life.”

“I’d love to accommodate you, Katherine, but I don’t want to stand before a hundred guests and read drivel.”

“Come, come, Geoffrey. You never read drivel. Remember that poem you read last winter about the birds. Afterward people spent the rest of the evening figuring out who each bird represented. That was what John appreciated most—all poets rhyme, but you get people talking.”

“Get people talking. Really? Is that the entirety of my virtue as a poet?”

“In that poem it was. For a month, your birds were the primary topic of conversation all over London.”

“For a whole month! Zounds, that is a long time for one small poem to last in the minds of the busy and powerful. I didn’t know,” Geoffrey lamented sardonically.

“And now it’s time to do it again,” replied the matter-of-fact and occasionally obtuse Katherine. “So concoct something to make us laugh and stir up conversation.”

“I have no spoon to stir the pot, Katherine. You know I rarely get out.”

“I know nothing of the sort, brother. I see you at all the great houses reading your poems. You must have gleaned something—give us hints about some secret love or nasty dealings in court. Nothing too serious, though. Just make us laugh.”

Chaucer’s new work, The House of Fame, would surely make people laugh; that was no problem. But the other? For all his evenings among the glittering nobility, he had no new gossip to startle an audience. And how would he know about any recent nasty dealings at court, stuck as he was at the docks? Certes, he couldn’t repeat the lies he heard there. Because they knew nothing, the sailors told the most outrageous tales as gospel truth. It seemed they never tired of fabricating some new scandal out of thin air. But Chaucer couldn’t do that, not and hope to ever read again before the nobles. They would expect the truth, no guessing or surmising. No…Then, as if a veil were lifted, he knew. Of course, Chaucer thought. That’s how to make people talk.

Joyfully, for he’d been truly stymied about how to end his “House of Fame,” Chaucer said, “By the rood, Katherine, you’ve given me the key. I will read, gladly.”

Katherine heartily thanked him, but Chaucer barely noticed, his mind already racing to the details of the poem he now could finish.

On the evening of the soiree, Katherine greeted the guests as they entered the Savoy’s incongruously named petit salon, a room large enough to hold well over a hundred guests. As it was August, the guests were fewer than they would be three or four weeks hence when the fall season would start in earnest, but still they were a glittering crowd in their silks and satins. Even Chaucer, who normally wore a plain dark robe and modest shoes, shone in an extravagant blue velvet cape embroidered in silver and edged in lush white ermine. If he thought this garb would make him fit in with the nobles, he was mistaken. People looked at the little man wearing the out of season, flamboyant, Italian cape and stifled their laughter. But Chaucer seemed not to notice as he made his way toward the duke. After a greeting and a quiet word, the two, one tall and elegant, the other short, pudgy and overdressed, repaired to a small anteroom.

Servants threaded through the crowd offering drinks and tidbits to eat until bells chimed as a signal that the entertainment would soon start. Once the benches were set out, guests took their seats and all attention focused on the short poet standing behind the large dais at the head of the salon. Chaucer, his face glistening with sweat, announced that since his poem, The House of Fame, was rather long, he’d read the first half before dinner and the second half after.

Chaucer began by describing a dreamer named Geffry who went to a temple where wall paintings told a well-worn story. The audience sat politely but, since this sounded like so many poems they’d heard before, their attention centered more on the jewels bedecking nearby necks, on the curve of the boot-toes that were attached to small gold knee-chains, and on Geoffrey’s ermine cape than on the poet’s words. Only for a minute, though. Chaucer, looking out over the placid faces, smiled secretively and then launched into a description of the dreamer Geffrey stepping outside the temple where he saw a giant eagle swooping down at him. As Chaucer described this, his eyes rose toward the ceiling and the bird; he thrust his hands upward as if to stop the eagle as it flew down at him. In a quavering voice, he read,

And with its grim paws strong

And with its sharp nails long,

Me, flying in a swoop, it seized

He stopped there and bent over, his arms stretched out before him as if the eagle had grabbed onto his back. Gasping and covering his eyes, Chaucer cried out that they had flown so high he was afraid to look down.

Suddenly his voice changed, and in a Flemish accent he had the eagle bellow, “Awake! And be not so aghast! For shame!”

Katherine, who recognized the imitation of her sister’s nagging voice, guffawed, and soon everyone was laughing as Chaucer switched between the meek dreamer’s voice and that of the fierce Flemish eagle.

The eagle then scolded, “What’s in your head’s full light!” and Chaucer stamped his foot and shook his fist up at the imagined bird, to which the eagle’s voice, now dripping with sarcasm, said,

Every night you just go home

And sit alone, dumb as any stone.

The audience roared, some because they thought it was true, others because they knew it wasn’t. The eagle continued, “And abstinence is not your way,” at which Chaucer patted his round belly. Again the room again erupted into so much laughter he had to stop reading.

The eagle was taking Geffry dreamer to visit the Goddess Fame to hear tales of love, true ones, not those from the books of lore Geffry read. But first there would be the dinner break. Chaucer put down his sheaf of parchments and bowed. The room burst out in applause, many calling for the second part to be read right away, but decorum triumphed, and dinner was served.

While he tried to eat, one person after another asked Chaucer if he would reveal actual tales of love—clearly hoping (or fearing) some good gossip would be revealed. Chaucer, giving nothing away, just put a finger over his mouth. Most accepted his silence with good humor, but one fellow in a scarlet cloak, a color only men of noble birth were permitted to wear, looked exasperated and, eying Chaucer’s cape, asked pointedly, “What kind of fur is that trimming your cloak?”

“Muskrat I think,” Chaucer said tentatively.

“No muskrat I know ever looked like that—I’m certain it’s ermine.”

Chaucer smiled but said nothing.

“Not wise, Mr. Chaucer,” the man warned. “The law is clear. You aren’t a knight or a noble, so you must not go about in silver and ermine.”

“Ah, the Sumptuary Law, the great unequalizer,” Chaucer replied with a hint of disrespect, perhaps because law was so rarely enforced. “I certainly don’t want to be arrested for wearing fur beyond my station.”

Sneering, the scarlet cloak walked off.

When the guests reassembled, Chaucer read a long description of the goddess Fame and her court for supplicants. In a high, nasal voice, Chaucer had Fame dole out renown, ignominy and obscurity helter-skelter, rewarding some as they deserved but most merely as she pleased. Again and again the audience laughed at her random choices, and at the frustration and elation Chaucer demonstrated as noble men were denied their deserts and charlatans and louts were given all they asked for. After a while, though, the audience’s laughter and engagement began to wane as the joke grew old.

But they perked up almost immediately, for the dreamer left Fame’s luxurious palace and went to the ramshackle House of Rumor next door, where a mob of gossips was passing secrets on from one to another. After a couple of jokes about all this tale-telling, Chaucer paused and in a quiet, cryptic voice described a corner of the House of Rumor that held news of secret loves. Someone, according to Geffry dreamer, was about to enter from that very place, so the mob of gossips deserted him for the corner and were jumping up on each other to get in place so they could hear the newest scandal. As he read, Chaucer jumped up and craned his own neck to look toward the door at back of the salon, causing more than one in the audience to follow his gaze. Seeing no one, they turned back to Chaucer, whose voice rang of suspense as he read,

At last I saw a man

Who that I cannot name

But he seemed for all to be

A man of great Authority….

Again Chaucer paused. The audience as one held its breath waiting for Chaucer to name this important man or, at least, have the man announce the names of the secret lovers.

Suddenly two real men, one dressed in a judge’s robe and the other in helmet and armor, stormed into the salon shouting “Halt in the name of the law!” They rushed to the dais and grabbed Chaucer by the arms. Chaucer struggled, but to no avail, and managed only to grab the last page of his manuscript before the men pulled him off the dais and toward the door. Half way down the aisle, the armored man announced, “As you wear ermine, velvet and silver, you are in violation of the King’s Sumptuary Law. I arrest you in the name of the law!”  The men strode out dragging their prisoner, and Chaucer was gone.

Many in the audience thought John of Gaunt must have been stunned into inaction to allow these interlopers to arrest his guest of honor; though by his smile, it may be he called for the sumptuary constable himself. Some thought to ask him—particularly one wearing a scarlet cape—but the duke quietly left the room, his smile broader than ever. Then neighbor turned to neighbor to wonder whether little Chaucer was in big trouble, some believing he deserved the full force of the law and some defending him. Soon, though, the talk drifted to the scene Chaucer had not finished. Who was the man of great authority? And more to the point, what scandal did he have to reveal? Chaucer couldn’t have planned to name the duke and his lady Katherine, for not only would doing so be impolitic here at the Savoy, but the affair was such old news people would have laughed Chaucer off the dais. So who? A few, whose faces had relaxed only after Chaucer was long gone, knew personally of a tale of love he might have revealed, but they kept quiet and let the others guess as best they might.

Inside a nearby tavern, Chaucer folded his sumptuous cape carefully and put it in a bag. Then, looking at his two companions—a man dressed in armor and another in a judge’s cape—he lifted his glass to make a toast, “Thank you, my friends. You have surely given the good people at the Savoy something to talk about. Even if they don’t care what happened to me tonight, they will, I trust, ponder who the man of authority is and, more particularly, whom he’s going to name. If people are still asking those questions in a month, I will have given the duke all he asked for. If they are asking them in year, then Fame, willful as she is, shall be mine.”

Chaucer, in his humility, never considered suggesting that people might still be asking those very same questions over six hundred years later.

______________________________________________________________

Susan Heldt Davis graduated from Cornell University (BA) and NYU (MA). For ten years she wrote and produced children’s plays for Chatterbox Players of Westchester, NY. Her poetry has appeared in Earth’s DaughtersSpank the Carp and (upcoming) Iconoclast and her fiction, which won third prize in the Soul-Making Literary Competition 2005, in Verbsap. She is currently working on a novel Geoffrey the Short, a fictional biography of Geoffrey Chaucer.

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The Healing

By Samantha Lisk

“Heil Hitler!”

Swallowing the bile that always rose when he was forced to use the greeting, the doctor pasted on a smile as he pushed aside the tent flap separating the field hospital from the rest of the encampment and entered the small space currently serving as his exam room. His knee-high black boots, long having lost their shine, squelched in the mud—only mud, he told himself firmly, there was no reddish tint to the dark brown of churned-up soil and grass, or if there was, it was only clay—and in the back of his mind he noted the extra effort it took to pick up his feet again. “Good day. How can I help you?”

The pale pilot’s smile was wan. “I’m the one who needs healing today, not the Führer. I’ve been ill for several days.”

The doctor rummaged in his pockets, eventually pulling a small, bent notepad and a pencil stub out of his pocket. “What symptoms have you experienced?”

As the pilot began to list them, the doctor took notes, nodding and making encouraging noises whenever the soldier drew breath. Having made a mental diagnosis of the flu upon hearing the first few symptoms, the doctor’s mind began to wander as the pilot droned on. He needed to ensure that his clerk had typed his notes from his meetings with this week’s patients; the man really was becoming inexcusably lax. Perhaps if he dropped a hint about searching for another clerk it might startle him into minding his work.

Then there was the matter of the children—

“Doctor?”

He looked up. The pilot was looking at him inquiringly. “Hmm? I’m sorry, I was thinking over your symptoms. What did you say?”

“I asked what you thought the problem was. As you can see,” the pilot indicated his uniform, “I am a member of the Luftwaffe, so I don’t have much time to be sick. My Geschwader will be flying to London soon.”

The doctor’s eyes lingered for a moment on the medal hanging at the pilot’s neck. It was the Iron Cross, the body black and rimmed with silver, hanging from a ribbon with two thin stripes of black and white bordering a much thicker red stripe, bright as a bloodstain.

A tiny swastika was set in the center.

“Yes,” he murmured, then louder, as if waking up from a dream, “Yes, of course. Based on the symptoms you described, I believe that you have nothing more than a lingering case of influenza. To treat it, you must…”

He trailed off. He seemed to see the Cross again, as if the image had been burned into his retinas, an afterimage seared into his brain. But there were words written on this Cross, words written in bright white, so bright that they burned away the swastika. There were two words, only two, a simple Latin phrase he had learned long ago in his childhood.

Nil nocere.

Do no harm.

He heard a fellow doctor outside the tent greet someone with the usual required salute to the Führer. Distant explosions signaled the beginning of another battle.

Heil Hitler.

“Excuse me a moment,” he muttered in the direction of the pilot. “I must look something up.”

Boots squelching, he hurried out of the tent. He strode along, unsure of his destination, unheeding of the salutes he received from the soldiers he passed. His mind whirled, his eyes seeing nothing but the Cross and his ears ringing with the incessant saluting phrase; he felt almost feverish. He could not possibly do this.

To make a mistake in treating a patient was one thing.

But to knowingly mislead a patient—to intentionally prescribe the wrong treatment?

This was criminal.

This was wrong.

He could not—

He stopped short. Another image was before him now. A woman walked out of his memory, holding a little girl’s hand as she ambled past. They were smiling and the little girl’s laughter seemed to ring in his ears as they walked down the hallway of the clinic he had run. (Was it three years ago now or four?) And this image was suddenly replaced by another, an image of the little girl transported to London, cowering as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs over her head, the woman who had held her hand nowhere to be seen. And beside her was the other young girl he had had to—

The doctor stopped walking. He slumped against the uneven remains of a wall, head bowed, breathing heavily. He stayed that way for some moments; then slowly, as if weighed down by a heavy burden, he straightened again, turned, and made his way back to his patient’s tent. Glancing down, he wondered how long he had been gone; the ground was now dry and the mud caked on his boots dropped off in dried reddish-brown flakes as he walked. He pushed the flap aside and walked in, greeting the waiting pilot.

“Heil Hitler.”

______________________________________________________________

Samantha Lisk lives in Cary, North Carolina, with one goofy black lab mix and an abundance of pollen. She has been published in The Lyricist and This Is London Magazine, and she enjoys reading, writing, and talking about historical fiction. She can usually be found on Twitter at @Smlisk, in various secondhand bookshops in the Raleigh area, or on the greenway near her house.

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Jax NTP

My Dearest Garcia Lorca,

the starchy quietness of my room is louder than the anatomy
of swans reflecting elephants. since i came back from Paris
the land outside my window is a parched mermaid contortionist.
if not for the hymns of my shyness, the fulcrum of our swords
would cross. pain is the architecture of loneliness, soft and hard
boiled eggs, and the small conversations i have with myself.
what constitutes denial is gathered up in cloves of phantom
ships
. if not for the stories of my shyness, Gala would have never
been my wife. when i look at my basket of bread, i see the vacillating
face of war
 — when i masturbate to Mae West’s lips, i long to call
you from a poached lobster telephoneif not for the persistence
of my memory
, i could not paint the hidden corals and conches
for you. ants and ants, but even my subconscious is not patient
enough for your poetry. my brittle heart is a bobbing turtle’s head,
the tip of my tongue, chalk, whitened from silence. what is regret
but desire for chance — diaphanous dragonflies and monochromatic
confessions. the olive wind whispers your name in sierra, and i hate
that it haunts me. there is no truth in longing, only urgency. tonight,
the Catalan lights shine on binary breasts of roses, and still, i live in
the drawers from the burning giraffe and penumbra of your absence.

always,
Salvador DalÍ

______________________________________________________________

Jax NTP holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from CSU Long Beach and teaches Critical Thinking & Composition at Golden West College, in Huntington Beach, CA. Jax reads poetry and fiction for The Offing Magazine and edits poetry for Indicia Lit. Jax’s words have appeared in Cordite Poetry ReviewApogee Journal, and 3:AM Magazine.

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Rimbaud in Aden

By J.C. Bostrom

Perhaps he entertains himself by watching the ink run through the rivulets of his fingerprints on his writing hand. Pink fleshy lines rise above the black ink, like reeds through streams, or, maybe it is the ink that seeps beneath, and into his skin; something akin to puddles sinking into dry earth until it dries out again, leaving caked cracks to face the sun. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t do this at all. Perhaps he presses his fingers down onto a piece of paper. Lifts his fingers slowly, sticky paper following after them, tacky tar-like noises as the membrane of ink separates, and compares the lines on the page to the ones imbedded into his flesh. Perhaps he notices a crease on the tip of his middle finger he had previously been unaware of, a crease that cuts across the swirls in a straight line and he wonders when that happened. Maybe there is no crease and just a missing splash of ink.

Perhaps he rocks back in his chair, finding the exact balance between pitching forward and falling backward. Perhaps there is a weak leg that will tip the scales sending the chair out from under him. Or maybe there is a worn groove in the floor that weak leg might slide into. Or maybe his own strength and forced overcompensation will decide whether he lands exhilaratingly on his back with rigid pegs digging into his muscles or disappointedly on his feet in which case he will have to tip his chair back again. Or maybe he doesn’t.

He might drop splotches of ink onto a piece of paper instead of his hand. He might watch as something that, when handled with practiced fingers, crafts winding swirls and sharp corners that in some way, shape, or form tell stories but when merely dropped onto a page create bubble-topped voids with spider-vein edges. He might watch as it flows and catches through the fibers, not unlike the ink that may or may not be on his fingertips, but he also might not do that. Perhaps he does none of these things.

There is very little to do. Very little to look at. And even less to contemplate; it’s how paper and skin simultaneously, and with fervid stupefaction, become intriguing and perhaps, he decides, really, what he desperately needs is a drink and not a window with a view. Except he cannot afford a drink, not on a paltry few francs.

So perhaps, instead, he contemplates all of these things and perhaps he does none of them and instead chooses to write to his friends about the nothingness and coffee beans.

Aden

 

August 25, 1880

Dear friends,

I fancy I recently posted a letter to you, telling how I unfortunately had to leave Cyrus and how I arrived here after having travelled down the Red Sea.

Here, I am working in the office of a coffee importer. The company agent is a retired general. Business is good, and is going to get better. I don’t earn much, it comes to about six francs a day, but if I stay here, and I have to stay, it is so far from everywhere that I will have to stay a couple of months just to make few hundred francs so I can leave if I have to well, if I stay, I think they will give me a responsible job, maybe an office in another city, and that way I would be able to make something a little quicker.

Aden is a horrible rock, without a single blade of grass or a drop of free water: we drink distilled sea water. The heat is extreme, especially in June and September, which are the dog days here. The constant temperature, night and day, in a very cool and well-ventilated office, is 35 degrees. Everything is very expensive, and so forth. But there is nothing I can do: I am like a prisoner here, and I will certainly have to stay least three months before getting on my own two feet again, or getting better job. How are things at home? Is the harvest finished. Tell me what is new.

Arthur Rimbaud

 

He might get up from his desk to wash the ink from his hands. The white cloth that rests next to the pitcher and basin might be tinted with black smudges far less opaque than the splotches he did not drip on the sheets of precious paper and, for whatever reason, perhaps it is their dilute color or the way in which the smudges look like poor mimics of his fingerprints, but he hates their inexactitude, and instead experiences the water as it dries in the palms of his hands.

He rotates his wrist and watches as the small pool of water slinks, thinner but not unlike ink, around the basin of his palm. He places his hand into the sliver of light coming in through his room window. The small pool of water heats in his hand and is lukewarm when he presses both palms together, one hand cooler than the other.

 

He thinks, perhaps, he might take a stroll to the beach. Clear his head. The beach is not too far and it might do him good to remove the coffee bean scent that seems stamped to his nostrils. Then again, he might not. But there is time left in the day to decide so he tips back in his reclaimed seat and hopes the leg is not weak.

______________________________________________________________

J.C. Bostrom is currently a BA Fiction Major at Columbia College Chicago, Production Editor for CCC’s award winning anthology, Hair Trigger, and launching Editor-in-Chief of the online publication, Hair Trigger 2.0. Her fiction is forthcoming in Habitat Magazine, and can be found on her website jcbostrom.com.

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Newfangled

By Ann S. Epstein

1. Ice Cream

Jonah and Constance sat outside Monsieur Philip Lenzi’s Confectionary. A sign in the window advertised “fine French, English, Italian and German biskets, preserved fruits, white and brown sugar candy and sugar ornaments.” Constance had said a bowl of a specialty called ice cream was just the ticket to cool off on a hot summer day. Jonah would have preferred a cold tankard of ale.

He licked the sweet concoction off the long-handled spoon. Like a cold bee sting, he thought. “I don’t care for it,” he grimaced. Abruptly, he stopped, lest his wind-reddened face appear unattractive. It had been a fortnight since they’d last courted. With the war over, King George had resumed shipping tea and New York was sending wheat and flax back to England. Jonah, unable to get off work at the docks, had precious little time to win over the fair Constance before her father, the wealthy merchant who employed him, betrothed her to a Loyalist.

“It’s cold.” Jonah felt obliged to explain his distaste.

“Of course it’s cold.” Constance tossed her golden sausage curls and tipped up the brim of her bonnet to lean over the bowl midway between them. She guided a scoop to her mouth. “That’s why it’s called iced cream, silly goose.” Her cheeks were as smooth as the treat she’d cajoled Jonah into buying, and her hands, released from their gloves, were unmarked by labor. She flicked her tongue and cooed, “Savor the sweetness.”

Jonah tried another bite but the smell of dung from the muddy street was overpowering. Even the aroma of boiling jams and jellies from Lenzi’s shop didn’t blot out the stench. With his cap, he swatted the flies swarming away from the horses and toward the silver bowl. “I can’t taste anything,” he persisted. “My tongue is numb. The chill gives me a headache.”

“Let the ice cream sit in your mouth before you swallow it,” Constance coaxed. “Give it time to warm up until sugar bathes the inside of your cheeks.” She sighed with pleasure.

“If I leave it in my mouth, my tongue will merely get colder.” Jonah saw the telltale look of annoyance on his beloved’s face, a dimple deepened to a pockmark-sized crater on her left cheek, and changed his tone to sound more conciliatory.“How long shall I leave it in then?”

“Why are you so impatient?” Constance stabbed her spoon into the ice cream and pouted.

“I’m not impatient.” Jonah smiled to show off his teeth. They were his nicest feature. He eschewed tobacco, unlike his fellow dock men, and drank nothing stronger than a draft. “You’re the one who’s impatient, easily bored, hankering after every newfangled thing. Like ice cream.”

Constance was affronted. Jonah hastened to amend himself, claiming it was her most endearing trait, and was relieved when she bestowed a smile upon him. “But,” she wagged her finger, “I forbid you to assert that I am fickle. When I find something I like, I stay with it.”

“Will you stay with me?” he asked. Jonah was beset with worry. On the one hand he could not be sure Constance would defy her father to marry him. He remembered when they met. She was visiting the docks the day he wore a red bandana to attract her father’s attention to his industriousness, hoping to work his way up to the position of crew boss. Constance had smiled at him and moved along until, catching her father’s disapproving eye, she’d turned back to Jonah and engaged him in conversation about the cargo. Recalling that scene, Jonah sometimes worried that she liked him because she enjoyed irritating her father, rather for his own good qualities. If they were to marry, and her father accepted and promoted him, would she then lose interest?

Constance considered Jonah’s question. “I’m not the sort of woman who is here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand, I am not as stuck in my tastes as you.”

“Your fancies can afford to be freer,” he answered.

Constance let the remark pass. “I’m more willing to take risks,” she persisted. “Had I fought against the British in the war, I’d have been braver than any man.”

“Just how courageous are you?” Jonah challenged. “Brave enough to defy your father?”

“Brave enough to sit outside, in the view of everyone, and eat ice cream with you.”

Jonah laughed. “You’re a revolutionary at heart.” He grew serious. “Perchance someday you’ll get restless and tire of me, just like you’ll tire of ice cream.”

Constance savored another bite. “I shall never tire of ice cream. Nor is it newfangled. A frozen mixture of milk and rice was invented in ancient China. Kublai Kahn kept it a royal secret until Marco Polo came a-calling and brought the idea back to Italy in the 13th century.”

Jonah shook his head. “Then why have I never heard of it before?”

“Because poor people haven’t the time to make it. King George, I’ve heard tell, dishes up ice cream to royal guests and George Washington served it at the inaugural ball.” Constance smiled slyly. “We eat it at home. Now that shopkeepers like Monsieur Lenzi are selling it already made, however, I venture ordinary folks like you will eat it regularly too.”

Not likely, Jonah thought. One bowl with two spoons had cost him nearly a half-day’s wages. He leaned back and crossed his arms. “It will never catch on with the common man.”

Constance snorted, most unladylike. “Everyone except a stick-in-the-briers like you will like it. Indeed, I shall tell my father to invest in it.” She pulled the dish toward her. “It’s melting. If you don’t want your share, I shall eat it all.”

“No,” Jonah said, drawing the bowl back to the middle of the table.

“Why not?” Constance’s violet eyes narrowed. “Perturbed about spending all your hard-earned money on me?”

He winced. “Be patient. Perhaps I can be persuaded to change my mind.”

She pushed the bowl toward him. “Finish it.”

Jonah hesitated. What did Constance want? Was she eager for him to like the ice cream, or would she prefer that he keep to his poor-man’s tastes? What did he want? Was she the prize he coveted or would marrying her mean he’d have to feign liking unpleasant things the rest of his life? He lifted a spoonful of the sweet chilling mixture and held it poised between his parted lips.

2. Escalator

When Glynis and Sir Edwin reached the second floor of Harrods on the newly installed Reno Inclined Elevator, a porter in a pale blue cutaway handed them tots of brandy, a precautionary measure, lest they, like many other riders, arrived faint of heart after the two-mile-an-hour ascent. Nearby, a young woman in a lace-trimmed ivory tulip skirt lay on a chaise where a second porter attempted to revive her with smelling salts.

Glynis downed the shot. Exhilarated, rather than weakened, she breathed deeply to hasten the drink’s progress through her already heated blood. Thank goodness she’d loosened her corset before Edwin’s carriage had fetched her an hour earlier, despite knowing it would scandalize the saleswoman in the dress department, where they were headed to buy her trousseau. “Shall we descend on the lift and go up the moving staircase again?” she inquired of her beau, admiring the woven leather conveyor belt with its elegant mahogany and silver-plated glass balustrade.

Edwin, pale and trembling, drank his brandy too, displeased with himself for needing it. He was equally perturbed with Glynis’s avidity for the liquor, not to mention the strength of her stomach compared to his. “Shall we get on with our shopping,” he proposed, hoping that the promise of buying her outfits to wear on their European tour, and thence to receive the ladies who came calling upon their return, would distract his intended from such racy nonsense.

“I can’t imagine what possessed Harrods to install that unseemly device,” he said, trying to deflect blame from his compromised constitution onto the esteemed store. “Before long, the premises will draw the sort of riffraff who prefer harrowing amusements to honorable sport.”

“Riffraff like me?” Glynis batted doe eyes at him. Until their engagement, she’d been a shop girl, admittedly at an establishment catering to those of moderate, not inferior, means, but nevertheless incommensurate with Harrods. Sir Edwin had come in to purchase gloves for his secretary as a Christmas gift, and held Glynis’s hands too long when he asked her to model them.

He let the remark pass as the brandy reconnoitered from his stomach to create a back draft against the fire in his heart. His mind filled with an unshakable image of his mother’s visage when he announced his betrothal to Glynis. He hoped that once he was married, he would no longer recall Lady Milbank’s pinched nostrils and the throbbing vein in her temple. Better that he should henceforth remember his father’s broad wink and hearty “What, ho?”

“Had I known the store would be crowded with joy-seekers, I would have chosen another day,” he told Glynis. “Perhaps we should return after the novelty has worn off.” Or, he prayed, after someone was injured, albeit not seriously, and Harrods, restored to its senses, removed the offending transit. Not that he wanted to put off their purchases. With the engagement announced in The Times, Saint Andrew’s reserved for the nuptials, and the Royal Exchange commissioned for the reception, he preferred to get it over with and end his mother’s importuning to reconsider. He suggested delaying only to facilitate his true desire of the moment, which was to sit beside the stirring woman on the chaise and regain enough composure to go home.

Glynis, however, pressed her point. Hadn’t Edwin just translated for her the store’s Latin motto, engraved in the cherub-adorned tiles above the domed palatial entryway: “Everything, for everyone, everywhere.” Didn’t her sort of folk qualify as everyone?

“Of course,” Edwin replied. “People, regardless of upbringing, can have good taste and a sense of propriety. It’s just that … “ he took a deep breath, “you’re not quite yourself today. You seem a bit reckless and wild. Perhaps a calmer day would be more suitable to the task at hand.”

Glynis chucked his square chin. “But you’ve seen my wild side before. Remember when I tossed my hat into the river the day you took me boating on the Thames?” She snuggled up to him. “And you, my brave Edwin, leaned far over the edge of our punt to retrieve it for me.”

He blushed, not from the brandy.

“Or are you getting cold feet?” Glynis’s cupid’s bow lips pouted.

Edwin denied any such thing. To prove his steadfastness, he allowed as how she could indulge herself in one more ride. Meanwhile, he would wait on the chaise and admire Harrods’ Art Nouveau windows. He perched beside the nearly restored woman to watch Glynis repair to the elevator, descend to the first floor, and reappear when the moving stairway reached the top.

She repeated the trip three more times, her hair growing more disheveled as she accepted a tot from the porter at the completion of each ascent. After the fourth trip, he refused to give her another cup, declaring “One more and the lady will require smelling salts to revive her from the brandy, not the conveyor.”

Edwin, finding the remark flirtatious, and vulgar, drew in his breath. The woman beside him, now fully recovered, said she regretted having been drawn in by such newfangled nonsense. “Unseemly and improper,” she pronounced, and he agreed, just as Glynis approached. Realizing they were together, the woman pursed her lips, rose, and strode toward the perfume department. Sir Edwin recognized the scent of Roger et Gallet, the same eau de cologne his mother wore.

His back stiffened. He too stood up. “I’ve reconsidered, darling.” Edwin opened his arms wide to receive Glynis. “Shall we proceed to the dress department? You can even buy something rather wild to wear on the Grand Tour.”

Glynis watched the woman recede from view, glancing sideways at her beloved. “One more ride,” she said, pressing down on his shoulders until he lowered himself onto the chaise.

Sir Edwin’s eyes followed her as she boarded the lift to return to the first floor. He stared at the top of the moving staircase, wondering if this time she would reappear.

3. Rubik’s Cube

On a spring day, Lisa, Richard, and four other boys, the members of Cornell’s Rubik’s Cube Club, met in the Game Room at Willard Straight Hall to practice for the International Speed Cubing Competition being held at Stanford in August. Lisa solved her cube in 1 minute, 26 seconds, beating her previous record by 3 seconds. That entitled her to do the nerd dance to Kool and the Gang’s Celebration. Kevin pressed “Play” on his cassette recorder, shattering the quiet and no doubt pissing off students in the Music Room across the hall, whence strains of Brahms and Schubert drifted when someone opened the door. Lisa felt guilty about disturbing them, but not enough to inhibit herself from high strutting and chicken-stretching her neck to the throbbing beat.

Her teammates applauded. Except for Richard. Unable to get his score below 1 minute, 43 seconds (fourth place), he griped he should flop dance to Slow Hand by the Pointer Sisters. Lisa put a nail-bitten hand on his bony shoulder. “Courage, lion-hearted swain. No need to groove to the tragic sonorities of Beethoven’s Pathétique. You’ve still got three months to improve, 25% as much time as it’s taken us to reach our current speeds.”

“If I can’t get below a minute and a half, I’m not going to the contest.” Richard shrugged off her hand and rescrambled his cube.

“Why not? You’ll already be in California for the summer.”

“Yeah.” Richard stretched the cube’s outer layers and let them snap them back into place. “Working for my dad. I’d have to ask for time off to go to Palo Alto.”

“I’m sure he can spare you. He’s got, what, three hundred other employees?”

“Try seven hundred.” Richard’s father manufactured cheap women’s clothing and pooh-poohed his son’s fascination with “newfangled computers.” In the last three years, Richard had spent thousands of birthday dollars on an Apple II, Atari 800, TI-99/4, and color TRS-80; his summer wages were earmarked for the $1,500 personal computer IBM would release in August. His father believed money came from making necessities for the poor, not toys for the rich. “Even welfare people need clothes to cover their asses.” He wanted Richard to take over the business.

The only game Lisa could afford was a deck of cards, which she used to test hypotheses about mathematical probabilities. She also performed card tricks at frat parties for extra money. “If you skip out,” she worried now, “does that mean you won’t buy my ticket to California?” Lisa was going home to Kentucky for the summer. Their advisor, Professor Lang, and all the team members had to pay their own way to the contest. For students at an Ivy League college, it wasn’t a problem. But Lisa was there on scholarship, and it didn’t include a stipend to arrange twenty-six miniature cubelets at finger-breaking speed on the other side of the country.

She didn’t want to nag, but Lisa was also afraid Richard was looking for another excuse not to introduce her to his family. They’d met a year ago, as sophomores, in an advanced class on mathematical group theory. All the students had math SAT scores above 750. His was 776; hers, the highest in the class, was 798. The last week of the semester, Dr. Lang brought in a new puzzle toy called a Rubik’s Cube. He explained how it was constructed – with eight unique corners and twelve edges – and challenged them to use factorials to calculate the number of permutations for solving it. Lisa was the first to come up with the answer: 43 quintillion.

The professor invited the students to join the Rubik’s Cube Club he was starting that fall. Most were too obsessed with the Star Wars Club (Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, had just been released) but the half dozen Cubies who signed up were equally fanatical about the aesthetics of devising elegant solutions. Dr. Lang led them through exercises to explore the cube’s structural properties and develop prototypes for variations, such as a 4x4x4 matrix. They derived algorithms for completing the cube quickly. Once each corner or edge was solved, it reduced the remaining possible combinations, speeding up the solution time. The group identified 100 algorithms, but Lisa calculated that only 53 basic options were needed. From that point on she was the fastest puzzler, but she generously coached the others to significantly improve the team’s score.

By late September, Richard and Lisa were a sub-team of two, getting coffee in the Ivy Room when practice was over, later stealing trays to slide down the snowy slopes of Libe Hill in winter. The other team members, while envious, were incapable of abandoning their cubes for such frivolity. Lisa introduced Richard to her mother and father on Parents Weekend, torn between shame and pride that she was, literally, a coal miner’s daughter. He squirreled out of having her meet his folks on Alumni Weekend (his father was a 1950 graduate), then canceled an invitation for her to come to California at Christmas. They got engaged on Valentine’s Day — he gave her a band set with stones in the cube’s six colors — but he reneged again on flying her west over spring break. They talked of getting married a year from now, after graduation, but in order to fulfill his mother’s dream that Richard have a big wedding, they needed to start planning soon.

Lisa considered her options: Address Richard’s feeling threatened by her superior speed or allude to his discomfort over her lower social class. After calculating the odds, she decided on the first. She put her hand on his thigh and cooed in his ear. “Despair not. I’ll give you private lessons to lower your speed and raise your pulse. We’ll explore 44 quintillion positions.”

Richard squirmed. “I don’t need lessons. Your fingers are more nimble, that’s all. It gives you an advantage over us guys.”

Lisa pulled back. “The unofficial world record, a minute and a quarter, was set by a guy. Some fat-fingered Hungarian no doubt. You’re just jealous that I’m smarter.”

“I am not.”

“Then you’re ashamed that I’m poorer. The cube’s a lame excuse to stop me from meeting your parents. It has nothing to do with your Slow Hand. You’re The Coward of the County who has more evasions than Bach had Goldberg Variations.”

Lisa stood up. “To the bathroom,” she said in response to Richard’s inquisitive look. He watched her exit the Game Room, but before the door closed, he heard a Mozart sonata coming through the door of the Music Room. Had she gone there instead, deserting the math nerds for the even scruffier music nerds? Clenching the scrambled cube, Richard formulated his own calculation: Would his life become more twisted, or be solved, if Lisa went over to the dark side?

______________________________________________________________

Ann S. Epstein’s writing includes short stories, novels, and creative nonfiction, and has been published in Emrys Journal, Clark Street Review, Passages North, Red Rock Review, William and Mary Review, theNewerYork, Long Story, Sewanee Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and The Normal School. In addition to creative writing, she has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and M.F.A. in textiles. The social sciences and visual arts infuse the content and imagery of her writing. Many of her stories have historical settings in which fact and fiction are liberally mixed, and she is gratified to have forgotten what is and is not real by the time a work is finished.

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Ignio

By George Hickman

 

I was no soldier by choice, only by obligation.  Bearing the stature of a grizzly minotaur even by the age of fifteen, the sight of someone like myself juggling armfuls of scrolls through the walls of Rome would have explained to any passerby why Caesar was  losing the war.  I was not meant to be a scholar.  I had spent my adolescence in the fields dancing with swords, and by night I danced across the city’s symposia, exchanging theories with men who decorated their frail bodies in expensive cloth and doused their thin wrists in soft perfumes.  Cassius was one such man, who told me the night before we left for Alexandria that I must gaze upon the library before I returned.  He said this to me with such determination, hands gripping mine, as if the Gods had contrived this entire civil war so that I might report back to him on the library’s precise number of columns.

From my ship, the distance of the ocean provided a view of the unmistakable Library of Alexandria, standing atop a slope that curved around the city like the handle of an amphora.  From out here, I could see the architect’s intent better than the scholars who must have been bundling up scrolls in their cloaks as our fleet approached.  The library, which peered down at the city like the owl perched on Minerva’s shoulder, was the Egyptian equivalent to our Roman forums.  It was the heart of their city, the center of life.  It was a symbol that, even though it stood behind enemy lines, would have humored our very own philosophers.  Many a night had I spent listening to Cassius liken the central forum of Rome to an ever-changing well of knowledge, or after a steady intake of wine he might call it “a place to talk privately where no one could suspect you of anything malicious”.  I had never seen Alexandria’s center of life until I was resting my hand on my hilt, ordering my men to fire arrows at its feet.

As I shouted at them to take their places, I was arrested by its beauty–cold, immovable columns of marble standing tall like the legs of my soldiers who held arrows angled at the dark sky.  Even from this distance, its pillars stood stacked together, fearless protectorates of the thin rolls of parchment inside.  I wondered how papyrus would look stacked together so high.  I wondered if it would smell clean, like the leaves of the olive trees back home.  I wondered how small even a great general like myself would feel in the presence of so many great thinkers rustling with speech at every ocean’s breeze.

The wooden floor beneath me shifted and my sandals tugged along with it.  My men were looking to me for instruction.  “Centurio?” one of them shouted to me, nodded back in the direction of Caesar’s ship.

Aboard our Emperor’s ship, the men had begun to shoot arrows that pierced the sky with fire.  On the shorelines, the docks were already crawling with flame.  Viciously the blaze crept up on vacant boats and abandoned market stalls.  I could see more arrows whirring through the air, landing at the steps of that marble library as our ships encroached, swift and determined.

Igni,” I said.

______________________________________________________________

George Hickman lives in Muncie, Indiana, where he is an M.A. student at Ball State University. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

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For Unto Us

By Janice E. Rodríguez

 

Urraca heard snippets of rumors, vague at first, like the sound of hoofbeats from beyond the next hill, and then growing unmistakable and threatening. There could be no worse time, because Zamora and the palace were filling with the nobles of the kingdom of León and their servants, all gathering for the prolonged celebration that stretched from the feast of Saint James through the harvest and into Assumption. Urraca did her best to counter the rumors that she wasn’t pregnant by inviting a different set of noble ladies to her chamber every day to dress her.

It took a child to bring it out into the open. On a hot morning in the first week of August of 1171, Carita tugged at Toda’s sleeve and announced that she had a question. She was helping Toda and a new noble’s young wife bathe Urraca, and Toda nodded for Carita to ask her question while they undressed Urraca.

Even the newcomers to the solar held Toda in awe, so it was no surprise that Carita asked her and not the ladies. She was the keeper of the mysteries and the guide to safe passage through childbirth, and her word was law. Windows were opened and closed at her discretion and furniture rearranged. Urraca had given Toda authority to choose the baby’s wet nurse. Toda examined the candidates’ eyes, smelled their breath, and squeezed their breasts; she asked them questions about their husbands and children; she sifted through thin candidates and sleek ones and made swift pronouncements. The one with the domineering husband would not do; she would be weak-willed. The one who had lost her husband and brought forth a stillborn child would cling too much to Urraca’s baby; the one with gas would upset the baby’s digestion. Columba, the one who had raised five healthy children and was ready to wean her toddler, was perfect, Toda decreed. Her breasts were still full, her humors balanced, her disposition sunny and, best of all, she had two teenaged daughters at home to fill their mother’s shoes while she was away suckling the king’s baby.

“How do you know there’s a baby in there and not a cushion?” Carita asked as she handed soap to the noble’s wife who would wash Urraca’s back.

“Why would you ask such a thing?” Toda said.

“The falconer’s wife said it. And some ladies after dinner yesterday.”

“Don’t be silly, Lady Carita,” Toda said. “Look at your queen!”

Urraca was standing hip deep in a tub of blessedly cool water. Her full breasts, with nipples as wide as fried eggs, rested on her taught and high belly; her navel stretched into nothing, a blurry brown line extending from there downward.

“She could just be fat,” Carita said.

Toda laughed. “It’s plain you’ve spent most of your life in a convent.” She took Carita’s hand and, with Urraca’s permission, placed it on her distended belly. Toda slid Carita’s soapy hand from side to side. “Feel that? The baby’s bottom. And that? An elbow.”

As if it had heard Urraca’s fondest wishes, the baby inside of her slid its elbow away from Toda and Carita’s prodding.

“That could be a rumbly tummy,” Carita said.

“Did you ever have a tummy push back when you poked it?” Toda asked. “Believe your eyes, Lady Carita, not the silly things people say. That’s a baby in there, and it’ll come out soon.”

Not soon enough. Urraca was tired of being pregnant. She had only two gowns left that fit, and they bored her. She walked heavily and off balance, and she couldn’t sit high enough to pull her ribs away from her belly and catch a good breath of air. Yet she feared what was to come. She knew of many women who died in childbirth; she had nearly died herself when she lost her first baby.

 * * * * *

The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin was the hottest day in the hottest August Urraca remembered. She was grumpy that morning, and she snapped at the ladies who wrestled the leagues of fabric of her yellow gown over her head and enormous breasts and belly.

“I’m as big as a cow,” she said. “Bigger.” She waddled to Mass, reciting a litany: “I’m bigger than a cow.”

Dinner was unappealing. She shifted in her chair, ate a few bites, and shifted again. The great hall was stifling, her back hurt, and the conversation was uninteresting. She excused herself as soon as she could, begging the ladies to stay behind and enjoy the men’s company, and shambled back to the solar, her maid, Justa, on one side and Toda on the other.

She stopped halfway up the stairs, hands pressed against the walls, resting and catching her breath. “Toda, do you know why fortresses have narrow staircases that spiral sunwise?”

“No, my lady.”

“It’s to keep out armies of invading pregnant women.” Urraca’s smile twisted into a wince, and she turned and sat down.

“Armies of women in labor,” Toda said.

“Is it time?” Urraca asked. “Today? Now?”

“Tonight or tomorrow, my lady.” She placed her hands on Urraca’s belly and waited for the tightness to subside. “Can you walk?”

Urraca walked upstairs and sat on her bed, peering at her belly and waiting for it to do whatever laboring bellies did. She didn’t expect it to crack open like an egg, but there must be some sign she should look for. Toda seemed to find a sign there.

Two men carried the birthing chair into Urraca’s chamber. They placed it where Toda directed, in the middle of a pile of straw. Fernando stood in the door behind them.

“How long?” Fernando asked.

“God he knows,” Toda said.

“Shall I send for Father Mendo?” Fernando asked.

“No.” Urraca spoke in an adamant voice.

Toda allowed Fernando and Urraca a few awkward moments before shooing him away.

“Now what?” Urraca said.

“We have your lord husband send someone for Columba. Then we wait,” Toda said. “Let’s walk next door to the solar. Chess or backgammon?”

Toda opened the door, and Urraca looked down the short, wide corridor to the council room, already crammed with noblemen awaiting the king’s heir, and she overcame her embarrassment long enough to put her fists on her back and stretch her distended belly their way, proof that, after more than five years, she was indeed pregnant.

If she was bored waiting that afternoon, then the men must have been even more so. Her boredom, at least, was broken by a few unsettling, thrilling labor pains. The boredom and thrill both faded as the pains came more frequently. Urraca, leaning on Justa and Toda, plodded back to her room far after dark so the ladies could sleep. From the corner of her eye, she caught movement in the council room. Fernando had leapt to his feet and called her name. Toda waved him off, and he sat down again.

Urraca labored all night, sleeping fitfully between pains, and was exhausted by morning. Toda coaxed her into drinking something sweet to keep her strength up. She was walking in circles in her room, leaning on Justa, when her water broke.

Toda led her behind the birthing chair, leaned her forward, and showed Justa how to apply constant, soothing pressure to Urraca’s lower back.

“Soon, my lady,” Toda crooned. “The ladies are awake now. Shall I call one of them to keep you company?”

“All of them,” Urraca said through gritted teeth. She pushed Justa away and, with difficulty, stood upright. “Move the chair.”

Justa dragged the chair where Urraca demanded, in the middle of the room and facing the door. Leaning heavily on Justa, she walked to it and sat, commanding the attention of all who entered the room. There was sympathy on the faces of the ladies who had already borne children, fear on the others.

“It hurts.” Urraca moaned and closed her eyes. She opened them when a cup touched her lips.

“For the pain,” Toda said.

“Father Mendo says that pain in childbirth is God’s will and that to take it away is a sin,” Teresa said.

Froiloba, for once without embroidery in her hands, said, “Let your kinsman Father Mendo feel this pain for even a moment, Lady Teresa, and he’d change his mind.”

“Men!” one of the ladies said.

“Virgins!” whispered another.

Urraca spent the morning walking and sitting. The more experienced of the ladies took turns rubbing her back and feet. At dinner, Urraca allowed only half of the ladies to leave at a time and commanded that they eat in the council room. It couldn’t have been easy for the servants, because Fernando and some of the lords were still crowded in there, too.

Throughout the afternoon, Urraca’s labor pains kept a slow, stubborn pace that made Toda furrow her brow. She prepared a drink of something acrid and fishy. Only Justa’s cool hand on her brow and soothing voice in her ear coaxed Urraca to finish it all.

Late afternoon saw Urraca eased into the birthing chair to begin pushing. Toda sat on a stool between her legs. She crossed herself, withdrew a polished, flattish piece of red jasper from her pocket, kissed it, and placed it on Urraca’s belly. Urraca, as instructed, rubbed the stone on her skin.

Urraca began to grunt with the pains, and Carita and Teresa squealed with each one.

“Should we send for Father Mendo?” Teresa cried.

“Not necessary,” Toda replied with calm. She lifted Urraca’s shift over her belly. Carita hid her face behind Teresa’s sleeve. Toda gave a small pan to Justa, who deposited into it an ember from the brazier. Toda dropped in a handful of dried herbs and fanned the resulting smoke under and between Urraca’s legs.

“How much longer?” Urraca didn’t know if someone else asked the question or if she had. The room was filled with a soft, rustling sound. Crickets? Urraca thought. No, it’s the ladies praying.

She screamed with the next labor pain.

“Don’t scream!” Teresa cried.

Toda put one hand on Urraca’s cheek and stroked it. “Don’t scream, my lady,” she said. “Bellow! Bellow for me with the next pain.” Her hand moved to Urraca’s throat. “Don’t waste your voice here. Push it down your belly and use it to help your baby out.”

Toda took away the little pan of smoking herbs. She withdrew a second piece of polished red jasper from her pocket and used it to rub chamomile-scented oil between Urraca’s legs.

“What’s she doing that for?” Carita whispered.

“To soften the skin and muscles and open the way for the baby,” Toda answered.

“How much longer?” Urraca bellowed at the beginning of the next labor pain, the words almost lost in a growl.

“No more than five or six pushes, God willing,” Toda said.

“Open the door,” Urraca said.

Froiloba said, “That’s right, my lady! Imagine yourself as a door opening.”

“By our Lady, no!” Urraca yelled. “Open the door!”

The murmuring prayers stopped. The ladies stood still, their mouths open. Justa pushed past them and swung the door wide. At the end of the corridor, Fernando rose from his seat in the council room. He had taken three long strides toward Urraca’s chamber when she bellowed again. Toda shifted her stool to one side, giving Fernando and his nobles a clear view of his half-naked, laboring wife; he took a single step backward.

“Your baby has hair,” Toda said.

The next pain swept over Urraca before she could ask what color.

Urraca cried. “Don’t let me die!” Through half-closed, teary eyes, she caught a glimpse of Fernando, and she read terror on his face.

“Don’t scream, my lady, bellow,” Toda said. “Breathe deep now, and bellow so hard they hear you in Portugal.”

Urraca was sure her body would tear itself to pieces. There was an aching deep in her bones and a taught burning in her skin.

“Once again,” Toda said.

“No!”

“Just once more.” Toda’s voice was stern.

Urraca took a deep breath and bellowed her way through the rising pain.

“The head is out,” Toda said. “Lots of brown hair. With the next one, take a breath and push again.”

“You said only once more,” Urraca said.

“Once more,” Toda said.

Urraca squeezed the medicinal stone in her hand and pushed again. Fernando was standing at her door as his son slipped into the world in sight of a room full of astonished witnesses. Urraca was laughing and crying all at once, straining to see. Red-faced, fists balled, her son gave a shaky, bleating, angry cry. Toda dabbed the blood from his head and right shoulder, wrapped him, and gave him to Urraca.

“It’s a baby!” she said stupidly.

Fernando turned to the gape-mouthed men who stood behind him in the corridor and repeated just as stupidly, “It’s a baby!”

The baby opened his mouth and sought Urraca’s breast.

Toda said, “Put your pinky in his mouth, my lady, and let him suck on that.”

There was more pain, and Urraca’s eyes went wide with panic.

Toda made a shushing noise. “It’s just the afterbirth, my lady.”

Urraca held her baby, oblivious to everyone else. The ladies peeked at him before Toda sent them back to the solar. She washed Urraca from the waist down and applied a salve that stung before it soothed. She passed the baby to Fernando and, with Justa’s help, transferred Urraca to her bed. Justa gathered the sodden, blood-stained straw from under the birthing chair and took it away.

Fernando handed the baby back to Urraca once she was in bed.

“Alfonso,” he said.

Urraca could have predicted it, but she didn’t like it. Alfonso was her father’s name and her half-brother’s. It was the name of Fernando’s late father and of his nephew, the King of Castilla; the King of Aragón, Ramón Berenguer, had taken that name, too, when he was crowned.

“There are too many rulers named Alfonso in Hispania,” Urraca said to the baby, her voice high and sweet. “Yes, there are. Too many!”

Fernando bent over the baby. “But you’re going to be Alfonso, too. Alfonso is the name of emperors! Never forget, little man, that ancient law decrees the king of León to be emperor of all Hispania.”

Urraca said, “Well, I’m going to call him Alfonsín.”

Alfonsín wriggled and turned his head to her breast and this time wasn’t satisfied with her pinky. Toda scooped him up and put him into Columba’s able arms. Columba dropped open her gown and guided Alfonsín’s wide-open, baby-bird mouth onto her breast, where he settled to lusty suckling.

By evening, Alfonsín had been bathed, dressed in the white christening robe that Froiloba embroidered, and taken by his father to be baptized. Urraca, at long last mother of the heir to the throne, fell asleep to the sound of bells pealing from all of Zamora’s churches.

______________________________________________________________

Janice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com.

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The Postern Gate

By Philipp Léon Mattes

Titus Valerius Scaevola stood vigil at one of the postern gates of the fortified Roman establishment in Muziris. Not for the first time he wondered about his fate. How had it come that he was deployed to one of the two cohorts protecting the Roman merchants and their gold in this seaport, miles upon miles away from the empire, in the Chera kingdom in India? But he was far from being annoyed. Better sitting around in this harbor than face the choice of either freezing or being killed by the barbarians in the northern provinces, or provinces-to-be.

At the moment, the Onam festival was being celebrated by the locals. As he had understood, it was in honor of one of their first rulers, Mahabali, who returned once a year, on the day of Onam, to his beloved people. However, it was a lot of fun and most of the legionaries and Roman merchants had joined the celebrations. Unfortunately he was on night duty at the far side of the town, facing some moonlit meadows and, half a mile away, the thick forest.

A scream tore him out of his thoughts. He raised his shield and gripped his spear tightly, straining his eyes to see the source of the disturbance. After some moments, two people came into view. “Stop!” He ordered.

The two shadowy figures continued to bolt forward and stopped only inches in front of him. They were a young woman and a man, roughly of the same age. Fear was plain on their faces. “What has happened? Who are you?” Titus asked in his best Malayalam, more sympathetic than suspicious.

“He’s coming!” The woman said.

“Who?” Titus asked.

The young woman turned to the man, but he seemed deeply shocked. Rolling her eyes, the woman turned back to Titus. “I am Chandrika, that’s my brother Nivrutti. He…,” she stopped abruptly, then continued. “We were on the way back from our grandparents, when we saw someone emerging from the Kalvrtham in the forest and he is coming towards Muziris!”

Titus stared at her. He had difficulty in understanding the woman. “Well… it is the Onam festival, it is normal that everyone wants to join this festival.”

The woman made an exasperated grunt. “He came out of the Kalvrtham… grave-mound? Barrow?”

Titus’ eyes widened. There was a dolmen in the forest, but it was absolutely impossible that someone would come out of… well, there was no reason to believe in the chitchat of drunks, even though they did not seem drunk. “Perhaps a drunk took a nap there and woke up when you walked by.”

“No! He was… strange…,” Chandrika said, agitated.

Titus was about to respond, when he noticed a shadow behind the siblings. A figure approached the postern gate through the same way the two locals had just come. Gradually the legionary could see more of the person and at the same time his heartbeat increased. He could not turn his eyes from the figure or do anything else. The thud of his heart was finally the predominant sound in his head. He only marginally noticed the shocked yelp beside him. Now he gave credit to Chandrika’s words, because the man standing in front of him was no normal human. The newcomer was big, his skin had the dark hue of the locals, though a translucent golden glimmer covered him. He was clad in something that looked to Titus like a Roman toga. His hair was raised and formed in a pointed cylindrical style. But what distinguished him most was the aura of power he was emanating.

After some moments, Titus became aware that he was staring at the newcomer and the being was staring back at him. Irritated, he turned to Chandrika. The young woman was also staring at the strange man but her expression had changed from fear to…wonder?

Suddenly Chandrika started to talk to the newcomer. The man turned to her and answered in a familiar sounding language. But Titus was too disturbed to understand anything at the moment. After a few words, Chandrika and her brother bowed deeply.

Dumbfounded, Titus finally found his tongue again. “Eh… you know him?” He asked Chandrika.

“Well… sort of. He is Mahabali,” she whispered, her eyes still downcast.

Titus needed some moments to understand. “Mahabali… you mean the Onam-Mahabali?”

“Yes.”

Titus looked back at the stranger who beheld him interested. “Who are you?” He finally asked Titus in a slow and clearly pronounced way.

“I am Titus… I am a Roman, a Yavana as they call us here.” He explained cautiously. In his mind he was frenziedly thinking about what he should do now. He was not supposed to meet a god and even interact with one.

“Why are you here and denying me entrance?”

“Well, there are many merchants from my land here who trade in spices. I am here to protect them,” Titus explained.

“Let me pass. This is the road I have chosen to walk this year and you are blocking it.” Mahabali said, more irritated than angry.

Titus shifted uneasily. “I am not allowed to let anyone… well, please wait a minute,” he turned around, opened the door a bit and yelled, “Centurion Quintus!” Then he turned back and faced nervously the Returned King.

Only a moment later, the gate opened behind Titus and Quintus stepped out. “What is it, Titus?” The centurion asked gruffly.

“Well… ehm, you know Onam is about the return of that king. It seems he has returned and demands entrance and passage through the district,” Titus explained.

Quintus looked at him as if Titus had just told him that he had seen Caesar riding on Pegasus. Bemused, the centurion faced the others for the first time and froze.

“Are you the lord of the… Yavanas?” Mahabali asked, studying the transverse crest on Quintus’ helmet.

“One could say so,” Quintus murmured, studying the king in turn.

“I am Mahabali, the Asua King of this land.”

“Is that so? As far as I am aware, the Chera kings rule this land,” Quintus said.

Titus looked surprised, how could Quintus deny him entrance?

“I beg your pardon,” Nivrutti interrupted. “You are questioning the rights of King Mahabali?”

“We Romans have cast out our kings some centuries back. We now have an emperor, but he is supported by a senate and plebeian tribunes. And we certainly do not accept any divination of one.” Quintus said in a firm voice.

Titus slowly nodded, his centurion certainly had a point there.

“Tell me this, officer. For which god or goddess do you have built the only temple in your quarter?” Chandrika demanded.

Titus could barely hide a grin, now she has a point.

“It’s the Temple of Augustus,” Quintus grunted.

“So, you are the most distant outpost of your realm and the only temple you have built, is in honor for your late emperor?” Chandrika asked.

“Yes, but he had the senate…,” Quintus started.

“Actually,” Titus interrupted, “Augustus only followed Caesar in this tradition. And Caesar was even declared a god while he was still alive.” He did not know, why he had dared interrupting his centurion, but somehow he felt it was right to do so. “Perhaps you remember that the divine Caesar was not always fond of the senate and associated himself with our earlier kings, you know, the statue and such things…” He stopped and stepped back as Quintus rounded in on him with a furious expression.

But in this moment Chandrika spoke again. “Well, even better. So what exactly is now so different between us? Would you deny this Caesar the entry of your district?”

Quintus stared at Chandrika, clenching his jaw. “No, of course not,” he finally said.

Titus looked expectantly at Quintus. The centurion seemed to ponder about Chandrika’s words. Finally he addressed Mahabali directly. “You shall enter, please wait a moment.” With that, he turned and disappeared behind the postern gate.

Titus exhaled relieved. “I apologize for this unduly delay, King Mahabali,” he said.

“Why? I am always interested in the development of my people. It is interesting to meet new people with whom my scions on the throne are trading,” the Returned King answered with the hint of a smile.

Titus was still figuring out if the answer was meant to be sarcastic, when the gate behind him opened again. Quintus stepped out, now dressed in his red cloak and with the iron disks on his breast, showing his achievements.

“Please enter, King Mahabali,” Quintus said somewhat solemn. Mahabali raised an eyebrow, smiled and stepped through the gate.

Titus looked through the door and could barely believe his eyes. Forty legionaries stood guard on either side of the gate. Further down the street he could see the two priests of the Temple of Augustus standing with their heads covered, as if performing a rite in the temple. When Mahabali reached them they bowed and offered him a cup of wine and grapes, as if sacrificing Augustus. After Mahabali had accepted the offerings and had drunk the wine and eaten the grapes, he was led through the Roman district by the priests and followed by the legionaries.

Even after Mahabali and his Roman entourage had disappeared in the nightly gloom, Titus, Chandrika and her brother Nivrutti stared after them in silent wonder. Later they heard cries of surprise and joy from Muziris. Obviously Mahabali had finally reached his celebrating people.

After some time Chandrika and Nivrutti bid Titus farewell and he resumed his vigil at the postern gate, pondering on the recent events.

______________________________________________________________

Philipp lives in a village in southwestern Germany. After completing a B.A. degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology and Modern India at the University of Tübingen, he decided to begin a second B.A. degree, this time in English and American Studies and International Literatures at the same university. He made this decision after an internship in a publishing house in India, where he found out that of all the aspects a culture contains, literature is the one he is truly interested in.

 

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The Fire at Colney Pointe Insane Asylum

By Chris Daruns

Beatrice Carter studied the match. It was such a small thing. Just a chip of wood and a bit of white phosphorous. Such a simple thing to have so much potential.

Getting the match was simple too. All she had to do was ask. The guards kept matches to distribute to those patients that smoked. Since Beatrice smoked occasionally, asking for a match and a cigarette was not unusual.

That she had to toss off Mr. Driscoll was not unusual either. She’d been sucking his prick just about every day for the past two years. Nurse Mabel might have given her a match, but she would have hit her for the disrespect of asking. She carried around a three-foot length of birch for that expressed purpose. Beatrice would rather suck a prick than be beaten with Nurse Mabel’s medicine rod. Mr. Howard would have beaten her and made her toss him off. She was happy she didn’t have to ask him.

Later, when the London County Council attempted to understand the cause of the fire, they would find a mystery in Beatrice Carter. She arrived at Colney Pointe in 1901 after being arrested for lewd behavior and prostitution. The asylum’s physician, Dr. Wolcott, diagnosed her as having acute mania with punctuated bouts of hysteria due to “complications of the feminine cycle.” There was no record that she received any treatment at Colney Pointe. The only surviving documentation of her is in his personal notes where he wrote, “This woman has fallen into a state of complete moral decrepitude and abject carelessness; she is dirty and ragged, in a word, unable to take care of herself.”

Nobody knew why Beatrice Carter started the fire.

Nobody knew that Beatrice regretted not smoking that last cigarette. At approximately noon, she struck the match on the rusted metal of her bed frame and put the flame to her clothes.

On May 6, 1903 Beatrice Carter set herself on fire.

* * * * *

Big Joe McNeil had been called a cunt twice already and the day had barely begun. This was not unusual.

The first time was from Bernie Samson in F Ward, which wasn’t special because he called everybody a cunt and, until a few weeks ago, attempted to throw shit on the staff. The other attendants beat Bernie pretty regularly until they got the new shipment of straightjackets. Now, Bernie just yelled at anyone who came close to his room and flopped on the floor like a fish wrapped in canvas. Big Joe was just glad that he didn’t have to dodge filth anymore.

The second time came from John Avery, an upstanding politician’s son who drank some bad tonic and went slowly mad. The tonic he drank (as a hangover cure) killed his “ability to reason”. That it contained trace amounts of arsenic was never realized.

“G’ morning, you big Irish cunt,” John Avery said with a goofy grin while walking in small circles in the communal room.

Big Joe smiled and tipped an invisible hat, “Morning, your majesty.”

Colney Pointe, like other major asylums of the day, was more than just one building. It was an entire campus. The main facility was the Higgins Hospital, a four-story, U-shaped building that housed over one thousand patients and also the administrative offices for the whole institution. The offices were located at the front while the patient wards and facilities were spread between two long wings. The wings were separated by gender, with the female wards in the east wing and the male wards in the west.  It was overcrowded and underfunded as was typical for asylums.

Big Joe, as a personal rule, stayed away from the female wards. He preferred to deal with the men. The male patients were usually intimidated by his scars and his size. The women were not.  Abigail Clark could attest to that—she once took a sizable bite out of his arm when he tried stopping her from pissing on another patient.

At over six feet three inches and two hundred and fifty pounds, Joe was enormous for the day.  Sometimes, as Big Joe well knew, size didn’t mean shit.

When Joe McNeil was five, he wanted to be a fireman.  He wanted to run into burning buildings armed only with an axe and a big dose of courage and put out a fire single handedly.

He wanted to be a hero.

To the son of an Irish longshoreman, that’s what heroism is.

Instead, Joe spent his teens and twenties doing strong man competitions in London and Bristol. He spent his nights either boxing or working as a bruiser for his manager, “Lucky” Nick Davenport.

When six men, who had lost three day’s wages on a “sure thing,” cornered Lucky and Big Joe in an alley off Brixton, his career path changed rather suddenly. They stabbed “Lucky” Nick twenty times and beat Big Joe within an inch of his life. He fought hard but ultimately was overcome. That beating was one of the few times Big Joe had ever been bested. It was a minor miracle that he was able to walk now with only a mild limp.

It was hard to find regular work as a bruiser with a bum knee and a trick shoulder and Joe had to look outside the normal avenues. When he interviewed at Colney Pointe, the doctor declared him, “the biggest damn Irishman I’ve ever seen”, and hired him on the spot, provided he didn’t succumb to the “ills of his race.”

Big Joe’s duties consisted of walking the wards, maintaining discipline and control of the patients, and assisting the medical staff with their tasks.

When the fire started, Big Joe was standing next to Nurse Mabel, Warren Driscoll, and Dr. Wolcott himself in the ice room.

Joe did not like the ice room.

The new treatment, all the rage in France and Norway, was to plunge a patient’s head under freezing cold water for ten second intervals. Hydrotherapy been around for about fifty years. Men smarter than Big Joe thought that the cold would reset “overheated” parts of the brain and thus restore a patient to some semblance of normalcy.

It was a convenient side-effect that patients that underwent this treatment rarely misbehaved again, which served as evidence for its continued use as a medical treatment.

“Gentlemen,” Dr. Wolcott began, talking to everyone and no one at the same time, “we are on the threshold of a great time. To think that only a few short years ago the insane were treated like animals—chained to walls and given no consideration for their humanity. Down!  Science has shown that these poor individuals can be cured with the proper care and consideration. No longer will the mentally feeble and insane be considered possessed by demons. What bullocks!  Up! The methods of science will surpass those of superstition. Innovation, gentlemen. Innovation and reason will lead us into the future of this field. Down!”

The doctor was the smartest man Big Joe had ever known.  For example, Big Joe didn’t know why Patricia Hensley had clawed out her own eyes last spring, but the doctor said it was because of an “overactive manic disorder brought on by mental fatigue.”  Joe didn’t know what that meant, but then again, people never remembered him for his wit.

“Up!” the doctor ordered.

Warren Driscoll tipped the board that seventeen-year-old Clarence Hatch was strapped to. Clarence suffered from bouts of mania brought on by self-mutilation. He hurt himself through frequent masturbation and it had unbalanced his mind.

He came out of the water half-choking, half-screaming. “No! No, please!  No more! I’ll be proper!”

“Down!”

Obviously, Clarence was in the resistance stage of the treatment. Warren Driscoll dunked him again.

Joe did not like the ice room.

When Nurse Mabel screeched, a high-pitch scream that contrasted her considerable bulk, everyone turned.

Big Joe smelled it before he saw it—a sharp, acrid scent that was instantly recognizable. Light wisps of smoke sifted through the edges of the door and up to the ceiling. Nurse Mabel opened the door and smoke trailed into room.

As if by some unspoken bond, everyone in the room fled into the corridor to either investigate the fire or run away.

Clarence Hatch was forgotten about until nightfall the following day.

* * * * *

The corridor was hazy and deserted. It was hard to tell where the smoke was coming from. For a moment, the four of them just looked around, dumbfounded. Then the doctor started coughing.

It was Joe who broke the daze, “Mabel, get the doctor and as many of the loonies as you can outside. Mr. Driscoll, with me. I think it’s coming from D ward.”

“I ain’t taking orders from no paddy bastard,” Driscoll replied. “Piss off an’ die.”

Nurse Mabel, ever the diplomat, said, “You some lily tosser?  You’re part of the fire brigade too, ain’t ye?”

Warren Driscoll sneered but relented and ran down the corridor with Big Joe.

They didn’t get far before fits of coughing drove them both to their knees. They crawled into one of the water closets and soaked towels in the basin. They wrapped them around their faces; the wet fabric would block a lot of the ash and soot from being breathed in.

From the outside, Higgins Hospital looked like a castle, so it was hard to imagine that so much stone and concrete could catch fire let alone burn so readily.  Big Joe knew that the fortress-like facade was just that, an illusion.  A shell.  The interior of the hospital, the floors themselves, were wood and plaster.  The whole place was like kindling inside a fireplace.

They ran to the female wing, the fourth floor of which was D ward.

The first thing they saw was a woman, a patient, with her hair on fire. The human candle fled, away from them, bouncing off the walls of the corridor.  She was screaming. Warren cursed but Big Joe said nothing.

He was on her in three great strides.

Big Joe grabbed the burning woman and threw her to the floor.  He looked for a moment as if he was going to beat her, or worse.  She flailed and screamed under him. With the wet towel, he palm her head with his massive hands, snuffing out the fire.

The fire hissed and sizzled and disappeared.  The woman stopped struggling and became still.  When Big Joe removed the towel the fire was gone.  So was the majority of her hair and scalp.  Her face was streaked black with ash and one of her eyes had partially melted in its socket making it seem misshapen and swollen.

He picked her up, ignoring the awful smell of burnt flesh and shouldering her weight as if she were a sack of flour.

They reached the emergency hose spooled in a corner at the edge of wing. It was a short, narrow canvas set-up that, to Big Joe’s knowledge, had never been used. Ahead of them was the dull orange glow of fire behind the wall of smoke. They could both hear distant shrieks of patients as they tried to get out of their locked rooms. There were more than four hundred women on this side of the building.

Joe put the burnt woman down and handed Warren the nozzle.  He muscled open a red wheel valve to release the water pressure.

“Here we go, birdies!” Warren yelled through his wet towel. He opened the nozzle.

Nothing happened.

The two men looked at each other, and then at the hose, and then at the external pipes on the wall.

“Bloody hell!” Warren said.

Joe saw it too. The copper pipe, which should have disappeared into the ceiling, ended two feet from it. The internal pipes for the facility’s fire hoses were never completed. The hose was connected to nothing.

“To ‘ell with this,” Warren said, turning to run the opposite way. Big Joe grabbed his collar and yanked him backward, slamming the smaller man into the wall. Big Joe got close to Warren’s face.

“Open your ears, you cockney cunt,” he growled. “You take your twirls and you unlatch every single one of them doors and you get the loonies out. Then you go down to C ward and do it again. And again. If you don’t, by Jesus, I’ll gut you and bleed the life right outta ya.  Now, g’wan and git it done.” With that Big Joe pushed Warren toward the women’s corridor and watched him disappear into the smoke.

Big Joe picked the moaning woman up again and ran into the east stairwell. He took the stairs two at a time, climbing to the roof.

“You’re a daft mick,” he said to himself. That bum knee of his, the one a couple Brixton boys took grand pleasure in stomping on, burned fierce. He ignored it. He ignored the dead weight on his shoulder.  He repeated a favorite saying of his father’s: “Pain don’t mean nothing, boyo. ”

Big Joe didn’t so much open the door to the roof as drive his shoulder into it until it came off its hinges. What greeted him was a pocket of fresh air bordered by thick white smoke that wafted from the mesh windows of the burning rooms under him. In front of him was his goal: the east water tower.

The entire water supply for the Higgins Hospital came from two medium-sized water towers on the flat corners of the roof. Through gravity, they kept pressure up in every faucet, shower, and water closet in the building. They were squat structures, about twelve feet tall and braced by four, thick, legs holding up a wooden barrel that held nine thousand gallons of water. From the underside of the barrel came four copper pipes that descended into the roof and branched throughout the building.

He set burnt woman down it near the stairwell, in a pocket of clean air.  Then he kicked down the door of a small storage closet and took the large roofing axe. Big Joe fought the urge to stop, to catch his breath, to rub his knee. His first swing bit into the oak leg of the tower.  Just like chopping down a tree, he thought.

“You’re a daft mick,” Lucky Nick had told him after Big Joe had killed a man in the boxing ring. “You ought not to care so much. He was just some dumb jig.  Think he’d have given a squirt of piss for ye? You rather it be you in there?”

Big Joe swung again while imagining the leg of the water tower was just a tree. Just a tree to be felled. Nothing more.

He tried not to think about what was about to happen.

His knee burned and his bad shoulder stung every time the axe hit. His father had growled at him, “Ye stop and death will make a man outta ye, as is my word. If you want pain, I’ll be happy to oblige ye.”

“A big, dumb, daft, mick. That’s your lot in life. You listen to your pal Nick. I’ll set you on the straight and righteous.”

“He’s not so big once you take a club to ’em.” Some other voice, far away. One associated with the biggest fight of his life.

“You ought not to care so much,” Lucky Nick had smiled when he said this, “he’s was just some dumb jig. He should have known about your right hook.”

The rubber soles of Big Joe’s boots melted to the tar roof. It was like standing in wet sand. The fire was directly under him. It was directly under the water tower.

The impossible happened: the axe broke through the leg.

The water tower tilted and a splintering sound cracked through the other supports .  The two halves of the cut support met again and the tower stopped its fall.

Big Joe buried the axe in the roof and charged the support.  He hugged the wooden beam to his body and drove forward.  He bad knee buckled under the pressure so he pushed of his other leg.

“Don’t you quit on me!” Did he scream that? Or was it Nick?  His father?  “Don’t you QUIT!”

He pushed and lifted and drove forward and cried out.

“You ain’t no sap, boyo.  Only the dead don’t feel pain.  It don’t deserve to beat ye.”

He pushed harder, flexing every muscle he had, feeling hot pressure building in his bones.

Splintering wood came first.  Then he pushed through.

The water tower lurched and then let loose a series of gunshot-like cracks as the other wooden supports buckled and failed. Nine thousand gallons of water tipped behind Big Joe as he broke off the support.

Momentum drove Big Joe to the edge of the roof as the water tower collapsed behind him. When the edge of the water tower punched through roof, it exploded in a torrent of water and wood, drenching the fire underneath.

The sound of the stream exploding back up was the last thing Big Joe ever heard.

When Joe McNeil was nine, he wanted to be fireman.

* * * * *

When the London County Council attempted to understand how the fire at Colney Pointe was able to come under control so fast, they found a miracle at the location of the east water tower. The fire, their report claimed, had weakened the roof to the point of collapse. The tower, nearly full, had ruptured when the roof under it collapsed and drenched the fire. Eighteen people perished in the fire, including one staff member. If not for the tower’s location, the fire might have been much more tragic.

It was deemed a turn of luck.

They commended the heroic actions of attendant Warren Driscoll who, with great risk to his own life, managed to free fifty-six patients who would have otherwise perished.

He was declared a hero.

______________________________________________________________

When not writing, Chris works as an EMT in and around Denver, Colorado. He enjoys long strolls through the mountains, hip-hop, and BJJ. His work has previously been published in Deimos, Dark Futures Fiction, SNM Horror, and Infernal Ink Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Facebook.

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New New City

By Scott G. Ondercin


The day Amena’s husband went to war against Rome, she spent two hours chasing down a pig.  It was one of the young ones, small enough to slip beneath the fence of their pen.  Even as Isdrubal was sliding on his armor, Amena was out in the hills, hiking up her muddy skirt and following their dog, big shaggy Hamilcar, as he chased down the pig’s scent.  Gods bless the dog, she thought more than once, as the brittle scrub tore at her clothes and scraped her legs.  He was more dependable than her husband.

Eventually they found the pig, in the middle of digging some burrow into a hillside.  When Hamilcar cornered it the thing started squealing in panic, first stupidly trying to flee into its half-dug burrow, then trying to scamper uphill.  Hamilcar was faster and fleeter of foot, and soon the barking dog had the pig cornered.  It was a fifteen minute walk back downhill to their farm, and the pig kicked all the while.  It pounded its muddy hooves into her chest, leaving dirty marks on her dress and probably bruises under that, before she was able to change her grip and carry it underarm, so its legs flailed pointlessly beneath it.  Eventually it stopped squealing and jerking about.  Maybe it was finally tired.

Once she dropped it back into the pen it scrambled back to life, kicking up dirt as it raced around its siblings and zeroed in directly for the spot through which it had just escaped.  Yet where was once a shallow ditch, awkwardly dug by eager little hooves, there was now an additional board of wood, nailed tight to the rest of the fence.  At least her son Gisgo was good for something.  The pig squealed some more and raced around, annoying its siblings, before finally settling down to suckling at the pink log of fat that was its mother.

Amena sighed, tried vainly to pick some of the mud off her dress, and walked back into the house.  Hamilcar pattered close at her heels.  Standing there in the anteroom was her husband: armor polished and in place, held by leather bands across his chest and back.  A weighted skirt, down to his knees, and sandals bound to halfway up the calve.  At his hip, his sword, carefully cleaned and polished, yet in the dim light she could see in its silver face the few nicks and dents received just a few months back at Saguntium: the first battle in this war against distant Rome, the first time that sword had drawn blood, and the first time Isdrubal himself had seen battle.  Finally, in his hands, the helm of Hannibal’s army, crested with the symbol of Melqart, God of War, patron of the Barca clan and this city of New Carthage they had erected halfway across the sea from either Carthage or Rome.

How ludicrous her husband looked in that suit of armor, that barely-used sword at his hip.  He had the thick arms and legs of a laborer, but his armor plating swelled awkwardly at the midsection, and his face was pulled low by gravity and time, weathered by the constant sun.  He was ten years too old to be a soldier.  This was Isdrubal, who had left Utica fifteen years ago with new wife in tow, seeking the promise of new lands in distant Iberia.  And that is what they had found here: A sunny shore, with more fertile soil than the coast of Africa.  From the sea came trader’s ships from Corsica, Massalia,  Cadiz, the Balaeric Isles, and more.  From the land came all the Celtic tribes of Iberia and Gaul, their warlike tendencies tamed by the allure of dyed robes and bronze jewelry from faraway lands. There was always something to buy or sell.  It was a port on par with Carthage itself, or Tyre and Sidon of old.

And so that was their life in New Carthage: Growing, trading, storing up whatever money they could.  They stood at one end of the great sea and seemed so far away from Rome and its newly-won Sicily, away from the humiliations and constant reminders of the bloody wars that had claimed both their fathers: hers lost somewhere with his trireme at the bottom of the sea, his horribly flailed and beaten by the Libyan and Numidian savages who had sacked Utica during their violent and pointless revolt.  In fleeing the southern shores Amena and Isrubal had sought something akin to peace.

Still, as silly as her husband looked dressed up for war, she was not surprised.  This was Isdrubal, after all, who spoke of the Barca family with a reverence normally reserved for Melqart or Ba’al.  He credited Hannibal’s father with saving Utica, and thus his own life, and had given the dead suffette the honor of having a dog named after him.  So, when Hannibal Barca arrived in New Carthage and began speaking loudly of his intent to liberate Saguntium from the perfidious Romans, of course Isdrubal had volunteered the join the fight.  Never mind that he’d never slain a man in his life.  Never mind that their farm, while mildly profitable, needed all the hands it could get.  Never mind the son he’d leave behind.

She’d stood in the doorway, looking at that ridiculous man, for what seemed like a long time before he noticed her.  He gave her his bravest smile. She could tell it was sincere, and felt an ache in her gut.  He held out his arms, as if to show off his soldier’s costume, never mind the paunch.

“Let’s see it with the helm on,” she said.

Isdrubal nodded, and slid the thing on to his head, awkwardly slipping the leather strap beneath his chin.  It tugged upward at his jowls, leaving them sagging on either side.

“Did you find the pig, mama?” asked little Gisgo.

“Yes, I did.”  She said, gesturing at the muddy hoof-prints across her chest.

“I was wondering whether you’d get back in time,” Isdrubal said.  He was trying to temper the accusation in his voice.  “It was just one pig, and a young one at that.”

“A young one that will grow up big and fat like this mother, if we’re lucky,” she said. “Gisgo, get your sandals on.  We should leave for town immediately.”

The child scampered off.  Husband and wife stood in the foyer, wordless, awkward.  Isdrubal moved closer, and she didn’t resist.  He laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “We have enough money left over to buy a servant for at least two seasons.  You can hire an Iberian for cheap.  They’re good workers, as long as you keep an eye on them.  And don’t be afraid to ask for help from Mathaco.  He may be a grouch, but he’s been doing this all his life, and he’ll help his neighbors if they ask.”

“I know,” she said.  “And Gigsco is getting older. He should be able to help out with the heavy lifting in a year or so.”

“Exactly,” Isdrubal smiled.  The boy ran back into the foyer, this time with his sandals on.

“I’m ready to go,” the boy said, trying to stand straight like a soldier.  Isdrubal roughed his thick black hair and did the same.  Two soldiers, off to war.  Amena restrained a sigh, and followed them out of the house and down into the city.  Hamilcar remained on the step of the house and watched them depart.  Then he scratched out a flea from behind his ear and trotted to the backside of the house, to see how those pigs were doing.

By the time they got to the mustering grounds they had missed the sacrifices to Melqart, for which Isdrubal was disappointed and Amena thankful.  Her husband was sacrifice enough to the war god; she didn’t need to see more.

Against herself, Amena was awed by the sight of Hannibal’s army.  Over ninety thousand infantry, she heard from someone, with over ten thousand mounted on horse or elephant.  There were others like Isdrubal, farmers marked by ill-fitted armor-plates and cheap sandals, but there were far more real soldiers.  Mercenaries, the lot of them: Iberians, Balaeric, Lugurians, Numidians, Greeks, Latins, Libyans, races she couldn’t even recognize.  She wondered how many of these tamed barbarians would turn against Hannibal as they had his father once the money ran out.  There were many Punic soldiers too, both from Libya and Iberian settler communities, but it seemed to Amena that they were outnumbered by foreigners, even taking into account volunteers like Isdrubal.  Making war against Rome with any army of hired swords had nearly destroyed the Carthage of Hannibal’s father, and Amena shuddered at the thought of so many savages falling on New Carthage just as they had the old.  She thought of her husband’s long talks with her, justifying his decision to join the war by saying that there were too few Carthaginians fighting for Carthage as it was, and that every truly loyal sword was valuable, even if it was not wielded by the most deft of hand.  She understood a little better now, even if she did not approve.

The city guard that would remain, itself a sizeable command led by Hannibal’s brother, had erected barriers around the plain, and the families of soldiers were left to share parting embraces at the gates of sporadic checkpoints.  Isdrubal lingered for a while before the gate.  He knelt down, took young Gigsco by his shoulders, and spoke softly, even though the boy was too awed by the foreign soldiers and lumbering elephants to pay attention.  He rattled off a list of responsibilities a young man should take on, and reminded him to always honor his mother’s wishes.  The boy nodded dully while watching a pair of hung-over Campanian mercenaries giving sloppy goodbyes to some dockside whores.

Then came time to say goodbye to Amena.  They embraced, stiffly at first, but in her husband’s strong arms she felt bitterness wilt, yielding less to love than to weariness.  She slid hands beneath his armor plating and along his sides and back.  She was tired of resentment, almost as much as she was tired of war.  So she yielded to him, and embraced him back.

“I’ll write you from the ports,” he said.  “Share my letters with Gisgo. I don’t want him to forget me.”

“I won’t let him.”

“Good,” he said, and wanted to say more, but stopped himself.  He stepped back, looked over his wife and child once more, then turned and walked through the gate.

Amena picked up the boy and held him high, so he could watch his father’s helm disappear into the sea of bobbing helms. The boy was getting heavier every week, and after a minute she put him back down on the ground.

Gisgo grasped his mother’s hand and asked, “Can we stay and watch them go?”

Amena wanted nothing more than to go back to the farm and forget the pomp and pretension that was taking her husband away, but she yielded to the wish of her son.

They retreated to the hillside, where others were gathered to watch the departure.  There were many women and children, but men as well.  There were men older than Isdrubal but many hale young ones as well.  Many of them, she thought, must have been merchants, who decided not to part with their business just because of Hannibal’s crusade against Rome.  She envied their pragmatism, and wished her husband had had some of that, but then he wouldn’t have been her husband, would he?  No, Isdrubal had been impractical enough to gamble on coming to New Carthage in the first place, leaving their old lives behind after a good sales pitch.  His yearning for a new start had at once sprung from and been tempered by the savagery of his youth.  Having seen Carthage brought near ruin by both the Romans and the barbarians, he had the true determination of a patriot to prevent such disaster from coming again, and to revenge that humiliation on distant Rome. A good match for Hannibal, then, but no good for a farmer.

She and Gisgo sat on the hillside, silently watching as the army began to array itself into ordered lines.  At the head of some columns men held standards high, bearing the symbols of Tanit or Melqart or some obscure Celtic gods.  Others beat ox-hide drums, whose bass rumble rolled up the hill and filled the afternoon air.  Others, sitting in their howdahs on the backs of their war-elephants, blew horns, signaling the start of a march.  The city sentinels blew their own horns in response, and so it was that Hannibal’s army began its march to the triumphal roar of percussion and brass.  Every so often an elephant would trumpet, as if to join in the song.

The army moved slowly.  All those bronze and iron helms, glistening in the afternoon sun, seemed to tinkle like light on flowing water as the columns made their way northward.  Elephants bobbed along like pebbles in the stream.  Yet the sun was starting to set and the western hills cast lengthened shadows that, little by little, swallowed up the men in armor. Little by little, their gleam went away.  They were what they were: Men covered in metal, disparate in origin and means and motivation, marching in union to some distant fate.  A final sacrifice to Melqart, she thought.  Such a gluttonous god.

When the army had left the plain, the crowd turned to go.  Amena held Gisgo tight by the hand. The boy was oddly silent during the long walk through town, back up into the hills toward the farm.  She was thankful for the silence.  If he wanted comfort, she could provide none, and if he had been excited by the events of the day, she didn’t want to know.

When they arrived home it was nearing sundown.  As Amena and Gigsco stepped through the doorway they heard the sound of barking from outside. With a sigh she walked around to the back of the house to see what Hamilcar was on about.  When she saw, she hardly felt surprised.  The damned pig had gotten loose again.

______________________________________________________________

Scott G. Ondercin lives in Chicago, Illinois. He has previously been published in New Realm, Short Fiction Break, and Cleveland Scene.

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Fire

By Emily Greenberg

It starts around 9 pm in or near the O’Leary barn, although no one knows for sure. Ada Rumsey watches the sky glow red in the southwest, from the library windows on Cass Street. In the house her father built by hand, they hose the garden and the roof. Mary Kehoe, 16, is leaving Vespers when it starts. The huge black planks burn 200 feet above the ground, and her eyes are swollen red.

The air is full of cinders, blazing shingles, tarred felt. Anna Higginson takes one last look at her home, the vines on the walls and the flowers hanging from the windows, shining in the moonlight. Inside, her mother’s bible and the toys of her dead children are burning.

Bessie Bradwell, 13, is awoken by her pet parrot, who gasps for breath between the slats of his metal cage. She puts on her best clothes and follows her mother down the seven flights of stairs to Washington Street. Myra Bradwell wears a raincoat and her husband’s Masonic hat. At the law office opposite the Chicago court house, Judge Bradwell takes his time picking through the books, running his fingers down their spines while Bessie grabs a law journal and disappears into the crowded streets. Across the burning State Street bridge, a man is yelling that this is the end of Chicago. Bessie’s coat catches fire three times. Strangers smother the flames with their hands, then dip them in the lake red and shiny.

On Randolph Street, they haul iron safes onto the sidewalk and crack them open with sledge hammers, steel wedges. The air rushes in, the bills crumble to ash. A father of two, his face black with soot, sifts bills through his open palm.

* * * * *

Louis M. Cohn the world traveller crossed the Pacific 42 times, the Atlantic 29 times, and visited every country in the world at least once. Or so they say. In a press release after his death that bequeaths $35, 000 to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism establishing perpetual scholarships in his name.

Louis M. Cohn the importer became intimately acquainted with Chinese royalty and was an expert on Chinese customs, political history and art. Or so they say.

Louis M. Cohn the childless widower finally succumbed to kidney cancer just weeks before his 89th birthday. He left behind $2, 618.30 in cash, $4, 753.91 in personal property, several thousand shares of speculative gold mine stock, equity in a seven-unite Hyde Park apartment building, and a guilty conscience. Or so they say.

Louis M. Cohn the gambler was playing craps with James O’Leary and several neighborhood boys the evening of October 8, 1871 before Mrs. O’Leary chased them from her barn at approximately 9 pm. Louis was 18, James 9. When Louis tipped over the lantern, he was winning. He scooped up the money on his way out. Or so they say.

* * * * *

The fire is driven by a strong southwest wind which the firefighters, worn out from a fire the previous evening, cannot stop. The superheated draft carries flaming brands over the South Branch of the Chicago River, where it divides again over Conley’s Patch.

The bell tower chimes in strokes one second apart until it burns down in silence. The relics will later be sold as souvenirs. In a rush to leave his burning home, Julian Rumsey forgets his gold watch under a pillow. He will find it much later, the hands melted into the face forever at 1:15 am, when it became too hot to tick. The courthouse burns in twenty minutes, the long block of houses on Lasalle Street in seven.

The church on Chicago Avenue burns, its steeple so hot that a pillar of fire shoots up the top. Even the government buildings with iron shutters are not spared.

Water turns to steam before reaching the flames. A snowstorm with red flakes. Sparks rain like meteors over Lincoln Park as Becker pours water from his hat on the family’s trunks. Everyone dips their faces in the lake. Clarence Burley, a North Division notary public, positions a kerosene lamp perfectly center on a pillow. Sand cuts like glass against his face.

John and Carol Magie can’t bear to leave. His grandfather built this house with his bare hands, cut the wood into even planks and painted the walls a rosy cream. This is where their son threw up, this is where John spilled wine, this is where Carol cut her hand and bled. This is the table where they had Thanksgiving dinner, the couch where they rocked after the baby died. But it is becoming too hot. John peels off his shirt, sweat pooling at the back of his neck and his face flushed a deep rosy hue. Carol wears only a loose dress. Her hair wet as if she’d taken a shower. The air is dry, weighted. Wallpaper falls off in strips. From the window, they watch neighbors carrying mattresses and trunks.

“Fire! Fire!” Mrs. Milner raps loudly on their door, then runs to the window. “Aren’t you leaving? The fire, it’s coming this way.”

John shrugs, Carol shakes her head no.

Mrs. Milner is frantic. “But you must leave, you must leave right now! You will die in this house!”

They stare at her softly, neither speaking a word. Finally she leaves, cursing their proud stupidity as she runs. John grabs Carol’s hands, her palms soft and sweaty. They wait until everyone else is long gone, then make love on the floor of their living room. Like teenagers. They lie naked on the carpet, watching the room fill with smoke above their heads until it is too much to bear. They stand up, see the glowing red wall through the window, and run for the fence, already lit up with flames. They are too late. Carol grabs John’s right hand, and they lie down in the grass together, beneath the oak, preparing to die. He is swearing, she is crying. Then they see a spot open up in the fence and break through screaming the whole way.

* * * * *

Daniel Sullivan the friendly neighbor visited the O’Leary’s around 8 pm, only to find that Mrs. O’Leary was asleep. He headed home, pausing in front of William White’s home to smoke a pipe and listen to the music from the McLaughlin party. Or so they say.

Daniel Sullivan the good Samaritan saw the fire burning and hobbled 193 feet on his wooden leg in an attempt to extinguish the fire, before escaping uninjured from the burning barn. Dennis Regan the good Samaritan heard Sullivan yelling from a block away and jumped out of bed to help. Sullivan and Regan the good Samaritans tried to save the animals and property before alerting the O’Leary’s. Or so they say.

Daniel Sullivan the lying scumbag could not possibly have seen the fire from in front of White’s home. Daniel Sullivan the cripple could not possibly have run 193 feet on his peg leg and escaped the burning barn uninjured. Dennis Regan the accomplice could not have heard Sullivan’s cries for help before the O’Leary’s. Or so they say.

Daniel Sullivan the culprit went to feed the cow he kept in the O’Leary barn or to listen to the music from the McLaughlin party. Daniel Sullivan the culprit dropped a match or a pipe or a lantern in some hay or wood shavings. Daniel Sullivan the culprit slipped on his peg leg or tripped across the feet of his friend, Dennis Regan, there to enjoy the McLaughlin music. Or so they say.

* * * * *

The endless march down Lincoln and Fullerton, trying to escape the wall of smoke. There is a strip of fire now two and three miles long and a mile wide. Horses and cows run loose through the streets. Nuns lead children from an orphan asylum past a severed cow’s head lying in the sewer.

Wearing his copper-toed boots, John J. Healy, 8, does not recognize his father’s blackened face. There is a bare burned spot where his house once stood, and he reaches for toys dropped in the street. Later, when his arms grow tired, he will lay the toys in the gutter and fall asleep in the saloon on Clyburn Avenue.

A South Division railway man carries brandy not opened since Mamie Bickford was sick. It is gone before morning. Wheeler packs six dresses for his wife but no change of clothes for himself. Fannie Belle Becker, 10, takes the China doll she received for Christmas last year, Jennie. Also a fur box, an account book, and a parasol. Her mother stuffs a diamond necklace and crumpled bills into a sewing machine. The Rumseys pack a carriage with silver, linen, family portraits. They give a man $25 to carry a painting. Mrs. Ryerson saves a wrapper and a man’s hat tied with a handkerchief, Mrs. Windston a pink silk dress trimmed with lace. One lady has a carriage full of party dresses. A man wearing a horse blanket as a coat runs from the fire with two huge turnips. A banker brandishes a revolver. A tailor balances a crate of live chickens on his head. Others carry broken furniture, bonnets. Mr. Bross leaves everything behind but a portrait painting, which he carries on horseback. Men run with flatirons and oldboards. One woman carries her whole bed on her back all the way to the prairie. Two young men help their neighbor save her carpet, tossing her books to burn in the basement. Three children curl asleep inside a carriage. A tea kettle hangs from one spring, a coal-hod from the other. Old Mrs. McCagg runs the length of Chicago Avenue, where she collapses exhausted and is placed into a wagon. There is pushing and shouting and swearing.

A stranger grabs the hand of a little boy whose parents were burnt in the hotel. Old Man Gallagher on his horse sees children sitting by a pile of furniture and begs them to come with him, but they say no, they are waiting for their mother. Gallagher leaves to pick up a few things from the house while the night grows colder and darker. When he returns that morning, there is still no mother. The youngest child, no more than three years old, is pulling at the feet of his two dead siblings.

* * * * *

It was Biela’s comet, whose violent split sent highly combustible fragments all the way to Earth. They explode over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan on the night of October 8, 1871. Chicago, Peshtigo, Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee burned to the ground.

It was colorful copy spun by Michael Ahern for the Tribune. Or colorful copy ghost written by one of Ahern’s colleagues.

It was an unnamed terrorist with ties to the 1871 Paris Communard who published his confession in a local newspaper, prompting the New York Evening Post to ask:

Did out of [Paris’s] ashes arise

This bird with a flaming crest,

That over the ocean unhindered flies,

With a scourge for the Queen of the West?

It was spontaneous combustion, caused by damp hay undergoing bacterial fermentation. It was methane gas from a meteor shower or the tinder-dry summer combined with high velocity winds. It was a neighborhood boy sneaking a smoke. It was one of the McLaughlin guests, who excused himself from the party for a glass of milk.

* * * * *

Forty children are born on the prairie. A woman cradling her newborn to her chest runs bleeding to the lake’s shore and dies. Mary Howe sits up in bed, grabs her newborn baby, and walks a mile to the pier. Everyone is lying in the sand all down the lake park, where the air is so thick with dust and sand they can no longer see the fire. Charred bodies are laid out in the road, near the river. Some run into the water, others take small boats. Thousands sleep in Lincoln Park beneath heavy rain.

No cows on the prairie, just mothers holding screaming children and fathers lugging trunks in their Sunday best against a wall of smoke. No water on the West Side, no gas on the South Side, no North Side at all. No street cars. Washington Park is full of barracks.

A millionaire draws blankets for himself. Wealthy women take their food from the church and duck their heads for hours into the cool lake. On the prairie, they pile furniture into square formations and lay carpet on top to make shanties. Little chinks in the walls are filled in with beds, clothes. One has a huge pile of hams outside, another a stack of hides. Candles are placed in bottles with water and cardboard to catch the wax.

A Gold Coast woman wearing diamond earrings and her finest silk dress drops to her knees in a rundown church pew, begging for a cup of coffee that keeps her awake late into the night. Asleep at last, she is woken by a South Side woman wandering up and down the aisles shouting her husband’s name, John, John. They try to calm her. They tell her to sit down, to be quiet, and miraculously, she does. She never speaks a word to anyone again and dies at 93 in an insane asylum.

Mrs. Alfred Hebard was traveling with her family from New London, Ct. to Iowa when they stopped in Chicago for the night. There was a fire the night before, she hears them saying at the hotel. Outside, the air is still dry and windy. She rides the elevator to the top of the hotel, where she sees another fire in the distance. Surely it will not cross the river. She goes to sleep. Early in the morning, a rapping on the door. The porter is saying “Fire, sir.” Matter of factly, calmly. The window is lit up. Mrs. Alfred Hebard and family drag their trunks down the stairs; the porters have all left. Few words are spoken. Outside, Irishwomen run with beds on their shoulders, weeping. Women with babies and bundles, men with kegs of beer. There is crying, swearing, scolding, cursing. A shower of coal hits their faces. Mr. Alfred Hebard pays two boys $10 to carry their trunks a mile and a half to a cousin’s house on La Salle Street. At the cousin’s house, they sit with candles and tear carpets to cover the roof. Cisterns are drained to keep the carpets wet. But then the wooden blocks flash into flames, and they have to run for it, crossing the west side of the river to the depot, where they just miss the Burlington & Quincy train leaving Chicago. Another will arrive at 3 pm. Until then, they sit on doorsteps and curbs, drinking beer on street corners and falling asleep. 

* * * * *

It was Catherine O’Leary, who with her husband laid coal, wood shavings, and hay in the barn where they kept five cows, a calf, a horse, and a wagon.

It was Catherine O’Leary, whose cow – Daisy or Gwendolyn or Madeline – knocked over a lamp.

It was Catherine O’Leary the industrious 40 year old or the old drunk or the welfare cheat who vowed revenge or the blighted champion of Chicago.

It was Catherine O’Leary the Irishwoman, the Catholic, the immigrant poor.

It was Catherine O’Leary, whose home survived the great fire.

It was Catherine O’Leary, who died July 4, 1894.

* * * * *

Wicker and Wheeler were to see the Thomas Orchestral Troupe at Corsby’s Opera House on Tuesday. No longer. Thomas ran for his life and abandoned his instruments.

Chapman saves two bantam chickens and a family of kittens. Fannie Belle Becker, 10, arrives in Fruitport, Michigan barefoot, nearly blind from the falling dirt and cinders.

The previous summer, Sam Collyer built himself a cottage on Orchard Street. He and Rebecca Moore, of Odell, Illinois, were to marry October tenth, in a house that burned along with the bride’s wedding gown. They married on the West Side instead, he in a high collar and she in a calico dress.

Essie Stockton marries the Thursday after the fire in a white petticoat, her trousseau tied up in a pillow, while the Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin leave for their honeymoon with passes furnished by the relief society.

Dunlop’s beautiful house burns down. His paintings, his 13 trunks from Europe, all gone. He has only the pictures of his dead wife.

Albert Munger loses $400,000, Mary Scudder all her wedding presents. Mahlon Ogden’s house, untouched by the fire, is watched by police.

A laborer sets fire to a merchant’s store. Later, they will drag him through the streets with a rope around his neck, the knees of his trousers bloody. A thief. They will hang him in the ashes of Hyde Park. Seven more thieves are shot on the spot by Catholic priests, who catch them setting fire beneath the south transept. A farmer selling his calf for an exorbitant $50 is run out of town. No one is allowed to light a match or smoke a cigar at night, but soldiers march down Lincoln anyway. Just in case.

Months go by, and the streets are still lit from coal stored in basements. A year later, men still light their cigars on the smoldering coal piles of Unity Church, still gaze at the four charred wooden boards above William D. Kerfoot’s store and take courage in the black hand-painted message: “All gone but WIFE CHILDREN and ENERGY.”

______________________________________________________________

Emily Greenberg is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn. Her artwork has been exhibited across the U.S. and in Rome, Italy, and her fiction been published in Rainy Day Literary JournalKitsch Magazine, and Ink Magazine.

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Ramming Speed

By Dave Wisker 

Dawn was a dangerous time for a King’s ship. Here in the Mediterranean, the cool, delicate first light usually revealed nothing more than tranquil, open water all the way to the horizon. But these days, with Napoleon’s  fleet now loose in the Med, it could just as easily unveil the guns of an enemy ship. So Commander James Falconer of His Majesty’s Sloop-of-War Salmacis began his day before sunrise, pacing the tiny quarter deck alone, awaiting the lookout’s cry. He had the ship cleared for action, just in case: all of the guns were manned, primed and loaded, galley fires extinguished, powder monkeys ready at the magazine, the decks cleared of obstacles and strewn with sand. He ignored the crew’s chafing under his strict order of silence. No Frenchman was going to catch him unprepared, by God. It was too dark to see anything from the deck; the lookout, high atop the mainmast, would see the light before he did. He stopped pacing for a moment to savor his coffee.

Salmacis had been anchored since the day before in a shallow bay off the Tunisian coast, awaiting the arrival of a small party returning from an inland mission. His orders, written by Admiral Nelson himself, were characteristically terse: pick up the five men, led by a Coldstream Guards captain named Jensen, on July 25th, 1798 and bring them to England—at all costs, and under the strictest secrecy.

Thinking about those orders set him pacing again. They had been chasing the French for weeks now, with no luck; Nelson’s lack of light, fast ships for reconnaissance– he had only two frigates and Salmacis at his disposal– limited the area of ocean he could effectively search at any given time. Then came the news that Napoleon had taken Malta, and Nelson, convinced now that the French were ultimately headed for Egypt, ordered his squadron to Alexandria. But the French weren’t there, so the British turned west, hoping to to catch the French in transit, only to end up in Sicily, without having seen a single enemy ship. It was there, in Syracuse, that Falconer was issued his orders.

Falconer received an additional ten marines to assist with the extraction in case of trouble, along with an extra longboat for them, much to his relief. Salmacis was a very small ship—only eighteen guns–with a regular complement of only five marines and an officer. She was designed for speed, used for Fleet reconnaissance and raids on enemy merchant shipping, not heavy fighting or amphibious operations.

He had anchored Salmacis at the mouth of the bay to give her room to maneuver if approached by sea. A seaman with mirrors and a lantern signal was stationed atop the hill on the headland at the eastern end. That hill blocked his view of anyone who might try surprising him by hugging the coast. Falconer counted on getting enough warning to bring the party aboard before having to escape to sea, or, if only absolutely necessary, engage. He felt badly about the long row they would have to make to get to the ship, but there was no real choice. His position was vulnerable, and Falconer wondered what the importance of Jensen’s mission was to justify such secrecy and the risking of precious naval resources. The professional in him, however, refused to dwell too long on that unproductive line of thought.

“Deck there!” a voice called from the maintop. “All clear.”

Falconer relaxed somewhat and finished his coffee.

“Mr. Samuel,” he said to his second lieutenant, who had been discreetly hovering nearby but out of his way as he paced, “Send the hands to breakfast, if you please, but keep the ship cleared for action.” Martin, his first lieutenant, was supervising the shore party.

“Aye, aye, sir.” Samuel gave the order for the galley fires to be re-lit. The unnatural silence that had gripped the ship dissolved into the normal sounds of orders being given, the shuffling of bare feet, and the banter among the hands. Everything seemed in order and going to plan, so Falconer decided to go below and have his own breakfast.

It was light when he came back up on deck. Samuel was filling him in on a couple of routine details when the midshipman Crowell cried, “Signal from shore”.

Finally. Falconer trained his spyglass on the beach, and saw the flashing mirror. “You may translate the signal for us any time now, Mr. Crowell.”

“Sorry, sir,” said young Crowell. “It says, ‘Party approaching…three men…being pursued…twenty strong’.”

That wasn’t good. He wondered who was following them. There were no French troops here, and no organized tribal support for them either, as far as he knew, so this Jensen fellow must have upset the locals for some damned reason. Falconer was confident his marines could handle them, though. He watched the two lines of red coats on the shore, bright against the dull brown hills beyond. Smoke rose from a musket volley as its crackling sound echoed over the bay. There was another volley and then silence, followed by a signal.

“Party Retrieved” reported Crowell. Falconer ordered a signal to the shore party to return aboard. He leaned on the port side taffrail and looked out to sea. So far everything had gone well, but he felt uneasy. What was Jensen’s mission, and why did the locals want his party dead? Nothing made sense to him, and he hated that. Nelson must have suspected something when he gave him the marines.

No matter. Falconer wasn’t one to over-analyze. Besides, even if he had the answers to his questions, he wouldn’t begin to relax until Salmacis was under sail for England on the open ocean, where she could easily outrun any trouble. He ordered another cup of coffee to be brought up to him, thinking it might brighten his mood.

Salmacis rolled in the gentle swell, and soon Falconer was lost in the familiar sounds of a King’s ship at anchor: the faint creaking of the timbers, rattling of the blocks, officer’s voices barking orders, the breeze in the rigging.

His reverie was interrupted by the lookout’s cry.

“Deck there! Sail ho! Eastern headland!”

What? Falconer grabbed a spyglass. The bow of a ship was poking out from behind the headland, and Falconer recognized its distinctive shape, that of a large, old-fashioned Barbary corsair galley, with a large, ragged red sail. He watched its port side row of oars moving in sync, raising creamy foam from the glittering blue water. He’d heard old salts tell tales about galleys when he was a midshipman, but had never actually seen one.

It moved quickly for such an unwieldy-looking vessel. His body tensed, throat dry, when the galley turned towards Salmacis after clearing the headland.  Falconer silently cursed Jensen: these were no ordinary local tribesmen. No sane local government would openly attack a King’s ship carrying out its duty. The reach—and the wrath–of the Royal Navy were considerable. These people had to be fanatics of some sort. They also must have surprised and killed his lookout. And how did they get hold of a galley? He turned the glass on the shore party. The galley would reach him before they did. This gave him some relief, strangely enough, by narrowing his options. He had no choice but to stand and fight at anchor: “at all costs”, his orders read. Samuel and Crowell were hurrying over and he already knew what to do. He was glad he had kept the ship cleared for action. He was also glad the enemy chose to attack him and not the helpless boats. Salmacis’s small size probably emboldened them to start with her; with the sloop neutralized they could then  pick off the others with ease.

“Mr. Crowell”, he said, as calmly as he could, “have the starboard bow six-pounder loaded with grape, then go to the cable tier and tell the Bosun to control the spring so that we face the enemy with a starboard broadside at all times.” Crowell looked pale—he was only thirteen–but resolute. “Aye aye, sir.” He beckoned to a gunner to help him. Grapeshot—forty to fifty metal slugs wrapped in a canvas sack and loaded into a gun – was devastating against boarders, sweeping the enemy deck like a giant shotgun. The “spring” was an extra cable attached to the anchor cable. When pulled by a few seamen, Salmacis would rotate about the anchor cable, able to face an enemy coming from any direction.

“See, Mr. Samuel, the enemy is coming straight at us.” Falconer pointed. The oars beat to the rhythm of a loud drum whose sound traveled menacingly over the water. “He wants to ram us, and then board. You’ll hear the beat pick up speed when he’s ready to do that. In the meantime, rig anti-boarding nets and issue the port gun crews pistols, pikes and cutlasses. Also send a signal to the shore party to approach us from the port side.” He tried keeping his outward appearance composed, as if facing nothing more challenging than ordering his dinner. He had never fought a galley before, but had listened to the old hands tell stories about fighting them. So far, this galley’s behavior had been predictable. And he knew his ship and crew. Samuel nodded and hurried off.

Within minutes Salmacis began rotating, stopping when she presented her starboard broadside to the galley.  Samuel and Crowell joined Falconer on the quarterdeck. The sun was higher in the sky and the heat was becoming oppressive, even with the breeze. Falconer felt a maddening trickle of sweat on his neck, under his coat. The men were quiet and anxious, spooked by the ominous beat of the slave drum as the galley loomed closer.

He realized he couldn’t beat the galley if it came alongside—it was almost twice his little ship’s size and crew. A ramming would severely damage Salmacis and insure her being boarded and her crew overwhelmed. Nor could he pound her into submission from afar—sloops-of-war were not armed with long-range cannon. Instead, they carried sixteen squat carronades, designed for close fighting. What the carronades lacked in range, however, they more than made up in firepower: each spat a massive thirty-two-pound shot, unlike the twenty-four-pounders the frigates carried. Falconer was determined to wring every advantage out of that. If he could blunt the galley’s forward momentum somehow and prevent it from grappling his ship, Salmacis could batter the galley to pieces at close range.

“Mr Samuel, I want your aft gun crews to concentrate on the galley’s port side oars only. Catch them about half-way into their stroke, when the oars are in the water and at their slowest. Try to cripple her port side oars  suddenly, and as simultaneously as you can.”

Samuel nodded in understanding, but Crowell looked confused. “Why just the port side oars, sir?”

Falconer allowed himself a smile. “You’ll see.”

As he had predicted, the drum beat soon quickened, the oars churning faster in response. Along with the beat, the breeze now carried the signature foul stench of a slave galley. The hands wrinkled their noses at it and began to complain. He ordered silence, then watched Samuel carefully explaining what he wanted from each of the aft gun captains. The boats of the shore party were almost here. It was going to be close.

Falconer stood tall, hands clasped behind him, watching the galley gather speed. If he couldn’t stop the damned thing’s momentum, it would be over soon.

“Three-hundred yards,” Crowell reported from the bow gun.

“Very good, Mr Crowell. Call out at two-hundred yards, then again at one-hundred yards, if you please. Mr Samuel, you may open fire at one-hundred yards.” By now the rapid beat of the drum boomed, and the smell was almost overpowering.

“Two-hundred yards.”

Falconer nodded to Samuel, and the gun captains began taking careful aim. Falconer had drilled them incessantly since he took command a year ago, and trusted them to do what he asked.

“One-hundred yards!”

“Fire!” roared Samuel, and Salmacis reared as the aft four carronades went off together in a single roar. Smoke obscured everything, including the stench.

A puff of breeze eventually whipped away the smoke, and he could see the galley was no longer coming straight at them. The carronades had sheared off most of the port side oars in the middle of their stroke, while the starboard rowers continued pulling. This dragged the galley violently about—it was now parallel to Salmacis, about seventy-five yards away. Falconer heard screaming inside the hull—he couldn’t imagine what damage the ends of the suddenly-snapped oars had done to the poor devils chained to the benches. He ordered a full broadside: Samuel roared again and all eight starboard carronades went off, splintering the galley’s starboard oars now, crippling it completely. Within minutes it was almost adrift, its crew desperately trying to work the single sail. One more broadside tore at the galley’s hull just above the waterline.

The enemy was helpless, now, and his crew was cheering the boats of the shore party, which had finally reached the ship. Samuel looked to him for further orders. Did he want to sink the galley? It was certainly tempting. The enemy crew wasn’t going to surrender– he could hear and see them screaming curses and shaking their fists. He might even be doing the miserable slaves on board a favor by drowning them. But he was a King’s officer and a decent man, and his orders were to get Jensen and his men to England, not sink a ship which was no longer a threat.

“Cease fire for now, Mr. Samuel,” he ordered. “If the enemy gets any closer, however, sink her.” The crew cheered again.

He unclasped his hands, and barely had time to stop them from trembling before having to greet his passengers as they were brought aboard.  The incongruous sight of a captain in the Coldstream Guards dressed in a filthy robe and Arab headdress reminded Falconer just how strange his job was:  minutes after  fighting off a galley full of fanatics, he was following the ritual of welcoming guests aboard his ship, guests whose mission he would never know, and for whom he had risked everything to bring aboard. The strangeness would be forgotten, of course, once Salmacis was running with the wind for home  under a full press of sail, in fair weather.  Until then, protocol would do.

“Welcome aboard,” he said.

_______________________________________________________________________

Dave Wisker lives in the Kansas City area of Missouri with his wife, Margaret, and works at a local university. His work has appeared in the The Mulberry Fork Review.

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Bridges and Buttresses

By Joan Sobczak

While crossing the Atlantic with one friend, one trunk, and one secret, Josef Hueller turned 19. The year was 1847, and he had promised to write to his parents about the opportunities he discovered in America. With his friend, Josef discussed the jobs they would get and staying with the friend’s uncle until, if all went as planned, their families would join them. Meanwhile, Josef imagined what Father John Martin Henni might be like. Talking to Father Henni was the part of Josef’s plan that he kept to himself.

“I look at my father’s hands—callused, with the end of his ring finger on the right hand missing—and they belong to a man different from me,” Josef thought he might say. “Since boyhood, I have preferred books and thought to chores on our small farm, though I did my part. My father has labored on the land and in a factory. Steadfastly, he works, but without enthusiasm. He will come with my mother and young brother when the time is right. “Then,” Josef imagined saying, “it will be my duty to farm—my father’s expectation of me on this new land.”

Many nights during his voyage, Josef stood on the ship’s deck, finding comfort in the sound of a breeze in the schooner’s sails and the constellations overhead. His grandfather had pointed out the stellar shapes during Josef’s boyhood. “It doesn’t matter how far you travel. Just look for the North Star, at the handle’s end of the Little Dipper, to get your bearings,” he had told Josef. Now, at age 19, the grandson could find the brightest star all right, but he still had no idea of the direction that his life would take.

One Year Later (1848)

Nothing in Josef’s reports had given his mother a change of heart about leaving the homeland. He had described the lake, the rivers, the cozy church serving as Milwaukee’s cathedral, and the people who welcomed newcomers like old friends. Two settlements, one on each side of a river by the same name, comprised Milwaukee, but the townspeople liked to say that they lived in either Kilbourntown (on the west side) or in Juneautown (on the river’s east side). “Many here in Kilbourntown speak German,” Josef had assured his mother. “The smell of sauerbraten cooking wafts in the air, though surely none make it as delectably as you.”

Josef and his friend had both found work in a grist mill. They learned that Kilbourntown had gotten its name from an ambitious land speculator undeterred by the swampy ground. Byron Kilbourn seemed to have no problem finding people to buy land, even sight unseen, and besides, landfill could always be added. On the opposite riverbank, the thriving settlement called Juneautown had sprung up around the log cabin built by a French-Canadian trader named Solomon Juneau. Now, land in Kilbourntown sold because it was available. Juneautown was filled up.

In the latest news from home, Josef saw that his father had decided the time had come to set sail. With the letter from home in his pocket, Josef walked to church on Sunday. Instead of sitting in a middle pew as usual, he sat at the back. After all of the other faithful had filed out and Father Henni had come back inside, Josef asked for a moment with him.

 They went to the priest’s house, where Josef found himself seated in a room that appeared to serve as parlor, office, and closet. When Father Henni asked what had brought Josef to see him, Josef said, without looking up, “I have been thinking of the priesthood.”

 “I see.”

When Josef didn’t elaborate, Father Henni—ever one to enjoy a serendipitous journey, even just in conversation—steered their talk to easier, general topics. They discussed the turmoil in the German Confederation and the difficulty of achieving unity when the middle class, the laborers, and the upper class all had different rallying cries.

“Here, too, we have a rift,” Father Henni said. “In the South, we have Africans living in servitude. Even the landowners who desire to free the slaves experience themselves a sort of bondage—the economic pressures, yes, but also the question of where the freed slaves would go and how they would manage. Knowing what to do is not always easy.”

“What do you think will be the outcome?” Josef asked.

Father Henni chuckled, “A country, or two, ever in need of faith.”

The kindly cleric listened attentively, and Josef eventually got back to the topic of becoming a priest. “We are heart and mind and body and soul,” Father Henni remarked. “Thinking only gets you so far. Pray also, as will I, when I think often of you.”

The Family Reunited (1849)

“Clock weights! Some saloon keeper shoved them into the cannon on account of not having a real cannonball, and he would have lit the fuse, too, but some lawyer stood right on it and said, ‘Enough! There’s already a girl dead in the house! You can’t just go launching artillery in there!’” Finally, ten-year-old Otto stopped long enough to take a breath.

“Slow down! A girl killed in whose house?” Mrs. Hueller asked in a fret. “Where have you been with such danger about?” Josef would have intervened to calm their poor mother, but Otto started right up again.

“Hans said I could help him peddle his papers. It was Old Man Kilbourn’s house, and a posse was there and plenty mad about a half-wrecked bridge. A cannon aimed right at his parlor—that’s how mad they were. Have to be a good aim, though—right through the window. The house’s brick. I delivered his paper, so I know, up close. Clock weights! They would have bounced right off, don’t you think?”

By that time, Josef had pieced things together but didn’t interrupt. Their father took his turn in the conversation. “You are saying, Otto, that somebody killed an innocent girl and fired a cannon into Mayor Kilbourn’s house?”

“Would have, excepting for the girl already sick and died, but not from the posse, and the lawyer on top the cannon. All Kilbourntown had to do anyhow was demolish all the bridges, and we’d win the Bridge War!” Otto exclaimed, with his rapid-fire mind skipping to the next exciting part of the story. 

“Bridge War?” the family patriarch asked sternly. “I suspect that your friend has been telling tales.”

“True! All true!” Otto protested indignantly. “One bridge was half-wrecked anyway, like I said,” and he pounded one fist into his other hand for emphasis, “after that schooner piloted by some drunken east-sider captain smashed right into it.”

“Which bridge?” their father pressed onward.

Otto couldn’t remember all of the details and ignored the question to get on with his recap of the most impressive parts of the account. “Then, the posse went out and used plain old hammer blows to wreck it more. And then, Juneautown was mad! So they wrecked the last bridge so Kilbourntown didn’t have to do it. Kilbourntown wins the Bridge War after all!”

“Otto! You cannot expect us to believe that every bridge is destroyed, yet all of our neighbors seem to be sitting calmly around their supper tables, instead of rushing to the river’s edge,” his father admonished.   

At last, Josef explained. “This skirmish, it really has come to be known as the Great Bridge War,” he said, catching the told-you-so nod of his brother from the corner of his eye. “It happened a couple of years before I got here, apparently pretty much the way Otto told it.  Milwaukee was a city divided. Always will be, if our Mayor Kilbourn has his way about it.”

Josef continued to explain that, as developers, Kilbourn and his business partner had opposed any bridge over the Milwaukee River. He preferred to bridge the Menomonie River instead. That way, people coming north from Chicago would come right into Kilbourntown, and Juneautown would be cut off—“very good for business here,” Josef said. “He also made sure the roads did not line up with Juneautown’s, thinking it a way to thwart potential bridge building between here and Juneautown.”

The youthful pragmatist, Otto, chirped in, “What, people couldn’t just get off the other side of the boat?”

“Ocean ships are too big for the Milwaukee River. Mr. Kilbourn actually commissioned a specially made boat to bring passengers ashore at his dock or the bay. You could only get to Juneautown by walking five blocks or so and then taking a regular ferry—quite a bother,” Josef elaborated.

Not to be outdone as the events’ expert, Otto added, “Looks like Old Man Kilbourn didn’t get his way, for once, because those bridges were built cockeyed, as anyone can see who sees straight, to connect the streets on both sides. That’s why there was the war. Hans’s dad was right there, first hand.”

“Well,” their mother finally said, “now we have silly, slanted bridges. I, for one, miss our pretty, cobbled lanes in Niederberg. It is such a very pretty place we left.”

Then, remembering the girl in Otto’s story, she learned from Josef that the poor lass had not been killed in the Bridge War but had passed away just before. She lay in state with the cannon outside. “Bless her soul,” Mrs. Hueller added sadly and made the sign of the cross.

Josef knew that his mother was homesick. Anyone who met her would know. She always deferred to her husband’s wishes, but she had a knack for turning just about any topic to a reminder of where she would rather live. Josef expected that her outlook would improve a bit when he soon told her his plans.

He would go to see Father Henni again the next day. The family had grown accustomed to his solitary walks on Sunday afternoons, even back in Niederberg, and assumed that he walked without destination, just to think about things. That was his way. Otto was the talker; Josef, the thinker.

As a child, Josef would stand outside after church and gaze upward in thought. Even now, he could still close his eyes and feel the dizziness when looking skyward to the top of the 250-foot belltower of Konstanzer Münster (Constance Cathedral). When Otto, eleven years younger than Josef, got old enough, the brothers would conjure up imaginary adventures of medieval knights on Reichenau Island, surrounded by the placid water of Bodensee. Suddenly, in their minds, the lake was a moat, crossed over on a drawbridge to a castle with flying buttresses. Now, Otto dreamed of returning home and telling his friends about his ocean crossing and adventures in the new American State of Wisconsin. He, too, missed home. 

The following day, after the family’s noon meal, Josef set off. Father Henni would surely be home on a Sunday afternoon, keeping holy the Lord’s day. 

Soon enough, he came to Jefferson Street and spotted Father Henni halfway between Milwaukee’s temporary cathedral and the house that doubled as home and a fledgling seminary. Fr. Henni enthusiastically began the conversation.

“There is a place. The Potowatami natives call it ‘Nojoshing,’ meaning ‘land that goes into water.’ That is where I envision a proper seminary to be. We will have our own kilns for brick making and the woods for lumber. Father Salzmann—have I spoken of him to you before?—says that he will keep traveling, collecting funds and books, too, for we will need a library.            

“But now,” Father Henni said, “tell me about your progress in discernment of whether you might one day be a priest.”

They talked for a while, and Josef felt a bit closer to a decision. That night, as Josef and Otto lay in their bunk beds, with Otto on top, the younger brother said, “Who needs a lake here that is so gigantic that it looks like an ocean, instead of a moat?” The excitement of the Great Bridge War had been eclipsed by loneliness in a boy whose best friends were all far, far away.     

Thinking of Father Henni and his future seminary on Milwaukee’s lakeshore, Josef answered, “Me, I like things big—big ideas, big goals, big lakes even. One of these days, we will have an adventure so that I can show you something.”

“When? Show me what?” Otto perked up.

“It has to be at night, with no clouds or just a few overcasting, so we can see. We two will go out when Father and Mother have gone to sleep.”

“See what?” Otto persisted.

“Just wait. Perhaps next Friday or Saturday, if it is clear.”

The following Friday night, Josef and Otto snuck out of the house in stockinged feet, then put on their shoes to walk. Josef had left a note on Otto’s bed, just in case their parents awoke and found them missing.

En route, Otto asked, “When you’re all the way grown up, are you going to think backwards, too?”

Josef smiled and waited, figuring that Otto would explain.

“Father works harder than ever since we got here. Don’t think I can’t tell. And that makes it worse for him, right? But he says life here is better.”

Picturing their father’s large hands, the same way Josef sometimes did, Otto continued. “The biggest callus Mr. Kilbourn has is probably on the side of his finger because he has to write huge numbers in his ledger all the time. Being rich like that would be better. Only, Father says I have it backwards. But I don’t, right?”

“So, you would rather be a land speculator than work the land?”

“A what?”

“Buyer and seller of land.”

“Sure. Who wouldn’t like to be rich, like Mr. Kilbourn, instead of ordinary townfolk like us, I mean?”

“Father, for one.”

Otto asked, “And you?”

Josef didn’t answer. In the dark, he had to watch for the path leading downhill to the shore of the lake. “I’ll go first. When I stumble on roots and rocks, you will know where they are,” he teased, half seriously.

“Why couldn’t you just show me whatever I’m supposed to see in broad daylight, which is when people can actually see things?” Otto asked. 

They made their way down to the sandy beach, with Otto looking around expectantly, hoping to spot the object of their adventure before Josef could point it out. Seeing nothing extraordinary—actually nothing much at all—he decided to try once more to prove his point.

“It must be fun to be rich and boss people around and live in a mansion, when you can’t even line up streets on your side of the river with the other side’s.”

“That was on purpose,” Josef reminded Otto. “Mayor Kilbourn is a land surveyor by trade. He knew what he was doing. Now, are you ready to see what we came here for?”

“How? There’s no moon even.”

Josef told Otto to stand directly in front of him, with both of them facing the lake. “Look straight ahead, not down. Look way beyond the sand,” he said.

On that windless night, the water rose up into the horizon, black on black. They couldn’t tell if stars were in the sky or reflecting on the seemingly endless water.

“Makes me feel like I’m in the sky,” Otto said excitedly. Then, water lapped over his shoes. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, just as Josef lifted him up and took a couple of steps back.

“To me, it looks like heaven and Earth coming together,” Josef said. “Do you see?”

“Heaven’s not dark,” Otto said before another idea came to mind. “Will it ever freeze over for skating, I mean all the way, even in the middle, like Bodensee?”

Josef knelt in the sand and put his arms around his brother’s small shoulders. “It gets ice, but maybe there’s always open water in the middle. I’m not sure.”

“Here, you have this huge lake and a tiny cathedral that shouldn’t even count for one because it is so small, if you ask me. Backwards here, again.”

“Konstanzer Münster was built more than 1,000 years ago. Father Henni says that we will have a proper cathedral. It will be big.”

Sometimes, Otto caught even Josef off-guard. “Is that where you went—to see Father Henni, but not in church?”

Josef started to ask how Otto had guessed but then said simply, “Yes, I went to him sometimes. He said that there will be, not only a cathedral, but a seminary as well.”

Otto replied that he already knew about the current seminary, so small that it fit in Father Henni’s house, “like he’s a schoolmarm, excepting that he can’t be a marm, so I don’t know what you would call him, except for ‘Father,’ like we already do. So, you can let me know if you go there. But if you do, you’ll be a priest here in America forever, and I might as well forget about Niederberg. Maybe I can become a master brewer here then, the best beer in town. I know, I know, we already have twelve breweries here, but did you know that there are something like 250 saloons?” Where a boy of ten got all of this information, Josef truly wondered. 

“So, you can picture me a priest, in a cassock and everything?” It was a question Josef planned to ask Father Henni, too.

Otto answered, “Or an astronomer. With a huge telescope right up there on the hill.”

On the walk home, Otto mused that, perhaps one day, he would buy Byron Kilbourn’s house and load his beer onto the railroad that came practically to the door so that he could have customers in saloons as far as the rails ever went.

“I thought you liked things smaller, like in Niederberg. That sounds more like a big plan,” Josef said.

“Backwards!” they both said at the same time. 

 _____________________________________________________________

In her group for National Novel Writers’ Month, the leader christened Joan “Unplugged,” because she still drafts all of her creative writing in pencil. “Bridges and Buttresses” is a bit of an anomaly, because Joan typically integrates poetry into her stories. Writing seems to be in the DNA, because the writing group’s leader was her brother A.J., a self-employed editor and published author. Two years after A.J. unexpectedly passed away, Joan submitted this story in honor of the brother who commented, encouraged, and continues to inspire her.

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Some Destiny

By Amanda LaPorta

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

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

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

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

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

“How well do you know this country?”

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

“Following the main roads to the east—”

“Is the River Alle.”

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

“Oh, that would be…”

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

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

“Thank you, lieutenant.”

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

Eylau.

 

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

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

“Something like that.”

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

“Well, f— Murat.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

d’Hautpoul swore.

“There’s more, General.”

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?  What the f— do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“General!”

“Idiot!”

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

“Finally!”

“Marshal Murat will give the command when ready.”

“I’ll command my own division.”

“General, it is a massed charge.”

“How many divisions are in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But General, a third charge…?”

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

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

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

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

 

“If we move the artery—”

“To cauterize.”

“No, just bandage it with the—”

“Amputation is the only answer.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I assure you otherwise.”

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

Amanda LaPorta is a cavalry enthusiast living in Florida.

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Divine Protection

By Michael Leach

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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Burden Birthed

By Alexandra Starr

The Palace at Westminster, 1466

The frigid February night permeates softly through the window of a birthing room. The castle walls are unforgiving, making nobles of the court in the far wings of the castle wince at the sounds. This is the night that has been long awaited, with midwives assisting the delivery. The women can hear the moans of a pregnant mother, as they watch all of her muscles choke, and then relax. With a gasp of relief, she wipes the sweat from her brow, as more hot water is slowly poured over her aching stomach. You can hear her breathing slow, as her pale blue eyes begin to close. Letting her golden hair fall behind her, she leans her head back, and looks up as if she is watching the angels,

“Unto me he shall be given.” She smiles in contentment, “Of this I am certain my ladies. He shall rule with an iron fist, and resume justice among us once more. This war shall not presume when my Edward is born unto my king and me. No more I say. Brutality shall strike this house no more.” Before another word is spoken, the queen is once again thrust into agony.

The midwives begin to assist; all of them just as rigid as the queen herself. And as the delivery progresses, so does their anticipation of the future. Surely if a thing is to go wrong, they could be hung for their fault in the practice. Some attend to the weeping queen, while others feel for the baby’s soft head. The last of the women begins to prepare her body to nurse the child on arrival.

The sound of a small gasp, a choke, and a first cry finally brings cessation of the queen’s tears. As the child is heaved from her body, and begins to be dried off with numerous cloths, she laughs with delight. Never has she felt more triumphant. “Ah! Alas it has ended. Please show me my Edward.” She demands holding out her eager hands.

Suddenly there is a troublesome silence in the room, as apprehensive glances are exchanged between the midwives. The nursemaid takes the child in her hands, and a tear rolls down her cheek. “Nurse. I demand to see my Edward.” The queen scolds her.

“Oh your highness if I could only say it is so.” The nurse weeps.

“Nonsense.” Says the queen; her voice becomes unsteady, “What has become of my Edward? My prince.” She watches as the nurse moves her head back and forth in a slow motion, her eyes filled with regret. The queen cups her head in her frail hands as she gasps. “Surely it is not so. Say it is not so my ladies!” she cries. The midwives give no response but their tears. The child is handed to the queen gingerly, and she begins to caress it. Opening the blanket it is wrapped in, she peers apprehensively at the child’s sex. Putting the wrap back into place, the infant baby girl begins to search for food. “Take her.” She says, “She is quite hungry I am sure.” All the color is absent from the queen’s face. The nurse begins to rock the child back and forth as she lets it nurse from her own breast.

Lifting her face to the ceiling, the queen heaves and lets out a large groan. She does not understand why this burden has been placed upon them. She had prayed every night since her wedding day that the Lord might bless her with a son. He would be a great leader; a king to finally end the raging war between the York and Lancaster houses. A girl was not what she had been praying for. A girl could do no good for their country, or for the throne.

Suddenly there is a rapping on the large wood door. The sound startles those in the room before they begin to cover the queen with blankets to make her decent. When the door is opened, a servant of the queen appears.

“The king wishes to see his son, your Highness.” she says. There is a silence that comes over the room. The servant begins to twitch her toes underneath her dress and looks at the ground. Finally the queen speaks once again,

“Tell the king that he may come as he wishes. However his dreams of a son are not to be. The only child birthed unto him this day is a princess. Now make haste.” She shakes her hand to have the messenger leave and tell her husband what she has declared.

The midwives gather around the bed and all kneel simultaneously. The one who had assisted in pouring the hot water is the first to speak,

“Surely, Your Majesty, we had no part in this calamitous event. Please, we wish not to be blamed.” Leaning in towards the woman, the queen nods her head in confidence to confirm her accord. Assuring her servants, she speaks,

“I shall see to it that no soul here shall face the gallows or the stake.” Thanking the just queen for her forgiveness, the ladies each bow with gratitude.

It is not long before the same messenger arrives at the door, accompanied by the king. Before there even is permission to enter, the door is pried open to reveal a man with a face hot in rage, and two irate eyes. He walks with a sense of divine right over to his wives bed and places his thick hand on the wooden frame. Leaning on it, he sighs before speaking.

“Is this true what I have been informed?” The queen nods just once in submission, before gesturing to the nurse who is holding the infant. Tearing the child from her shaking hands, the king insists to inspect it himself. His expression seems the same as the queen’s when he rewraps the girl in her swaddle once more. Handing it to the nurse he speaks, “I wish it dead.”

“-My King!” the queen interjects. It is unlike Edward to respond this way.

“Well, it is of no use to us but merely a burden. I would rather it dead than a girl.” He yells, “Surely your midwives are hereby committed of witchcraft, and are sentenced to the stake! Along with the cursed child their hands did bare!”

“I swear it on my honor as Queen of England that there lives not an immortal soul in this palace. It is a cruel punishment that they dare not face.” the queen insists.

“So be it. However I shall see to it that I produce a male heir. On whatever terms it may require!” The king quickly storms from the room, slamming the door behind him. Unsure what to do, the messenger follows the king’s footsteps and scurries out.

The queen once again proceeds to her weeping before her nurse rubs her eyes with a cold rag. “Your Highness. I do not mean to cause trouble. Yet you shall need to provide the girl with a name. Any name shall do. Yet the people will certainly be wondering what their princess is to be called.”

“Elizabeth. As myself.” The queen tells her. She knows that the child is destined for a life of regret and dismay. She will never feel that she has honor, so the least that can be given to her is an honorable name.

“Elizabeth your Highness?” the nurse clarifies.

“As I have said it. Elizabeth of York.”

______________________________________________________________

Alexandra Starr has enjoyed writing all of her life with a special place in her heart for historical fiction. Currently a student residing in California, this is her first publication and she is very excited to debut her work.

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Sand Creek

By Benjamin Dancer

Freckled Face Woman was on the trail to the spring when she saw a crimson dust cloud in the distance. The men of the village were hunting, and she thought, at first, the dust was caused by their horses or maybe a herd of bison. She hadn’t been awake long, and it took time for her to recall the reason for her visit to Sand Creek.

When Freckled Face Woman told Ned that Chivington had stopped the mail and all traffic on the Arkansas along his route to Fort Lyon, he downplayed her concern. Chivington was present at the peace council. Both he and Governor Evans authorized Major Wynkoop to accept Black Kettle’s and Left Hand’s surrender. There was no misunderstanding about that. 

Freckled Face Woman tried for two days to persuade her son to come home.

He said his place was with Left Hand.

It was a good sized-village, over a hundred lodges, a handful of which constituted Left Hand’s camp. The pony and mule herds were scattered around the encampment totaling many hundred animals. Freckled Face Woman saw Kingfisher and Little Bear running in the blue grama grass from the direction of their eastern herd. They were shouting something.

A flock of meadowlarks was foraging in the dry grass on both sides of the trail. Apart from the herders in the distance, she was alone. Most people had not yet risen.

Freckled Face Woman forgot about the coffee she intended to brew when she saw the long column of soldiers approaching from the south. Sand Creek was mostly dry, and the Americans were riding through the sandreed in the wide floodplain.

By then, Little Bear was close enough for her to hear what he was shouting. “The soldiers are coming!”

By force of will, Freckled Face Woman suppressed the panic she felt in her breast and took the time to scan the horizon. She saw a group of young boys driving their ponies toward the village. Others herders were fleeing. She told herself it might be Wynkoop coming to finalize the peace. The nearest pony herd was about a half mile away. If she was going to escape, this was her chance. She thought about running for the horses. But she couldn’t leave without her son.

The encampment was near a bend in Sand Creek, and the head of the column stopped to the south where the soldiers unloaded their baggage. Freckled Face Woman ran back to Left Hand’s camp.

A girl’s head poked out from a lodge to see what all the yelling was about. Bison Woman was putting on her moccasins.

Freckled Faced Woman was winded and within the village when she heard a man shouting. “Wake up Arapahos! The soldiers are attacking! Run! Scatter! We will all meet again in two moons where we had our last Sun Dance!”

The cavalry was now in a gallop in a column of fours. She looked inside the lodge, but Ned was no longer there.

A battalion separated from the larger force and advanced north in order to envelope the east side of the village. A small detachment from that battalion raced toward one of the herds. They would have slain Little Bear, but the oldest boys anticipated the maneuver and charged their ponies to meet those soldiers in battle. Little Bear and Kingfisher got through, but the other herders were shot from their mounts. Meanwhile, Major Anthony’s battalion galloped toward a position to the south.

By now the everybody was awake and the village was in unmitigated chaos. Half dressed children ran out of their lodges, caught sight of the soldiers enveloping them and screamed. Old men ducked back inside to retrieve their weapons. The soldiers were forming a horseshoe around the encampment, and there was only one way out. A stampede of partially dressed people fled into the creek, hoping to escape upstream.

Black Kettle presented a large American flag tied to the end of a lodgepole. Beneath the American flag was a smaller white flag. He called out in a strong voice, “Do not be frightened. We are under protection. There is no danger.”

Those who saw flight as hopeless surrendered themselves. Scores of women and children pleaded for mercy. Many of them dropped to their knees or bellies in supplication, women covering their children with their own bodies. Others ran toward the soldiers with their hands in the air. Some waved white calico. Still others were too petrified to move.

By now, the ponies were running through the village. An old chief put two of his granddaughters on one of the horses.

“Ride fast,” he sent them upstream. “We will find you later.”

As was reported to Colonel Chivington by Captain Soule on the previous day, John Smith, an United States Indian interpreter and special Indian agent, and David Louderback, a United States Army private, were camped at Sand Creek trading and gathering intelligence under the authority of Major Anthony. When they saw the camp being enveloped, they ran toward their compatriots, Louderback waving a white flag, Smith with his hands in the air, to explain that the Indians they were camped with had surrendered. The line of cavalry responded with several volleys of rifle fire.

Major Anthony was still forming his line when the battalion to the northeast opened the attack. He shouted, “Kill the sons of bitches!”

A fusillade of lead ripped through the supplicating bodies of women and children.

By the time Little Bear made it back to his lodge, his parents were gone. Freckled Face Woman watched as he put on his war bonnet.

“What are you doing?” he asked her. “Run!”

She could not leave without her son. Although she knew the canvas could not stop a lead ball, she crouched behind one of the tipis. She felt afraid, but, for the time being, it was a mother’s fear, and it had yet to occur to her that she also was in harm’s way. Freckled Face Woman was on her hands and knees when she slowly looked around the tipi and saw the battery of howitzers. The Model 1835 Mountain Howitzer fired wrought-iron hollow spheres four and a half inches in diameter, filled with a bursting charge of black powder and about seventy-eight musket balls. Shortly after the commencement of the assault, came a barrage from two twelve-pounder howitzers. Shrapnel and .69 caliber balls perforated the canvas and splintered the lodge poles of Freckled Face Woman’s shelter. The grenade-like explosions ripped through the women around her, and howls of pain accompanied the repeated concussions of the ordinance.

White Antelope had parleyed with President Lincoln the year prior. He had told the Cheyenne that the Americans were good people and had compelled his relatives to camp with him under the protection of Fort Lyon. So when he saw the soldiers shooting into the lodges, he made up his mind not to live any longer. White Antelope stood with his arms folded across his breast singing the death-song, “Death is upon us. Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains.”

There was nowhere for Freckled Face Woman to hide. As she cowered in the white sage, she saw an adolescent boy rope a horse. While he was tying the bridle, he told someone still in the lodge, “Get ready. You’re going to ride out of here.” Then a pregnant woman came out and mounted the pony. Freckled Face Woman recognized her as the boy’s mother. He told her to follow the other horses then went back into the lodge and came out with his bow and arrows.

The bullets sounded like hail when they shredded the canvas.

There was a woman on her knees with two small children pleading for their lives in front of a group of soldiers. The Americans were no more than ten feet away when the first one fired. Over the course of two or three seconds, the rest of them discharged their rifles, as well, but their eyes were closed. The mother was shot in the thigh, and no one else was wounded. The mother drew a knife, the only protection she had left, and used it to kill her children. Then she killed herself.

Freckled Face Woman was surrounded by the dead and dying. Dogs were barking and licking up the blood.

A girl, maybe five or six, was running toward the creek bank with one moccasin on and the other foot bare. She carried a little backpack in one hand and held her older brother’s hand with the other. He was no more than seven. A couple of old men stood between the fleeing children and the cavalry, holding the line of soldiers back with their arrows. All those men had for cover was a cottonwood sapling. The children were in the switchgrass at the top of the creek bank when the boy stumbled. She climbed back up the bank to help him, but he was bleeding and couldn’t get up.

“Don’t look back,” he told her.

As the bullets went by, they made a sound Freckled Face Woman had never heard before. It was like they were ripping the air. People were falling down everywhere.

She saw a little boy in the wide creek bed. He was walking in a half circle, as if he didn’t know where to go. Then she saw one of the old men running toward him. The man grabbed the boy and ran.

Freckled Face Woman jumped down the bank and started running, too. She wasn’t aware that it had happened, but she was no longer thinking about her son. She was no longer thinking. She just ran.

Major Anthony maneuvered his battalion so that the force was pursuing the people on opposite sides of the wide creek bed. Colonel Chivington was in command of two distinct military elements at Sand Creek, the first of which was the regiment of five hundred volunteers; the second element was composed of soldiers from the First Regiment of Colorado Cavalry, which he commandeered the previous day from Fort Lyon–with the notable exception of two companies: Captain Soule’s D and elements of Lieutenant Cramer’s K, who refused to participate. As the village emptied, Chivington’s volunteers, equipped with an assortment of muskets, rifles, carbines, revolvers and cavalry sabers, joined in the pursuit. There were some seven hundred mounted soldiers slaughtering the People as they fled.

As Freckled Face Woman ran, she saw a young mother in the creek ahead. Her daughter couldn’t keep up with her. The mother tried to carry the girl, but the woman was of a slight build and didn’t get far before she gave out. The mother scooped out a hole in the sand. She was covering the girl when Freckled Face Woman ran past.

“Don’t cry,” the woman told her daughter. “I’ll come back.”

She saw a boy crawl into a hollow log.

There were scores of people trying to escape on the prairie. Some on the horses they caught, others on foot. Two sisters were chased by horsemen. They ran until their lungs stopped working. Then they fell to their knees and clasped each other around the neck. That’s when they were shot.

Freckled Face Woman was running beside a grandmother. The woman was naked and carrying a baby. Then ran together for sixty yards or so. Then she wasn’t beside her anymore. Freckled Face Woman looked back and saw the baby wailing in the wheatgrass. The woman had been shot in the head. But Freckled Face Woman didn’t stop running. The possibility never occurred to her. Someone else stooped down and picked the baby up.

By this time there was no organization among the soldiers. Some got off their horses to shoot the people hiding under the banks, which ranged anywhere from two to twenty feet high. Others advanced along both sides of the wide creek to kill those running away. The carnage was so disorderly that the Americans repeatedly came under fire from their own ranks. Some of them were engaged in collateral action throughout the surrounding prairie, pursuing women and children in every direction.

Freckled Face Woman was winded and limping with one hand on her side when she came upon the defensive line the chiefs were organizing in the creek bed. The People were digging entrenchments in the sand, and the old men, armed with bows and a few muskets, were gathering the women and children behind them.

Little Bear was in one of the sand pits. All the feathers were broken on his war bonnet, and there were bullet holes in his shield.

Freckled Face Woman was offered a chert knife from one of dying. Then she saw Ned with Spanish Woman and some others, almost all of them bleeding, digging a pit under an overhang in the creek bank. She ran to her son and helped the women dig.

She could see a dozen of the dead from where she lay beside a little girl in the sand. A young girl was scalped as she was being raped in the grass. A battery of howitzers was being pulled by mules on the opposite side of the creek. There was a bluff to the west, and one of the boys told her that they could get away if they climbed it. Some of the women went with him. But Ned refused to leave.

Earlier in the fight, Yellow Coyote staked himself out in the creek to defend the people behind him. Those soldiers didn’t stay back because they were afraid of the old chief’s arrows. His courage shamed them. Ned was fourteen years old. He saw how the man chose to die and felt proud to be counted with him. In the context of the carnage, his emotions made no sense, not even to himself, except that once he decided to die like that old man, his heart felt light.

Freckled Face Woman tried to persuade the little girl to flee with the others, but she wouldn’t let go of her hand.

They heard footsteps above them. Two, maybe three, soldiers were searching for people hiding under the bank. Freckled Face Woman could feel the little girl shuddering and pulled her to her breast. The morning’s slaughter had depleted her ability to be frightened. What she felt was outrage.

Bluestem grass hung from the bank above her. She saw the blond hair through the leaves, then the green eyes and the head hanging upside down.

The soldier called up to his companions. “There’s some here!” 

What Freckled Face Woman saw next was the barrel of a Whitney revolver. She stood, grabbed the soldier’s gun with one hand and thrust her knife into his eye with the other. The gun went off and the gas escaping from the cylinder gap opened her palm. She let the revolver fall into the sand, then she yanked the soldier’s hair and pulled him down. Immediately following his corpse into the pit was a .44 caliber Colt repeating rifle.

Freckled Face Woman didn’t know she had been shot. All she could feel was the pain in her hand. Ned packed the hole in her side with his cotton shirt.

Freckled Face Woman found the soldier’s powder and bullets and used the rifle to shoot an American on the opposite bank who was using the buttstock of his Sharps carbine to brain one of the children. It took three shots for her to hit him, and as there were no other visible targets, she handed the rifle to Ned to reload.

By the time she got the revolving rifle back, the soldiers were directing the battery of howitzers at the sand pits. When she aimed at the artillerymen, Ned put his hand over the rear sight and told her to save the powder. They were out of range. Freckled Face Woman had seen what the big guns were capable of in the village and began to bury the little girl in the sand.

The battery fired its remaining ordnance into the defensive positions dug into the creek bed. The explosions propelled shards of iron and balls of lead that blasted the sand of the entrenchments as high as some of the young trees and tore through the women and children.

After the bombardment, the sky was filled with arrows. They looked like blue streaks in the air. Intimidated by the ferocity of the defense, the Americans kept their distance. Freckled Face Woman came to Sand Creek to rescue her son. She remained when she could have escaped because she thought he needed her. She saw now that she was wrong. Her youngest son was now a man beyond her reach. Life itself had moved beyond her reach. Ned fought beside his mother until they ran out of powder. Then they fought with knives. When Freckled Face Woman died, the little girl kept fighting with the rock in her hand.

______________________________________________________________

Benjamin Dancer wrote the novels Patriarch Run, In Sight of the Sun, and Fidelity. “Sand Creek” is an excerpt from his new novel A Tale of Shame and Grace. You can learn more at BenjaminDancer.com.

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Mary Shelley’s Sister

By Chelsi Robichaud

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I enjoy religious meditations,” I said.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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The Epiphany of Julien Bellerose

By Elizabeth Swann Lewis

 

Paris, 1906

Julien threw his brush down in disgust. In the four months since his admission to the Ecole de Beaux Arts, he’d painted scenes all over Paris. He painted the office workers at the Palais de Justice, jewelers in the Marais, courtesans in Montmartre, and picnics at the Pont de Neuilly. Nothing seemed to please Monsieur Bernard.

Now Bernard was looking over his shoulder at his scene of the skivs on the Seine. “Don’t be petulant Mr. Bellerose. Pick up your brush.”

“You say you don’t like the color. This is how I see it.”

“The boat is pink.”

“The captain is dreaming of sailing the South Seas,” Julien said.

Bernard lifted his palms to his ears. “Don’t bring that fauvist heresy here.”

“May I go home early? I feel sick to my stomach,” Julien asked. If he wanted to be misunderstood he’d have stayed at his parents’ patisserie.

Bernard waved him away. “Go. Try again tomorrow.”

The next morning the foot traffic in Montmartre was heavy and impeded his progress as he hurried to class. He stopped at the curb to let a carriage pass and felt a tug at his arm. It was Christian Geroux and his hands were trembling. Julien had been introduced to him at the Folies. Christian had consumed too much absinthe in the reverie and paraded about in a pilfered lady’s hat. He’d nearly been tossed out, and Julien had avoided him since. “You’re still sniffing ether aren’t you?” Julien asked.

“No, I’ve been off it for two weeks. I’m done with it. I want to paint again. I even have a little money in my pocket. “
“What have you been doing?”

“A lottery scam, selling tickets with all the same numbers.”

“That’s dishonest,” Julien said.

“I know. I’ll quit. I’ve got a job lined up at the Place du Terce, sweeping the stalls. Before long I can get a flat again.”

“Where are you sleeping?”

“Doorsteps mostly. There’s a room opening at the Bateau Lavoir. You’re painting now?”

“I got into the Beaux Arts, but it’s not easy. And this morning I’m late.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Christian said. “I know a good gambling hall. I’ve been lucky there.”

Julien shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Nothing ever happens. The rich guys go there with their mistresses. You can win enough to buy paint for a year.”

Julien thought for a moment. Gambling had been outlawed within sixty miles of Paris, but he needed money. Madame Liebengut had given him a cot at the Hotel Soulager on the Rue Amsterdam in exchange for maintenance repairs, but the school didn’t supply all the gouaches he needed. The only wealth he had after leaving behind his howling parents was a family heirloom, a ring King Louis XVI had given to a Bellerose ancestor in honor of his service as baker to the Royal Court. Julien kept the inscribed gold band tucked in his inside coat pocket.

“Let’s do it. But you must wash up first. You smell.” He led Christian back to the Soulager. Madame Liebengut turned from her place in front of a cast iron pot at the stove. “No school today?”

“Not for me. What’s in the pot?”

She wrapped her knobby rheumatic fingers around a tarnished spoon and stirred. “Rabbit stew. There’ll be plenty.”

Julien led Christian down the chilly staircase to the cellar. He pointed to the basin on the table under a small, oval mirror hung on the wall with dusty twine.

After Christian rinsed his face he spotted Julien’s coats and bowler hats in his armoire. “The Aviator Club is a nice place. Put those on. Have you got some for me?” Julien produced his Sunday coat and hat. They exited onto the narrow Rue Amsterdam and headed toward the Clichy.

Someone had painted MATISSE WILL DRIVE YOU MAD on the wall of the rectory next door. Julien was poised to comment on the lack of respect given to the city’s most audacious painters when a soft voice interrupted. “Excuse moi.” A pale woman struggled to catch up, her feet clacking against the cobblestones. “Bonjour Monsieurs. I’ve recently lost my husband.”

“Tell it to someone else,” Christian said.

She cast her eyes to ground and hurried away as if afraid of being struck.

“Perhaps I could have given her a few centimes,” Julien said.

“She’s no widow,” Christian said. “She’s a prostitute. Giving solace to the grieving excites some people.”

Julien wondered if he’d ever understand the streets of Paris the way Christian did. At twenty-four he was feeling the weight of his virginity. It was respected in his parent’s religious circles, but in Montmartre he was an oddity.

They headed to the elegant second arrondisement and turned down the bustling Boulevard des Italiens. They passed the Opera Comique- arched windows reaching for the second heaven, and the Café de Paris where diners sipped on café cremes. The clock tower chimed twelve o’clock. Men and ladies alike dodged the heavy procession of carriages. Julien was taken with the street scene as it was at the noon hour and made a note to return to paint it.

The Sports Aviator Club was a spacious old building on the corner of the Rue Taitbout. Thick upholstered curtains blocked the windows, and the place was lit with kerosene lamps. The walls were covered in damask satin wallpaper. Throngs of men and women in expensive clothes gathered at the velvet topped poker tables. Laughter emanated from the next room. Julien’s head pivoted from table to table.

“You don’t know what you’re doing do you?” Christian asked. “Roulette is the easiest. Put your money down on a square and wait for it to hit. I’m going to try my hand at stud.”

Julien walked to the roulette table and placed a franc down on twenty one black.

“Ten franc minimum,” the dealer said. A few of the sparkling demimondes waiting for the wheel to spin narrowed their eyes.

Julien dug for the last of his coins. “Pardon.” He put down his last ten francs.

The dealer spun the wheel. “Twenty one black.” He shoved twenty francs at Julien. Within a half hour, beginners luck had turned his ten francs into a hundred. Elated, he went to the bar. He glanced toward the back room. “What are they playing?”

“Baccarat. Chemin de fer,” the bartender said.

Julien drank a shot of absinthe and walked to the back room, feeling fuzzy. Several players were seated at an oval table, and six decks of cards sat shuffled together in an iron box. A pile of discarded cards were in the center of the table. The scent of smoke and adrenaline permeated the room. A few gamblers looked rumpled, as if they hadn’t slept, stubble sprouting from their chins. The designated banker dealt himself two cards, face down, and two others held in common by the other players.

Julien noticed immediately the striking figure of Christine Lina “La Belle” Otero, the most famous courtesan in Paris, seated next to the banker. Dark, curly hair surrounded her olive face, and her décolletage was scandalously low. Le Figaro breathlessly reported the escapades of the gypsy from Valga. She’d bedded men from every Royal house in Europe, and a dozen unfortunate suitors had killed themselves for the love of her. Julien clenched his hands and stared.

“Anyone going bank?” The dealer asked.

Otero tapped her slender fingers on the table. “I will.”

“You haven’t enough money to match the bank. You’ve lost all night Lina,” the dealer said. She looked to every man at the table, but they remained silent. The dealer lifted his eyes from the cards. “Haven’t you been spending time in Monaco with Albert again? There’s a telephone over there. Maybe he’ll secure some funds for you.”

“That pig wouldn’t give the sweat off his balls,” she said.

The gamblers chuckled.

“I have to go bank or I’m washed out,” she continued. “You’ve already cleaned me out of my jewelry. What about this purse?” She threw a gold clutch on the table. “Take that.”

“That’s worthless,” the dealer said.

Otero pushed her chair back and stood. She turned around and lifted her dress, exposing her round naked bottom. “All right cochon. Here’s my ass. What’s it worth?”

The banker tugged at her dress and told her to sit back down. Julien scanned the table. Otero seemed to be there on her own.

“How much does she need?” Julien asked from under the hallway arch.

The dealer looked up. “Who are you?”

Julien reached for his hundred francs and set them down. “An interested party.”

“She needs fifteen hundred francs,” the dealer said. The other players turned to stare.

“Oh,” Julien said. The heirloom ring in his coat pocket felt as if it were burning into his rib. He couldn’t possibly gamble with it. It would be a complete betrayal of his father.

Otero flashed her brown eyes and licked her lips. As if in a trance, he pulled the ring from his pocket. “A gold ring, a gift from King Louis to my family.” He set it down on the table. “For the lady.”

“You’ll get nothing out of Lina for that,” one of the men cracked. “You need ten thousand, at least.”

She eyed Julien and nodded. “Very well,” the dealer said. “Bank for the lady.” He turned over his cards, revealing a jack and a nine. The players stared. The dealer turned over the common cards-a queen and a four. “Bank wins. Sorry Lina.”

The other players groaned. They stood to gain from her win too. Otero stood once again and smiled. “I’m out. Bientot,” she said with a wave of her hand.

Julien knew he’d be feeling sick later over the loss of the ring, but presently she was heading toward him, her hips swaying. She placed her soft hand on his forearm and whispered into his ear. He felt her hot, moist breath. “I’m going home to nap. Come see me later, 27 Rue Fortuny.”

“Yes Madame,” he stammered and then corrected himself. “Mademoiselle.”

She waved to the doorman and was flung backward by a sudden rush of gendarmes brandishing night sticks and blowing their whistles. Two dozen gendarmes, brass buttons neatly fastened along their torsos, stormed in from the staircase. Glittering guests pushed over the tables and scrambled for the back entrance. Julien looked around for Christian. “Merde! A raid!” the banker yelled.   The roulette dealer was seized immediately as well as the players trapped behind an upturned poker table. A gendarme slapped a pair of handcuffs around Julien’s wrists. “Don’t move.”

Otero was led away, screaming: “What’s the use of living under a republic?”

The gendarme hauled Julien down the steps and tossed him into a waiting cart.

 

Julien awoke the next morning huddled in the corner of a cramped holding cell, disgusted with the taste of his mouth. The air in the dank cell smelled like urine, and the odor had saturated his clothes. Somehow he had managed to nod off sometime in the middle of the night despite the yelling and banging of tin cups on the bars. He had not seen Christian and surmised he had somehow escaped. Otero had not been taken to the station with the others, and he wondered where she had gone.

A gendarme appeared in the narrow hallway and checked off names off a notepad. “Allard, Courtemanche, Langlois, Bellerose, Savageau.”

The relief Julien felt at being released from the cage was soon replaced with trepidation when they entered the courtroom. The Magistrate sat behind the bench wearing a black robe with a white ruffled ascot. The court officer stepped forward and called Julien’s name. The Magistrate lifted his file. “Julien Bellerose?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you understand you’ve been charged with Gaming within the city limits, a violation of le droit prive, an act which carries a maximum penalty of five thousand francs and eighty-nine days in jail?”

“Yes sir.”

“How do you wish to plead?”

“Guilty Your Honor.”

“Very well. This is your first offense?”

“Yes sir.”

“What is your occupation?”

“I was born into my father’s patisserie, but I’m a painter now.”

The Magistrate peered over his glasses. “Bellerose…not the Patisserie Bellerose?”

“Yes sir.”

“They have the best bread in Paris. We could use some this morning couldn’t we Alfred,” the Magistrate said to the court officer. Alfred nodded.

“You’re a painter?” The magistrate asked.

“Yes sir.”

The magistrate paused. “My son wants to be a painter.” He looked over at Alfred. “Have any of your sons come home and told you he wants to paint?”

Alfred slid his eyes toward the Magistrate. “Alphonse.”

“Since this is your first offense,” the Magistrate continued, “I’m not imposing any jail time, but the fine is five hundred francs.”

“I don’t have it sir.”

“The Patisserie Bellerose must do quite well.”

“My father is no longer speaking to me.”

“Can you make payments?”

“I depend on others to eat sir,” Julien said.

“You managed to find enough to go gambling.”

“I pawned my grandfather’s ring in hopes of winning enough money for school.”

“I take it you lost it.”

“Yes sir.”

The magistrate rested his hand on his long chin. “Let that be a lesson.”

“I’d very much like to use any extra money I can earn to buy it back. It was a gift to our family from King Louis XVI. For the bread sir.”

“Very well. You can work it off by sweeping the quays. It’ll take you a year, you understand that? “Stay out of the second arrondisement. Do you have any reason to be there?”

“Yes sir.”

“What reason?”

“It’s beautiful.”

The Magistrate looked to Alfred. “No wonder is father is frustrated with him. We’re not getting any bread then are we.”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Alfred said.

The Magistrate slapped the file shut. “Very well. See the clerk on your way out.”

 

Chestnut trees with soft, yellow autumn leaves lined the Rue Fortuny. The number 27 was a four-story building with a wide bay window on the second floor. Julien rang the bell. An African maid answered. Her neck was long, making her seem more regal than a housemaid.

“Yes?”

“I’m here to see Lina,” he said, raising his voice as if he were asking a question. He hadn’t been expecting someone else to answer.

“One moment,” she said.

After short delay, she returned. “This way.” He trailed her up the stairs and was shown into a room on the second floor. Otero appeared in the doorway. She wore a magenta silk robe, and her hair was jumbled. She looked as if she had just fallen out of bed. He hoped she was alone.

He followed her into a large boudoir that was as sumptuous as she was. It was paneled in gilded oak, richly carved and painted in a rose motif. Under a canopy of blue silk stood a carved mahogany bed, enclosed with festoons of chintz drapery. He didn’t move from the doorway.

She pulled him inside and crinkled her nose. “You smell like piss. I imagine you spent the night in jail. The bath is over here,” she said leading him across the hall. “Just turn the knob, and you’ll get hot water in the bath. There’s glycerin on the shelf. Add a few drops to the water. It’ll soften your skin. The alcohol is on the sink if you want to dry out your hair. No need to put those filthy clothes back on.”

The marble topped commode held an array of delicate Fouquet perfume bottles. He stepped to the porcelain tub and marveled that the knobs should pipe in hot water so easily. Her rose soap produced a rich lather on his wet skin.

He let out his breath, straightened his shoulders, and traversed the hall and into her boudoir, attempting to look as if he knew what he was doing.

She was lying back on the bed, her robe spilled open, revealing her smooth breasts.

“What happened to you yesterday? I didn’t see you at the jail,” he asked.

She laughed. “I didn’t go to jail. I demanded to speak to the Prime Minister. They released me immediately.”

He stood, staring at her wide mounds, but his feet remained nailed to the floor. She patted the bed, and he sat down next to her legs.

“I’ve always been curious about painters. Why do you paint?” She asked.

He stared at a ray of sunlight that fell across the floor and then turned to Lina. “It’s the restraints, I guess.”

“Restraints?”

“Life is full of them. When I bake bread, for example, and the oven is too hot, or I leave it in too long, it burns. And people. Always telling you what you can’t do. As if they know your soul and what it should have. There are no limits in painting.”

She placed her hand on his thigh. “This is your first time, isn’t it?”

The tips of his ears turned pink. “Yes.”

She beckoned him with her fingers. “Well what are you waiting for?”

He titled his head, and with sudden clarity he said: “Tenderness.”

She sank back further into her feather pillows. Her charcoal eyes softened.

He put on his filthy clothes and thanked her anyway. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time.” Ceecee met him at the door and unlocked it, looking back and forth between him and the stairway leading to her mistress. “Merci, Mademoiselle,” he said and stepped out.

He was broke and had lost his family’s ring. And he owed the Magistrate hours of labor sweeping the quays. He smiled to himself and headed to the Hotel Soulager for a crock of Madame Liebengut’s stew. Monsieur Bernard would be pleased. Julien had enough of deep muddy left in the tube for Lina’s eyes, and she could only be painted in the classic style, staring directly ahead, milky bosom beckoning.

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Elizabeth Swann Lewis holds a law degree from Wayne State University in Detroit and a Certificate in Fiction Writing from Gotham Writers Workshop in Manhattan. She lives on the corner of an Amish farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with her husband, Mark. She may be reached at elizabethswannlewis@gmail.com.

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Alone in This Fair Garden

By Valerie Lute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not like in prison?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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