Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.
The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.
In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.
The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.
Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.
The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?
The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.
Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.
Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.
Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.
There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).
Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.
We have boarded the cattle car headed for Pusan. It takes us past Seoul Grand Park and I can see the bear. Having outlasted the poisoning of her fellow beasts and the fleeing of the zookeepers, she remains seated in her cage. Alone. The wind blows through the bars, tousling her fur. I imagine that she is thinking of cubs she once nursed who have gone on. Our cattle car stops and the conductor demands money to take us further. I see my sister tear open the lining of her yukata and collect 15 yen.
The cattle car doesn’t start again, not for a while so I watch the bear and wonder when it will eat next. Then there are children upon her, lollipop sticks jutting out from their lips. There is unruly laughter and suddenly I see them throw their lollipops at her. The bear looks down to see the candy which is now stuck helter skelter to her fur. There is no anger. There is no fight. She remains seated, face out to the cackling bipedal mammals.
The train is now moving. My thoughts turn to the Japan that waits. We will live with my grandparents, whom I’ve never met.
Overall, I can’t help but feel like this side of my heritage – my father’s side – is not really mine. All that is mine, I think, is my sister – and the affection between us. I have always regarded Japan as some distant motherland but as I leave Korea, I realize I am leaving the only home I have known. To my mainland relatives, I can’t possibly belong. They probably don’t even know who I am. No, surely they don’t know of me.
Beside me sits a family traveling from Pyongyang. You can barely tell the girls from the boys because all of their hair is cut so short. My sister rolls her eyes when she informs me that this is to protect them from the men, as if it’s an obvious fact. Obvious facts. An abandoned bear. A cattle car. Today I am ten years old.
My brother and I sit back to back. Eventually I drift into sleep, dreaming of the bear. This time she and I are alone in a shower of sakura blooms that are gently tumbling around us. I am wielding a hammer and she watches me swing, swing, swing until one bar is bent outward. I methodically bend another bar creating a diamond shape. She exits the cage, headfirst, and shakes her body, like a dog who has just been let outside. Bowing her head, she beckons me to ride. I climb up and off we go.
Stephanie Yoshiko Harper is a writer and an elementary school librarian. She holds an MA in English from California State University, Northridge. She lives with her partner, daughter, and three dogs in Ventura County, CA.
Richard III (1452-85), King of England 1483-85 Anne Neville (1456-85), Queen of England 1483-85 Their son, Edward, Prince of Wales 1473-84
Forget what you’ve heard. Dismiss it all except that Richard could charm the blue from the sky and wanted, yes, to be king. Forget Shakespeare’s gift of limp and hump. Richard stood right, finely formed. I ached to touch him. I, no victim, chose him, even as children together among potent green hills, miles and miles, the undependable spring sun, and old stone of Warwick Castle. Even then I wanted him. Only the State—cold spinster— had me as Edward’s wife, Henry’s daughter. But England needed Richard. I needed him— his voice filling a room gently, his generous touch the way a child explores a wondrous thing— a son such insufficient proof of us. Forget the myth of my murder. We two died a little with our son: three hearts, then none. At times Richard believed and at times he fought and I came to know these as one and the same. Forget the insults of history, what you’ve heard about his body. His ambition. My frailty. I, his cousin, his wife. The woman he made widow and orphan then queen. I know: Put you in my woman’s skin and feed you on my woman’s blood in the empty hallways of my seasons, in my hard, gray rooms, in my deep blue nights of life and dreaming, you too, with all your free will, would give, would take exactly this much. __________________________________________________________________________
Kristine Rae Anderson’s poetry has appeared in Soundings East, Reed, Crab Creek Review, and Copperfield Review, among other publications. An award-winning journalist (first place award in criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Chapter, and award for arts story from the San Diego Press Club) and award-winning poet (Tomales Bay Fellowship, Fishtrap Fellowship, and first place in Southern Indiana Review’s Mary C. Mohr Poetry Contest), she teaches English at Norco College in southern California.
Susan Roney-O’Brien lives in Princeton, MA, works with international students and young writers, curates a monthly poetry venue, and is part of 4 X 4, a group of visual artists and poets. She is the Summer Writing Series Coordinator for The Stanley Kunitz Boyhood Home. Her poetry has been published widely and translated into Braille and Mandarin and been nominated for seven Pushcart Prizes. Publications include two chapbooks: Farmwife, the winner of the William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award, and Earth published by Cat Rock Press. WordTech published Legacy of the Last World in 2016. Aldrich Press, an imprint of Kelsay Books, published Bone Circle in December 2018. Kelsay Books will publish Thira, a new collection based on ancient Minoan culture, in March 2020.
A few months into crafting the first few letters of my epistolary novel, “Imagining Violet”, loosely based on my grandmother’s life, I began to read what I could about violins and violinists. I was going to write about a young girl studying music at the Leipzig Conservatory in the 1890s, and I had never held a violin in my hands.
I read about the various schools of violin instruction over time and I watched some violin teaching videos, hoping to glean something of the basics of the instrument. But these explorations were superficial and did not generate the experience or knowledge needed to write with confidence and credibility.
As a 70th birthday challenge and to further my research, I decided to learn to play the violin. To begin, I rented a violin and tried a few tutorials on YouTube. That lasted about five minutes. I quickly realized that I needed to take real lessons. As I live on an island, population 10,000, my choices of teachers were limited. My neighbour Carolyn teaches kids, and she wouldn’t have me. I asked her how long it would take me to make a decent sound on the violin. Five years, she told me. I was seventy, I said, I didn’t have that long. A friend recommended Suzanne and my lessons began.
I knew I would be doing this for a while and decided to buy a beginner’s violin. I paid $100 for an outfit (violin, bow, case) from a local fellow, one he’d bought but never used. It seemed okay to me, but I knew nothing.
Six months into my lessons, Suzanne insisted that I upgrade to a better instrument. This I did, thanks to my neighbour Carolyn, the violin teacher who wouldn’t have me. Her luthier friend Ross comes regularly to our west coast island from his home in Calgary. Ross sold me a Romanian violin, almost new, for $700. That was as much as I could afford or was willing to invest.
After eighteen months of lessons, Suzanne tossed me out of the nest saying she’d taken me as far as she could. I come from a musical family, with musical genes on both sides. I sing in a community choir and I’ve played the piano since I was four years old. It’s fair to say that I’m musically literate. So some aspects of playing the violin came quickly. I’d always watched in awe as violinists found the right notes without any frets. I couldn’t imagine how they did it. But finding the right notes wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected and I seemed to be progressing well. I was stiff and tense and clenched my jaw when I practised, but I’d get over that.
Suzanne’s prompting coincided with the arrival on the island of the amazing violinist, Joan Blackman. Joan wanted to build a roster of students and to my astonishment, was willing to take on a geriatric beginner. Under her instruction, I moved quickly through Suzuki Book Two and Three. Joan concentrated on my bowing and constantly adjusted my bow hold. In the spring of 2016, she declared that I was ready to join Orchestra 101, an amateur group of string players led by ‘cellist Paula Kiffner, herself a superb player and highly regarded teacher. Throughout this period of about two years, I became more and more confident writing about my Violet’s progress at the Leipzig Conservatory. Now that I played with a group, I had a better understanding of the challenges that ensemble playing had presented to Violet back in the 1890s.
I could find the notes all right, more or less, but bowing was another matter. From the very beginning of my studies, Suzanne stressed that I needed more weight on the bow, I needed to relax, I needed to let my arm become heavy. I didn’t get it. Joan kept advising me to “play in the strings”. I didn’t get it. But it was fuel for my story: I opted to let Violet have the same problems.
Then something quite wonderful happened. I found out that one of my numerous first cousins had inherited our grandmother Violet’s violin. This was stunning news indeed. The cousin had kept it forever, thinking he’d return to his string studies once he retired. Retirement had come, but the violin languished in its cupboard. With a little nudging, he agreed to pass on the instrument. And it came with our grandfather’s gorgeous Brazilian rosewood case.
My daughter undertook to ship Violet’s violin from Toronto to my home on the west coast. It arrived via FedEx in a box that was over five feet high, full of packing peanuts which protected an inner box, which was itself enveloped in bubble wrap. Inside the second box was the violin case, also encased in bubble wrap. My generous daughter wouldn’t admit to the cost of this, but she did say she’d spent an hour and a half at the FedEx office while they packed it up.
Luthier Ross was on the island a month later and agreed to refurbish Violet’s violin. He told me it had been factory built in Germany around 1870 and was a good quality advanced student instrument. He thought he’d need it for about three months, but I was not surprised when it took six. It was glorious to have Violet’s actual violin and to play it. It has a lovely tone and it deepened my sense of connection with its original owner.
For my rather extravagant Christmas present, my dear husband arranged for a marvellous local woodworker to refurbish the beautiful old case. The veneer on the ends of the case was splitting off. Iltydd just happened to have some Brazilian rosewood veneer in his workshop and completely restored the case, which he then advised me to use only on very special occasions.
By early 2017, Joan had become too busy with teaching commitments off-island and touring with her string ensemble to give me lessons. All agreed that I should continue studying and so with fear and trembling, I went back to Carolyn and asked if she’d take me on, now. To my delight, she said “yes”. I didn’t remind her that she’d turned me down four years earlier.
Carolyn took me back to basics. She’s a born teacher and has all manner of tricks and techniques. It’s two years later, and I’m once again working in Suzuki Book Two. And I still play with Orchestra 101, rechristened the Salt String Ensemble to honour our development. The Salt Strings played at the book launch for “Imagining Violet” in November 2018, and we played another concert in April of this year.
Rehearsing with Salt Strings is the highlight of my week. There are eleven of us now, with a wide range of ages, skills, talents, musical experience, professions. Our double bass is a local GP. One of the first violinists is a former judge. Another is a carpenter. To no one’s surprise, there are at least three cyber-techies amongst us plus one graphic designer and one organic farmer, a woman who successfully grows tropical fruit on the west coast of Canada.
You never know where research will take you. “Imagining Violet” is finished and published but I’m a long way from being finished with Violet’s violin.
Born and educated in Toronto, Mary Elizabeth Hughes has called BC’s Salt Spring Island home since 2002. The author of two volumes of nonfiction, Frank Welsman, Canadian Conductor and The Life and Times of the Floathouse “Zastrozzi,” she published more than 90 feature articles in Canadian trade magazines. Additional publications in 2018 and 2019 include stories in The Muskokan, Cottage Life, More of Our Canada, Bunbury Magazine, The Peacock Journal, and Page&Spine. Her first novel, Imagining Violet, historical fiction and epistolary in format, was published in November of 2018.
Diana Rubino is the author of For the Love of Hawthorne, a biographical romance thriller about House of the Seven Gables author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Diana Rubino: I started writing short stories when I was about 8 years old, and always enjoyed telling stories about people who overcame odds to achieve their dreams.
I love history and meeting people from the past and how they fit into major events in the past. Writing novels about real people puts me into the past, but keeps me grounded in reality.
M.A.: What is your latest novel about? How would you describe it to potential readers?
D.R.: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s courtship of Sophia Peabody lasted over three years because he insisted on keeping it secret. He had his reasons, none of which Sophia agreed with. But she knew they were destined for each other and he was worth the wait. When they married in 1842 “we became Adam and Eve alone in our Garden of Even” she wrote in her journal. But not all was paradise in their Eden—Nathaniel bore a burden that plagued his family since 1692. His ancestor Judge Hathorne condemned 19 innocent victims to death during the Salem witch trials. His heinous deeds brought shame and guilt upon the family through the centuries. In her last moments on earth, Sarah Good cursed the judge and his descendants from the hanging tree. Nathaniel’s belief in this curse haunted and tormented him until Sophia made it her quest to save him. I wanted to portray the lives of two kindred souls whose legacy endures through the ages.
M.A.: What makes this book different?
D.R.: It covers their courtship, marriage and struggles they endured, but also explores Nathaniel’s battle with the demons that haunted him until Sophia rescued him. Then he was able to forgive his ancestor Judge Hathorne, and everything came full circle at the end.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
D.R.: My ‘overnight success’ took 18 years. My first novel, largely autobiographical, as most first novels are, featured my heroine who made it to the top of a brokerage firm. It was continually rejected on the grounds that I had an ax to grind—and of course I did.
After three more novels, which I consider practice at honing my craft, I wrote my first historical, The Jewels of Warwick, centered around Henry VIII and two fictional heroines. Jewels took 2 years to research and write, with no internet. It came very close to publication with several romance houses, but missed the mark for containing too little romance. When I finished Jewels, I scoured the history books for another legendary figure to write about. While I browsed the Cambridge Library stacks, a book snagged my eye. Lying, not standing, on the wrong shelf was Crown of Roses by Valerie Anand. It drew me like a magnet. Richard III is a central character in the story, and the author thanked the Richard III Society for helping her. Already hooked on Richard, his tragic death at 32 and his reputation as a usurper and a murderer of his little nephews, I joined this Richard III Society. As everyone else who has a story about how they ‘met’ Richard, he fascinated me. I’d found the subject of my next novel! And it tied in perfectly as a prequel to The Jewels of Warwick. Titled Thy Name is Love, it made the same rounds of publishers, remaining homeless after several rewrites and seven years.
In 1999 with the Internet making my life so much easier, I queried the many E-publishers that had recently set up shop, and British publisher Domhan Books responded with an offer for my two historicals. Fortunately, Domhan also published print books. I then wrote a time travel and a family saga set in New York City. I switched gears with the urban fantasy Fakin’ It, which won a Romantic Times Top Picks award.
After several more historical and paranormal romances, I am now writing biographical novels with no fictional characters.
M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?
D.R.: The joys are being transported through time to another era and meeting people who shaped history. The challenges are trying to stay as close as possible to the historical record, which at times is impossible, so I always put in that disclaimer ‘this is a work of fiction.’
M.A.: What is the research process like for you?
D.R.: After I’ve decided on my subject, I read as many biographies as possible about that person and those close to them, and books about that time period. I always try to find an expert or scholar who knows about the person—I was very lucky finding the Richard III Society, the Surratt Society (for my book about Lincoln) and the Aaron Burr Association. Many members of these groups are experts and are very happy to help out. I was also fortunate to have the help of Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon, who helped me with my book about Oney Judge, read the manuscript and made very useful suggestions.
M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?
D.R.: I’ve been to all the locales of my stories. Especially visiting historical sites makes it easier to imagine how these places looked during the times of my stories, as some places, such as medieval towns in England, haven’t changed much over the centuries.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
D.R.: When I was researching my first historical THE JEWELS OF WARWICK, set around Henry VIII’s court, I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII by Margaret George. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Philippa Gregory and Sharon Kay Penman are authors whose historicals come to vivid life.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
D.R.: The advice my agent gave me: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a great story.” But I also believe historical authors should keep the facts correct, i.e., no cell phones in colonial times—don’t mention a song or a band that didn’t exist yet—things that really question credibility. Check to make sure when things were invented.
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
D.R.: I always enjoy connecting with readers and other authors, so please connect with me:
Finally arrived in this company, prepped for on-stage wit, I ease out on my couch, drape my new robe just-so, accept my welcome kylix.
With two hands, I tip it straight up, high to my face, take a deep draft, pronouce on gods, the law, women, war. They laugh.
As the aulos weaves a wind-song, strings ring, I refill to the brim, raise my cup again. They laugh the more.
My robe slides to the floor, my sentences blend. I spy Medusa, painted inside my drink. Through wine, she shimmers red to the surface – snake hair, tongue lolling to her chin, eyes stone, set on me.
Across the room, smirking Archynes lifts his cup with both hands, straight at me. Ah! Now I see blurry black eyes staring back, his cup base a gaping mouth, the big handles. Dionysus donkey ears?
I see now the all-night joke I’ve been, a mockery of my besotted self.
Escaping, I trip on my robe, hurl my cup at his. Miss. ________________________________________________________________________ Ann Taylor is a Professor of English at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. where she teaches both literature and writing courses. She has written two books on college composition, academic and freelance essays, and a collection of personal essays,Watching Birds: Reflections on the Wing (Ragged Mountain/McGraw Hill). Her first poetry book, The River Within, won first prize in the 2011 Cathlamet Poetry competition at Ravenna Press. Her recent collection, Bound Each to Each, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.
Do you write reviews of historical novels? The Copperfield Review is actively seeking submissions of historical novel reviews, including subgenres such as historical mysteries, romance, even historical fantasy. We also accept submissions of reviews of nonfiction history books and biographies of historical figures, as well as nonfiction books about writing and creativity.
We publish reprints, so if your review has appeared on your own blog or elsewhere and you have the rights, we will consider it for publication. Be sure to check our guidelines for how to submit your work.
We’re looking forward to reading your submissions. Please repost if you know of other fans of historical fiction who write book reviews!
The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.
Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.
As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.
For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.
I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.
Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.
Before the sun rises, the earth itself heaves out a long, moaning shudder. Mother’s bronze goblet clatters to the table, sending crystal droplets of water spraying across the wooden surface. The dented plates and tarnished silverware slide a few inches across the table, a few overturning and falling down to the floor. Stale bread crumbs scatter across the wooden planks. I feel my chair slide forward slightly, and I reach out and grab the edge of the table. For a fraction of a second, it trembles as well, but as quickly as the tremor comes, it disappears. I look down and see that my hands are clenched around the edge of the table, my knuckles white. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then look around. Mother sits frozen at the table, her face pale and ghostly, her hands gripping the fabric of her skirt. Father stands in the corner, frowning, the palm of his hand pressed against the cold stone wall, his fist clenched by his side. I stare at him for a second. He senses me watching, and our eyes meet. His gaze softens.
“That’s the second one this week.”
Caecilia begins to wail from the corner. Mother rises from her seat and hurries over to the cradle, and just like that, life begins again.
I sit on the rough, worn wood of the circular stool and stare down at the lopsided pot before me. My eyes narrow in concentration and I bite my lip, reaching out and attempting to mold the clay into the right shape. The simple rounded structure of the vase collapses in on itself the second I touch it. I hear Father calling out my name.
I look up from the wheel, relieved to get away from the pottery. He stands in the doorway to the shop, leaning against the frame of the door.
“I’ve got a chore for you.”
Though most shops and buildings in Pompeii are covered in graffiti, my father insists on removing every bit of the writing that appears on our walls. Erasing the painted scribbles is the only task I hate more than making pots. I drag my feet over to the corner of the room and grab a rag and a bucket of water. Then, with one last glance at Father’s retreating back, I step outside.
The sky is a clear blue, misted over with streaks of pale gray. The air is luke-warm, relaxed, and a faint breeze tickles the back of my neck. The sun hangs halfway between the horizon and its highest point, causing gentle shadows to flit in between buildings and under towering trees. It illuminates the hasty red scrawl spreading across the side of our shop, standing out against the rough stone. I walk over to the words and dunk the rag into the bucket.
Before I can begin scrubbing, the earth shakes again. The bucket of water clatters onto its side, the spilling liquid quickly absorbed by the paved ground. I drop the rag and press my palm into the wall for stability, but the wall itself is shuddering. The earth seems to shift under my feet, and I swallow and squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. My breath comes out in short, sudden bursts. My eyes stay closed, my palm continues to press against the trembling wall. Then, after a few seconds, it is over. I hesitantly open my eyes and pick up the rag, turning the bucket right side up. I wet the rag with what little water remains and quickly wipe away the inscription, my heart still caught in my throat. When I am done, I turn around and race back into the shop, not caring that the faint pink traces linger on the stone.
It is midday and every street corner, every alleyway, should be filled with life and light. There certainly shouldn’t be a dark mass of clouds reaching out with long fingers, spreading like galloping black horses across the horizon. The city should not be shrouded in darkness, the sun should not be a faint, almost invisible glow from behind the wall of black, the mountain should not be emitting streams of deep, dark smoke. There should not be a faint rumbling erupting from the earth itself, a deep, low growl like the first murmurs of thunder before a raging storm. And yet, there is.
I turn away from the window, swallowing. Mother stands behind me, her hand cupped around the flame of a flickering candle, the soft light illuminating the lines of worry on her face. She stares out of the window for a second longer, then turns to Father.
“We’re leaving the city for a while.”
“No!” Father shouts. “This has gone far enough, we’re not going anywhere!”
Mother glares at him, and I feel dread building in my stomach. When they start arguing, they can go on for hours.
“The mountain is smoking. There were two tremors this morning. Two, in one day! The sky is dark, like it’s night, but it’s only midday! The…”
Father bangs his fist on the table. “Enough! The gods do not punish those who have committed no crime. We have made the proper sacrifices, broken no laws.”
“I know.” Mother suddenly looks tired. “Believe me, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is happening. If we don’t leave, all of Pompeii will fall, including us.” Mother is still calm. Her face in mostly expressionless, but I can see a trace of fear flickering in and out of her eyes with the light of the candle.
Father grits his teeth. “And leave the shop? Our customers?”
Mother stares back at him. “Your customers are likely halfway out their doors by now. We will be the only ones left in this city!”
Father glares at her. “No. We are not leaving.”
A tense silence fills the room.
Finally, after an eternity, Mother speaks.
“Julius. Come.” She carefully lifts Caecilia out of her cradle and moves toward the door.
Avoiding Father’s gaze, I follow her.
Father takes a step forward. “We’re not going anywhere-”
Mother whirls around, her jaw set. “No, you don’t have to leave, you don’t have to, but I am going to make sure that my children survive this!”
She meets Father’s eyes, and without another word, turns and steps out the door, into the darkness. I follow her without looking back, and as soon as the door closes, Caecilia bursts into tears.
It’s been a while since we left. The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination.
I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever-burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.
I’ve stopped keeping track of the sun, the sky, the time, of anything but the mountain and the distance to the dock. The smell of smoke hangs in the air, seeming to get stronger and stronger with each second, each step I take. The crowd has lessened. Most people have gone south, to the larger dock, the one with more boats. Mother and I turned North, to the closer, smaller dock.
My legs ache from the long walk, my arms feel like lead from carrying Caecilia. I want to stop, but I know we can’t. Mother pushes ahead, never seeming to tire, holding the candle out in front of her. Caecilia is asleep in my arms, soft and warm, breathing lightly. With each step I take, she feels ten times heavier. My joints seem to be made of stone, hard to move, more difficult to pick up with every step. I don’t think I can keep it up much longer.
I stop to catch my breath and look over my shoulder. I can see the mountain looming in the distance, a huge dark mound of pure black rock, coated in a layer of ash. It spits out stream after stream of what looks like liquid flame, erupting out of the rock along with huge chunks of debris and hardened ash. More smoke rises up from the mountain, joining the swirling mass of dark clouds and scattered ash clustered around it, the mass that seems to spread out as far as the eye can see. The surrounding countryside is shrouded in never-ending blackness, dark as night itself. Then the first stream of liquid fire rolls onto the land, glowing with reds and oranges and yellows, and the ground is alight with crackling flames, golden, dancing in the night, spreading outward from the looming mountain. Something like a whimper escapes my throat.
Father, I think.
Mother grips my arm and pulls me forward “Only a bit farther. Just under a mile to the dock.”
I try to reply, but as soon as I open my mouth, I begin to cough uncontrollably. My lungs seem to constrict inside of my chest, and I can’t bring myself to take another breath. I fall to my knees and Mother crouches down beside me, her eyes panicked.
“Julius!” she shouts, but the sound seems to come from far away, blurry, faint, echoing in my ears. I’m vaguely aware of the crowd swerving around us, too, of a sharp, cold voice snapping at Mother to get off of the path, of her hissed response.
I feel her hands taking my sister from my arms, feel her fist pounding on my back, and finally air rushes into my lungs, smoke filled and dense, but air all the same.
I gasp, relieved, and we stay there for a few minutes until I regain my breath, Mother’s arms around me. When I’ve finally recovered, Mother glances up at the sky warily and stands up, the worry lines on her face more prominent than I’ve ever seen them before.
“Come on. We have to make it before the boats leave.” I swallow. We’ve lost precious minutes, and the wind seems stronger than ever. As I struggle to get up, our candle gutters out, plunging us into almost complete darkness. There is a moment of silence. Then Mother drops the unlit candle and takes my hand.
“Come on. We have to go.” I nod and swallow.
We begin to walk again.
The sky is black when we reach the beach. Not the black of night, soft and dark as ink, bathed in dancing starlight. No, this black is closer to gray than the sky should be, rolling outward in a way the sky never does and never should. And it’s all coming from the mountain. The boats sit on the dock, almost invisible in the darkness, but not quite, some already halfway out to sea, a few lit candles bobbing up and down from each, shining beacons against the shadow of the clouds.
The sand jitters under my feet, shifting with the rumbling of the earth. I take a step forward, carefully. The tangy scent of sea salt carried on the ocean breeze mingles with the acrid stench of thick, dark smoke, creating a pungent odor that fills my lungs and my mouth, making me want to gag. The ground shifts again and I lose my balance, falling into the sand. It cushions me, but when I scramble up, there are small grains plastered to my cheek, my elbows, and knees. The taste of wet sand fills my mouth, and I spit onto the ground trying to get rid of it.
I feel a hand on my arm. Mother. Together, we make our way to the wood of the dock, closer and closer to the boats. Finally, we’re piled onto a craft, along with nine others. It’s a simple, wooden vessel called The Spirit. The boat barely seats all of us with two crammed into each seat meant for one. And as the oars begin to turn, as the boat gently kisses the rippling waterfront goodbye, the mountain towers over us, watching. And laughing.
The boat ride is long, seemingly endless, the water underneath the craft dark and devoid of any life, shimmering with the reflections of gentle, flickering candlelight. Mother and I huddle in the corner of the boat, Mother gripping Caecilia, the ever-present shadow of the mountain still hanging above us. Beside us, a girl, no older than seven, leans into her mother, who clutches her younger brother, not five years of age, to her chest.
The oars reach into the inky water and sweep back out, over and over and over again. They lift up droplets, shimmering beads of saltwater that spray across us every few moments, showering down from above like drizzling rain, the mountain’s rumbling so much like distant thunder.
Caecilia feels warm, soft, gentle in my arms. A bead of water lands on her forehead, and I wipe it away. It’s strangely calm, almost peaceful, the only sounds the gentle dropping of the oars and the heavy breathing of the passengers. The men who move the oars stare straight, straight ahead at the endless expanse of water before them, or at the smoldering mountain behind them. The oars dip into the water and pull back out, over and over, forcing the boat forward. The water laps lightly at the sides of the boat, the gentle slapping of water against wood becoming repetitive, persistent. We’ve left the bay by now, the edge of the coast only a faint, thin line in the distance. The craft cuts through the water cleanly. The ocean is smooth and dark, like rippling folds of velvet. And always, there’s that unrelenting tension hanging over us, threatening to strangle us all.
And finally, listening to the oars, the breathing, the lapping water, I begin to cry. I let the tears come, let them fall onto the wooden planks, and somehow, after they’ve been absorbed by the boat, I feel lighter. Not better, not safer, but lighter. Maybe this craft is called The Spirit for a reason. I look up at the layer of dark clouds above us with my red-rimmed eyes, at the endless shadow it casts. It spreads over Pompeii, over the dock, over us. But there, near the horizon…
A trace of light.
When The Spirit pulls into the harbor hours later, the sky is filled with shimmering stars, almost fading with the coming of day, crafted by the gods and placed in the sky to light up the night until the break of dawn. I can see each one shining, bright and clear. The sun hangs just under the horizon, setting the heavens on fire with woven clouds of rose and gold. The sky shines through from underneath, the faded color of a nesting bluebird’s wing. I can see the sun. I can see the sky. No veil of darkness flows in front of them.
But I can also see the mountain, no longer pouring liquid flames onto the distant land, but still emitting wisps of thick, gray smoke. The cloud is no longer expanding but still hangs over the city. That’s my city. No, not just my city. My world. My father, my friends…the list is endless. Are any of them still alive?
I shudder, ropes of terror wrapping around my heart, spreading through my veins, each one stronger than the last. They close in on me, squeezing my heart, tighter and tighter and tighter, until I can’t breathe. I swallow and push down the feeling, and the ropes loosen, but they don’t disappear. I step out of the craft, onto land. The sand is firm and stable under my feet in comparison to the constant shaking of the boat. I gulp in the fresh salty air, and something fills me, something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Relief. Not full, overwhelming relief, but more like a muddled mixture of relief and guilt. But I let it take over. I know I shouldn’t feel it, and I know it’s wrong, but I do feel it, I do. I’m relieved that I’m out of Pompeii, away from the ash, the smoke, the mountain.
And so I run all the way to the edge of the beach, the wet sand clinging to the soles of my feet, run out onto the dry powder that the salt-tipped brush of the ocean has yet to paint, the fine, white grains spraying up to meet the air where my feet touch, coming to rest in the sandal-shaped indentations I leave in the ground. I turn around to Mother. There is sorrow on her face, and for the smallest fraction of a second, I can’t figure out why.
Then I remember, Father.
A bird pecks away at the sand behind me. The birds belong here, and the sand and the sea and the boat and the fish, but I don’t. I belong in Pompeii. But home does not exist anymore.
Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in many places including Asymmetry, Ginosko, Blue Marble Review, Riggwelter, Gravel, Kairos, Five on Fifth, and Deracine. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading. You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com.