Author Archives: Copperfield

About Copperfield

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.

My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Published by HarperCollins

Review by Irene Colthurst

So few accounts of the American Revolutionary era begin in the midst of the fighting after 1776 and then stretch through the fragile 1780s and tumultuous 1790s.   The life story of Alexander Hamilton, however, demands exactly that frame. So does that of his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler Hamilton. The runaway success of a certain Broadway musical re-introduced the American public to that period and sparked interest in its other major figures.  The appeal of My Dear Hamilton, therefore, is its promise to go “beyond the hype” of Hamilton the musical to examine Elizabeth Schuyler’s entire long life.  It’s one of several novels in the last few years, including another from authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie themselves, that look more deeply at the American revolutionary era through the eyes of women.  Here they give us Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler in her own voice, framed as her reminiscence in old age, as she grapples with and yet fights for Hamilton’s legacy. Dray and Kamoie succeed in giving us an intimate view of the era that inherently challenges many of the cherished images that the prominent members of the revolutionary generation hold in the American public’s imagination.  In doing so, they have written a novel considered among the best historical fiction of 2018.

The novel opens in the mid-1820s as James Monroe makes a visit to a Eliza in late middle age.  She then tries to explain to the reader why she received him so coldly, prompting her to relate her life story as if building one of her husband’s legal arguments.  She begins by noting, “I was a patriot in my own right before I ever met Alexander Hamilton”. Chronicling their courtship and early marriage, as well as Hamilton’s rise to power, Eliza reveals a life that alternated between private moments of family joy and the public contentions and social disruptions whose effects strained her marriage.  The cycle became almost predictable as the narrative spun on through the 1790s and the infamous Reynolds affair, and beyond. Hamilton’s appeals for forgiveness and declarations of love often seemed overwrought, and it could be hard to know how much of his pleading to “his angel” was due to his lawyerly character and guilty conscience, and what was narrative necessity.  

The authors are disciplined in their depiction of only Eliza’s direct experience of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. They also succeed in letting Eliza demonstrate how much more than a wronged wife she always was. Eventually, the narrative ends up back at the meeting of Eliza and Monroe.  To drive towards that conclusion, Dray and Kamoie let the frame of Eliza’s older perspective weigh perhaps too heavily upon the story as it unfolds. Readers are given her feelings in the moment, and then immediately her late reconsiderations of those feelings. The message of the frame story is that we are not supposed to lose ourselves too much in this novel, but it is impossible not to.  

Overall the novel is alive with intimate detail and fascinating historical echoes for our own time. Elizabeth Schuyler’s evolution into a political wife and a reluctant champion of her husband’s complicated legacy is rendered with a strong moral intensity.  Her perspective is the Federalist perspective, which goes unexplored in most depictions of the early American republic. Dray and Kamoie do not shy away from letting Elizabeth Schuyler show herself as a daughter of privilege whose political views are based on a love of martial heroism, terror and contempt for the mob, and a patronizing dismissiveness towards the common people outside of her charity work.   

Ironically, Dray and Kamoie can bring Eliza’s elite Federalist perspective to life because of the rise of social history, a discipline dedicated to broadening the narrative beyond the elite men of the US Founding generation to the Natives Eliza treated with as a young woman the enslaved in her father’s household, and the common whites she was disdainful of. Now insights from social history have come to historical fiction about the American Revolution.  My Dear Hamilton is a worthy entry alongside other recent Revolutionary War novels by and from the perspective of women, such as The Devil Take Tomorrow by Gretchen Jeannette.  Like them, it is romantic in a way that echoes but is more serious than the literature of the period itself. Unlike them, it lets the story continue into the less romantic days of post-revolutionary politics, grief, and imperfect union.  None of them claims to be “The Red Badge of Courage for the American Revolution”, an iconic literary rendering of the war.  That is unnecessary, for these novels are evocative works in their own particular way.

In giving us Eliza’s whole life, and her own case for that life in the face of consuming grief in a democratizing nation whose direction she only eventually reconciled herself to, we get a woman who is ultimately as tragically and valiantly human as her husband.

______________________________________________________________________________

Irene Colthurst is a reviewer with the Historical Novel Society. She lives in San Diego.

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on My Dear Hamilton

Not a Proper Evacuee

4th September 1939.

Auntie Win never says anything nice to me.  It’s always “Joyce, take your elbows off the table.”  “Joyce, don’t talk with your mouth full.”  I don’t want to go and live with her in Brimley, but I suppose I must.

“You’re so lucky to have an aunt living in Essex,” my mother says, as we’re travelling up on the train.  “You might’ve been evacuated.”

I nod.

When she opens the door to us, Auntie Win’s wearing her bright blue district nurse’s uniform, ‘sensible’, black, lace-up shoes and wrinkled flesh-coloured stockings on her thick legs.  “Expected you half an hour ago.  I have to go out.  One of my patients has had a fall.  I’ve made you tea.”  She waves her hand at a brown pot with minute white chips on its spout. 

Moments later she’s swinging her leg over her bicycle and jingling her bell at a dog in the road, leaving us in the ill lit kitchen, me counting the faded black and white quarry tiles on the floor and trying to ignore the stale cabbage smell seeping up my nostrils.  My mother smooths her silk dress and brushes the wicker seat of her chair before she sits down.  I expect her to make her usual Auntie Win comments, about droopy skirts and outside lavatories, but, over the past few months, as war with Germany became more likely every hour, my parents have stopped saying this sort of thing.  

We’re unpacking my suitcase in the little room where I am to sleep when we become aware of the hum of conversation and revving of engines in the street below.  I step over to the window.  “Buses,” I cry.  “Red London buses.”  I pull my mother, shaking her head, to the tiny casement.  “Honestly.  Look.  It says ‘London Transport’ on them.”  I want to add, “Aren’t they splendid?  Aren’t they spiffing?” but then I think that would be a funny thing to say about buses.

My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs. 

It takes me a moment realise that there’s something wrong about these ordinary red Route Masters, lined up behind each other as if in a queue.  All the passengers are children.  They’re tumbling off the landing platforms like ants, clutching gas masks in cardboard boxes and carrying brown paper parcels bundled up with string. 

Turning away, my mother stoops down to examine her face in the looking-glass.  “From the East End, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Proper evacuees, with brown luggage labels tied around their necks.  Even though the sun has been shining down upon us all day, a reminder that summer is not yet over, and, earlier, my little bedroom seemed stiflingly hot, a shiver jolts down my spine.  This war is really happening.

“Joyce, don’t stare.”  My mother beckons me away from the window with a jerk of her head .  “You be careful around those East Enders.  Remember that you live in a nice house in Friern Barnet.  And that your father’s the manager at the bank.”

“Yes, Mummy.”

“What’s the time?”  My mother raises her wrist to her nose, and squints at her tiny silver-framed watch.  She says that glasses don’t suit her.  Picking up her handbag, she reaches over to kiss my cheek.  “I’d better take the four thirty-two, darling.  Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight.  You’ll be all right until Auntie Win comes home, won’t you?” 

I gulp in a short breath.  I want to scream, “Please don’t,” and “Please, please, please… take me home,” but I’m twelve.  I force a smile.  Wartime spirit and all that.

After she’s left, I continue to watch the buses.  I wonder if I could stow away under one of the seats and I carry on thinking about this long after they’ve revved up and driven off, around the corner and out of sight.  For a moment, I still hear their clattering engines… then nothing, only the shopkeeper over the road retracting his blind.  If only I were fourteen.  Fourteen year olds are allowed to stay in my wonderful London.  If only we had relatives in America, like my friend, Eileen.  She’s sailing on the Queen Mary tomorrow.  Lucky thing. 

Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.

* * * * *

6th September 1939

I’ve started at Brimley School for Girls.  The buildings are old, with long corridors painted grass green and mustard yellow, hardly any playground, no tennis courts or hockey pitches, or anything like we had at my old school.  There are so many of us in the form room that some pupils have to share a desk, or even kneel on the floor.  The village girls have bagged all the places on one side of the room and the evacuees, all from Deptford, the other side.  I sit at a single desk at the middle, in front of a pillar, beside me pipes which gurgle like someone being sick.

When Miss Clough asks us to introduce ourselves, I’m last.  “Joyce Harper, Miss,” I say.  “From Friern Barnet Ladies’ Academy.” 

Someone behind me sniggers. 

* * * * *

5th October

Everyone at school keeps calling me ‘Friern Barnet’.  The Deptford girls started it.  They say I talk posh and I’m stuck up.  I don’t and I’m not.    

I’ve just spoken to Mummy from the telephone box down the road.  I asked her about coming home, just for a weekend, but she won’t let me.  It’s not fair.  The Germans haven’t dropped any bombs in London.  I didn’t tell her anything about school, of course.  She’s doing war work, knitting for the WRVS, and Daddy’s an air raid warden.  

Auntie Win’s listening to ‘The News’ on the wireless when I get back, but then the announcer’s voice fades out and that horrid Lord Haw-Haw comes on.  It’s disgusting the way he talks.  Nobody knows who he is, or even if he’s one person or several.  His accent’s British, though.

Afterwards, I feel cold inside, as if icy water is running through my veins.  Auntie Win makes more cocoa.  She makes very good cocoa.  We don’t talk about Lord Haw-Haw.  We don’t talk much at all.  She reads the newspaper and I do my homework.

* * * * *

26th October

They’re calling me names again.  They stopped for a few days and now they’ve started again.  It’s my own fault, I suppose.  I mentioned my old school again during algebra.  I’m not a tell-tale, but I did speak to Miss Clough this morning and she was jolly decent.  This afternoon, she’s sent me out of class with a message for the headmistress’s secretary, and, when I go back in, she’s saying, “We must just call her ‘Joyce’.  That’s her name.” 

* * * * *

31st October

Nothing goes right for me.

It’s all over the papers that Lord Haw-Haw’s name is ‘William Joyce’.  The girls in my class are following me around, chanting, “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”.  I hate them all.  The rotten thing is that, when Marjorie and Tilly come over at break this morning, I think they want to be friends and I smile at them, but immediately they start.  “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”.  I hate them.  I hate them all so much.

I go back to Auntie Win’s and she’s moaning about clothes left on my bedroom floor.  “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

I’ve had enough.  I’ll tidy my bedroom, all right.  I’ll tidy it so she won’t know I’ve ever been here.

* * * * *

31 October, later.

Auntie Win’s using the outside lavatory when I’m lugging my suitcase downstairs, bumping it over each step, one by one.  So much noise and I can’t help it.  I’m afraid of damaging the case, or the catch bursting open.  I slip out the front door, but don’t slam it shut.  I’ve 5s 2d in my purse.  That’s going to be enough, surely.  I trundle down the street, dragging my heavy suitcase.  I never realised how uneven the Brimley pavement is, and the handles on my case are really hurting my hands.  I have to keep swapping from left to right, but, like the poster says, I carry on.  Into the station booking office at last.  “Single to Liverpool Street, please.”  Ah, the music of those words. 

“Six shillings,” mutters the booking clerk, as I empty the contents of my purse on to the counter.

I push my coins towards him, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies, halfpennies and farthings.  I look up at him, studying the lines on his face and his sprouting eyebrows.  He’s smiling.  I’m sure he’s a nice man.  He’s got to be a nice man.  No, he’s not.  He’s shaking his head.  “But…” I plead.

“Six shillings, Miss.”

“Pleeaase.”

“Six shillings to you.  Same as everybody else.”  Calling “Yes?” over my head, to the soldier in uniform, he shoves my coins back across the wooden counter.

The Deptford girls – the real evacuees – would have argued the toss with a C’monnn Misterrrr

I’m Joyce, from Friern Barnet.  And still in Brimley. 

I trudge back through the village, past the Co-op, the church, my school, and all the other horrible, dreary buildings.  It’s autumn now.  Dusk is falling and, with the blackout, it goes dark fast.  Only the fish and chip shop gives out a faint glow.  Mummy says, you can never get the smell of chip fat out of your clothes.

Ten minutes later, I’m staring at the leaded fanlight over Auntie Win’s porch, papered over in accordance with wartime regulations.  I lift my hand to knock.  I’ll do it.  In a minute.

A piercing sound like splitting wood has me staggering backwards.  The front door, swollen with October damp, rips open.  My aunt, a yellow cardigan over her blue nurse’s dress, hovers in the doorway, her hand on the lintel.  Her complexion, never beautiful like my mother’s, is drained of any colour, except for suddenly prominent freckles and pink broken veins.

“Joyce.  Thank God.”  Then she reaches out for my arm and pulls me inside, as if removing me from imminent danger.

“I…” 

“Your mother… What could I have said?”  Her eyes light on my suitcase.  She cannot tear them away.

“I’ll… I’ll take it upstairs.” I’m speaking so low I can hardly hear myself.  

“I’ll make some cocoa.”

With my hurting hands, striped red and white, I drag my belongings back to my room.  She calls up to me three times, even though I remain in my room only to remove my outdoor shoes – not allowed in her house.  I sit at the kitchen table, once more counting the black and white quarry tiles, aware of her moving about and making cocoa, but not daring to look at her.  “I’m afraid you do have to stay here, Joyce,” says Auntie Win, as she hands my cup to me. 

I take a gulp of steaming chocolate froth.  It scalds my throat.  “I know.”

She sips her own, swallowing loudly.  Usually, she’s a tea person. “Your bedroom… it wasn’t too untidy.  I shouldn’t have said anything.  I’m sorry.”

What did she just say?  I shuffle in my seat. 

“I’m a nurse.  I’m afraid I expect everything to look like a hospital.”

“I’ll make all tidy when I put it everything back.”  Grown-ups don’t apologise to children.  It’s not the proper thing.

“Thank you.”  She sits back in her chair, sliding forwards as if she’s lying on it.  “Now, tell me. How are things at school?”

“All right.”

“Really?  Unless things have changed a lot since my day, girls can be absolutely horrible.” 

Her kind tone almost makes me cry, but I hold back, rushing upstairs again, then wishing I hadn’t because I want my cocoa.  She follows me to my room, carrying my cup.  When I do talk, she doesn’t put her arm around me and stroke my hair like Mummy would, just sits beside me on my bed.  She already knew, of course.  People talk in villages.

“Pity you mentioned the ‘Ladies Academy’ bit,” she says.

“It’s what my school’s called.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I’m not stuck up.”

“I know, but think about how it sounds to other people.”  She grabs her handbag.  “With all this going on, I haven’t put tea on.  Let’s buy fish and chips.  We’ll sort out those girls.  You see.”

* * * * *

31 October, still.

We’ve been waiting outside the chip shop for some time when Marjorie (from Brimley) and Tilly (from Deptford) join the queue.  “Those two’re in my form,” I whisper to Auntie Win.

“Say hello then.”

“They’re horrid.”

“They’re waving to you.”

I shake my head.

“Come on, Joyce.  Be friendly.  Wave back.”

I don’t want to, but I do, because Auntie Win’s raising her eyebrows and looking at me.

“And smile.”

I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.

An icy wind, straight off the North Sea, whips through my Friern Barnet coat.  Tilly says it’s cold because it blows from Germany.  Tilly can be nice sometimes.  When I get my meal, wrapped up in the Daily Sketch, I clasp it to my chest like a hot water bottle.  “Mummy doesn’t let me eat in the street, but would it be all right if we had a few chips?”

Auntie Win is already unravelling her bundle of newsprint.  “Mum,” she says.  “Mum.”

I frown.  “Mummy wouldn’t like being called Mum.”

“Call her what you like… in Friern Barnet… and don’t eat in the streets… of Friern Barnet.  But this is Brimley and I’m Auntie Win.”

“You and she don’t get along, do you?”

“Of course we do,” my aunt says almost before I’ve got my words out.  She bites off a large piece of fish and chews it slowly.  She nudges me as we’re about to pass Marjorie and Tilly.  “Offer them some chips.”

My arm locks by my side.

“Go on.”

I thrust my bag in front of them.  “Er… would you like a chip.”

Tilly looks at Marjorie, at Auntie Win, at me, at Auntie Win again.    “Watcha,” she giggles, grabbing two.

“Watcha” says Marjorie, taking one.  Marjorie copies everything Tilly says.

“Well done,” mouths Auntie Win as we cross the road.  “Don’t let them see they upset you.”

We’re just finishing our meal when two figures come hurtling up the street, shouting, “Joyce, Joyce!” 

“Have a chip,” pants Tilly, holding out her portion. 

“Would you care for a chip, Nurse Carter,” asks Marjorie.  She stares up at her.  “You looked after my grandma last year, when she had her stroke.”

Auntie Win nods.  “Yes, of course.  How’s Grandma now?”

“Very well, thank you,” says Marjorie.  “Actually, not really.”

“I’ll drop by tomorrow, Marjorie.”

“You can come around with us at break tomorrow, if you want, Joyce.”  Tilly’s voice comes through chewed potato.  She swings on her heel to face Marjorie.  “Can’t she, Marge?”

“Do you think she means it?” I ask my aunt, my face furrowing into a frown as we walk home.

“Only one way to find out.” 

______________________________________________________________________________

Rosemary is returning to short story writing after spending time writing a historical novel.  She was inspired to write this short story after seeing photographs of red London buses bringing evacuees to a town near to where she lives in Essex, England.  She has articles published in Christian Writer and Together.  In real life, Rosemary lives with her husband and cat and teaches IT and maths.  She blogs about writing and everyday life at Write On.

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Not a Proper Evacuee

Little Tiger

 208 B.C.

Eastern China

“They’re coming! The soldiers are here,” the child yelled, banging a stick against the doors as he passed. “Gather your payments.”

Lin leaned out the window of his little workshop. “Don’t play tricks, boy. Serious people have no time for your foolishness.”

“No trick, Old Uncle. The watchman at the gate said so. The Emperor’s men came early.”

A kernel of fear bloomed in Lin’s chest. The soldiers are early! He stared as the child galloped away, bellowing his warning and whacking shutters with his ratty stick. Other craftsmen peered out their windows, grousing at the boy, or, more likely, cursing the approaching soldiers. A harsh clang from a neighbor’s dropped pan snapped Lin out of his stupor. He ducked back into the shop.

His teenage son sat at the work table, sanding a small piece of bamboo. Of course, the boy seemed to be lost, daydreaming, as usual. Lin sighed. He cherished his little tiger, his Xiao Hu, but sometimes he despaired for the boy’s future.

“Xiao Hu, did you not hear? The tax collectors are coming. Go, tell your mother, take the children to the cellar. Hurry!”

Eyes wide, Hu dropped his work. “Yes, Baba,” he said as he bolted toward the back door. “But why are they early?”

Lin shrugged. Perhaps the whispers of rebellion had grown louder. Emperor Qin demanded many arrows as his tax payment. Hard as it was to meet the demand, it still was better than seeing his children conscripted to the army, or forced to toil at the Emperor’s new wall. It didn’t matter why they were early; Lin would pay, regardless.

He scurried to the storeroom to count his stock. As expected, most of the month’s payment was bundled and ready to go. Lin nodded. His status as a favored craftsman carried weight with the tax collectors. They probably would be reasonable about the small shortfall.

Still, the anxiety gripping his heart did not ease until he heard the hushed commotion of his wife and younger children bustling into the hidden cellar. Safe.

Back in the main room, he surveyed the supplies heaped around the table. Several of the prepared feathers were too large, so Lin slid into his son’s abandoned seat, sweeping the defective feathers away. He frowned at the boy’s impatience. Just last night, Lin had explained yet again the importance of precision in their work.

“This is how we maintain our rank, our family position,” he’d intoned, “with arrows that fly true.”

Lin had demonstrated, placing a freshly-cut goose feather on the scale, and nodded as it balanced. The next feather was too heavy, so Lin carved away a bit of the mottled quill and weighed it again. Perfect. “This is my legacy to you.”

Hu had rolled his eyes. “No one else bothers to weigh everything.”

Lin grimaced at the memory. There was no hope for the boy.

A cacophony of clattering hooves and squeaking cart wheels signaled the soldiers’ arrival. Lin lurched to his feet, made clumsy by a fresh burst of adrenaline.Little Tiger

            “Your tax ready?” the soldier demanded as he shoved the door open. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating nonetheless, with his padded shirt and stiff leather shoes. He smelled of sweat.

“Yes, yes. The arrows are bundled, as required.”

“All of them?”

“Almost all. Forgive me, but, I thought they were not due for another week.”

The tax collector grunted. He scowled, scrutinizing the workroom, just as Hu burst back in. The boy froze at the sight of the soldier.

“Not now,” Lin hissed, silently cursing his son’s rash behavior. “Go!”

“Wait,” the soldier interrupted. “Today we collect workers for the wall, as well as taxes. This young man would make up for your incomplete payment.”

“No.” Lin stepped in front of his son. Voice quivering, he continued, “This boy can serve the Emperor better here, making the finest arrows for his army.”

“I thought you were the arrow maker, old man.”

“My son also knows the way of the arrow. He will benefit the empire well, long after I have passed.”

The soldier studied Hu. “Prove it, boy.”

Lin’s breath caught, but his little tiger nodded and stepped up to the work table. Hu’s hands trembled only slightly as he chose a feather from the pile and placed it on the scale. He explained how the weight of the feather had to interact precisely with the heft of the arrowhead. He reached for the piece of wood he’d been toying with earlier, showing the soldier how the bamboo shaft must be dried and sanded, just so, to provide strength, yet retain flexibility. Finally, he demonstrated the placement of the feathers, to minimize drag while promoting spin.

“This is why our arrows fly faster and bite more deeply into our enemies,” Hu said as he notched the final quill into the shaft.

Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.

The soldier inspected the completed arrow, and then grunted, apparently satisfied. He took the remaining bundles from the storeroom, nodding toward Hu as he left the shop.

Lin stared after the departing tax collector for a heartbeat and then collapsed onto his bench. He released a tremulous breath, contemplating his son, who now was twirling a feather between his fingers and grinning. Lin could only shake his head.

______________________________________________________________________________

Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Daily Science FictionDead Housekeeping, and Akashic Books’ short fiction series. Read more at mynachang.com.  

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Little Tiger

To Be an Aclla

“Achi?”

She held her hand up until it was lit by the moonlight coming through the crack to the side of the curtain and clutched her blanket up under her chin with her other hand. She stared at her hand, turning it in the light. It was the full moon, but that meant nothing now. The people of the sun slept when the sun slept, and Cuzco was silent.

Achiyaku dropped her hand at the whisper.

“Can’t you sleep? Is it too bright?”

Alliyma had a good heart, but Achiyaku could have laughed at the misunderstanding.

“No, go back to sleep. It was a long day.”

Alliyma mumbled something sleepily in reply, but Achiyaku didn’t hear. Her younger sister was soon asleep.

 It had been a long day, but she felt awake. It was the first ploughing, and they had been brewing chicha beer for weeks to prepare. They had left the acllawasi for the occasion, and she had hidden the unease she always felt upon leaving, upon seeing that she was surrounded by lower Cuzco, by the inner mountains that had once seemed so far. Not that Cuzco wasn’t a marvel—its gold blinding in the sun, its Inca nobles walking the paved streets in their rich robes and jewellery, its grand plazas and palaces things to be gawked at—but to Achiyaku the splendour only made her feel emptier. It was far too easy to look beyond the small city toward the foreign houses nestled above on the hill and below on the plain, to the mountain peaks stretching into the distance beyond the terraced hillsides. It was far too easy to look, and be reminded that she couldn’t see far enough to see the ocean.

It had been two years. It was a lifetime and more, and yet sometimes the past still haunted her, an ache that held her back from being the same as her sisters. The others had all arrived earlier, around ten years old, and they had all come from cities long claimed by the Inca’s empire. At fourteen, Achiyaku was the age of some of the younger priestesses, and soon everything could change all over again. Would her weaving skills, the best in her acllawasi, make her a priestess? Or would she be married away?

“Maybe a warrior will take you away and marry you as a second wife! …If he isn’t picky, that is,” Ninasisa had taunted, throwing her head back with a laugh. She was beautiful—they all were, really, it was part of how they were chosen—but Ninasisa’s beauty was like that of the sun: dazzling and glaring. Fittingly, “Ninasisa” meant “fire flower”, a name she had been born to. Achiyaku, as an outsider, had been renamed when she had arrived. It had seemed cruel, when she had learned enough of Quechua to understand that “Achiyaku” meant “clear water”, that she had been named for water by the very people who had taken her from it.

Ninasisa, as a noblewoman of Cuzco and thus one of the Inca ethnic group, would be married strategically to some other noble, but Achiyaku worried about her own fate. She had had enough of change for one lifetime, had only just become comfortable in the routines of this House of the Sun. She knew what life was like here: day in and day out they stayed in the compound, leaving only for ceremonies, and did weaving, spinning, brewing, worshipping, and cleaning. Sometimes she even felt that she loved it, but on other days she felt like she was suffocating, disappearing along with her memories into the confines of this houseIf she married she would be free of this place, but at what cost? What if she married one of the very warriors who had taken down her kingdom, her home, once the last great rival of the Inca’s empire?

Achiyaku turned her head to look at the doorway and focussed on taking slow, steady breaths even as her heart flew. She could see the stone of the small, interior courtyard beneath the curtain, white in the moonlight. She had been taught by the Inca to worship the sun, and she could understood why they revered it in the same way that she could understand why Ninasisa drew everyone’s eye while Achiyaku was overlooked. But she understood other things too. That there was always another side than the bright one, as shown in the symmetry of the great Staff God’s very form: one staff to compliment the other, just as there is night to every day, the sky for the earth, the ebb for the flow of the great ocean’s tide. Her people of the Chimor Empire had always worshipped the moon, for unlike the sun it could be seen in both the day and the night and could pull at the very ocean itself. The adobe walls of the compounds and ciudedelas of her old home, the capital of Chan Chan, had been decorated with pictures of the waves and the creatures of the sea, but here people only looked up. Up to the mountains around them, and higher, to the skies above.

Achiyaku tried to clear her thoughts, to forget as she had so many times before. Normally everything that happened in the House of the Chosen Women was enough to keep her too busy to think—the friends and enemies, the priestesses and newcomers, the work—but perhaps it was the influence of the full moon.

“When the moon is full,” her mother had told her once, long ago, as they had been weaving together, “we are in the hands of the Goddess. On those nights we become like the sea, pushed and pulled by Her tide.

Was she still pushed and pulled by that tide? Did the Goddess still see her? Did she think she had abandoned her? Achiyaku pressed a hand to her chest. She had not wanted to. The Sun and his children had given her a life of luxury and honour, she who had once been a commoner, who had never even laid eyes on food as rich as what she now cooked, who had never hoped to own textiles as intricate as were now her normal garb, but they had taken her from her people. She was no longer one of the Chimù, her ayllu group was not her own. On the day she had left Chan Chan and journeyed up into the highlands and then south, so far south along the royal road to Cuzco, she had lost everything she had once been, and become something she still didn’t understand.

Achiyaku had been one of the only commoners they had taken—one of the only ones they thought pretty enough—and she had not known the nobles she had made the trek with. Some of them had been sent to other acllawasi—most were far more secluded than hers—but she and some others had been sent to Cuzco itself, to more fully tie the newly defeated Chimor empire to the Inca empire, and to make her an example for her people. But, she wondered, would her people even recognise her now, or she them?

Achiyaku closed her eyes and remembered what were now fading images. She forgot the stonework and saw cane and mud brick walls again. She forgot the channelled rivers and saw the great wells, remembered walking down their ramps to fetch water. She remembered the smell of salt on the wind, the deep river valleys and the dry desert plains. She remembered how the city stretched on and on in every direction, farther than she could ever have walked, and the cramped rooms of her neighbourhood. She remembered her father and brothers working with metals, her mother’s lessons, her mother’s smile. She heard the noise of the streets busy with tens of thousands of people, saw the labyrinth of the walls and their motifs of the sea reminding her always of the ocean, so near. She remembered a name, a different name, spoken by those she had loved. She remembered belonging.

In a small stone room in Cuzco, an aclla lay among her sisters, a shaft of moonlight slanting across her sleeping form.

______________________________________________________________________________

Frances Koziar is a Middle American archaeologist specializing in Aztec human sacrifice and ontology. She has non-academic publications in 10+ literary magazines and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on To Be an Aclla

The Milliner of Klausenburg

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

~Goethe

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

* * * * *

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

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

‘As a matter of fact I am!’

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

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

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

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

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

Hans!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was mortified…the bedlinen…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

‘But – the scandal!’

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

* * * * *

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

‘Will he live?’

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

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

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

‘Where did you take him?’

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

‘Not her, then.’

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

Hans gurgled.

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

A tear seeped from his left eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Milliner of Klausenburg

The Gladiator’s Lover

My dearest Min,

I never wanted it to end like this. I never wanted to say what I felt only through ink on papyrus. That is what always set you apart from my other lovers – the things I could say to you in the afterglow, things I would never say to another in this life. But there are some thoughts that even I am too ashamed to speak out loud. Thoughts I had hoped to take with me to the grave

Grimy shadows clung to the walls, hiding from the daylight above, a haven for the rats. Torches guttered in iron brackets around the arena’s dungeons. Scented sawdust was scattered across the floor, masking other, fouler odours: the stench of enraged animals, the dull aggravating bite of vomit.The metallic taste of spilt blood in the air.

A brief howl echoed through the stone walls, before vanishing back into the depths. Frightening and strident, it set fear even into stout hearts who knew the sound; it was the angry bellow of a lion, prodded and tortured and thirsty for blood. Soon, Aiolos knew, it would have all the blood it desired.

Like the vermin in the shadows, his attendants scurried about. He lay down on the armoury’s thinly padded bench. One worked on his broad back, carefully bandaging an old wound. Another oiled his legs, rubbing and smoothing the taught muscles with his strong fingers. A dull roar shook the walls, and a cabinet bolted to the wall rattled. Aiolos cursed, and his servants fled. He stood, almost brushing his head on the beams of the roof, and opened the cabinet. The bandages pulled tautly across his back, and he felt a small trickle of fresh blood run down to his wide belt.

You have never heard me question my place in the world before. There have been times I nearly lost my nerve, shook so hard I thought I would drop my sword, but I have never before asked the simple question – why do we fight?

 The answer seems so obvious – freedom! Freedom lured me in when I was a young man – freedom from my masters and the total freedom of the battlefield both.

The weapons were finely crafted, of good Iberian steel. They were his tools, with edges honed sharp enough to shave the hair from his forearm. One knife went inside his boot, the other on his waist. Lastly, he slid a plain gladius home into the leather sheath on his left hip. The protruding hilt of the short sword was unadorned, worn smooth from use. Aiolos pulled a short greave onto his left leg. Next came a linen manica on his right arm. He placed the helmet, gaping and fishlike, on his head. Lastly, he hefted a Murmillo’s rectangular shield.

He was ready.

As he left the armoury and climbed the stone stairs that ran through the wooden cages of the slave-pit, the throbbing roar grew louder. It shook sand from the walls and pulsed in time with his heart. His ascent stopped as he reached the arena’s entrance chamber, and the roars grew into a single coherent mass that dulled the senses. Aiolos knew that, once he reached the open air, the noise would pound on his brass helmet like a hammer.

It was not only that I desired to earn my manumission; the infamia that comes with being a gladiator means I can never climb the heights of the nobilitas like your husband, after all, so how much joy could I find in buying up property, statues and other trinkets? What thrill could the struggles of a normal life present me? 

The entrance chamber was narrow and oppressive, and sunlight filtered down through grates overhead. On either side of the corridor, weapons were ceremonially hung beneath inscriptions of names. The former champions of the arena were remembered here, if nowhere else. Their deeds – the number of opponents they had slain, the emperors whose favours they had gained – were not recorded. All that was written was the manner of their deaths.

A fighter waited, sitting well back from the heavy metal gates, wrapping a dirty bandage around a thin cut in his arm. His fight had already been fought. He glanced up as Aiolos’s shadow fell on him.            

‘I heard you were free of this place, Murmillo,’ said the warrior, revealling a deep spear-gash in his side as he twisted to face Aiolos. His festival season was over. Aiolos nodded his head, feeling no give in the straps of his heavy helmet. The warrior spat noisily in the dirty sand.

‘You couldn’t keep away, eh? Well, watch yourself. I’ve seen this one fight. He’s fast, and he’s got a vicious sweep.’ He stopped as a lion’s roar briefly silenced the crowd, and they both looked up at the sunlight tricking down through the grates overhead. The fight was over, and ten thousand voices briefly subsided. An announcer listed the men who would fight next, and they began to chant. 

‘I always liked you, Murmillo,’ he said, dragging himself to his feet as slaves took up the chains that lifted the gates. ‘And I’ve got five sesterces down for you to win. Don’t die out there today.’

While I was still a slave, I burned to be free. But the arena offers me complete freedom, of the most savage and vicious kind – the freedom to fight, to bleed and spill blood. The freedom to kill.

That is why I came back when I won my manumission and became a libertini, again and again. You never understood why I did it – why I continued to risk disfigurement or death once I was free and my patron no longer required it – though you thrilled each time I came back to your bed, sometimes with wounds still bleeding.

But, as my esteem and wealth grew along with my scars, I began to realize that, for us, there can be no freedom from the arena.

His opponent waited for him on the sand.

The gates jolted open. The slow chant gave way to a bloodthirsty roar. The crowd’s appetite for blood had been whetted by the first rounds, by the captives being massacred and the lions running wild. It had been indulged by the clumsy new fighters and the elaborate set pieces recreating the victories of Rome’s history. But their appetite had not been satisfied. Women sang, men bellowed, children heckled, and a barrage of noise bore down upon the two gladiators.

Amongst it all, the Emperor sat, wrapped in regal purple, finely dressed nobiles in the seats all around him. Aiolos could hear nothing within his heavy bronze helmet – the crunch of his feet, the shudder of his breath; all else was swallowed up by the crowd.

Perhaps you believed you truly meant it when you asked me to give up this life, let this contest be my last. But we both know that the only reason you took me to your bed in the first place was because I fight, and no doubt you will find another victor to satisfy you after me. The gods know the nobile ladies do not seek us out for the handsomeness of our scarred faces and oft-broken noses. Any of the thousands of commoners in the crowd would suit you better. 

Aiolos advanced, swapping shield back and forth as he stretched his arms out. The sand crunched beneath his sandals. It was raked smooth throughout the arena, with one exception – by one of the walls, a blood-mad lion lay dying, a hamstring cut, a blood-splattered spear buried in its ribs. It purred for a moment with the deep, terror-inspiring voice of the big cats, before the blood in its lungs choked it back into silence. The beast was doomed, but the groundskeepers knew to stay well away.

His opponent waited for him, patient, unmoved by the lion’s call. He was short, with the lithe and fluid carriage of a dancer. He had the weapons of the Thracian: the vicious sickle-sword, the small shield, the side-plume and the heavy mail belt. The trappings were those of a defeated Roman enemy; this gladiator, however, carried them with pride, for he had cut down more than his share of Murmillos and Hoplomachi. Aiolos wondered if they would be the last thing he ever saw, before he dispelled the grim thought from his head and focused on his breath.

He glanced up at his opponent’s master; the man sat close by the Emperor, beaming at the attention, and betrayed no nervousness in the way he moved.

Aiolos moved to the centre of the arena, drew his sword, and waited. Blood pounded in his ears. He fixed his legs to the ground like pedestals and forced out a deep breath. It whistled through the mouthpiece of his fish-shaped helmet.

The emperor signalled. The blaring horns cut through the din.

The fight began, and the crowd roared.

They could have been just like me, those sitting behind the walls. Perhaps some of them hope that, one day, it is they who will know the glory of the arena. But they do not realize that it is they that have the glory; the teeming masses that surround us are the only reason that we fight. It is for them that we endeavour and struggle. It is for their sport that we die.

Their voices rose exultantly as the two fighters moved together. The two fighters circled one another, and with each subtle lunge or hint of a thrust they gasped and held their breaths for a moment. A vicious thrill whispered across ten thousand faces with the piercing noise of the first blow, metal on metal.

Aiolos stepped quickly back as the Thracian advanced. He swung his unadorned sword, and his opponent swayed aside, but before Aiolos could recover the smaller man was stepping in, flicking the curved sword at him like it was a whip. The Murmillo raised his heavy shield, and the shock of the blow radiated through the wound in his shoulder.

He roared to match the crowd as he smashed his opponent’s blade aside and lunged forward, sword low, the disembowelling thrust of the gladius which the legionaries had used to conquer the enemies of Rome.

The blow had been his trademark move, fast and difficult to anticipate, but his opponent glanced it aside with his tiny shield, Aiolos’s blade slashing at the air a finger’s width from the Thracian’s exposed ribs. Before he could think Aiolos was behind his shield, charging, and the Thracian stepped aside from the felling blow. They broke off and began to circle once more.

The silence of the skirmish vanished, and the crowd’s roar beat down upon the warriors in full force. Aiolos kept back, lashing out probing jabs with his sword. His blood began to flow, the wound on his shoulder matched by vicious nicks from the sickle sword that began to dot his legs and arms. But this fight was not stopping for first blood. Aiolos was a head taller than the Thracian, and his shoulders were far broader, but the crowd could tell that the smaller man was quicker and had the advantage. Aiolos was past his prime.

And amongst them sit those in whose honour our lives are thrown away – the nobiles. Men like your esteemed husband, whose wealth allows them patronage over the games. The raw emotion of the crowd they are united, but it is they who moved stone and metal to build the arena, and it is they who buy and sell men as though they were naught but beasts of burden, to pit them against one another, until eventually, if they live, they may be set free.

And so long as the nobiles preside over this blood-soaked illusion of freedom and choice, the crowd loves them.

Aiolos cut wildly, and the Thracian parried the blade over his shoulder, knocking the gladius from his hand. Aiolos backed away, hiding behind his shield as he reached for the knife on his belt, but that too was knocked from his hand with the next parry. He grew still, forcing himself to breathe as he saw death approaching on the shining edge of the sickle sword. The crowd cheered in delight as his opponent moved in for the winning blow.

The lion roared as it pounced on the Thracian. The dying beast had dragged itself up, and the warriors had been too immersed in their struggle to notice it approaching or the enthusiastic cries of the crowd. The Thracian looked up and dove aside at the last second, losing his sword in his mad scramble to get away from the enraged beast. The lion’s claws raked at the back of his legs, rending muscle and tendon into shreds of meat.

The Thracian screamed. He pulled himself free with his arms, his lifeless legs dragging behind him in the sand. He threw a terrified glance over his shoulder, but the lion was finished; it collapsed to the ground, air rushing from its lungs. It had lived long enough to take one final revenge on its tormentors.

Aiolos put one foot on the lion’s corpse, pulling the spear free from its ribs. His shoulder burned with the effort. He walked over to his opponent, lying waiting on the sand. Their gazes met as Aiolos approached. The Thracian closed his eyes, face twisted in agony.

Aiolos lay the spearpoint over his throat and looked up at the Thracian’s patron. The man’s head was in his hands.

The crowd roared for blood.

The Emperor gestured.

Aiolos hesitated only a moment.

Yet even though I have seen through the illusion, I still play my part in it. And even though I am rich enough to live out my days in comfort, still I come back to the arena. For the false freedom of a normal life is no better than the freedom of the blade, and playing along with the illusion is no worse than never seeing through it at all. If that means the end for us, then so be it.

Your husband is a good man, for all the blood that is spilled in his name. May you be happy with him to the end of your days, Min.

______________________________________________________________________________

Patrick Harrison is a writer of historical fiction from the South Coast of New South Wales. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, graduating with distinction in 2011, and his fiction has been published in the Tertangala student magazine. He has also worked as a freelance copywriter, journalist, youth activist and retail worker. 

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Gladiator’s Lover

Cobalt Blue

Wine dark waves lapped at the coast of the Sea of Marmara outside the house of Beyza the potter. The weathered beams of the house held great open windows and milk-vetch and goat’s thorn grew in tangles beneath them.

Beyza sat at her potter’s wheel behind the open windows, dark hair braided beneath a blue scarf and sleeves rolled past her elbows. Her foot moved back and forth to spin the kick wheel so that the clay spun beneath her hands. Placing the lip of the dish between the fingers of both hands she pulled slowly, steadily upward, thinning and raising the wall of the vessel.

When the height was just right Beyza began to expand the mouth. Bracing a wooden rib against the exterior she smoothed the sides, clearing away the excess water. Her foot’s continuous motion ceased and the pot spun into stillness, the surface shining dully in the light from the windows.

Beyza stopped to ponder the shape. The foot of the bowl was small, the width of her hand in diameter, narrowing as it rose. From there, the bowl expanded rapidly, with a broad basin and tall, slightly tapered walls. It was a shape she had been working with for weeks now, struggling to create better and better imitations of the work merchants in the city were importing from the Far East.

She bent down to examine the exterior curve, brushing a strand of dark hair back from her face and leaving a streak of clay across her forehead.

She was startled from her work by the sound of approaching footsteps. Looking up she saw her friend, Negris, approaching from the direction of the road. She was tall and moved like a tulip in the sea-wind, her dark red robe like the petals of a flower.

“Beyza,” said Nergis, “come away from your potter’s wheel and go to the market with me.”

“I should be working, not shopping,” Beyza said, although she stood from her wheel and cleaned her hands.

“You work too much,” Nergis said, laughing, tossing her hair over her shoulder, dark and rippling like a skein of patterned silk.

Beyza straightened her scarf and tidied away her tools, leaving the bowl sitting on her wheel, fragile in its wet state. A brush of a hand or an accidental nudge would render it useless. The carefully shaped clay would be pounded back into a lump and she would have to start all over.

She was careful not to disturb the bowl.

When her workspace was clean enough, Beyza went to the chest by the window. It had been a gift from her husband, Hayri, when they married. She remembered watching him construct it; it was made of dark wood with a mosaic in small ceramic tiles on the lid. She paused for a moment to run her fingers over them – the wood had been worn smooth over the past seven years from the touch of her hands, and the blue swirl of the sea over the tiles was so familiar to her she could see it even when she closed her eyes.

More familiar than her husband’s face, these days, for he had been buried in the hills behind the house two summers past.

From the chest she pulled a worn silk scarf. She laid it gently over the bowl so it would not dry too much while she was gone.

“Now we can go,” she said to Nergis.

The two woman began the walk into the city. They walked past fields of wheat and barley that shone gold and green in the midday sun, flowers bobbing alongside the heavily rutted dirt road. Nergis chattered away about her eldest son, but Beyza was only half listening. She watched a farmer moving between the rows of his field, examining the leaves of his plants. She pictured the golden spikes of wheat splashed across the rim of a platter against a background of smooth white porcelain.

What would it feel like to work with such fine clay? she wondered. The clay she dug from the local hills turned a toasty golden color when she fired it, like the seed pods of goat’s thorn.

The city of Iznik had expanded rapidly in the past hundred years under the influence of a steady influx of trade from the east, and it had overtaken many of the farms that had once surrounded the city. Creamy stone buildings with brightly painted faces lined the crowded, winding streets. The walk was not a long one – Beyza’s eleven year old son made it every morning to attend a school in the city.

The two women went to the Sahil Market, where most of the foreign vendors sold their wares. It was abuzz with languages Beyza did not recognize, shouting and calling back and forth to one another. Beyza followed Nergis through the market as she chattered at vendors, poring over beaten gold jewelry and bolts of cloth woven so fine it was see-through. Date rolls with cinnamon and roasted figs filled the air with a sharp, sweet scent so enticing that Nergis stopped and purchased one. Sticky bun wrapped in a cloth, they continued on, passing stalls of glass beads and strings of pearls, amber and amethysts glittering over folds of linen.

While there were many imports – tea and spices, silk and other exotic fabrics – Beyza had eyes only for the pottery. Bone white porcelain bowls with lips of cobalt blue, darker than the Marmara Sea. Fine lines of indigo swirled across platters, flowers blossomed and tigers crept around the foot rims of serving dishes. Cups so fine they were almost transparent perched on saucers that sparkled like gemstones imported from the south.

“What is it that makes their work so much more beautiful than ours?” she murmured, but she knew the answer. Iznik potters might have the skills to rival those in the Far East, but they didn’t have the raw materials.

“You seem to have an eye for craftsmanship,” one vendor said. He was a broad shouldered man with a thick, grey peppered beard and skin that had been weathered to leather by years in the sun and wind. “You’ve only picked up the finest pieces I have.”

“What about those?” she asked, gesturing to a set of dishes she had passed over earlier. They were decorated with gold, but the bottoms were sloppily trimmed and the rim uneven.

He shook his head. “Expensive, but not so well made as some of these plainer dishes,” he said, pointing out the blue patterned bowl in front of her. “You know true quality.”

She flushed. “I’m a potter, it’s my work to know such things.”

“Ah, I see. Your work must be fine indeed.”

She fingered the blue patterned bowl. The clay at the base felt like silk it was so smooth. “Not as fine as this, I assure you. Though it might be, if I had the proper materials.” Her work was well known in the city, and sold for high prices in shops in the wealthier parts of the city, but she coveted the imported wares, longed to create pieces with the same delicate vibrancy.

The vendor considered her for a long moment. “Come,” he said at last, waving her around the side of the stall. “I have something you will appreciate.”

Beyza glanced around for Nergis, but her friend had moved on to the next stall and was examining a thick woven rug.

She followed the man to the back of his stall. There were several large wooden crates in various states of unpacking, straw strewn about and heaped in the bottoms of crates. The vendor bent over and rummaged in one of the crates. From within he drew a cup, wide with no handle, to be cupped between the hands.

“It’s a tea bowl, from Jiangxe. The newest I’ve got.”

Dragons chased each other around the cup, minute scales like sapphires, the wings so delicately drawn they seemed to flutter as she stared.

“It’s an experimental technique,” the man said, his voice low. “Rumors say those Eastern barbarians grind up the bones of children and mix it in with the clay before forming it.”

His words broke her trance and she tore her eyes from the dragon to meet the vendor’s eyes. His brown gaze was unruffled.

Would it have to be the bones of a child? she wondered. If it could create such beautiful work – surely the world would take notice if she could create something to rival this elegant cup.

She pushed the thought from her mind and withdrew her fingers, which had been extended in longing to touch the smooth surface.

“How crude,” she said, although the product was anything but.

“Still,” the vendor said, “look at the grins on those dragons.”

Beyza peered close again. The dragons were indeed grinning, their sharp teeth bared. In the dim light of the stall, filtered through the red awning overhead, the fangs seemed to glint with blood.

She left the vendor and found Nergis, who hadn’t gone far. Her friend held out her hand, which now glittered with a bracelet of citrines set in gold.

“It’s beautiful,” Beyza said, although she suspected the gemstones were paste. The two women left the market shortly after, and walked several streets to her son, Deniz’s school. He was sitting in the courtyard outside, poring over a leaflet, his dark hair shining as it hung over his face.

He looked up as they approached, and his face lit up, bright smile splitting his face. “Valide!” he cried, jumping up. He threw his arms around Beyza’s waist, hugging her tightly.

He looked up at her, his dark, grey eyes like slate, a gift from his father. The smile was his too, kind and gentle and brilliant.

She looked at Nergis. “Time for us to go home, I think. I have work to do.”

The morning after she and Nergis went to the market, Beyza went into the hills. Her little house stood, nestled between two hills and just a few minutes’ walk from the river. She walked up river, away from the sea, shoes squishing in the muddy banks where the grass had washed away in the spring rains. She carried her battered leather pack on her back, and Deniz dodged eagerly in her footsteps, carrying a spade. He liked to help her when she went to gather clay.

There were three elements to the clay she mixed. The thick, sticky clay she dug from the hills – too soft to do anything with on its own – the feldspar she bought in the city market, and the crushed up fragments of her broken pots.

The sun was hot on her back, warming her dark hair as they rounded the last bend in the river to the area she had been digging for the last few weeks. Here the river was wide and shallow, weeds growing in twists along the edges. Most of the potters from Iznik got their clay from the seabed along the coast where the river and rains deposited it. Beyza, however, preferred to dig out the clay at its source.

She tossed down her pack and set to work, cutting into the dense soil with her spade. She worked up a sweat while Deniz skipped rocks across the river. She stood at last and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.

Together the two of them packed the clay into her leather satchel. Her back was strong from years of hauling clay and throwing large pots on the wheel, but even so she had to stop and rest twice before they reached home.

That night, after Deniz was asleep, Beyza went to her potter’s wheel. The bowl she had thrown the day before sat there, now trimmed and bone dry, dusty to touch. She lifted it gently between her hands and held it up in the moonlight streaming through the open windows. It was well crafted, but lacked the ethereal beauty she craved. Even the unfired clay seemed coarse and unrefined to her, before it had darkened in kiln fire.

It wouldn’t have to be the bones of a child.

The thought came to her, unbidden, something she had pushed to the back of her mind. She thought of her husband, buried two summers back over the rise behind the house.

She left Deniz asleep in bed and took up her spade. Outside the moon was nearly full, the skies clear and shot with stars like silver thread. She made her way through the tangles of milk-vetch, goat’s thorn snarling the bottom of her robe with its tiny burrs.

The place where she had buried her husband was marked with a carved stele, bleached from the bright sun. The ground that had once been a patch of bare, recently churned earth, was now overgrown. She sunk her spade into the dirt, slicing through thick green leaves.

She dug for what felt like hours, until the moon was overhead and her body ached. She thought of the look on Nergis’s face if she found out what Beyza was doing, and kept on. Nergis didn’t know what her work meant to her, didn’t understand the burning desire to create something so beautiful that God himself would take notice.

Thrusting the spade deep into the ground once more something grey broke the surface.

She knelt and rummaged in the dirt with her hands, feeling along the length of the bone, still stretched with fragments of the burial wrappings. The skin and muscle were gone, nothing remaining of his original flesh but a few brittle tendons and ligaments.

She paused, suddenly feeling the dirt that had caught under her fingernails and left a dusty film over her skin. It felt invasive, plucking his bones from the ground where she had once said prayers over his body.

But his body was of no use to him now, and she’d already come this far. She looked toward the house, half expecting Deniz to be standing there to catch her rooting in his father’s grave. He wasn’t. He was still sound asleep in the house.

She left the grave dismantled and carried the bones back to the yard outside her house. Kindling a fire in her kiln she placed the bones where she would normally place her bone dry pots and jars. The kiln was nearly six feet long and six feet wide, with a firebox in the front for her to tend and steps in the back for the pottery.

By the time the sun rose she had a blazing fire. The wind fluttered against the mouth of the kiln and the sound of the roaring flame inside the kiln seemed to mirror the beating of her heart.

Deniz came to join her much later, when the sun was already nearing its peak.

“Why did you let me sleep so late?” he asked. She shrugged, and he helped her tend to the fire for several hours. Sparks scattered every time they opened the firebox to feed in more wood the skin on her face and hands soon felt brittle and crisp. The heat that emanated from the small brick structure felt hotter than the sun.

She did not let it go as long as she would if she were actually firing her pots – just until the bones splintered. After that she let the fire die, although she knew it would be the next morning before it would be cool enough to retrieve them.

“Why are you stopping so early?” Deniz asked. He had helped her with her kiln many times and it usually took two days to run.

“The pots inside have shattered,” she said. He peered inside, looking for the cracked and broken pieces of ceramic.

After she left off tending the fire, she went inside the house and slept.

She might have slept all night, but she woke to her son shaking her. “Something’s been digging in father’s grave!” he cried, trying to drag her from her bed.

“It was probably a bad spirit,” she said, but she followed him outside to look at the mess she had made the night before. The sun was setting, cradled by the Marmara Sea and flaming red as it died. In the light the damage looked far worse – Hayri’s grave stele was off kilter, the dirt dark and rich around the base, obviously overturned.

“Who would do this?” her son asked. She hugged him close and said nothing.

The next day, when Deniz left for school, she went to the kiln and retrieved the fragments of bone. She ground them into as fine a powder as she could manage. It was dull grey, different from the crushed ceramic she usually mixed with her clay. She tossed it with the feldspar and went to the clay that she and Deniz had hauled back from up river. With hands strong from years of kneading dense clay, she mixed the new material into the clay body, trying to make sure it was evenly distributed. When this was done she split off a piece and molded it into a sphere.

She went to her wheel and sat, staring at it for several minutes. This could be the beginning of something beautiful. Beautiful and terrible.

Throwing down the piece of new clay, she kicked at the base of the wheel to start the top spinning. Her foot fell into a familiar rhythm, and the light streaming through the windows soaked into the dark fabric of her robe, into her bones. Warmth and light, like a kiln. Wetting her hands she placed them firmly on the clay and it spun beneath her hands, like every other time.

Just like every other time, except with the possibility of more beautiful results.

The work seemed to shape itself beneath her hands, as though guided by something within.

______________________________________________________________________________
Katy is a garden enthusiast from Michigan, graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor’s in painting and ceramics. Her poetry has previously been published through Temenos, Rising Phoenix Review and The Write Launch

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Cobalt Blue

New Poetry Chapbook from J. Todd Hawkins

AVAILABLE NOW

What Happens When We Leave, a chapbook of poems by J. Todd Hawkins, has been released by Blackbead Books with the support of the Fort Worth Poetry Society and the Poetry Society of Texas. The book is the winner of the 2018 William D. Barney Memorial Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Glancy. This collection features a variety of forms such as ghazal, haibun, cento, sonnet, and free verse. It draws from pop culture and high culture, current headlines and ancient stories. Select pieces have previously appeared in Rattle: Poets Respond, Copperfield Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Concho River Review, and other publications. Signed copies are available from the author for $7.50, including postage (PayPal, Venmo, checks accepted). E-mail jtoddhawkins@gmail.com for details. The book is also available on Amazon.

Praise for What Happens When We Leave

Hawkins shows us how leaving and its intrinsic
epiphanies are essential parts of travel, both physical
and metaphysical. An insightful tour guide, Hawkins
writes poems full of details that “insist we remember,”
even as he gracefully escorts us to our next destination.
— Anne McCrady, author of Letting Myself In

Few experiences in contemporary poetry match the thrill
of encountering J. Todd Hawkins’s precise and haunting
verse. What Happens When We Leave is a dark tour of
poetic forms that takes us from Tokyo to Texas, from
extinction to eternal love, from classic painters to
country crooners. This is an inspiring collection from a
poet of powerful craft, deep sentiment and startling
range.
— Elle Aviv Newton, coeditor and cofounder of
Poets Reading the News

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on New Poetry Chapbook from J. Todd Hawkins

Octavia Randolph

Octavia Randolph is the author of the Circle of Ceridwen Saga set in 9th century England and Scandinavia. The series, which currently includes seven books, follows the central character, Ceridwen, the orphaned daughter of a Saxon nobleman, through encounters with invading Danes and Saxon chieftains during this age of upheaval.

The first book, The Circle of Ceridwen, begins with the seven kingdoms of Angel-land before they were united into one England by Ælfred the Great. Books two and three, Ceridwen of Kilton and The Claiming, take place in England for the most part, while the fourth and fifth volumes, Hall of Tyr and Tindr, are set on the Baltic island of Gotland. Silver Hammer, Golden Cross, the sixth book in the series, moves between the two locations. Randolph’s latest book, Sidroc the Dane, is set mostly in Denmark and tells the story of the childhood of one of the main characters.  Randolph has also written two novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka, from an Icelandic saga, and a biographical novel about the art and social critic John Ruskin called Light, Descending.

Maggie Fry: What was your inspiration to write a book set in ninth century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?

Octavia Randolph: The entire sags for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just twenty-three years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness and did it extraordinarily well.  It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum to allow trade in both areas. It was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.

M.F.: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.

O.R.: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes and learned to spin with a drop spindle.  In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland, my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland. I’m so happy that, almost Twenty years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.

I feel a responsibility to adhere to historical veracity because history is so little taught today. We rely on our novels, television shows, and films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what has come down to us as received history.

M.F.: Did you get to England?

O.R.: Yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language spoke to me. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We are so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.

M.F.: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.

O.R.: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the ninth century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died — October 27, 899 — because there were scribes to record things, but there are enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. These two conflicting cultures were literally blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the gift of literacy.

M.F.: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?

O.R.: I would say that they are archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” For instance, Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, was taught to read and write. That is a believable scenario because we know that some women, like Ælfred’s mother, were literate, and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. I look at certain archetypes I find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was a great jarl named Sidroc. That was fun because the moment I saw that name, many years ago, I loved it and thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.

M.F.: Your books are self-published. Why did you make that decision and what have your experiences been?

O.R.: I never set out to self-publish because when I started writing Circle of Ceridwen Saga book one, it was 1991 and there was no such thing as self-publishing. There were traditional publishers and there were vanity presses. But I did go the traditional route, and when I completed that first manuscript, I was able to place it with an agent, who had no success whatsoever in placing it with a publishing house. That went on through a couple of years and a couple of agents. Finally, in 1998, when I first had an author website–I am very proud and happy that it is the twentieth anniversary of Octavia.net now because there are very few authors who had websites twenty years ago. One of the reasons I wanted a website is first because I wanted to share all of my research, and so I wrote scores of mini essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, and medieval life in general. I used the website as a dissemination source for people who were interested in the era. Before the advent of Wikipedia I got a tremendous number of hits. There was not a lot of information out there.

The other thing I did in 1998 was to take a page out of Charles Dickens’s book and publish serially. So jointly with my then agent, we thought if you can show New York publishers that you’ve got a platform and followers now, that may sway their opinion.

M.B.: That’s what authors are often told.

O.R.: It actually does not matter at all to traditional publishers. There have been many instances of people with enormous platforms, yet traditional publishers will not look at them or only look at them in a specific way. For instance, [they will only consider] print only deals because they don’t want the bloom off of the rose. They want to mold something themselves. Anyway, nothing kept happening. Fortunately, I kept writing the saga and pretty much had given up the idea of ever being published. But I needed to continue the story for my own sake, so I completed the trilogy. By then the world of publishing was changing, and in 2008 Amazon introduced the Kindle. It revolutionized things because it made it easier for people to self-publish.

I did not put the trilogy on Amazon until 2012. When I did, I was fortunate enough to have a body of work — three initial novels — and that was an important leg up because people could move from one book to the next and reach an almost immediate audience. It proved to me that I did have an audience and potentially quite a large one.

Armed with the fact that the books were selling well, I felt confident to continue the saga. There are now seven books, all under my own imprint. When I look at the entire dramatic arc of the characters in history that I am covering, I foresee potentially ten books or more. I am happy that I persevered, I believed in my talent, I believed in my power to communicate a good story, but also I was able to do this because finally technology caught up to the point where I could, in fact, reach the audience and bypass the gatekeepers.

M.F.: When did you found Pyewacket Press?

O.R.: In 2012, when I first published on Kindle, I wanted an imprint name. After Kindle, I very quickly got on Nook, iBooks, which is now called Apple Books, Kobo, which is a Canadian retailer which sells e-books primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Then print books followed and audio books. I have done all of that under the aegis of Pyewacket Press. I have used the name of my beloved little Bengal cat since 2012.

M.F.: One of the issues with self-publishing is that anybody can put anything out there. How do you distinguish yourself from others?

O.R.: The figure was just released that a million books were self-published in the last twelve months. A million! That’s astounding. Discoverability was always difficult, but it is more challenging than ever to differentiate yourself and to be discovered in such a crowded market. Yet there are people knowing tremendous success all the time, even in the most crowded markets, because if you are writing thrillers or romance, you are already writing to a huge existing market of voracious readers who are great consumers of books. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a crowded market. You just really have to keep high standards because you are writing for readers who have a lot to compare you against. But I think any dedicated and talented writer can make their way today. It just takes tremendous perseverance.

M.F.: Do you think self-publishing is more fan-driven than traditional publishing?

O.R.: Absolutely! In traditional publishing you have to have an and an acquiring and a marketing and acquisitions staff who all love your work. They have to become your fans, but that’s a fairly small team. Whereas if you can release your books in multiple markets around the world, in whatever language you’re supporting, you can get a much broader base, and those are the people who actually buy your book. So, yes, it’s highly fan-driven but every writer needs to have fans. And those are people who endorse and are passionate about your work.

M.F.: What obstacles have you encountered during the self-publishing process?

O.R.: Technically it can be pretty daunting. The actual publishing itself is simple; Amazon has a downloadable free guide that walks you through the steps of formatting your Kindle book. It’s more technical to set up a print book on Create Space or Ingram, but it can be done. I think the supporting technical roles of managing the business side of advertising and promotion are very time-consuming and can be difficult. Be prepared to hire the best talent possible, whether it’s for your cover or your audio book. There’s always a way around technical or time limitations, but you need to be strategic with your resources and invest in yourself, to understand that the most important part of starting a career is to put out a quality book and then to promote it properly. I don’t care if you are eating beans; it’s worth it. Seeing those initial royalties roll in and realizing you are communicating with people, connecting with people who love your work, then it’s worth every sacrifice you’ve made.

M.F.: I would assume the good part of self-publishing is the ability to control the entire process.

O.R.: I have many friends who have been traditionally published and have been driven half mad by editors, book designers and others. Even though you are going it alone and you have full veto rights on things, that responsibility is an awesome one, and hopefully you are relying on the judgment of people you trust to guide you. Yes, you do have that control. You have the control over where your books are going to be, how they will be presented, how they will be marketed, and it could mean quite a bit of trial and error because you’re foregoing the expertise traditional publishers bring, but you are able  to make one-on-one connections with independent bookstores and to make those marketing decisions as to how you are going to present your book to the public, and that’s enormous. It’s an enormous responsibility, but it is also an enormous freedom.

M.F.: Is there anything you’d like to add?

O.R.: I’m often asked to advise people who are starting out. I would say, obviously, write the best book that you can. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t rush to publication. Make sure it’s a book that you love and are proud of every word.

The second bit of advice that I give is that it is enormously helpful to have a body of work. If you have two or three books, it’s huge when you are publishing under your own imprint. If you offer book one at a low price because you want people to be introduced to it, or you’re offering it for free with a sign-up on your website, then you want to be able to give people something so when they love that book, they will be able to go on and buy books two and three at full price. If you have more than one book to begin with, that’s just marvelous. You don’t want to come out with a great book and have people say, “Oh, I love this author,” and then there’s nowhere to go. Obviously, I write series and it’s the same group of characters moving through time and space. That in itself is addictive for the reader and you want the story to continue, but even if you’re an author who’s writing maybe about an unconnected group of characters, but you form an audience in book one, they are going to want to see your next book. If you can have two or three books before you begin, that’s a wonderful advantage for you.

The third thing that I love to tell people, and I can’t say it often enough, is that, sadly, we have brought up a generation of readers who think books should be free. Free or cheap. It’s so important, and I say this over and over again, if you do not value your own talent, do not expect anyone else to do so. I’m always encouraging people to price their books appropriately within their genre. My books are expensive because people who read historical fiction will pay a bit more for the quality of the material, and I just feel that people who are going out with perma-free books are adding to the problem and not the solution. It’s alright to offer book one for free in exchange for something like building your email list, but I do feel very strongly that one must value one’s own talent and as quickly as possible build people up to paying full price. Look at an author in your genre whom you very much admire and whose work is similar to your own and price yourself accordingly. Hopefully, it is very close if not at what their Kindle book is selling for. Again, I feel we have to stop this. It should be a rare thing to have a free book. It should be a treat. We wouldn’t have the number of books out there clogging people’s Kindles if there was just more discernment from authors themselves. Much of it is desperation and driven by lack of self-worth. If you’ve written a good book, it is worthy and you are worthy of being well-paid for it.

______________________________________________________________________________

Maggie Fry has spent the last thirty years on a small hobby farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she raised sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks, in addition to rescuing cats and dogs. When she wasn’t playing in the dirt, she wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching courses in writing and public speaking at the university level. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and currently teaches in the Communications Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Octavia Randolph

The Forester’s Soup

I should have been frightened that July afternoon when the Gestapo came to my grandfather’s Bavarian home, and if I’d known what my Opa knew, I would have been. Our benefactor, Graf von Schreiber, had been shot for treason. He’d attempted to assassinate our Führer. Yesterday. With a bomb. But I didn’t know.

My father was a faithful soldier. My Opa kept me safe while Papa was gone. The sounds of war, even when they neared, snagged on the dark bowers of the forest that surrounded our cottage. Snug amid the spruce trees, there was little for a ten-year-old girl to fear in that warm July of 1944.

Still, these Gestapo were to be respected. I gawked at them from the kitchen doorway. My grandfather shooed me away. When his attention was once again diverted, I moved back to where I could see and hear.

Two of the men were my papa’s height, but their uniforms, the color of dehydrated moss, were different than my father’s tree-bark gray. The third man, the tallest, had a deep voice and a pretty face and his left fingers tap-tapped on his thigh, busy as a hungry woodpecker. The combination almost made me giggle, but Opa gave me that look of his. The one that stopped me right where I stood.

Opa offered the men chairs, but they remained standing.

“Will you be staying the night?” he asked.

“No. We’ve work to do,” the pretty man said.

“You’ll have supper though?”

The pretty man met my grandfather’s gaze for a long moment before turning toward his men. He motioned toward me and then pointed at the stairs that led to our bedrooms. One of the men walked to the stairs. The other toward me.

I shrank into the kitchen and backed against the wall. The man ignored me. Stooping over, he looked beneath the sink. I scraped at a grass stain on my dress. I’d been digging up rain worms beneath the forest’s trees. I’d found three, each longer than my arm. Opa said we’d fish with them after supper.

The man in our kitchen looked in the pantry and stomped the floors. He went out the back door. I followed and stood on the step while he circled the wood pile. I picked up a stick and poked at pungent dirt in a wooden bucket. My worms were tunneling in there. Later I’d cut them up for fish bait. The man leaned toward the forest as though listening to whispers. If he heard anything, it would’ve surprise me. I hadn’t seen deer in over a year and I’ve never seen Gämse with their funny hooked horns.

He walked back to where I waited. I asked, “Do you want to see my riesige würmer?”

Nein,” he said, pushing past.

Annoyed he didn’t want to see my worms, I followed him. I stood in the room with the policemen and my grandfather, arms crossed and feet planted.

The pretty man paced. Opa and the other two men sized each other up and decided what could and couldn’t be talked about. They spoke about papa so far away, about the war and rations. I kicked at a warped floorboard and watched dried mud fall from my shoes. We’d had such fun on our hike this morning. Usually Opa and I walked alone, and he’d point out grouse and ptarmigan. Today though, my friends from the village came with us, and—

Hands slapped down on my shoulder jolting me from my thoughts. The pretty man moved me aside. He kicked my warped board once, twice. It didn’t budge.

“Herr Hoffman,” he said, turning from me and the board. “Do you know Graf von Schreiber?”

“Me? No. I’m only a Förster.”

“You are a family friend?”

Opa laughed. “An old man like me? Friends with a count? No. I’m friends with the trees.”

What a strange answer! Just this morning the Countess von Shreiber had summoned Opa. We’d guided her boys—my friends—and their Great Uncle Max on a mountain hike. Oskar and Will rat-a-tatted machine guns made of broken tree limbs. I hid among the evergreens and spied upon my Opa. I heard Uncle Max make Opa promise to find Graf von Shreiber’s boys, which made no sense because they weren’t even pretending to hide. And oh, they were making such noise.

So now I said, “Großvater, our hike this morning—”

“Rosa. Seen. Not heard.” Opa’s voice quavered. The kitchen man smirked. Perhaps he thought Opa was afraid, but I knew better. That tremble was anger. I’d forgotten the rules. We never talked about other families. I kicked at the floorboard again.

The pretty man studied my messy clothes, his smile fierce and lovely. “You hiked this morning? Alone?”

“I walked with Opa and… and I dug up worms. The big ones. Do you want to see them?”

The man’s smile widened. He patted my head and nodded at Opa. “We’ll sit.”

Opa beckoned. “Come here, Rosa.” I moved to his side and he squeezed my hand. “You must make these busy men supper.”

“But we were going—”

“But nothing. Cook up that catfish we caught this morning.” He turned to the three men. “We don’t have much, but it is yours.”

I stared at Opa, my mouth slack.

“Don’t be rude. Go now.”

I snapped my mouth shut. I wanted to tell Opa we had no catfish. We had mustard seed, and cabbage, and some early apples. There were last fall’s Juniper berries in a jar in the pantry. They made everything taste better. And just today, after parting ways with our friends, we bought two eggs and a bit of milk in the village. I’d never made spaetzle, but I could try. Catfish though? That we didn’t have.

“Rosa, go.”

I scurried to the kitchen.

Behind me the pretty man said. “Herr Hoffman. You go too.”

In the kitchen I laid out our ingredients for my grandfather. I made the broth, rich and sweet, and added potatoes for body. Opa mixed the dough and added spaetzle one by one to the simmering liquid. He and I ate a bowlful and savored each spoonful.

“Get that catfish now, Rosa. They’re in the bucket outside. I think the two larger ones will do. We’ll use the other later.”

I giggled, finally understanding. “But Opa, why?”

“Someday, you’ll know why. You’ll know why these men, why this day. Right now, no more questions.”

While the men smoked their cigarettes we washed those worms carefully, as though they were new potatoes and we’d be eating the skins. As the men drank from silver flasks and poured over local maps we chopped our worms into little pieces and added them to the broth. The men talked in whispers while the soup simmered a long, long time. My grandfather tasted the wurmsuppe, and said. “More juniper berries I think.” I crushed them and stirred them in and he teased, “Sehr gut. Take a bite, Rosa.”

Our visitors suspected nothing, although the pretty man commented, “One can never fully hide the taste of muck when catfish is caught during July’s heat.” Still, they emptied their bowls.

After daylight gave way to new-moon dark, the men stole past the bucket with its one large worm and taking the path that led to our friends’ village, they disappeared beneath the bowers of the forest.

So, I ask you, what was there for a ten-year-old girl to fear that torrid July in 1944, with juniper berries for bitter soup, and spruce trees for hiding, and Opa to keep me safe?

______________________________________________________________________________

Barbara Rath writes prose poetry and fiction in the dark hours that surround full-time technical work. She has been published in the online journals, The Birds We Piled Loosely and The Scarlet Leaf Review (August 2018)She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the University of New Hampshire, holds memberships with Boston’s Grub Street and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (NHWP), and just finished a stint as host for NHWP’s craft and publication webinars. Ms. Rath’s writing journey is chronicled at http://barbararath.com.

Thanks for sharing!
error75
Posted in Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Forester’s Soup