Category Archives: Fiction

Last Words

A ray of light reaches through the bars on the window and illuminates a chink of your face. I will carry this piecemeal image – eye scrunched shut, a miniature version of your late father’s nose, pink lips suckling an imaginary breast – with me to my executioner’s hands.

Our moments together are numbered, little one. You can’t comprehend that any more than I can, I know. You’ve kept me alive longer than I should have been. Pregnancy counts for something in these warped times, as does mother’s milk. Yes, I’ve done my job fattening you up for the Reich. Your cheeks are rosy. Your limbs robust. But another baby for the Führer you are not. I’ve clasped you close, whispered words you’ll never remember into your tiny ears. Be more. Resist. In all shades of darkness and dampness, I’ve told you about those who are still out there. I’ve spoken in codes, reassured you in Russian. I’ve equipped you as if you were eighteen years old, a new recruit, and not a helpless infant about to be handed over to a life that extends well beyond me. 

I pace around the cell, rocking you gently. Sometimes I count the paces, singing each step into a makeshift lullaby you might remember by chance someday. Perhaps on a rainy Tuesday a window cleaner will pass, humming a note, and you’ll feel the walls close in around you, see how the light falls through the bars across the glass, smell my milky odour, hear my voice. Broken. Determined. Mutti. 

A rat scurries from one of the corners; it stops in the middle of our confined space and eyes me as if it were my landlady and I’m behind on the rent. I want to stamp my feet, to chase it from my sight, but I turn my back and focus on you. You whimper. I kiss your forehead. Once. Twice. Three times. On and on and on. A kiss for every birthday I’ll miss. A kiss for every bruised knee and skinned elbow I won’t soothe. A kiss for every question you’ll have that will hang unanswered over the dining table until the time’s right and your grandmother spills forth what she can. 

I shift you in my arms, move you so your head rests beneath my chin, your fists clench against my chest. I listen to your breath, deep and drowsy, enjoy the roughness of your cradle cap against my skin. Your grandmother will have a remedy for that. She will have a remedy for everything, but my absence. You will go to her arms, grow up to her shoulders, cry in her lap. 

I sway to the sounds of the prison: the cough of the inmate next door, the shuffle of dirty feet across cold floors, the thud of metal on metal, the demands of the women who’ve not yet come to terms with their sentences. I have come to terms with mine. I know pleading with a madman is futile. I could wail and bang my wrists against the bars, but that would mean putting you down and I will not do that until they prise you from me white knuckle by white knuckle. 

That moment won’t be long now. I can hear the crunch of heels on concrete, the gait of someone with a purpose. The eager jangle of keys slipping from a pocket. I wonder how you will remember me, or, rather, think of me, for you won’t remember me, but you will know I existed: every child has a mother – dead or living. I hope when you hear my story, our story, that you’re sat in a better time. I hope you bombard your grandmother with questions that go beyond the colour of my eyes and my favourite pair of shoes. She will tell you all that, but you must ask her why I’m not there and don’t accept that I died in childbirth or during a bombing raid. Don’t accept that I was caught up with the wrong people, that I went against the Führer and got what I deserved, that the leaflets I dropped spread lies. The world around you is a lie, little one and if, by the time you have grown up to your grandmother’s shoulders, this country is still red, white, and black, you must find your people, our people, and do what I have done. Be proud of the resistance thrumming through your bloodline. But take extra care of your life. Always look twice and then look twice again. Take detours. Cross busy streets. Never pause. 

I turn at the screech of metal upon metal. The woman standing at the threshold inclines her head and extends her arms. You will go first. I hold you so we’re face to face. Your eyelids droop, saliva bubbles crowd the corners of your mouth. God bless, I say. I press my lips to the crinkle between your brows. Your weight slips from my hands. 

You cry. Yes, I know. You will bawl your way out of this place into the daylight. Your grandmother will shush and reassure you on the walk to the U-Bahn, kiss your forehead on the train, sing a lullaby as she carries you up the stairs to her apartment. And then you will quieten and your life will go on, I hope.

I clench my fists in mid-air, close my eyes to your reddened cheeks, and turn away. The warden’s breath strains with the act of calming your flailing limbs. I smile despite the sudden loneliness I feel. I will remember you, in the time I have left between now and the noose, as rebellious. 

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Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in The Cabinet of Heed, MIR OnlineBarren MagazineThe Nottingham Review and Mslexia. Her first novel will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. 

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September 1945

We have boarded the cattle car headed for Pusan. It takes us past Seoul Grand Park and I can see the bear. Having outlasted the poisoning of her fellow beasts and the fleeing of the zookeepers, she remains seated in her cage. Alone. The wind blows through the bars, tousling her fur. I imagine that she is thinking of cubs she once nursed who have gone on. Our cattle car stops and the conductor demands money to take us further. I see my sister tear open the lining of her yukata and collect 15 yen.

The cattle car doesn’t start again, not for a while so I watch the bear and wonder when it will eat next. Then there are children upon her, lollipop sticks jutting out from their lips. There is unruly laughter and suddenly I see them throw their lollipops at her. The bear looks down to see the candy which is now stuck helter skelter to her fur. There is no anger. There is no fight. She remains seated, face out to the cackling bipedal mammals.

The train is now moving. My thoughts turn to the Japan that waits. We will live with my grandparents, whom I’ve never met.

Overall, I can’t help but feel like this side of my heritage – my father’s side – is not really mine. All that is mine, I think, is my sister – and the affection between us. I have always regarded Japan as some distant motherland but as I leave Korea, I realize I am leaving the only home I have known. To my mainland relatives, I can’t possibly belong. They probably don’t even know who I am. No, surely they don’t know of me.

Beside me sits a family traveling from Pyongyang. You can barely tell the girls from the boys because all of their hair is cut so short. My sister rolls her eyes when she informs me that this is to protect them from the men, as if it’s an obvious fact. Obvious facts. An abandoned bear. A cattle car. Today I am ten years old.

My brother and I sit back to back. Eventually I drift into sleep, dreaming of the bear. This time she and I are alone in a shower of sakura blooms that are gently tumbling around us. I am wielding a hammer and she watches me swing, swing, swing until one bar is bent outward. I methodically bend another bar creating a diamond shape. She exits the cage, headfirst, and shakes her body, like a dog who has just been let outside. Bowing her head, she beckons me to ride. I climb up and off we go.

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Stephanie Yoshiko Harper is a writer and an elementary school librarian. She holds an MA in English from California State University, Northridge. She lives with her partner, daughter, and three dogs in Ventura County, CA.

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Child of Barley

I carry my morning urine to the garden. Already, moisture hangs in the air, a portent of the oppressive heat that will grow as Ra reaches his zenith. Two bags of grain hide in the shade of our jasmine. I pour a portion of urine into each, as I have for the last five days, before checking for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma of waste makes me blink. Neither grain has sprouted from their foundation of sand and dates.

Too soon.

“Amsu,” my mother calls from inside. “You’ll be late for the festival unless you hurry.”

I bathe quickly and smooth lotus cream over my body, saving the strongest unguent to brush under my arms and on my thighs. Its minty fragrance fills the air and brings memories of the last festival and traveling the marshes with Adom.

“Amsu!”

I pack the memories in my shawl along with my best sheath dress, wig, and cosmetics. “Coming.”

Mother kisses me on the cheek. “I will petition Hathor for a favorable oracle.”

Hathor, the goddess of love and fertility. I have yet to tell my mother that the goddess has already blessed me with fertility. I return to Hathor’s festival today to confirm that she has blessed me with a love pairing as well.

With the Nile river on my left, I face into the warm breeze and begin my half day journey to the Temple of Mut, the location of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s bi-annual Festival of Drunkenness. Already the twentieth day of Thoth, the Nile swells from the marshes, bringing fertility to Egypt, just as my stomach swells with new life. I wonder what Adom will say when I tell him. My heart urges me forward, despite the sweltering heat from Ra’s rays.

I reach the temple grounds and weave my way through the seven-hundred-and-sixty lion-headed statues—two for each day of the year—of Sakhmet, Hathor’s counterpart. A peace offering so the lion goddess won’t rampage against us once again.

Inside the temple, I dress with the other Mistresses of Drunkenness. The temple priests anoint us with myrrh oil and weave flowers into our hair: blue lotus, poppy, jasmine, mandrake, and daisies. They divide us into two groups and bid us wait on either side of the temple near the large cisterns of beer. If not for the bestowing of this honor, I would never have met Adom.

The festival goers, royalty and commoners alike, admire our beauty until Queen Hatshepsut arrives. She wears the traditional Nemes headdress, beard, and Shendyt of a Pharaoh even though she is female. Here is a woman who has taken destiny into her own hands and been blessed by the gods for it.

“Ra was unhappy with Egypt because of her rebelliousness,” she begins. “He commanded his daughter Hathor to punish mankind. In her true form she could not, so she became Sakhmet. As a lion, she terrorized the Nile, slicing and eating mankind.

“The council of gods beseeched Ra to stop Sakhmet before there were no people left. Ra commanded her to desist, but blood lust consumed her, so she could not hear him. In their wisdom, the council flooded the Nile valley with ochre-colored beer so that when Sakhmet came upon it, she believed it to be blood. She drank her fill, became inebriated, and fell asleep. When she awoke, she was the benevolent Hathor once again.

“This is why we celebrate the Festival of Drunkenness.” Hatshepsut raises her arms. “Drink to appease Sakhmet so she does not return to destroy us. Drink again to commune with Hathor, the goddess who brings fertility to Egypt and her people. Drink so the gods may grant your supplications.”

She concludes her invocation, and the priests light kyphi incense. The heady aroma, a mix of frankincense, myrrh, and pine resin, produces euphoria in the crowd as they wait for us to serve them beer. I submerge my serving faience, a lion-shaped container colored lotus blue, into the closest beer cistern until air bubbles rise and pop and rise no more.

As I meander through the temple and porch areas filling cups, I search for Adom. I’ve refilled my faience more than twenty times before I spy him. He sits in the corner of the patio among a group of young men. Dressed in the same wig, kilt, and roguish half-smile as last festival, he raises his cup with a wink when he sees me.

My cheeks heat with pleasure, and I ignore the cups shoved in my path as I wind my way toward him.

“Hello, beautiful,” he slurs.

I refill his cup and those of his friends. “Adom, I have news.”

He pulls me down onto his lap. His words caress my ear. “I’m anxious to hear anything you have to say.”

I swivel on his lap so I can peer into his date-colored eyes. I lean in to whisper, “Hathor blessed our travels through the marshes at the last festival. I’m pregnant.”

His gaze drops to my belly, where my sheath dress pulls tightly, and returns to my face. His eyes struggle to focus on me. Once he does, his brows furrow then smooth. “I remember you.”

My shoulders relax. Hopefully he will agree that Hathor has ordained us for one another.

“You’re… Anubis?”

“Amnu.”

His head wobbles on his neck as he nods. “More beer, Amnu.” His voice is gentle. “Then we can go someplace and discuss your… our situation.”

I return to the temple, where the sweet-spicy kyphi hangs thick in the air. Its aroma coils through me, churning my stomach. Before I can draw more beer from the cistern, my stomach expels its contents. Cursed kyphi!

I roll the contaminated cistern outside and dump it onto the bushes lining the porch. Hopefully the goddess will understand that I wasn’t trying to spoil her offering. It was she, after all, who blessed me with this condition.

I hold my breath as I re-enter the temple and hurry to fill the lion-shaped container before my stomach revolts again. Bodies of the revelers who have already succumbed to their cups litter the floor as I make my way back to Adom. When I return, his friends sleep, propped against one another with their backs to the temple wall. One snores loud enough to wake the gods, but not loudly enough to wake his companions. Adom is not among them. Neither is he anywhere on the porch or in the temple. I brave the bushes in case he’s gone to relieve himself, but there is no sign of him. I’m at a loss of where to search next when his voice carries to me on the wind.

I head into the breeze until I find him… travelling through the marshes with a different Mistress of Drunkenness. Her beflowered hair sways in time with their movements.

You were gone too long, my brain supplies. The beer caused him to forget. Or caused him to mistake her for you.Whatever the reason, I cannot stay here and watch them. I stumble backward and my movement catches his attention.

Adom smiles when he sees me. “Amnu,” he calls over his companion’s shoulder, “did you bring more beer?”

I can’t breathe. Can’t think. I’m frozen as completely as the seven-hundred-and-sixty statues of Sakhmet.

He knew. The thoughts come. He knew and he went with her anyway. Then my body is free. My feet carry me away from Adom and the girl he chose over me.

I’m almost to the temple when I find Pharaoh Hatshepsut gazing at the night sky from a bench in the gardens. She holds her ornate cup out to me, and I refill it.

“So many tears for such a pretty girl.” She takes a large swallow. “Have some beer; it will make you feel better.”

So, I do. I sit next to her on the bench and drink directly from the lion-shaped faience. I tell her of Adom and his treachery. When I finish, she is silent for so long that I don’t think she will comment. I’m not even sure whether she was listening to me.

“The waters of the Nile may bring fertility to the land,” she finally says, “but they also harbor danger. Some get swept away and drown. Others are devoured by the beasts who live within her. The Nile is like the two sides of our goddess: the gentle Hathor, goddess of love and fertility, and Sakhmet, Ra’s lion goddess of judgment.”

When she leaves, I stare at the heavens and contemplate my future. I ponder Hatshepsut, the queen who claimed her own destiny as Pharaoh. Perhaps the time has come for me to grasp my own destiny.

One by one, I pull the flowers from my hair. As I crush mandrake leaves and poppy seeds into the remaining beer, I beseech the goddess. Not Hathor, whose blessing Adom rejected. I call on Sakhmet.

Adom is groggy when I refill his cup. He tries to smile at me, but he’s too drunk. He drinks, but the beer dribbles down his chin and onto his naked chest. I wipe it away with his kilt, then I help him finish the rest of it. The naked girl draped across him doesn’t stir. When he passes out, I leave the faience with them and head for home.

The Nile flows on my right, the breeze pushes against my back, and the temple drums call the revelers to wake at sunrise. I wonder when Adom’s companion will realize he will never wake from his slumber. Will she understand that Sakhmet has judged him unworthy?

When I reach my home, I check the twin bags of grain curled under the jasmine. I have no urine to give them, but, as I have for the last six days, I check for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma makes my stomach recoil. Small green shoots greet me from the barley. My child will be a son.

I smile and pat my swelling belly. A child of barley. The main ingredient of beer, instrumental in both his conception and his father’s demise.

I will teach my son that, like the Nile and our goddess, everything has the propensity to nurture or destroy. He must learn to receive the blessings the gods send, as Hatshepsut did when she made herself Pharaoh, so that he does not bring destruction upon himself, lest he end up like his father.

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Lisa Godfrees is the Operations Manager and a daily editor at Havok Publishing. Prior to that, she worked over a decade in a crime lab as both a DNA analyst and manager. Tired of technical writing, she hung up her lab coat to pen speculative fiction. Author of several short works of fiction and co-author of Mind Writer: A Novel, she posts short stories on her blog at lisagodfrees.com.

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The Hunger of Plagues

The disease interrupted a perfectly good war. A quarrel of kings had kept France and England in battle for over a decade, but then the plague ruined it. The plague ruined everything.

The disease started in the sea. Like a wave it slid a clear film over the shore, through the streets, and into the towns. It entered doors and flooded hearths. Then it began to eat. It wolfed down coastal towns until almost none were left alive. Ravenously, it ate parents. It ate children. It didn’t care. Nothing could satisfy its greed. Its sin was gluttony, and it craved towns. Cities, too. A tight wad of homes wrapped in a stonewall casing, with a castle as a topper…that was a special treat. After it picked a few towns and cities from its teeth, it developed a taste for countries. France. Spain. Portugal. England. It grew hungrier and ate Germany and Norway. It set its sights on Russia, and it ate and ate and ate. In Antioch people fled to the north but died on the road. No one could outrun its hunger.  

In those days, a headache and a bit of nausea meant a person had two days left to live. Eight days, if God was feeling cruel. Egg-sized bulboes full of pus regularly protruded from groins, necks, and armpits. They oozed and they bled. Fingernails turned black and people tossed in bed, delirious with fever. Peasants and nobles alike were afraid of the air and kept their doors and windows closed tightly at night. They killed lepers and Jews. Nothing helped; dark spots covered skin, and bloody vomit splashed in the streets, in bowls, on floorboards. Even kings were sticky with it.

This hindered England’s war a great deal, nothing could stop them. They took Cadzand and Auberoche while nearby, weeping filled the streets. They took Calais and Crecy and Saint-Pol-de-Leon as doctors in bird-like masks stuffed herbs in their beaks to protect themselves from God’s wrath. They took La Roche-Derrien, Saintes, and Mauron after corpses had already become a part of everyday life. Loved ones were gently laid to rest in a pit on top of other loved ones. The bodies were so tangled that mothers couldn’t tell which arms belonged to which bodies, or whether the strands of hair lying across their daughters’ faces were theirs or someone else’s.

When it had reached every corner of the earth, the plague let out a large belch and it was gone. Its four-year feast was over. The table scraps it left behind was half of Europe.

Finally the city of Poitiers was lost and the British captured the king. France said stop, we beg of you. We’ll pay whatever you want. Twenty years of losing battles takes a heavy toll, but the toll of living with death is even heavier.

France returned from negotiations limping and tired, a shell of what it once was. That generation never recovered. Neither did the next. Even their grandchildren felt keenly the poverty and emptiness of France, the loss of so much land, so much money, and so many people. At least the British were gone.

But they would come back. This is one thing the plague and England had in common: they always came back.

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Teralyn Pilgrim is an MFA candidate at Western New England University with a BA in English. She is currently querying Voodoo Queen, a novel of Marie Laveau. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and two girls.

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The Visitation

Plymouth, Massachusetts

1650

Mambi, years dead, came to Chloe in the night and told her that Mr. Henry was a wooden paddle and Mistress Abitha was a wooden post. Having been beaten to a limp by Mr. Henry weeks before for eating the last of the root-cellared potatoes, Mistress Abitha standing by, Chloe had no reason to argue with her mother. Mambi rarely visited, so Chloe didn’t want to waste time on the evident. She would rather hear of Mambi’s roamings—her flight here to Plymouth, back to Barbados, back to Africa, and back again, a Black-winged Kite circling carrion, smelling of Caribbean sugar fields, fish rot, and blood.

For reasons, Mambi had killed Master Green’s overseer with a hoe to the neck. Master Green hung her from a Cassia tree for it. Chloe was only four years old, but she remembered her mother twitching and then dangling from the end of the noose, her head nestled in the flowering boughs of the tree, a limp queen with a festooned crown. Chloe remembered how Master Green cut Mambi down and then set her on fire. Keeping Mambi alive, barefoot, and bound to the sugar fields would have answered Mambi’s deed many-fold. Killing her increased her rage and gave her flight.

Killing her gave her schemes and she would fly to Chloe betimes to share them. Even though Chloe liked hearing Mambi’s plans to avenge herself, Chloe couldn’t say she approved of her mother’s murdering hands. God commanded slaves to obey their masters and roared, “Thou shalt not kill!” Many a Lord’s Day, Miss Abitha read those words aloud out of The Book. If Mr. Henry was a paddle and Miss Abitha was a post, Mambi was a closed fist—always fighting—and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft! Miss Abitha read that out of The Book, too. Chloe believed witchery was the truth of Mambi, and she scorned her dead mother for it, even as Mambi sat in the dark corner of Chloe’s sleeping nook, the whites of her eyes piercing the dark like a cornered possum’s. For Mambi’s sins, Master Green, as good as God himself, erased her from the material world. Fair enough. Chloe knew that she, herself, wasn’t a fighter nor a murderer like Mambi. She was weepy, needy, and now lame, which was fair enough, too—she should not have taken the last of the potatoes.

Still, Mambi’s fighting spirit lit embers in Chloe’s stomach. Warmed her. But, the guilt of this sympathy cooled her a bit. Miss Abitha wouldn’t approve of Mambi’s incorporeal comings and goings, let alone her talk of revenge which was God’s property, just as sure as Mambi was Master Green’s and Chloe was Mr. Henry’s.

“I make him sick wit’ what he done,” Mambi rasped, the whites of her eyes and toothy smile glimmering. “I take it—me red rage—ball it up, send it to him, and he come down sick. Slow but sure, I lay him in de grave. Soon. And him send you here to this paddle and post after I gone? Nah suh! I put him low.”

Chloe turned her face away from Mambi, the leg Mr. Henry hobbled throbbing under the gingham. “Leave me,” she whispered.

“He beat you! And she watch!” Mambi threw up her hands. Her fingers looked like bony feathers.

“He meant it not. And she is sorry for it.”

Chloe kept her low tones. Mr. and Mistress were sleeping in the next room while she slept on a paletted hay mattress behind a makeshift curtain in the pantry. Making it up to the attic was nearly impossible after Mr. Henry’s pummeling work on the lower part of her leg. The pantry was not a likely place for a food thief, so Mr. Henry must have had faith in his power to apply proper and effective correction.

“You power ‘dem, gal. Lay ‘dem low.” Mambi’s eyes glittered in the dark, slim shafts of glow from the full moon striping her black face from between the slats in the wooden slab that covered one of the only windows in the house.

While Mambi rasped on, Chloe closed her eyes and called on the only Power. She recited the Lord’s prayer, over and over again, eventually drifting to sleep on Mambi’s smell of boiling sugar, on Mambi’s pain and its intangible power to waste, on the prayer’s promise of forgiveness and deliverance from evil.

The next morning, Mr. Henry, foot shod and clad with his field hat, glared at Chloe’s’ leg from the kitchen board. Mistress Abitha sat opposite him as she folded three cloth napkins lengthwise.

“Make haste, girl. I must to the fields.”

Mr. Henry, with his marvel of auburn curls peaking from under his hat and the matching wiry hair on his chin and cheeks would not look Chloe in the eyes as she limped to the table with the morning bread and cheese. But, Mistress Abitha looked at her kindly which heartened Chloe a bit. Miss Abitha laid two of the napkins on the table for Mr. Henry and Chloe, adjusting her white cap over the blonde hair that Chloe had braided into two long ropes a few days since.

“You mustn’t stand today, Chloe,” she said.

“She will stand, Abitha. It is her custom to stand and it is her place to stand.”

Mr. Henry stared at the table, his chin propped with elbows and folded hands, the unyielding stance looking oddly like the act of prayer. “There’s nothing wrong with her. She be play-acting.”

A root of hurt budded in Chloe’s abdomen as her leg throbbed. It sent a prickly tendril up through her throat and behind her eyes. She swallowed and blinked to smother it. She grit her teeth to kill it, red washing her vision. As she stood between Mr. Henry and Miss Abitha nibbling on a crust of bread as they ate, a boiling sweetness crept into the air, even after the breakfast prayer. She wondered if they could smell it, too. She wondered if they could sense the warmth blooming in her stomach as she listened for the rustling of black wings. Mambi could wither with her pain. Of a sudden, Chloe wondered if she could do the same with hers.

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Jade McGowan is a writer living in Bradenton, Florida. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Scribble. She is also an editor for 805 Literary and Art Journal. 

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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.

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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.  

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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

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Women’s March on Versailles

‘Cécile, Cécile!’ Victoire’s voice sounded more like a whisper instead of a shout. The roars of the women who had gathered on the market place reigned over the usual tones that governed Paris. Vendors muttered into each other’s ears rather than yelling the latest prices of cabbages and onions. The clicking of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles was buried underneath the clanging bells of the nearby Sainte-Marguerite church.

‘Cécile!’ Victoire shouted again while the woman next to her yelled that they must march to the city hall before going to Versailles. The king would listen if they had weapons.

Victoire tried to remember when she had last felt her sister’s soft hand holding her own dry, cracked skin. The child had been standing next to her when she had accused the baker’s wife of hoarding grain to drive up the prices. Twelve sous! For bread that was blackened, hard enough to hammer every nail back into the crumbled walls of the Bastille. Then Cécile had been playing with a worn-out doll on the pavement while Victoire manoeuvred underneath the red parasols of a café, gulping down someone else’s wine. She could still taste the watered-down flavour of red grapes and cherries on the tip of her tongue. Victoire remembered going back to the baker’s shop, Cécile holding Victoire’s hand, hiding behind a group of outraged water-carriers, waiting until the baker’s wife would make a mistake. Cécile had wanted to say something, but Victoire had shushed her, and when the well-fed woman was about to blunder, Cécile was gone.

‘Have you seen a girl?’ Victoire asked a thin woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. ‘She’s nine, grey skirt, ginger-brown hair, missing all her front teeth except one.’ The woman shook her head.

The newly formed national guard whistled and clapped when the market women began their march towards the Place de Grève. Vendors started to load their wares into wagons.

Victoire looked inside an abandoned carriage, behind a heap of empty barrels, underneath a market stall, and behind piled up cages holding chickens captive. She even had the courage to step over a dead cat and peer into a small alleyway.

Victoire placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. She had wanted to leave her sister at home, but she had not forgotten yesterday, and neither had Cécile. Glass shattering on the ground, a faint fragrance of jasmine filling the room, the only bottle of perfume Victoire had ever owned. Wasted. Broken. She had slammed her fists on the wobbly kitchen table, pulled at her sister’s hair and locked her out of the mice-infested chambers Victoire rented in a five-storey building. Victoire had yelled at her sister, telling her that she was a plague, while Cécile sobbed in the hallway. This morning when Cécile had asked to come, she had wanted to say no, but couldn’t.

Victoire ran to the other side of the square. Tripping over a raised cobblestone, she fell into a stream that flowed into the marketplace from under the gates of the butcher’s inner courtyard, its red colour gluing itself to her plain blue dress.

‘I can scrub that off for you, only two sous.’

Victoire shuddered. She recognised that croaky voice. She was skilled in avoiding the bony figure and grey sunken eyes that accompanied it. Victoire and Cécile called her Mme Macabre, Cécile being convinced that she must be at least two hundred years old and had crawled out of one of Paris’s overcrowded graveyards. Mme Macabre lived in the same building. She always sat in a chair, blocking the doorway with a woven laundry basket resting in her lap. The same one she was carrying now.

‘I’ve lost my sister, have you seen her?’

‘Escaped, has she? I would have run away sooner.’

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

‘If my sister fell into the Seine, and drowned, or was hit by a carriage, or trampled upon by the mob, or I don’t know what, it’s your fault.’

Mais non, she was eating cheese and went that way.’

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

‘Very well.’ Mme Macabre walked away and sat down on a taboret. Victoire sighed. She gave Mme Macabre her arm without looking at her, while the laundry basket was pushed into Victoire’s other arm.

Mme Macabre led Victoire to the Place de Bastille, her sour-smelling hair blowing into Victoire’s face every time there was a gust of wind. Her long nails piercing through Victoire’s cotton sleeves.

Victoire felt as angry as the men who had fired at the fortress some weeks ago. She remembered the smoke, the heat, the sound of cannon balls flattening the walls. She had heard every command Stanislas Maillard had been yelling at his fellow citizens. She had seen his every movement, his nonchalant way of loading his musket, throwing his liberty cap into the air when the Bastille was taken and the tired scowl on his face when only seven prisoners could be found within its damp walls. She had wanted to embrace him, kiss him, tell him that he was a hero. Instead she had gone home, answering her sister’s silly questions while Victoire chased a mouse with a broom.

Mme Macabre pointed to the Rue St Antoine. The usual stench of fishbones and rotting lettuce mingled with sewage made Victoire wish she had no sense of smell at all. This street went to the Place de Grève. Cécile must have followed the market women to the city hall.

‘You can manage on your own,’ Victoire said as she put the laundry basket on the ground and walked away as quickly as she could. She had already passed the now barricaded drapery shop when she heard that croaky voice call her back.

‘I’m acquainted with those aristocrats you play housemaid for. And you’re a little thief, aren’t you? Stealing rouge from Mademoiselle’s boudoir to hide those filthy smallpox marks on your face.’

Victoire clenched her fists. Five years had passed, she still went to the Notre-Dame every day to light a candle for her parents. She stamped her foot on the ground and returned. Mme Macabre flinched when Victoire grabbed her arm.

‘You’re French. Not a savage,’ Mme Macabre said while she stroked her arm as if Victoire had inflicted her with a mortal wound.

‘I don’t like spies.’

‘I’m not a spy. You’re just not very good at keeping secrets.’

Mme Macabre looked behind her after every five steps, scrutinising every alleyway as if she expected masked men to rob her at any moment.

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

Victoire untied her stained shawl and wrapped it around Mme Macabre’s shoulders.

‘Look, there’s a bench, wouldn’t you like to wait, while I get my sister?’

‘I lost my husband sixteen years ago, never found him.’

‘Oh, is that why you always sit in the doorway? Waiting for your valiant musketeer to return? Better hope he brings something to eat.’

‘Here, have this.’ Mme Macabre gave Victoire a small slice of bread. Splitting the bread in two, Victoire put one half in her pouch, the other in her mouth. She almost choked when she swallowed the thick crust. She felt as if she had forgotten how to chew, forgotten that bread was supposed to be soft, tasting of salt and butter, not leathery or dry.

Something shiny sticking out of Mme Macabre’s laundry basket caught Victoire’s attention. She took it out.

‘Some deranged plan to kill Madame Deficit?’ Victoire asked holding a large breadknife in her hand.

Mais non. We’re not English, we don’t kill queens.’

‘I would be honoured to take you to the asylum at Charenton, I’m sure they’ve got clean water, and nice soft sheets.’

Non, It’s for him.’

‘Your husband? Poor you! Whatever did he do?’

‘He exists.’

Victoire put the breadknife back into the basket while Mme Macabre covered it up with a foul-smelling petticoat that had been half-eaten by moths.

Mme Macabre told Victoire all about her arranged marriage, how her husband used to gobble when he ate, how he used to snort and puff in his sleep, how he used to strangle all of the air out of the room, and how she lost him at a market stall selling apples. Apples! Something else Victoire didn’t remember the taste of.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him ever coming back,’ Victoire said as their footsteps echoed in the empty archway of a church. She tried to quicken her pace when the cheers and drums of the crowd came closer, but every time she did so Mme Macabre fastened her nails even deeper into Victoire’s flesh.

The crowd on the Place de Grève was larger than Victoire had expected. A group of women were hauling a cannon out of the city hall, while others ran around with muskets and sabres. She told Mme Macabre to wait next to some bourgeoisie-dressed ladies who were debating what should be done with the quartermaster who had tried to stop them from taking gunpowder.

‘I will not be left alone,’ Mme Macabre tried to grab Victoire’s sleeve but Victoire was too fast. Seeing her sister nowhere on the square, she ran into the city hall. The many wooden clogs stomping on the floor made the candles hanging in webs of colourless crystal tremble. A statue had fallen on the ground; its head had rolled into an open broom cupboard.

She had to squirm her way into the next room where a strong smell of burning paper made her take out her handkerchief and cover her nose and mouth. No Cécile. She went upstairs. A group of women were running down, pushing Victoire against the bannister while throwing papers into the air and ripping them to shreds.

Victoire pulled at her bodice to get some air. White dots were dancing before her eyes, obscuring the heaven scene depicted on the painting opposite her. She sat down on the marble steps, wanting to cry out when someone stepped on her hand, leaving a red boot print on her pale skin, but no sound would leave her lips. She was aware of cloudy voices muttering in the distance, of being lifted, of feeling too hot, of feeling too cold, of having something forced down her throat, of drizzle falling softly on her cheeks.

The dots ceased dancing. She was leaning against the rugged bricks of the city hall. Something with a bitter, yeasty taste was stuck between her front teeth, she moved her tongue to remove it. A small hand was holding hers.

‘You looked like a ghost, and a man carried you outside, and I gave him my cheese, and he gave it to you, and he said you would get better, and you are better now, aren’t you?’

Cécile’s eyes were red and swollen. Victoire pulled her closer. Holding her as tight as she could, she kissed her on the forehead, only letting go when Cécile started to wriggle.

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

‘I did not. I was waiting for you, like she said I should, and I did, and you didn’t come.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

Cécile stared at the ground, rubbing the hem of Victoire’s dress between her palms.

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

‘We’re going home.’ Victoire swayed when she stood up. She saw Mme Macabre’s bony figure speaking to a group of women. They laughed, shook their heads and walked away. Mme Macabre tried to grab someone’s sleeve and was rewarded with a raised fist, after which, she attempted to climb on one of the carts, changing her mind when the owner’s black dog bared its teeth.

Victoire sighed. She tried to figure out if she should pity or despise Mme Macabre. She gave Cécile the piece of bread she had saved earlier, while the crowd shouted, ‘to Versailles,’ and raised their pitchforks and pikes into the air.

The crowd started to leave the square in a long procession just when large raindrops began to fill the grooves between the cobblestones. They looked just as disciplined as the king’s royal army.

Victoire descended the steps of the city hall. Attentively listening to the sound of Cécile’s clogs clacking behind her, she tapped Mme Macabre on the shoulder.

‘Don’t you ever leave me alone again,’ Mme Macabre said.

‘Who do you think I am? Your wet nurse?’

Mais non. No harm done, but we must not dally. We must follow. Quickly.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

‘Versailles is farther away than the next street corner, you know that, don’t you?’

Bien sûr, and I know where the royals store their bread.’

‘By the time you are there, there won’t be anything left to ransack.’

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

‘Please,’ Cécile said while she was licking bread crumbs from her fingers, ‘I want to go too.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Victoire dragged Cécile away from Mme Macabre, ignoring the old woman’s threats about those aristocrats she worked for, and the stealing and the rouge.

‘That’s him! He gave you my cheese,’ Cécile pointed to a man with an untrimmed beard, his hair partly hidden away underneath a hat, the red-white-blue cockade of the revolution pinned on his dark brown coat. Maillard.

Victoire moved closer. This time she would have the courage to speak to him, thank him, perhaps even kiss him on the cheeks. She stopped when she overheard him complaining to another revolutionist about this miserable army that he was forced to lead. Victoire had to suppress the urge to slap him. Whispering instructions into Cécile’s ear, she gave her sister the last four sous she had. Cécile disappeared.

The raindrops had changed into a rainstorm. Victoire smiled. Only last week she remembered running inside a shoemaker’s shop, pretending to buy something until they chased her out. Now she wiped the rouge she had so carefully applied this morning from her cheeks. It didn’t matter anymore.

Cécile came back with a cart, pulled by two women. Victoire went to Mme Macabre who was watching the marchers leaving the square.

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

Mme Macabre revealed her yellowish-brown teeth, thanking Victoire three times while she loaded her laundry basket on the wagon. Victoire seized Mme Macabre’s wrist. She had wanted to pinch her, but the widening of Mme Macabre’s grey eyes and her trembling body deterred Victoire from doing so.

‘Use my sister against me again, and I’ll find a use for that breadknife of yours,’ Victoire whispered in Mme Macabre’s ear.

‘You wouldn’t have come if I had asked,’ Mme Macabre said in a weak voice.

‘You don’t know that,’ Victoire paused. No, if Mme Macabre had knocked on her door this morning she wouldn’t have opened it, but now she wasn’t so sure, ‘you’ve succeeded in making me feel responsible for you.’

Victoire helped Mme Macabre climb into the cart. Cécile crawled beside Mme Macabre who took the child’s hand and lay it in her lap.

‘I was a cook at Versailles once,’ Mme Macabre said, ‘no need to let those wretched children starve, I thought, the king didn’t think so. I slept in the dungeons for giving his surpluses away.’

‘Men may have stormed the Bastille,’ Victoire said, ‘women will do more than storming Versailles, we’ll eat the king’s bread and take him back to Paris, where he belongs.’

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

Signe Maene is from Belgium where she lives in Ghent. She studies English literature at the Open University UK. Her first language is Flemish.

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Cassandra of Troy

Listen soldier. Your master may have told you rumours of my madness, or he may have told you nothing at all. Agathe here has been my handmaiden for many years now, she will vouch for my honesty when I ask of you what I am about to ask. The three of us here, locked together in this room, are the last hope of Troy.

Agathe, take this message from me and give it to – your name, soldier? Belos. A fine name. Give it to him. Read it soldier, please. I may be your prisoner but even prisoners have the right to be heard, no? Ah, they never taught you to read.

This is what the message says: that this offering of peace is not what it seems. The behemoth now standing inside our gates is no mere statue, no mere toy, but a vessel for a veritable army. In it, enemy soldiers lie in wait. They are listening to the people of Troy celebrate the end of the war. But when the jubilations end, when the people of this city put their heads down to sleep, these vipers will strike. They will cut with their steel, they will rend flesh from bone and our streets will to rivers of blood. All of Troy shall know the sound a soul makes as it slips it bonds.

I can see by the set of your brow that you do not believe me, Belos the soldier. No matter. I am not sure that I believe myself. All I know is that terror has possessed my heart, that I must speak while I have a throat and a mouth with which to speak. I must speak lest I scream. I ask this of you because of my fear for Troy and those who rejoice within its walls. I am its princess, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. You must believe that I have only the best interests of the people at heart. Mark my words: there is no safe place for you soldier, unless you do what I ask. You will die come the dawn when they strike. It will be you who is struck down when the great warrior Agamemnon comes to take me as his prize.

How do I know what will befall us all? Because I remember the future. This is my malady, my curse. You laugh. No matter. These pictures in my minds, they are like the memories of dreams, and they have the quality of a dream.

You refuse me. Who are you to refuse me? I may be your prisoner, for now, but I am still your Princess. And you must obey. You say that I am mad.

Agathe, is my madness known throughout the land? Don’t stay silent. Tell me. I know I must seem mad, given what I have just done. Agathe, you were not there so let me tell you. I went to the public square by our city’s grand gates, having heard the rumours of the Greeks’ great gift to our people, a token of their surrender. I had a fear on me, that something I had foreseen long ago had finally arrived. And when I saw it, a huge wooden horse, that fear gripped me so totally that I screamed. All in the square beheld their mad princess as she grabbed an axe from a nearby workman and ran for the behemoth, hoping to crack it open like a great egg, to reveal the soldiers within. I was grabbed, pulled at, arrested, my royal dignity taken from me. Doubt not – I am here in my rooms in the palace but I am a prisoner. I am your prisoner.

Belos, Agathe here was a mere chattel slave when my family rose her up. Now she is a slave-maiden of the palace, vassal to those of royal blood. And yet she – and yet you refuse to answer my question, ungrateful girl – ah, she speaks.

See, soldier, listen to the girl’s words. It is not my madness that is known, but my gift for prophecy.  Fine then, my claim to prophecy. Yes, some have come true.

Agathe, water.

What do you think of this fair maiden? Is she not a beauty. More, Agathe, there is a great thirst on me. More. Enough, sit.

Do you not think her beautiful? I can tell that you do by the way you looked at her when you locked us in. She is well-fed, fair. Young. All a brave soldier such as you should want as a reward for your sacrifices in the name of Troy, for your heroism. Do this last deed for me and you will be rewarded; I will allow you to take her in marriage. You will be given land and wealth, a title even if you desire it. Ah, now your hilarity has failed you. This is well within my power and you know it.

Agathe, stand for the soldier. Stand! Turn for him, let him see all of you. Yes, you do have to obey me as long as you stand within these walls. Disobey and suffer. How would you like it if I let the soldier Belos have you without having to marry you first? You would be disgraced and you know it. Soldier, she is a fine prize, certainly worth what I ask of you.

You will not go? But see her slender neck, her fine hands. See her hips; she will bear you many children if I command it of her.

From where do you come? A farm boy, I see. So it is not just Agathe who has been raised up by service to the crown. You too have benefited. Therefore, is it not your honour-bound duty to do as I ask?

Your lord’s commands do not outstrip mine! Your war-lords answer to the crown, they answer to me. They may hold me in this room, they may bar the door, they may run me with a sword but they must obey those who veins run with royal blood!

When those foreign hordes come there will be no commanders, no lord and ladies, no King or Queen. No Princess… no Agathe, leave me be. I am not tired, I am not desirous of sleep. My eyes are terribly open. Take my message, soldier. Time slips out grasp every moment you delay. Go. Go.

He will not. He will not.

What’s it to you if the stories of my madness are true or exaggerated? Surely you value your life. Then you should take all precautions to guard it. How can a corpse fulfil its duty? Go then, go with my message. If I am right you will be saved. If not, then all will be well.

Believe me now, I beg of you. If you do not believe my prophecy, because I fear that that is what it is, believe my terror is real. Let your charity guide you from your post, to your commander, to one who can help us. Let your soldier’s gallantry propel you with my message in hand. See, the stars outside are smouldering as they always have in my memories of this night.

* * * * *

I didn’t hear you, Agathe, say it again.

Oh, Belos doesn’t want to listen to a mad woman speak, does he?

I remember the future. They rise the way silt rises through water, when disturbed at the bottom of a pond – hazy, partial, yet distinct. I mentioned the temple. Yes, that is when it began. Myself and my brother, taken by that child’s sense of adventure, of freedom even though we were of the palace and therefore had no freedom. We ran past the guards, who clunked after us in their armour, giving good chase but not good enough. Down the winding streets we went, passing our subjects. Groups of children at play – I longed to join them but knew I could not. Those urchins had no choices, most would die soon, but in a strange way they were unburdened too, whereas we would inevitably have to return to the strictures of royal life.

At least I knew this. But Helenus ran like a wild goose among them, until his clothes were torn and dust-choked. He almost looked like one of them, except too well-fed to be poor. His eyes glinted with joy; there was no hint then of the stern warrior he would have to become.

Among the crowded stalls and tables we found a small white horse, finely carved out of wood. Look, my brother said, delighting in it. I loved it, wanted it. But we had no money with us, so we left it behind. I kept thinking about that horse and said to Helenus how much I had liked it. He vanished into the crowd, leaving me bewildered, abandoned and worried about how I would get by on my own. Then he reappeared: he’d stolen the horse for me.

Guiltily but glad of it, I buried it away in the folds of my robes and we ventured on, through the maze of streets. As afternoon became evening we knew that those in the palace would be fearing for us, that we must begin our journey back. Circling back, we saw the steeple of the temple of Apollo rising over the rooftops – let us go there, said Helenus, the adventurous one – and he ran ahead of me, shouting at me to race him there. I darted after him and by taking a side street overtook him, and I was the first to blunder, breathless, up the stone steps and to heave open the ancient doors into that hallowed hall of silence.

I feared the houses of the Gods. I may be a princess but I was conscious that I knew nothing of the world – so how could I know the deities’ obscure workings, the calculations they made about the weight of our small mortal lives? Looking back, Helenus had still not arrived. In the temple stood a statue of the god himself, standing proudly and gazing upwards lyre in hand, and at his feet a wreath of laurels and quiver of arrows, all hewn out of stone, their points blunted by the hands of many worshippers.

Helenus appeared behind me. What are you looking at? He asked. It’s just an old statue, they’re everywhere. I ignored him, a strange feeling had arrested me. It seemed that the statue had turned its eyes downward to regard me, and I swore I could hear the music of His granite lyre… then I was standing on my balcony, looking down on the streets of Troy – all were filled with defiled corpses. Everywhere the city was burning and filled with death – in the distance I perceived the proud head of a giant horse, like my toy grown into hideous gigantism, and the night was filled with the screams of the dying. I recognised some of those corpses as my brother and sisters, members of the court, of the upper classes, lying dead next to the peasants and the beggars, the merchants and the thieves, the landlords and the ladies, the travelling bards, all united finally by death.

Then, Helenus was kneeling over me, shaking me awake, fear in his eyes. I managed to stand, dazed, unsure even of where I was. I dropped my horse – when he tried to give it back to me I screamed, struck by a terrible fear, and a terrible knowledge.

When we finally left the temple to make our way back to the palace, I looked back at the god, but his eyes were turned away.

Helenus had called for guards. They got us home – but it was no more a home for me. Home stopped existing then, as I had seen its end. But at all times I was assailed by doubt – what had I seen? Was it a vision or just some sort of fever dream? I could still hear that music of the lyre, or imagined that I could. I imagined that it had wormed its way into my ears, opening them up to new sounds, new vibrations. I would hear things, see things, that no one else could.

Look. The night is no longer black, but grey. Dawn begins its approach. The revellers are going quiet. The city’s sleep begins.

Yes, fine Agathe. You may sleep too. I want for nothing now. You will not sleep, guard? Fine. That is your decision. Is there no convincing you? I doubt myself but that does not mean I do not want to take precautions. If there is any chance that the sleeper in our midst is a harbinger of the death I saw all those years ago – then I want to take it.

No. No, I see that you will not go.

There is no hope now. A darkness has come upon my heart, that same night of the soul that descended on me in the temple of Apollo. I have spent many nights in doubt, questioning myself and the truth of my memories. I wish I could ask the future whether I should keep trying, or whether I should leap now from the balcony and be done with it.

I don’t need to tell you that no one has believed me, in the same way that you don’t believe me now. Even when my memories of the future have been realised, become present realities, then retreated into past, I was doubted, questioned at every turn, my prophecies explained away as mere chance.

When I was recovering from that incident in the temple, my mother, the Queen Hecuba, came to see me. I tried to tell her what had happened, but she simply brushed my cheek with the back of her hand – warmly, but insistently. I imagine she was afraid of what I might say.

My child, she said. She called me the brightest, most imaginative of all her children, the one who ran to her in the morning with news of my dreams…

When spring came, it was decided, on whose decree I don’t know, that I was free to wander the castle again. But everywhere I was watched. I was not allowed to leave the halls of the palace. A girl from the kitchens who had been my friend, in spite of the distance put between us by our station, was glad of my return and eager to tell me everything that had been happening in the palace. But as soon as we embraced I remembered her death. I remembered that she would grow from an awkward, gangly child into a beautiful, elegant woman, an appealing target for marauding soldiers. I tried to tell her, to warn her, but she pulled away in horror – as if it was what I wanted to happen. As if I, by foretelling the terrors of the future, was awaiting them too.

And so I was tarred: the dreamer of dreams, the one whose mind had broken, the mad daughter of the kind and queen of Troy.

I remember what will happen to you soldier. I remember the glint of the blade, the panicked eyes of the Greek soldier that will kill you by the very door you now guard.

What? The message is on the floor there by Agathe, she dropped it in her sleep. Oh, now you will take it for me? Look, it is almost dawn. All of our chances have passed us by. It doesn’t matter. I remember what will happen to us: all must die. No future I have seen has not happened. Here is the rest of what I remember: the invaders will tear through our city’s tender flesh and render it to dust. Who would have thought that something as permanent as a city could be so frail? It is so hard to imagine – the end, death, destitution. It always happens to other people, and it seems so abstract, until it finally comes for you. I do not remember dying here – I must be taken as a concubine for the warrior Agamemnon as his reward for his bravery in battle, his military genius. And there, his wife, his vengeful wife will kill him, and kill me too in consequence. Did you hear the stories of what he has done? He sacrificed his own daughter to the Gods so they would grant his armies safe passages to our shore.

I have no foretelling of what death is like. That remains as much a black mystery for me as it does for all others. I only hope that I may meet Apollo finally and demand answers from him, demand to know why he has cursed me so.

Listen! Do you hear that? Agathe, awake! Do you hear? It sounds like – yes, it is the clash of swords. A scream! A cry for help! Look – they grey dawn is glowing red. The fires have begun. Oh, the yells of terror! It is happening, it has come. Oh, terrible dawn. Why did I have to be right? Why couldn’t I have been simply a mad girl!

Hear that – that is the palace door being torn down. That is the sound it makes as it crashes to the floor. The streets are filled with fleeing people – come to the window, look at what happens – there is no hope for any of us. No, leave me to my despair! I tried, my whole life I tried. I tried to save us but no one listened.

Agathe: fear not. Your death has not come for you. You will be among the saved but – listen, quieten down. There will be a price for your life. You will be wedded to a foreign invader and taken to a foreign land. Decide now whether this price for your life is worth paying. You will never see your loved ones again, everyone you know now will be dead or far from you. If you do not want to pay this price, leap now and take control. You have been a slave all your life. This is your only chance to control your fate. No? Fine, that is your choice. I choose to meet the end I have foreseen, that has always been laid out for me.

Hear the clash of steel, of armour outside? Your fellow troupe has all been killed. They are bashing down the door! The future has come for us all – well, I am here, standing, to meet it. I have my certainty now, and none may take it from me.

______________________________________________________________

Cathal Kehoe grew up in County Laois, Ireland. After studying English and Film in NUI Galway, he moved to Dublin where he currently lives. He works in Marketing and runs a regular group of like-minded writers who meet every two weeks in Dublin City Centre. In addition to the 9-5, his job on the evenings and weekends is to write short stories and work towards completing his first novel. He has previously had work published in Headstuff.org’s Fortnightly Fiction series. 

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