Category Archives: Fiction

The Sage Grouse and the Bandit Queen

“I’ll ask you again, Belle. What brings you all the way out here?”

“You can ask me a hundred times, Jack Hardin, and the answer isn’t going to change.”

Belle Starr stared defiantly at the fancily-dressed man standing across from her. The white satin puff tie flowing out of his vest and his shiny leather boots reminded her of something, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.  

 “I saw you on Cheyenne Road last Monday,” Hardin continued, “and a week ago Wednesday, you went south on old Bruton. Were you fixing to meet up with someone, Belle, or were you looking for something?”

Belle knew Hardin had been following her. She’d seen him both days. She also knew he’d been watching her movements for the last two weeks, but today was the first time he’d had the courage to actually approach her face to face. She’d stopped to let her horse have a drink in the clear water of Prairie Creek, and was considering jumping in herself to cool off, when Hardin pranced out from behind a rock. Now, there would be no refreshing dip in the creek with this tinhorn harassing her. 

“Why are you out riding so often in this heat, Belle?” Hardin repeated. “I figure you must be looking for something.” 

Belle did not respond immediately. Instead, she took a minute to study this strange man who had appeared, like a collared lizard, from behind a rock. Hardin’s fancy clothes were far too dressy for any serious riding across the dusty Texas terrain. He also strutted when he walked, like he was getting ready to two-step at a hoedown. Belle didn’t like him. She didn’t like being pounced upon, and she didn’t like being followed. To her mind, Hardin also acted far too friendly. She hardly recognized him as a past acquaintance from years ago in Missouri, but they were not friends there, and in Texas, he only looked like trouble. 

“What business is it of yours where I ride or who I meet, Jack?” 

Hardin smiled, shook his head, and adjusted his wide-brimmed Stetson to keep the sunlight out of his eyes.  

“Belle, you might as well confide in me. You know I’ll find out sooner or later, and the sooner you do, the sooner we can get out of this heat.”

August was always hot in Texas, but the afternoon sun this day seemed particularly penetrating. Belle removed her own hat and wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. After carefully replacing this worn headpiece, she adjusted the two pearl-handled pistols hanging on her hips. She was sweating beneath her jacket and riding skirt, and once again, she wished Hardin would move on so she could take a dip in the creek. 

“Why have you been following me?”

“I’m following you, Belle, because I think you’re going to lead me straight to that $40,000 dollars you and Sam Bass took in that stagecoach robbery. I know you netted gold coins and paper money in that haul … and I know the whole lot of it is buried somewhere between Scyene, Mesquite, and Dallas.”

“You’re crazy or drunk. I never rode with Sam Bass, and I don’t know anything about buried money. Hell, Sam’s been dead two years. If there ever was any money, someone’s gotten it before now.”  

“Don’t go acting like you’re some innocent angel, Belle. You’re the best horse thief in these parts, and you’ve robbed more stagecoaches than anybody I know.”

Belle glared at Hardin. She wasn’t afraid of him, but she hoped, if she was as unfriendly as he was friendly, maybe he’d get the message and move on. Picking up on nuances and verbal cues, however, was not one of Hardin’s strengths. 

 “Besides,” Hardin continued as he strutted in circles, “I know for a fact you and that husband of yours, Jim Reed, robbed a stagecoach around here a few years back. It was in the papers. Where is ol’ Jim now anyway?”

“You need to read more newspapers, Jack. You’re behind the times.”

“What do you mean?”

Again, Belle did not answer right away. Her thoughts ran to her former husband, Jim Reed. 

Jim was a proper outlaw, she mused. He was nothing like this dandy pestering me now.

Jim Reed had been one of Quantrill’s raiders, and he’d rode with the Younger gang. He had robbed a stagecoach near Scyene, but he’d been killed resisting arrest.

“Jim’s dead, Jack. Been dead almost six years now. Like I said, you’re really behind the times.”

“My, oh my! So, the law finally caught up with Reed, eh?” Hardin chuckled. “Guess that makes you a widow, don’t it, Belle?”

“You really are behind, Hardin. I married Sam Starr three months ago.”

“If that’s true, Belle, why haven’t I seen Starr around?”

Belle’s new husband was on the run after robbing a post office, but she had no intention of telling Hardin anything about Sam Starr or his whereabouts. 

“You haven’t seen my husband because he has business elsewhere.”

“Business, huh? What kind of business?”

“It’s the kind of business that’s none of your business!”

“Sure, Belle, sure,” chuckled Hardin. “But from all I’ve heard you say, it just means you ain’t got no man around. Bass and Reed are dead, and Starr is off elsewhere. There’s no one around to take care of you.”

Putting her hand on the butt of her right pistol, Belle glared again at Hardin. 

“I don’t need a man to take care of me. Never have, never will. I can take care of myself.”

Taking a step back, Hardin flashed a thin smile. Belle was a crack shot, and he knew it.

“Calm down, Belle. It was just an observation. Remember, I knew you back in Missouri when you were simply little Myra Maybelle Shirley. I don’t care what your name is now or who you’re married to … I was just inquiring … for the sake of old times and conversation. I mean … I was just wondering what keeps you in these parts … if Starr is nowhere around?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, Hardin, but I have a brother in Scyene, and Sam’s family is nearby.”

The shrill scream of a red-tailed hawk drew Belle’s attention, and she turned to watch the predator fly over the sage-covered valley. Suddenly, she remembered. Hardin reminded her of that strange valley bird, the sage grouse. The one that puffs out its white-feathered chest and splays its tail while strutting around dancing and looking for a mate. Belle again noted Hardin’s white-collared neck and the way he strutted when he walked. 

He can dance around all he likes, she thought, but I’m not interested, and if he thinks I should be impressed by his clothes and highfalutin ways, he’s got another think coming.

“I think we should help each other out, Belle. Sounds like we’re all alone out here … and we are friends, remember? Why, we go all the way back to Missouri, way before the war, and you know, friends help each other.”

Sweat trickled down Belle’s back, as she moved toward her horse. She began adjusting the straps on her saddlebags, but she kept one eye on Hardin. 

He’s certainly a prickly lickspittle, she thought, if ever there was one. He’s not a proper outlaw, and he’s certainly not my friend. He’s just pretending on both counts. He forgets I know real outlaws. Frank and Jesse James hid out in my family’s barn back in Missouri, and I know the Younger brothers as well as I know my own brothers. Sure, those fellows rob, fight, and kill, but they always have a need or a reason. They’re respected men. I’ve seen all of them share their spoils with families in need. Doing a good deed, they call it. They may not be perfect, but they’d never try to be something they aren’t. Never have I seen any of them act like a puffed-up sage grouse. Hardin forgets, too, that I was a Confederate spy during the war. I know a fraud when I see one, and you, Mr. Hardin, are one. You want something, but you want it to come easy. You want it without any risk to yourself and without you getting any dirt on your fine clothes. You’re a fake and a fool, and I’m finished here. This conversation is over.

“No dice, Hardin. We’re not in Missouri any longer. This is Texas, and I’ve got things to do and places to be.”

With those words, Belle mounted her horse and galloped off toward Scyene. She didn’t, however, take the most direct route. She made a few detours and backtracked a little, checking constantly to be certain she wasn’t being followed.With vipers like Hardin watching her every move, she decided it really was time to move on. 

Two miles from Scyene, Belle rode around a large boulder that hid a narrow ravine. At the end of the ravine, there stood eight cedar trees, and beneath their branches she stopped. Sitting quietly on her horse, Belle waited and listened for any noise that might indicate someone was following her. 

When the sun started dropping down below the horizon, the stand of cedars became shrouded in shadows. Only then did Belle dismount and walk over to the tallest tree. Taking a knife from her belt, she knelt down beside the cedar and began raking the soil with the knife. She scooped out a couple of handfuls of dirt and then pulled on the top of a white bag. With a little effort, she dislodged the bag and carefully pulled it out of the ground. Untying the twine knot at the top, Belle looked inside the bag. In the dim light, she could just make out coins and paper currency inside. Standing up, she hoisted the bag up and down with both hands, and estimated, by its weight, that the money was all there. Smiling, she carried the bag back to her horse. 

It was too late now to head out, so Belle decided it would be best to wait till morning. Besides, she wanted to stop at the Shady Villa Saloon in Scyene. She needed a drink to wash away the dust in her throat, and she wanted to play the piano loud enough to drown out any lingering thoughts of Jack Hardin. 

Before Belle mounted her horse, however, she separated the money in the bag into four parts. She placed two portions in her saddlebags, one in her bedroll, and over two thousand dollars in a leather pouch tied to her waist. It was an old trick Jim Reed had taught her. By separating the money, if she did get waylaid, there was a good chance the would-be robber wouldn’t get all the haul—just part of it. This task completed, she mounted her horse and rode toward Scyene.

Arriving at Shady Villa, Belle looked for the owner, Molly Jennings. Molly was one of the few women whose company Belle could tolerate. Molly recognized that Belle was a talented piano player, and there were limited establishments available where Belle could exercise her talent. The two women had found common ground over the piano in Shady Villa’s bar. Belle liked to play the piano, and Molly liked for her to play. 

From behind the bar, Molly saw Belle first and called out to her friend. 

“Howdy, Bandit Queen. You going to provide some entertainment for my guests? You know they buy more drinks when you raise their spirits with music and keep their minds off their troubles.”

Belle liked it when Molly referred to her as the “Bandit Queen.” It was the newspapers’ newest moniker for her, and she felt the title described her well. Smiling at Molly, Belle nodded affirmatively. 

“That’s why I’m here, Molly. I need to raise my spirits, too.”

Belle didn’t mention Jack Hardin. She got a drink at the bar, and sat down at the piano. For over an hour she played, and gradually the music made her forget her dusty encounter with the sage grouse.  

Belle was just thinking about getting some sleep, when she saw Molly sitting at a table at the back of the saloon. Molly was talking with a man, and she looked distressed. Taking a closer look, Belle realized the person Molly was talking to was Jack Hardin. Had he managed to follow her after all? Or did he have some separate business with Molly? 

When Hardin headed upstairs for a night with one of Molly’s soiled doves, Belle left the piano and went to talk with Molly. She found the proprietor in tears.

“What is it, Molly? What’s wrong?” 

“That man,” Molly said, nodding her head toward the stairs. “He comes around every three months wanting his money. He says if he doesn’t get it, he’ll burn the place down.” 

“Why do you owe him money?

Dabbing at her tears with a handkerchief, Molly sighed.

“Three years ago, when I set out to buy Shady Villa, I was short on cash. That man … his name is Jack Hardin … offered to loan me money. I took it, but I’ll never get out from under his thumb. He wants a hundred dollars interest every month. I don’t clear that much from the bar, and the girls barely bring in enough to cover their food and clothes. Hardin knows this, but he’s a leech … a bloodsucking parasite. Once he gets his teeth in you, he won’t let go till he bleeds you dry.”

Molly put her head down on the table and started to cry again. Belle sat down beside her. She sat quietly till Molly’s sobs lessened, then she spoke. 

“How much do you owe, Molly, to get out from under Hardin’s thumb forever?”

Without raising her head, Molly whispered. 

“All total, he wants two thousand dollars.”

Belle reached into the bag at her waist and removed two thousand dollars.

 “Look at me, Molly,” she insisted, and Molly slowly raised her head. “We’re going to take care of this leech, or sage grouse, or whatever he is, once and for all.”

Belle laid the money on the table. 

“There’s two thousand dollars, and I want you to do exactly as I say. In the morning, when Hardin comes down, you pay him off. Make sure he signs a bill of sale, and get two witnesses to verify he got his money. Do you understand?”

Molly nodded. 

“Belle, how can I ever thank you?” 

“Never mind about that. I’m going to count it as my good deed, like some friends of mine do.”

“But Hardin is going to ask where I got the money. He’ll insist I tell him.”

“Tell him. Tell him I gave you the money. Tell him I joked that I found a treasure chest on my last ride. Tell him … I said I had to pay a few debts, and then I was going home to Missouri.”

With those words, Belle left the Shady Villa. She led her horse to the stables, and once there, she asked the stable boy to pick out a fresh horse and ride to a farm a few miles away. She told him what to say to the two men living there. The boy was hesitant until Belle dropped two gold coins in his hand. After he left, Belle fed her horse and settled him in for the night. Laying down on a pile of hay, she fell asleep in a neighboring stall.  

Belle woke when she heard the boy returning. The sun was just coming up. She saddled her horse and rode to the Scyene Wagon Factory. Behind the large building, she found Cole and Bob Younger waiting. 

“We got your message, Belle. Glad to help, but we’re not sure if you want us to catch this bird, chase him off, or just shoot him.”

Belle laughed, and then she shook hands with Bob and Cole.

“Thanks for coming, fellas. I’m trying to leave town to meet up with Sam, and I’ve had this little sage grouse following me. I just want you to rough him up a bit and send him packing. He’s got two thousand dollars of mine on him, and if you send him on his merry way, you can keep it for all your trouble.”

“How do we find this little bird?” asked Cole.

“It won’t be a problem. I’m fixing to head west, and as soon as he sees me leave town, he’ll follow me. All you have to do is waylay him, take the money, and scare him away from these parts. Then you can get back to your business.”  

“Sounds good, Belle. We’ll take care of the fella, and you give Sam our regards.”

“I will, boys, and I appreciate your help.”

Belle turned her horse and headed west. She was not surprised to see a fancily-dressed man on a horse following her before she was an hour out of town. When she gained a little elevation, she looked back over the land she’d just covered and smiled when she saw two men on horseback shadowing her sage grouse. 

Hardin doesn’t even know they are there, she thought.

When her horse mounted a rocky plateau, Belle stopped and turned to look back again. In the distance, she could just make out Cole and Bob Younger mounting their horses. Hardin was galloping off north toward Arkansas. 

Good riddance, Belle thought. Maybe he’ll go all the way back to Missouri.

As she looked on, Bob Younger waved his hand in her direction. In his fist, Belle could make out dollar bills. Tipping her hat in appreciation, she turned her horse and headed towards Sam Starr’s secret hideout. It was time they were together again.

* * * * *

Billie Holladay Skelley received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now retired from working as a cardiovascular and thoracic surgery clinical nurse specialist and nursing educator, she enjoys focusing on her writing. Billie has written several health-related articles for both professional and lay journals, but her writing crosses several different genres and has appeared in various journals, magazines, and anthologies in print and online—ranging from the American Journal of Nursing to Chicken Soup for the Soul. An award-winning author, she also has written eight books for children and teens: Eagle the Legal Beagle, Ollie the Autism-Support CollieWeaver the Diabetic-Alert RetrieverSpice Secret: A Cautionary Diary, Luella Agnes Owen: Going Where No Lady Had Gone BeforeRuth Law: The Queen of the Air, Hugh Armstrong Robinson: The Story of Flying Lucky 13, and Two Terrible Days in May: The Rader Farm Massacre.

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The Strangling Angel

When I first felt sick, my parents hoped it was an ordinary sore throat and headache, but when I couldn’t swallow and the fever hit, they knew it was serious. Our country doctor was in Waupun, only 10 miles away, but my brother, Herman, had to ride there on our old horse, Buck, and it was a slow journey. As much as Herman tried to coax Buck to move faster, it took a long time to get to the doctor, and my breathing was becoming more and more labored.

I have no clear memory of what happened, but I do remember my body going from drenching sweats to relentless shivers, making my muscles ache and clouding my already frazzled mind. My breathing was raspy, and I was in serious pain. I saw the anxious look on my mother’s face, pale and terrified, fearing the outcome of whatever imminent danger awaited me. The rest of my family kept their distance, as my father would not let anyone close for fear of my unknown condition.

The year was 1879, and I was nine years old, the sixth of 11children of August and Louisa Gauger. We lived on a ten-acre farm near Brandon, Wisconsin, where we raised cows and chickens, along with a multitude of dogs, cats, and any other animal wandering onto our land. Recently, we had added more cows to our herd so we could produce and deliver milk to the nearby Hazen Factory, which had been built by Charles Hazen solely for the production of cheese. Prior to this, cheese-making was considered women’s work to be done at home, but now the factory was making Brick cheese, and it brought us extra needed money.

My life on the farm was enjoyable, in spite of the rigorous physical demands required to make a living off of the land. During harvest season, my dad would let me ride on the horse-drawn grain harvester he’d recently purchased in Beloit, Wisconsin, from the Deering Manufacturing Company. They invented a reaper to incorporate a twine binder and automate the operation of bailing hay. I was proud my father was always on top of the latest developments, which made us proficient at getting our crops to market. One day I would own the farm and follow in my father’s footsteps.

Our neighbors were a short distance away, and after my chores were complete, I would walk over to their farm to play with my best friend, Charlie. He also came from a big family, so to avoid the other kids, we would hide in the hayloft. We pretended the bales of hay were stonewalls when we played army; mountains when we played cowboys and Indians; and massive trees when we were explorers in an unknown world.

One afternoon, as I approached the farm, I could see Charlie’s parents building a bonfire by throwing toys and clothing into the flames. “What are they doing?” I asked. “Those toys can still be fun, and Charlie and I can still play with them.”

A shirt dropped from their pile of clothes and I picked it up and brought it to Charlie’s mom. “Get away from here and stay out of our house!” she screamed as she grabbed the shirt away from me and through it into the fire.

“But I want to see Charlie.” I was shocked by her outrage and couldn’t understand why she wanted me to leave. I thought she liked me.

Confused, I turned and ran away from the bonfire, through the fields of corn and soy and rushed into my house where I crumpled to the floor. My mother was preparing dinner and when I told her about the way Charlie’s mom yelled at me, a look of dread passed over her and she too started to yell. “Did you touch anything?” Tears formed in the corner of her eyes, turning them liquid and angry.

“No, I don’t understand why they are throwing away perfectly good things.”

“There is sickness in their house, and we must protect ourselves by staying away. I don’t want you playing with Charlie until this danger passes.”

“Why not?!” I said, challenging my mother. “Charlie is my best friend, and we’re building a fort in his hay loft. We need to finish it before the next harvest.”

My mother softened her gaze and relaxed, touching my shoulder. “Charlie’s little sister, Emma, just died of diphtheria. It is dangerous for anyone to be around her. We don’t know how she got sick, but it can strike anyone, especially young children. I don’t want you bringing it into our house. Stay away from Charlie and his family for now.”

My mother hugged me and started murmuring about being safe and keeping the evil winds away. I still didn’t understand, but thought I should reassure her that I was safe and would not play with Charlie until she said I could. I didn’t believe in evil winds and couldn’t imagine anything bad being at Charlie’s house, so I was sure I was alright.

“What is diphtheria?” I asked.

“It is an evil sickness that keeps you from breathing.”

Four days later, I became sick, and my mother could no longer protect me. It started with a sore throat and fever, but by the end of the day, my breathing was labored and painful. Our family doctor made a house call and prescribed whiskey to try to clear the membrane forming inside my windpipe. He said it would help keep the air passage clear, but he recommended a special doctor to treat the disease.

The following morning, I was worse. The special doctor was making rounds near us, and my parents brought him to our house to treat me. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but I was in pain and kept drifting in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t concentrate enough to listen to him, but I did hear things like “infection has progressed,” “little can be done,” and “experimental tracheotomy.” I heard my mother crying and begging him to try anything, and then I lost consciousness completely.

When I awoke, the doctor was still whispering in hushed tones with my parents. I stared at their grim faces and waves of hopeless sobs formed in my stomach and streamed through my body. When it reached my throat, I felt fire and tried to scream, but no sound emerged because the pain was too great.

I remained still and strained to listen to the doctor talking to my mother. “We are not out of the woods yet,” he said, his voice trembling. “There is a high risk of infection around the tracheotomy tube, and Henry must be kept isolated and away from his siblings. There are a lot of theories about how this disease is spread, but nobody knows for sure. Diphtheria tends to strike families, especially younger children. Keep him away from the others.”

My mother was barely able to speak, but she choked out a few words. “I will always hold you in my heart,” she said.

The following week was an uneasy pattern of wakefulness and deep sleep. I was hungry, but it was so painful to eat or drink that I avoided food and only ate when my mother forced me to swallow small amounts of liquid. Every day she cleaned and dressed the wound in my neck, and I wondered if I was going to have to spend the rest of my life with a tube sticking out of my neck. Talking was impossible, but I was able to breathe.

The progress was slow, but gradually I improved and became aware of what was going on around me. I hadn’t seen any of my siblings in over a week, and I had no idea what was happening on the farm. Did somebody do my chores for me? I bet they were really mad, especially my older brother, who always complained I never did enough work. The fort Charlie and I were building in his barn had probably been taken over by his brother, who always wanted to play with us.

My mother told me the special doctor was coming soon to see me and check on my progress. I really didn’t want to see him again, but my mother said it was necessary to remove the tube so I could get better.

I tried to speak as best as I could but it took so much effort to push the air out of my lungs and with the tube in the way, I couldn’t use my vocal cords. “What happened?” I managed to create some sound and pointed at my throat.

“Do you want to know about the surgery?” my mother asked.

I shook my head yes.

Slowly, my mother described the procedure with the precision of a trained nurse and a calmness I didn’t know she possessed. “The doctor started the surgery without anesthetic, since you were already unconscious. He used only a few tools from his pocket instrument case, a scalpel and a tracheostomy tube. He sterilized everything in boiling water and scrubbed them so they were free of germs. The only light we had available, besides that window over on the wall, was a kerosene lamp that your father held over the bed. I tried to assist wherever I could, but I was so scared I could not offer much help.”

“You had diphtheria,” my mother continued with the same measured calmness. “It’s serious because a membrane grows over your breathing tube and eventually stops you from breathing. The doctor made a cut in your throat where the infectious membrane was growing.” My mother pointed to her own throat as I felt the tube inserted in mine.

“That’s right,” she said now struggling to continue. “The doctor inserted the tube into the cut and, with his own mouth, sucked out the choking membrane. As soon as that happened, I could see your breathing was easier, and the pale, bluish complexion of your face almost returned to normal.”

The longer my mother talked, the more distraught she became. I was confused by her grief, because I thought I was getting better, and she should be happy. Yet, my mother seemed to be getting worse. When my stoic father walked into the room, I was relieved because he held her tight and she was able to relax.

A few days later, the special doctor came back to our farm. “Henry is my first success with this method of treatment. You did a good job keeping the wound clean, and no infection set in. Very few children ever recover from this illness.”

“Will he survive?” my mother asked.

“I think so. I have to remove the tube, and we will see if he can breathe on his own. At least this time I have an anesthetic with me.”

Focusing on the doctor, I tried to pay attention to the instructions he gave my mother, but they spoke in low, mumbled tones. I felt they were keeping secrets from me, maybe things I shouldn’t know or something that would scare me. The doctor poured a liquid into a cloth and approached me. He said something about being asleep, or maybe it was my sister Ida who was asleep, but I could sense something was wrong, and my body stiffened in anticipation.

The doctor moved the cloth towards me, and my hands flew to my face for protection. Without thinking, I yelled at my mother, not caring about the stabbing pain in my throat. I smelled something sweet, like paint remover, and thought of the afternoon my father and I had painted our barn door. That image quickly vanished, and I struggled to push the cloth away, but soon everything became black, and I sank into the void.

When I awoke, I was alone in the bedroom I shared with my older brother. My head hurt, my throat was on fire, but my breathing seemed almost normal. I tried to touch my throat, but it was covered with a large cloth, and when I searched for the tube, it was gone. Could I actually be breathing on my own? I swallowed and still felt pain, but I was able to breathe. Maybe I was going to live, after all.

I stayed motionless for a while, dozing periodically, until my mother came in to check on me. She didn’t look happy. Maybe I was wrong in thinking my breathing was normal, and this was only a brief reprieve before my body succumbed to the strangling angel. 

“How are you feeling?” my mother asked.

Struggling through the pain of talking, I pointed to my bandages and said, “My throat hurts.”

“You have been asleep for a long time, but the doctor said you are doing well.”

After another silence, my grief-stricken mother composed herself and said, “Ida is sick. This epidemic is stealing my children, and I don’t know what to do.” She began to shake, giving in to great waves of emotion that consumed her. “I think strong winds are spreading the disease, and I can’t do anything to stop them.”

“Yes you can, you did for me,” the grief I saw in my mother filled me with sorrow and I became determined to alleviate her pain in any way I could.

“The doctor did a tracheotomy on Ida,” she explained, calmer now. “Just like the one you had, but Ida is not as strong as you, and I’m not sure she will survive. I fear the younger children will also become sick.”

Guilt floods me. What did I do to give Ida my disease? We didn’t share the same bedroom and rarely played together. During my free time, I was always at Charlie’s. We had some of the same chores, but my jobs were primarily outside, while hers involved helping my mother with the household work. Ida and I didn’t even get along well, because she liked to do girl things, and I had no interest in her activities. I wanted to believe it was not my fault, but I had doubts.

As the days went by, I regained some of my strength, and my voice slowly returned. Both of my parents came to comfort me and tend to my needs, but the visits were short. The rest of my siblings stayed away. I had no idea what was going on with the farm or my family.

“Henry.” It was my father, coming to check on me. “How are you doing today?”

“All right,” I responded, but I sensed something was wrong. Fear bubbled up inside me; not the fear of danger, but the fear of not knowing what the danger was.

“Ida has been taken from us,” my father simply stated.

“What?” I shouted ignoring the searing pain in my throat.

“The tracheostomy tube caused an infection, and Ida was too weak to fight it,” my father said. “You were strong enough to survive, but Ida was not.” Pain brewed in my father’s sad blue eyes but outwardly, he remained calm.  

 “There will be no funeral,” he continued. “We’ll take her body to the graveyard next to our church. If you feel strong enough, you can ride along to say goodbye to your sister.”

I was devastated by my sister’s death. Why did my family keep me so isolated? A dark feeling started to invade my thoughts, and I wondered if my family blamed me for Ida’s death. I was the first one to get sick, after all. I was the one who became feverish. I was the one who brought the strong winds into the house, and I was the one who survived the doctor’s treatment only to spread the disease to my sister.

The following day, our entire family formed a procession to the Lutheran Cemetery. It was a sad sight to see my older brothers walking alongside the wagon, with the rest of us sitting next to the simple wooden coffin that was Ida’s final resting place. Mother held Baby Augie in the front, and Father spoke only to the horses, urging them to pull harder. There was no funeral service, and no one came to the internment. Families who knew of our situation were too frightened to attend, not knowing how long the epidemic would last, or who would be the next victim. Some families, already devastated by the disease, simply could not bear the grief.

It was the summer of 1879, and my family would have to go through this scene four more times before autumn set in: Ida, age 11; Emilie, age 8; Helene, age 6; Marie, age 4; Emma, age 3.

______________________________________________________________________________

Karen Shapiro is a retired school psychologist and teacher with a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She has a strong interest in Genealogy and bases her stories on actual events discovered while researching her family tree. She is a life-long student of continuing/online education, with an associate degree in web design and workshops in travel and fiction writing.

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Beneath the Yellow Aspen Trees

We are excited to share our first audio short story “Beneath the Yellow Aspen Trees” written by Chad Lester. The story is a well-written piece of historical fiction, and the narrator, stage actor Jeffrey Machado, does a great job bringing the story to life. We loved listening to it, and we think you will too.

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Chad Lester has a degree in Writing Studies from the University of Washington. His short story ‘The Lounge’ was a finalist in the 88th Annual Writers Digest Competition. He’s currently working on a novel which he hopes to traditionally publish.

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What Makes a Witch?

Susan North stood, shaking, in the Common House of Salem Village.  She shook so hard her clothes quivered.  Her life was at stake, and if she were not careful it could also be the life of her husband and child.  So, Susan shook with cold even while sweat stained her unadorned, brown, wool dress. 

It was hot in the room. 

The packed Common House had two stories with a door and two windows centered on all four sides of the split board, saltbox building.  It was overly warm from the summer heat and press of bodies but that did not keep cold fear from centering in the very core of Susan and those accused with her.  She had already seen Bridget Bishop hung and her dear friend, Rev. George Burroughs, die as well, even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. 

William Stoughton sat in the center of the panel of judges and looked down at Susan with the pinched, disapproving look of a man who sees all women as vessels of the unclean.  He addressed no questions to the accused; it was assumed that whatever she said would be a lie.  His questions were instead addressed to the cluster of teen-age girls sitting in the front row of the meetinghouse—a place usually reserved for the most important and respected members of the village. 

The girls appeared more bored than engaged.  They would stir themselves soon, one or the other would begin a histrionic vision and the rest would join to a greater or lesser degree.  But for now, Ann Putnam picked at a fingernail, Abigail Warren was braiding the hair of Bette Parris and Deliverance Hobbs appeared to be staring out the window, but could have been nodding off as the warm sun hit her full in the face.  Mercy Warren was the only one paying attention to the judicial row.  This was to be her morning for questions, providing evidence against one more woman from her unhappy past, and it was she, if she so chose, who would provide the pre-arranged cue to the other girls to begin thrashing in spectral anguish.  All Mercy needed to do was say the words, “None of us want to see the vision of that great, black dog ever again.” and her friends would fall into screams, moans, and contortions. 

It is so simple, Mercy thought, to convince these silly, stupid adults that a witch was in their midst.  Mercy and her friends, bored, ignored, given little education and less respect, now controlled the life and death of every person in the village.  Such power was intoxicating.  And no one loved the heady feel of it more than Mercy Lewis, the orphan.

“You say you were afflicted, girl.  By whom?  Under what circumstances?  Who tempted you and how?”  Magistrate Stoughton was always harsh when addressing her and Mercy knew why.  She was a servant girl, living only at the pleasure and command of her distant kinsman, Thomas Putnam.  It was not lost on Mercy that the tone of the judge was more moderate and respectful when questioning Ann Putnam, Betty Parris or Mary Walcott.  Those girls had fathers with position and power.  They were called “child” in a warm and encouraging voice, not the cold, abrupt “girl.”

“Speak up, girl!”  Mercy flinched to hide her anger.

“I was afflicted, sir.  I hesitate only because I fear to see the same demon again.”  She hesitated, looking warily at her hands, which were clearly trembling.  Then she raised her head, in perfectly timed defiance of her fears.  “But I say it now, Sir, frightened though I am.  I was afflicted, tormented, and tempted by the Devil himself, and those that serve him.”
A rustle of concern moved across the crowded common room. 

“What form did these tormentors take?”

“It was last Lord’s Day, sir.  I was walking to this very House, to worship.  I was late, as I sometimes am, because of my household duties.”  She paused, but did not look at her employer, Thomas Putnam.

“We do not care about the reasons for your tardiness, girl.  Continue.”

“I am sorry, sir.  As I hurried to my worship, I saw a sky filled with birds, but there were other animals as well, dogs and pigs, and cats that seemed to be ordering the other animals in their flight.  The beasts told me to come away with them.  They barred my way to the Common House, so I could scarcely move forward.”

More murmuring. 

“I tried to cry out, but a man appeared, waved his hand across my throat and I could make not a sound.  But I saw the man well, and I know his name.”

“Name him, then.”

“George Burroughs.”

“The same Burroughs who was executed last week?”

“Yes.”

“You are sure.”

“I know him well, sir.  I worked in his house in the months after my parents were killed in the Wabanaki attacks.”

The story of Mercy Lewis’s orphaned state was well known by the whole community.  Mercy, the daughter of Phillip Lewis was born in Falmouth, Maine in 1675, at a time of constant unrest and violent conflict between the colonialists and the Wabanaki nation.  At three years of age her parents, along with Rev. Burroughs and many of the people of Falmouth fled to the islands in Casco Bay as the Wabanaki slaughtered those left behind, including Mercy’s grandparents, cousins and neighbors. 

At age 16 the Wabanaki mounted yet another offensive and killed both of Mercy’s parents.  It was then that she took temporary refuge with Rev. Burroughs, himself having lived and ministered briefly in Salem.  As soon as arrangements could be made, Mercy moved to the home of her married sister, who lived in Salem Village.  An orphan with no family or fortune behind her, the future she faced was outlined in full when she became a servant in the home of Thomas Putnam.  She would spend her youth, middle years and old age as a menial servant, bowing to all, and regarded by none.

“We already know of the evil works of Burroughs.  Were there any with him that still walk unknown in the Village?”

“There were, sir, they grabbed at my clothes and scratched my arms and snatched at my hair and bonnet as I ran into the Common for services.”
Stoughton briefly conferred with those present and they did indeed affirm that Mercy was present, though late and disheveled at worship the past week, though one of the men did comment dourly that she frequently appeared under similar circumstances.

“Name these apparitions.”

“One was Captain Alden, the man who sold guns to the Wabanaki and slept with their squaws, making babies with heathens, though certainly that did not bother him in any way.” 

Captain Alden had been named by Mercy before and had, in fact, been jailed and well on his way to the gallows until he had mysteriously escaped the jail and run to New York.  Mercy resented his escape, since it had obviously been abetted by people who did not believe this gunrunner from Maine to be a wizard.  Mercy had had Alden in her sights from the beginning.  It was well known that he had sold arms to the Indians he loved so much.  These same Indians had then used those arms to destroy Mercy’s family and her hope for a life that did not include emptying the chamber pots of kin who should treat her like family instead of the hired help. 
“The other was a most fearful witch, standing in a circle inside a five-pointed star, all made of fire.  She stood there and directed the birds to attack me, pecking at me and screaming in my face.  She laughed at my misery and then turned to Alden and used a soft voice to tell him I would be turned to the Devil or suffer horribly for naming the Captain before this council.”

“Give us her name, girl!”

“Susan North—is was Susan North.”

A rumbled moved through the assembly.  Goody North was well-known.   A healer.  A midwife.  A friend and a devout worshiper.  Her husband was a respected miller and their baby a bouncing, pink, bundle of health.  Susan doted on the child.  Certainly, Goody North was smarter than a woman should be.  She could read and write and vowed that her children, even the girls, would know those arts as well.  But there were times when her knowledge had saved the life of a good man, a deserving woman, or an innocent child. 

You could almost hear the thoughts of the women in Common House.  Was knowing how to heal a gift from God?  Or a bargain with the Devil?  Surely Goody North had saved the life of the unworthy as easily as the worthy.  There was even talk that Susan had helped more than one unwed young girl who might come to her with child to leave without one.  The loss of a child in the womb was neither here nor there, it happened all the time, but the thought that the punishment so richly due any harlot should be skirted by eliminating the proof of her sin was repugnant.  Sin was supposed to be punished.  Fornication was a sin. 

And here was Mercy Lewis, a supposed strumpet, pointing her finger at Susan North, naming her as a witch and agent of the Devil. 

“She comes to me almost every night.  Tormenting me in my bed.”

It was at this moment, cold and frightened, shaking and almost deaf from the pain in her head that Susan North turned from the judges’ bench to Mercy Lewis.  A small flicker of anger had managed to warm Susan’s core.  It did not balance the fear, but it gave her enough strength to do something she was not allowed to do. 

Susan North spoke.

“Mercy…” it was almost a whisper, but those close to her heard it and stopped talking.

“Mercy” louder this time.  “It is not me that torments you in your bed.”

“The accused will stand silent!” Stoughton shouted.

Mercy Lewis, shocked into silence for the first time in these proceedings looked about, almost as if searching for a place of escape.  Then she saw the faces of the other girls, attentive now, frightened, looking to her for the leadership she had offered from the moment this game of blame, theater, life and death had begun.  It gave her a moment and she seized it.

Mercy’s finger jabbed fiercely toward Goody North. 

“She torments me even now, even here.”

“Mercy,” Susan’s voice carried across the hall, “I stand here as the woman who helped you in your time of need.  You begged me to assist you, putting on a face of fear and sadness and betrayal.  You have many faces Mercy.  I think it is that which torments you.”

“She has faces!  She has faces!”  Mercy screamed, starting to thrash about, biting at her own arms, drawing blood and tearing with her fingernails at her own face and hair.

“The accused will not speak…” 

Spit from Stoughton’s mouth sprayed Susan and those around him on the bench.  “Order!” he screamed, not sure at whom he was directing the imperative.  Then louder, “There will be silence!”

The room was broiling with activity.  In all this Susan North was the only one who now stood silent.  In the instant when all attention had turned to the girls she had panicked and wondered if she could run—making good an escape as Alden had.  She had moved away from the thrashing girls and turned toward the door, but too many angry, screaming faces stood between her and freedom.  At almost that same moment two men charged as bailiffs grasped both her arms and she gave in to them.  Her death sentence was sealed by the histrionics of the girls.  But she knew the truth and she knew she would avow her innocence to the end.  No one would accuse her without her protesting the claim.  But, oh, the fear of it.  The pain, the panic, and her child…

Susan North slumped to the floor, not in a feint, but powerless to hold the weight of what she saw ahead of her.  The hands still held her fast but let her collapse between them.  She could not think of her daughter, Hannah.  That would be a pain that would break her.  Instead she concentrated on the hate she suddenly felt toward Mercy Lewis and the spoiled, selfish girls who casually stole life and reputation from so many good people in Salem Village and beyond. 

Rough hands brought her back to her feet.  Her head lolled but was drawn to the one face that could give her strength.  Her husband, John, stood against the back wall.  She had begged him not to come, but he had and in his drawn face she saw a mirror of the impotent rage she herself felt.  The injustice of it all!  The futility of argument!  The rejection of reason.  Their eyes met and she mouthed one simple word. “Go.” 

Susan and John had discussed the worst that could happen, and their plan, to be acted on only in that extremity, was now to be executed.  There would be no more affirmations of love, whispered hopes for the best and prayers to a merciful God.  Now there was only action.

John left the Common House and sped to his house, stopping only to get Hannah from the aged neighbor who was watching the child.  He bundled his daughter in the wagon which was already packed with most of the sparse furnishings from their home.  All of Susan’s things were left behind, by choice.  There would never—must never—be a way to use her possessions to accuse him of witchcraft. 

The father and daughter left Salem Village immediately and were in Boston by nightfall.   

John had sought refuge in his brother’s house when he heard the worst of the news.  Magistrate Stoughton, sure that the obstinate North woman must be an extraordinary witch, and therefore worthy of extraordinary punishment, decreed that Susan should burn instead of being hanged as her predecessors had been.  Execution was only a night and a day away. 
 The night before her death Susan North received a whispered message through the low window of her cellar jail.  Four words only: it will be quick.  Dumb with fear she did not ask for more, or who the speaker was, but she held the words in her mind and repeated them silently over and over.  The words became her mantra and they did not fail her.  The wood, piled higher than the magistrates had remembered from the day before, was extremely dry.  When the torch was put to the brush it flashed instead of smoldering, sucking oxygen from the air. 

Susan seemed to take one huge, sobbing breath, but there was no oxygen left to be breathed.  Her head snapped back, seeking air, and then collapsed on her chin, unconscious of the almost immediate explosion.  A small keg of gunpowder exploded under her feet.  The messenger was true to his word.  It was quick.

Outraged beyond grief at the loss of his wife, John North filed a civil suit against Mercy Lewis, and her fellow accusers. It would be the first of dozen of such suits filed against the Salem Village accusers—and it would help bring the dreaded Court of Oyer and Terminor to an end.   

A decade after John fled to Boston with his child; a decade after he watched his wife die horribly but swiftly in the blast of gun powder that he had placed under her scaffold; a decade after he had vowed eternal retribution against Mercy Lewis and the rest of the “afflicted” girls, John North faced his moment of truth.  He saw Mercy walking down the streets of Boston. 
He knew Mercy had given birth to a child the year before and had then fled to Boston to marry a teamster from her hometown of Falmouth, Maine.  The ne’r-do-well and drunkard, Samuel Alder, now led Mercy down the middle of the street.  As they passed each other, North realized that Mercy Lewis Alder had neither noticed nor recognized him.  She was dirty and ragged, shuffling along behind her much older and clearly intoxicated husband.  Her child was held carelessly on her hip and she was muttering to herself.  North thought of calling out to her, castigating her as the slattern she was, but was stayed by his daughter’s tug on his arm. 

“They are a sad family, aren’t they, Father?” 

John North looked at his daughter.  Hannah was growing in every way her mother would have wanted, and now she was showing a charitable concern toward the woman who was the instrument of Susan’s death. 

“They are.”  He started to add, “God bless them” but the words stuck in his throat.  To all his other faults and failings, John was not going to add hypocrisy.  Instead he moved his daughter along the street and whispered, “God bless us.” 

Mercy Lewis, absorbed in her own unhappiness, never heard the benediction. 

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Louise Butler is a writer of science, economics, and historical fiction.  She was examining ergot fungi as a cause for the “afflictions” of children thought to be possessed by demons or victims of witchcraft when she recognized the name of an accused witch that also appeared in her own ancestry.  The following is an excerpt from her third book: That Blaisdell Blood: a Novel.  Ms. Butler currently lives in the deep Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She enjoys good books, good friends, and good scotch. 

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Tamara and Natiao

This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.

~Christopher Columbus, Bariay, Cuba, November 27, 1492

The beats of the magueye drums increased their pace and the maracas rattled with a steady rhythm, drowning the sounds of the early summer night.  Everyone had gathered in the batey, the open area surrounded by the bohíos where the population of the nameless Taíno village resided. They crouched, forming an irregular circle around Uncle. He sat on the bare ground snorting a ground tobacco drug that brought him, with each inhalation, into a deeper trance. Taking one final puff, he closed his eyes and turned his head towards his niece, who held the squirming baby in her arms with difficulty. Uncle cleared his throat of the lingering vapors of the weed and intoned the words of the ritual:

“O sacred Nonum, who circles the heavens and sees all, the past, the present, and the future that lies hidden to us!  We present to you this child – grant us a glimpse of his future, whether he will grow to work the fields with strength, and fish the rivers with skill, and hunt and trap with cunning, and father many children that will increase our numbers and make us rich and powerful.”

No sooner had the words left the seer’s mouth than a dark cloud began blotting the sky where the moon had stood a moment ago. Darkness swallowed the village. Yet, before the full horror of the omen could be felt, the cloud shifted slightly, allowing a sliver of moonlight to struggle its way out, casting a dim light on the batey

Uncle shook his head with regret. “The goddess has spoken” – he declared. “This boy’s life will be brief and end in sorrow, but some good will come out of it. Welcome, Natiao. You shall be loved by us for as long as you are in this world.”

2

It was the same batey, the same clearing in the forest, the same full moon casting light and shadows on the faces of the villagers. It was colder, though, late in the year, at the end of the huracan season. Uncle again sat in a trance, his half-closed eyes directed at the baby, as she rested quietly in her bibi’s arms. He recited the words of the ritual and everyone turned their eyes towards the moon, which sat huge in the heavens. Nothing happened for a while. Then, as Uncle was getting ready to announce that the goddess did not deign to speak, a small hawk darted out of the forest and circled slowly three times over the assembled crowd, all the while uttering its piercing challenge, and coming near to where the baby was being held. Then it gave out one last shriek and was gone.

Uncle got to his feet, came over to the mother, and said gravely: “This child will see many moons, and will know many cycles of pain and misfortune. But at the end she is to prevail, for she is strong and her will shall conquer adversity. Welcome, brave one, I name you Tamara and, as the butterfly whose name you bear, you will soar above the evil and good that life shall offer you.”

3

Between the time of Natiao’s birth and that of his sister Tamara, the world had gone through a catastrophic change, but in the Taíno village nobody knew of it. One day late in Natio’s first year, fair skinned men sailing in floating houses came ashore at a place not far from the village. Leading them was an auburn-haired giant called Cristóbal Colón who later became known as the “Guamikeni” (Lord of Land and Water) by the Taínos. Colón soon sailed away and never came back.

Later, Taínos began arriving from distant villages, some coming from as far as the island of Haytí. Some traveled overland across the steep mountains, others arrived by water in canoes, but all brought disquieting tales about those pallid men. According to their stories, the Guamikeni and his men came ashore and established their own villages, not unlike the Taíno yukayekes. Soon thereafter, though, they sought to master the land, forcing the local inhabitants to become their servants and making all males, young and old, pan the rivers in search of gold nuggets. Those that resisted were whipped or had flesh-tearing dogs unleashed on them.

At first the villagers gave no credence to these tales, and viewed them as excuses by people wishing to leave their impoverished lands for a better place to call home. But then a larger group of Taínos appeared in the village. They arrived in piraguas, war canoes, all the way from Haytí.  They were led by a crazy-eyed old man who called himself Hatuey and said he was a Taíno chief. They had escaped from the hands of the Spaniards and wanted to warn all people about what to expect when the white men came.

Tamara was fourteen and had had her first blood, but was not yet paired with any of the young men in the village. She listened to Hatuey in horror as he addressed the village and exhibited a large basket full of small gold ornaments like jeweled yaris and taguaguas. “Here is the God the Spaniards worship,” he said, “for all they want is gold, and will kill us for it.” He went on to say: “We must make a common front to resist them, and throw them back into the sea from which they came!!”  

The Taínos could not believe the apocalyptic message brought by Hatuey, and only a few joined him. Then Diego Velázquez, at the head of a conquering Spanish expedition, landed with about three hundred armed men and set to subdue the native population.

Hatuey led the Taíno resistance against Velázquez. His strategy was to attack, guerilla fashion, and then disperse to the hills, where the Indians would regroup for the next attack. For three months Hatuey’s tactics kept the Spaniards on the defensive, afraid to leave their fort.

4

With the help of a traitor, Velázquez was finally able to surround and capture Hatuey. Hatuey was tied to a stake at the Spanish camp and was burned alive. Just before lighting the fire, a priest offered him spiritual comfort, showing him the cross and asking him to accept Jesus so he could go to heaven. “Are there people like you in heaven?” he asked. “There are many like me in heaven,” answered the priest. Hatuey answered: “I want nothing to do with a God that welcomes people who inflict such cruel deeds on others.”

Natiao’s village had been at the core of Hatuey’s resistance. After his execution, the villagers sought to appease the Spaniards by holding a feast in their honor. Once the feast was over, however, the conquistadores set upon the Indians, slashing, disemboweling and slaughtering the males until their blood ran like a river. Except for those that managed to flee into the hills, the only Taíno males left alive were the old, the sick and the very young.

Natiao and three other youth escaped the massacre and hid in one of the caves on the mountains that surrounded Baracoa. They kept harassing the conquistadores, destroying their crops, killing their work animals, setting fire to their huts, and on one occasion slaying two white men who they found unarmed in the fields.

Then their luck ran out. Hunting dogs traced them to their cave and led a full armed force to their hideaway. As the barks of the dogs alerted them to their peril, Natiao told his friends: “Run to the other side of the hill, behind the waterfall, and maybe they will lose track of you. I will distract them in the meantime.”  His friends resisted his command, but he shoved them out: “If you die, all resistance is lost. Live and carry on with the fight.”

The others had barely disappeared into the woods when the party of Spaniards appeared on top of the ridge:  five men armed with arcabuces and three vicious black dogs that sprung at Natiao ahead of the humans.

Natiao brandished a macana, a long thick club with sharpened edges, and dispatched two of the dogs in quick succession; the third turned tail and joined the Spaniards, who raised their arcabuces and shot at Natiao.

Three of the shots fired by the arcabuces missed Natiao and he thrust a lance at one of the soldiers, impaling him against the trunk of a tree. He ran rapidly at the others, screaming Hatuey’s war cry:  “Aji Aya Bombe” (“Better Dead than a Slave”), and clubbed another soldier, dropping him dead. He was reaching for a third soldier when the two remaining arcabuces were discharged at him simultaneously.

Natiao’s body was flung backwards from the impacts, and the youth fell to the ground shaking convulsively. Soon he was dead.

One of Natiao’s friends witnessed Natiao’s death and told the story to his companions and to every Taíno they met. Natiao became a hero but his fame was short-lived, for the Spaniards ultimately annihilated all the indigenous population of the island.

5

Tamara did not learn of her brother’s death until much later. The day of the feast, she and three other women were herded into a bohío where half a dozen drunken Spaniards gathered around them.

Like all young Taíno women, Tamara was bare breasted and wore only a thin cotton skirt that ran to mid-calf. She was bronze-colored and had black, flowing hair, and large and slightly oblique dark eyes. Her young body was beautiful and exciting to the eyes of the soldiers, who began lining up for a gang rape. The first of them, a stinking mountain of a man with a disfiguring mole on his cheek, roughly tore away Tamara’s skirt, threw her on the floor and mounted her.

Tamara shrieked and pummeled the man’s chest and scratched him, but was no match for her attacker. The violation was about to be consummated when the Spaniard was forcibly yanked away from the prostate girl.

“Leave the Indian alone!” was a peremptory shout from someone that Tamara could not see. The soldier swung back behind him in an attempt to hit the interrupter and was struck in the face with the pommel of a sword.

“Get out of here before I hit you with the front end and not the back” warned the intruder. The soldier got up slowly, muttering something incomprehensible, and tottered away.

Tamara could now get a full view of her savior. He was tall, bearded and dark, and fairly young. He wore a shirt, a doublet, breeches and leather boots and gloves; nothing that signified a high rank or position. He was handsome, in a rough sort of way.

The man picked Tamara off the ground without effort and, carrying her over his shoulder, took her to another bohío. There, he ran his hand slowly over her face and said: “Child, you are pretty. I will have you, but in a more dignified manner.”  

Tamara did not understand the man’s words, but his tone was soothing and the sensations she was experiencing as he caressed her were pleasurable. He went on: “My name is Iñigo Valdés, although everyone calls me Nacho.”

Nacho laid Tamara down on a straw mat on the dirt floor and began kissing her insistently. Tamara squirmed and tried to fight him off, but not as fiercely as she had a few minutes earlier.  Finally, as Nacho fondled her secret place, the one that only her bibi had touched when she was a baby, Tamara sighed and her resistance ceased.

6

Cuba’s conquest from the unresisting Indians was completed in 1515, the same year of the foundation of Villa de La Habana on the southern coast of the island. Nacho and Tamara were among the first settlers of the village. Tamara gave birth to a pretty girl that Nacho had baptized as Juana, in honor of the reigning Queen of Castilla. Tamara called her Guaní, humming bird, a name that presaged a restless life ahead.

By that point, Tamara had learned enough Spanish to be able to hold rudimentary conversations with her master. She mostly applied her new skills to upbraid Nacho for his failure to defend the Indians from the abuses by the Spaniards. Velázquez had instituted in Cuba the encomienda system developed in Spain upon the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. Under it, a Spaniard was issued control over several native families. The encomenderos were allowed to require labor from the Indians in exchange for their “christianization.”  While the Indians were considered free subjects of the empire, the encomenderos used their Indians as slaves, and their brutal treatment caused the Indians to begin to die from forced labor, disease and suicide.

Nacho had been granted an encomienda that placed two Taíno families under his control. These became virtual slaves that performed all the work in Nacho’s holding, except cooking that was Tamara’s domain. As Nacho’s concubine, Tamara ruled the house as a Spanish wife would have.

“You should not hit them” she complained, when Nacho whipped the encomendados for some infraction.

“Shut up, wench, unless you want me to hit you too!”  he replied gruffly.

“I not afraid. I Taíno. We people, not animals. You better not hit us.”

“Shut up or I will give you to my captain,” he said half-jokingly.

“I scratch his eyes out” she promised, with a hatred that lent credence to her threat.

Nacho burst into laughing and that was the end of the discussion.

Two years later, it became obvious that La Habana’s southern location was unsuitable and an alternate site was chosen for the city in the north coast. A trip to the proposed new location convinced Nacho that he could do better there.  He figured that in a year he would be able to establish himself more comfortably in a suitable place.

The work in erecting his new house would be performed by the Taínos in his encomienda. On morning in early 1517 Nacho gathered the two families under his ward in front of his bohío and said that two weeks hence he would lead them to the new location he had chosen for his house in the northern coast and leave them there to work clearing the property and laying the foundations for the new home.

The news was received with consternation by the Indians. They lived in deplorable conditions; nonetheless, they were appalled at being forced to move north to start building their master’s home while at the same time finding a way to make a living.

Tamara confronted Nacho and chided him for his heartlessness. “How you treat people like animals?  Taínos not cows or pigs, you no can move them around!”

Nacho gave her a hard slap on the face that sent her reeling. “They are my property, and I do with them as I damn please. I don’t give a hoot if they live or die. So, watch out, or I will send you along with them to build my house!”

Tamara had a bleeding split lip and a terrible headache from her repressed anger. She cooked dinner to avenge herself.

She made an ajiaco, a savory stew that included bits of pumpkin, sweet yuca (cassava), corn, okra, and salted pork. In this particular ajiaco, she used yuca brava instead of sweet yuca. Yuca brava, when cooked, releases nailboa, a poisonous juice that could kill a man if ingested in sufficient quantities.

Nacho had a hearty appetite and downed three bowls of ajiaco, accompanied by cups of rough wine. In no time he dropped in his hamaca and fell, groaning, into a stupor.

Tamara considered slaying the man, but he was the father of her daughter and not too terrible a person, for a Spaniard. She hoped that the nailboa would not kill but only sicken him, but that was in the hands of the gods. All she wanted was to get away.

She picked up Guaní and, with the baby in her arms, ran to a bohío and slammed her fist twice against the door. The family was already asleep but woke up with the commotion. “No time to explain” she told them. “Gather what you can carry and meet me at the batey.”  She proceeded to the other bohíos and made the same demand.

Soon, the entire population of Nacho’s encomienda was gathered around Tamara. “I have put Guaoxeri Nacho to sleep, maybe for a long time. He insists on your going north to build his house. If you don’t, he’ll have you killed. Your choice is simple:  Either flee or obey his demands.”

“Flee?  Where?” demanded someone.

“Not far east of here is the big Southern Swamp, where the Spaniards do not go for fear of poisonous snakes, caimanes and other perils. We must settle there, at least for a few months.”

“But how is that better than going to build Guaoxeri Nacho’s new home?”

“You will have to decide that” replied Tamara curtly. It’s your choice. But you must act quickly, or miss the chance.”

There was a brief discussion, and one of the men spoke to Tamara in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Sister Tamara, better in a swamp, fighting the caimanes and the jubos, than on the hands of the Spaniards. We’ll go.” 

Tamara pressed Guaní against her body and turned to the congregation. “I may be a foolish girl by doing this to my daughter. But we have little choice. Guaní will grow to be a slave. I do not wish such a life upon her.” 

One of the women walked with Tamara as the group began moving eastward. “Are you sure the white caimanes won’t get us?”  Tamara quickly retorted: “Our Zemís don’t make war, like the God of the Spaniards. But they have always protected me and will ensure that I make it through this, and more. And with their help I shall.”

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Matias F. Travieso-Diaz is a Cuban-American engineer and attorney, retired after half a century of professional practice.  Following retirement, Travieso-Diaz has taken up creative writing and authored many short stories of various lengths and genres. Travieso-Diaz’ stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in two dozen paying magazines, including New Reader Magazine; Dual Coast Magazine; Lite Lit One Journal; Theme of Absence Magazine; Night to Dawn Magazine; Jerry Jazz Magazine; Dream of Shadows Magazine; Jitter Press; Bethlehem Writers Roundtable; Emerging Worlds; The Patchwork Raven; Czykmate Productions – How HORROR-able Anthology; Four Star Stories, and Aurelia Leo.

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Found Letters of Roanoke

1 September 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health, and I pray, remember my love unto my sister, Catherine.

Today marks a month since we landed in the New World and a fortnight since Governor White departed Roanoke for England, but I already imagine him bringing my letters to you.

Never more have I missed the greenness of home. There has been scant rain since we arrived, and our crops are withering in hardened fields. God be praised, Manteo’s tribe, the Croatans, have showed us how to properly farm and trap fish.

Our dwindling supplies has forced Mr. White home to secure more goods. He was reluctant to leave his new grandchild, but the Council of Elders insisted. I cannot make sense of their logic. Surely, Mr. White is a better artist than governor but besides Chief Manteo, he is the most familiar with this strange land. Part of me yearned to return home, but ’tis mad to think Sir Raleigh would listen to a girl of only eighteen.

Sadly, the bloody flux has overtaken many. Papa, I am grateful for the time helping you with your patients as I have become the settlement’s nurse. Often, there is nothing more than a cool rag and soft words to offer as they pass into God’s hands.

I would not survive without my friend Jane, who has taken me under her wing since our days on the Lion. She spooned soup in my mouth when I was laid low by the stormy waves of the ocean and ever since has lent her faith in my darkest hours.

The entire colony has come to rely on her. She fills her day with whatever needs to be done whether it’s chopping wood or fashioning roofs. Yet she is never too tired to teach the children their letters. I suspect our shipmate Henry has taken a fancy to her and that she returns his interest.

’Tis the thought of Mr. White returning across the mighty Atlantic with your letters that brings me hope. I promise to write often, though it may be a long time before another ship will pass our way.

As always, I remain a servant to God and pray for the strength to spread his word to these heathen lands.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

19 September 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health .

The drought is over! After days of dry rumblings and lightning in the sky, God has blessed us with a much-needed downpour. ’Tis the first since our anchoring and a sure sign of the Almighty’s love. I danced in the fields, my skirts soon caked with mud. There is nothing sweeter than the smell of newly fallen rain.

The burning fever that had taken so many has finally receded. More would be dead if it were not for the advice of Achak, the Croatan healer. And I believe Achak has cured our colonists of scurvy as well! Papa, you taught me to watch for signs of the affliction whilst at sea, but did you know it can occur on land as well? (Mama, allow Father to read this part alone as ’tis not suitable for such a fine lady.)

Papa, at first, many came to me complaining of aches that seemed a natural consequence of hard work. But soon their gums swelled, bled black blood, and turned putrid. Spots of red and purple appeared on their bloated arms and legs and burst. The wails of mothers who had lost their children haunted my dreams. I was desperate and turned to Achak, and asking nothing in return, he agreed to help. Papa, how can such a man be called a savage?

He boiled the needles of an evergreen and had the afflicted drink the tea. As I bear witness unto God, the pain resolved within three days, and all were better in a week. I have enclosed some of the needles as I don’t know the tree’s name. Perhaps you will inform the seafaring folk of this remedy?

(Mama, you may safely read again.)

Alas, we fear the death of Henry. He was last seen going into the woods to hunt by Elder John, who blames his disappearance on the savages. We continue to pray for Henry’s return.

My palms are as rough as tree bark, my skirt hems tattered, but fret not. I embrace these hardships that make me stronger in my faith and our mission.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

31 October 1587

My Dearest Catherine

If you be in good spirits, I am glad. Thanks to be given to God, I am in good bodily health. Yet, sister, I am quite unwell in mind. I try to live in this day and not in my worries, but much has transpired that leaves me unsettled.

’Tis been near two months since Mr. White departed. I pray for his safe passage and speedy return as our supplies dwindle. In his absence, Elder John has appointed himself governor. I pray that God grants him the wisdom to lead sensibly, but I fear his temperament and love of money. All he speaks of is raiding the native’s village for secret stores of food and gold they don’t have. By God’s grace, my urgings, and a shortage of munitions, his plans have been thwarted. As the larders grow barer and men’s hearts darker, I fear reason may no longer prevail. Truth be told, much of the savagery attributed to the natives rests in us. Please pray that God will give us the strength to conquer our worst enemies of famine and faithlessness.

Since Henry’s disappearance, Jane has become a ghost of herself. She refuses all but bites of food and sleeps fitfully. At dinner tonight, she filled Mr. John’s plate with her doubts, saying, “My Henry never would venture past the gates alone. Something’s amiss.”

The governor banged his fist on the table and told her that she was stirring up deadly distrust when our survival depends on unity. How can he be right? Jane is worth more than ten governors.

Our troubles continue to multiply. Chief Manteo is missing as well. He was never the same after our men mistakenly slaughtered his mother, the Croatan chief. Yet, he still managed to broker peaceful relations with the many of the surrounding tribes. As it was always the intention to move the settlement inland, the council decided Manteo should travel northward as a scout. He promised to return before the new moon, but it has been more than two months since he left. The governor refuses to send out a search party.

Manteo’s absence has emboldened several elders in their encounters with the unmarried women and girls. ’Tis a matter too salacious for young ears but rest assured, we women never work alone.

I thank you sister. Putting these overwrought fears into words reminds me that these doubts are Satan’s distraction from the work of our heavenly Father. I must place my faith in his plan, even one that I do not understand. I leave you to the protection of Almighty God.

Your loving sister,

Rose

P.S. Please don’t share this with Mama and Papa. They need not fret over a daughter’s silly musings.

3 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.

Only writing can steady my tremors. Dearest Jane has disappeared. In the days before she vanished, she had become unusually despondent, even cross. I thought her only overworked and mourning Henry. The last I saw her, she was standing on the beach, staring at the twilight sky. She looked like an angel as the evening breeze fluttered her cape behind her, held in place by her mother’s brooch. She assured me she would soon retire. If only I had stayed with her.

The governor believes she was kidnapped by Indians and may be alive, albeit a slave. He remembers cries for help that night but by the time he reached the beach, she was gone, and the sand marked by many footprints. I will continue to pray for her. Please add the good Jane to your nightly petitions.

As always, I remain a servant to God and true to my mission.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

11 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.

Much has transpired since I last wrote. In truth, I tried to spare you some of the more unpleasant circumstances, but this dishonesty weighs heavily.

Today, we number less than thirty women and children and the seven Elders. Weakened by the lack of food and brackish water, we are bereft of hope. Ragged clothes cannot hide skin that sags on the hard corners of our bones.

However, Nature is not responsible for all our misfortunes. ’Tis the dearth of water that has laid bare our own turpitudes. The elders care nothing of God’s work or our survival, only the search for gold. As provisions decline, they have cut rations to scraps. How is it that they can silence the pain of constant hunger?

This assault of death and despair has hardened my soul. By the grace of God, I am not the only one unsettled. A time ago, Goodwife Agnes and I were washing up after supper, and oft, she would sigh loudly. She claimed that the nursing babies would not survive the winter, and that the elders had ordered the gruel even thinner for the nearly dead. I greeted each pronouncement with a shrug. Then she told me that the governor had declared the widowed as the property of the elders—with marital privileges. I could no longer contain my anger for this abomination against God. It seems ’twas the only encouragement needed to secure Agnes’s faith in me. She whispered that the women wanted to join the Croatans in their winter migration and asked me to approach them. I agreed at once.

I sought the council’s approval to meet with the natives under the guise of fostering better relations. The elders accused me of being a turncoat, but their concerns run shallow. I convinced them that I could trick the Indians into revealing their secret stash of gold.

I tell you of my encounter with the supposed savages to temper your anger at my decisions. God be thanked, they welcomed me to their assembly, a place where all were allowed to speak. We sat on the ground and not a voice was raised. When they disagreed, they went back and forth, each time one gave a little whilst another took, and a middle ground was coaxed from small concessions and gains so by the end, everyone was at least partly pleased.

When it was my turn, Achak introduced me. He did not hide the destruction our settlement had brought upon them. But he spoke kindly of my ministering to the sick and my efforts to learn their language. I greeted them using their own words and asked for forgiveness and permission for our people to join them.

’Twas a lively debate, and all seemed lost when they asked if I would try to convert them. As if guided by their example, I conceded I would only speak of Christianity if asked. At last, they agreed to take us inland.

Our plan is simple. We will leave under the cover of night with no more than prayers and the clothes on our back. Although we have found refuge in the kindness of the natives, to this I promise, my salvation will belong unto God alone.

Alas, ’tis unlikely these words will ever reach you, but ’tis a salve on my heart to write them. Though we may not meet again until we are in the Kingdom of Heaven, know that God’s love will keep me safe in this earthly home. ’Tis this love that girds my resolve. I will protect those who have put their faith in me as I put my faith in God.

Good Father and Mother, pray for me,

Rose

23 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

Sometimes the lowliest of pursuits can lead to the most perplexing of discoveries. ’Twas laundering day, and a pile of clothes awaited. Something sharp stabbed my hand whilst scrubbing pants. From the pocket, I fished out Jane’s unlatched brooch. How could this be? Anyone who found the brooch surely would have informed the settlement, as it could be a clue to her whereabouts. Confronting the elders would only lead to false denials so I slipped the pin back into the pants and hung them to dry, waiting to see who would claim them.

I did not wait long. Elder William soon appeared and grabbed the pants. I kept busy with my work so as to seem unaware of his distress. He had to be connected to Jane’s disappearance, but I knew not how. Fear made me cautious. I told no one.

I maintained a cheery countenance during dinner though Mr. William’s glances felt like hands tightening around my neck. When the other women retired after evening prayers, I ventured out to spy on the nightly council meeting.

The elders built the usual fire on the beach, a beacon for passing ships. ’Twas not long before the governor arrived and made straight for Mr. William. He drew a knife from his belt and stabbed Mr. William in the chest over and over until the man collapsed. The governor fell upon him, thrusting his knife into the still body until the others pulled him off. What happened next— ’twas clear that the men knew exactly what to do.

They flayed Mr. William from stem to stern and gathered the stripped muscle and innards into a pile and tossed skin and bones into the fire. I gagged on the acrid smell but dared not move.

The flames sputtered to crackling embers. The governor shoved his knife into the pile of remains and pulled out a piece. He crouched by the fire, held the piece over the coals, and rotated the knife. The other men soon joined, for what purpose I refused to believe.

After a time, the men sat back and gnawed at the charred bits hanging from their knives. Soon the woods were filled with the barbarians’ laughter. My body went cold then hot, and I felt the bitter taste of disgust in my throat. I could stay no longer, no matter the cost, and fled.

Do you see how these times might wreck a person’s soul? Just the thought of the lot of Jane, Henry, Manteo, so many others who had mysteriously disappeared. I could not turn the other cheek, even if it meant I must turn my back on God.

I raced to the swamps on the other side of the fort. There I would find the cowbane that Achak had showed me. I stayed up all night, harvesting the roots and seeds, careful to keep my hands covered with a rag.

The next morning, I ground my doubts and cowbane into a paste and sent a message to Achak that we were ready to depart that very night.

I cooked my disgust into the evening’s soup. With ladle in hand, I waited. Like every night, the elders pushed to the front of the line and picked up the bowls I had carefully prepared. The brutes would never notice the dried paste at the bottom.

We had nearly finished tidying up after supper when the slightest of the seven men began to stumble and drool, to the delight of the other elders. But their laughter was brief. Another soon doubled over and screamed in pain; a third vomited, and the other two started to twitch. The men grunted and convulsed, their eyes turned black, their skin burned red, as the devil they courted came to claim their souls. They writhed for what seemed hours but finally each one’s breathing slowed, then stopped. I felt no remorse and made sure my face was the last the governor saw as he crossed over.

Finally, the moans were replaced by an even deadlier silence. I had but only a moment to regain the other women’s trust. I searched the pockets of Governor John. Fortunately, he had kept the proof of his treachery. The remaining women gasped when I showed them Jane’s brooch.

’Twas not difficult to convince them of the men’s utter corruption. They were eager to leave. We surrendered the bodies to a watery grave and not a tear was shed or a prayer offered for the true heathens.

There are only moments before Achak will take the rest to a better place but without me. I cannot burden their new life with the weight of my transgressions.

Please forgive me this last missive. ’Tis my confession unto God and a final account of the Roanoke colonists’ fate for whomsoever finds this. I daren’t dishonor God by justifying my actions. I accept that my evil deeds are not absolved by good intentions. As for this and the other letters I have never sent, I will put them in a sturdy jug and entrust them to the heart of a nearby cave so that the stain of the council and my own sins will not dishonor those we hold most dear. I trust in God to allow their discovery when the time is proper.

As for me, I care little. I will strike out for the woods to await Nature’s justice. But first, I must carve a message on the large oak so Mr. White will know where to find the survivors.

Farewell,

Rose

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Fran Nadel is a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an emerging writer. She graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults in July 2020. 

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Mumler and the Widow

The history of all pioneers of new truths is relatively the same.  I showed them a beautiful truth; in their ignorance, bigotry, and blindness, they called me fraud.  Barnum called me fraud, a “humbug.”  When last was a man cleared by a court so vilified?

I insert the plate into the camera, my channel through which the spirit host shines. “Through a glass darkly,” St Paul writes, “but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  The glass plate brings the truth to our face.  The camera brings the truth, and that is why she comes and why they will mock me no longer.

The boards creak as I pace to the door.  For the fourth time and then the fifth, I peer down dim stairs though I know it is early.  I sit in the one chair I can afford, now, the one in front of the camera, and then I stand again and pace to the window, door, window.  Things had been different in New York, before the trial.

I check the camera again, ensuring I have inserted the right glass plate.  If I am wrong about “Mrs. Lindall” I will have to switch it, but I am not wrong.  And I can help her.

Slow footsteps echo in the stairwell.  I can help her, I think again as the black veil enters. The mourning dress is elegant; the newspapers always said she spared no expense.  She passes by me without a word and enters the studio, proceeding directly to the photograph on the table.  It shows Bronson Murray with his head bowed.  The spirit stands behind him, one hand on his shoulder, the other passing through the hairs on his cheek.  She holds him.  It is Ella Bonner; her husband, Robert, knew her immediately when he came in response to a letter, and he wept to see his deceased wife.  They often weep; they give thanks as they pay me.  I have taken many spirit photographs, but that one is among the finest.  I wonder what the widow thinks as she examines it.  I say nothing out of respect for what she’s endured, for her grief.  For who she is.  But at last, I must say something, and I must make sure I am right.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln.”

“I knew you would know.”  She does not turn, but she lifts the veil to get a better look at Mr. Murray and Mrs. Bonner.  I wait for some moments.  “How did you first connect to the spirit realm, Mr. Mumler?”

I have learned it is best to be open.  “It began as an accident, as a jest,” I say. “I was experimenting with my camera, developed a self-portrait, and saw it.  The form.  I assumed I erred somehow.  One day a gentleman visited me who I knew was a Spiritualist.  I was not at that time… inclined much to the spiritual belief.  I concluded to have a little fun.  My exact words were, ‘this picture was taken by myself when there was no visible person present but myself.’”

“And did you have a fine laugh, sir?”  She faces me now with the veil again drawn.  Her aspect and her voice are death-ridden.

I nearly falter, but I have told this tale many times. “The jest was on me.  That man told others what he had seen, and in about a week from that time, I received a paper from New York called the Herald of Progress reporting on my ‘great proof.’”

“And were you exhilarated?” my inquisitor interjects.  “Fearful?”

“I was mortified, ma’am.  My name in public print… At that time, you see, I thought the photograph to be a kind of misrepresentation…”

“When did you learn otherwise?  When did you believe, Mr. Mumler?”
I gaze at her obscured face.  She has come all this way for my gift, but she still needs me to confirm it.

“When I went to the gallery where my photographs were displayed.  A crowd of people waited, and one of them was a scientist from Cambridge, thoroughly acquainted with photography.  I told him what another man had told me, that I had not cleaned the glass sufficiently and that the spirit was merely an image from a previous exposure.  The scientist said no.  He said that might be possible, and even probable, in daguerrotyping, but not in my photograph.  Not on glass.”

“And you believed then?”

“Yes.”

“And now?”

“Yes.”

“How much then?”

Her questions are nothing if not efficient. “I ask ten dollars for a sitting, ma’am.”

“A pretty penny for a picture, but not beyond the means of a widow Congress finally saw fit to grant a pension.  Are there… guarantees?”

“I cannot control the spirits, Mrs. Lincoln.  I know only after it is developed.”

The black lace thinks.  Whether hesitating or hoping, I know not.

“Good,” she says.  “Am I to sit in this chair?”

I take a step to help her as a gentleman should, but she seats herself and, to my relief, lifts the veil.  Hers is a hard, suffering face.

“Just a few moments while I prepare, Mrs. Lincoln.”  She nods.

I open the camera and examine the plate yet again, confirming I have placed the correct one.  I look through the camera.  It is her. It must be perfect.  I visualize where the spirit might be.  Everything depends on its perfection.  The great truth.  The future of spirit photography.  My return to grace.

“Do you consider yourself a great man, Mr. Mumler?”

She has surprised me, but I bow my head with appropriate reverence.  “I am an instrument.”

“As are we all, Mr. Mumler.”  She looks to the window; I curse myself for not having scrubbed the grime, then remove the slide cover.  Nearly ready.  I examine the shot through the camera again.  She still looks away to the window.

“My husband was a great man.  But you know that.”

“He was, ma’am.”

“You all know that.  You think you know…”  Her hand moves to draw down the safety of the veil, but she glances at the camera and catches herself.  “He was destined for it.  It was God’s will he be taken in his country’s cause.  Do you know, when he was elected, what he said?  ‘Molly, Molly, we are elected.’  We are elected, he said.  For my life was predestined, too.  In Illinois Stephen Douglas, that small man, courted me before Abe did.  Did you know that?”

I realize she has asked me, and I shake my head.  I cannot fathom calling this woman Molly.  The scale of her life presses in upon me.

“When I refused Douglas, I told him, ‘I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.’  Oh, I knew, Mr. Mumler.  And I knew when I saw him.  People would never believe it now, but my husband danced.  Quite appallingly, but he danced.  Dear old James Conkling said he looked like old Father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what’s going on.  Abe approached me, bowed, and said he wanted to dance with me in the worst way.  I told him he did dance in the worst way.”

She laughs, so briefly I wonder if my ears have deceived me.  I would not have known she could still laugh.

“He was a good man.  He worried his income would disappoint me, coming from the family I did and living the life I did.  But Abe was worth more than all the houses and all the gold.  He was a man of mind with a hope and bright prospects, and a head for power.  He could never manage to wear socks that matched, but he had a nobleness of heart.  You have heard of my troubles, Mr. Mumler.”

The abrupt turn jars me.  I feel my jaw hanging as she fixes her gaze on my wordless face.

“Do not dissemble, sir.  You have… everyone has.  Everyone with an ounce of education and the sense to find a newspaper has read of my impropriety.”  She has mercy—she releases me and looks back to my unclean window.  “It has been my hourly prayer that I might soon be removed from a world so filled with woe and bitterness. God has willed it otherwise.”

My jaw still hangs uselessly.  Those in grief have sought me.  For more than ten years I have given them comfort with my camera, and I have learned to comfort with my words.  But they were men and women, and now I stand in reach of something beyond them.  She is vast.  Implacable.

“I saw what they did to him, Mr. Mumler.  That angel of light.  I was there when he forgot to eat dinner, and when he stooped with exhaustion, when the war sapped him.  I knew what weighed on him.  I read the Bible to legless men in Washington’s hospitals and held their hands as they died, and I could see their souls in my Abe’s eyes.  And through it all, when the newspapers slandered me and his cabinet scorned me and our Willie left this world, that husband, in his great love and tenderness, would not allow the wind of Heaven to visit me too roughly. That, sir, is the man my husband was.  Do you know what is inscribed on this wedding band?”

She points at the ring on her finger, and her ferocity demands an answer, but I can say nothing.

“’Love is eternal.’  He is here, I know he is here, because love is eternal.  Now, you may take your picture, Mr. Mumler.”

I realize my hand still rests on the camera; I see my studio again and remember where we are.  I take a final look through the camera; having been photographed many times, she is still, and I need give her no reminders before uncovering the lens to admit light.

She will have a spirit photograph worthy of her pain. I prepared this plate more carefully than any in my career.  The subject was carefully chosen for height, nose and beard, and I exposed three different plates to ensure I had the best possible likeness and in case I spoiled one by cleaning too much.  But after twelve years, I know just how much and how little to clean that first exposure from the glass.

They call me fraud because they do not understand.  I do not fully understand, not after the trial.  I thought I did.

When I ran to that gallery twelve years ago, mortified at the publicity my jest had received, my Emma was there. We had never met before that day, but I heard her cry in her pretty voice, “Why, there is Mr. Mumler!” She would be my wife; I sensed it.  I confessed the secret to that Cambridge scientist because I could not deny them all.  He gave me the explanation, and the assembled crowd gave me conviction; Emma gave me conviction.  They called me an instrument, a divine instrument of the spiritual host. Could an error and a jest move these people so?  I knew what I had done. I also believed.  For in the end, what is truth?  We Spiritualists believe the unknown can be known, that we can reach the other side. Spirits inhabit Emma.  I have seen it.

Barnum called me humbug.  He exhibits nothing that does not give a man his money’s worth, he claimed.  Is ten dollars so much?  They would not believe less.

A fearful man asks, “Is this all of life?  Is there a hereafter?”  And as the years roll on, bringing him nearer to the solution of this great problem, the question becomes, to him, one of great moment.  The anchor to which he has been clinging for safety begins to drag; the advance of science demonstrates that the world was not made in a brief period, but has existed for innumerable ages, and where is he drifting?  Spiritualism comes to him like a beacon-light to the mariner.  And if he doubts this beautiful truth, he can turn to the photographs of William Mumler, for proof that there is more.  Truth, manifest.  Am I a fraud if it is real? I used to know…

“Are you quite finished, Mr. Mumler?”

I realize she is right, and she has sat still long after I had covered the lens. 

“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln.”

She eagerly pulls the veil over her face.  “When will it be ready?”

“You may pick it up in three days’ time.”

She whispers, “Was he here?”

“As I said earlier, I cannot—” The black lace arrests my voice.  I know what eyes it hides.  I cannot separate the plea and the demand in her whisper.  I cannot face that veil. I turn my attention to the camera and mumble, “There may have been something at your left shoulder.”

Movement pulls my eyes upward.  She holds that shoulder with both hands, tilts her head to it.  A minute or so later she stands and turns.  I might hear “Abe” once, but with her back to me, her words remain a murmured mystery. I feel I am lurking over a prayer. What prayer does one offer an idol whose children one has borne?  She continues murmuring over a quarter of an hour, shaking sometimes; I assume she weeps.  I feel him too.  He is with her.  He must be with her.  I dare not move lest I disturb them.
When I notice her turning I pretend to work with the camera.  “I will return in three days, Mr. Mumler.”  Her footsteps descend slowly.  The stairs labor her.

I pull the drape closed.  I place the plate in distilled water and prepare the bath of developing fluid.  The spirits need tending.

NOTES:
Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with Lincoln’s “spirit”: http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/digital/collection/p15155coll1/id/56

Mumler’s photograph of Bronson Murray and Ella Bonner: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/95748/william-h-mumler-bronson-murray-american-1862-1875/

Portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably “the winds of Heaven” line) adapted from letters published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association by Thomas F. Schwartz and Anne V. Shaughnessy in 1990, available at the University of Michigan website here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0011.105/–unpublished-mary-lincoln-letters?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Other portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably the Stephen Douglas refusal and the discussion of Lincoln’s dancing) adapted from “The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln” by Kimberly J. Largent at eHistory, available on the Ohio State University website here: https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-mary-todd-lincoln

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Ryan Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University.  He and his wife live in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs.  He has yet to see any of William Mumler’s photographs in person but has plans of seeing the Fox sisters’ séance table someday soon in nearby Rochester.

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Shunned

These children I love because they are children I love them.  This girl, this boy, a safe haven in a cottage in New Amsterdam in the year of our Lord, 1650, thirteen of us together under a thatched roof. We came by sloop along the coast and then down the South River, a five day journey, setting out in the dead of a cold October night, frost settled on our shoulders, huddled in the bow for warmth, our small bundles stashed under the malodorous pelts. A few undergarments, knitted socks, shawls, dried fruit, some wampum. At anchor every night we did not venture ashore. We had no bibles. I attempted a prayer as we embarked but had forgotten the words. As promised, the pilot had not demanded payment other than a kiss from each of the children, in the Dutch manner. I knew of the New Netherlanders’ warmth and I was grateful. There was no force as we faltered onto the boat or a child cried with cold, only comfort and kindness. I was stooped with wounds and could not sit upright on the wooden bench. A knotted whipping rope had cut my flesh and put me to suffering. My servant had prepared a poultice which I wore strapped to my chest and back. Much had I learned from her those years in Plymouth colony.

That night of my escape, the owls cooed, then sunrise. I looked up and there it was: the blue canopy of Heaven.

                                                         ***

In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end, Elizabeth had told me. It was the name I had given her the day she was baptized. We had traded tongues and she spoke English with ease. I studied her alphabet but could not construct her language adeptly. Still, I understood most of what she said to me. She loved the children as much as I, but could not travel with us to the land beyond the Fresh River, she said. Her own band would welcome her return after our departure. She led the way and then we parted.

One night, in the plotting time, she had led me into the dismal swamp beyond the palisades to meet the sachem. Thankfully, he remembered me well. He understood my plight and blessed me with a deep- throated song. We smoked a pipe. He knew a pilot, he said, a former privateer. Dutch in origin, he traded goods and guns for fur with all the tribes and then sold them to the whites—French, English, Dutch. His allegiance was to himself alone and to peace among our peoples.

                                               ***

 We were on the ship crossing the vast and furious ocean—saints, sinners, strangers, adventurers, pilgrims. Subdued by hunger and illness, storms, the shift in seasons, spring to summer. Even our holy men became demented.

I said to my parents, Where is my gift?  They had missed my tenth birthday. My beloved mother’s wound had not healed. There was a physician on board, but no leeches. Rotting flesh stenched the cabin. Our hammocks groaned.

We had boarded a smaller ship in Leiden where I was born. There were no good-byes or celebrations. Our community traveled as one whenever possible. Only the old and frail remained.

I had never seen the land of my ancestors until we approached the white cliffs where a larger ship was waiting for us. At anchor, broadside, we shifted from one to the other, never laying feet on our English mother’s soil. We set sail in the morning at high tide.

But let us talk no more of old things, my parents had  always said. Let us dis-remember the harsh crossing, they might have said, the expectations, soon disappointed, of wondrous landfall in the new world, the sailors’ landfall cry, like a gull’s, watery graves, the joyous spouting whales as fermented bodies slipped gently out of their linen wraps onto the slanted plank and into the deep beyond.

The land was wooded to the brink of the sea. Strange creatures with painted faces and feathers in their hair, their upper bodies slick with grease, rode toward us in a fleet of narrow boats. In the stern of each vessel were men in floppy hats. Their once-pale skins were weather-worn and brown. Their clothes were dusty. Sticks held their vests in place instead of buttons.

Do not be alarmed, someone shouted from below.

They came aboard. They smelled like bear or deer.

                                                  ***

So, child, Constance said, my first night in the colony. I was not the only orphan—there were five of us arrived that day—but she addressed us all as child, individually, standing us in a line in the middle of the log cabin.

You will stay here in this long house. This is your bed. This is your hook. Here is a bible to keepsake under your pillow. Say your prayers morning and night. The water buckets are there. Lucy will show you the outhouse and how to use it. The earth floor is damp, keep your boots on at all times. If you awake itching, let us know, and we will sweat the lice. I am your orphan mistress.

In Leiden my room had wooden floors, large windows, curtains. The voyage had obliterated all such comforts. Now there were twenty beds side by side with only a stretch of arm between them, no windows, a hole in the rounded roof to vent the fire’s smoke. It was to become my task to stoke it as I was one of the larger orphans.

Did I feel sad? Was I reflective? Did I comprehend where I was? What had befallen me? Was God, as I understood Him, protecting me, guiding me, as the holy men always promised? I had no answer to these questions. And, in that moment, I missed my parents and siblings, all dead. Without a likeness of them in my satchel, I could not conjure their image. I was not alone, there were many others, but I felt alone.  Children, once so sweet, once so loved and loving, we had arrived lost and miserable, and only had each other.

***

I was not accustomed to constant prayer. My parents were observant but not devout. This they had hidden from the elders and from me else they would not have been selected for the journey; they would have been cast out. So it was a surprise to me that so many in the colony were absorbed in prayer and injunctions. They had odd ideas about child rearing as a consequence. We were schooled in the mornings by Constance and Lucy, orphans themselves, and then set to work tidying our cabin, the outhouse and the grounds. Before supper, we went to the chapel to pray. Hunger gnawed at us as we were force-fed the scriptures. I resisted the commentaries; they made no sense to me. As for play, it was forbidden unless the game strengthened our bodies or our minds, and those only for a limited time every day. I had carried my collection of marbles with me and offered them to the other children, but they were soon confiscated. I was chastised for being frivolous. Indeed, chastisement was common currency in the colony.

                                                            ***

That man I loved because he was a good man of sweet and pleasant countenance I loved him. His skin was the color of brass and he was comely to behold, very graceful and well formed with long black hair and well mannered. Others in the colony described him as tall, straight, muscular and well-proportioned, all this was true. He was not obese, neither was he deformed in any way. His cheekbones were high and prominent, the amber eyes widely separated, his white teeth gleaming and none were missing. His skin was shiny with fish oil or eagle fat, the odor at times disturbing. The bright red markings on his high forehead, temples and cheeks were meticulously rendered. I could not take my eyes away and plotted an encounter whenever possible. And then, one day, I met him in the strawberry field at dusk. We filled baskets and spoke in our hybrid tongue, English and Wampanoag words commingled. We had much else in common. He was always alone and so was I, the basket beside him his only companion. We lay down together in the furrow between the plants. Night fell over us.

Constance said, “What have you done, child?”

And I replied: “Ours is a most strict and sacred bond.”

And she said:  “That is the way we speak of God. Gabrielle, I beseech you, look up to Heaven to quiet your spirit.”

That night I prayed. I had heard a profound sermon and prayed the sermon, prayed that it would sanctify me and guide me: We are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners, most properly, having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle; our dwelling is but a wandering and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens.

                                                ***.

Make no mistake, dear reader, no transgression in Plymouth colony was ever really set right. Far away now, I see the colony in my mind’s eye. Most of the original houses are wrecked and overgrown with grass and weeds. There is hardly any light except the shadowy, softly moving glow of departing sloops across the Inland Sound. How did this land appear to English sailors’ eyes, to the first pale-faced settlers? Its stolen trees, the trees that had made way for our houses and crops, had once answered only to others. And these others had become our friends and then, predictably, our enemies. I contemplated this fate and rejected it. In the vast obscurity of the receding woodland, a different future rolled out before me.

***

Reason rarely prevails in love, war, or religious revelation. There was an enterprise laid plain by the imperial nations, the rape of virgin continents. The priests were as brutal and greedy as the investors; once they arrived, the land became their greatest temptation. There was no respite from the violent ambience of those times, not even for a young orphan who spent her days in the garden or the nursery tending and nurturing. To my knowledge, only Catholic nuns led a secure, peaceful, contemplative life sequestered in their nunneries. But the history of that church also sickened me.        

Vines everywhere, cherry trees, plum trees, and many others which we knew not on the other side of the world; many kinds of herbs, we found in winter, strawberries innumerable, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brook-lime liver-wort, water-cresses, mint, great store of leeks, and onions, the best water that ever we drunk ( beer abandoned as daily liquid) and the brooks full of fish. Such bounty softens the soul. My lover encouraged me to bathe in all seasons, running water or frozen stream. In many ways, he cleansed me. Return to the putrid settlement was a shock, more so in the confines of the chapel where garments were stiffened with mud, urine and excrement. The dirt floor was dusted with cow’s blood and sawdust to absorb the release of human waste underfoot. I devised an antidote: small bouquets of herbs and flowers the Great Queen, twenty years gone, referred to as a nosegay. I considered my contribution useful.  I sowed and planted, made bouquets beyond my own use and distributed them to others. I became so expert in their creation that others in the colony dubbed me “Queen Tusse,” and the bouquets “ tussie mussies.” Unfortunately, I was not indifferent to this recognition; I flaunted it.

                                                       ***

He was of the snipe clan and resembled that marsh bird in its entirety—long limbed, fleet, alert, industrious and helpful to his own people and to mine. And it is strange to possess those in the colony in that way, to voice “mine.” Apart from the children in my care I had no sense of  belonging. My lover. That is correct. My lover. After a harsh winter and many deaths, he was sent to us as an emissary of good fortune and good will. At first, we called to him by his nickname, Bird, a translation of his native name, too difficult to pronounce. His attention to our well-being never faltered. If a house was felled in a storm, he righted it, or built a stronger shelter nearby. He dug the fields and harvested crops. He fed the swine and kept the coops clean. He never expected recompense and when wampum was left on the transom of his house, he returned it. Was he a saint? Was he an angel? That was the extent of our biblical mythology to explain his seemingly selfless actions.

And so he was intertwined in our daily lives from the time he was twelve moons or so. This was how he described his age, in lunar years, as signified by the markings on a turtle’s back. 

***

We had set sail in a prosperous wind. The sloop moved hastily and we were not pursued. A good store of turkeys on shore and dried fruit and fish on board provided sustenance. We had casks of fresh water. The captain remained constant in his kindness yet I was shy of him, distracted by my sorrow. As the children were sleeping,  mine eyes were weeping.

***

My lover’s English name was William. It was I who named him after the great bard as his speech was equally poetical. And he called me Of the Sea in his language because of my green eyes and the manner in which I had surfaced into his world.

For as the sun is daily new and old

He is my love still telling what is told.                

Sonnet 76, dear reader.

                                                ***

“This is a love crush,”  Constance said. “End it before you are discovered.”

                                                ***

Once I took him to our chapel to pray his own prayers between the whitewashed walls. Devoid of any ornament, their very austerity was threatening, and he left before the sermon was over. He had nothing to say about the Englishman’s chapel when next we met, or ever after, but I saw it most clearly through his eyes for the first time: the hard battle-ready pews, the naked dirt floors, the stern pulpit and our preacher in his somber black robe. “These heathens among us,” he began. There were perhaps ten natives in the congregation that day seated in the back pews. In truth, they had never been among us and never would be in Plymouth Colony.

***

“We are the chosen people divinely anointed,” Constance told me that day.

“Why then are we deprived of all pleasure?” I asked.

Outside the lush landscape beckoned to me. This land I loved because of its fecundity, I loved it.

***

“Where do you keep?” I asked William one day. But he did not understand the word “keep.” I was curious to witness his dwelling. Where did he reside when he left our fields to return to the forest?

For many moons he refused to take me there. His reluctance referred to my safety alone and the integrity of the treaty between our tribes. My defiance worried him greatly as his foresight and wisdom were larger than my own. But after much badgering, he led me to his weetu beyond the first swamp. It was one of several of varying sizes, a small village. Each house had a vegetable patch in front or back or to the side, capturing the sun’s angle. His own was not very large as he shared it only with his widowed mother. It was extremely clean and tidy. We sat cross legged on the matted floor and ate and spoke.  My stomach swelled, I knew I was with child.

Perhaps my life would have been different if I had remained in William’s weetu that day. I wanted to stay, most assuredly, but William insisted otherwise.

                                                   ***

Soon enough, I was called to account in front of the elders. They demanded full disclosure of my sinning, where it had transpired and with whom. Their accusations against me were predictable. Had I been raped by one of the recently arrived lustful young strangers? Or been tempted by him? If I had been raped against my will, I need only point to the perpetrator and I would be saved.

“There is no perpetrator,” I said.

It was Constance who betrayed me. The ferocity of the elders’ interrogations was too great for her fragility. “No doubt William is a spy,” she said, “and Gabrielle complicit in his deception.”

The next morning, my lover’s head was on a pike outside the palisade.

                                                 ***

My punishment was shunning. No one was permitted to speak to me or of me.  Only Elizabeth remained steadfast and courageous on my behalf.

                                                ***

And so I left Plymouth Colony behind. I knew that the Dutch colony—its houses, taverns, and shops—would  in some respects resemble Leiden. I knew the language ; it had always doubled with the English tongue. We would be welcome in a safe haven as our families had been so many years ago when they fled from England to The Netherlands. We would not be shunned or punished.

We were taken at once to the  Beverwijck Orphanage, the orphanmaster, Johan, in attendance. The house was far from the landing, north into the growing fields overlooking the river. We traveled by horse and cart over Beaver’s Path, a rough road carved out of forest and fields. Children ran freely everywhere and the streets and hillocks echoed with their laughter and play. I was reminded of my own happy childhood in Leiden and collapsed into a contentment I had not known in many months. Even the elders of the Dutch Church were amiable in a gruff, wry way.  I was with child out of wedlock and therefore required guidance and protection, they said.  And what did they mean by this?  That though I was no longer young, I was still in many ways innocent. I had little education beyond the scriptures and there was more, so much more, for a woman to learn. Had I read Spinoza? Had I read Descartes, committed the verse of Shakespeare to memory? No, I had not.

And so the schoolhouse became my cathedral.

                                          ***

My son and my daughter were born in November under clear, cool skies. The stars were propitious, Venus ascendant.  My waters broke at dawn as I was sweeping the flagstone porch. I was calm. I woke Johan and he sent for the midwife. Soon all the orphans were up and about, drawing water, preparing the birthing chair and the bed with fresh linens for lying-in, holding my hand, walking me in the garden as distraction from the labor. And what an apt word that is for woman’s work. It took twelve hours to release my children into the world.

***

Non anse, a sucking child.  Muckquachuckquemese, a little boy. Squasese, a little girl.  Tackqiuwock, twins. Dear William, please forgive me. I will, for convenience, give our children English names: John after Johan, the gentle orphanmaster here, and Ariel for our spritely little girl.

                                                ***

The children required a new teacher. I was unschooled and had argued this often. I reiterated what the church elders had said to me. I did not know enough to educate others. But my master did not heed my argument. I became a teacher.

                                      ***

In New Netherland, the weather was hotter in August and September than in Plymouth colony and fevers more prevalent. Its influence upon all of us, animal and vegetable, are worthy of notice as I write. Moschetoes abounded, as always in sickly seasons; grasshoppers covered the ground, worse when the weather cooled and then heated again in late autumn. Death turned every corner, day and night, and took the youngest children away most quickly. The appearance of a white frost as the leaves began to turn was most welcome. Its effects upon the fever were obvious and general. It declined, in every part of the colony. 

***

And so the next ten years passed  peacefully without molestation for my transgressions or that of others. Only scoundrels and thieves were punished in New Amsterdam. Those that survived the epidemics grew old together. I was not coerced in my religion. The children were schooled properly. The wars with the tribes subsided; soldiers and Lenape entered the colony again with their families, their skills, their herbs and corn, their hand-crafted baskets and clothes, their wisdom. The markets expanded to include more traders and the slavers multiplied. And though the colony became rougher because of them, and the taverns bawdier, this did not affect the contentedness of our daily lives. Representatives from New England met with representatives from New Amsterdam and there was peace between our colonies. Ships arrived from Brazil with refugees from the Inquisition. There were now Jews in the colony, Germans, Swedes, and many other nationalities, all living together, working together and marrying one another. It was not a life I could have foreseen in my youth in Plymouth colony with its cold, constricted opinions of right and wrong, its  unbendingness.

When the English took over the colony they assured everyone we would not be molested, that we could work and live together as one. Their prognostication was well-meaning, but also conditional. Everything was dependent on our will which, long ago, I had learned was both wavering and corrupt. A man’s greed is like a mirror that swallows its own tongue.

______________________________________________________________________________

Carol Bergman’s articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Salon.com. Her essay, “Objects of Desire,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize; her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines. She is the author of biographies of Mae West and Sidney Poitier, a memoir, Searching for Fritzi,  and two books of novellas, Sitting for Klimt and Water Baby, two novels, Say Nothing and What Returns to Us and The Nomads Trilogy, a collection of flash fiction. She compiled and edited Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, nominated for Columbia University’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She lives in New Paltz, NY and teaches writing at New York University.

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The Fall of Kiev

Turrets atop the Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi railway station were smoldering in the winter air. Engines of biplanes ripped overhead. A sick feeling that her movements are being tracked by artillery fire. The early fighting has left the steel of the bombarded rails in shreds like coiled zippers. The few armored vehicles like tattered dinosaur carcasses struck by ferocious, antediluvian lightning.

“Government reports are calling us ‘heroes,’” says her brother in English, their preferred language since a childhood of English governesses, and before their father, prominent member of the Directorate, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

She surveys in the hall the hungry Ukrainian People’s Army volunteer soldiers coughing and wheezing, their mad eyes black without sleep. January freeze on their spines too numb to fear. Lenin had sent the Red Army across the border to back the insurgents, vowing not to pardon any captured volunteer. “They’re saying they’ll never let anyone take our land,” she says.

Every surface not pulverized had been pierced by bullets and shrapnel, every pane of glass blown out. Those without multiple wounds from the first attack on the station had ignored the ultimatum issued by the Bolsheviks to withdraw. There was optimism after a government counterattack had driven the invaders to the far side of the outer tracks. But on the second day of fighting, huddled up against concrete walls, they lost a large portion of the new terminal building.

Her brother lost count of the times he had run supplies and ammunition throughout the tunnel network connecting the rail yard and outbuildings to the new terminal. So accustomed to the constant gunfire ringing in the corridors, he hadn’t perceived its planned absence or his suddenly-audible footfalls. Fewer than twenty of the volunteers had remained holed up in the hall on the first floor when the second floor seemed to evaporate in the silence of their deaf ears. The ceiling came crushing down on them, the unheard sound of their bones crunching like someone biting down on huge ice cubes.

He darted back. Below the surging mass of smoke, little blue flames curled around splintered joists and cinder blocks. Muscle and bone there. Tendons and limbs. He began to dig in the rubble at the spot where bones of a wrist and fingers poked out, shattered and spiked like a broken umbrella. Its chest collapsed, a volunteer’s body emerged. Dead. Yet life there must be: the debris emitted buried, clarion wails. He was nearly deaf.

By luck, or by the extrasensory connection binding families, he unearthed his sister, the excavated lump’s left arm flopping down from her shoulder like a smashed wing. He carried her across a service road to a ditch. Lying there her skin and uniform blended with the dirty snow, and the blood trail from her ears was too small to give her away to the biplanes. When her eyes met her brother’s, she nodded, and in the space of a breath he was gone again.

Enemy cries and orders must have echoed in the corridor. A sudden commotion of shots pocked the buckling floor. He ran on. In the hall, human entrails seemed to bubble up from the rubble in the chaotic heat. Smell of burnt hair and charred skin among the chemical odor of construction materials in this satanic demolition. He dug maniacally, not feeling the skin tear away from his fingers or the nails crack off. He tossed aside armfuls of the muss. Cast off chunks of concrete revealed a torso, then a neck, then a head. Something not right with it.

He dug on in a lunatic’s rage, routing out a fairly whole human. No expression on its face to tell how long it had suffered. The deeper he reached, the hotter the inside of the mound became. As soon as he dug enough to clear an air passage for one, he went on searching for another. Afterwards, he heaved them out and willed them under gunfire to the ditch.

Ignoring the approaching attacker’s shots, he had made no association between jeopardizing his life and saving theirs. The last two he had dredged up and carried died. He went back again. Another body was laid alongside his sister, next to the others. The following one coughed up blood, went fish-gray, and expired halfway to safety. His sister watched as he, panting, set down the last volunteer twice before he made it back. Little hatchet heads of shrapnel buried in this last soldier’s chest. He was dead when the little brother eased him down to his rescued comrades.

A flurry of shells was flattening what remained of the new terminal building. An artillery unit and two armored personnel carriers were moving in. When he had risen to go back into the flying bullets, his sister rolled forward on her good side and wrapped herself around one of his bootlegs. For nearly five meters, he dragged the gnarled barnacle, until he was stayed by the only voice besides his mother’s that could have penetrated him: “Oleksander.”

“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, lifting his gaze to the station.

“Oleksander,” she rasped through a grating cough.

“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, without straining his ears at all.

“Brother, let it be,” she whispered, looking into his eyes, suddenly lacquered by tears.

Many of the volunteers Oleksander had dug up lived out their last hours in hellish pain. Some lasted years maimed, a few survived harmed. None forgot.

At dawn, Stalin, his cowcatcher mustache bristling with pride, hoisted a Russian SFSR flag above the wreckage. It flapped before a cold, colorless sun, greeting the fall of Kiev.

_______________________________________________________________________

Jeffrey Brodsky’s writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and Europe, including El Pais and Barcelona Metropolitan. He has an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam and lives in Barcelona. This is Jeffrey’s debut fiction publication. His brand-new Twitter account: @JeffreyBrodsky5

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In Love Rebound

Grand Oak Plantation, Northeastern Maryland Colony: 1665

Deep in a dream, Stephen laid his winning cards on the table in a London alehouse. As the cards left his hand, the table tipped; the cards slid onto the floor and into an engulfing sea. As he opened his eyes, his head was still swimming in a dream of seawater, and his knee ached. He hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for his last day as an indentured servant. 

He rolled over and looked toward the window. The shutters were closed, but pewter-colored light was leaking through the cracks. More rain, he thought glumly, watching the thin stream of water trickle from a bottom corner of the window to the floor. No matter how many times he’d tried to chink the corner with mud and straw, the window leaked every time it rained. There were only a few thin, rotting pieces of board beneath his corn husk mattress–not enough to defend his bed from a soaking when there was a hard rain. One night, awakened by thunder and lightning, he had dug a narrow trench to divert the water around his bed. He noticed with a little satisfaction that the rainwater was flowing in its channel toward the door, at least for now. 

Once awake, he could never lie still for long. He pulled on his trousers and the discarded coat that Susannah, the girl he had pledged to marry, had got from the laundry. He closed his eyes against the dizziness for a second or two, then planted his good leg onto the floor first to assist his bad knee. He’d gone along as a militia man to fight the Indians several years ago. He got a hatchet wound in his knee, but he had also been promised a small plot of land at the end of his indenture to reward his service. Dipping his fingers into the stream of water, he flicked some icy drops into his friend Thomas’s sun-browned face. 

“You wouldn’t want to be late,” he said grinning as Thomas jumped.

His grin faded as he ducked through the doorway, slapping a wool cap onto his wavy dark hair against the rain. He was remembering how Susie had left him last night, flushed red and shaking with desire, and run away back to the house. 

“You mustn’t try me so, Stephen,” she whispered, leaking tears onto his cheek before she slipped out of his arms.

Stephen would be free tomorrow, but she was still bound for two more years. They were desperate to marry–almost afraid to touch for fear he would get her with child. Her father Matthias, who was working off his own indenture as a carpenter, had asked permission for her to marry. Nothing had come of that request in six months.

Odd that he should dream of London, Stephen considered, just as he was to become a yeoman farmer, bound to his own land, here, and probably never to go back. The rolling sea of his dissolving dream now divided him from his family and friends forever. Better for all, then, he shrugged. In England, owning two hundred acres would have been impossible for such as him. His family was well-satisfied with his success, which the impossible distance enabled him to embellish a little in his letters.

Still, he had no particular love of farming, and with no tools of his own, he would depend on the favors of his overseer George Cresswell and the plantation owner, Master Tomlinsen, just as before. Although Stephen’s assigned plot had looked like paradise when Stephen and Susannah gazed at it together through their dreams, he had learned enough about farming to know it was a poor piece of property. He did not confess this to Susannah.

He forced his stiff knee into a brisk dash across the open paddock and slipped under the eaves of the livestock barn, casting a longing look into the warmth and lantern light there. The streaming rain reminded him of how boggy his acres were on the creekside. It would flood again in the spring. 

With a quick look around, he circled to the haypile in back of the barn and thrust his toe just under the pile until he felt the solid iron of the kettle he had found sitting empty by the spring and hidden to take to his homestead later. Satisfied, he moved on, adjusting his trousers as if he’d been relieving himself when two other workers came in sight.

He was to go straight to the tobacco barn this morning, but he didn’t, even though it was already near dawn. Everyone looked the other way as usual when he stopped by the laundry for a quick kiss and an exchange of the day’s luck with Susannah. 

“Look under the haypile in back of the barn,” he whispered into the muslin cap covering her honey-colored hair.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she whispered back.

“No fault of yours, sweet. Have you seen your father, yet?”

“They had me hauling linens down at first light. He was feeling poorly yesterday.”

They dared not linger and risk annoying their accomplices in the laundry. But he could detour by the carpentry shed to see her father Matthias, he decided. 

One of the other laundry girls passed by with a knowing smirk. 

“You have a merry smile. It becomes you well,” Stephen said to her, hoping his insincere flattery seemed genuine so she might feel kindly disposed to Susannah if they needed a favor.

The newest bondsman was coming towards him, straining under a load of wet, blackened wood. Stephen leaned in confidentially.

“There’s a pile of dry split wood under the porch steps if you’re short on what you need,” Stephen murmured. “I’ll help you replace it tonight.” 

And I might have to miss my supper to do it, he thought. My last as a bondsman. But Susannah is still bound. We depend on the goodwill of these fellows.

He was headed towards the carpentry shed to check on Matthias when another  servant, his friend Charles, went by with an axe and a mallet, looking fierce enough to use them on somebody.

“That madman Cresswell has us out mending fence in this!” he said indignantly. “And you’d best be quick over to the tobacco barn, or you’ll be celebrating your last day in the mudbath with the rest of us.”

 Since Stephen would be growing his own crop next year, Cresswell had agreed to show him how to check the curing tobacco for mold and choose which plants were ready to be laid carefully over the floor of the tobacco barn for further aging.  He was hoping Cresswell would send him off with the gift of a tobacco knife of his own. He’d only been allowed to work in the fields before, but he needed to know what to do with the stuff if he did manage to grow it. And he might need Cresswell’s help to get his crop sold and shipped. 

In the barn, he tried to concentrate on the difference between variations in the mottled greens and browns of the curing leaf and splotches of developing mold. The mold was supposed to be darker, but everything was nearly colorless in the dim light of the barn. He thought of Charles and his mates trying to grip slippery wet mallet handles in ankle deep mud, and willed his attention back to the less odious job of improving some English gentleman’s tobacco. 

At noonday dinner, ravenous after missing his breakfast porridge, Stephen gulped glasses of milk with his meat and bread, thankful that the shed workers were better fed than field hands. He folded a piece of pork into a slice of bread and put it in his pocket with a couple of  apples for Susannah’s father and walked over to the carpentry shed. He hadn’t yet kept his promise to check on the old man.

“Can’t stay but a minute,” he said to Matthias, who presented a gaunt gray face, almost the color of the wood dust that covered his clothes.  “Got to get back to work before Cresswell figures out I’m not just taking a piss.”

He held out the bread and meat. “Susie said you were feeling poorly.”

“I am. I’m right sick to my stomach, and I’ll tell ye why. Cresswell says he talked to the master himself, and Tomlinsen said no.”

“Even if Susannah’s not free, we can still marry,” Stephen said hastily, tamping down his dismay. 

“He said no to the marriage, too.”

“He can do that?” Stephen didn’t have to wait for the answer. He couldn’t enter into any contract himself without permission while he was bound, and neither could Susie. He knew that. But why did Tomlinson refuse?

“You didn’t tell Susie yet, did you?” Stephen was sure Matthias would put off telling such hard news. “Don’t fret about it. I’ll tell her tonight.”

As he turned to leave, Matthias reached for his arm. “Stephen?” The old man’s voice quavered. “Back of that pile of scrap iron by the forge? There’s a right passable axe-head. A little cracked, but it’ll stand sharpening and hold for a year or two. Fish it out and bring it to me like you’re havin’ it fixed for Cresswell, and I’ll put it to a handle and keep it close ‘til you can take it out to your place.” 

“I’ll need to chop a lot of firewood to warm my cold bed for two more years, Father,” Stephen answered without humor. “But thank you.” He was already moving toward the door, pulling up the collar of his coat against the rain.

He entered the tobacco barn pulsing with frustration and disappointment, but was soon attending to his tobacco lessons more closely than before, just to keep his mind off their dismal situation. As the afternoon shadows deepened and everyone got cross with hunger, Cresswell strode through the barn impatiently, barking orders to lay down piles of tobacco. First he would urge haste, and then, when they hastened, he cursed them for carelessness. 

Stephen’s eyes were burning with the strain. His arms and back ached with the effort of controlling his movements to lay bulky piles of tobacco leaf down as gently as babies into their cradles. He was too exhausted to think about his own future, about the consequences if his strength failed or he judged poorly. He wasn’t ready. 

Cresswell, eyes active in an idle body, leaned against the wall across from him. Stephen kept his hands busy and thought of Matthias’s well-intentioned gift of an axehead. He thought of the iron kettle and pot hook he had hidden in the haystack to help Susie feed them when they claimed their home together. We haven’t enough of our own yet, he thought, and now we can’t even have each other. I’ve nothing to bargain with but my labor, and no tools but those I can find here at Grand Oak. 

When it was definitely dark and time to leave off, he approached Cresswell and spoke to him in a carefully managed tone of deference. “This isn’t work a man can learn in a day or two,” he said, wondering if Cresswell even remembered that he was not bound to return to the barn tomorrow. His shoulders slumped and his eyes filled as he faced what must happen. It didn’t make him proud or happy, but he wasn’t prepared to walk four miles southeast to his homestead alone tomorrow and fend for himself with a makeshift axe. He looked around at the sturdy walls and racks of the drying shed he had helped build along with five other indentured men last winter. Cresswell stared at him and waited.

“You seem to need more helpers, Sir,” he said to Cresswell as respectfully as he could manage after being cursed and mocked all afternoon. He felt his face go red with embarrassment, but he soldiered on. 

“Maybe Master Tomlinsen would agree to renew my contract for another year. With more time, I could be of more use to you, Sir . . .”

Cresswell saw where he was going and stole the advantage. 

“You’d never be able to bring in a crop on your own, and you know it,” he crowed. “Come to the barn early tomorrow if you want your breakfast. I’ll speak to Tomlinson soon as I see him.” He turned abruptly and pointed. “These leaves you just laid down here are spoiled by the damp,” he added. “I’m surprised you didn’t see it.” 

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Shiela Pardee is a retired English instructor living in Oregon and dreaming her way back toward her family’s deep roots in the Delmarva Peninsula. She is working on a novel about settlers in the mid-Atlantic colonies.

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