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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.”

______________________________________________________________________________

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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.” 

___________________________________________________________________________

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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The Plain Man’s Portrait


It was a Saturday morning in late Autumn. Pale sunshine was burning off the last of the mist from the Thames, revealing the faint outlines of horses towing barges down river to London.

Closer by, a heron perched, neck craned, on the banks of the Long Water. It was being admired from a distance by his wife and daughters, who were out for a stroll in the palace grounds.

From the front courtyard he could hear a clatter of hooves and the voices of stewards shouting orders to deliverymen. Ambassadors from Vilnius would be visiting that evening. There would be a banquet and a pageant. They would be asking the Commonwealth to help in their war against Poland. The government had no intention to lend them its army or navy. Instead, it would send them off with warm words of encouragement.

Bulstrode Whitelock would see to all that – the man who had established himself as the regime’s master of diplomacy, etiquette and protocol.

And here was Whitelock now, asking him kindly to turn his eyes from the window to the artist, who was waiting behind his easel. He commanded one servant to adjust a sash across the sitter’s shoulder, and another to adjust the belt which held his sword and scabbard.

“These things are important,” Whitelock murmured, with a smile. “Even if a country has no king, it still must have a head of state. You should look the part.”

But what would be so wrong, the sitter thought, if England’s head of state were to dress in a plain, black suit? He still kept the one he had bought in 1640 for his first appearance in parliament.

“Made by an ill country tailor,” a fellow MP had said. But a black suit was right for any sober, honest man going about his daily business – more practical than scepters and cloaks of velvet. And the business of his office was to uphold the laws – as plain as that. Discard the fallacies of divine right and God’s anointed. In the new Commonwealth and Free State of Britain, government should be – for want of a better word – ordinary.

Plain clothes. Plain rule. Plain sustenance.

Whitelock had asked: should the Lord Protector’s wife be using the vast kitchens of Hampton Court to cook him up country food like fried eggs and black pudding? Surely, both the kitchens and the nation’s ruler deserved something finer?

He had eaten Whitelock’s idea of fine fare at state banquets. It was haute cuisine, the cookery drenched in wines and cream which was making a conquest of the courts and palaces of Europe. It was food the rich may eat but the poor may not. Plain food, on the other hand, unites us all. 

Looking back, things had been simpler for the regime – less compromised – in the year or two after Parliament had executed Charles Stuart. The newly-created Commonwealth had been the most hated country in Europe. Its ambassadors had been expelled. English goods had been impounded in foreign ports. Open season had been declared on English ships on the high seas.

Then, he had not had to submit himself to pomp and ceremony. His mind was occupied by one question only: where to take this revolution, which God had put into his hands?

A free church in a free state: that had been his answer. Whether you were a Baptist, a Presbytarian or a Fifth Monarchy Man, there was space for you in England’s new, broad church.

It was a church freed and cleansed of idolatry. Everyone could now take communion in pure and unadorned churches. Their stained-glass windows and ornaments had been smashed in acts of righteous vandalism by his troops, whenever they had moved into new, conquered territory.

But where had folk turned, given this freedom? Hundreds of thousands had joined the Quakers – George Fox’s Society of Friends – fascinated by his crazed visions, and how his followers talked in tongues when the felt the presence of the Lord.

It seemed that given the choice between plain truth and confusing, dizzying mystery, people preferred mystery every time.

Before the civil wars, he had heard labourers on his estate in East Anglia talk about the splendours of the former king – of how he was the richest ruler in Christendom, rode the mightiest chargers and lived in palaces of gold. It didn’t matter that they had never seen this splendour. The notion of it alone excited them.

They wanted their monarch to be magnificent, more than they wanted him to be just.

And as for him, now: how was he so very different, sitting for his portrait in flamboyant robes of state in Hampton Court, as monarchs had done before him?

He had an almost-royal seal for issuing decrees and an almost-royal title: “His Highness, the Lord Protector” – all outwards signs and symbols created by his lieutenants so that the Commonwealth could match the monarchy in dignity and, by extension, in legitimacy.

Now Whitelock was lingering at the door, a satisfied smile on his face. He told His Highness his carriage would be ready at midday for his usual ride around Shepherd’s Bush.

The sitter was left alone with the painter, who was holding his brush at arms-length to measure his features. How many times had this man knocked out portraits of other men of power? He would have known what he was meant to produce. No one was interested in how the man himself looked. What they wanted to see was power personified; power made flesh.

But surely this would be the final act of compromise – to sit complicit as his face was given the polished, cold hauteur of the kings who had preceded him? Generations to come would view his portrait, compare it with the line of tyrants he had overthrown, and see no difference between the two.

“A king in all but name.”

He slipped the robe of state from off his shoulders so that it fell to the floor, revealing the plain, russet coat he had worn as a cavalryman in the wars.

“I bid you,” he told the artist, “to paint me as I am – warts and all. Otherwise, I will never pay you a farthing for it.”

 He would explain it all to Whitelock when the ambassadors had left.

____________________________________________________________________________

Jeremy Howell is a British journalist working for the BBC in London. He lives in the historical village of Old Basing in Hampshire and is a member of the Westminster Writer’s Group.

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Miss Lucy: An Excerpt

October, 1878   

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Tennyson

1.

The first time he saw the ghost, Bram Stoker was hiding behind the safety curtain that hung neatly out of sight by the wooden proscenium, and which he himself had insisted be installed, at some expense, only a fortnight earlier—conscious, as any Acting Manager had to be, of the ever-present possibility of fire. Such catastrophic events swept across the London theatre world with distressing frequency, owing in most cases to the presence of filmy costume material left hanging near candles, the use of cheap, highly combustible greasepaint, and the current popularity for ever greater and more elaborate pyrotechnics than had been witnessed the season before. He himself had seen—only last month, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane—an entire parade of African slaves smeared head to foot in blacking, every mother’s son of them sporting lit torches as they cavorted beneath a slew of drapery meant to suggest palm trees. He had been nearly unable to remain in his box that night, eyes flicking over and again to the Drury’s exit while his brain pictured the sudden brightness that would no doubt appear as the paperboard sets began to catch. Next would come the shock of the players, some of them still delivering their lines; the well-dressed audience, uncertain at first whether this blazing spectacle, too, was only the latest in stage craft . . . then the stampede would begin . . .

In the end, he had managed to maintain his seat for the Drury show, but had accompanied his wife Florence into the damp evening afterward with a decided sense of having escaped a calamity whose outline they had already witnessed in full—with the exception, merely, of when it would unfold. And he had turned his steps, the next morning, toward the Lyceum with a renewed determination to leave nothing to chance.

Bram Stoker at thirty-one was a physical, redheaded presence on the London scene, broad in the chest, with a slow, sonorous voice, the precise opposite of what early life would have predicted. The childhood paralysis, never explained, lasted for years. So too did the great hunger that ravaged the island of his birth: before it was finished, over one million corpses littered the muddy fields, with an equal number emigrated to anywhere that would have them: to Boston, to Brisbane, to far-off Argentina. In New York, the Irish formed the bulk of the new poor, trading one species of suffering for another. Bram still remembered the brittle autumn when families first started appearing outside his sickroom window, shadow people that had fled the worst parts of the country on foot. In streams they gathered around the docking wall, foul rags begging food, begging passage on the ships.

Where are they going? he had askedMrs. Kirwan, the Catholic domestic who cared for him during that time. She herself lived through the worst part of the blight in Eaksey, where along with two of her sisters she had survived by creeping onto a landlord’s estate after dark, using a gentleman’s razor to cut the haunches of cattle and sucking the hot, vitamin-rich blood, a truth she will never tell. All those people?

            Whitechapel, most like.

            Why?

            An who can stay here, with the devil himself up and walking about?

Bram felt deep distress over the starving crowd and their suffering faces. The walkways of Clontarf were cobbled with stones that had been pulled from the fields to allow planting, and in the evenings the emigrants wandered them up and down. Some begged food, or blankets; some merely drifted, like leaves. The twilight road was haunted by their numbers.

Aren’t they afraid?

Hunger, child, Mrs. Kirwan had grimaced, closing up the blind. Hunger will make you do anything.

Most painful to him from that time of horrors, though, had been the total loss of his father’s affection; the goodnight kiss had never returned. But infirmity, once lifted from his shoulder, had been banished forever. One afternoon—had he been seven? eight?—he could abruptly feel three toes on his left foot. By season’s end, the paralysis had leached back out of his flesh as inexplicably as it appeared, and a young man took his first, wobbling steps on yellowed soles. In his teenage years he developed an athletic streak, as if in repudiation of all weakness. His limbs grew thick, his body massy. He began sporting a copious crimson beard. At Trinity, he took medals in hurdles, vaulting, long-distance walking, swim-meets, returning from the rugby field with blanched shins and heroically bleeding nostrils. Yet it was as if he had been rendered permanently invisible by the disease. Try as he might, the old man never stopped regarding him as something already dead.

It was only a year ago now (was it so little? yes, barely more than a year) that the second great miracle had occurred in Bram’s life, a miracle that, like the recovery of his ability to stand, had altered his prospects with the swiftness of a summer storm. Twelve months ago, he had been living in Ireland still, working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, both his personal and professional life for the next three decades as predictable as the setting on a table. Tonight, instead, he found himself here, at the noble Lyceum Theatre—found himself at the opening performance of Hamlet—found himself (was it even possible?) Acting Manager to the most powerful Shakespearean in a generation.

From his position behind the baize curtain, Bram could see the actor waiting, as the saying went, in the wings, head tilted low as if at prayer, so that his swept-back hair shone in silvery tints above the absolute blackness of his cloak. The man had his long librarian’s arms draped behind himself, fingers interlaced, listening to each line that preceded his own appearance onstage with the intensity of a chemist trying a metal for imperfections. It had been made quite clear in rehearsals that nothing would be permitted, this evening, short of excellence.

What, hath this thing appear’d again tonight?

I have seen . . . nothing!

Cautiously Bram eased himself another half-foot into the narrow gap between fire curtain and house, struck by the notion that he had seen something odd. It was an uncomfortable feeling. The demand that no element be amiss during Hamlet applied just as sharply to him as to any of the crew, and likely even more so, as he was an outsider both to the island and the profession, and it was in every sense incumbent upon him to prove himself.

Only a few yards away, their hush audible in the manner of full theatres, sat a capacity crowd of well-dressed Londoners. His searching eye could just make out the ground floor orchestra, the first dozen rows illuminated by stage lamps, with here and there a playgoer’s visage thrown into a garish relief. Above the ground, a wedge of the dress circle, likewise filled, and a small section of the mural that ran from the back wall to the head of the western stair. The Lyceum was old and of grand construction, yet hardly what purists might call a “concise” structure. There were little peculiarities in the way this theatre had been built, quirks that a casual eye would overlook, but that lent it a feeling of never quite being at right angles. Stairways came to abrupt conclusions, before the foot expected them; sounds could be heard emanating from unusual directions, or no direction at all. One of three major windows—Bram had discovered on examining the immense structure that had, almost overnight, become his responsibility—was a good eleven inches lower than its companions, a defect he had covered with a banner.

Owing to one of these awkwardnesses, at the top of the western staircase, between two rows of audience members but concealed from them, was formed a little containment called the “Nook of the Stair”: simple wasted space, like an abortive hallway, too stunted to serve any purpose. He remembered having fretted over it in the first weeks after arrival, finally deciding that it would not be possible (due to an unexpected curve in one side of the plastered wall, but not the other) to hang even a candelabra in the Nook. And it was in that confoundingly disordered space, not visible from any position but his own, that his eye stopped. For a moment, he was quite certain someone was standing there.

The figure was just past the point where deep shadows fell. It appeared to be a female, slight of build, and vaguely outlined in something white. Even from a distance, this person gave off a peculiar feeling of stillness, as if she had kept watch in this unwitnessed spot for a century already, and could do so for another, but at the same time there was an equally strong sense of activity—the motionless species one sometimes perceived in persons intently engaged in addressing some vexing, inward problem. The arms, shrouded to the wrists in that same white material, hung loosely at her sides. Bram could see an oval face, with its gleam of forehead surrounded by dark, unruly hair, and underneath it, catching lamplight, two eyes that were—he realized with a jump—looking in his direction. Then there was nothing.

It was only later, after the relief and celebrations of opening night were concluded, after red beefsteak and wine at the Plough and Harrow, after his employer had gone on for almost an hour over precise alterations to be made before tomorrow night’s performance (everything from costume details to a change in Fortinbras’ blocking), only after all that, in the quiet of his bedroom with Florence once more, the last minutes of October silent save for the cross-town carriages rattling through the fog, that Bram remembered the definite impression of someone—a woman, he had thought, in the grip of strong emotion?—standing, quite impossibly, in the shadow of the Nook; and, remembering his mother’s frightful stories on Hallowe’en night, wondered whether there were, in this world God had created, such actual things as ghosts.

And if there were, what any such creature should want of him.

____________________________________________________________________

William Orem’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, formerly given to Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Alice Munro. His second collection, Across the River, won the Texas Review Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in the Small Presses, and has been optioned for film. His second novel, Miss Lucy, won the Gival Press Novel Award. His first collection of poems, Our Purpose in Speaking, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize and was published by MSU Press, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. 

Meanwhile, his short plays have been performed around the country, winning both the Critics’ Prize and Audience Favorite Award at Durango Theatre Fest, and thrice being nominated for the prestigious Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. Details at williamorem.com.

Miss Lucy Copyright (c) 2019 by William Orem. By permission of Gival Press.

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The Perils of Bonaparte

August 18, 1812

Dearest Josephine,

Smolensk is hot, dusty and oppressive. Russian opposition was light, the bulk of their army withdrew as soon as they saw Prince Poniatowski’s uhlans put spurs to their mounts, there was some trifling action at the city walls, and Murat’s corps entered on the heels of the Vistula Legion having hardly smelled any smoke. The city is burned out, of course, and there is little food. We found a cauldron of groats in an intact corner of one building; a bit insipid but somewhat palatable.

In the distance, in the encampment of the Russian rear guard, Prince Bagration’s soldiers are singing something that to my ear clearly appears written by men who eat Russian groats all day. It is insipid and mildly nauseating, but in its own way melodic, and how can I ever again cringe at a musical piece after having heard the braying of Egyptian camels?

Onward, and–l’audace! Toujours l’audace!

Napoleon

* * * * *

September 7, 1812

Here at Borodino, the Russians are dug in and well equipped; their songs sound rather worse with full orchestration than sung a capella. Poor Caulaincourt keeled over of apoplexy almost immediately, and several of my officers appeared greenish around the gills, but then our men discharged their first musket salvo which drowned out the music in a most satisfactory manner, and thereafter reloaded their muskets with rapidity I had never before seen, or believed possible. I shall ascribe that to their finer musical sensibilities–or perhaps to olfactory ones, as the brimstone constituent of gunpowder smoke provided an effective anodyne for the odour of groats emanating from Russian dugouts.

I am told the songs are all written by a man named Ilya Krivoy. I have ordered him caught and shot. A la guerre comme a la guerre!

* * * * *

September 14, 1812

We arrived at Moscow in the evening. The only significant opposition came from a peasant wedding that spilled out of a church in Borisovka, a village just outside the city: these abominable songs accompanied by accordion and balalaika appear to hit the exact pitch required to set French teeth on edge; the sequences of notes repeated ad nauseam reminded one of being sliced in half with a two-handed saw, forever. Two hundred soldiers and three officers were sickened, but are expected to recover in a few weeks, and as soon as our cannon caught up, a dozen canister shot eliminated this annoyance.

I have announced a reward of ten roubles for capture of Krivoy, alive or dead. I intend to execute him publically. They have their songs and I have my smoothbores; we’ll see which has plus bang de son franc.

* * * * *

September 15, 1812

The fire of Moscow begins. We caught some 400 arsonists, all of whom sang as they set the city aflame. All claimed to be working under orders. I had them all shot, and buried in a forest. Let their friends wander about looking for them, a la recherche de tombes perdu.

* * * * *

October 18, 1812

It seems all the Russians left in Moscow are eating groats and singing songs. Is there no humanity left to them? I raised the reward for Krivoy to twenty roubles dead or one hundred roubles alive; a rouble nowadays buys either three tonnes of groats, or half a chicken. I spend much time plotting an appropriate demise for this Krivoy, assuming I buy the more expensive package of him. I also ordered summary executions on the spot for anyone caught singing, copying sheet music, or in possession of a balalaika, pour discourager les autres.

* * * * *

November 20, 1812

I have driven all remaining Russians from Moscow; it seemed the only way, short of shooting the lot, of stopping the excruciating vocalizations, each melody like a garrotte constricting around one’s unmentionables. I confiscated all their food, of course, except for the abominable groats; they protest, et j’agite mes partes intimes a leurs tantes.

* * * * *

November 21, 1812

QUEL HORREUR!

At night, Moscow is filled with wolves!

Howling wolves!

Wolves howling Krivoy’s songs in four part harmony!

Run away!

Sauve qui peut!

______________________________________________________________________________

Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published original and translated stories in Nature, F&SF, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.

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God’s Own Country

Toka, Yorkshire, Spring 1069

My hair flies in the wind as I gallop over thyme-scented turf.  The pony is muscular between my legs, its coat hairy and hot.  The sea shimmers on the horizon, sparkling blue fading to misty distance.  My soul sings; I gallop for joy, for love of this land, that those who live here name ‘God’s own country’ – Yorkshire.

Thundering hooves race up behind me, then overtake.  Raven’s angry face turns on me.  “Toka, what are you doing?” he demands.

“It’s spring,”  I sweep my arm at hedges foaming with blossom; lambs leaping over molehills; puffs of white cloud floating in a deep blue sky.  “Do you not feel it?”

His knitted brows relax a little.  “Yes, I feel it,” he admits.  “But have a care.  Your father lost his life when his horse stumbled.”

I see the fear in his eyes and am shamed.  From the moment Raven came to serve my Father as huscarl – hearth troops – I have loved him.  I love him for his sturdy stance.  I love him for his thoughtful silence before he answers questions.  I love his long fingers, tanned but with pink nails, that gently fondle his dog’s ears.  Now I know Raven loves me too, and we are betrothed.

But his fear returns the shadow to my heart.  He speaks true.  Father spent his life locked in deadly feud with the Earls of Bamburg.  But last winter he died, not by act of Man, but of God.  His tripping horse broke a leg; father broke his neck.

We buried Father, son of Thurbrand the great Hold of Holderness, beside my Mother.  Now Father’s lands are divided among me and my brothers.  My eldest brother, Karli, sits in Father’s Hall at Hunmanby.  I and my four other brothers all have lands.  I have twelve estates.  It is a good endowment, worthy of a descendant of the Hold.

But with our legacy comes Feud.  My brothers carry the weight of vigilance, ever watchful for a murderer.

We ride homewards to Karli’s hall, where I stay until I marry.  Small children hail us, waving, as we pass well-tended fields, ploughed and sowed and speckled with tender new shoots of wheat and barley.  The children shout and run and chase away the pigeons that would eat the crops.

We stop to drink at a spring.  Sparkling water plashes into a stony channel.  I drink deep, of water that tastes clean and green and fresh.  I pluck flowers from the hedge, place them by the spring in thanks.

We watch the horses drink.  “You will be safe when we marry,” says Raven.  “We will go and live on my lands in Lindsey, away across the Humber.”

His long, pink-tipped finger is soft as the breezes as he runs it down my cheek.  Gently, so gently, he touches my lips with his.  He tastes soft and sweet, hesitant.  I slip my hand behind his head and hold him close.

* * * * *

Karli gives a feast to celebrate the coming of summer.  Since last night, a team of boys have worked to turn a spit over the great central hearth, roasting a swine.  The fat drips into the fire and flares.  The boys challenge each other to turn the spit without tiring, jeering at the one who retires, rubbing his arm.  I fill jugs with armfuls of flowers from the hedges, and place them on the tables.  Edeva, Karli’s wife, laughs: “Men want jugs to hold ale, not flowers.”

Edeva speaks true, and when the villagers come to the feast, we refill the ale jugs over and over again.  The great hall, so quiet and empty without Father, comes alive with talk and laughter, bright with colourful clothes.

I, since Mother died, the Cupbearer in Hall, fill the great ceremonial drinking horn, the one edged with silver.  I present it to Karli, my brother.  Karli raises it.  The silver catches a shaft of shining through the smoke hole.  “Summer is come,” he cries, “Greet the days of thrice-milking!”  He drains the cup: everyone else cheers, the voices rolling around the Hall, filling it with life once more. 

The boys carve up the swine, passing the meat round on great wooden platters.  The Hall is quieter as folk eat. 

Gradually, as each belly is sated, the buzz of chatter grows louder.   Men pull dice from pockets.  Small boys melt into the corner and begin to wrestle.  Women gossip.  Dogs slink under the tables to gnaw bones.  Someone starts a song.  Raven’s fingers catch mine.  His touch is magical, setting my skin tingling.

Raven speaks.  “I hear William has come, and sets him men to build another castle in York.”

Karli leans forward.  He has the look of Father, tall with a great mane of thick fair hair, turning silver at the temples.  Like Father too, his heavy brows become each day more knitted, more furrowed.  “We go not to York.”

“Why not?” asks Raven.  “It is the greatest city in the Northern Lands.”

Karli’s brows knot deeper.  “The Bamburg kin frequent York.  We of the Hold mingle not with those of Bamberg.”

Raven’s brows are fine, dark, and mobile.  Now he raises them.  “But there are thousands of people in York.  In that crowd, the Bamburg kin would not find you.”

Karli shakes his head.  “Not so.  They have spies, watchers.  The Earls pursue us through the generations, ever since King Cnut ordered Grandfather to remove their rebellious Earl Uhtred.  Uhtred’s son killed Grandfather, despite that Grandfather was acting for the King.  Thus our father was obliged to take vengeance – and now the feud falls upon me and my kin.  We must be ever watchful.”

I hear Karli, but he cannot suppress my joy.  Father did not die by feud, and I have never seen a single one of the Bamburg kin.  Soon, I will marry Raven.  I look at him and smile.  “When we are married, please take me to see this great city.”

Karli’s little girl, Ingunn, climbs into my lap.  I sing her a child’s song, of a wandering poet who seeks a warm bed. “He finds his bed…” I tickle her armpit, “Here!”  Ingunn, two summers old, squeals and giggles.  Her mother glares, “Ingunn must learn to sit quiet, don’t excite her.”

Chastened, I nuzzle Ingunn’s silken hair under my chin, and whisper a challenge, “How long can we stay quiet?”

She turns big blue eyes to me, nods, and puts a thumb in her mouth.  I wrap my arms about her, soft and warm, and dream of my child – Raven’s child – to come.

She starts and almost tumbles off my lap at sudden harsh yells, clash of metal, and a great thud as armed men burst into the Hall. 

Karli leaps to his feet.

* * * * *

Osbert, Yorkshire, May 1069

The sound of scabbards slapping against our thighs echoes in the sudden silence as I follow Gilbert, my Liege Lord, into the Hall.  Red faced peasants gape as our men spread around the room, unsheathed swords glinting in the firelight.

A man at the top table, with the womanly long hair of these men of York, leaps to his feet.  “Who are you, to bring weapons into my Hall?”  He speaks grandly, but we answer by throwing his guards, bound and bleeding, at his feet.

The Hall is more fitted to a count than a common farmer.  The air is thick with food, the smells meat, of bread, and ale.  My stomach growls and clenches: we have been in the saddle for many hours.  But in this hall, over-fed English peasants idle, a gallery leads to private rooms upstairs, the walls are lined with thickly embroidered hangings.  There are even flowers on the tables, as if at a King’s banquet.

My Lord Gilbert eyes the long-haired man.  “I am Commander of the Garrison of York, for King William,” he announces.  “I am come to collect the tax of Karli, son of Karli.”

The long-haired man speaks, “I am Karli, son of Karli.  And I have paid my lawful tax.”

A young woman sits beside Karli, a child on her lap.  But the child is not hers: he breasts are full but tight, virginal.  Her skin is fresh with youth, her hair long and fair like Karli’s.  I guess she is the sister.  Blood rushes to my balls: she is ripe.

Karli continues, “But I pay no tribute.  Tribute is paid by the men of Wessex, that the Danes may leave them in peace.  Here in York, the Danes do not threaten us: they are our kin.  We pay no tribute.  We never have.”

We have heard this tale many times.  These men of York seem to believe they themselves choose what laws to follow.  “Danelaw, Danelaw,” they bleat.  “Given to us by King Cnut, renewed by King Edward.”

My attention wanders.  On a hanging behind Karli, an embroidered warrior plunges his sword into a great dark dragon.  The dragon sits upon a pile of yellow gold.  It is apt: we warriors are about to claim our rewards.

I, like many of us, live by my sword because I am a younger son.  As it is not the custom to divide inheritances, my father can offer me little.  Hence, my sword serves he who pays.  Duke William – now King William – promised rich rewards to those who followed him to England.  I am here for my share.

The child on the girl’s lap whimpers, and she passes it to another woman.  I finger my sword: the smells of meat and bread are making me hungry.

But I must bide my time, for from King William also flow heavenly rewards.  The Pope has blessed his mission, and the King is to rectify the lax English Church.  We are to teach Englishmen obedience to God’s laws – and to His authority on earth, the King.

We began by righting the injustice done to William.  He was, by blood and promise, heir to England.  But the faithless English passed the crown to a commoner, Harold Godwinson.  When William demanded his throne, Harold refused, saying the King could do nothing without the consent of the Witan– his counsel of wise men.  A feeble excuse: it is for a king to rule, not to seek consent.

That is why William was forced to raise an army, and how I, Osbert fitzOderic, came to be in this Hall on the Yorkshire Wolds, following Gilbert, who in turn follows his kinsman King William, who in turn follows God.

A drooling dog circles the roast pork.  I kick it.  It yelps and runs under the table.

Karli finishes speaking.

Gilbert sighs.  It has been a long day.  We are far from home.  But, we have our work to do.  Gilbert draws a weary breath and explains to Karli, “It is not for you to choose what laws you follow.  There is one law.  The king commands: you obey.  You have not paid what the King commands.  Therefore, your estate is forfeit.”

I exchange glances with my men.  We stand prepared, practiced, our weapons at the ready.  It is almost three years now since God made manifest His will.  Three years since Harold died at Hastings.  Three years since William was anointed King, by the laws of God and Man.

But still the English do not accept it.  For three years, we have marched across this Godless country, suppressing rebellion to the south, the west, the east, and now to the north.

The remains of the fire that roasted the meat heat the metal of my chainmail, threatening to roast me.  Sweat trickles down my back.

“Your estate,” clarifies Gilbert, “Is now mine.”  The finger that had rested peaceably on his pommel flickers.  It is the signal we have been waiting for.

We draw our swords and spread around the room.  The peasants draw together, shivering, their eyes locked onto our swords.  Swords rise: peasants shrink.  Some cross themselves.

The swords swipe and cleave roast pork.  Our men take bread from the tables.  Thus we demonstrate who is now master.  I keep my eyes on the peasants as I stuff meat into my mouth.

While the peasants stare at our feeding men, Gilbert says, “I have a proposal of advantage to you.”

Karli lifts an eyebrow.

“My man, Osbert, will marry your sister.”

The girl starts, turns to her brother.

Karli, foolish, asks, “Who is this Osbert?”

Gilbert beckons.  I stand beside him, throwing my hip to show the large amber jewel on the pommel of my sword.  It is valuable, a reward given to me by the King himself.  The girl is lucky to be marrying such a successful man. 

“Osbert fitzOderic, commander of knights,” Gilbert introduces me.

The marriage is the King’s will.  He wishes us to marry Englishwomen, that the two races under his jurisdiction be united.  Furthermore, many Englishwomen claim to own land.  As God does not countenance women to own property, they must be married, that their husbands may hold the land.

Gilbert selected this girl, an orphaned virgin, to be married.  It is alleged she owns twelve estates.

The girl shakes her head.  “I am betrothed.”

Gilbert speaks.  “Nevertheless, it will be so.”  He glances around at our men: they have finished eating.  He flickers his finger again.

The scent of lavender rises from strewing herbs as I and my band shepherd Karli and his family out.  As planned, Richard, our other knight commander remains in the hall with his band.  Their job is to control the peasants: land is worthless if there is no-one to work it.

Outside, the bright sun dazzles.  We surround the family, swords drawn.  Karli glares at Gilbert.  “This is illegal.  I shall seek justice.”  His hand goes for his sword – but we have taken that.  The woman now holding the child puts a hand on his arm.

Gilbert says quietly to me, “Get the girl.”

I take her arm.  It is firm, sleek.  She shakes me off.  My man Roderick is prepared – he binds her wrists.  I toss her over my shoulder.

She writhes like a fish out of water.  She kicks, screams, bites.  Scarlet drops of blood drip from her knuckles as she pummels my mail-coated shoulder.  She makes no impression.  Battle has hardened my body.

Her reluctance is of no account.  Queen Matilda herself rejected the King’s first suit.  Now she is an excellent wife.  This girl will be the same.

Her brother and his huscarl try to retrieve her.  My men’s swords point at their chests.  The huscarl is stupid: he fights.  Roderick swings his sword.  The huscarl crumples.

I take the girl to my new estate.

When we arrive, the reeve, the girl’s servant, thinks to free her.  The touch of my sword teaches him his new master.

My priest says the marriage rites.  Roderick witnesses.  I consummate the marriage.  All is legal.

* * * * *

The girl is stubborn.  I beat her, but still she fights.  She attempts to run away.  The peasants aid her.  I am forced to punish the peasants and lock up the girl.

But the land is good.  The wheat is tall, cattle fat, sheep thick with wool.  Well kept houses cluster round the Hall.  There is a wharf for shipping goods to market.  Gilbert has chosen well for me.

All I need now is an heir.

Toka

He’s here again.  I fight.  I claw his eyes.  I kick, writhe, scream.

I cannot use the word man for this thief, liar, bully.  The thug who carried me away to slavery.

He is scrawny with a moustache like a weasel and neck shaven like a thrall, but his weight crushes me.  Vomit rises up my gullet.  His hot breath suffocates.  Yellow nails like claws grip my thighs.  I twist and turn, trying to escape.  My body clamps tight to bar his way.  But he forces his way in.  I, like my lands, am invaded.

Nobody comes to see why I scream.  He leaves, locks the door.  I have no water to wash away the scraps of his flesh caught under my fingernails.

* * * * *

At last, my brothers come, with Raven and Danish soldiers.  They kill Osbert.

Raven says, “All men are united to free us from William – even the Bamburg kin have made peace with your brothers, to fight our common cause.”

Karli nods.  “Many families have been wronged.  All have sworn alliance to drive out these devils.”

Raven gives me bread.  “You are thin, Toka.”  Food sticks in my throat.

His eyes cloud with the same fear as when I galloped my pony.  “Please, eat.”  He strokes my hand.  I flinch.

Raven withdraws, his gentle eyes pained.

I weep.

“Time, Toka,” he says.  “Take time to recover.”

***

I feel the stirring of Osbert’s spawn.

It consumes me from inside.  I cannot feel.  I cannot speak.  I cannot eat.  I cannot sleep.

I am a dead soul, my body stolen.

I walk by the sea.  I like the sea.  It is empty.  Empty of pain.  Empty of men.

I am defiled.  Defiled by Osbert’s invasions.  Defiled by his progeny.

The sea is unsullied.

A wave runs over my feet.  Clean.  Refreshing.

I walk.  Cold sea flows between my legs, numbing the pain of Osbert’s attacks.

I walk.  Clean, cold sea rushes over my breast, sharpening my breath.

I walk.  The sea washes me, sweeps away the stink of Osbert.

I walk.  I open my mouth.  Come, clean sea, purge devil’s child.

I walk.  The sea rushes into my nose, eyes, face, over my head.  I welcome it, each wave erases pain, washes away evil.

I walk.

______________________________________________________________________________

Helen Johnson has roved around Yorkshire, England for twenty years, writing about the history, heritage, landscape and people of a region known as God’s own Country. She was inspired to write about the Norman Conquest of Yorkshire after learning how devastating it was for the area. You can discover more of Helen’s writings at her website, https://www.helenjohnsonyorkshirewriter.co.uk/

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