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The Magician

In early 1860s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.

Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah, but he owed his freedom to them. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle. Determined to never see a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people.

Shortly afterward, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. But being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. But, the amputation took place too late. The infection had spread throughout his body and killed him.

A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.

She raised Rachel on her own and had a red schoolhouse built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes were allowed to attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, leaving Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.

Though always courteous to the other townspeople, Miss Rachel was thought standoffish. She kept to herself and never displayed deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. Like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them right in the eye. Some folks said she acted that way because of her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder-length black hair. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.

Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. She was never seen with a suitor. Folks said you could set a pocket watch by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was some speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But in truth, they’d only sit in her parlor talking, their behavior and mannerisms having more in common with siblings than lovers.

It was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. After arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d always ask after Samuel. Once Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick.

As he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do magic. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced his technique until he mastered each trick. Mr. Bart then started buying special tricks from a shopkeeper in town to give to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d perform it with Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel serving as his audience.

Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one-room schoolhouse, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she had him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel began performing as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.

To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. They’d dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head with hardly a glance. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d put them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them beneath saddles to ensure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish.

At daybreak, on the day of a show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, his head would swivel left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleys.

Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Samuel kept his performance clothes and freeman papers in the saddlebags. A second set of the papers lay neatly folded in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.

As Toby and Samuel made their way into town, Samuel stopped for a moment in its center. After staring at the makeshift wooden scaffolding for hangings that would serve as the stage for his evening performance he continued on his way. When he reached the far end of town, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. While Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the saddlebags’ strap. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. Then he removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with some of the trough’s dark stagnant water. Next, he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. After drying himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, he slid on his good black trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. He slipped on his socks, then set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair. Then he brushed his thick kinky hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as it could.

With his toilet complete, Samuel started rehearsing. With the patter designed to disguise his feints and misdirection going through his mind, he started with close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. After crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into his fist and opened his hand, revealing an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in one hand, he jerked his wrist downward, and they reassembled into a single solid rope. The practicing continued until Samuel had successfully completed every trick intended to distract and confuse the audience, save two.

With the sun sinking in the sky, the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered. Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform carrying a lumpy canvas bag. As he set down the bag a hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Expecting their reaction, Samuel leaped down into the crowd and pulled a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch the show.

Retaking the stage, Samuel did one trick after another, building suspense while allowing brief interludes for applause. Once all the standard tricks had been completed, it was time for the finale. To begin, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men in the audience and asked them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This would be one of the two special tricks he never rehearsed.

With the crowd hooting, hollering, and laughing at the somewhat sheepishly looking men, Samuel knelt and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. Handing them to the men, he instructed them to bind him well. Children balanced on the tips of their toes and strained their necks to see as a grave quiet fell over the crowd.

The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body as tightly as they could, the chains digging into his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation. And when they were done with him, he asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body, and on thirty, he spun around. As the chains fell to the stage, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped down into the crowd. Hat extended, he accepted the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.

When everyone was gone, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He climbed aboard him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it. All was safe.

As Samuel crept further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. Drawing closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes. Many had beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. A few who regretted leaving behind loved ones or were unable to conquer their fear of the unknown relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. Others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.

With the decisions made, Samuel offered a pregnant woman a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing to an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel helped the old man onto Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom.

They moved under the cover of darkness in silence, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. Being stalwart Christians, the slave owners’ would only delay pursuing their property until Sunday morning church services had ended. Then the tracking hounds would be loosed. Noses to the ground, they’d scamper between the hooves of the horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways and recover what they deemed rightfully theirs.

Despite hiding by day and traveling only at night, the runaways were almost caught many times. It was at those moments that Samuel steadied his breath and prepared to do the secret trick he held in reserve, the illusion of making himself and those around him invisible.

For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through dense forests, tall grass fields and swiftly flowing streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. Finally, on the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst and their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.

“Samuel?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Ma’am.”

“Jim?”

“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”

“Good.”

Samuel crossed the room to the bed and bent his head down. Miss Rachel cupped his face between her frail hands and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the house, and to the old abandoned schoolhouse. There, they gave the knock code and Jim opened the door. He received a kiss from Miss Rachel, then stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.

“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”

The group of runaways crowded around her. One by one they each took her small hand in theirs and thanked her for rescuing them. Tears trickled down the old woman’s face, the conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.

______________________________________________________________

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.

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The Triumph

By  Nickolas Urpí 

 “Memento mori…”

Whispers slave whispers throngs bells jangling like the inconsistent shouts of the masses of people shouting “io triumphe io triumphe” purple purple purple burning of torches choking on smoke flooding nostrils incendiary

I had consented to let the soldiers burn the huts as they looted the thatched homes in the city as was customary of the time everyone always burns as is their right the right of the conquered is it not so?

“Of course it is so” I had said to myself with the slopping of boots across the muddied ground the same shouting bursting in my ears “There is no other way”

“Imperator! Imperator!” Calvinus the procession like a long snake winding its way up through the Forum heading directly to the Capitoline choking the streets the throngs of people shouting shouts shouts shouts repeat repeat repeat the hard cobblestones swallowing the noise the soldiers red glimmering bronze beaming like ten thousand suns painful to the eyes “To the Gauls came the torch, from the steps of his porch, the enemy was sprawled, by our general who’s bald!” reach for the top of my head, feel the empty spaces and the laurel wreath crinkling beneath my hot fingers in the sun the golden cloak at my feet and the studded sandals the laurel wreath adorning the son of Jupiter the red paint of Mars clinging to my face the red clay the statues of the heroes lining the procession, gilded and adorned with luscious paints brilliant colors dancing in the sun’s cascading lights—

“Memento mori…”

The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—

“Your father triumphed twice in his lifetime,” they had said. “Your grandfather fought alongside Quintus Fabius Maximus in repelling Hannibal. He died in Zama. Of course you will go to war and defeat numerous enemies,” they had said this, encircling me in the atrium of my own house, my bulla my childhood medallion that had felt so light I had never truly felt it feeling so weighty as it was removed from me the wax faces of my ancestors peering out at me from around the room “Of course you will”

“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”

The light from atop the Capitoline the sun’s fingers clinging to the Temple of Jupiter the greatest and best the greatest and best the shouts from the adoring crowd having earned their approbation and love and respect the way the ancestors had always done it the way of the ancestors the way of our fathers lining the streets watching the procession from atop their marble columns the fingers of their ambition poking the clouds Clavinus finding his name etched in stone across the way from his father my father the great Clavinus who took eight hundred prisoners had slain fifty thousand in battle brought back three million sesterces to the public coffers the great Calvinus who weareth the laurels of Jupiter atop his four horse chariot white as the day and pure as the light

“Memento mori…”

Fifty thousand slain the prisoners bound by hemp to the carriage which pulls them thus to their imminent death or saledeath their eyes shadow cast and downfallen beneath the banners “Here are the captured prisoners of war from Britain” prisoners of war war war war

They had lost. Our glinting steel dulled and bloodied—dried up in the hot sun and cold wind the panoramic vista of a fresh lake with the reeking of severed limbs and drowning corpses in the evening glare. The golden sunset had faded into the crimson settling of the glare lingering beyond the horizon’s threshold.

“The town lies just beyond the ridge. They would have evacuated by now. Shall I give the order to burn the houses?” he repeated to me. It seemed as though my tongue had been pinned to the roof of my mouth the way the spear had been driven into that man’s head and split his skull.

“That is what is always done,” I had replied to him. The smoke from the burning huts beyond that thin invisible veil that separates what is seen from what is unseen.

The smoke rose up and filled my nostrils again the procession winding its way around the city like the curdling of milk the prisoners watching their precious metals piled atop each other like their comrades’ burnt corpses the savoring taste of defeat’s bitter dust lingering on their tongues are they not men too? The reds and the purples washing the sea of crowds shouting and shouting How could I not have said “That is what is always done” for it was always done it was the way of the ancestors

the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and

the cheering and the shouting

Shouting “Calvinus!” my name the men marching onwards with their glimmering helmets the colossal monoliths of the ancestors peering down and gravely sending their approbation between the dying light of day and the ascension of the Capitoline rising before the heads of the four horses the smell of cypress trees congratula—

“Memento mori…”

the cypress boughs

“Your father would be proud if he could see you today,” they said as the dirt began to pile atop him beneath the marble slab which listed his achievements which I did not care to read as I had memorized them long ago against the death written on his face when he became a wax mask to hang next to grandfather. “You will of course be consul and follow in his footsteps and slay many foes.”

“Must I?” I had said.

“Of course you must,” they had replied in unison.

I must have then no choice in the matter it was expected it was the way of the ancestors then the smoke ripping and tearing the water from the ducts in my eyes running down the cheek and mingling with the redness of my painted faces Mars’ and mine faces the shouting and cheering mixed with the cries of anguish and death and the smell of burning burning burning

“Is that not what the old generals had done?” he had asked, his armor spattered with the boiling blood of a Gaul.

“Then I must,” I had said. Though perhaps I could—

No perhaps only way the ancestors had done the cheering throngs of crowd singing as the ancestors fell behind in the procession but continued to glare casting their shadow over the crowd and I musn’t the son of Jupiter the face of Mars the mighty conqueror of the barbaric west laid waste the enemies of the people of Rome Calvinus the magnif—

“Memento mori…”

I must I must I must the way of the ancestors there is no shame no shame no shame no shame the lingering redness of Mars across the battlefield night is falling hold onto the horses tighter the reins the army marching in red the crimson son the rock falling upwards cannot go upwards can it? No it cannot

“A wise man once said the rock can never be trained to move upwards, no matter how many times it has been thrown,” they had said to me when I still had my bulla.

“Why not?” I had asked.

“That is simply the way it is done,” they had said to me.

“But what if it wants to go up?” I had asked them.

“It does not matter what it wants—it cannot choose when everything tells it to fall down,” they had said to me. “Besides… a rock cannot want.”

“Let them have their pillage. I cannot stop them. I must let them do what is… as expected,” I said to him whilst my knees soaked in the freshly strewn lake lingering in the dying sun with fifty thousand lives extinguished before the second began to be counted.

“A marvelous victory.”

A marvelous victory resounding with the name Calvinus and the thoughts of shimmering gold armor adorning the triumphal column with his immortal visage atop it—

“Memento mori…”

The sheep was led up to the altars the knife in my hand gleaming like the sword of Mars hanging above us all perhaps there is no expectation

But their faces are looking at me, looking at me with the grave approval of the ancestors to place this knife into the neck of this beast perhaps there is a—but no—there is only the way of the ancestors I must I could not have

I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands

“There are fifty thousand dead and eight hundred prisoners still alive mostly women and children.” The camp sat upon the hill looking over the field, the rancid and pungent grotesqueness of death sifting through the night breezes.

“The men forgot to place a barricade around the camp,” I had said.

“But there are no more enem—… yes, imperator I will see to it that it is done,” he had said. “The town was burned to the ground, as you wanted, imperator.”

“As I wanted?” I had said. “But, of course, that is always done. I could not more avoid it than a lion change his roar.”

The night was drifting away again, the moonlight pale and condescending

Of course there was no alternative the choice was not mine the choice was not mine to make not mine no choice the way of the ancestors compel compel push push force force like a blacksmith’s hammer to anvil the rock must fall the rock must fall yes it always falls

“Memento mori…”

men are not rocks

______________________________________________________________

Nickolas Urpí is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in HCE Review literary journal, Soft Cartel magazine, Ripples in Space magazine, and The Fall Line magazine. His writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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The Child Pilgrim

By Lisette Merry

The Vikings’ blood lust continued. And when spring arrived in 852, King Aethelwulf decided that if he were to stem the tide of their raids, he must remain at home.

The King was deeply disappointed. For it meant, that for the time being at least, he would not be able to fulfil his lifetime ambition of making his own pilgrimage to Rome. And a pilgrimage would have to be made now. For it had become a diplomatic necessity. So if he could not go, who would he send in his stead?

The King sat alone in his chambers with the Abbot of Ferrieres’ letter in his hand, and contemplated this question. He considered, in turn, each of the thegns, warriors and eminent clergymen in his court. They were all loyal and pious men, and therefore suitable to represent him to Pope Leo IV.  But one, by one, he dismissed them all. For he believed that God wanted him to send someone of his own blood. And, as he searched his heart, God provided him with the answer to his question. It was his youngest son, four year old Prince Alfred.

The King put down the letter, and smiled. God’s answer did not surprise him, for Alfred despite his tender years was already wise. And not only wise …..What a phenomenal memory he had too! He had seen it for himself just two weeks before, when Alfred had recited the entire ‘Book of English Poems’ to him and his wife Osburh. The book was a favourite of Queen Osburh, and she had asked Alfred to learn it and then recite it to her.

King Aethelwulf closed his eyes and pictured the scene again in his ‘mind’s eye’….. When Alfred had arrived he had told them both that he had learned the poems by listening to his tutor recite each one. And, once he had heard the poem, he recited it back. In this way he had memorised all of them.  Alfred, he remembered, had then handed him the book, and he had silently read the poems as Alfred had recited them ….. He had been word perfect!  Osburh knew all of the poems by heart, and he remembered seeing tears of joy in her eyes as she witnessed Alfred’s accomplishment.

And there was more evidence of God’s work in the way that Alfred had thrived at court. ……Hadn’t he been so impressed by Alfred’s abilities that he had arranged for him to be at his side whilst he conducted his kingly duties?

The King knelt down and bowed his head in prayer. God be praised for these your blessings on my son Alfred.  Thy Will be done this day and always.  Amen.

                                                                            * * * * *

Early next morning King Aethelwulf summoned Lothart, his Frankish secretary, and instructed him to make all the necessary arrangements for Alfred’s pilgrimage.

It was customary for Kings to request permission to travel through another King’s lands, and after he had dismissed Lothart, King Aethelwulf wrote just such a letter to his ally, King Charles the Bald of Francia. In it he asked that Alfred’s presence was kept between themselves, so as not to attract unwanted attention. And when he received King Charles’ consent to his request, just a few days later, he allowed Alfred’s pilgrimage to proceed.   

 * * * * *

 Four year old Alfred stood on the ship’s deck and watched the sailors work. When they had finished, the crew lined up ready for Captain Eastelwelf inspection. As he completed it he nodded his approval, and ordered them to weigh anchor.

Alfred could not wait to be underway. What an adventure this is! He thought, as he gazed out across the water.     

Lothart stood beside him and followed his gaze, but he turned to look at Alfred as he suddenly exclaimed

 ‘Look Lothart! The sun beams are lighting the water and making the sea sparkle.’

 ‘Indeed they are, my lord.’

‘The sea is calm today.’ Alfred continued in a quieter voice. ‘It is a sign that God blesses our pilgrimage.’

‘Yes, my lord of that I have no doubt,’ he replied.

Whilst they had been talking the crew had cast off, and Alfred watched Captain Eastelwelf turning the ship’s wheel as the crew began to unfurl the sails. Now Alfred could feel the ship moving forward, and he clasped his hands together with excitement. My pilgrimage has begun! He thought

Alfred wanted to go to the bow of the ship, but he knew that would be unseemly, and so he forced himself to stay where he was, and instead, he looked across the deck at the men in his entourage. Alfred knew them all as ‘King’s men’ which meant they had all personally sworn their loyalty to his father…….. And here they are, standing together on the deck, dressed in their fine courtly vestments. They look a little out of place.  Alfred thought, and then he smiled. Probably as I do myself……

He looked at each man in turn. There was Aethel, his bodyguard, who was at this moment, thanking the sailor who was collecting his luggage to stow below deck. And as he watched more sailors arrived to collect luggage from the two men standing next to him, Aetheldrum, the King’s physician and Ceoloth, the eminent clergyman. And then Alfred saw more sailors come over to collect luggage from the rest of his entourage, who were seven high ranking court officials, and thegns of Wessex.

Captain Eastelwelf shouted orders to his crew, as he turned the ship’s wheel and brought the vessel ‘about’. With the manoeuvre completed, he then ordered the crew to pull in the sails and once the ship was moving forward he ordered them to ‘close haul’ the sails to increase the ship’s speed through the water.

With the wind and tide in his favour, Captain Eastelwelf made port at Etaples-sur-Mer, on the northern coast of France by early afternoon.

* * * * *

As soon as the ship dropped anchor, the pilgrims stepped confidently ashore. They gave thanks to God for their safe voyage, and afterwards Lothart went into the quayside market to purchase a pack mule to carry King Aethelwulf’s gifts. And when all was ready, the pilgrims set off along via francigena, towards their first place of rest, St Judoc. 

                                                                            * * * * *

It was Aethels who caught sight of him first, standing at the open door to the monastery. Aethels could not believe his eyes!  And he closed them for a moment and then opened them again, just to check…..but his eyes had not deceived him… it was Abbot Lupus. Straightaway he passed the word on to the others, and they talked excitedly amongst themselves in hushed voices about the renowned clergyman. As they drew closer, Abbot Lupus stepped outside with his arms outstretched to them in greeting. His welcome warmed their hearts, and it was not long before Alfred felt able to ask him if they could meet.

‘Of course, Prince Alfred,’ he replied. ‘We shall speak presently.’

‘Thank you, your eminence’ Alfred said. ‘I will ask Lothart to accompany me, if you are agreeable.’

‘Certainly,’ he replied.

                                                                          * * * * *

 In the letter he wrote to the King later that evening, Lothart reported all the events of that day. Lothart wrote that the meeting had been a ‘resounding success’, and that Abbot Lupus had been delighted by Alfred, and by the King’s gift of lead for the roof of his abbey, and so much so that he had blessed Alfred’s pilgrimage, the King and his people.   

 

                                                                         * * * * *

And the lead was just the first of many gifts that Alfred would present to the Church on his father’s behalf. King Aethelwulf was a pious and generous man. He had ordered that gifts were to be given to the abbot of each of the monasteries in which the pilgrims rested on their journey. His gifts were all magnificent gestures of his generosity. But even so, or so it seemed to Alfred, each gift appeared to be slightly grander than the last one had been.

However there was still a wonderful surprise gift awaiting them all. And not even Alfred could have predicted how magnificent King Aethelwulf’s gift would be for the last monastery they rested in at Pavia. The gift was a crucifix made of 24 carat gold, and it was decorated with four rubies the size of hen’s eggs. It stood as tall as Alfred, and when the time came for him to present it to the Abbot of the monastery, Rudolpho, Alfred had to ask Aethel and Lothart to help him lift it.  The Abbot was overwhelmed with joy when he received it, and when he found his voice, he blessed the King, his people, and Alfred’s pilgrimage.

                                                                       * * * * *

Alfred and Lothart stood side by side on the flat roof of the monastery where the pilgrims were resting. The monastery was built beside St Mary’s Church, in the Schola Saxonum district, and from their vantage point they had a wonderful view of Rome.  

The noon day sun beat down upon them. It was so hot, that Lothart had to take off his velvet hat, and they both had to shield their eyes from the glare as the sun’s rays lit the buildings clad in white marble all around them.   

Alfred thought about his father, and what he had told him. His father had been right, Alfred thought. Pope Leo IV was a man of great vision and ability. He had seen that now for himself. The evidence was everywhere. The Holy Father had repaired and replaced the marble cladding so that the buildings now ‘shone white’ in the sunlight again….And there was so much more…..Hadn’t he also restored the eighteen city gates to their former glory? And Alfred smiled as he remembered the magnificent gate through which he had entered Rome.  And here, before him now he could see the wall that Pope Leo IV had ordered to be constructed to enclose Vatican Hill.

                                                                     * * * * *

Alfred stared at St Peter’s Basilica. He was spell bound by its size and beauty. And the spell was only broken by a papal guard as he tapped him gently on the shoulder, and ushered him inside.

As Alfred walked behind the papal guard he took in every detail of the splendour of his surroundings…. Even when he saw the imposing figure of Pope Leo IV waiting to greet him, attired in his full papal vestments, Alfred was not overwhelmed. The Pope, for his part, was deeply impressed by the young Prince. He smiled at him as he approached, and he placed his hand on Alfred’s shoulder as they walked together to the altar. It was here that Alfred knelt before the Pope, and bowed his head as the Holy Father anointed him to confirm him. And Alfred remained kneeling as he announced to the congregation……

‘I will write to Prince Alfred’s father King Aethelwulf of Wessex, and inform him of all that has passed here today. I confirm that from this time forth Prince Alfred of Wessex, is by God’s Grace, my godson, and confirmed as a member of God’s Holy Church. I also appoint Prince Alfred a Consul of Rome.’ 

Lothart sat with the congregation and noted down everything. He would use his notes in the letter he would write to the King later that night.

                                                                    * * * * *

In the days that followed his audience with the Pope, Lothart escorted Alfred to all of the buildings in Rome that the Pope had recommended for Alfred to see. Lothart was fascinated by the size of Rome, and stunned by its magnificence, as was Alfred.

Every building brought new wonder, and when they first looked upon the Coliseum, Lothart had to hold his hand against his chin to stop his mouth from dropping open. And when he looked at Alfred’s reaction he found him staring at the Coliseum, with eyes that were wide with wonder. Lothart smiled, and looked back at the Coliseum, and there they stood in silence until Alfred found his voice, and said.

‘The building is so tall and wide…. Each stone is bigger than ten men standing shoulder to shoulder…It must be very heavy. How does the building stand?’

Lothart was impressed by Alfred’s perception.

‘The stones are held together with a substance called mortar, my lord.’  .

‘Do we use it in Wessex?’ Alfred asked.

‘We use it, yes, when we build with stone, my lord…. But we mainly build with timber,’ Lothart replied.

They toured the Vatican City, and the churches that the Pope had recommended. In each of them the priests proudly showed Alfred their church’s collection of Holy relics. Alfred was fascinated.

‘I shall collect relics,’ he told Lothart later. ‘For they are holy things that Jesus touched….and his Apostles too. They are in the Bible.’

‘Indeed my lord.

‘When I am grown I will ask the Holy Father if I might have some of them to keep by me always in Wessex. I hope he will agree.’  Alfred said.

‘I am sure he will my lord,’ replied Lothart, and he quickly brushed a tear from his eye, so moved was he by Alfred’s piety.

 * * * * *

Once they had completed their tour of Rome, Lothart gathered the pilgrims together for their journey home. And as soon as they had finished packing their belongings, they knelt and prayed together.

And their prayers were answered, for they arrived home safely in the early spring of 854, barely a year after their departure.

                                                                             * * * * *

King Aethelwulf, Queen Osburh, and their family gathered together with the king’s court for Easter that year at Wilton.  

With so many important individuals gathered together under one roof, King Aethelwulf took the opportunity to attend to his most pressing diplomatic duties. And therefore everyone soon knew of the diplomatic triumph that Alfred’s pilgrimage had been for the Royal House of Ecgberht. 

As soon as King Aethelwulf had completed his work, Queen Osburh went over to where Alfred was sitting and talked to him about his pilgrimage. Their lively conversation soon attracted the attention of the prestigious Ealderman Hereberht and Ealderman Wulfhere, who were landowners in Wiltshire, and they asked Queen Osburh if they might join their conversation.

‘Of course gentlemen,’ Queen Osburh replied, and soon they were also listening to Alfred’s fascinating recollections.  Alfred was delighted to see their eyes widen with amazement as he recounted in detail everything he had seen and done there. Alfred particularly enjoyed the moment when they sat in silent wonder as he repeated from memory everything that Pope Leo IV had said to him.

* * * * *

When the court gathered in the King and Queen’s presence later that evening, Ealdermen Hereberht and Wulfhere praised Prince Alfred, saying that they had both been encapsulated by his phenomenal memory of his pilgrimage.

The King’s court were soon agreed. The child Prince Alfred was exceptional, and he had clearly been chosen by God for greatness.

______________________________________________________________

Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. She has a number of favourite historical periods including the life and time of King Alfred the Great.  She lives in Kent, England with her husband.

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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

______________________________________________________________

Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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Pale Bird Woman

By Dennis Humphrey

Wehnd’kehto of the Fisted Foot scanned the foaming edge where the Great Water beat against the stony land. The gray wet of the sky spirits spread out upon the dark stones as well, falling from their home in the mists above, not heavy, as in the warm moons long ago, but in small, stinging drops, driven by the wind that touches frost. White birds turned and laughed their shrill derision above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” Wehnd’kehto  paid them little attention as he limped along on his gnarled foot. He knew their cries were meant to distract him. Sometimes, gifts waited at the water’s edge, placed by the Great Water himself, and the jealous birds wanted them for themselves. Other times flippered beasts dragged themselves from the water to bellow, and he could pierce one with his spear for meat and furs. This day, he did not know what to think of what he found.

He had been alone on his tiny, water-circled land for more round moons than he had fingers, since the day his people set him here upon these same stones. They drove him from the raft of logs at the stone points of their spears. They spoke no words. None were needed, and words were not to be used lightly. Not then. He cast a last look that asked if there were another way. He knew there was not. Since the raft had gone beyond seeing into the mists, he had seen no other people. He looked at his feet, one straight, one crooked. There, in the sodden earth between them was a track that was not his own. He tightened his grip around the shaft of the simple spear he had cut from a green sapling with the edge of a broken stone. His small, water-circled land had none of the stone that was good for chipping into spear points. His spear was tipped with a tooth from some beast of the sea, one of the gifts left by the Great Water at the foaming edge. It was as large and as sharp as any stone point. He breathed out, and his breath showed white as the wind bore it away, a small part of Wehnd’kehto’s spirit given to the wind and sky. For luck. He followed the tracks, leaning on spear as he would a walking staff as he limped toward a group of great stones that stood near the water.

As he neared, he heard a soft cry. He felt his hairs stand up off his skin beneath the furs he wore. Between the stones, out of the wind, he saw a woman, face down on the sand. He hobbled to her, rolled her over. Dark water plants tangled all around her. Her skin was as pale as a fish belly, her hair like the setting sun. He shuddered to touch them. She opened her eyes, and made as if to speak, but her words, barely a sigh, were as the talk of the white birds riding the air above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!

“Pale woman!” he said in the sacred tongue of his people. “Why do you cry with the tongue of the birds?” These few words were an extravagance, and in the dark recesses of his mind, his shadow self cowered, expecting reprisal from the wind spirits. But it had been long since he had last spoke any words at all. So long.

The woman brought one hand to his bearded face. “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” she sighed again. Though her tongue spoke only to the birds, her eyes bade him help her. He draped the furs from his own shaggy shoulders over the woman and carried her by the worn path to his dwelling. There, in a hollow of the mountain, he had kept alive the fire he had found after a storm, fed it dry wood day and night. He regarded it as a beast he had found, barely alive, that he had nursed back to health and domesticated. Now they lived together, sole companions, he feeding it to keep it alive, it giving him warmth, roasting his meat to make the fat drip and flesh brown. Wehnd’kehto placed the pale woman by the fire’s warmth, covered her with more furs, and with a vessel carved from the bones of the flippered beast, he fed her those rich drippings that run from meat placed before the fire to brown. Soon, she fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, the sun had gone to its long sleep. Wehnd’kehto sat on the far side of the fire from her. She looked quickly about, much as the small furry beasts that dart among the rocks when the cry of the taloned bird pierces the air.

“Pale bird woman,” he said, daring to use words again. “You can stay with me.”

She looked like she did not understand, but she calmed, though still remaining wary. She looked him over, but then saw the gnarled foot, and stood. “Kay-ah-ah-ah!” she cried, and darted out into the dark. The sky flashed, rumbled, and he lost sight of her in the dark wind and rain. Wehnd’kehto’s shadow self taunted him then. He tottered over to a small cache of dried leaves he kept in the dry of dwelling, but out of reach of the fire’s hungry tongue. He cast a handful into the flames, which eagerly devoured them and breathed out the sweet smoke. Wehnd’kehto hoped the wind spirits would forgive him.

As the sun’s first light spread across the sky, Wehnd’kehto set out to look for the pale woman again. The wind spirits’ rage and sky fire had calmed, and a quiet breeze was all that remained to remind him the wind spirits were still watching. Weakened as the pale woman was when she had run from his home, he did not need to look for long. He found her again at the water’s edge, soaked, cold, but alive. Though weak as the softest breeze, the living wind still flowed into and out of her. Perhaps the wind did forgive him. He puffed out a white cloud of breath in a long, warbled cry in the cool morning air to express his thanks, but he dared not speak words and risk angering the wind again.

He lifted her head from the cold sand. She sought to pull away, but was too weak. He took her pale hand, and placed it against the brown skin of his arm. She saw the pale against the dark that was the common color of the people, and her gaze fell to the sand. He stroked the pale skin of her hand gently, and she raised her eyes again. Then he placed her pale hand on his twisted foot. He moved her hand so it stroked the gnarled foot. Her eyes met his, a light in them now. “Koo-oh,” she cooed, as the plump, soft-gray birds do in the first light of dawn. Wehnd’kehto thought about her bird speak, and thought about those creatures, so favored by the winds that they were permitted to ride high upon them, above all other creatures. The birds were permitted to sing. Perhaps she spoke as the birds because the winds loved to hear them.

“Koo-ooh,” he cooed back to the Pale Bird Woman, and he lifted her from the wet sand. She stroked his beard with her pale hand and cooed and cooed to him in a long soothing song as he hobbled back up the worn path toward the warm fire.

______________________________________________________________

Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his fiction has appeared in storySouth, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, SN Review, Toad Suck Review, and Collateral.

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The Trail

By Katie Frankel

By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.

I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.

There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.

Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.

I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.

Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.

Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.

Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.

We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.

We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.

She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.

Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.

I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.

“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.

She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.

Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.

Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.

Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.

 

We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.

Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.

We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.

“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”

“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”

He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.

We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.

After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.

The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.

______________________________________________________________

Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.

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A Grave Mistake

By Carrie Martin

Night grips London with a cold and unholy darkness. A sad, sliver of a moon hangs in the smog and drizzle that engulf the terraces and lonely streets. Flames flicker behind curtains drawn to the evil that lurks outside. Barely a light to see by as I hobble and weave round the mounds of sodden rubbish and horse crap. The stink from the cesspools is unbearable. My eyes are raw with it. The puddled cobbles have seeped inside my shoes, through the newspaper and into my socks. Fingerless mitts are useless on a night like this. I stuff my hands into my jacket pockets.

The doors of an alehouse fling open, wafting pipe smoke and sweet malt. Four disheveled lads pour out, drunk as emperors. A British soldier struts after them, immaculately dressed in his red coat and black hat. He jingles a pouch of coins, and pats one of the lads on the back.

“Evenin’,” I say with a nod and a tip of my flat-cap, keeping my head down, out of the dim light of the alehouse doors.

They mumble a greeting as they stumble after the soldier like rats with the Pied Piper. Off to the next alehouse to get yet more blathered and sign their lives away.

I’d kill for a tankard myself, but I can’t stop tonight.

I duck into an alleyway — a shortcut to the edge of the city — hands fisted inside my pockets, arming myself against scrappers or thieves. Or worse.

A rat scuttles past my feet, black eyes glistening, tail slithering. And then something shuffles up ahead. Something bigger than a rat, coming from the deepest, darkest shadows of the alleyway. I jump to a standstill and brace for a fight, my poor heart racing. But it’s a girl who steps out before me: dampened, frizzy locks erupting from her bonnet, her face gaunt and mottled with scars.

I exhale loudly and relax some. My imagination is running riot — and is it any wonder at this late hour, with the ghastly work I have agreed to?

“Fancy some fun, Mister?” says the waif of a girl, thrusting out her bony chest. Her smile is a grimace of wrecked teeth.

It sickens my heart to see such a sorry creature. She can’t be much older than my own son.

“Here, lass,” I say, handing her two pennies from my pocket. “Grab yourself a bed for the night, somewhere safe.”

She stares at those pennies in her hand and her eyes well with tears. “Thank you, Sir.” Then she scurries away, skirt flapping, back into the heart of this soulless city.

I’d better hope tonight pays off or the wife will have my guts for garters for giving money away when the rent is past due. But if Caleb is right — what he said in the Coal Hole tavern where I met him, drowning my sorrows — I’ll have a guinea by the morrow, enough to survive for a month.

I continue on, out the alleyway and over the empty road. The drizzle is letting up but it’s dark as death now the city is behind me, sweeping fields ahead. Skeleton trees line the road, shivering in the wind. And here, the church and cemetery, surrounded by a great stone wall. Tucked between the wall and wrought iron gate is a smart-suited figure with shoulder-length hair and a cocked hat. Right where he said he’d be.

“Aye, Owen. I thought you’d gotten cold feet,” says Caleb, springing up to shake my hand with a glove that is smooth as skin and cuffed with fur.

“Sorry Caleb. Took a bit for the wife to drop off.” I can’t have Edna knowing about this. I told her I’d sort it, and I will. I’ll just have to get creative with the truth, is all.

Caleb jangles the lock on the gate, and soon there is a flame growing bigger and brighter, the swish of a black cloak as the groundskeeper appears before us like a ghost. Scraggly hair pokes out of his knitted cap. His beady eyes and crooked nose glow wickedly behind the burning rag he holds on a stick. He inserts his key into the lock and creaks open the gate, just enough to let us squeeze through to the church grounds.

“Alright, Russell,” says Caleb.

Russell grunts in response as he locks up again, entirely ignoring my presence. There are no introductions, which suits me fine. I hope I never see Russell again.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we,” says Russell in a voice as gruff as his manner.

Caleb gives me a raised eyebrow, an amused smile, as Russell swooshes around and starts up the path, lighting the way for us to follow. It seems to take forever with his slow, bowlegged gait. It gives me too much time to think, to worry, to see the gravestones of crosses and angels looming in the darkness. I can almost hear the dead whispering their disapproval, restless beneath them.

We wrap round the church entrance and tower, and stop at a small wooden extension. Russell opens the door and illuminates the inside of a tool shed with his burning rag.

“Grab that wheelbarrow,” Caleb tells me.

I tip the heavy thing upright, onto its legs and front wheel. Caleb sets to work filling it with various bits of equipment: shovel, rope, canvas sack and sheet. Then he takes a second shovel and a metal rake, and we head back outside into the freezing night.

The gravestones are plainer down this grassy side, and squished together in rows like teeth. Crows caw unhappily in the trees above us, shaking the branches as they flap furiously away into the surrounding fields.

“Here he is,” says Caleb, stabbing his shovel into a rectangle of soil — the cemetery’s most recent burial.

My legs go weak. My breath catches. I lower the wheelbarrow and read the headstone.

 

In Memory of

Bartholomew Augustus Riseborough

Died April 1st 1795

Aged 33 years

 

I’m not a churchgoer, not really, but I sign the cross now, Lord help me. I picture my wife and son, in this grave instead of Mr. Riseborough. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I must do this. What choice do I have?

Caleb must sense my reluctance for he whips out a flask and tucks it in my hand. “Get some of this down you.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Never mind what is it, just drink it,” he says.

Russell watches with his beady eyes, silent behind his flickering glow.

I swig back at least half the flask, ignoring the sickly sweet, bitterly strong taste. It burns down my esophagus and into my belly, warms and numbs me from head to toe. “Gorblimey, that’s harsh.”

I offer the flask to Russell but he shakes his head, so I return it to Caleb who happily downs the whole lot.

“Bourbon whiskey that. The good stuff,” says Caleb, wiping his lips. Then he lays the sheet at the head of the grave, and shows me where to dig with the spade of his shovel. “You just want to uncover the top half, stick it on the sheet. Then we can snap the lid open and hoist the body out.”

I grab the other shovel and set to work, scooping up the wet soil and tossing it onto the sheet.

“That’s it,” says Caleb approvingly as he matches me shovel for shovel. Then, with a smile, “Hell of a mouthful, his name. Fancy being called that all your life.”

“I had an uncle Bartholomew once, if you don’t mind,” says Russell, his thick wiry eyebrows dipped in an angry V.

“And were his other names long-winded and pompous too?” says Caleb.

Russell’s eyes get even beadier, if such a thing is possible.

I’m full of boozy adrenaline, sick to my stomach with what I’m about to do, but I cannot help but laugh. “It’s certainly the sort of name you’d associate with a man of means. Though you’d expect more of a headstone than this, if that were so.”

“Oh, he had money, all right,” says Russell. “He was a merchant banker. A banker who didn’t get round to writing his own bloody will. Can you believe that? It was his missus that chose this for him. Didn’t shed a single tear at his funeral, either. Didn’t even look that distraught, though I saw her dab her eyes a time or two.”

“I’d be doing a jig on his grave if I was inheriting what she is,” says Caleb, leaning on his shovel handle and catching his breath. “Might have to try bumping into her sometime. Aye, wouldn’t that be something.” He smirks and starts digging again.

“You’ve got the looks and the clothes to impress a lady, I’ll give you that.” I’d be stomping on dough in that damp, drafty cellar for weeks to afford an outfit so grand — when there was flour to be had. There’s only so much chalk and alum you can add to a loaf, and the boss had to let me go. “How come you’re all dandied-up for digging, anyway?”

“Because it’s risky enough carting a body around at night, but nobody thinks twice when you’re dressed all important, like. Aye, I’m not just a pretty face, me. And what a body we’ve got here… A man, young enough, no visible diseases, practically handed to us on a platter. Doesn’t get any better than this.”

I wonder what sort of cut Caleb is paying Russell to risk his job and squeeze out the competition for us on a find like this. But it’s impolite to ask, so I just keep shoveling.

“You won’t have to dig far,” says Russell. “The dead are piling up in this city, what with this rotten winter and all the pox. We’re having to bury them on top of each other.”

Now I really do feel sick. He has a way with words, our Russell.

“Remember what I said yesterday,” says Caleb, taking another break to address me. “It’s just a body, a shell, and there’s no point it going to waste, feeding the maggots. So long as we take nothing they owned — no jewelry, no clothes, no shoes — it’s not even illegal. You can’t own a corpse, see. And they just can’t get enough of them, these anatomy students. Even with all the hangings in the gallows of late.”

“It’s a mad world is this,” I say, shaking my head as I scoop another shovelful. “Men hanged for pinching bread but not for this. Makes no sense to me.”

Caleb points his shovel at me. “Exactly!” he says, and resumes his shoveling with gusto. “It’s all right for them, sitting pretty at the top, making laws to suit them as they go. Using us up and spitting us out, then killing us off when we’re knackered and desperate. It’s never them that hang, is it? Well, they’ll not get the better of me. I’ll not break my back to make another man rich, and I won’t end up in the gallows!”

Maybe he’s right, and morality is nothing more than words on paper, made not of heart but of mind. Then guilt and shame are self-inflicted, pointless things, and who is to say what is right? Do the rich sleep soundly in their beds while the necks of poor folk choke in their noose, simply because they have written it so?

We work for a while in silence, to the mesmerizing beat of slice-thump-slice-slice-thump-thump. Wind whips wetness at us from the church roof and trees, sending shadows dancing and darting beneath Russell’s ever-shrinking flame. Soil piles higher and higher upon the sheet as we get lower and lower into the grave. We dig till I’m sweating beneath my clothes, my breath puffing out in great clouds. My bad knee is seizing up, my back aching, when finally I strike something flat and hard with my shovel.

“I think I’ve hit the—”

I’m interrupted by a muffled but roaring moan, coming from the casket. The three of us freeze in horror — me, bent over the casket. An icy chill creeps up my spine. My heart pounds wildly. The dead man has risen to wreak vengeance upon us for disturbing his grave!

An almighty fit of bashing and banging ensues. I grip my shovel for dear life.

“Heeelp! Get me out of here!” roars the dead man.

“My God, he’s alive,” says Russell, the first to come to his senses. And oh, but I am a fool.

“Quickly, clear the muck off and snap the wood,” says Caleb.

We scrape and fling the remaining soil every which way, revealing the shiny wood beneath. Caleb jams his shovel under the lid of the casket. I get beside him, do the same, and we push down with all our weight to wedge it open. The top half of the casket cracks apart, and there’s Mr. Riseborough, wriggling and struggling with the shroud he’s been wrapped in. Only his face is visible under that white sheet, and he’s staring up at us with bulging round eyes, his mouth absurdly agape.

All at once his face retracts into an expression of mere confusion, his gentlemanly composure restored. In his posh accent he says, “What the bloody hell… Who are you?”

“Your saviours. That’s who we are,” says Caleb, and swings the rope down to him.

Mr. Riseborough frees his arms from the shroud, and we hoist him out of that muddy hole, grunting and cursing, until he’s on the ground. Then we unravel the rest of him, uncovering his three-piece suit and buckled shoes, and pull him to his feet. He thanks us profusely as he straightens his wonky poodle-like wig and swats at the mud on his fancy suit.

Russell’s got the burning rag in Mr. Riseborough’s long-nosed face, and we’re gawking at him, wondering what the hell happens next. But Mr. Riseborough isn’t interested in us. He’s too busy frowning at his gravesite, squinting and leaning in to read the common-man’s headstone with his name on it. Russell moves his flame over the stone, highlighting the heartless engraving.

“I don’t understand,” says Mr. Riseborough. “I’m as fit as a fiddle. How is it that I was presumed dead and buried in such an undignified manner? How could my wife let this happen?”

“You should’ve got your will written then,” says Russell. “Spelt out exactly what you wanted.”

“I didn’t think it necessary, what with my good health, no children and only a wife to consider. I presumed she would take care of… Oh, I feel quite nauseous.”

Then Mr. Riseborough unleashes an almighty belch, the likes of which I’ve never heard from a gentleman. It stinks to high heaven of something vaguely familiar. He puts a hand to his chest. “I do beg my pardon.”

Russell jerks backward as if he’s been shot, while I subtly turn from the fumes. But Caleb — God knows what he’s up to — he leans in to get a good sniff.

“It’s no wonder you’re feeling sick, Bartholomew,” says Caleb. “You’ve a stink of almonds on your breath. That’s cyanide is that.”

“Cyanide? What?” Realization dawns on Mr. Riseborough’s face. “I thought that cup of tea tasted odd, but we had just hired a new maid, and so I didn’t think much about it. But who…” He glances back at the headstone, clenches his hands into fists. “My wife! But how did she get away with it?”

Russell smiles slyly, as if he knew the answer all along.

“The question is, what are you going to do about it now?” says Caleb.

Mr. Riseborough acknowledges this with a slight nod, then paces back-and-forth aside his grave, hands clasped behind his back, furrowing and un-furrowing his brow. He stops suddenly, throws his arm in the air, and says, “How would you like to earn yourselves ten guineas each?”

“It’s not illegal, is it?” I ask.

“Not at all.”

And then he explains…

* * * * *

It’s past midnight and I’m at the pillared entrance of a huge window-spotted brick house, yanking and ringing the bell. Caleb and Russell are with me, grinning like idiots. And there in the wheelbarrow, hidden in the sack, is the lumpy, curled-up shape of Mr. Riseborough.

Silently he lies in wait — a little surprise for his “loving” wife.

Perhaps Mrs. Riseborough will drop dead herself when she sees him.

______________________________________________________________

Carrie Martin is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and a writer of quirky and dark (she started writing for children but somehow grew older and darker). British and Canadian-bred, she lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and ezines. Read more at carriemartin.ca

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The White Ship

By Richard Comerford

She was called la Blanche-Nef – The White Ship.

She was undoubtedly a fine vessel, but not intended to  carry so many passengers and crew. There were over three hundred on board when she set sail from Barfleur  in Normandy just before midnight . The sea was calm, but there was little moonlight, and as most aboard, passengers and crew, had consumed considerable quantities of wine the required standards of seamanship  fell by the minute. It was November-cold.

Thomas FitzStephen stood proudly in the stern, next to his helmsman, yet he was uneasy as he surveyed the chaos before him. The rowers bent their backs, but their rhythm was gone and sometimes their oars flailed at empty air, or merely raised weak  splashes.

He had offered the use of his ship to the King that day, pointing out his wish to serve as had his father, Stephen Fitz Airaid, served the King’s father William  54 years before. His ship  Mora had carried the Norman Duke across the Channel to invade England.

King Henry had thanked him, saying he was pleased with his own vessel, but he had entrusted Thomas with many of his entourage, including his sons William and Richard and his daughter Matilda. William the Atheling was an important charge, as he would be the next Duke of Normandy and would inherit Henry’s  crown.

And… he was the young nobleman who, swaying slightly from too much wine,had  ordered Thomas to chase and overtake the King’s ship which had left before them.

Thomas was not pleased, but knew he had to do as he was bidden, and he gave orders accordingly while he looked at the noisy, drunken young men and women making merry on his beautiful ship. Free from the stern eye of the King they were intent on making the most of their brief freedom. He had certainly not approved of the boorish manner in which they had driven off a group of pious priests who had merely wished to bless the ship and her voyage. The baffled  priests had retreated in the face of a storm of abuse and sneers.

Surely it is bad luck to turn away a priest – many priests – who come from God to bless your venture…?

He heard a loud voice – Prince Richard of Lincoln, one of the King’s sons, he thought –exhort the rowers to greater efforts.  “Come on, my lads, put your backs into  it! Don’t  you want more wine?”

“Yes, my lord!” replied one forward oarsman.

“Then row as you never rowed before!”

A loud belch from his helmsman was followed by the unhappy man vomiting over the side, momentarily surrendering the tiller. It swung wildly before Thomas could grab it and steady the ship.

Dear God, have we lost our course?  If only there were more moonlight…  Where is Quilleboeuf?

Quilleboeuf was a large rock, feared by all sailors in these waters, which appeared and vanished with the tides.

“Sorry, Captain,” muttered the helmsman. “Wine…”

“Are we clear of Quilleboeuf?”

The man’s vacant expression was alarming, but he attempted to appear in control of himself.  “ Yes, Captain, we must have cleared her by now.”

Please, dear God, be right….

Some of the passengers had started to sing, and oarsmen joined in, first tentatively – as befitted their stations – then lustily.

“Are you well enough to continue?” Thomas asked the tillerman desperately.

He looked wounded – wounded and drunk.  “Yes, Captain,” he said proudly. “This is my ship, and I will – “

Quilleboeuf had in fact been waiting off their port beam, and now she struck. The ship  tore alongside the rock, which ripped out and shattered two planks. The bank of portside oars  were sheared and snapped like kindling.

The ship listed to port immediately, as water poured in through the long, wide gash. Her superior construction and materials were no match for the icy sea which, moments before had been calm and benign.

The portside oarsmen were first to react, dropping their broken  blades, half-rising in their seats…….before the sharp lurch of the ship tossed them overboard to a man.

The starboard side rose up as the portside dipped, and the oars on that side thrashed at the air. Drunken revellers  slid in a human wave towards the sea which now boiled with turbulence.  The oarsmen tumbled from their posts and fell among the  panicking crowd.

Women screamed.

Men roared, and screamed.

Thomas stared in horror, hanging on grimly to the first thing his hands found, the tiller again. Of the tillerman there was no sign.

The King’s heir is in my charge……

The weight of bodies tumbling to one side, together with the  inrushing water, was too much for the proud ship.  Ninety seconds after striking the rock she capsized and all went into the water.  Some, those closest  to the port  beam, were dragged under the upturned vessel as she turned turtle and  were left to fight their way out. The lucky ones were thrown clear.

But few were lucky this night.

The sea was filled with struggling humanity, of whom hardly any could swim.

Thomas was carried, still clinging to the tiller, under the ship. His lungs burning, he felt his way along the tiller to the side of the ship and found blessed open water where he rose to the surface.  Two small lifeboats had broken free, but were now both hidden by dozens of terrified people clinging to them, trying to get on board. Those already in relative safety vigourously sought to dislodge the invaders in order to preserve the own positions.

Others threshed and screamed and sank around this ghastly scene.

Thomas bumped into a large piece of  spar, probably broken from the mainmast, and gratefully clung on to it. To his shame. he hoped no-one would seek to share his good fortune.

Dear Lord, I have never been so cold.

Horrified, he watched in the thin moonlight silhouettes of his fellow men fighting each other to stay alive.

The shouts… as of battle…

The awful, awful screams.

Is this hell….? What of my King’s children?  Will I die here?

He did not know how long he had been in the water, but knew he fell unconscious for a while. He was losing feeling in his extremities as the bitter cold ate its way towards his vitals. The screams were dwindling as the victims, weakened by their revelry, efforts to survive, and fear  gave up and succumbed to warm, watery sleep.

Then, a dreadful quiet.

“Does anyone live?” a voice called weakly from a few feet away.

Hope!  “I do. Thomas FItzStephen, Captain.”

“I am Geoffrey de l’Aigle”

“And I am Berold, the butcher,” said another voice. “I think we must be the only ones left alive?”

Stephen panicked. “What of the King’s heir, William?”

“I saw him, sir, in a small boat…” started Berold

“Thank God…”

“But he heard cries for help from the Lady Matilda, and turned back for her?”

“Please tell me he succeeded…”

“I am sorry, Captain. Too many tried to board him. I fear he is lost. We have not heard of him these many minutes. Now all is still.”

Thomas  could no longer fight the exhaustion and cold. He could not stand before his King and tell him he had lost his children, and the heir to England. Better to sleep……  He would answer to God.

“God forgive me,” h e mouthed, and let go of the  spar.

Without his lifeline, it was easy to slip under the cold, dark water to Oblivion.

And, with Henry’s heir drowned, England slipped into the Anarchy.

______________________________________________________________

Richard Comerford is a former lawyer, now happily retired, living with his Wife in a small village in middle England. Since leaving the Law, he has been engaged in writing a Novel, which is now complete, and has been looking out a Novel, Screenplay, and some Short Stories he wrote many years ago, prior to succumbing to raising a family and earning a living. He wrote “The White Ship” in answer to a challenge from his Wife. She gave him the brief description of the subject matter, and he wrote the Story. It should be clear that he wants, after all these years, to be a Writer.

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A Nice Man

By John Means

The “Sieg Heil” salute began, louder and more orchestrated than the previous impromptu chants–each repetition rumbling through the stadium structure like thunder claps. Echoes reverberated in between the chants, as if some god of the earth or the sky was working with us. With them, I mean.

Now practiced actors, we stood and joined—the performance which kept us safe. After what seemed a quarter of an hour, the chant gradually subsided, but with isolated pockets continuing here and there.

Hitler stood, waiting, a tiny figure, a speck in the distance, but his waiting was having its effect. Over several minutes the shouts gradually died off until the entire stadium was obediently hushed into silence. Still he waited. No one moved, not a whisper or even a cough in the entire stadium. It became just Hitler and me. Then he began.

When I heard his first words coming through the loud speakers, I did not immediately recognize their meanings because they seemed to be in the tongue of a supernatural power. It was only a momentary sensation, and then I was able to understand, but I will never forget the strangeness of those few moments (or were they even moments at all?) when I heard that other-worldly voice.

As he built into a rhythm of statements, I began to think that I had never heard such a human voice. It sounded like a trumpet, an artificially amplified one, giving orders in staccato. I had heard his voice on radio, but here it seemed to have no substance but command.

We all sat mesmerized, as if dead. We all sat motionless, as one. Ira, Simon, Nahum, Reb Benjamin, Father and I were no longer Jews. We were passive beings with no identity, like all the others.

I tried to listen to the content of his speech. “There are times in the history of nations when a decisive moment arrives. The coming election is a time to decide between a Germany divided by classes, parties, and religions; and a Germany of one will. The unemployment and misery of the last thirteen years have led to thirty political parties—all lined up against one another.” He then referred to paying a billion marks for a loaf of bread after the French and Belgians invaded and occupied the Ruhr in 1923. And we had to pay reparations. Reparations!

Was he suggesting, I wondered, that Germany should go to war against France and Belgium again? Father had told me several times that he thought Hitler’s ultimate plan was to do just that. France or Belgium, then, would not be a safe place for any expatriate German Jew when the “Nazi army” came sweeping through.

Here we all were, tens of thousands of us in a sports stadium, listening to one man tell us what to think. Was he the best or the worst among us? I began to look around and observe more faces of my “fellow” countrymen. They were transfixed. One man’s mouth gaped open. Another shook his head repeatedly in agreement in short bobs, almost resembling the Hasidim in prayer.

I wondered if this crowd was demonstrating the description of the Irish poet Yeats, whom I had read in English: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Father had quoted this line, written in 1920, many times. It was from “The Second Coming.”

My feeling that Hitler had hypnotized this mass of people into mute, obedient automatons was in stark contrast to my involuntary fascination with his guttural voice and his piercing, rhythmical emphasis on certain words. His rhetoric and his delivery could almost trick me into believing what he was saying. Those who were not Jewish were having no trouble deepening their loyalty to The Leader.

Hitler spoke of parties. Why not? After the lack of work and food and fuel, parties were the most prevalent topic of conversation throughout the country. Hitler said there were thirty-four parties here in one small country. Workers have three or four because one is not enough. The masses, who are not intelligent (he actually said this right in front of these masses), have to have even more. Management has its party; farmers, three or four; landlords; tenants. The Catholics have their party (Mother’s Zentrum); the Bavarians; the Thuringenians.

Each party that he named was accompanied by a different hand gesture, visible even from our great distance. I thought of Pepe, who had always noted and praised the great variety of people who could be found upon the earth and especially in Paris. However, Hitler was citing the great variety of political parties as a censure and condemnation an ugly divisiveness in the country.

He concluded that Germany needed only one party, the party of the German Volk, the party that will never give up the struggle, “the only party that has the courage and will to act.” He drove home, “we must not allow classes and cliques to develop among you.”

Were we Jews one of the “cliques” which must not be allowed to develop?

Suddenly I wanted to flee the stadium. It was worse than being jammed among the beery Nazis inside the train.

Hitler twice referred to the time when the party consisted of only seven members and to the approaching time when it would be the one and only power. He continued his theatrical (and rehearsed?) emphatic gestures, especially with his right hand raised through different sweeps into the air.

Then, with both hands raised over his head, backs of his hands toward the audience and fingers spread widely apart (visible from our great distance, even), he shook his hands toward the sky, his head and eyes upward (to God?!), and he ranted that the leadership of “the best blood” would never relinquish what it had taken years to attain. All around us, again the cheer, the chant, the salute went up, and spiritlessly, we followed.

I am only a youth, but I can read the writing on the wall. It says, “Death to the Jews,” and in reality we have all seen it already scrawled in red on walls everywhere. We Jews are certainly not the ones with “the best blood.”

I thought of Mother. She, a French Catholic but mistaken for a Jew, had been beaten senseless on a crowded railway platform by three boys of my age in uniform. And no one had raised a voice. The Nazis were already above the law. When would all of the Jews, and all of those considered to be Jews, be murdered without a murmur of protest against “the only party that has the courage and will to act”?

When the people on the station platform saw the three uniformed Hitler Youth beating a woman, they no doubt said to themselves, “it’s only a Jew,” and they might not have been National Socialists but Social Democrats, Communists, or even Catholic Zentrum.

Hitler ended his speech abruptly and walked from the podium, out of sight. Everyone erupted wildly.

Goebbels appeared, spoke briefly, and then the entire stadium went up into the Horst Wessel Song. When they sang “the ranks close tightly” of the first line, Father took my arm and led me out. The rest of our group followed closely, and we cleared the stadium well before the song was finished. We broke into a jog for the station in order to beat the crowd. We could still hear the singing hundreds of meters behind us. Then I remembered my vow not to board the train.

“Father, I am not getting on that train. I mean it,” I said, but he paid no attention and kept leading us on our jog through the town. As we came within a few blocks of the station, we found the streets already clogged with people who had come there from another part of the stadium. I did not want to go another step into another mob of Nazis.

“Father,” I said more emphatically, “I mean it. I am walking and running home from here.” He slowed to a stop, and the others did, too.

“David, don’t be ridiculous. It’s a hundred kilometers.”

“Haven’t we talked about my running to France to escape the pogrom? What do you think this is? I want to escape the Nazis. I know the way. I can be home by noon tomorrow.”

Father stared at me for about ten seconds. He knew that I meant what I was saying.

“Go ahead,” he said to the others, “get on the train. We’re coming later, after the crowd has passed.”

After several exchanges, they left us, and Father said, “I remember riding in the wagons up to the trenches. I know how you feel, David, and there is no reason we have to do that. You make a good point about escaping the Nazi mob, but tonight with hundreds or thousands of them driving on the road, I do not want you out there running. I do not want you ending up like Mother. Come on, follow me. I just remembered something.”

He went up a side street, perpendicular to the flow of the crowd. We walked several blocks through streets that were nearly empty and then another two kilometers around a ring road. Father walked quickly, and I was surprised at his stamina.

“If we move quickly, we might just get lucky.”

Finally Father stopped at an intersection of the ring road and one of the main roads from town. Along this main road, people were lined up, as if waiting for a parade.

“I thought so,” Father said and worked us to a relatively quiet spot next to a light pole on the street.

“Hitler’s entourage will be coming out this way to the airport. You can get a good look at him up close–something you can remember for the rest of your life.”

Father was being facetious but truthful.

After about half of an hour, three trucks passed by, two filled with SA and the last with SS. These were followed by cars filled with men in Nazi uniforms. Then we heard wild cheering. About a half of a block away, we saw an open car approaching. It was Hitler, standing and giving his Nazi salute to the adoring crowd. He looked quite proud of himself. Slowly, gradually, he moved toward us. We did not have a direct sight line but had to catch glimpses through the obstructions of crowd and Nazi flags. He looked a bit like a marble statue propped up in the front seat. Resembling a minor god?

As he neared us, Father said, “We do not need to give the salute this time, David.”

“What?! We’re still in the same crowd,” I whispered.

“No, we’re safe here.”

I thought Father had lost his senses, but I was not going to question him.

I do not know what I was expecting to see, but I could not believe my eyes when I saw the open Mercedes-Benz move into full, unobstructed view only about 20 meters away.

Hitler was standing in the front passenger area holding onto the top of the windscreen and onto his hat with his left hand, and giving his Nazi salute with his right. He seemed to be looking at each face on our side of the street, at some longer than others. When the car was only five meters away, he looked directly at me. He had very good posture, but he looked exhausted. A strand of slick hair lay across his forehead. His eyes, however, were not tired. They had a strange, bluish “glow” (I do not know what word to use) which held my gaze. Although I knew that his car was moving, it seemed as if he had stopped and suspended himself there to look at me. Everything else in my peripheral vision blurred away, and time seemed to stop.

Then I wondered if he might be waiting for me to give the salute, but I obeyed Father, not Hitler.

He looked over at Father, sternly. To rebuke the parent, I thought. But then his head tilted back in surprise and recognition. He immediately leaned down to his driver, and the Mercedes stopped, right in front of us.

Hitler let himself out the car. The crowd pressed in from the sides and back for a closer view and fell silent as he walked directly toward Father with a very military bearing. His hair shined from perspiration. I was surprised he was only about a meter and three-quarters in height. He was looking straight at Father, but the sternness changed quickly to a smile of what looked like brotherly recognition. Was this really Hitler? He walked slowly, and except for the intensity of his eyes, he looked very ordinary. I was incredulous that he should.

Was he going to denounce Father because he and his son had not given the salute? Certainly Hitler could do as he wished, just as any Nazi could, just as the Hitler Youth had done on the station platform. But Hitler was looking pleased. He looked like a nice man.

As he stepped up to Father, he extended his right hand and said, “Johann.”

“Adi,” Father said and shook his hand.

Hitler’s head was shaking “yes” up and down ever so slightly as he and Father held their clasp and looked one another in the eye.

“You always took very good care of Foxl. I remember.”

Then Hitler let go, pivoted about, and returned to his car, which immediately moved away.

Everyone on the street near us was looking at Father rather than Hitler as the car pulled away. When Father took my arm to lead me away, everyone stepped aside to make way for us, and a murmur followed us for almost half of a block.

I was too utterly astonished to ask Father about it. Hitler had called Father “Johann,” the name under which Father had enlisted in order to hide his Jewish name of Hezekiah. I knew that Foxl was Hitler’s dog when he was a corporal in the trenches. Father had told me he had often watched the dog when Adi had been running messages. Apparently, Hitler did not know that his friend from the trenches was a Jew.

“What just happened would not count a jot,” I imagined Father instructing me, “if the SA in our Gau decided to initiate a pogrom or just decided they wanted to give me or you or Mother again a good beating in the street.”

I wanted to ask Father specific questions about his experiences with Hitler, but I could not do so in the confusion of the streets. We heard people saying, “The streets to the station are dark. The Marxists cut the power to the street lamps.”

“The trains are probably still too crowded, anyway,” Father said. “We’ll stop and get something to eat.”

 

We boarded the last train, and it was practically empty. I expected Father to talk and to ask me about my reactions to the rally and the meeting with “Adi,” but he was silent until we slowed for Bingen station.

“Hitler cared more for Foxl than he did for any of the other men, and I am reasonably certain that he has not changed. I know that he ranks us below dogs, and you must remember, David, that behind the glorious and resounding pomp and worship that we saw Hitler’s Party stage today are the iron fists of ugly murderers. The Hitler who would never harm his dog is The Leader of the three boys of the station platform, The Leader who sets the tone and the opportunities for all of his followers.”

 

We arrived at Alzey station very late. As we walked back through town, Father said to me, “David, I know that I have told you many times that we must leave Germany. Your Mother might one day soon be able to use crutches or even walk with a cane. We will wait one week and see the election results. Everyone is saying that the Nazis will add to their power, but elections are always unpredictable. If the results put Hitler in power, I want to be packed up and ready to leave before he formally becomes Chancellor. If we have to leave furniture behind, if we have to carry Mother onto the train–yes, we will have to take a train, David–we are going, and not to Belgium or France. It has got to be England. Very soon we could come to the juncture where we must ask, ‘do we want to live, or do we want to die?’ It is that simple. Remember, Hitler said that his Party would never give up the struggle. Hitler will not change. We are the ones who must take up our lives and our will and make a change.”

 

Now everything is hanging in suspension, just as Hitler had seemed to do when he was looking at me.

I think of the cliffs of Lorelei and the moment of suspension I had expected when I was trying to picture what it would be like to jump out from the cliff edge.

I do not know what to do. There is nothing I can do. Even Father does not know what is going to happen. Mother is still semi-comatose. I cannot talk with her. I must trust Father. It could be that, even with all of his worldly wisdom and experience, he will not be able to save us.

I do hate to think this, to write this, but it could very well be, “Death to the Jews.”

______________________________________________________________

John Means has published poems, haiku, short stories, and two geological guide books: Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Parks, and Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D. C.  He taught English and Geology at Hagerstown Community College for thirty-five years.

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Climbing Boys

By Carly Brown

The Master Sweep

I find them young. Short-limbed boys with sleeves still dangling past their wrists and bodies narrow enough to fit up the flue. Six is a good age. If you get them at six, they won’t remember much of life before. Climbing will be in their bones, and they will always dream of sooty boots and narrow shafts. They won’t know any different.

I make the same promises every time: feed them, give them a second set of clothes and a proper bed, take them to church, clean them once a week. I promise not to send them up any chimneys that are on fire. That sort of thing. Then a Poor House worker or clergymen or their own mother shoves a handful of shillings into my waiting palm. And I take them away.

We don’t bathe them once a week. Anyone is a fool for believing that. Thrice a year, if they’re lucky.

They sleep in a pile on the floor like puppies, wriggling on the wood. The boys are covered in soot so sometimes they look like shadows come to life.

We do feed them though. There is gruel in tin bowls for breakfast and hard crackers for supper. Otherwise they won’t be strong enough to climb.

In the mornings, we press bristles into their backs to wake them and then out we go into London’s streets. Loose cobbled alleyways agitated with rats. As the sun begins to lighten the city, the climbing boys scatter and start to call out, as far as their little voices can go: ‘Sweep! Sweep!’

Today there is a lot of fog and my boys are shouting into it, their voices hoarse from yesterday’s ash. ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ A woman comes out of her house. She wears a nice blue dress with lace on the collar like baby teeth. I tip my top hat to her.

‘How do you do, madam? Do you know the dangerous of an un-swept chimney?’

My price agreed, we go to her house. My boots scuff the rug and she shudders at the sight of one of my boys. Then I fix a cloth over her fireplace and say that our work will be done in no time at all.

I nod to the boy. It’s time to go up.

The Mistress of the House

The only thing not covered in soot are the poor boy’s eyes, which are red. He takes off his battered boots and puts them in a neat row beside the fireplace. Then he takes off his jacket, covered in ashy handprints, and piles that up by the boots. His little vest next and I turn away, worried this urchin will shimmy up the chimney flue naked as Adam and Eve!

But he stops at the trousers and a rough cotton shirt, pulling his cap down lower over his face. Carrying a broom, he goes behind the flap that his master has hung on our fireplace. The hearth where last night a fire blazed as we played charades and cut into a soggy fruitcake, the windows fogging with our laughter. Hard to think it is the very same fireplace the little boy climbs up now in the empty gray of early morning.

The master tells me that the brush will dislodge any extra soot and the boy will scrape the chimney clean. ‘Clean chimneys are safe chimneys and all that,’ he says.

I suppose he is right. But I do wonder for the safety of that poor creature crawling through our flue, like the intestines of some enormous beast. I wince every time soot falls into the fireplace like dark snow.

The master pulls aside the cloth, lays down a handful of hay in the fireplace and begins to light it with a match. The hay curls in on itself, darkening. ‘For extra encouragement,’ he says to me and winks.

I leave the room, sick to my stomach.

The Climbing Boy

This is the first flue of the day and it won’t be the last. Four a day, says the master sweep. We have to toughen up that skin of yours, he says. I’m eight, but my skin is still soft as milk and he has me stand in front of the fireplace at night to make it rougher. Climbing boys can’t be soft, he says.

I have a name, but, if I told you, you wouldn’t remember it.

This house’s flue isn’t straight up, but they never are. They’ve got bends and you’ve got to crawl on your back to get through them. Brick against your back and brick against your nose and knees. Imagine you are a hair plucked from a little girl’s head. Imagine you are the string of a fiddle. Imagine you are anything narrow enough to make it out alive. Master says if you get caught with your knees stuck against your chin don’t struggle, that’ll only make the flue grip you tighter. Don’t panic when you see no light above or below. And if you feel heat, as I do now, it means that you’re taking too much time. Go faster.

I hit a clump of soot with my broom and it rains down across my face. Master says that’s how most climbing boys die, blanketed in soot so they can’t breathe.

But it trickles past me and I go higher. Suddenly the shaft is bright and I squint. I see a clear passage to the top of the chimney: a square of blue sky. Sometimes I want to climb up and out, but I don’t know anything about London rooftops. I don’t know what’s on top of houses, only what’s inside of them.

Someday I’ll get too big and I can stop climbing. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Something else. But when I close my eyes and try to imagine what that thing would be – my mind is clouded with soot.

The master sweep screams at me to hurry and I snake down, away from the sun, fast as I can out of there and hope, by now, he’s put out the fire below.

The Master Sweep

After seven years work, we send the boys away. They can go where they like, after that. Journeymen to another master or stay on here. Soon they’ll be too big to fit inside the flues and they’ll start going into the parishes and orphanages, looking for boys small enough to take their place.

They give their old coats and hats to the little ones. Their faces are starting to smear together like years.

Often, I have the same dream. I dream of how my master sweep would send up another boy behind me to prick my bare feet with needles. So I would climb faster. How the chimneys shook with my crying and I thought all the bricks would collapse around me. I wake up shouting for a mother I can’t rightly remember.

When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and pile a few coals up behind the grate of my own fireplace. I light them. The coals glitter in their pile, the ones in the center glowing hottest of all. I watch the orange flames twist, sending smoke and embers up into the dark.

______________________________________________________________

Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and PhD student based in Scotland. She is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel set during America’s Revolutionary War. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com

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