Category Archives: Fiction

Ghost in the Bathroom

The little girl slipped out of the church when they brought forth the scrapwood coffin. Through the tawny windowlight, she watched as the long box of splintered planks clumsily jounced atop a garland of brown hands flayed raw by sand and sun. From the evening dark beyond the surrounding fence crowned with machine guns and sentry huts, the frantic yips of starving dessert wolves sounded from the belly of a gloomy arroyo, their whimpers high and sharp like a tribe of lost children. The little girl turned and ran between the wide empty firebreaks to her barrack, desperately trying not to think about the man who had fallen.

He had been the first to die in the camp. A young Nissei on a construction detail. An accident by all accounts. The little girl had seen a small crowd quickly gather near a pile of joists and studs at the base of the unfinished theater. She abandoned her game of jacks and wandered over to see what had happened, what absurdity lurked at the center of the serried throng able to diffuse the same solemn stare over all who looked upon it. By the time she pushed her way through, the stirred desert dust from the plummet had settled and the Issei hoarsely chanted in a sacred Japanese meant only for monks and poets. The dead man lay stiff and still, caked in a grainy red film. Above, frayed ropes hung from the broken scaffold and swayed like lazy spider legs in the hot wind. The body was bent in odd ways, a heaped and tangled mass of human angles. His hands were crammed beneath his chest, arms crushed and flaccid like the wings of a baby bird. His legs were spread and contorted, his right knee jerked high like a sprinters’ as though he were edging through a jagged finish line of loose nails and rusty scrubweed. The alderman for the dead man’s barrack block stepped forward and squat next to the body. He spat into dirt and shook his head and looked blankly beyond the fence. He decided the guard would have to be bribed for there to be a ceremony. That the mess hall would have to be consecrated. That another man’s help would be needed to move the corpse before the buzzards caught scent. Dorothy stepped back from the gathering and covered the beginning of a smile she could not stop from spreading. Against her will, she had thought the dead man looked as though he were dancing and hated herself for thinking such a thing. She pinched her arm hard and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

Curled under her tick-straw cot in the darkened barrack, Dorothy formed little piles of sand and told herself a tale about a young pharaoh and a magic horse who could gallop across the waters of the Nile. The story made her less afraid and gave new purpose to the powdery sand that always managed to get into her eyes and mouth and clothes despite how hard her mother tried to keep it outside. The front door exploded open with a heavy crash. Dorothy’s older brother stepped out of the blue night into the tiny greenpine chamber.

“Think you can run off huh? Think you can get away from having to sit through that funeral?”

“No Tom, no. I don’t want to see that man again. I don’t want to see him in that box, and I don’t care if I get in trouble. I don’t want to see that man again.”

Tom’s tie was loose, his collar wilted. He was almost fourteen and already taller than both of his parents. He was lanky, acned, and missed pitching for his junior high baseball team. His thin mustache was thickened by the dark of the room.

“You know,” said Tom, “I followed you out here to bring you back to the funeral. Mom and Dad’s orders. But as I was walking, I saw the ghost, like Obachan said. I saw his ghost, his y?rei in the bathroom.”

“No you didn’t!” Dorothy cried, “no you didn’t and you are just trying to scare me.”

“I saw him, sticking his broken arms and twisted neck out of the window. All that dust still on him.”

“Shut up!” Dorothy burrowed her head between her arms, tears dampening the frilled sleeves of her only church blouse, “Please go away, please!”

“Mom and Dad told me to bring you back. But I have a better idea. I’m gonna have you pay your respects to the ghost himself.” Tom grabbed both of Dorothy’s legs and dragged her from under the cot. She screamed and beat her hands against the floor. Tom let go of her ankles and covered her mouth. “Quiet,” he angrily hissed, “you stay quiet or I’ll throw you off that scaffold like him.” He hove Dorothy over his shoulder and stepped back out into the night.

The younger children had not gone into the bathrooms since the fall. None of them wanted to be the one cornered by the ghost while they were relieving themselves. In the days since, the oldest Issei claimed they had seen the y?rei in camp. Sometimes he was sitting on the benches around the gardens. Sometimes he walked along the fence passing his hand through the barbs in the wire. Sometimes he took the form of the snakes and scorpions that wriggled up through barrack floors when the days were hottest. But most times, it was agreed, most times he was in the bathroom.

The camp was quiet and solemn. The lights from the distant mess hall windows punched square holes into the dark while a cotton-eyed moon ogled from a vaulted cobalt sky. As they neared the bathroom, a tattered shroud of cirrus crept across the moon’s lambent glare and the remaining sprays of copper stars flickered weakly. 

Dorothy punched furiously. Her mouth was still covered and she bawled into the salty callouses of her brother’s hand. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pasted plaited locks of hair against her skin. Her shoes flew off as she kicked his back and slapped his cheeks but Tom only held her tighter.

Out of the dark, the bathroom materialized and its torn shreds of tarpaper lapped the desert wind like a long black tongue. The crooked door flew open and hit the side of the latrine with a slap.

Tom shoved his sister inside and held the knob. Dorothy frantically beat her fists against the wood, her weary brittle shouts rattling and crumbling inside her throat like dry autumn leaves. Through the pitch dark, a cold gust blew from the empty stalls. The slivered boards moaned in pain and between the low drumming of her balled fists, the dulled clink of dragged metal rung from behind like broken bells. Dorothy thrust her shoulder into the wood, driving with all her weight, but the door did not budge. She sunk to her knees and pushed her head against the planks. “Here he comes,” Tom whispered through the slats, “here he comes.” Dorothy closed her eyes and pressed them into the palm of her hands.

The dead man danced limply in her head.

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Christopher Berardino is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. He has completed his first novel, Infamy, about the oft-forgotten Japanese Internment Camps. Selections from this novel won the Truman Capote Writer’s Award. Additionally, he has won Cornell’s Arthur Lynn Andrew’s Award for his short story “Dog Bait.” His work has previously appeared Connu Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine

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Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Saskia

The old master studies the canvas for a long moment, then reaches out with shaking hands. He cuts away an excess of cobalt, his knife leaving a sharp shadow at the base of the tall cloud painted against the ultramarine sky. His student, used to such corrections, only nods his understanding, immediately applying his brush elsewhere.

The master’s own canvas is only half-finished, rough layers of oil over a charcoal sketch that he almost hadn’t needed to make. He’s painted this landscape before. He remembers silvered clouds in a butter-yellow sky. The windmill that dominates the scene was new, its sails full as it caught the wind. Today the structure is tired, its doorways seeming to list and sag, its sailcloth panels torn, exposing the latticework beneath. Even the tulips in the foreground, a river of red and white that undulates in the breeze off the canal, even they are not the tulips of thirty years ago. Those were so exquisite they could shatter a soul. More than one man had been broken by that blossom; today’s flowers seem barely to hold even the shadow memory of such beauty.

The serving woman wraps a cloak around his shoulders. The old master pulls it tight, hands too gnarled to be only sixty-two, he thinks. They can still hold a brush, still earn a living, and for that he’s grateful, but he remembers the hands of his youth, smooth and fine-boned, dexterous enough to paint all day without tiring. This April is mild, but his joints are sensitive to the smallest chill, and today they ache as though they were eighty.

The flapping of a tablecloth in his periphery catches his notice; the woman has set out the dinner of cold chicken and vegetables. His students, only two now – he stopped taking boys three years before – pause their work, eager for food and conversation after so many hours silently painting. The master stays by his easel, but takes a plate when offered. He eats the bread, only picking at the drumstick and asparagus. Food is not the joy it once was. But nothing is, really.

Once again he remembers that yellow sky and the girl who brought his meal then. Saskia. Only twenty-two, the cousin of a patron and so beautiful. “You are losing the light, sir,” she’d said to him that day, setting her basket on the ground. She’d knelt then, paying no heed to the damp grass on her pale green chintz. She studied his drawing. “Melancholic,” she said simply, gazing at his work. “Are you sad?”

Her voice was low, that scratch of laughter always there, even when speaking of melancholy. He admired the spill of red-gold hair from beneath her linen cap, her plump cheeks aglow from the cold spring air. “I cannot be sad, in such company,” he told her. It sounded cavalier, and he hoped she did not suspect him false.

“I’ve come with your supper,” she told him, “but I would stay to watch you work, if you allow it.” She tugged her fur-lined cloak close around her chin and settled onto the grass, fully expecting to stay.

He had known her but a fortnight, but it had been like this from the first, each seeking reasons to find the other, to linger thereafter. Over those weeks, they’d simultaneously exchanged insignificant conversation and meaningful glances, until he was certain that there was understanding between them, though no words to any such effect had been uttered. “I will not deny you,” he told her that day beside the windmill, “though you may wish I had. Sketching can be dull work.”

She smiled then, a radiant, impish grin, exposing a dimple and a flash of teeth. For long minutes they sat, he drawing, she watching, the supper forgotten. From the canals, the barge-men called, the mules brayed, and above them all, the sails of the windmill creaked.

“Are you not known for your portraits, sir?” she asked at long last, just as he lay a deep shadow beneath the bank of the canal. “Surely there is no living to be made in etchings of landscapes, lovely though they are?”

He looked at her fondly, so young and yet already so practical. “There is time enough to make money. This, I make for love.”

And here, here she looked up, her eyes wide and dark, her hair tossed by the wind. His heart staggered, for she had never looked more beautiful. “Are there not portraits,” she asked softly, “which are also made for love?”

For the first time, he was bold enough to take her hand. She did not flinch at the dark smudges of charcoal and chalk; she only looked into his eyes, waiting. “I would paint your face,” he told her.

Now, years later, the old master pulls paper from his bundle, his hands shaking as fingers search for chalk. He closes his eyes, remembering her face, just as it was in that moment. His pupils’ chatter fades, the feel of the sun on his face diminishes, and once more it’s a yellow, overcast day.

He draws the curve of her cheek, a bold crescent of red chalk that meets the sweeping line of her jaw. His fingers no longer tremble; the spring damp no longer seems to gnaw. More than twenty-five years have passed since he’d last drawn the planes and shadows of her face, but still his hands know them. In bold strokes and fine lines, she comes to life for him, her mouth laughing, her face framed in a fur-lined hood.

“Saskia.” His voice rumbles, low and ancient. There have been other women, each dear in her way, but now, as time weighs heavier upon him than mere years, it’s her voice he remembers, her face he would paint for love.

______________________________________________________________________________

Angela Teagardner is a bookseller for pay but a writer for passion. She lives with her little family in a little house in Columbus, Ohio.  

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The Emperor’s Cloak

Chana opens the front door to look up at the ancient elm, hoping the storks have returned, but the nest is empty. Instead she is alarmed to see a cloud of dust in the distance. She hears the clatter of hooves on cobblestones. Minutes later, a mounted soldier enters the narrow dirt road that leads from the market to their house and beyond to the cemetery along the river, where the storks must be feeding now. The horse pulls up abruptly in front of her, its flanks heaving. The man wears the light gray uniform of a Polish cavalry officer, his cocked hat adorned with a tricolor ribbon. He is young and earnest with an impressive mustachio.

“Is this the home of Rebbe Dovid Biderman the tzaddik?” he asks in heavily accented Yiddish.

“So it is, God be thanked,” she replies in Polish.

He smiles. “You are Pani Biderman, yes? I am Lieutenant Major Anton Lubienski. I require an audience with the esteemed Seer of Lelov.”

She hesitates. “I cannot disturb the evening prayers.”

“Please, it is a matter of great urgency.”

“No one may interrupt his discourse with the divine,” she says, frowning.

“Of course not, but may I see him as soon as possible?”

“What is your great haste?”

He dismounts and lowers his voice.

“I can only say that in a few hours he will be visited by a very high official. Anything else is for his ears alone.”

She nods. “He may grant you an audience after sundown, though I cannot guarantee it.”

“Where can I stable and feed my horse, meanwhile?”

She points down the street toward the river. “The large gray shed at the end.”

He turns to go, then stops and faces her again. “I have long wanted to meet the rebbe,” he says almost tenderly. “My mother told me his blessing is the reason I exist.”

“Who is your mother, young man?”

“Countess Elzbieta Lubienskaya.”

She regards him thoughtfully. “Stable your horse and come right back. You’ll need food and drink, yourself.”

***

Chana reflects meanwhile upon the joys and sorrows of matrimony.

Seven children still alive, two dead in infancy, alleva shalom. At least two dozen grandchildren, she’s lost count.

She is a pious woman married to a saint. Their marital bed is as close as she’ll ever come to understanding the ecstatic joy of the communal prayers she listens to through a closed door.

“You are the embodiment of the Shechinah, the bride of Elohim,” her husband still reminds her most nights, though they are older and feebler now. But carnal pleasure does not suffice. When he cries out in his sleep in a voice suffused with love and yearning she knows he longs for union with the Holy One.

When she was a young, naïve bride she wondered why a tzaddik’s wife would not be permitted to join in the mystical devotions of his followers. “Are we not all embodiments of Shechinah?” she asked him. “All the men and women and children, too? What about the trees and birds and cows and horses?”

He had instructed her gently. “What a pagan you are,” he’d teased.

She learned of the false messiah Sabbatai Levi and his alleged reincarnation Jakub Frank, in whose kabbalistic sect men and women worshipped together. Hounded and persecuted, Sabbati wound up converting to Islam and Frank, to Christianity. The goyim, too, viewed Frank with suspicion. He’d been imprisoned in the nearby monastery of Cz?stochowa for thirteen years.

“I want to fill our people with the joy of God, not with rage against their own,” he told her.

***

My husband gives any groszy that comes his way to people even poorer than we. He brims with love and compassion, especially for children and animals, and even for brutish transgressors. The first miracle was he’d not been swallowed up by the world and spit out in pieces. Other miracles followed, small and large.

Women who were barren bore children, blessed be Elohim. The countess was one such, bewigged and bejeweled, down on her knees with clasped hands in that small dark room. Only when women came into his study was I permitted to witness my husband’s connection with the divine, the devkurut. He thought it fitting then for me to partake and assist. When he gestured for the countess to get off the floor and sit in a chair, I helped her up. I brought her a cup of tea. She sipped it eagerly, as if it were a magic potion, and the hand that held the cup trembled.  Her face was pale white with a hectic flush in her cheeks.

She told me that if she could not produce a child, her marriage would be annulled.

I prayed alongside Dovid, focusing on the holy letters as he’d taught me. They glimmered, as always, in my mind’s eye, elusive as minnows in the river. The countess watched us both in wonderment. But I shouldn’t have noticed her watching. I should have been transported like Dovid to a higher realm, if I truly wanted to help her.

Some twenty years later here is her much desired son knocking at our door. I played a small role in his creation, did I not? I invite him into the kitchen to wait for the evening prayers to conclude.

I light a fresh candle and put it on the table next to a steaming cup of tea and our best, albeit cracked, china plate with two slices of dark buttered rye bread and a small piece of cheese.

His skin is pale like his mother’s, his hair flaxen. He wipes his forehead with the back of one hand and thanks me. I think he might be perspiring from every pore. He looks around the kitchen at our simple furniture, the walls bare of décor, and he anxiously studies the floor, which is hard-packed dirt covered with reed mats.

Now that we are not out on the street talking, he tells me who will be visiting and why. It is no wonder he is so nervous.

Thanks to his mother’s influence, Anton is aide-de-camp to Prince Józef Poniatowski, Commander of the Polish Vistula Legion under the French emperor. I can imagine his mother’s delight when she reads his letters describing the splendid banquets in Dresden. There he sat at a long table with their Imperial Majesties Napoleon and Marie Louise, along with a bevy of other royals subject to the imperial crown, in the palace of the King of Saxony.

“After the feasts, there were diplomatic negotiations every night until dawn,” he explains. The women left the banquet hall and the men drank cognac and smoked cigars. Though no one ever said so, it was clear to Anton that the emperor was uneasy. He’d rather negotiate with the Tsar than fight him. No one knew exactly what Napoleon planned to do next.

To lighten his master’s mood, Anton mentioned the Seer of Lublin and other mystical tzaddikem of les Juifs. Most westerly and closest to the emperor’s projected route was the very rebbe whose intercession Anton’s mother had sought.

“I told him I’m the living proof of the rebbe’s powers.” He exhales a long sigh. “Perhaps I had one cognac too many.”

Before he could grasp what was happening, Anton was dispatched on this mission to arrange an appointment with the Seer of Lelov, with the emperor’s abbreviated entourage only a few hours behind him.

Anton also told Napoleon the Lelover rebbe is renowned for telling the future.

“I don’t know why I said that. Can he really predict the future?”

“Some people think so,” I say, and yearn to offer more. Except for the blond hair, he is much like my youngest boy, eager and impulsive with a lively mind.

“But what if he can only predict the future of crops or the prosperity of offspring?” He looks downcast. “That is not what concerns the emperor.”

I don’t know how to comfort him, other than to pour another cup of tea.

From down the hall we hear the wails and moans of prayer crescendo. In a while, a door opens and several men bid Dovid good night. Wearing long black cloth garments and saucer-shaped fur hats, they file by the kitchen, eyes averted.

I excuse myself and go into the hall to wait for my husband and let him know we have a guest.

***

Rebbe Dovid strides into the kitchen beaming. He has a flowing white beard, a face creased with wrinkles. His eyes are kindly, welcoming.

The old woman bids them good evening and disappears into another part of the house.

Anton explains his mission.

“I hope this is no imposition, sir. I am myself under orders, but you are not obliged.” Anton stumbles. He hadn’t meant to make such fine distinctions, only to guarantee an audience with the emperor and notify his mother’s benefactor of impending peril.

“I should hope for a positive forecast,” he tells the rebbe guardedly. “His Highness is notoriously quick-tempered.”

The rebbe shrugs. “I am but a vessel for the Word.”

A new moon scarcely lights the town when a one-horse gig accompanied by two mounted soldiers clatter past the ruins of the old city wall toward the tzaddik’s home. The village is mostly dark by now, but candles appear in a few windows and curious neighbors peer out. In their nest high atop the old elm, the storks stretch and flutter their wings.

A passenger climbs down from the carriage and waddles into the rebbe’s house, belly prominent, the saber on his hip almost as tall as he is. He too is wearing a Polish cavalry uniform with a long, gray cloak over his shoulders and head.

Chana stands quietly to one side, wiping her hands on an apron and wondering if one serves tea to an emperor. Anton and the other soldier follow close behind.

The rebbe is seated at a small desk piled with books and manuscripts. He does not stand when the visitors enter the study.

Chana isn’t sure what to do next and looks to her husband for a signal. Should she stay or absent herself from this audience?

She is pleased when Dovid puts up a hand, meaning stay.

It is only for genuine mystical communion, his true passion, that he requires the energy of devoted male followers. The so-called miracles are of a lesser order, verging on mundane. It is his service to the visible world and thus hers as well.

An awkward silence is broken by Anton, who announces their guest as the Liberator of Poland and Emperor of the French.

“I am honored,” the rebbe says. “Please have a seat.”

The aide rushes up with a chair and the emperor sits on the edge of it, staring intently at the alleged prophet and miracle-worker. He speaks quickly and quietly in a staccato French that neither the rebbe nor his wife understand. The room is otherwise silent, everyone’s attention focused absolutely on the little dark-haired man who seems coiled like a spring.

Anton translates into Polish. “I hope you deserve your reputation as a prophet, since I have journeyed out of my way to seek your counsel. I will reward you handsomely.”

The rebbe demurs. “I do not require compensation.”

The emperor looks around the room, frowns. “Your home could be made more comfortable. It is not welcoming.”

Chana thinks this remark ill suits Napoleon’s station. In her limited experience with the gentry, she has not yet encountered rudeness. She notes Anton’s discomfort. He may be the sole hereditary noble in the room.

Now the emperor talks about an anticipated war and the eventual liberation of Poland from Russia. Rumors have reached even the women in this shtetl of a huge multi-pronged army forming to the north. She thinks it likely that only Anton still believes in the ideals of the Revolution, for which the Grand Armée will allegedly be battling.

War is never a good idea, Chana is certain. Dovid, a gentle, bookish man, cannot or will not intercede with the Holy One on behalf of military or political ventures. But intercession is not what is desired.

“Should I march on Moscow?” the emperor asks, point blank.

Is the future foreordained? Can it ever be altered?

She prays at length with her husband for guidance. Even before he opens his eyes, two dark grieving pools, she feels the weight of his sorrow. She senses rather than sees the shadow over Anton.

“Do not go to Moscow,” the tzaddik says at last.

Anton repeats this in French.

The emperor draws himself up to his full height and glares at them.

“What is it you see?” he demands.

But Dovid shakes his head. “Nothing, I see nothing.”

“On what then do you base your advice to me?”

“The heavens are weeping.”

The emperor snorts. He barks out orders.

“You’d best pray that you are wrong,” Anton murmurs. “His Highness is not pleased.”

The entourage leaves as quickly as it came. Afterward it seems like a dream. Chana is up most of the night, sleepless and bewildered, while her husband sleeps as if dead. He has exhausted his reserves, she fears, with whatever dread vision seized him, and which in the end will likely make no difference to the course of events. If he is right, as usually he is, what will befall them? What will happen to that army? To Anton?

With the light of dawn, she gets out of bed and opens the shutters in the kitchen. She watches the two storks soar upward together toward the sun. That huge nest has been in the tree since before she was a girl and continuously occupied. L’chaim, she prays silently, to life. May there always be storks in Poland.

***

Autumn storms, following a scorching hot summer, turn the fields and roads to muddy quagmires. The harvest is poor. When the first ragged and exhausted soldiers limp through Lelov, Chana’s forebodings are confirmed. These are the lucky ones, she learns. The Grand Armée has been decimated by hunger, disease, frost.

Deep into winter after the storks and their fledglings are long gone, an Imperial two-horse carriage appears outside their home, again after nightfall. The emperor remains seated, while an aide pounds on their door.

He is a gaunt, young Polish officer with haunted eyes, holding a deep-red, gold-embroidered cloak that he presents to Chana. Inside the carriage she sees the emperor, his ghost-white face in shadows, staring straight ahead, peering perhaps into his future.

The officer explains His Majesty wants the tzaddik to know he was right about Moscow. The cloak is a gift in lieu of the compensation he’d previously refused. In another minute, the carriage has vanished into the night.

She brings the ankle-length cloak to her husband’s study and waits, as he is immersed in Talmudic commentary. He looks up startled.

“What shall we do with it?” she asks. It is luxurious velvet, the color of blood. It is not appropriate for clothing or curtains. It can’t be ignored.

“An emperor’s cloak,” he murmurs. “The Holy One must have His reasons.”

“Perhaps to remind us of the evil of war,” she suggests. She is thinking about Countess Lubienskaya whose son succumbed to typhus on the march to Moscow. Chana, too, grieves this terrible loss, the beautiful young life snuffed out.

Might the cloak somehow comfort the countess?

As if reading her mind, her husband says “Our duty is to learn its purpose here in our home or shul.

She considers this. A bold idea occurs to her. She hesitates, plunges ahead.

“Its purpose could be a Torah mantel. The old cloth cover is wearing thin.”

He strokes his beard, considering. “Some might object to the cloak’s origins,” he says.

“Cloaks preserve us from harm,” she counters. She runs one hand over the fabric, inspired. “It could remind us of the radiance of Schechinah.”

“And the futility of pride,” he adds, thoughtfully.

“I will sew the most beautiful mantel ever,” she promises him, and when he nods approval, is seized abruptly by inexplicable joy.

____________________________________________________________________________

Jo-Anne Rosen’s fiction has appeared over two dozen literary journals (e.g., The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel). She is a book and web designer living in Petaluma, California. What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. She also publishes an online literary journal at www.echapbook.com  and is co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update. See www.joannerosen.us for more information.

“The Emperor’s Cloak” was inspired by a recent visit to Poland where she learned that her 4th great-grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi who, legend has it, was consulted by Napoleon.

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Last Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Child of Barley

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

Too soon.

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

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

“Amsu!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, beautiful,” he slurs.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re… Anubis?”

“Amnu.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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The Hunger of Plagues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Visitation

Plymouth, Massachusetts

1650

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not a Proper Evacuee

4th September 1939.

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

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

I nod.

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

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

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

My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs. 

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mummy.”

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

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

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

Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.

* * * * *

6th September 1939

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

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

Someone behind me sniggers. 

* * * * *

5th October

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

26th October

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

* * * * *

31st October

Nothing goes right for me.

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

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

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

* * * * *

31 October, later.

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

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

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

“Six shillings, Miss.”

“Pleeaase.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” 

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

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

“I’ll make some cocoa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

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

“It’s what my school’s called.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I’m not stuck up.”

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

* * * * *

31 October, still.

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

“Say hello then.”

“They’re horrid.”

“They’re waving to you.”

I shake my head.

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

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

“And smile.”

I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My arm locks by my side.

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll drop by tomorrow, Marjorie.”

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

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

“Only one way to find out.” 

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Little Tiger

 208 B.C.

Eastern China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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