Category Archives: Fiction

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.

_________________________________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Not a Proper Evacuee

4th September 1939.

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

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

I nod.

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

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

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

My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs. 

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mummy.”

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

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

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

Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.

* * * * *

6th September 1939

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

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

Someone behind me sniggers. 

* * * * *

5th October

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

26th October

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

* * * * *

31st October

Nothing goes right for me.

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

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

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

* * * * *

31 October, later.

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

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

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

“Six shillings, Miss.”

“Pleeaase.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” 

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

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

“I’ll make some cocoa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

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

“It’s what my school’s called.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I’m not stuck up.”

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

* * * * *

31 October, still.

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

“Say hello then.”

“They’re horrid.”

“They’re waving to you.”

I shake my head.

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

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

“And smile.”

I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My arm locks by my side.

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll drop by tomorrow, Marjorie.”

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

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

“Only one way to find out.” 

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Little Tiger

 208 B.C.

Eastern China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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To Be an Aclla

“Achi?”

She held her hand up until it was lit by the moonlight coming through the crack to the side of the curtain and clutched her blanket up under her chin with her other hand. She stared at her hand, turning it in the light. It was the full moon, but that meant nothing now. The people of the sun slept when the sun slept, and Cuzco was silent.

Achiyaku dropped her hand at the whisper.

“Can’t you sleep? Is it too bright?”

Alliyma had a good heart, but Achiyaku could have laughed at the misunderstanding.

“No, go back to sleep. It was a long day.”

Alliyma mumbled something sleepily in reply, but Achiyaku didn’t hear. Her younger sister was soon asleep.

 It had been a long day, but she felt awake. It was the first ploughing, and they had been brewing chicha beer for weeks to prepare. They had left the acllawasi for the occasion, and she had hidden the unease she always felt upon leaving, upon seeing that she was surrounded by lower Cuzco, by the inner mountains that had once seemed so far. Not that Cuzco wasn’t a marvel—its gold blinding in the sun, its Inca nobles walking the paved streets in their rich robes and jewellery, its grand plazas and palaces things to be gawked at—but to Achiyaku the splendour only made her feel emptier. It was far too easy to look beyond the small city toward the foreign houses nestled above on the hill and below on the plain, to the mountain peaks stretching into the distance beyond the terraced hillsides. It was far too easy to look, and be reminded that she couldn’t see far enough to see the ocean.

It had been two years. It was a lifetime and more, and yet sometimes the past still haunted her, an ache that held her back from being the same as her sisters. The others had all arrived earlier, around ten years old, and they had all come from cities long claimed by the Inca’s empire. At fourteen, Achiyaku was the age of some of the younger priestesses, and soon everything could change all over again. Would her weaving skills, the best in her acllawasi, make her a priestess? Or would she be married away?

“Maybe a warrior will take you away and marry you as a second wife! …If he isn’t picky, that is,” Ninasisa had taunted, throwing her head back with a laugh. She was beautiful—they all were, really, it was part of how they were chosen—but Ninasisa’s beauty was like that of the sun: dazzling and glaring. Fittingly, “Ninasisa” meant “fire flower”, a name she had been born to. Achiyaku, as an outsider, had been renamed when she had arrived. It had seemed cruel, when she had learned enough of Quechua to understand that “Achiyaku” meant “clear water”, that she had been named for water by the very people who had taken her from it.

Ninasisa, as a noblewoman of Cuzco and thus one of the Inca ethnic group, would be married strategically to some other noble, but Achiyaku worried about her own fate. She had had enough of change for one lifetime, had only just become comfortable in the routines of this House of the Sun. She knew what life was like here: day in and day out they stayed in the compound, leaving only for ceremonies, and did weaving, spinning, brewing, worshipping, and cleaning. Sometimes she even felt that she loved it, but on other days she felt like she was suffocating, disappearing along with her memories into the confines of this houseIf she married she would be free of this place, but at what cost? What if she married one of the very warriors who had taken down her kingdom, her home, once the last great rival of the Inca’s empire?

Achiyaku turned her head to look at the doorway and focussed on taking slow, steady breaths even as her heart flew. She could see the stone of the small, interior courtyard beneath the curtain, white in the moonlight. She had been taught by the Inca to worship the sun, and she could understood why they revered it in the same way that she could understand why Ninasisa drew everyone’s eye while Achiyaku was overlooked. But she understood other things too. That there was always another side than the bright one, as shown in the symmetry of the great Staff God’s very form: one staff to compliment the other, just as there is night to every day, the sky for the earth, the ebb for the flow of the great ocean’s tide. Her people of the Chimor Empire had always worshipped the moon, for unlike the sun it could be seen in both the day and the night and could pull at the very ocean itself. The adobe walls of the compounds and ciudedelas of her old home, the capital of Chan Chan, had been decorated with pictures of the waves and the creatures of the sea, but here people only looked up. Up to the mountains around them, and higher, to the skies above.

Achiyaku tried to clear her thoughts, to forget as she had so many times before. Normally everything that happened in the House of the Chosen Women was enough to keep her too busy to think—the friends and enemies, the priestesses and newcomers, the work—but perhaps it was the influence of the full moon.

“When the moon is full,” her mother had told her once, long ago, as they had been weaving together, “we are in the hands of the Goddess. On those nights we become like the sea, pushed and pulled by Her tide.

Was she still pushed and pulled by that tide? Did the Goddess still see her? Did she think she had abandoned her? Achiyaku pressed a hand to her chest. She had not wanted to. The Sun and his children had given her a life of luxury and honour, she who had once been a commoner, who had never even laid eyes on food as rich as what she now cooked, who had never hoped to own textiles as intricate as were now her normal garb, but they had taken her from her people. She was no longer one of the Chimù, her ayllu group was not her own. On the day she had left Chan Chan and journeyed up into the highlands and then south, so far south along the royal road to Cuzco, she had lost everything she had once been, and become something she still didn’t understand.

Achiyaku had been one of the only commoners they had taken—one of the only ones they thought pretty enough—and she had not known the nobles she had made the trek with. Some of them had been sent to other acllawasi—most were far more secluded than hers—but she and some others had been sent to Cuzco itself, to more fully tie the newly defeated Chimor empire to the Inca empire, and to make her an example for her people. But, she wondered, would her people even recognise her now, or she them?

Achiyaku closed her eyes and remembered what were now fading images. She forgot the stonework and saw cane and mud brick walls again. She forgot the channelled rivers and saw the great wells, remembered walking down their ramps to fetch water. She remembered the smell of salt on the wind, the deep river valleys and the dry desert plains. She remembered how the city stretched on and on in every direction, farther than she could ever have walked, and the cramped rooms of her neighbourhood. She remembered her father and brothers working with metals, her mother’s lessons, her mother’s smile. She heard the noise of the streets busy with tens of thousands of people, saw the labyrinth of the walls and their motifs of the sea reminding her always of the ocean, so near. She remembered a name, a different name, spoken by those she had loved. She remembered belonging.

In a small stone room in Cuzco, an aclla lay among her sisters, a shaft of moonlight slanting across her sleeping form.

______________________________________________________________________________

Frances Koziar is a Middle American archaeologist specializing in Aztec human sacrifice and ontology. She has non-academic publications in 10+ literary magazines and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author

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Women’s March on Versailles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

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

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

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t like spies.’

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

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

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non, It’s for him.’

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

‘He exists.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

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

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

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

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

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

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

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

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

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

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Cassandra of Troy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agathe, water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will not. He will not.

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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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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